Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin Review (Nintendo Switch)

Maybe the real friends were the monsties we met along the way.

Every popular videogame series deserves a spin-off, there are almost no exceptions. Take for example platforming games like Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Crash Bandicoot. What do these four all have in common? They’ve all had spin-offs popular enough to become series of their own. While these are some of the most popular examples, other games end up as quite odd alternatives to their source material. Pokémon has Pokémon Pinball (among hundreds of others), Persona has the Persona Dancing games, Dragon Quest has Dragon Quest: Monsters. The list could go on forever!

So what about Monster Hunter? The series once massively popular only in Japan is now finally finding its footing in the West. Well, there are actually a tonne of Monster Hunter spin-offs, most of which you’ve probably never heard of! There’s the Monster Hunter Diary series for PSP and 3DS which follows Felyne characters on their own journeys, Monster Hunter: Phantom Island Voyage and Monster Hunter Explore for iOS/Android, and even an arcade card game called Monster Hunter Spirits. And the commonality between all of these games? We didn’t get a single one in the West!

However, that all changed in 2016 with the worldwide release of a game by the name of Monster Hunter Stories for Nintendo 3DS and mobile. This cute, approachable spin-off combined many iconic monsters with simple combat mechanics and a monster-collecting/battling style of gameplay that was unashamedly similar to Pokémon. Its emphasis on storytelling and forgiving difficulty allowed it to stand out dramatically from the rest of the Monster Hunter games, and was an enjoyable experience for series veterans and newcomers alike.

Five years later, the next chapter in the story unfolds on Nintendo Switch and PC, with the sequel, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. Featuring a multitude of monsters, crisp animated visuals, and a deep story of ruin and redemption surrounding a loveable cast of characters, is this the Monster Hunter spin-off we’ve been patiently waiting for all this time? Well, don’t be quick to judge this story by its cutesy cover, because Wings of Ruin is possibly the most engaging storytelling experience the entire series has to offer.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Razewing Rathalos Baby

Plot

On the isle of Hakolo, its peaceful inhabitants who live and work alongside monsters all know of the prophecy referring to the Wings of Ruin, an ancient tale that speaks of calamity leading to widespread destruction. The legend tells the story of the Razewing Rathalos, whose incredible power when unlocked has the ability to bring about the destruction of the entire world. Even the beating of its wings is enough to level entire cities – a true weapon of mass destruction in monster form.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Razewing Rathalos Mural Art
The Razewing Rathalos, as depicted in ancient murals.

Mysteriously, the mass exodus of the Rathalos species across the continent has led to the disappearance of this once powerful king of the skies. For a century not a single Rathalos has been seen, believed to possibly even be extinct. That is until the legend begins to unfold when the grandchild of a legendary rider known across the lands as Red, stumbles across what is believed to be the last Rathalos egg in existence. Word quickly spreads of the egg – hunters and riders from all corners of the continent are in pursuit not to make an epic omelette, but to hatch the egg and use the monster for their own nefarious means.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Razewing Rathalos Egg
Everybody wants this egg. Maybe it’s a legendary triple-yolker?

Thankfully, the protagonist is not alone in their pursuit for the truth behind the mysterious egg and the Rathalos’ disappearance. Befriended by a Wyverian girl known as Ena, who once worked alongside the legendary Red, she shares her deep knowledge of Rider culture and believes that the grandchild of Red possesses the power to prevent the impending Calamity. Gifting the player with Red’s “Kinship Stone“, this heirloom holds within it the secret to forming bonds with monsties and controlling their incredible power.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Ena Art
Ena, who has pursued the truth of the Razewing Rathalos her entire life.

On their journey together, Ena and the player alongside comic relief, Navirou, travel to ancient civilisations, remote villages, and vast cities to unravel the secrets behind the Wings of Ruin and mysterious luminous pits appearing across the continent. Each area is home to new companions, who accompany the player and share their own stories and insights into the Calamity and the history that surrounds it. It’s an impressive, engaging story that unfolds and outshines all others in the series.

Gameplay

If you’re going into Monster Hunter Stories 2 expecting a traditional Monster Hunter game, you’re in for quite a shock. Although it incorporates many mechanics from the series like gathering materials, crafting weapons/armour, and of course, fighting monsters, this spin-off is more like Pokémon than its source material. However, the player isn’t throwing balls at monsters to capture them but rather raiding their nests and stealing their eggs instead!

