Death’s Door Review (Nintendo Switch/PC/Steam)

UPDATE: out now on PS4/PS5 and Nintendo Switch!

The Crow’s fate hinges on Death’s Door. Can you handle it?

Devolver Digital have certainly garnered a reputation for being one of the best indie videogame publishers in the business. With an eccentric approach to advertising incorporating comedy and satire, coupled with handpicked creative and often unusual games, Devolver have captured the attention of gamers from around the globe since their inception in 2009. And, like a fine wine or a delicious block of parmesan shaped into a game controller, they only seem to get better with age.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals
Just a few of the excellent games from Devolver.

To add to their already vast library of published titles, launching today on PC/Steam is a brand new game by the name of Death’s Door, an intriguing hack & slash following the tale of a soul-collecting crow set in a stylish yet gloomy world. Created by Acid Nerve, the small indie team responsible for Titan Souls, this immediately grabbed my attention thanks to its unique visual style and its avian cast of characters. Earlier this month I wrote an insight into the preview build (which some of this article will draw upon), but over the last couple days I sat down and completed the game in its entirety. And then I double-dipped and played through the entire game again on Nintendo Switch!

So what mysteries await behind Death’s Door?
Let me open the door a crack and dive into this full review…

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals

Story

It’s no surprise that office work is often monotonous, and that’s no exception for the Crow, who lives life by the clock, punching in on a daily basis and delivering the harvested souls of the deceased. Every day is much the same in the bleak and monochrome Department of Souls, where a murder of crows work tirelessly to harvest and transport the deceased souls of the world. This odd office operates under the power of a mysterious being known only as the Lord of Doors, the latest in a lineage of powerful lords who have harnessed the ability to create interdimensional doors and transport the souls of the dead.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals Lord of Doors
The Lord of Doors and his luscious lock. No, not his hair.

But a bird has to make a living, and so he sets off on his usual daily task to collect the next assigned soul on the roster. However, this routine task doesn’t quite go according to plan… Upon collecting the next assigned soul, the Crow is ambushed and the soul that required delivery is nowhere to be found. Returning to the office empty-handed (winged?), it’s made apparent that the Crow’s own soul may be in danger unless actions are taken to recover the lost soul. Venturing back into the bleak landscape to seek a solution, he just so happens to stumble upon…

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals
Bit of WD-40 should get it open.

Though inconveniently, the door is locked, and the key to opening it and retrieving the lost soul lies in the three Colossal Souls belonging to the Tyrants of the kingdom: a cursed witch, a mad king, and a vicious beast. Only by opening Death’s Door may the Crow retrieve his lost soul and solve the mystery that lies beyond. So the Crow’s journey begins…

Gameplay

The game takes place across a sprawling Kingdom that is accessed through doors departing the office-like hub world. By entering these doors, the Crow enters new locations full of souls ripe for the harvest. In design akin to Dark Souls, maps are vast and intertwined in clever ways, with shortcuts aplenty, clever use of vertical space, and secret locations that seamlessly link back to one another. The interconnectedness of each map is thrilling, and on numerous occasions left me wondering how exactly I ended up back where I began. Each of the 5 main areas is further divided into several smaller distinct locales and dungeons; each are fascinating and worth exploring every single corner.

Environmental puzzles will hinder the Crow’s progress throughout these areas, and while most are simple, they are rewarding and offer more of a challenge when simultaneously trying to fend off hordes of enemies. Secrets also litter every location, which are cleverly hidden in plain sight. For example, navigating around a corner will consequently turn the entire world around you, and reveal objects that previously could not be seen. Exploration truly rewards curiosity, and observant players will have the chance to obtain unique collectibles, new weapons, and upgrades to help the Crow along the journey.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals Secret Gif

After exploring each main area, the map eventually branches off into smaller, more intricate locations that have the feeling of a “dungeon” reminiscent of earlier Zelda titles. Three main dungeons feature throughout the game, each themed around the overarching tyrants. The gameplay here is quite traditional: collect several keys, solve small puzzles in each room, fight challenging enemies, and collect the souls of four deceased crows to unlock a door and progress further. After unlocking these doors, the Crow will gain a unique ability, allowing access to deeper areas of the dungeon and then to the boss that awaits menacingly at the end. I couldn’t help but be reminded of A Link to the Past or Minish Cap in this design, which is truly a compliment to the gameplay, making the game feel incredibly at home on Nintendo Switch.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals Soul
I guess you could say he was the soul survivor here.

Once a new ability has been obtained, previous areas of the world will become accessible, which is a clever way to promote backtracking and replayability without making it seem tedious or forced upon the player. Exploration too is key! By returning and further exploring a location, the Crow may become more powerful, particularly through collecting bundles of souls or health/magic expansions that are hidden in bird-shaped shrines.

Combat

Harvesting souls is not without its dangers, and as such the Crow is equipped with weaponry to help on this treacherous quest. Five melee weapons in total can be unlocked, from swift daggers that suit those who prefer fast combat, to towering greatswords that swing slowly but with considerable range. Several subweapons too can be unlocked, starting with a bow and progressing towards more powerful options – these can eventually be enhanced to further devastate unsuspecting enemies.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals Bow
Woah, it’s a crow with a bow!

Once accustomed to the combat, attacks can be chained together in swift movements, and when coupled with ranged attacks and well-timed dodges, become a fluid barrage that at times made me feel as if I was playing Hades again. Enemies are plentiful and pose quite a threat, especially when waves upon waves of foes begin spawning in enclosed spaces. Restoring health during combat is not an option either, as the only way to do so is by planting seeds at particular pots and then consuming the flower that sprouts from them. This means you’re going to need to learn how to dodge; every enemy encounter must be done with caution to avoid losing health unnecessarily.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals Flower
Consume the bloom.

While there’s no level system, the Crow may spend souls to upgrade the strength of attacks, the speed at which they can be performed, or other stat boosts that assist the Crow during combat. This is most pertinent when facing off against the formidable bosses that stand between the Crow and Death’s Door. These boss fights are challenging, fast-paced, and will likely result in numerous retries and deaths. However, this is when the combat truly shines! All the techniques previously learned can be added together in these encounters to exploit each enemy’s weakness. The satisfaction of collecting a Colossal Soul after an intense fight is unmatched.

Visuals

Interestingly, the game’s design and visual style seem somehow both charming and unnerving. The isometric view and intricate details create an illusion that allow the environments to appear like miniatures or scale models. The design and animations of the Crow are cute and cartoonish, often juxtaposing with the bleak surroundings. Enemies feature exaggerated grotesque appearances, and the design of some characters are just straight up hilarious, including a cast of characters whose heads have been replaced with pots, or a “human chef” who is basically just a corpse controlled by giant squid on his back.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals Frog King
Even the bosses are pretty quirky, like the Frog King here.

It’s a truly gorgeous game; eye-catching environments like detailed dioramas definitely had me pausing to appreciate the Crow’s surroundings on numerous occasions. Every single location has a clever use of vertical space and uses this to its advantage with an emphasis on depth-of-field. There’s a lot of attention to detail, and at times this is even incorporated into some puzzles, which will require you to closely analyse for hidden clues.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals
“If only I could fly…”

Thankfully the Nintendo Switch version does not compromise on the game’s brilliant visuals, and still looks and performs nearly as well as its PC counterpart. The game ran flawlessly both in docked and handheld mode, and is a great option for those wanting to take this game on the go.

Audio

I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack. So how does Death’s Door hold up? Well, the world of Death’s Door is bleak, so too should be its music. Most of the early tracks have a certain sadness to them, with the majority featuring piano with light orchestration and ambient background effects. This obviously intensifies during enemy encounters or boss fights, becoming more frantic and fast-paced, but never seems to stray from an overall feeling of melancholy. Here’s a snippet of the music from the Ceramic Manor, the first main dungeon of the game:

Music gains more depth with progression through the game, featuring more detailed tracks, orchestration, and on occasion even some jaunty tunes. Overall, the soundtrack is exceptional from what caressed my eardrums during the journey. I’m very much looking forward to the official release! Here’s an example of my favourite track from the game, which is quietly contemplative through its use of soft flute and cello:

My favourite track, which plays in an isolated encampment.

What else?

What surprised me most about Death’s Door is its inclusion of comedy throughout the journey. For a topic as dark and macabre as death and reaping souls, there’s an impressive amount of legitimately amusing humour. This is portrayed through its cast of colourful characters, most of whom are incredibly quirky and feature hilariously well-written dialogue. Arguably my favourite moments from the game are cameos from the bosses, who pop up during the dungeons to monitor the Crow’s progress and crack some witty one-liners. Here are a few examples of the game’s wonderful humour:

Outside of the main linear story, there are a few additional aspects of the game to keep completionists satisfied. Small trinkets can be collected and require the player to navigate obscure areas, solve optional puzzles, or complete combat trials to obtain these. Amusingly, the trinkets accumulate at the Crow’s desk back in the office and these begin to pile up excessively to the point of becoming clutter. Though they serve no other significant purpose than a neat visual touch, many of the tasks required to collect them are reward enough, as they offer an added element of challenge to the rest of the game.

Death's Door Review PC Steam Xbox Devolver Digital Visuals Collectibles
Everyone knows crows love collecting things.

There is also some post-game content which I won’t go into any detail on, but can be accessed once the main story has been completed fully. This is a nice touch for those wanting more from Death’s Door, especially as many more locations can be explored completely with all items/abilities unlocked.

Conclusion

Few games can achieve world-building and gripping gameplay in an 8 – 10 hour experience quite like Death’s Door. Through its unique story and characters, stunning presentation, clever exploration and thrilling intuitive combat, this is yet another superb indie game to add to Devolver’s arsenal. The sheer quality of game produced by a small team like Acid Nerve is incredibly impressive and has me eager to see what they will create in the future. Fans of action/adventure RPGs would be foolish to pass by Death’s Door, which is quite honestly one of the most polished games I’ve played so far this year. It’s a game to die for.

So, why should you play it?

