What I’ve Been Playing (Q4) 2020
Thoughts/impressions on the games I played/finished during Q4 of 2020.
Just a friendly bear who works in financial reporting that would rather be playing, writing or talking about video games. https://twitch.tv/unexpectedenemy
Thoughts/impressions on the games I played/finished during Q4 of 2020.
For the past few years, I’ve been attempting to finish/roll the credits on 52 games in a year. I’m also part of a forum/discord with like-minded people who attempt to complete the very same goal. Due to the pandemic this year, I’ve been working from home, so I was fortunate enough to make more time for playing games. It’s been a lonely/depressing year, but there’s been some amazing experiences to keep me company along the way. I typically do my write-ups on a quarterly basis, so if you haven’t done so already, checkout my Q1, Q2, and Q3 posts to see what else I played during this godawful year. So, without further ado, here’s the games I played/finished while closing out 2020.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is the sixth official entry in the long-running Paper Mario series. While most fans have disliked entries beyond the GameCube title, The Thousand-Year Door, each game has tried something new/different since (for better or worse). Put me in the camp that actually enjoyed certain aspects of Super Paper Mario (Wii), Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS) and Paper Mario: Color Splash (Wii U), respectively. The Origami King (TOK) attempts to bridge the former trilogy and the latter games together as sort of the ultimate compromise for the (very) divided fan-base and the results were mostly for the better.
If you’ll excuse the pun, TOK’s story is a mixed bag of confetti. The overarching plot is simple; an evil Origami King has invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and has folded all of its inhabitants (including Princess Peach and Bowser) into lifeless puppets. It’s Mario’s job, along with the evil king’s sister, Olivia, to journey through the kingdom undoing the origami machinations that have enveloped the land. Just like Color Splash before it, the writing is some of the best in the series. It’s clever, heart-felt and actually really funny at times, too. TOK might have one of the darkest yet emotionally-charged scenes in Paper Mario history and it’s easily one of the most memorable gaming moments I had all year. With that said, the Origami King himself doesn’t have the greatest presence throughout the story. The game could have used some in-between-chapter scenes to develop the villain further, similar to what the older games would do at the conclusion of a chapter. I think I also surprisingly preferred Huey from Color Splash, as I found Olivia to be a relatively uninteresting partner.
While TOK is still a turn-based RPG at its core, it’s much more of an adventure game than anything else. For the first time since The Thousand-Year Door, TOK’s world is interconnected and fully realized. Each area is beautifully designed with secrets, shortcuts and set-pieces that truly elevate the game to some impressive heights. At the culmination of an area/dungeon, there are boss battles which are probably some of the most unique and clever encounters you’ll find in the franchise’s history. As I mentioned earlier, combat is still turn-based, but battles take place on a circular grid with panels that can be manipulated in order to lineup attacks (think of it as a flat Rubik’s Cube). Boss fights, however, flip the script on the battle system’s fundamentals by providing unique variables/conditions you won’t see anywhere else in the game. In one instance, you’ll be fighting a hole puncher and it will punch holes on certain panels of the grid so that you can’t walk over them. Each boss (and there are many of them) offer unique variables/conditions like this and they’re truly engaging/memorable encounters. Outside of the bosses, regular enemy encounters can be a bit of a drag, unfortunately.
While solving the panel-swapping puzzle elements during battles felt satisfying at first (and arguably more strategic than any other Paper Mario combat system to date), there’s not a whole lot of variety during the regular enemy encounters. You’ll simply lineup the enemies so they’re either in a row of 4 or a quadrant of 4 (2 x 2) and then follow-up with your hammer/boots of choice (which degrade over time, outside of the default pair of equipment). TOK makes an attempt to throw some much needed wrinkles into the combat during the final few hours of the game, but it’s a case of being too little, too late, unfortunately. Just like in Color Splash, enemies can attack you in waves if you approach multiple monsters on the field at once, which helps reduce repeat encounters. One of the downsides to TOK’s battle system was the fact that the usefulness of items wasn’t as clear to the player as they’ve been in the past. While there are ice/fire-based enemies, using the appropriate elemental flower/hammer to counter these types of enemies felt underutilized or irrelevant at times, as the game is generally very easy. TOK could have benefited from having a “Hard Mode” accessory too (similar to the recent, wannabe Paper Mario-like game, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling). With that said, there are minor rewards for completing the game with no accessories/deaths, which is arguably the game’s “Hard” mode.
The vocal fan-base seems to share a similar sentiment when it comes to the more recent Paper Mario titles. Many have said that Nintendo/Intelligent Systems should just scrap the RPG elements/turn-based combat in favor of a more action-adventure oriented approach. TOK does have moments where you battle paper machete enemies in real-time and it’s a fun diversion to the traditional turn-based battles. Going forward, I would still prefer that the series remains the RPG-lite hybrid it’s always been, however, I do understand that Paper Mario needs a bit more depth if they’re going to stubbornly remain under the guise of an RPG. With that said, the world and environments are so well-designed, it’s hard not to appreciate their efforts to try new things. Sure, there is an abundance of coins and currency has replaced the traditional leveling system found in previous games, but the game’s economy is so tightly intergrated into the entire experience that I still found the whole loop rewarding. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible soundtrack. A wide-range of composers worked on this game and there’s some truly incredible pieces throughout.
