What I’ve Been Playing (Q3) 2021
Thoughts & impressions on the games I finished during the months of July through September (Q3 2021).
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Thoughts & impressions on the games I finished during the months of July through September (Q3 2021).
If you’re not familiar with my writing, for the past few years I’ve been attempting to complete/roll the credits on 52 games during the year. My goal with these blog posts is to write a paragraph or two for each game I’ve beaten. There’s both an online forum community and a discord comprised of like-minded individuals who enjoy sharing their progress and impressions on the games they’ve completed throughout the year. During the third quarter of the year, I’ve attempted to have some sort of post-vaccinated life. Although the pandemic continues to rear its ugly head, I’ve continued to dip my toes back into society over these past few months; reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen since before the pandemic, going to the movies, camping and heading to the beach. Because of this, I haven’t completed as many games as I have in previous years, especially when compared against 2020 (which is perfectly fine). With that said, here are the games I did manage to beat during the months of July through September. If you’d like to see what I’ve completed during the second quarter of the year, you can read about that here! At the time of writing this, I also currently hit my goal of 52 games completed for 2021!
Game #25. Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, developed by Artdink, is a decent yet seemingly out-of-nowhere remake of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive 1994 classic, Monster World IV (MW IV). If you’re not familiar with the franchise, Wonder Boy is essentially a 2D Zelda-like complete with towns, dungeons and light RPG elements. In 2012, MW IV released for the first time in English on the Virtual Console, Xbox Live Arcade and PSN (which is where I first experienced the game). MW IV is still arguably my favorite game from the Wonder Boy/Monster World series, too. Most of the games follow a similar formula/structure; you’ll start on the outskirts of a town, defeat baddies to earn gold to purchase new equipment, arrive at a village, discover a dungeon, beat a boss, gain a new ability (or transformation in some of the earlier games), rinse & repeat. Wonder Boy games are typically Metroid-like in nature with interconnected areas and gated progression, however, MW IV is far more linear than some of the previous entries.
Asha in Monster World, based on my memory of the original release, is a relatively faithful remake. There’s some bells & whistles added to this version (such as each area/dungeon telling you how many of the collectables you’ve found and even voice acting), but it’s mostly the same game with a fresh coat of paint. Asha and most of the cast look great and they’re all relatively expressive and well-animated, but the 3D background art isn’t exactly easy on the eyes compared to the beautiful hand-drawn sprite-work from the Mega Drive classic. As a side note, although unrelated, if you happen to be more familiar with WayForward’s Shantae titles, I wouldn’t be surprised if the purple-haired genie was inspired by this game specifically (so, if you’re a fan of Shantae, I’d suggest checking this game out!). I completed the game with mostly everything collected, but just like in the original version, it is plagued with missable items/equipment, so if you’re looking to 100% the game in one fell-swoop, you’re going to need a guide! Finally, as much as I love remakes/remasters lately, I wouldn’t mind a new, original entry in this long-running series.
Game #26. Omno, a game by Jonas Manke & company, is a super chill 3D platformer with light puzzle-solving and an emphasis on collecting things. It’s got a simple yet beautiful polygonal art-style, a relaxing soundtrack and a minimalistic Journey-like narrative. Speaking of Journey, it’s difficult not to think about that game when playing Omno. While it doesn’t play exactly like Journey, it does channel a lot of its more memorable moments, specifically the “sand surfing” sequence, which makes an appearance or two here in Omno. I’ve said it before, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Omno clearly wears its inspirations on its sleeves. That’s not to say the game isn’t without its own charm or unique ideas. Omno is a 3D platformer at its core, but it doesn’t hold your hands or overstay its welcome, either. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again; it’s nice to see more 3D games from indie developers instead of the onslaught of 2D, sprite-based retro throwbacks we get on (what seems like) a weekly basis.
In Omno, you’re essentially dumped into an environment with little-to-no dialogue and your goal is to collect at least three “orbs” in an area before progressing to the next. There are optional “orbs” to collect and hidden lore pieces to discover, but they’re not necessary in order to roll the credits. What’s great about Omno is the balance it strikes between classic 3D platforming and simple puzzle-solving. Most of the items you need to progress can simply be found by jumping around the environment and experimenting with your abilities (which you gain over the course of the game, such as a dash). There’s also an ecosystem of sorts where creatures will react and interact with you, sometimes lending their help to reach one of the collectables. At the end of each area, the game throws a more challenging puzzle at you before proceeding to the next level, but they’re compact and just the right level of difficulty.