  • Entrancing world and story with an amusing cast of characters.
  • Fluid, responsive and enjoyable combat that never feels unfair.
  • Gorgeous visual style, particularly the design of environments.
  • Clever interlinking maps and dungeons.
  • Backtracking and exploration never feels forced.
  • Switch version both looks and plays great in handheld.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Can be challenging at times, so may not suit all players.
  • Only available on PC and Xbox. Sorry Nintendo and Sony fans! Out now on PS4/PS5 and Nintendo Switch, so everyone can try it out!

A review code on PC and Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.

ozgameshop FOR THE GAMERS

Bright Memory: Infinite Review (PC)

A shooter that isn’t a blight on the industry.

Over a year ago, I played a little shooter called Bright Memory 1.0. The game blew my tiny mind with its engaging mechanics and slick presentation. This was made more impressive by the fact it was coded primarily by a single bloke. But with the end credits rolling in less than 30 minutes, it felt like an appetiser for the main course.

Thankfully, the complete Bright Memory experience has finally arrived. Let’s give it a spin and find out if the game lives up to the hype.

Plot

The storyline of Bright Memory Infinite is built upon a clean slate and has no connection to the original 1.0 release. But you still take control of Shelia, a member of the Science Research Organisation that is called into investigate a mysterious black hole looming over the skies of China. The story is paper thin at best with non-existent character development and zero tension to keep players invested in the narrative. This is compounded by the lacklustre voice acting and mediocre script. But thankfully, the story beats are kept to a minimum and fulfils their purpose of setting up the next encounter.

Bright Memory Infinite PC Review Graphics Visuals Chinese
Looks like Shelia has her work cut out for her.

Gameplay

The real meat and potatoes of Bright Memory can be found in its gameplay. Like its predecessor, Infinite plays like a mixture of Bulletstorm and Shadow Warrior with a pinch of Devil May Cry added for good measure. The gun selection is once again on the meagre side, but your firearms now come equipped with a secondary fire to spice things up. For example, you get a pistol that behaves more like a submachine gun and can also fire incendiary grenades. The assault rifle is useful for mid-range foes with optional tracking bullets that gravitate to the nearest enemy. The shotgun is best reserved for close encounters and can also discharges shrapnel bombs that burn enemies to a crisp. While the newly added Sniper rifle is ideal for taking out long range targets with sticky grenades acting as its secondary attack.

Bright Memory Infinite PC Review Graphics Visuals Chinese Assault Rifle
Don’t bring a knife to an assault rifle fight.

In addition to these firearms, players can also engage in melee combat using Shelia’s sword. With some practice, the sword can even deflect projectiles and parry some melee attacks. The final gadget in your arsenal is Shelia’s exo arm that can manipulate foes using EMS. In addition to this, the exo arm can deliver a powerful blow that could give the Falcon Punch a run for its money, as the rocket punch not only dishes out a tonne of damage but also knocks down enemies like they were wheelie bins.

Bright Memory Infinite PC Review Graphics Visuals Chinese Gif Combat Skills

Bright Memory does a good job of encouraging players to master all these mechanics as finding creative ways of mixing your skillset is not only satisfying but is crucial for claiming victory. Especially when the game deploys a mixture of armed soldiers and supernatural beings. If you don’t want to meet your waterloo, I suggest you learn how to adjust your play style for each enemy.

The game never slows down as the whole campaign is a roller coaster ride filled with constant action that is the highest of all octanes. But this is literally overshadowed by the giant bosses that are huge in stature and could easily squash you like the common fly. That’s why I’d recommend exploring the environments and finding relics to upgrade your skills.

Bright Memory Infinite PC Review Graphics Visuals Chinese Pilot Driving
Even the fanciest of vehicles still don’t come with windscreen wipers.

To mix things up, Bright Memory includes a stealth mission and a driving sequence. But to be honest, these sections are the low points of the game with their undercooked mechanics. Thankfully, they only last for a few minutes and fulfil the order of adding some variety to the campaign. There’s also a random sequence where you gun down a bunch of feral pigs for no plot related reason. Perhaps the developer is still harbouring a grudge against the pig cops in Duke Nukem 3D.

Graphics

While I don’t advocate putting visuals above gameplay, there’s no escaping the fact that Bright Memory is a beautiful game. I lost count of how many times that I pause simply to admire the game’s scenery. The developer has done an incredible job of producing highly detailed visuals complete with superb art direction that draws inspiration from Chinese folklore. This is complimented by the fact that entire game takes place during a heavy rainstorm. Resulting in this amazing atmosphere that includes rain-soaked environments with individual foliage being blown by the wind.

Bright Memory Infinite PC Review Graphics Visuals Chinese Bamboo Relaxing
It’s important to take time to admire your surroundings.

After my graphics rant, it should come as no surprise that Bright Memory is a demanding game and requires a powerful rig to enjoy it with all the special effects. RTX owners will no doubt have the best experience as Bright Memory supports both raytracing and DLSS. I personally played the game on my RTX 3070 with high settings at 4K and had no trouble running the game at 60fps. Although I had to rely on DLSS to maintain these high metrics. Thankfully the game makes use of DLSS 2.2, resulting in fewer ghosting artifacts when compared to previous iterations of the technology. Unsurprisingly, performance takes a hit when you enable ray tracing with the pay-off being the additional visual flair that comes with the effect. I will be curious to see how this game runs on the Xbox Series X, especially with the developers trying to implement ray tracing using DXR.

Bright Memory Infinite PC Review Graphics Visuals Chinese Gorgeous Environment
If only real life looked this good.

Extras

Completing the entire campaign will only take around 2 hours. This might seem short when compared to your typical Call of Duty campaign that lasts for 5 or 6 hours. But keep in mind that Bright Memory is a $20USD game that was coded primarily by a single person and as stated earlier, the game moves at a brisk pace. The replay value comes in the form of the additional difficulty modes to test the might of those feeling brave enough. If you beat the game on Revenge mode, you’ll gain access to Hell mode. No prizes for guessing that Hell mode is insanely difficult and doesn’t hold back any punches. Completing the game on each difficulty unlocks new digs for Shelia, while reaching specific kill counts will get you a couple of new skins for your arsenal. However, half of these costumes and weapon skins are locked behind a paywall. I find this to be an anti-consumer move that sours the relationship with fans who picked up the original 1.0 release.

Conclusion

While the mediocre storytelling and short length might put a damper on the experience. There’s no denying that Bright Memory Infinite serves up a tightly paced campaign that successfully combines satisfying fire fights with engaging melee combat. It’s also one of the most visually striking games to ever grace the PC with its incredible art direction and a huge array of special effects. I really enjoyed my time playing this one and I can’t wait to see what the developer does with their next project.

So, why should you play it?

– Fast paced action that successfully blends gunplay and melee combat.
– A huge array of mechanics and weapons that rewards mastery of its skillset.
– Looking for a game with impressive visuals that will melt your PC in a pinch.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

– If you want a good story with Oscar-like performances.
– Don’t like short games that only last a few hours.
– Still rocking a potato computer with a first generation Pentium CPU and 3DFX Voodoo card.

A press copy of Bright Memory Infinite on PC was provided by the publisher.

This review is courtesy of guest reviewer, WindyCornerTV. You can find his video of this via his YouTube channel shortly.

Unpacking Review (PC/Steam)

The game that proves unpacking can be a moving experience.

There’s no doubt that at some point in our lives we all have to move house. Although this is often an effort-filled and arduous task, it can represent key turning points and progression throughout life. Sometimes moving can be a regretful or stressful experience, and other times it can be exciting and full of potential. Whether it’s moving into a new home, moving out of home and into college, or finally settling down into a home of your own, this is always a momentous occasion. But with moving comes packing – needing to condense your entire life into the contents of a few boxes. It’s quite surreal really that all our worldly possessions are often brought along with us, or left behind in storage, forever suspended in time until the box is once again opened.

unpacked review real life unpacking game room
The last time I unpacked – setting up my very first games room!

Unpacking, on the other hand, is a completely different experience. Taking those few boxes and recreating your life in a brand new location, making it yours and turning an otherwise lifeless house into a colourful environment full of personality. This charming thrill is exactly what to expect in Unpacking, a short and thoughtful videogame about an activity that is undeniably human. Crafted by Witch Beam, a small Australian indie team based in my hometown of Brisbane, and published by Humble Games, Unpacking offers zen gameplay, a charming pixel art aesthetic, and a deeply fascinating depiction of emotion. It’s time to unpack this truly beautiful indie videogame in our review.

unpacking review title banner

Gameplay

So what’s there to do in Unpacking? Unpack. Simple as that. Each level tasks the player with taking a series of boxes and emptying their contents, positioning them one-by-one in appropriate places around each room. These tasks start out simple, with the player needing to unpack only an individual room, and slowly progress into larger areas spanning an entire household. This is simple and flawless gameplay at its finest, one that developer self-describes as “zen block-fitting puzzle”. But it’s so much more than that.

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Note to self: keyboard does not go on the kitchen sink.

The key gameplay concept of Unpacking is one that is innately human: moving house. Each room is initially bare, devoid of any sort of homeliness. Piece by piece, the player removes an item at a time from each box and can position them in any spot around each room. Although it might be entertaining to put a stuffed toy on the toilet (toylet?) or hide a Gameboy under your pillow, every item has its appropriate place to call home. During the level you’ll be given the freedom to place items wherever you wish, but upon unpacking all the items the player may be prompted that some don’t quite align with the room’s aesthetic. So you’d better put that toilet roll where it belongs, and make sure to move all those dirty cups out of your bedroom while you’re at it.

unpacking toilet roll pixel art gif
You can even choose which way the toilet roll goes. Game of the year.

Zen is exactly the perfect descriptor for this style of gameplay. There is no time limit, no pressure, and really very little element of stress or challenge. Players may proceed at their own pace, taking time to appreciate their surroundings, slotting each new item into their new home. This slow-paced gameplay becomes especially important when admiring the game’s stunning visuals, which hold an impressive amount of detail and are full of clever references and nods to pop culture.