I wrote this in a previous post as I also completed Color Splash for the first time a few months ago, but it bears repeating; if your enjoyment of Paper Mario hinges on the fact that there’s no experience points after battle, then you’re probably never going to like anything beyond Sticker Star. I personally feel like it’s a misguided hangup, however. While I understand things like badges and partners added some much needed depth/customization to an already relatively simple turn-based combat system, those aren’t the only factors that define Paper Mario. Even with some questionable design decisions and lack of traditional character progression, if you’re simply a fan of Mario/adventure games with light RPG elements, TOK is a lovingly-crafted, charming adventure that’s well worth your time.
Have you ever wanted to play an N64 era 3D platformer/collectathon that has an easter egg/reference to the cult-classic SNES action-RPG, Terranigma? Well, Macbat 64 is here to douse those unquenchable desires. Originally released on PC/Steam, Macbat 64 is an extremely short tribute-piece to the 3D platformers of yore; games like Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64 or even Jersey Devil should come to mind. There’s really not a whole lot to say about the game. The bat can run, jump and fly (but it’s more like a hover). The levels are mini-sandboxes with a handful of collectables and fetch quests to complete. Some of the levels require simple puzzle-solving in the way of retrieving keys/items and handing them over to no-playable characters (NPCs) or pushing blocks and such. There’s also a ton of random easter eggs/references to other games, so clearly the developers are fans of well-respected works. I think there’s a good framework here for something bigger/better in the future. I completed the game on Nintendo Switch with everything collected.
The Last Campfire, developed by Hello Games of No Man’s Sky fame (and to a lesser extent, Joe Danger) is a 3D puzzle-adventure game with an emphasis on exploration. While the game is narrated, the story is rather cryptic and relies more on atmosphere and metaphors. Dying embers (donning hoods with beady-little eyes) are floating along the river to presumably sacrifice themselves at campfires. It’s a rather dark/depressing narrative, but the game’s fairy-tale-like setting and colorful visuals offsets an otherwise oppressive environment. Your goal is to find lost embers and send them on their way to campfires scattered about the environment. When you discover an ember, you’re transported to mini-puzzle rooms that are reminiscent of the levels you’d find in games like Monument Valley or even the shrines from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example. In-between these puzzle rooms, you’ll collect/trade items found throughout the environments with strange creatures and NPCs you meet along the way.
I really enjoyed my time with The Last Campfire. It’s a relatively breezy puzzle-adventure game that is just about the right difficulty and length. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the narration, however. I think Banjo-Kazooie styled gibberish would have suited the game’s aesthetic more, but other than that, it’s a nice palate cleanser between bigger releases. I hope Hello Games continues to develop more bite-sized games like The Last Campfire in the future. I completed the game with everything collected and the Platinum trophy earned.
Nicolas Meyssonnier’s Pumpkin Jack is a 3D action-platformer developed mostly by one individual. It’s in the same vein as the PS1 classic, MediEvil, but it also heralds back to PS2 era action-platformers like Capcom’s Maximo: Ghosts to Glory. Pumpkin Jack is sort of an anti-hero of sorts. He’s resurrected to wreck havoc on the denizens of the world, but his main goal is to track down a sorcerer who’s causing his master some trouble. I’ve said it before, but it’s nice to see an indie developer tackle the 3D platforming realm when we’re consistently in a sea of 2D/retro-inspired tribute pieces. The game’s visuals are what standout the most, but the levels are also well-designed with new ideas in nearly every stage (such as a mine-cart section and a horse racing segment). With that said, the levels can feel a bit too long and the game could have benefited from more focused, tightly designed areas. Jack can run, double jump and use a variety of weapons during encounters as each stage presents both combat and platforming challenges along the way. Each level culminates in a unique boss fight which grant new weapons for Jack’s arsenal and they’re honestly the highlight of the game.
The problem, however, is that the common enemy doesn’t really ask the player to make use of each weapon’s properties. From my understanding, each weapon has a unique aerial maneuver, but you can easily get through the game with any weapon of your choice (I preferred to use the scythe for whatever reason). Along the way you’ll also collect crow skulls which can be traded for costumes and you’ll come across strange record players that Jack will dance to upon discovery. Beyond a handful of collectables, there’s not much replay value here, however, there’s definitely a promise for something better down the road. I completed the game in a few short sessions at 100% completion with all of the Achievements unlocked on the Xbox One. At the time of writing this, the developers recently added a holiday update with more collectables and content to checkout.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch, by Young Horses, is a peculiar game. With the developers second game, Bugsnax, having just released, I really wanted to finish their first game prior to jumping into their second foray onto the scene. Octodad is physics-based adventure game where you control a family-man doing family-man things; whether it’s yard work, going to the grocery store or even taking a family trip to the aquarium, you’re the dad of the house here. The catch, however, is that you’re an octopus and for whatever reason, no one thinks you’re a sea creature. The game’s blatantly goofy and doesn’t take itself too seriously, although there is a deeper message here if you pay close enough attention (or not). I wouldn’t say Octodad is a particularly fun game to play, but it’s so genuine, earnest and confident in how it presents itself that I found myself glued to it once I wrapped my head around its controls.
Since the original Ape Escape game on the PS1 (or any twin-stick arcade shooter since then), I’ve always enjoyed games that took advantage of both analog sticks and all of the buttons on the controller. Octodad is an unwieldy octopus and the controls certainly have a learning curve, but the chaos you cause as you fumble your way through the environments, knocking everything over in sight, is extremely satisfying. The game itself is split between a handful of levels with fetch quests and simple puzzle-solving throughout, but there’s always something unique in the environment to toy with and the results are almost always hilarious. There’s a certain playfulness in Octodad that reminds you of what it felt like to be a kid and there aren’t many games that can provide this feeling today. Finally, there are collectable ties to discover along the way too and they’re hidden rather well. I completed the game with a handful of the secret trophies earned and I’ll likely 100% the game in due time.