Finally, in-between levels, you’re treated to what the game casually refers to as “rides”, where the player will quite literally ride on the backs of legendary creatures from one area to the next. They’re visually impressive and combined with the “epic” score, they’re quite memorable sequences (although they start to lose their luster by the end of the journey. I completed the game with all of the achievements unlocked in just a few hours, so if you’re looking for a simple yet satisfying game to spend an afternoon or two with or if you’re looking for something relatively short to knock off of your never-ending backlog/to-do list, I can’t recommend it enough! At the time of writing this, it’s still on Game Pass as well. I’m excited to see what this developer does next.
Game #27. Rain on Your Parade, developed by Unbound Creations, is a chaotic storm cloud simulator reminiscent of Katamari Damacy. The game is exactly as it sounds; you’re simply tasked to ruin peoples’ day by using the power of rain, snow, wind and lightning. In one level, you’re raining down on a wedding reception and in the next level, you’re causing snow piles on the road in order to cause car accidents. It’s irreverent, silly and surprisingly a lot of fun considering its simplistic mechanics and almost cardboard-cutout graphical style. It’s a simple pick-up & play sort of game too, one where you can complete a few levels, have a good laugh, turn it off at any given moment and walk away feeling satisfied. It’s also surprisingly clever and keeps things fresh, providing unique scenarios over the course of the campaign (including a mini-RPG and even an FPS “DooM” clone!). Each stage has a primary objective and bonus objectives to complete as well.
If you complete every objective, you can unlock various hats which allow you to customize your cloud. You can even draw your own face on the cloud with a simple, although not very robust painting system. If there’s one thing I disliked about the game, however, it’s the humor/writing style. It feels very juvenile at times and while it certainly fits the game’s aesthetic, the game’s tone falls right on the border of internet “meme” humor, which some indie developers can’t help but to cater to (see also Guacamelee!). I completed the game with most objectives completed, but there’s a significant post-game where there’s even more challenging objectives to complete for a handful of the game’s many stages. I enjoyed my time spent with the game, but I didn’t feel compelled to 100% it after I rolled the credits. Perhaps one day I’ll come back to it when I feel like raining down on someone’s parade (sorry, that was a soft ball).
Game #28. Tetris Effect: Connected, developed by Monstars and Resonair, is still my favorite version of Tetris to date, I’ve completed the game’s Journey mode each year since its original PS4 release (including in PSVR). You can read about some of my initial thoughts here (it actually made my top 10 games list back in 2018!). I ran through the game’s “Journey” mode on Expert again over the summer. Although my rankings/scores weren’t great and I could obviously do better (I really need to learn how to do consistent T-Spins), I never grow tired from revisiting this game. I think I could play this game forever, my “desert island” game, so to speak. Dolphin Surf: You and I is still my favorite track in the game, too. Every time I arrive at this stage I become transfixed and I’m reminded why this version of Tetris will likely never be surpassed for me.
Game #29. It Takes Two, developed by Hazelight Studios, is one of the best couch-coop games I’ve ever played. If there’s one thing It Takes Two taught me, it was the power of cooperative experiences and the importance of a good friend, especially during what is still an ongoing global pandemic. When this game initially launched back in March of 2021, I wasn’t vaccinated yet. Being a fan of this developer’s previous games, however, I knew I was going to play it eventually. It didn’t help that the game started receiving glowing reviews and positive word of mouth on social media. As weeks passed, the anticipation to play this game was becoming unbearable and so was my desire to be near another human being after mostly isolating myself for an entire year. Prior to the beginning of the global pandemic, I didn’t have many local friends who enjoyed playing video games as much as I did. While It Takes Two does offer a “Friend’s Pass” (a free download key of sorts that allows another online player to experience the game with you at no additional cost), the game felt like it was meant to be played locally. Considering the state of the world and my own comfort level prior to being vaccinated, playing this game physically next to someone wasn’t an option.