Story

Taking a back seat in Unpacking, much of the story is left up to the interpretation of the player. Cleverly presented across a series of levels, the player experiences a lifetime of unpacking from childhood bedrooms through to independent adulthood. Each stage begins with the year in which it is occurs, setting the scene for the gameplay that follows. Once completed, a photograph of the completed room is taken and lovingly stuck into to a photo album with a short comment explaining the situation.

unpacking photo album pixel art story emotion
This photo album will soon be filled with fond memories.

Although the presentation of Unpacking’s story is done in such a minimalist style, Witch Beam manage to expertly convey a convincing sense of raw human emotion. I can’t go into significant detail in discussing the story that unfolds, but there are moments where this game will make you feel deep sadness, conflicting regret, and an overwhelming sense of joy. There are many elements of the game that I’m sure that players will be able to relate to their own experiences of moving house, as there are many themes that resonate with what it means to be human.

Visuals

Realism and pixel art harmoniously unite in Unpacking, which offers a detailed and vibrant pixel art aesthetic that is among some of the best to date. Don’t expect the blocky 8-bit or 16-bit pixel art that many other indie games lean towards; this is pixel art that imitates real life. From the designs of houses and rooms all the way down to its smallest contents, the visuals of Unpacking are not only highly-detailed and realistic, but carry an underlying charm to every item that is delicately moved out of its box.

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It’s cluttered and messy, but it’s your new home.

If you consider yourself a geek, the art in Unpacking will appeal to you on so many levels. Rooms are crammed with electronics, Monster Manuals, lovingly-crafted miniatures, and even half-finished cosplay outfits that adorn mannequins. Throughout every minute of gameplay I found myself needing to stop and admire the intricate details, like deliberately-crafted videogame consoles, game and DVD cases that perfectly capture real-life cover art, adorable sets of plush toys, and even the beauty of the simplest day-to-day items like toiletries and stationary. Items may even change as they are brought along to several locations, becoming worn or weathered over time like an old mouse pad or a treasured stuffed toy.

In case you still need convincing, here’s a collection of some of the lovely pixel art you can encounter:

Audio


Pixel art calls for chiptunes, but just like Unpacking’s incorporation of realism in its visuals, so too does it add real life to its music through the use of many instruments. The core foundation of the soundtrack is a chill synth with chiptunes to carry the melody, harmoniously interwoven with a mix of acoustic guitar, funky bass, and even some solemn piano for the game’s more poignant moments. Here’s an example of a couple great tunes from Canadian-Australian composer, Jeff Van Dyck, that set the mood for the rest of the game:

The game’s title track, which blends retro synth with chill acoustic guitar.
Moving can be exciting and inspiring, reflected in the tone of many of the game’s tracks.

But it’s not just the music of Unpacking that will delight your eardrums, there are minute details throughout to impress any audiophile. For example, picking up and placing every single item in the game is accompanied by a unique sound effect depending on the object and surface on which it is placed. There’s a great degree of detail to the sound design – even to the point of hearing game discs rattle in their case when placed on a shelf, or the satisfying thud of a book laid face down. Environmental cues too remind you clearly that the game is taking place in subtropical Australia, with background chattering of Rainbow Lorrikeets and whistling of Honey Eaters while leaves calmly rustle in the wind. So satisfying.

Extras

Outside of the main game, which will take approximately 4 hours to complete, the game has some extra content to keep players coming back for more. Each level has some hidden secrets when placing an item in a peculiar or perfect spot – doing so will reward the player with a sticker and an achievement. These stickers can be used in the game’s photo mode, where the player is given access to all sorts of filters and adjustments to showcase that game’s beautiful art. I spent quite a bit of time in the photo mode, which can produce some pictures that are truly wallpaper-worthy.

unpacking pixel art pc review gameplay sticker adorable chicken plushies
The photo mode can create some very amusing scenes.

Conclusion

There are few games I’ve played that I can say are truly beautiful, heart-warming and touching, but Unpacking is all that and so much more. Such a simple gameplay concept not only manages in itself to be incredibly entertaining and strangely satisfying, but when combined with detailed pixel art and themes of human emotion, manages to become almost poetic. Even the simplest moments of the game have the ability overwhelm the player with joy and happiness. This gameplay is one that could have great impact – I’d personally love to see it applied to different situations, like those less fortunate who have been driven out of home for reasons beyond their control.

Witch Beam have created a game unlike any other I’ve played, and if you are a human with a heart, I implore you to experience it as well. Unpacking truly is a moving game in every sense of the word.

So, why should you play it?

  • Simple, elegant, and satisfying gameplay.
  • Stunning and detailed pixel art.
  • Plenty of clever pop-culture references.
  • Deeply emotional story despite minimal dialogue.
  • Impressive attention-to-detail through audio design.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Players looking for a lengthy experience may be dissatisfied.
  • You’ve only ever lived in one place and have never had to unpack.

A review code on PC was provided courtesy of the publisher.

ozgameshop FOR THE GAMERS

FATAL FRAME / PROJECT ZERO: Maiden of Black Water Review (PlayStation 5)

Frame your enemies and face your nightmares in this horrific first-person shooter.

When discussing horror videogames, there are a few key franchises that seem to dominate the market. Series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are key players in the genre, with other titles like Dead Space, Amnesia, and Outlast more recently achieving critical acclaim. However, there is one particular series of horror games that I’ve seen mentioned repeatedly amongst fans of the genre, to almost universal praise: Project Zero. Also called Fatal Frame in many regions, the series focuses on traditional Japanese horror and an unconventional first-person shooter style gameplay, utilising a mysterious spiritual camera known as the Camera Obscura.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Series Main Characters
Key art from each of the previous Project Zero / Fatal Frame entries.

Now spanning over two decades, this cult classic series has released on numerous consoles including PlayStation 2, Wii, 3DS (as a spin-off), and mostly recently Wii U with the latest entry, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water. Considered the 5th game in the main series, Maiden of Black Water originally released in 2015 exclusively for the Wii U, and cleverly utilised the console’s Game Pad as a viewfinder for the Camera Obscura. Now over 7 years since its initial release, the game once again rises from the dead in a remaster for PC, Xbox One/Series, PlayStation 4/5 and Nintendo Switch. So does Maiden of Black Water manage to expertly capture the true essence of horror, or does the game lose focus and end up as a Project Zero/10? Read on and find out.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Review PlayStation 5 PS5 Protagonists

Story

“Water purifies all – we are born from water, and to the water we return. The water connects us all.”

Ancient texts tell of a mountain shrouded in mystery, a hallowed bridge between our world and the afterlife, a location both feared and revered by those who may glance upon it: Mt. Hikami. Although it may appear picturesque, this mountain is no place for leisurely hiking; most who set foot on Hikami-yama will never return, driven to madness and eventually committing suicide in horrific and gruesome ways. It is said that even watching the sun set over beautiful Mt. Hikami is said to be an omen that will foretell one’s imminent death.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Review PlayStation 5 PS5 Mt Hikami
Doesn’t it look welcoming?

Though being a spiritual place, Mt. Hikami was once home to a group of sacred Shrine Maidens, guardians of the mountain purified in water, who protect the lost and guide wayward spirits. But that all changed when Hikami was flooded by the Black Water, a liquid essence of Netherworld beginning to seep into our own. The sacred maidens have since disappeared, now replaced by Reliquaries – ornately-decorated caskets that are scattered across the mountain, beckoning new souls to become trapped and suffer within for eternity.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Review PlayStation 5 PS5 Reliquary
One of the ornate Reliquaries filled with Black Water.

Tasked with unravelling the mysteries surrounding the mountain, our story follows three brave (or foolish) protagonists, each of whom have a deep connection to not only the mountain, but also to the spiritual world. Yuri Kozukata, a young girl who can see into the spiritual world and retrieve the souls of the lost, Ren Hojo, an esteemed author whose curiosity for the mountain leads to his descent into madness, and Miu Hinasaki, whose mother Miku (a previous Project Zero/Fatal Frame protagonist) is believed to have committed suicide on the mountain. Equipped with the Camera Obscura, these three face innumerable terrors in order to piece together the corruption now spreading across Mt. Hikami, and the cursed Maiden of Black Water who haunts them.

Gameplay

Despite a complete lack of weapons – not even a single gun – Maiden of Black Water is in essence a first-person shooter, albeit one of the most unconventional you’ll ever play. Where most other games would have the player defend themselves with an entire armoury, sometimes a flashlight, or occasionally even a vacuum cleaner, Project Zero instead opts for a mythical Camera that can damage spectral enemies, essentially exorcising them through means of photography.

With the Camera Obscura as the player’s only defence, each of the three characters must progressively ascend Mt. Hikami, which is divided into numerous different locales, each with a distinct Japanese flair. In an over-the-shoulder style similar to the likes of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, each location is littered with secrets, simple puzzles, and of course enemies that attempt to scare the player at every opportunity. Through use of the Camera Obscura, objects hidden in plain sight must be captured in each area in order to progress toward a specified location, often revealing Psychic Photographs that task the player with photographing particular locations.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Review PlayStation 5 PS5 Walking Visuals Gif
Hesitantly exploring Mt. Hikami is dark and atmospheric.

While this might seem like a leisurely mountain stroll, enjoying some photography along the way, the spirits of the dead will make this visit to Mt. Hikami all the more thrilling. Every location is littered with those who have died on the mountain – horrific, incorporeal beings that can only be damaged with the Camera Obscura. By using the camera’s viewfinder, the player must take precisely positioned photographs to overcome these apparitions. Using the PlayStation 5 controller’s buttons or motion controls, the camera’s frame can be adjusted around each target to maximise potential damage. Each enemy has several hit markers and positioning 5 or more in a single frame will unleash a devastating attack. The key to survival though rests in a Fatal Frame, a method by which a shot is taken with perfect timing as an enemy attacks, stunning them and unleashing a deadly ghost paparazzi barrage.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Review PlayStation 5 PS5 Camera Obscura Combat Gif
Make sure to get my bad angles.” – Evil Spirit

Using the Camera as a weapon is surprisingly creative, as it offers gameplay that sets itself apart from standard FPS horror games. Where most other games emphasise weapon upgrades, Project Zero instead focuses on upgrading the camera itself, equipping it with different film types to vary damage, or unique lenses that provide extra abilities like life-absorption or rapid fire. I’ve never been particularly adept at shooting games and find them quite challenging, but the camera combat of Project Zero was simple to learn and satisfying to master; a real breath of fresh air from so many other stale shooting games.