PlayStation has had its mascot-like characters each generation. From Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon to Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter, PlayStation consoles have seen their fair share of marsupials, dragons, robots and the like over the years. In 2013, however, Astro arguably made its first appearance in Japan Studio’s The Playroom for the PS4, a free downloadable mini-game collection for the system’s launch that made use of augmented reality (AR). In 2016, Astro would make its true debut, however, in The Playroom VR. While The Playroom VR was yet another collection of mini-games to showcase the capabilities of PlayStation VR (PSVR), the popularity of a single level featuring everyone’s favorite robot would soon elevate the little guy to spectacular heights. In 2018, Astro Bot: Rescue Mission released which cemented its place as one of the greatest 3D platformers of all time and a crowning achievement of what PSVR could offer. Now, in the godforsaken year that has been 2020, Astro’s Playroom has graced the launch of the PS5 as a freely installed tech demo of sorts that’s far beyond anything we could have imagined.
Utilizing PS5’s new controller capabilities (haptic feedback and adaptive triggers), Astro’s Playroom beautifully illustrates the potential of the new hardware while simultaneously letting you explore PlayStation’s history/legacy. Similar to how I felt about Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, Astro’s Playroom might appear to be a relatively simple, yet traditional 3D platformer, but because of the hardware (in this case, the DualSense controller), experiencing Astro’s Playroom is like nothing else you’ll play in 2020. Vibration, gyro controls, IR pointers and the like have graced controllers for decades, but the DualSense provides an unmatched level of feedback that quite honestly can’t be compared to anything else. It’s what the HD Rumble for Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons should have been. To put it simply; every action you take in Astro’s Playroom, whether it’s walking, running or jumping, has a particular texture/feel to it. You’ll run across sand, grass or even metal plating and each tile-set, so to speak, has a particular feel on the controller. This level of detail extends to every element the game throws at you including wind and rain, too.
Astro’s Playroom is sensory overload, to say the least. It’s an audio/visual tour de force that left me nearly speechless at times. As I mentioned earlier, outside of how the game controls/plays, Astro’s Playroom is a competent and clever 3D platformer that’s enriched by PlayStation’s history/legacy. You’ll collect Sony-branded accessories, hardware and other odds & ends from previous generations, some of which you’ve likely never seen/heard of before. You’ll even be greeted by dozens of references to other popular game franchises/IPs that have graced each console since the original PS1. The cameo appearances are handled with the utmost care too and they’re adorable demonstrations that you’ll find littered across the game’s four distinct worlds. Did I also mention that the entire game is essentially the innards of the PS5 itself? It’s the kind of game you simply have to experience as no amount of writing/talking can do the game justice. I completed the game at 100% with the Platinum trophy earned. The future is certainly bright for Astro and its robot buddies and I cannot wait to see what they’re up to next.
I’ve wanted 2020 to be over just like everyone else, but in terms of new game releases, this year has been an embarrassment of riches. Naturally, a ton of great, less-talked about games have fallen through the cracks, one of which is Amanita Design’s Creaks. Similar to the developer’s previous titles, Creaks is another 2D puzzle-adventure game, but for the first time in the developer’s history, instead of pointing your cursor and clicking where to move, you actually have full control of your character’s movement. In Creaks, you play as a common man, living in his apartment, until what appears to be an earthquake that unveils a hidden crawlspace to a neighboring world. This hidden world is inhabited by strange bird-like creatures who speak in gibberish. What’s worse is that there are robotic dogs and squid-like sea creatures that turn into pieces of furniture and coat racks upon touching light. You’ll solve extremely clever environmental puzzles by following patterns, pulling switches and manipulating lights in order to proceed. The game can be quite challenging at times, but the solutions are mostly reasonable and super satisfying once everything clicks.
Creaks also has a beautiful art-style, an incredible, dynamic soundtrack and some truly clever concepts. The OST, in particular, is phenomenal. It’s moody and atmospheric, but furthermore, it’ll change pitch/tone once you’re on the right track to solving a room’s puzzle. Throughout the game, you’ll also find interactive paintings that are essentially mini-puzzles within themselves. Each painting will have levers and buttons which can be manipulated in order to find the solution. In one painting, a woman is attempting to sing to her audience and by moving a lever up and down, you’ll change her pitch. Another button will change her singing style as there are four people in the audience you’re trying to impress specifically. If the crowd starts to react positively, you’re on the right track, but if they start to hold their hands over their ears, you’ll fail. Finally, one of my favorite aspects of the game is the world map. The visual progression in Creaks is extremely satisfying. You’ll slowly make your way down a beautifully illustrated tower-of-sorts as the game maps out your progress along the way.
Creaks was a slow burn for me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I wasn’t playing it. It’s a surreal experience that I can’t recommend enough, especially if you like puzzle games. I completed the game with all of the paintings found and the Platinum trophy earned. At this point, I hope the rest of the developer’s back-catalog makes its way to consoles, but at the very least, Amanita Design has my eyes on them for the foreseeable future. At the time of writing this, the developer announced their new game for PC and Nintendo Switch called, “Happy Game”, and it looks horrifyingly glorious.