So, I waited until things “got better” (which they really haven’t). I became fully vaccinated by the beginning of May 2021 and I had one special person in-mind that I wanted to experience It Takes Two with. If you’ll excuse the sob story, I met this person back at the end of 2019. I felt extremely connected to them almost immediately after getting the chance to spend a weekend together. I felt like it was something that could have been more than a friendship if given the time and opportunity. We agreed that it probably wasn’t the best idea to try and see each other as the cases rose and information regarding how the virus was transmitted became more apparent. This person, however, eventually made plans to move across the country during the pandemic. I never got to see them after I became vaccinated and I never even got a chance to say goodbye in-person, let alone ask them to play the game cooperatively. I was devastated and the idea of playing this game with anyone else left me completely heartbroken. Time passed and I eventually came to terms with what happened. Ultimately, I was grateful to experience the game with another good friend locally who also appreciated couch-coop games. Although it wasn’t the person I had in-mind initially, we still had an amazing playthrough full of laughs. It Takes Two is a phenomenal experience and I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you have the means to play it with someone who’s important to you.
It Takes Two is not exactly an easy game, however. Right out of the gate, the game means business despite its somewhat casual, couch-coop friendly appeal. It’s a relatively challenging 3D platformer disguised as a genre-blending cooperative experience of sorts. The game truly requires you to be in-sync with your partner more than any other two-player cooperative experience I’ve played before. While It Takes Two is mostly forgiving, there’s a few instances where the developers expected the player to have some sort of prior gaming experience, especially when it comes to camera control and hand-eye coordination. It must also be said that the game nearly has every genre/subgenre represented in some fashion or form including a fighting game and a top-down Gauntlet-style sequence. Although it’s primarily a cooperative experience, there are also optional competitive mini-games for you and your partner to compete against in. Most of them feel relatively throwaway, but some are extremely clever. My friend and I completed the game with most of the mini-games discovered and a majority of the secret trophies earned. It’s a game that I want to return to, but not one that’s easily approachable after you’ve already experienced it with someone else. I’ll never forget my first playthrough with this game and I can’t wait to see what this studio does next.
Game #30. Death’s Door, by Acid Nerve, (previously known for Titan Souls), is a top-down Zelda-like with, if you’ll excuse the tired comparison, a Souls-like aesthetic. You’re a small crow who’s profession is to reap the souls of those who are unwilling to accept death. Imposing, black doors litter an afterlife of sorts which acts as a hub area where you can upgrade your character and fast-travel to unlocked areas (think the waiting room scene from Beetlejuice). These doorways branch out to larger areas, all of which are cleverly interconnected in a Metroid-like fashion with shortcuts and secrets to discover (although the game is in desperate need of a map). Death’s Door is an action-RPG at its core with some light RPG elements. There’s a dodge maneuver with invincibility frames, a handful of weapons to discover, max health upgrades to find, and some truly challenging boss encounters that will test your patience.
Death’s Door also plays with some interesting themes such as immortality and, well, the thought of death and how we accept and deal with the inevitable. It’s an extremely well-crafted experience, but there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). At the end of the day, it is an extremely competent Zelda-like with satisfying combat, interesting characters and a haunting atmosphere. It didn’t blow me away initially, but I’m glad I played through it nonetheless (I nearly went for 100% completion, too!). It’s easily one of the best indie games of 2021, but I’ve also found it difficult to share my thoughts about the game. It’s good, but the whole experience felt like it went into one ear and out the other. Whether or not it will make my Top 10 list for the year, we’ll just have to wait and see what else lies behind the many doors that line the halls of my backlog domain…
Game #31. Cursed Castilla ex, by Locomalito, is one of my all-time favorite retro-inspired 2D action-platformer throwbacks. It’s impossible not to compare the game to the likes of Castlevania and Ghosts ‘N Goblins, but it’s much more than a tribute to the classics games of our past. The game is somewhat based on myths from Spain and other parts of Europe. We’re inundated with retro-inspired 2D platformers on what feels like a weekly basis at this point. Cursed Castilla, along with games like Shovel Knight and Astalon: Tears of the Earth, are some of the most genuine indie games I’ve played in the last decade or so. If you’re not familiar with this developer, you should be! Locomalito is a homebrew/indie developer who has been creating retro-inspired games with an emphasis on pixel art, chip tunes and challenging, but fair gameplay. A handful of his games are available to purchase on most modern-day platforms, but many of his games are freeware for the PC. Cursed Castilla is definitely my favorite game by Locomalito.