Visuals

When playing Maiden of Black Water, there are many times when you’ll certainly be reminded of the game’s age. This is a remaster (not a remake) of a game now 7 years old, and the visuals certainly reflect that. While it may have looked excellent back in 2014, we have since been spoiled by photorealistic graphics like those in Resident Evil Village, which put the graphics in this horror game to shame. But while Project Zero: Maiden of Black might lack the incredible detail of modern games, it almost entirely makes up for this through its brilliant artistic design.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Review PlayStation 5 PS5 Horror Visuals Ghost Marriage
Maiden of Black Water proves that getting married really can be horrific.

The entire series takes visual inspiration from staples of Japanese horror, often featuring female protagonists, a focus on the psychological and spiritual, and incorporates elements of Shinto religion. There are many elements of realism that can be found in Maiden of Black Water, despite its clearly fictional nature. Environments convey a legitimate sense of Japanese culture, as each location draws inspiration from real-life Shinto shrines, grave yards, and sacred locations, all of which carry an authentic tradition that is reflected in the game’s art. Here are some excellent examples of the game’s beautiful yet macabre design:

Enemy design too is a crucial component of a chilling horror games, and Maiden of Black Water is a prime example of this. Many of the spirits are horrifying, decaying and decapitated, lurking in the player’s peripherals or appearing suddenly at unexpected moments. In contrast, the game’s most terrifying enemies are particularly beautiful, with gorgeous shrine maidens and brides used as a key component of the game, only to deceive the player when their faces distort and melt. This is most noticeable during the game’s flashbacks, which are represented as stylised video footage that can be viewed upon defeating spirits.

Audio

Even the most terrifying horror game would feel incomplete without convincing sound design. Thankfully, Maiden of Black Water is still just as impressive in this respect, with subtle audio that expertly matches its setting. Don’t expect over-the-top terror or a memorable soundtrack – this is a horror game where its minimalist audio proves that less can be more.

Each location is accompanied by an unsettling ambience, whether this is the creaking of an old shrine, the rustling of a haunted forest, or the wails and groans of distant spirits. When played with a pair of headphones, Maiden of Black Water will satisfy the ears of even seasoned horror enthusiasts. Here’s a short snippet of some ambient audio from the game:

Players will also be pleased to know that the game features dual-track audio, meaning voiceovers can be swapped between English and Japanese at any time. For a more authentic experience I’d suggest playing with Japanese voiceovers, though for those of you who aren’t fond of reading subtitles, as least there’s the option to play in English as well. It’s always welcome to have these sort of options for preference or accessibility reasons.

Extras

For a linear, episodic horror game, there’s a surprising amount of extra content in Maiden of Black Water. The main story spans approximately 15 – 20 hours depending on the player’s aptitude, and this can be played on one of three difficulties, with players being awarded a rank at the end of each episode. Accumulating spirit points during each episode can be spent on camera upgrades, unlockable items, and additional costumes for the three main characters. There’s also an entirely new post-game story available once the main game is finished, where the player takes on the role of a character from a completely different series, and removes the Camera Obscura completely, requiring stealth to avoid confrontation instead.

If snapping pictures of spirits isn’t enough camera action for you, there’s also a “photo mode” included that can be activated at any time. This allows the player to frame each setting however they wish, changing various settings and positioning character and enemies in each scene. It’s simple to use, and can create some interesting shots with minimal effort, like the one below.

Project Zero Fatal Frame Review PlayStation 5 PS5 Photo Mode
Spirits in Project Zero are always willing to reach out and lend a hand.

Lastly, if you’re a big fan of the series, you might want to splurge and purchase the Digital Deluxe edition of the game, which is clearly aimed towards Project Zero/Fatal Frame fanatics. This DLC comes in the form of additional costumes based on previous protagonists, and a comprehensive digital artbook. The artbook is quite impressive, with concept art and entire soundtracks from each of the previous games to be explored. Disappointingly, it completely dismisses the existence of the fourth game in the series, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, which has sadly never been localised.

Conclusion

As my first foray into the Fatal Frame/Project Zero series, Maiden of Black Water left me feeling both scared and impressed, an unusual combination. With a unique blend of creative combat and traditional Japanese influence, it’s now clear why the series has gained such a dedicated cult following and a reputation for being one of the best in the horror genre. While the Maiden of Black Water may be showing her age in some respects, this is still a title that’s bound to satisfy those who enjoy playing games on the edge of their seat. Above all else, this is a disturbing game that will leave you wanting more, and like the Maiden herself, will beckon its players to explore the rest of the series.

So, why should you play it?

  • Creative and satisfying camera-based combat.
  • Disturbing setting and horror atmosphere.
  • Beautiful yet macabre art direction.
  • Fond of Japanese culture? You’re certain to enjoy this.
  • Great introduction to a cult classic horror series.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Unnecessarily repetitive gameplay and some tedious backtracking.
  • Visuals are slightly outdated, reminding you of the game’s age.
  • Characters display the emotional depth of a cardboard cut-out, even in the face of death.

A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

ozgameshop FOR THE GAMERS

SkateBird Review (Nintendo Switch)

The skateboarding game that’s all Hawk, no Tony.

If I asked you to imagine a game where you play as a bird, chances are you’re probably going to imagine gracefully soaring through the sky. These games give the chance for the player to view the world from another perspective – gazing down upon the land below, feathers ruffling in the wind, soaring at high-speed. I’m of course talking about games like Eagle Flight or even The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword with its iconic Loftwings. Or maybe you think of more inventive avian experiences, like Angry Birds or Untitled Goose Game, both of which took the world by storm.

So when I ask you to name a skateboarding game, is the first game on your mind Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater? The series that truly defined skateboarding games and shot to fame on the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. THPS defined an entire generation of gamers through its smooth controls, addictive combos, and of course a kick-ass punk rock and alternative licensed soundtrack. With the recent remake of the first two classic games, and fans once again shredding up the skate park, it feels like we’re currently living in some sort of skateboarding renaissance.

Skatebird nintendo Switch Xbox PC Playstation bird birb tony hawk
The undisputed king of all skateboarding games.

But what about combining the two? Surely the flight and freedom of playing as a bird mashed together with the gnarly gameplay of a classic skateboarding game would be a winning combo. Well, SkateBird is here to make those dreams a reality. Adding a cute avian aesthetic and taking clear inspiration from pop culture and the skateboarding games that precede it, is SkateBird a game even a hawk named Tony would dig? Hop on your board and find out.

Story

Life as a human can be boring – an arduous routine of work, chores, and sleep that constantly repeats. But with the help of the SkateBird, along with a team of persistent parrots, they band together to help their “Big Friend” (hoomin) break this monotonous cycle! Over the course of the game you’ll be tasked with numerous missions with the goal of helping your human friend – whether its organising their messy room, or even rescuing them from their work prison. The SkateBird and team of pop culture-inspired birds will shred, grind, and pull off sick tricks to help their hoomin at all costs.

Skatebird nintendo Switch Xbox PC Playstation bird birb graphics story
Is this what my bird gets up to when I’m not at home?

Overall, the story is incredibly light-hearted and silly, matching the tone of the game. Dialogue and exchanges between the birds is packed with ridiculous banter and references to other videogame series, which is a clear attempt at fanservice. After all, it’s a game about skateboarding birds, so try not to take it too seriously.

Gameplay

Any self-respecting skateboarding game really needs to have polished gameplay and tight controls at its very core. This is the foundation of every skating game, and without this to build upon, the rest of the game falls apart. Sadly SkateBird is one of the poorest examples of a skating game I’ve ever encountered, and this is no exaggeration.

From the get-go, players will immediately notice how touchy and poorly-responsive the game’s controls are. Having been spoiled by THPS, I’ve come to expect games in this genre to feel intuitive, fast-paced and satisfying. SkateBird is the complete opposite. Skating gameplay feels slow, clunky, and punishes the player at every opportunity. Controls, while mimicking other skating games, feel unrefined and incredibly touchy, making fine movements and even simple tricks quite difficult. To add to the frustration, the bird is incredibly fragile and any slight collision with an object, wall, or ramp will send the feathery ball rolling and tweeting off the skateboard.

Skatebird nintendo Switch Xbox PC Playstation bird birb skateboarding gameplay gif
Faceplant while wearing a face plant.

The game consists of several levels, each of which are filled with missions and unlockables akin to other skating games. These are generally satisfying and simple enough to complete, but the added challenge of battling with the game’s controls and camera at the same time adds an element of unfair randomness and difficulty. Many of these missions require the player to make use of an “aerial ollie”, where pressing B in mid-air will cause the bird to flap and give some extra air-time. It’s a clever gameplay concept that adds more flexibility in exploring vertical space on the map, but again is touchy and tricky to get the hang of.

Visuals

Where SkateBird does redeem itself is in its character creator of all things. Players can build their bird from scratch, right down to the species of bird to play as. There are a heap of options even from the very beginning, with an almost limitless number of combinations. Bird lovers are almost certain to get a kick out of this part of the game, which is equally charming and hilarious. Many of the options for accessories and clothing have drawn inspiration directly from the online “birb” community, such as adorable hats made from tiny bells and leaves. These visual elements add significant charm to the game, and without them would just feel like a generic low-budget skating game.

Skatebird nintendo Switch Xbox PC Playstation bird birb character creator gif
There are a heap of options to customise your birb to your liking.

The rest of the game sadly isn’t quite as charming as its birds. Each environment has a particular aesthetic, such as a cluttered bedroom full of stationery, or the peak of a towering skyscraper surrounded by clouds. Most of the game’s visuals look as if they would suit the PlayStation 2 or GameCube era, and despite this there are still many points where the framerate tanks and becomes unstable, even further breaking up the frustrating attempt at skating.