I’m talkin’ ’bout that Bugsnax. Young Horses’ second outing is easily one of my favorite games of 2020. Having just finished Octodad: Dadliest Catch for the first time a few weeks ago, Bugsnax quickly became one of my most anticipated games of the year and boy did it deliver. Prior to the game’s release, what grabbed/spiked my interest wasn’t the ever-so-popular theme song, but the developer’s inspirations; Pokemon Snap, Ape Escape, Dark Cloud and Viva Pinata. To put it simply, they had me at the mere mention of “Ape Escape”. In Bugsnax, you’re a journalist who’s sent to an island that is said to be the home of Bugsnax; delicious, food-based creatures who also happen to be adorable little pets. A group of individuals (Grumpuses) have traveled to this island to start new lives, so to speak, and the leader of this new “family” has gone missing. It’s your job to investigate the disappearance of a particular person who’s paramount to the survival of the community. By interviewing each island resident, feeding them Bugsnax and solving their problems, you’ll find yourself one step closer to solving the island’s mystery.
At its core, your main goal is to catch Bugsnax by using a variety of tools. Some of the tools are pretty basic such as a net or a slingshot, but there are also more interesting gadgets like a launchpad and a trip-wire, which can be combined in interesting ways to capture the more elusive Bugsnax. Each Bugsnax has unique behaviors/patterns and with the right tools/timing, you can capture (most) of them with relative ease. Day/night cycles and even the weather can have an effect on which Bugsnax spawn, too. The game is also divided into multiple environments which extend outward from the main town and it also serves as your base of operations. With that said, some of the Bugsnax are simply variants of existing ones, but their clever name usage and Pokemon-like voice clips more than makes up for the lack of variety. There are even bosses which culminate in some truly interesting battles that make use of a your tools in clever ways. Bugsnax is a game with a lot of heart, too. It’s also very queer and inclusive in how the game represents its diverse cast of characters. The characters on this island are truly some of the most memorable individuals I’ve met all year and as you get to know them and solve their problems, you become instantly attached because of how relatable they are. After I finished the game, I couldn’t get these characters out of my head for days. The story goes to some pretty dark places too and the ending is not what I was expecting.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kero Kero Bonito’s Bugsnax song, “It’s Bugsnax”. I was afraid that the hype surrounding the announcement/launch of the game was riding too closely on the popularity of this song (and for good reason, it’s a catchy track), but it seems like the game’s a success or at least making its rounds in certain communities/circles as a must-play. I completed the game with the Platinum trophy earned and even though I more or less saw and did everything there was to do in the game, Bugsnax has a deep grind for those who are completionists at heart. At some point in the game, you will come across a villager who upgrades one of your tools so that you can randomize the appearance of the town-folk based on the Bugsnax you fed them. What this means is that you could potentially feed all 100 unique species of Bugsnax to EACH villager, which would allow them to transform into hundreds of different combinations. There’s no in-game reward for doing this, but the fact that it’s there speaks volumes to the systems at play here. While I would love a sequel or another game that takes place in this world, I’d also welcome an entirely new experience as it seems like they’re too talented of a team to dwell on one particular idea. I really enjoyed my time with Bugsnax and Young Horses are permanently on my list of developers to keep an eye on.
Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the perfect example of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” While the developer is known for their beautiful 2D artwork, engrossing stories and interesting characters, Vanillaware has gone above and beyond with 13 Sentinels. It’s a once-in-a-generation game that has even been championed by some of the most respected creators in the industry. Both Yoko Taro and Masahiro Sakurai, for example, have given the game their highest regards. If you’ve only seen the game at a glance, your first impression might be that it’s simply a tale of Japanese school kids who happen to pilot giant robots in order to defeat invading Kaijū. This assessment is not entirely wrong, however, there’s much more to 13 Sentinels than what meets the eye. The game requires a leap of faith, so to speak, on the player’s behalf. There’s a certain level of trust required to engage with the game, whether it’s been built-up/recommended by the community at large or if you’ve had faith in the quality of the developer’s previous titles. Unless you’re a JRPG/Visual Novel (VN) aficionado, 13 Sentinels can be a hard sell without spoiling the entire experience, but boy is it one wild trip worth taking.
13 Sentinels is mostly a VN, but it also has tactical battles that feel more like a real-time strategy (RTS) game. You’ll mostly play episodic-like scenarios from 13 different perspectives, but in-between these story segments, you’ll be asked to participate in relatively low-key RPG battles that are a lot more fun/engaging once you accept them for what they are. At first, I felt completely overwhelmed by the user interface (UI); all of the stats, the character perks/abilities you can unlock/upgrade, and choosing between 13 different characters to take into battle, it’s all rather… a lot. The battles take place on a city-like grid, with paths that can be traversed or flown over depending on the sentinel’s model/generation (aesthetically, it looks like the world maps from old Persona/SMT games). While there are passive/support abilities, the majority of your attacks have direct/area effects, like metal-arm punches and swarms of missiles, respectively. Visually, you could argue that watching the combat play out in 13 Sentinels is as exciting as a game of chess, but with more explosives. Outside of the explosions and missiles firing from your position (including some crazy on-screen damage numbers), it’s not going to win many people over. The battles really grew on me as I became more invested in the story, however. I just loved how high-stakes/relentless each encounter was and the OST and dynamic music transitions kept me engaged. There are also well-animated movies that demonstrate your abilities prior to selecting them, which were appreciated.