Cursed Castilla, although very challenging, is both fair and rewarding. Similar to one of their other releases, Super Hydorah (which I also revisited this year; see my thoughts on that game below), Cursed Castilla auto-saves at the completion of a level so that you can put the game down and pick-up your playthrough at any given moment. The game also has a ton of secrets, most of which are incredibly difficult to find, especially if you don’t have a keen eye. Some of these items are required for the better endings as well, so keep a lookout for suspicious looking areas (or use a guide like me after a certain point)! Unlike the games it’s mostly inspired by, there’s no pressure to complete the game in a single sitting. With that said, there are multiple endings and achievements/trophies to unlock if you do happen to complete the game with few/no continues used (which is extremely difficult!). I’ve played through the game previously on Xbox, but I love it so much that I decided to replay the game on PS4 this year and earned both the “Bad Knight” and “Martyr” endings.
Game #32. Psychonauts 2, developed by Double Fine, is a familiar, yet faithful sequel to a cult classic 3D platformer that, after nearly 15 years, still feels rooted in LucasArt’s adventure games. Psychonauts 2 picks-up right where the first game and Rhombus of Ruin (its VR sequel of sorts) left off. While the game can be mostly enjoyed without having played the original Psychonauts, Double Fine did a fine job (see what I did there?) at providing a summary of the first game right at the start. Just like the original game, Psychonauts 2 deals with exploring the minds of individuals who are dealing with serious mental conditions. You’ll explore the minds of those who are dealing with addiction, PTSD, and general anxiety, for example. Unlike the first game, however, the main protagonist, Raz, now asks for consent before jumping into someone’s mind. To put it simply, the sequel is much more mature, well-written and mindful than the first game.
I might have more to say about the game in a future post (as it will likely make my top 10 for the year), but at the time of writing this, it’s been a few months since I’ve beaten the game and I’m still thinking about its relevancy in 2021. Psychonauts 2 is a 15+ year old game that didn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel, yet somehow still felt both fresh and familiar to fans new and old. It blows my mind Microsoft/Rare can’t see the same for a new Banjo-Kazooie today. Here’s hoping both Microsoft and Double Fine continue refining Raz & company into the platform-mascot Xbox deserves. If the bear and bird aren’t going to do it, then the Psychonauts have no choice but to carry the 3D platformer torch into the next generation.
Game #33. Super Hydorah, developed by Locomalito, is a super challenging yet rewarding arcade shooter clearly inspired by games like Gradius, R-Type and Darius. It’s one of my all-time favorite modern day “shmups”. Just like Cursed Castilla, one of the best things about Super Hydorah is that you don’t have to complete the game in one sitting. While the game has a Darius-like stage grid, you can actually travel backwards on the map and play levels on alternate paths. If you want to see the best ending, you’re going to want to play through every level, too. Super Hydorah has a killer soundtrack, high replay value and amazing bosses. I’ve completed the game before on Xbox, but this time I replayed the entire game, finished every level/path, destroyed all of the “seeds” and got the good ending! I can’t recommend it enough if you’re a fan of the genre.
Game #34. Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a cute and thoughtful top-down Zelda-like with an emphasis on painting. What feels like a lot of indie games are doing lately, Chicory explores themes of self doubt and what it means to reject one’s legacy. All of the color in the world has vanished and the original wielder of a magical paintbrush has gone missing. You play as an aspiring artist of sorts who takes on the monumental task of repainting the world and bringing life back to its inhabitants. It’s a somber, self-reflecting story centered around a bunch of animals just trying to “get by”. Over the course of the game, you’ll gain new paintbrush techniques which act as backtracking/puzzle-solving abilities. There’s Zelda-like “dungeons” with clever puzzles that make use of your painting techniques which culminate in some truly epic boss encounters. There’s even loads of side-quests and collectables to discover off the beaten path.
If there’s one thing I would have changed about Chicory, however, is that I would have preferred it more if there was some sort of hit-points (HP) or damage penalty (outside of getting knocked over and rewinding to just before you were knocked-out). While I do love chill, experience-driven games where there’s no combat or fail-state, Chicory sort of tricked my brain into thinking it was more Zelda-like than it actually was, especially when you’re facing off against some of the game’s numerous bosses. I would have loved to have seen a post-game “hard” mode of sorts where you did have HP or perhaps a boss rush mode where you could take damage. The boss encounters are some of the best moments in the game and combined with Lena Raine’s phenomenal soundtrack, they’re truly some of the most intense, high-stakes sequences in the game. As I’ve mentioned, however, some of the adrenaline you receive during these fights is lost when the player is only slightly inconvenienced.