Skatebird nintendo Switch Xbox PC Playstation bird birb pop culture thrasher
Some of the environments feature amusing bird-themed parodies.

Audio

Taking additional inspiration from Pro Skater, the soundtrack to SkateBird not only features original songs composed for the game, but also several albums worth of licensed music (albeit from musicians you’ve probably never heard before). The OST features mostly chill low-fi beats strangely occasionally adding voiceovers from bird documentaries/interviews – an odd combination, but works surprisingly well and definitely fits with the overall theme. I’d definitely recommend giving these tracks a listen, as they’re quite relaxing and make for decent ambient background music.

This funky track combines low-fi beats and bass with a bird documentary voiceover.

On the other wing, the licensed music is primarily punk rock, ska and funk, many of which feel very out of place. Playing a videogame about an adorable skateboarding bird while listening to rebellious punk with lyrics referencing shitty jobs or getting stoned in a basement is the most glaring juxtaposition and seems like the strangest choice of music.

This track by punk/rock band “Illicit Nature” feels so out of place.

Extras

Outside of the main missions and completing each of the levels, there are also a considerable number of hidden unlockables to collect. Each level features hidden clothing and accessories to dress up your bird, tapes that unlock additional music tracks (if you dare), and challenges to complete for players that are persistent enough. I found completing even the main missions to be a tedious task, so it’s unlikely this is a game that many people will aim for 100% completion.

Skatebird nintendo Switch Xbox PC Playstation bird birb sam fisher splinter cell
Sam King(fisher) makes a brief appearance. Maybe I’ll play Splinter Cell instead.

Conclusion

As an avid bird-lover, owner of an adorable (and loud) parrot, an active member of the bird meme community, and even a veterinarian, the concept of SkateBird immediately grabbed my attention. However, as a gamer and a fan of the Pro Skater series, the game has been one of the biggest let-downs this year. An interesting and charming concept is sadly ruined by frustrating gameplay, dodgy controls, and an overall lack of polish. Even if you truly love skateboarding and are obsessed with birds, I’d still be hesitant to recommend playing SkateBird.

So, why should you play it?

  • Character creator is enjoyable and full of cute birds and accessories.
  • Decent original soundtrack, with funky lo-fi beats.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Truly terrible skateboarding gameplay.
  • Touchy and poorly-responsive controls.
  • Bland environmental visuals and poor performance.
  • Ill-fitting licenced soundtrack.
  • Overall lack of polish.

A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.

ozgameshop FOR THE GAMERS

AWAY: The Survival Series Review (PC/Steam)

Life finds AWAY

Who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? These insightful programs delight the viewer with a combination of gorgeous cinematography, detailed footage, descriptive narration, and the opportunity to enter the intricate lives of animal species that might otherwise be overlooked. I grew up watching nature documentaries, particularly those featuring the iconic voice of Sir David Attenborough, arguably the most renowned and respected natural historian on Planet Earth. I’m sure many of you reading this too have fond memories of the many incredible documentaries featuring his distinct narration.

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough and a majestic Wedge-tailed Eagle (Life of Birds, 1998).

Likely you’ve heard of some popular videogames where the player is given the opportunity to enter the lives of animals. There are games where the player must protect their vulnerable family, like Shelter for example, experiences that offer the opportunity to see through an animal’s eyes in virtual reality like Eagle Flight, and even the dystopian future of Tokyo Jungle where urban metropolises are overrun by rabid animals.

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Shelter
One of my personal favourite animal videogames, Shelter.

But have you ever experienced a game that provides a true cinematic nature documentary experience? Well, that’s exactly what AWAY: The Survival Series hopes to achieve. Developed by Breaking Walls Studio, an independent developer from Montreal, AWAY throws the player into a harsh distant future where the earth has been ravaged by natural disasters. In the midst of a world full of danger is a family of Sugar Gliders, fighting against the odds for one goal: survival. Can you help this tiny family survive against all odds?

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Quote

Story

Ravaged by a cataclysm of natural disasters, Planet Earth in the distant future has become a harsh, inhospitable environment for many species. Devastating storms have made most areas inhabitable, with humans fleeing entirely and allowing animals to reclaim the environment for their own. Though life itself is a challenge for many – predators reign supreme in this new world, scattered throughout the vibrant rainforest laying in ambush for their next victim.

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Sugar Glider Family Gif

And yet, defying all odds, a family of adorable Sugar Gliders push onward during a torrential downpour. However, the smallest of animals are often the most vulnerable. Torn apart from its mother who in a split second is snatched by the talons of a mighty eagle, the young glider must learn to fend for itself, navigate the harsh environment, and reunite its family in order to survive.

Gameplay

At its core, AWAY is a 3D platformer, with the player navigating each environment by leaping from trees, dashing between cover, or swiftly gliding through the sky. What appears on the surface to be an open world is instead disguised as series of linear locations with platforming obstacles and numerous deadly predators. There are also some elements of other genres thrown into the mix, such as occasional stealth sections, or challenges that focus on combat, but simply navigating to the next location is predominantly the glider’s main goal.

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Sugar Glider Tree Gameplay
Trees are a safe haven from the threats of this new world.

Typically, 3D platformers must have tight, precise controls that allow the player to perform tricky manoeuvres to test their skills. Unfortunately, this is where AWAY falls short. Playing as a glider, the controls are understandably floaty, with gliding being a key component to the platforming. Movement on the ground is simple, controlling like any other game, but once climbing a tree or taking to the skies the controls become problematic. The lock-on jumping scheme feels imprecise, with jumps occasionally launching in wrong directions, and the camera often going haywire at inconvenient moments. This becomes most noticeable during the game’s frustrating combat, where locking-on and pressing the attack button can send the camera spinning around dizzyingly.

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Sugar glider Death Fox
And this is why you stick to the trees…

There are luckily multiple segments of the game that are satisfying and enjoyable, especially when the controls don’t cause any hinderance. Gliding through the air from tree-to-tree is enjoyable and a creative way to cross otherwise harsh terrain. The use of vertical space too is impressive, with almost every object offering an opportunity to climb and observe the area from above. Exploring each lush environment from the treetops or high up on a cliff face can be a joy when surrounded by the game’s natural life awash with vivid colour.

Visuals

One of the major appeals of a nature documentary is capturing stunning, detailed footage that allows the viewer to observe incredible scenes of animal life. AWAY manages to replicate some elements of this, creating an intricate world bursting with life. With graphical settings pushed to the maximum (also referred to as “Documentary Mode”), the game has the potential to look spectacular at certain moments.

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Environment Visuals Gif
There are many opportunities to stop and appreciate your surroundings.

The rich lighting that washes through trees and peers across the horizon gives many areas a pink/gold glow that look wallpaper-worthy. Here are some screenshots I took during my time with the game:

In contrast, there are many aspects of AWAY that are rough around the edges and detract from the overall visual appeal. Animal models will often appear raised and poorly-positioned when standing on uneven terrain, animations can be rigid and jittery, and some cutscenes that are supposed to be tense or emotive moments become awkward due to poor attention-to-detail. Much improvement is needed before AWAY can capture the incredible atmosphere of a nature documentary, and thankfully the developers have already provided some updates that improve the experience.

Audio

Narration is an important component of any gripping nature documentary, with voiceovers like the great Sir David Attenborough becoming synonymous with the genre. This is exactly the experience that AWAY aims to emulate, featuring an unseen narrator who describes many of the glider’s actions. This initially seems quite entertaining, offering insightful comments into the animals and their habitats. Unfortunately, narration quickly becomes tedious, as many lines are repeated constantly in response to certain actions. For example, falling into a body of water harms the glider and drains its health, and in each instance the narrator says the glider must search for food, which feels completely out of context.

However, the game does manage to achieve a true feel of a nature documentary through its soundtrack, composed by Mike Raznick. While you might not recognise him by name, chances are you’ve heard his music at some point, as he is responsible for games like Ratchet and Clank (PS4), OddWorld New ‘n Tasty, and even the incredibly popular nature documentary TV series, Life. The soundtrack created for AWAY evokes a feeling much like the documentaries off which the series is based, with an impressive orchestral score that ranges from soft and emotive to fast-paced and tense. Here’s one of the game’s lovely orchestral tracks:

Extras

Outside of the main story, which spans a few hours, the game also includes a completely optional “Exploration Mode” that offers a completely different experience. This mode lets players venture into the entire world of AWAY, with the ability to possess and control almost all animal species in the game. Jumping into tiny lizards and scurrying across the forest floor, and then buzzing through the air as a swift dragonfly is amusing and enjoyable for a brief moment. The main aim is to find rare animal species that are spread across the entire area – aside from this there is really no other objective. Admittedly it’s a great opportunity to take screenshots like those I shared earlier, but otherwise it feels somewhat lacking. The developers have since announced that the Exploration Mode is considered a beta for the time being.

AWAY the survival series review PC Steam PS5 Nature Documentary Exploration Mode Visuals
Exploration Mode can be played at a snail’s pace. Literally.

Conclusion

So is AWAY: The Survival Series the definitive nature-based videogame that would impress the likes of even David Attenborough himself? Not quite. There are sadly many details of AWAY that feel unpolished and detract from what could have otherwise been an insightful and engaging adventure. Its lush and detailed world is unfortunately marred by poorly-responsive controls, troublesome platforming, and a camera that spoils the intent of being a cinematic adventure. If these flaws can be overlooked, the detailed world and its myriad creatures offer entertainment that aims to delight players like myself who grew up engrossed by watching nature on the screen.

So, why should you play it?

  • An interesting gameplay concept.
  • You’re fond of nature documentaries.
  • Plenty of animals to encounter/play as.
  • Visuals can be beautiful at times.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Frustrating and inaccurate controls that spoil the experience.
  • Rough visuals detract from stunning environments.
  • Narration becomes repetitive and tedious.

A review copy on PC was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Nexomon Review (Nintendo Switch)

Gotta tame ’em all – Nexomon!