One of the most interesting things about 13 Sentinels, however, is how it tells its story. The game can be played in a non-linear fashion, to a degree. You’ll jump from character to character and each protagonist’s story takes place at different points during the timeline. It’s purposefully confusing and if you’re questioning the game at every turn, it’s doing its job. With every plot-twist and reveal, your head will be spinning until the very end, but the payoff is worth it. I haven’t played anything like 13 Sentinels all year and it was a game I couldn’t get out of my head even weeks after completing it. Every year, when I’m trying to decide what my game of the year is, I look for an experience that makes me put my controller down so that I can idle as I reflect on what I’m seeing/hearing. Whether it was some crazy plot reveal that left my jaw on the floor or the incredible soundtrack that kept me on edge during a combat encounter, 13 Sentinels took me places in 2020 when there was nowhere else to go. Play this game and lose yourself in its world and characters.
3D platformers have had sort of a renaissance over the past few years. With the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy releasing three years prior, the developers, Toys for Bob (the minds behind 2018’s Spyro Reignited Trilogy), are back at again with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Right out of the gate, Crash Bandicoot 4 feels familiar and comfortable for those who grew-up with the franchise (like myself). The worlds are colorful, classically themed and beautifully detailed. While most of the levels have you running towards the screen like in the previous games, the camera angles are much more dynamic this time around (think Ratchet & Clank in terms of camera positioning at times) as you’ll often find yourself going from 3D sections to 2D platforming segments over the course of a stage. Crash and company (yes, he’s brought some friends back, unfortunately) control as well as you would expect them to (if you’re familiar with the core trilogy developed by Naughty Dog). You can run, double jump and spin into crates. but this time there are masks that grant you new (temporary) abilities. The story technically picks-up after the events of Crash Bandicoot: Warped, but none of that matters, really. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon through and through and unless you’re a child, everything will likely go in one ear and out the other.
My time spent with Crash Bandicoot 4 can be best described as a curved arc. I went from having an enjoyable romp through a re-imagined part of my childhood to wanting to uninstall the game as soon as I completed it. While the levels are competently designed, they’re far too long and become ridiculously challenging the further you progress. Despite being nominated for “Best Family Game” at Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards 2020, Crash Bandicoot 4 is the furthest thing from “Fun for the whole family!”. As someone who’s been playing 2D/3D platformers for decades, Crash Bandicoot 4 is a hardcore 2D/3D platformer for super fans of the genre. Sure, there’s a “Pass N. Play” feature that lets you and another player (presumably a family member, roommate or significant other) play through levels together, but the further you get, the quicker you’ll realize this isn’t a game for just anyone. As someone who’s also a completionist at heart, I’ve never wanted to bounce off from the idea of 100%’ing something as I did with Crash Bandicoot 4.
The game is densely packed with collectables, time trails and other optional challenges, but sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. One of the worst things about Crash Bandicoot 4 is the crate placement. Typically, you need to destroy every crate to earn a much sought-after gem. In Crash Bandicoot 4, not only do most levels pack somewhere between 250-400 crates per stage, some of them are ridiculously placed off-screen. Unless you move the right-analog stick to point the camera towards a suspicious section of the screen, good luck finding everything without a guide! It’s infuriating and downright demotivating to reach the end of a stage only to be told that you missed a single crate that was hidden behind a piece of the environment you couldn’t see. The way I feel about playing Crash Bandicoot 4 as an adult was the way I felt about re-playing Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island; fun to play through casually, but a nightmare to 100%. I beat the game at around 50% completion and uninstalled it immediately. Maybe when I’m feeling extra masochistic I’ll revisit the game down the road.
I grew-up with DooM, but I didn’t play it as obsessively as other kids did when I was younger. Around the release of DOOM³ back on the original Xbox (where I first played it), I started to drift away from the franchise and FPS games in general. DOOM 2016, however, was sort of a soft-reboot for the IP and having finally finished the game for the first time last year, I really enjoyed my time spent on Mars slaying demons. DOOM Eternal, id Software’s follow-up/sequel to the 2016 remake-of-sorts, similar to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released at the start of the 2020 global pandemic back in March. Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly in the mood to play a game about Hell on Earth when the state of the real world didn’t feel too far off from it. Since the release of the game, however, I’ve been playing a mission or two and I finally finished a play-through in the middle of December.
I’m not sure if I’m the first person to say this, but DOOM Eternal plays like a first-person character-action game like Devil May Cry (DMC), but it feels more like the latest Mortal Kombat games in tone. Compared to DOOM 2016 (which was also a fast/relentless FPS), DOOM Eternal runs miles around it. To put it simply, it’s a super exhausting action game that happens to be in first-person. It’s unrelenting (particularly in its final stages) and asks the player to juggle far too many tools/options in order to reasonably complete an encounter. The game slowly doles out new weapons and armaments to do battle with the never-ending hordes of demons, including ice grenades, a devastating punch, a shoulder-mounted flamethrower and the classic chainsaw. All of these combat options must be cycled during encounters in order to replenish your health/ammo, which didn’t seem to resonate with a portion of the community. It’s not a FPS where you can go guns blazing, which seems counter-intuitive to what makes DOOM, well… DooM. Each enemy is arguably a puzzle that must be solved and the solution is your gun of choice, as you’ll find certain weapons are better utilized to destroy their weak-points in order to perform the (extremely) satisfying glory kills.