Game #35. Recompile, developed by Phigames, is a 3D platformer where you play as a Rez-like program sent into a mainframe to restore its functionality. From my understanding of the game’s plot (as it’s heavy on text files and light on cinematics), something bad has happened on Earth, scientists fly into space in order to fix the bad thing, an AI is developed, shit hits the fan, and a program (the player) is developed in order to solve an issue that could save the universe? There’s clearly a lot at stake here, but only if the player discovers and reads the scattered files strewn about the environment as the game is fairly minimalistic in its presentation. The developer describes the game as a “Metroidvania”, but I’d like to think it’s more of a “Metroid-like” than anything else, with a strong emphasis on precision 3D platforming.
Recompile has a central hub which branches out into larger sections (complete with puzzles to solve and bosses to fight). Along the way you’ll slowly upgrade your character with standard Metroid-like abilities; a double/triple jump, a dash, and even the ability to glide. The problem, however, is that the game doesn’t utilize (or have time to utilize) all of these upgrades in meaningful ways. Eventually, you can return to old areas to collect out of reach text files, but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot to chew on here. There’s also a system where you re-direct power nodes and it’s based on programing language, but I could never understand it and sort of fumbled my way through these areas. You can even hack enemies to become allies or even make them self-destruct, but again, it doesn’t ever feel necessary and there’s so few encounters to begin with. If you do collect everything in the game though, you essentially become a god and it’s an incredibly empowering sequence.
Calling Recompile a 3D platformer is a bit of a stretch, actually. It’s also got light combat elements where the game occasionally turns into an over-the-shoulder 3rd-person shooter, too. The shooting elements feel half-baked, however, something that the developers felt like the game needed to implement when they probably didn’t have to. It ultimately felt like a game that didn’t know what it wanted to be, but I found myself coming around to it just as it was ending (it’s also not a very long game). One of the most interesting things about Recompile is its ending sequence. Based on what collectables/files you “upload”, they will reprogram an AI which will have an impact on the game’s real world outcome. There are multiple endings based on these decisions and how the story plays out in each of them is fascinating, to say the least. By the time I wrapped up all of the endings (which you can see on a single playthrough), I honestly wanted more from the game. Phigames has an interesting framework here for an even better sequel, so I’m hoping this isn’t the last time we’ll see Recompile.
Game #36. Anodyne 2: Return to Dust, by Analgesic Productions, is an amalgamation of genres and one big existential crisis. At its core, Anodyne 2 is a 3D platformer that harkens back to early polygonal PS1, N64 and Sega Saturn era games, but there’s much more here than what meets the eye. In Anodyne 2, you wake up in a strange land and you’re tasked to clear the cobwebs (dust) forming in people’s minds, which is causing them all sorts of mental discomfort/distress. Anodyne 2 is almost like Psychonauts in a sense, only it’s way more abstract, wordy and riddled with analogies/metaphors. Anodyne 2, much like the first game, also has top-down 2D Zelda-like dungeons, which are probably the most game-y thing about the entire experience. This time, however, these dungeons are much more compact and well-designed than the sprawling, interconnected maps of Anodyne 1 and you reach them by turning into an oversized S.O.P.H.I.A. from Blaster Master and performing a rhythm game on the overworld. Confused yet or intrigued?
Each screen and puzzle in Anodyne 2 feels purposeful and satisfying to complete, which is a hard endeavor considering the size of the team, yet somehow they pulled off some of the best dungeons to ever grace a Zelda-like. Although Anodyne 2 blends genre almost as much as the aforementioned It Takes Two, it feels like a visual novel (VN) more than anything at times. Someone over at Analgesic Productions likes to write, A LOT. The writing is admittedly good, although it’s a bit wordy, fourth wall-breaking, perhaps unintentionally preachy at times too, yet I couldn’t help myself from indulging in its soupiness. Perhaps an editor is needed for their future games, though? Anodyne 2 is a depressing, strange affair. Much like the first game, there’s this sense of loneliness emanating from each non-playable character (NPC) you meet , but it all feels comforting and familiar at the same time. To say I have conflicting feelings about Anodyne 2 would be understatement. I completed the game with the Platinum trophy earned and I enjoyed my time spent with it more than the first game. I’m looking forward to their next project, Sephonie, which at the time of writing this should be releasing soon…
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