Ever since the dawn of Pokémon over 25 years ago, there have been numerous other games that sought to capitalise on its popularity. No doubt you’ve heard of series like Digimon, Monster Hunter Stories, and maybe even Dragon Quest Monsters – all popular videogame series that have drawn inspiration from Game Freak’s iconic monster-battling franchise. If you dig deeper, there’s an entire world of what’s called “ROM hacks” – fan made games that build upon existing Pokémon assets to create brand new experiences of their own. These range from simple sprite swaps (Moemon, anyone?) all the way through to incredibly impressive standalone titles like Pokémon Fire Red: Rocket Edition and my personal favourite, Pokémon Uranium.

But what if a game that seemed like a ROM hack managed to become a series of its own? That’s exactly what I expected from Nexomon, the blatant Pokémon rip-off that harkens back to the golden era of Pokémon and makes no attempt at hiding its similarities to the source material. What initially released as a mobile game in 2017 has since gained a cult following and seen enough success to be ported to numerous consoles, now including Nintendo Switch with the release of Nexomon: Extinction and now the original Nexomon. And you know what? This is one of the best Pokémon games I’ve played in years.

Nexomon Nintendo Switch Review Characters

Story

Centuries ago, humans and Nexomon waged a mighty war to establish dominance, with the King of all Nexomon, Omnicron, leading the assault on humanity. Lasting thousands of years, the Human-Nexomon war ravaged the lands, claiming thousands of human and Nexomon lives with it. That was until the appearance of a legendary hero known as Ulzar, who ultimately defeated Omnicron and put an end to the war. It was thanks to his efforts that humans and Nexomon now live alongside each other in peace, learning to exist harmoniously at last.

Nexomon Nintendo Switch Review Omnicron Ulzar Art
The legendary hero, Ulzar, facing off against the mighty Omnicron.

Centuries have since passed, and humans have since forgotten about the incredible power of Omnicron and the terror he once caused. However, rumours are circulating of the return of the ancient Nexomon King, whose power could once again ravage humanity. The most powerful tamer in the land, known simply as the “Nexolord“, is on a mission to resurrect Omnicron and take the entire world hostage. With a team of trained Overseers under his control and scattered across the land, the last hope of humanity rests upon the shoulders of…

Nexomon Nintendo Switch Review Nexolord Art
Yep, these are the bad guys – how could you tell?

…a child. How can a small-town kid hope to conquer all those who stand in his way, and overcome adversities to prevent the resurrection of a god? Well, with the power of Nexomon at their side, of course!

Gameplay

This is a game that is unashamedly Pokémon-esque – almost every single aspect of the gameplay draws inspiration from the classic monster-battling series. Honestly, there are very few differences between Nexomon and earlier Pokémon titles, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery!

Nexomon Nintendo Switch Review Battle Combat
This is what you get when you buy a Sandslash off Wish.

Players set off an an adventure not unlike Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire, tasked with investigating a mysterious organisation and pursuing the evil Nexolord. Though there’s no way you’ll be able to achieve this by yourself – you’ll need to recruit a team of powerful Nexomon to fight at your side! Over the course of the game, you’ll travel across the lands, searching far and wide, for Nexomon that hide in rustling bushes. Once an encounter with a Nexomon is triggered, you’ll need to whittle down their health before capturing them in a “Nexotrap” (blatantly an X-shaped Pokeball). With a full team of 6 Nexomon, battles will progressively allow you to level-up and evolve your team until strong enough to defeat the Gym Leader Overseer in each town.

Nexomon Nintendo Switch Review Battle Combat Capture Gif
Make sure to keep plenty of Nexotraps on you at all times.

If you’ve played even a single Pokémon game, no doubt you’ll immediately recognise the familiar combat and exploration. However, there are some differences that simplify the gameplay, for better or worse. TMs and HMs do not exist – instead, players can swap back and forth between any 4 moves that their Nexomon have learned. Wild Nexomon feature a rarity rating, ranging from Common to Mega Rare and Legendary, which is a simple touch that allows players to prioritise which ones to catch. There are also only 7 elements of Nexomon, each with their own type advantages/disadvantages, making combat quite simple in comparison to Pokémon.

While I could spend this entire review drawing comparisons between Nexomon and Pokémon, there is one major component of Nexomon that far surpasses any game I’ve played in the Pokémon series: the humour. Dialogue is often very tongue-in-cheek, sometimes a bit risqué or self-deprecating, and often pokes fun at stereotypes and tropes within monster-battling RPGs. The game isn’t afraid to make fun of itself and this makes for an overall light-hearted, enjoyable experience. Enjoy some of the game’s excellent one-liners!

Visuals

As you’ve already seen from many of the images in the review, there’s nothing particularly impressive about Nexomon’s visuals. Despite having a clean and vibrant visual style, there are still many elements of being a mobile game that remain. The user-interface in particular feels very much like a mobile game and many aspects of the game’s visuals are clearly rip-offs taken from the series on which it is based. Take for example the design of the game’s “Healing Center” – seem familiar?

Nexomon Nintendo Switch Review Healing Centre Pokemon Centre
I have a strange sense of deja vu…

There are definitely redeeming features to the visuals though. Many of the Nexomon have interesting designs, even those that are clearly inspired by existing Pokémon. Many of the powerful Overseers and their Nexomon are shown off in cutscenes as still-frames, which provide an added level of detail not seen during regular gameplay. The aesthetic definitely feels like Pokémon on a budget, but it works well overall, especially when played in handheld mode on the Switch.

Audio

Considering its origins as a low-budget mobile game, it should come as no surprise that the music to Nexomon isn’t quite as impressive as its triple-A counterpart. What seems strange though about the soundtrack to Nexomon is that it’s so inconsistent. There are some tracks like the ones below that are incredibly catchy and a pleasure to listen to, and then many others that feel like generic royalty-free music that are easily-forgettable and occasionally tedious. Here are a couple of the better tracks from the game:

You’re going to hear the main battle theme a lot, which is good because it absolutely SLAPS.
Many of the tracks, like this one, give off a sound reminiscent of Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire.

Extras

Outside of the main story, there’s not much additional content to keep players invested. If you’re a completionist, you may gain a sense of satisfaction from trying to tame all 300 Nexomon, but there’s not much of a reward for doing so. Unlike Pokémon there aren’t any minigames like Pokémon Contests or Game Corners, it’s pretty much entirely focused on the battles, which honestly isn’t a bad thing.

Nexomon Nintendo Switch Review Postgame Content Netherworld
Finishing the game unlocks a brand new area to explore.

Though like any self-respecting Pokémon knock-off, there is some post-game content. After completing the main story, players will be given access to a brand new area that was previously off-limits, featuring more powerful Nexomon and an added level of challenge. It’s a nice added bonus, as I wasn’t expecting a reason to come back after finishing the story.

Conclusion

With an engaging story, plenty of clever humour, and typical monster capturing and combat that fans have grown to love, this is a game almost certainly made to appeal to Pokémon fanatics. While it is obvious that many aspects of Nexomon draw heavily from Game Freak’s series, once you look past these similarities, you’re in for an excellent standalone adventure over the course of a 20 hours story. It would be easy to be judgemental and dismissive of Nexomon as a mere rip-off, riding on the coattails of Pokémon, but I guarantee if you’re a fan of monster-battling RPGs, you should be giving Nexomon a chance. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed Nexomon, and will certainly be playing Nexomon: Extinction next.

So, why should you play it?

  • Are you a fan of Pokémon? This game is made for you!
  • You enjoy the older Pokémon titles, particularly Ruby & Sapphire.
  • Simple combat and gameplay that feels immediately familiar.
  • Legitimately funny humour and dialogue.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Overly critical of Pokémon similarities? Maybe give Nexomon a pass.
  • No multiplayer or trading aspect – purely a single player experience.

A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.

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Necrobarista: Final Pour Review (Nintendo Switch)

The perfect place to visit when you’re dying for a coffee.

What’s your go-to place to meet up with friends, work colleagues, or family? I’m willing to guess that for many of you there’s probably a local café you’ve been a regular of at some point. Maybe it’s the cosy atmosphere, the brilliant beverages, or even the friendly people who run the establishment that keep you coming back every week. Even videogames fantatise the quaint setting of a café as a place to meet fascinating characters – games like Persona 5 with the Phantom Thieves’ hideout Café LeBlanc, a cosy place to relax in Animal Crossing’s The Roost, or even Café Alps in the Yakuza series if Kiryu wants to take a break from busting skulls.

There’s no doubt that cafes play an integral role for many of us, even if it’s just to get a quick caffeine fix, and that couldn’t be more important than in a particular Australian city known for its café culture: Melbourne. So how about a videogame set in a Melbourne café? That’s exactly the concept of Necrobarista, a narrative-driven indie game from Melbourne-based developers Route 59 Games. This relaxing and classy establishment known as The Terminal is tucked away in the back alleys of Melbourne, beckoning visitors with the enticing scent of a fine coffee blend wafting through the air. The only catch? Most of its customers are dead.

So grab a coffee, take a sip, and enjoy our review for this uniquely Australian visual novel.

necrobarista final pour switch henry lawson quote

Story

This is no normal café, and no normal story either. Necrobarista is a wild ride surrounding a humble café that just so happens to be the hub for those passing onto the afterlife: The Terminal. Patrons who visit The Terminal are living (or dying) on borrowed time, with only 24 hours to come to terms with their deaths before passing onto the afterlife permanently. For some, this brief visit to the café allows them to accept their fate, but for others it’s a harrowing and emotional experience full of grief and denial.

necrobarista final pour switch the terminal
So this is where you go when you die!

The Terminal has recently changed hands – its previous owner, Chay, now hundreds of years old has passed the rights onto a young woman named Maddy Xiao, whose cheeky attitude is as flavoursome and bold as the coffee she brews. She effortlessly bonds with every new customer that walks through the door, exchanging conversation, friendly banter, and even profound life advice over a satisfying drink.

necrobarista final pour switch funny maddy
Maddy really has a way with words.