The levels are incredibly well-designed and much like the previous game, DOOM Eternal scratches that first-person adventure itch that Retro Studio’s Metroid Prime games mastered and delivered. The missions have you primarily moving from point A to B with a heavy emphasis on platforming and arena-based combat encounters, but there’s the occasional secret area or two where you can take a breather and explore (trust me, you’ll need it). There are even secret battle encounters that are similar to the Secret Missions found from the DMC games and they can be incredibly challenging. The game has tons of collectables scattered around the 12 missions, too. A lot of these collectables are displayed at your base of operations (in space…) where you can discover even more secrets and upgrades if you have the proper currencies/collectables. It’s a dense experience, to say the least. At the end of the day, I felt as torn about my time spent with DOOM Eternal as the excessive amounts of limbs/body parts that I ripped off of demons and discarded on the floor. Regardless, I like id Software’s DOOM titles and they just feel good to play, so I’ll be there for whatever is next.
WayForward’s Shantae and the Seven Sirens (Shantae 5) is probably their best effort yet. Following the Kickstarter-backed Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, Shantae 5 released first on Apple Arcade episodically, but the game is now available in its entirety on current platforms. The latest Shantae doesn’t stray too far from any of the previous games. It’s still a Metroid-like through and through, with dances/transformations that are used to solve puzzles in-order to progress. The game is once again interconnected like the earlier games and the layout of the map feels most similar to their more recent Mummy Demastered title. This time, however, there’s a card system that’s not too far off from how the “Souls” worked in Castlevania: Aria/Dawn of Sorrow titles, for example. Enemies can drop their monster cards and by collecting a certain amount of them, you can equip them which grant our half-genie hero passive abilities. It’s a fun system that compliments the magical artifacts/upgrades that’s been present for a few games now. Studio Trigger did some animated sequences for the game and it adds some much needed personality to the world and characters. The music is also surprisingly good, considering it’s not composed by Jake Kaufman (virt), the handful of composers did a really great job capturing the essence of a Shantae soundtrack.
A problem I’ve had with Shantae games is that they’re often far too easy, however. While you can make the game harder by ignoring item pickups and upgrades, you can usually become quite powerful in these games with relative ease. With that said, Shantae is still a joy to control and her transformations are a bit more integrated into her overall move-set this time around. Instead of performing a dance to transform into an animal, her transformations are tied to certain button inputs on the controller. The dances leave a lot to be desired, unfortunately. They act more like traditional summons, two of which that reveal hidden objects or electrocute your surroundings, respectively. Shantae doesn’t perform a unique dance during these summon animations, either. Instead, you’re treated to a static HD image and some nice visual effects. It’s disappointing to say the least, perhaps a product of the game’s mobile origins.
I completed the game with 100% item completion at around 13 hours, but I don’t think I’ll make an attempt to earn any of the more demanding “win screens” in the near future. I’ve only ever done a 100% speed-run of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero due to its simple structure and shorter length, but I don’t think I’ll attempt to route this game anytime soon due to its ridiculous item placements. I can’t quite pinpoint why I continue to feel this way about Shantae, but ever since key developers left WayForward and formed Yacht Club Games, it feels like our half-genie hero has been chasing Shovel Knight’s success since. There’s just something off/missing about the more recent Shantae games. Whether they feel somewhat limited by their budget or uninspired in some areas, it feels like Shantae hasn’t quite found her true calling yet (perhaps she needs to make her way to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate). At the end of the day, I still look forward to playing Shantae games because they’re always comfortable and familiar. Here’s hoping WayForward continues to find their rhythm.
I don’t normally play racing games, but when I do, I prefer kart racers like Mario Kart or the more arcade-like experiences like Sumo Digital and Lucky Mountain Games’ Hotshot Racing. This developer has been known for their racing games over the years, but if you’ll excuse the pun, Hotshot Racing put the pedal to the metal and left its competition in the dust. The more realistic, sim-like racing games out there don’t even a fraction of the personality that’s found in Hotshot Racing. Each racer/character has their own endings and they’ll even comment on each track with unique dialogue/quips. There’s even a Wave Race 64-like announcer at the start of a race that instantly teleported me back to the seat of a 90s era racing game. The visuals are simplistic, overtly polygonal by design, yet the game is just bursting with color/detail. The tracks are all appropriately themed too, including a snowy mountain village, a seaside town and a prehistoric race track with a Jurassic Park gate and a T-Rex that roars at you on the 3rd lap. It’s got everything.
Hotshot Racing is incredibly easy to pick-up and play, but difficult to master on the higher difficulties. The controls are super responsive and the drifting just feels sublime. The more you drift, the more your boost meter fills-up. Once you reach a segment on your meter, you can expend it to boost ahead of the gang. You can also choose from four different cars with slight stat differences for each character and while you can customize things to a degree, tinkering with your cars is not required to win 1st place. There are parts and aesthetic details that you can unlock with cash earned from races and there’s a variety of online/multiplayer modes if you’re in the mood for some competition. Hotshot Racing is the total retro racing package. It’s packed with content and feel-good vibes. I completed the game with Gold trophies on all Grand Prix (GP) difficulties and saw all of the character endings. I’ve found myself coming back to Hotshot Racing often and for that reason alone, it’s my favorite racing game of the year.
Super Mario 64 (SM64) was an eye-opening experience as a kid. With the release of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, the game can now be played again by audiences new and old, for a limited time that is. Disregarding the strange decision to release this collection of classic 3D Mario titles as a timed release (Disney vault style), revisiting SM64 has been an enlightening, joyful trip down memory lane. You could argue that the controls feel a bit dated or that the camera is frustrating by today’s standards, but for its time, the 3D movement and Mario’s acrobatic display was revolutionary. Performing a triple jump or a sideways somersault still feels as satisfying as it did decades ago. The nonlinear power star objectives was ahead of its time too as it allowed true freedom in 3D worlds for the fist time in Nintendo’s history. We’ve been in a 3D platformer renaissance of sorts for a few years now and it feels like developers are still chasing what made SM64 shine, including Nintendo.