However, Maddy is not all she seems on the surface, as this budding barista just so happens to be a part-time necromancer, making deals with the dead and manipulating the few hours they have left. This proves to be troublesome for the Council, who oversee the cafe and ensure patrons are not overstaying their welcome to keep the balance. And the council worker assigned to the Terminal? Well, that would be none other than infamous bush-ranger, Ned Kelly. As the story unravels throughout 10 gripping chapters, players will discover there is far more to the Terminal and its patrons than meets the eye.

Gameplay

While the story of Necrobarista takes the spotlight, front and centre, the gameplay aspect is far more subtle, requiring very little interaction from the player and seeking instead to emphasise the narrative. Being a visual novel, gameplay consists almost solely through character interactions, dialogue, and internal monologues; it’s basically like reading through an interactive book. Really all you have to do is press A – it’s as simple as that. Each chapter, of which there are 12 in total, last approximately 20 – 40 minutes, which is just enough to deliver an engaging narrative without ever overstaying its welcome.

necrobarista final pour switch sad emotional
Be sure to have some tissues at the ready.

Between the chapters, players are free to explore every nook and cranny of The Terminal, which contains numerous secrets and hidden flashbacks. These side stories are as valuable to the player as the main narrative, as they provide deeper insight into each character, their motivations and their quirks. Most are quite light-hearted and comedic, but occasionally the game throws in an emotional interaction and does an incredible job of tugging the heartstrings when it needs to.

necrobarista final pour switch ned kelly
Yep, that’s Ned Kelly offering you a durry. No kidding.

Where Necrobarista truly shines is through its writing, characters, and dialogue. Every character interaction is an amalgam of raw human emotion, brilliant comedy, and packed to the rafters with Australian mannerisms and references. Despite being full of dead people, The Terminal is not all doom and gloom, as most characters won’t hesitate to launch into some cheeky banter with each other. There’s no doubt that the writing of Necrobarista will be able to make you smile, laugh, and even have you the verge of tears all within the span of a single chapter.

Visuals

The best cafes are often stylish and comfortable, with filtered light, welcoming interiors, and plenty of clutter. This is exactly what to expect from Necrobarista as you journey through the Terminal and into the afterlife. Despite being developed in Australia, the game adopts an anime-like cel-shaded appearance in its characters and environments, creating a comfy aesthetic to immerse the player. Though it may not be significantly detailed or graphically impressive, the game manages to deliver a visual style that at times is truly gorgeous, particularly through its use of light and dark.

necrobarista final pour switch visuals

Most of the game plays out as a series of still frames, with the camera slowly panning to create a sense of movement in each scene. Although animations are few and far between, characters are still highly emotive and exaggerated, keeping each scene entertaining and accompanying the equally-entertaining dialogue.

necrobarista final pour switch funny dialogue gif

There are, unfortunately, some drawbacks to playing on Switch. Certain areas run very poorly, with significant drops in framerate, which seem especially jarring when playing through emotive segments. Aside from these occasional scenes, the game looks attractive in both handheld mode and on the big screen.

Audio

There’s one thing you’ll immediately notice upon booting up Necrobarista: there’s no voiced dialogue! Well, unless you’re playing in Chinese, that is. This initially took some getting used to, having been spoiled by previous VNs with full voice-acting. Though after a few chapters I found myself growing used to the lack of voices as one would reading a regular book, instead hearing the character’s lines as they appeared on the screen. There’s a saving grace though, as the lack of dialogue means you get to focus on one of the best aspects of the game: its music.

The track “Confluence” really sets the mood in The Terminal.

Composed by Kevin Penkin (a rising star among videogame musicians responsible for the music to Florence), the soundtrack of Necrobarista is as stylish as its setting. Many of the tracks are relaxed, slow, and perfectly suited to the pace of the gameplay. Soft piano and synthesiser resonate throughout The Terminal as its patrons discuss the fragility of life and contemplate their inevitable end. It’s a beautiful score that I’ve already listened to by itself on numerous occasions and is worth playing Necrobarista even for this alone. Enjoy one of my favourite tracks from the game below:

“The Bittersweet Taste of Death” plays during a particularly emotional moment.

Extras

Outside of the main 10 chapters, there are a few added bonuses that are certainly worth your time. As mentioned earlier, there are memories scattered throughout the terminal, each of which unlocks concept art that can be viewed at any time. Additionally, two optional side-stories explore the origins and relationships of other customers at the Terminal – an awkward and edgy teen romance, and tense moments between an attractive woman and her devious Yakuza associate. Both of these extra stories should not be skipped and have vastly different tones from the main narrative.

necrobarista final pour switch side story
The side stories offer brief insight into a customer’s past.

The final bonus is the inclusion of a scene creator, where players can build their own settings and interactions between characters of their choice. While it may seem intriguing, this does not seem optimised for the Switch, as the interface runs very slowly and is prone to crashing (as it did several times as I was attempting to use it). Hopefully this is patched in future updates, as I’d avoid it in its current state.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for the perfect game to play while sitting in your favourite café enjoying that signature blend, look no further. Although its gameplay is minimal, Necrobarista offers up a bold story, served with deep emotions, and memorable characters. Alongside an attractive aesthetic and a perfectly-matched soundtrack, this proves to be a visual novel that is likely to impress most fans of the genre. Those who enjoy engaging narratives will be left satisfied upon leaving the Terminal, especially thanks to the uniquely Australian writing and humour of each of its patrons. This hidden gem nestled in a Melbourne alleyway will certainly have players dying to come back for another drink.

So, why should you play it?

  • A creative, engaging, and emotional narrative.
  • Entertaining writing and character dialogue.
  • Many Australian references will appeal to an Aussie audience.
  • Slick and stylish presentation.
  • Soundtrack as smooth as its coffee.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Complete lack of voiced audio – if you’re not fond of reading, this isn’t for you.
  • Some slight performance issues on Switch.

A review code was kindly provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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Tormented Souls Review (PlayStation 5)

The sole game that proves classic survival horror isn’t dead.

Survival horror is a videogame genre with its origins well and truly founded during the 1990s. Far more than just jump scares and gruesome gore, the primary goal of these games is to terrify the player through their attempt to survive against all odds. With limited resources, players must fend off horrifying and grotesque enemies all while navigating unfamiliar settings littered with puzzles and riddles. Although earlier titles released in the 80s include some gameplay elements that are vital to the genre, it was not until 1996 that gamers across the globe would be treated to the progenitor of survival horror thanks to a single iconic game that defined the genre: Resident Evil.

classic resident evil ps1
The original Resident Evil truly defined survival horror.

The decade that followed the original Resident Evil truly was the Golden Age of survival horror, with sequel after sequel released across numerous platforms. Beloved series like Silent Hill, Clock Tower and Fatal Frame flourished, keeping millions on the edge of their seats as they fought for their lives despite the terrors each game contained. However, as consoles and computers became more advanced, horror games too had to match this pace, becoming instead more focused on hectic action and gripping cinematics than slow, methodical horror.

But survival horror isn’t dead; in fact, it may be more alive than ever (unlike its protagonists). Recent years have definitely seen a resurgence in this classic genre. Modern games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast have proven that fear doesn’t always have to be fast. The latest game to join the ranks of the dead is Tormented Souls, an experience that harkens back to the genre’s roots and aims to please those who like their horror slow, dark, and terrifying. So grab your nearest green herb, pick up that discarded piece of a damaged door handle, and let’s dive into survival horror’s latest offering.

tormented souls caroline banner

Story

After receiving an unlabeled letter containing the image of two apparently deceased twins, our protagonist, Caroline Walker, foolishly puts her own personal safety aside and instead sets out on a mission she’ll very soon regret. Waking up naked in a bathtub of an abandoned hospital, attached to ventilator, and missing an eyeball seems like an awful way to start the day. This is exactly where Caroline finds herself after travelling to the mysterious Wildberger Hospital, a long deserted medical facility located on a remote island.

tormented souls ps5 nintendo switch graphics wilderberger hospital
This is where you end up when you don’t buy private health insurance.

Though there’s far more to the hospital than just cobwebs and poorly-maintained medical equipment. Pieces of discarded journals and hints of previous inhabitants all point towards a dark past – experiments on patients and children that have rendered them deformed and mindless, now left to wander the hospital hallways. As Caroline delves further, she discovers there is far more terror to Wildberger than she ever could have imagined, and she is the only one who can bring the unimaginable horrors to light.

Gameplay

Immediately players will be able to draw comparisons between Tormented Souls and the original Resident Evil, as the game is not only inspired by, but pays homage to it throughout its entirety. Exploring a dimly-lit mansion with fixed camera angles, assembling makeshift weapons to fight for your life with every single scarce bullet, and piecing together obscure puzzles to access the next area are all throwbacks to classic survival horror. Even the tension of having a finite number of saves! This is truly a game that feels as if it belongs beside the classics thanks to its simple yet gripping gameplay. Like its predecessors, there are two major aspects that divide the game: combat and puzzles.

tormented souls ps5 nintendo switch graphics wheelchair enemy gif
The hospital patients don’t take kindly to outsiders.

There’s no denying that the combat in this horror adventure feels just as it would have decades ago: clunky. Being played entirely in third person with fixed camera angles, players must position themselves precisely to aim at enemies as they approach, often whilst completely off-screen. Ammo is limited, so every wasted bullet is one step closer to death. Thankfully the grotesque horrors shamble slowly, giving plenty of time to line up shots or run around the cramped rooms in a panic. There are moments where this can be incredibly tense, especially when precious ammo is almost depleted, though for the most part combat feels tedious, and like my aim, inaccurate.

tormented souls ps5 nintendo switch graphics heart puzzle
I hope the doctor was singing “My Heart Will Go On”.

Where the gunplay seems clunky and even unenjoyable, the puzzles are thankfully the complete opposite. Tormented Souls is a masterclass in brilliant brain-bending, with plenty of perplexing puzzles for the player to unravel across their journey through the haunted hospital. These range from simple item combinations and environmental problems all the way through to complex riddles, clever conundrums, and even some segments that require stories to be pieced together by traveling back in time. The game’s impeccable use of problem-solving will have players constantly scratching their heads and being tempted to consult walkthroughs to progress. Resist the urge to look up solutions online, as the game is at its most satisfying when finally solving its trickiest riddles.

Visuals

Bringing survival horror to a modern audience means that updating the visuals is a necessity – we’ve been incredibly spoiled by gorgeous horror games like The Last of Us and Resident Evil Village. This is no triple-A title, so don’t expect to be blown away by realism, but there are many aspects of Tormented Souls’ aesthetic that capture the essence of horror effectively.

tormented souls ps5 nintendo switch graphics main hall graphics
The hospital’s main hall is particularly nice when you’re not running for your life.

Darkened environments are awash with filtered light emanating from outside sources, or from the safe, dim glow of Caroline’s lighter. Shadows project beautifully, dancing off the hospital walls and occasionally catching the player off-guard as if in the corner of one’s vision. Details in the hospital’s abandoned rooms help recall the history of the building, which was once busy with patients but now contains mutilated and hideous figures. The attention-to-detail in the hospital and its environments are certainly a highlight, and hold up incredibly well alongside even the best modern horror games.

tormented souls ps5 nintendo switch graphics camera angle gif
Fixed camera angles make everything scarier.

In contrast, many visuals feel incredibly dated, and sadly not in a nostalgic way. Character models seem awkward and out of place against the detailed environments, animations can be jittery and clumsy, and the interactions during dialogue between yourself and the hospital’s priest seems so unpolished it’s almost as if they were left unfinished. It’s disappointing that these visuals drag down the game’s gorgeous environments, which clearly received far more love and attention.

Audio

No horror game is complete without its audio – a vital ingredient in crafting an atmospheric and gripping experience for the player. Distant sounds of enemies groaning or scraping along the ground are helpful in preparing the player for tense situations, as environmental cues like this often give more insight than the game’s visuals where dangers are often hidden off-screen. Music manages to also convey certain situations, as tense chords or shrieking strings mean imminent danger, while the warm and soft sound of a piano represents safety and comfort in the brief respite of recording rooms where Caroline may save her progress onto an audio reel.

Father’s theme, which means safety, is eerie yet comforting.

Unfortunately, the audio isn’t all quality. Dialogue between Caroline and the occasional remaining souls of the hospital can be described as none other than B-grade. The voice acting, particularly from the Priest, who appears throughout the hospital, is cringeworthy and awkward, which feels more comedic than terrifying and sadly spoils the frightening tones of the game.

Conclusion

Through its clever use of brilliant puzzles and simple explorative gameplay, fans of classic games like early Resident Evil and Silent Hill will no doubt get some serious thrills from exploring the sprawling hospital over the ~10 hour journey. While elements like clunky combat and awkward dialogue feel rough and unpolished, there is still plenty to keep horror veterans satisfied whilst introducing newcomers to this slower and more methodical gameplay format. Survival horror was never even dead to begin with, and Tormented Souls certainly proves that this genre is alive and well today.

So, why should you play it?

  • This is a must for fans of the earlier Resident Evil games.
  • Perplexing environmental puzzles and problem-solving.
  • Gorgeous environments and lighting.
  • Slow, methodical gameplay appeals to you.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Prefer fast-paced games? This one’s not for you.
  • You’re easily frustrated by tricky puzzles.
  • You’d prefer a horror game with precise gunplay.
  • Can’t stand B-grade dialogue and voice acting.

A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.

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Cotton Reboot Review (Nintendo Switch)

It’s 100% cotton! The classic cute ’em up is back for a new generation of players.

When referring to videogames, the term “cult classic” gets thrown around a lot. This phrase is often used to represent a game that was largely unsuccessful but managed to gain a dedicated and passionate following. Few genres achieve cult status quite as frequently as the humble shoot ’em up, a simple style of game that cemented itself as an arcade and home console staple throughout the 80s and 90s, and continues to remain relevant decades on thanks to committed fans and developers. Within the library of shmups is a sub-genre commonly referred to the “cute-em-up” – these feature the typical bullet-blasting gameplay but instead with adorable characters and enemies, colourful visuals, and often eccentric and unusual designs.

The perfect example of a cult classic cute ’em up is none other than the classic, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, released originally in 1991 for Japanese arcades. The game shot to popularity after its port to the X68000, a home computer released by Sharp and sold exclusively in Japan. Since this release it has remained an iconic shoot-em-up and is frequently praised by fans of the genre. Now available on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, Cotton Reboot! brings this classic game into the modern age. Are updated visuals and new game modes enough to revive Cotton for a new generation of gamers? Grab your broom and let’s find out!

Story

Shmups aren’t particularly known for their deep stories, and Cotton is no exception. The story is paper thin and the game definitely knows it! The player is introduced to a brilliant young witch by the name of Nata de Cotton, who just so happens to have quite a sweet tooth. Every witch needs a familiar, and to accompany her on the adventure is a fairy called Silk, who’s as sassy as she is adorable.

Cotton has an addiction to sugar and the only cure is more sugar.

So what’s Cotton’s motivation for heading out on an epic quest? To track down delicious candy of course! She’s on a mission to find “Willows“, delicious sugary spheres to satisfy her cravings. Silk though has other ideas, as collecting them instead of eating them will lead to a legendary confectionary far greater than any others! And so the magical pair set off, with each level rewarding them with a tasty new Willow for their efforts.

Gameplay

You’ve played one shmup, you’ve played them all. Well, almost. Cotton is a pretty typical side-scrolling cute ’em up with simple yet addictive gameplay. The game takes place over several side-scrolling (and occasionally vertical-scrolling) levels, each with a mid-boss and final boss at the end of the levels. Enemies come in waves, launch a plethora of projectiles, and can be easily dispatched by Cotton’s onslaught of magical bullets. It’s very straightforward gameplay and is mostly very forgiving, allowing the game to be enjoyed by players of all skill levels.

Fighting Death itself. That’s cute, right?

Upgrades can be obtained throughout each level in one of three ways: collecting fairies that fight alongside you, destroying enemies to gain experience and level up, or collecting coloured crystals that are occasionally dropped by enemies. Once a crystal appears, the player can choose to continuously attack it, which changes the crystal’s colour and its elemental attack. Those aiming for the top of the scoreboards will need to keep firing at the crystals until they turn black, giving the most points especially when chained together.

Once fully upgraded, you’re going to feel ridiculously overpowered. It’s great!

Each level is fast-paced and frantic, lasting only 5 – 10 minutes. The same goes for the bosses, as these can be defeated quickly especially when learning their attack patterns. Though the speed at which the game can be completed seems almost to be a perk of Cotton, as it’s the ideal game to pick up and smash out when you’re not in the mood to commit hours to a time-consuming ordeal. I found myself regularly playing this on lunch breaks, taking advantage of the Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode, which suits the game perfectly.

Visuals

Whether playing in handheld or docked mode, the colourful and detailed updated visuals of Cotton Reboot look excellent against its dynamic backgrounds. Players can choose between faithful X68000 mode, which replicates the visuals from the original game to pixel perfection, or the brand new Arrange mode, with its redesigned graphics, 3D backgrounds, and 16:9 widescreen resolution. So if you’re a series veteran who prefers retro design, or more recently delving into the shmup genre and enjoying the sleek visuals of modern titles, there’s something in the Reboot to please every player.

The retro pixel art feels so ’90s but still looks excellent.

Admittedly there is a downside to playing with the game’s updated visuals. While the game runs smoothly and undeniably looks excellent, the “bonus multipliers” that regularly appear on-screen are massive and will frequently obscure the player’s view. When faced with a tight situation surrounded by hundreds of projectiles, being able to know your exact position is imperative, which becomes near impossible when the screen is covered in multipliers. It looks neat, but is mostly a hinderance.

The screen becomes absurdly crowded when activating the multiplier bonus.

Audio

No shmup would be complete without a banging soundtrack, often as frantic and fast-paced as the gameplay itself. Having been released almost 30 years ago, the music of Cotton is well and truly rooted in retro synth and early PC music, with the original composer Kenichi Hirata once again returning to oversee the music for the Reboot. Original songs have been rearranged with live instruments, face-melting guitar riffs, and funky bass riffs to create a more modern feel for these retro tracks.

Even the main menu theme is a banger.
Many of the game’s songs are super high tempo and have a magical vibe.

If you’re a fan of the Touhou series, other classic shmups, or just retro game music in general, chances are you’re going to thoroughly enjoy the music in Cotton. The game also includes all the tracks from the original release when playing in X68000 mode, which is quite interesting to hear the songs that the arranged versions have been based off.

Extras

Once the main story mode has been finished to completion, players will unlock new main characters and also a “time-attack” mode. Between the Arrange mode, X68000 mode, and time-attack, there’s a decent amount of replayability and reason enough to play through the game a few times. Though the game caters primarily to those who are proficient enough to rack up massive scores, as these are uploaded automatically to a global leaderboard. Let’s just say I’d be scrolling for a couple hours to try find mine…

Aside from these additions, there’s not much extra content to keep you coming back for more Cotton. Optional unlockables or an art gallery would have been a nice touch, but sadly nothing of the sort is available, as it overall feels like it’s lacking incentive for players who aren’t obsessed with high scores.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that Cotton has truly cemented itself as one of the most beloved cult shmups of the ’90s and is revered by fans of the genre. Thankfully, Cotton Reboot is not only the best way to experience this classic cute ’em up, but also happens to be the most accessible and affordable! With fresh, detailed graphics, easily approachable gameplay, and a stellar arranged soundtrack, this is certainly a good place to start for players wanting to experience a historic piece of the genre. Although extra content is lacking, the game remains true to the original and offers an updated experience that will please both series veterans and newcomers alike.

So, why should you play it?

  • Consider yourself a shmup fan? This one’s a no brainer.
  • Vibrant updated visuals with optional classic mode.
  • Forgiving and easy for newcomers.
  • Can easily be finished in a single sitting.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • New visuals can be distracting and obscure gameplay.
  • Short gameplay might not appeal for those wanting a more in-depth shooter.
  • Don’t like silly? You probably won’t like Cotton.
  • Story about as deep as a wading pool.

A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

ozgameshop FOR THE GAMERS