It’s impossible for me not to go for all 120 power stars when replaying SM64. The game has mostly been seared into my memory, but a power star or two definitely left me scratching my head upon revisiting it in 2020. Sure, some of the late-game courses aren’t as well-designed as the earlier levels, but the difficulty is paced to perfection. It’s still super rewarding to route your path to the “100 coins collected” power star in each level; saving the easier to reach coins when you’re nearing 100 coins collected and grabbing the more dangerously-placed coins first. Combining that objective with the “8 red coin” power star objective or some other power star in a stage is just… *chef’s kiss*. SM64 is simply a timeless classic in my book. I completed the game with all 120 power stars collected and I can’t wait to revisit Sunshine and Galaxy in 2021.
Valfaris, developed by Steel Mantis, is a 2D Run ‘N Gun side-scroller with a heavy metal, SCI-FI aesthetic. Their previous game, Slain: Back from Hell, had a similar visual style, but the game was more akin to Castlevania than Contra. Right out of the gate, Valfaris is a far more competent, well-designed experience than their previous game. It feels like what Slain should have been. My biggest issue with Slain was its boring/bland level design and overly long levels. The stages have much more verticality this time around with better-placed checkpoints, varied enemy encounters, challenging mini-bosses, secrets and platforming sequences throughout. Similar to how I felt about Slain, the bosses are what standout the most here. They’re usually multi-phased encounters with difficult/learnable patterns, but the arsenal of weapons at your disposal can make quick work of them, if they’re upgraded properly.
Your main character has a primary weapon that has infinite ammo, a heavy gun that requires energy and a melee weapon that, when used, can generate the energy needed to use your heavy weapon. Speaking of checkpoints, there’s a cool risk/reward system at play here where the player can collect and bank tokens at checkpoints or save them for weapon upgrades later on. If you’re a competent player, you can skip a bunch of checkpoints and exchange your tokens for upgrade materials, but if you die and overestimate your abilities, you may find yourself replaying large portions of the stage. With that said, similar to how I felt about Slain, the levels are still a tad too long for my liking, but the action feels good, the 2D pixel/sprite-work looks gorgeous and the guns are satisfying to use, so that’s what’s most important here. I completed Valfaris and earned a majority of the trophies during my first play-through. There’s a new game+ and harder runs to attempt, but for now, I’ll patiently wait their next venture.
Krome Studio’s TY The Tasmanian Tiger HD was probably the biggest surprise of 2020 in terms of re-releases/remasters (and there’s been a lot of them this year). Back when the game first released in the early 2000s, TY The Tasmanian Tiger was a relatively competent 3D platformer chasing the success of its predecessors/peers. At the time, it was published by EA Games, but it felt like the product of a company who wanted to compete with the likes of Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper, for example. TY is through and through an objective-based collectathon in the same vein as the aforementioned titles, including classics like SM64 or Banjo-Kazooie. You’re an anthropomorphic tiger (thylacine?) who wields boomerangs on a quest to recover talismans in order to stop the destruction of your homeland. Today, TY is nothing but nostalgia and comfort-food gaming for me. I love 3D platformers, particularly those from the PS2/GC/Xbox era, and TY didn’t try to be anything more/less than its contemporaries for its time. Upon revisiting the game today, I did appreciate certain aspects of TY that I don’t think I internalized back in the day.
For one, the worlds were rather sprawling with some impressive draw distance. Most of the boomerangs had unique traits and they were used to solve simple environmental puzzles, too. One thing I love about old 3D platformers is how you’ll solve a menial task for an NPC and they always happen to whip out the main collectable you’re looking for, “Oh… and I found this while you were taking care of business…” they’ll usually say. Classic. It’s also funny how the developers went out of their way to emulate the 3D platformers of yesterday, straight down to exchanging “X” amount of “coins” (or opals in this case) for a “Thunder Egg”, which were the game’s “Power Stars” in a sense. There were even 5 koala bears in each stage which acted like the Jinjos from Banjo-Kazooie. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess? Regardless, I enjoyed my time revisiting the game and I wouldn’t say no to HD remasters of the sequels. I completed the game with everything collected and the Platinum trophy earned.
FoxyLand, by BUG-Studio and Ratalaika Games, is low budget 2D platformer that feels designed exclusively for mobile devices. You’re a cute little fox who’s lady friend has been kidnapped by an eagle. As they’re flying away, gems fall from the sky and presumably leave a trail for the fox to follow. The game’s comprised of 30+ bite-sized stages where the goal is to collect all of the gems before hitting the exit. There’s cherries scattered about the levels which can also be exchanged for costumes in a shop. The fox can run, climb ladders/vines and perform a double jump, but that’s about it it. The platforming doesn’t feel great and there are haphazardly-placed spikes and pitfalls along the way that makes the experience far more frustrating than it needs to be. The pixel-art is just okay, the music is bland and the stage design is severely uninspired. I completed every stage with 3 star rankings and unlocked the Platinum trophy. I wouldn’t recommend this game unless you’re looking for a quick & relatively easy finish or if you enjoy scraping the bottom of the barrel (like I do from time to time).
I’ve beaten Monstars/Resonair’s Tetris Effect before, but I started a replay of the Journey mode on Expert difficulty this year because, well, it’s Tetris and this game rules. I’m no Grand Master, but Expert difficulty is no joke. My overall ranks were horrible and I found myself having to play stages from scratch often, so I could never properly carry my score from one stage to the next. I also played more than half of the game in VR again and it’s such an amazing visual/audio experience. The soundtrack alone still sends me adrift. With that said, it was in my Top 10 Games of 2018 post (which you can read about here!) and it’s easily my favorite Tetris game of all time still. I’m looking forward to checking-out Tetris Effect: Connected next year on my Xbox Series X.
I also did a replay of Doinksoft’s Gato Roboto this year. Just like Tetris Effect, I’ve written about the game before (which you can read about here!). It’s still an easy, breezy Metroid-like with a nice, simplistic visual style, fun weapons/abilities and great controls. I still don’t like how the game locks you out of exploring when you reach the final area, but I knew better this time and completed a run of the game with 100% of the items collected before the point of no return. There’s still a “no health upgrade” challenge to attempt, but for now, I’m going to take a cat nap or two before I revisit this one again.
Outside of Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories, Tripwire Interactive’s Maneater is one of the most PS2 era feeling games I’ve played all year. I’m likely dating myself, but games like E.V.O Search for Eden on the SNES, Seventh Cross: Evolution for the Dreamcast or even Jaws Unleashed for the PS2/Xbox come to mind when playing this game. I started playing Maneater during the summer months because it allowed me to take out my frustrations on not being able to travel or go swimming due to the pandemic. Maneater is pure, dumb fun. With the said, the story is pretty ridiculous and a lot more thoughtful than it needed to be. A bunch of hillbillies and a crew filming a reality TV show set out on a hunt for an adult shark. Upon capturing said shark, she happens to be pregnant and a baby shark is gutted from her stomach. Naturally, the baby shark retaliates, bites off the shark hunter’s arm and escapes into the waters. Now, as a young shark, your goal is to eat and evolve your way to adulthood to enact revenge on the monsters that destroyed your lineage. Yeah…
The entire game feels like you’re swimming in the surrounding waters to some city from an open world, GTA-style game. When you surface in particular spots, you can see skyscrapers, resorts, golf courses and other industrialized buildings (I swore the city from Crackdown is in the background). There are also landmarks to discover both on land and underwater (which act as one of the game’s collectables/objectives) and they provide some of the game’s more lighthearted moments, including some hit/miss social commentary. Speaking of social commentary, there’s a ton of it. The developers definitely make you want to hate humanity and given how 2020 has been in the United States, I’m not too fond of people right now, either. Devouring stupid humans on shorelines/boats feels good and after you cause so much devastation, you build-up a GTA-style “wanted meter” of sorts which will cause hunter boats to stalk you. Maneater’s core gameplay loop is rewarding/satisfying, although it does get repetitive the further you progress. Fortunately, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. I completed the game with 100% completion and the Platinum trophy earned.
Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories was supposed to release back in March of 2011 for the PS3, a day before the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but it was cancelled and the developer, IREM, and their games division would soon dissolve. Some members from the original development team would eventually form a new studio under the name, Granzella, and acquire the rights to the IP. Nearly 10 years later, Disaster Report 4 would finally see the light of day and release worldwide… in 2020 of all years, during a global pandemic. Great timing, right? Disaster Report (known as Zettai Zetsumei Toshi in Japan) is a survival-adventure game series where you navigate fictional locations during the aftermath of a natural disaster. The player must avoid falling debris, flooding and other hazards while they search for a means to escape. These games are janky, quirky, and clearly made for Japanese audiences, but there’s nothing else quite like them.
Next to Maneater, Disaster Report 4 is the most PS2 era game I’ve played all year. It doesn’t look like a modern game and at launch, the game was marred with performance issues (particularly on the Nintendo Switch). With the said, the game’s not without its charm and endearing qualities. I’ve played the original Disaster Report to completion back in the day, but I never did finish its sequel (known in the west as Raw Danger). The fourth entry doesn’t stay too far off from its PS2 predecessors, but there’s certainly a larger emphasis on the adventure elements this time around. Nearly every question lobbed at the player prompts a plethora of multiple-choice responses. You can clearly be a good person with a moral compass or an evil thief without a care in the world. The choices you make are reflected throughout and can cause some pretty interesting story beats along the way. Surprisingly, there’s also less city destruction and hazards to avoid than in previous titles. It’s more about the interpersonal relationships between the survivors you meet along the way and the human drama that unfolds. Some of the scenarios are very serious/dark, but just like the previous games, it’s not without its goofy moments. In one instance, you’re persuaded to help a cult sway scattered civilians to join their cause and the next minute you’re mourning the loss of a school teacher surrounded by their crying students. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions, but hey, that’s life.
Considering the game’s troubled development history, it’s a miracle Disaster Report 4 came out to begin with. The story has its fair share of twists/turns and there’s even ties back to the older games for the fans who have stuck around all these years (there’s dozens of us!). Disaster Report 4 is an unpolished gem in the rough with a lot of heart and conviction. I completed the game with one of the endings, but I’ll definitely replay it down the road when the mood strikes me again. I can’t wait to see what Granzella does next.
There are so many endings in Inti Create’s Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, I’ve found myself doing a replay every year for the past few years until I’ve unlocked/seen them all. I’ve written about the game before (which you can read here!), but it’s still a wonderful homage to the classic Castlevania games of yore. I downloaded Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 this year, but I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet, so here’s to more Dracula-adjacent killing in 2021.
See you next year…
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