Scattered throughout the overworld are Monster Dens – randomised dungeons that contain a nest, harvesting spots and treasure chests, and are home to as variety of monsters. These dens come in various forms: some appear at random, others with gold or silver designs that house rare monster species, or “Everdens” that remain permanently but change with each visit. Once an egg has been obtained (stolen), it can be taken back to the hatchery and potentially added to your team of 6 monsters that fight alongside the player. The hatchery also has the ability to perform a “Rite of Channeling” which transfers skills across monsters but requires one to be sacrificed in the process. How barbaric.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Hatching Animation Tigrex

Monsters are divided into three broad categories: power, technical, and speed. These determine the main proficiency of the monster and how they fare not only in combat, but in exploration. Certain monsters who are swift will be able to leap across gaps to access new areas, others with brute strength can smash down boulders that impede progress, and eventually some will learn new skills that allow even further exploration. While these are incredibly similar to the “HMs” that have been a staple of Pokémon, they are rarely necessary in order to progress the story.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Lagiacrus Rite of Channeling
Make sure to show your Monstiepedia to Professor Oak when you’re done.

Over the course of the game, the gameplay proceeds in somewhat of a loop. Once arrived at a new location, the player will befriend a new “Battle Buddy” to assist in the adventure, complete several quests assigned by the leader of the village, and in doing so discover more about the Razewing Rathalos and the impending calamity. The additional loop of “exploration > den > battle > nest > hatch” repeats throughout each area and is simple but rarely tiresome. Grinding is seldom necessary and the pacing of the game is pleasant and does not at all feel padded or drawn out. It’s satisfying to unlock new monsters to add to your team and become more proficient in combat, which is one of the most important aspects of the game!

Combat

Scissors-paper-rock but with monsters” is likely how many players would label the combat of Monster Hunter Stories, but there’s far more depth to it than that. This is, however, a key element and is the foundation around which the rest build upon. Basic come in three forms: power, technical, and speed. Monsters can also be swapped out once per turn and will generally have a preference for using a particular type of attack unless ordered otherwise. By choosing the right option in each situation, the “Kinship Gauge” fills and can be used to perform skills, assign attacks to your chosen monster. Once completely filled, the gauge allows the player to ride their monster and unleash a devastating Kinship Skill. These special skills are the most satisfying aspect of the game thanks to their detailed and often amusing animations.

Here’s one of the funniest attacks in the game.

Thankfully, the simple combat draws upon many elements (see what I did there?) of combat that Monster Hunter fans will definitely appreciate. Weapon types feature heavily and each have advantages over particular monsters or become more effective when targeting certain parts. Unlike the original games, three weapons can be equipped at once and swapped out once per turn. The play styles of each reflects how the weapons can be utilised in different ways – hammers specialise in smashing monster parts, great swords charge up and hit with incredible force, even hunting horns can be used to buff yourself and the rest of the party.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Khezu Battle
Power attack always wins.

Items are also cleverly incorporated into the combat of Stories and reward the player when used at opportune moments. Knocking a flying monster out of the sky with a Flash Bomb, restraining a large monster in a Pitfall Trap, or unleashing an explosive barrel bomb are as satisfying as ever and add an extra level of depth to battles. Skilful manipulation of items will be second nature to series veterans, who will likely even be able to predict the types of attack that each monster will use.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Air Showdown

To make combat even more engaging, monsters may “face off” at any moment, which will trigger a short quick time sequence requiring specific inputs from the player. By mashing buttons or spinning analogue sticks, your monster will compete directly with the opponent and if successful deal extra damage and fill the Kinship Gauge rapidly. These sequences are repetitive and mostly very easy, but the visuals that accompany them are impressive and make the turn-based battles feel more dynamic.

Visuals

There’s no doubt that this is one of the best looking Monster Hunter games in the entire series, even when compared to the mainline games. This is not due to its attention-to-detail or graphical finesse, but mainly as a result of the unique art-style chosen to represent the characters and monsters in the game. Rather than trying to replicate the gritty, realistic style of Monster Hunter World or Rise, Stories instead opts for vibrant, crisp cel-shaded graphics. Although the environments can at times appear jagged and polygonal, character models look excellent in this style, and many of the cutscenes feel as if watching a CGI anime.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Navirou Expression Graphics
Characters’ exaggerated expressions work particularly well in this style.

Although the design of the Dens can at times be bland and repetitive, the unique village locations are particularly aesthetically pleasing, each with a distinct design appropriate to the locale. Playing both in handheld and docked mode, there were some moments where the framerate seemed inconsistent and jittery, though this did not detract from the overall experience. Additionally, as mentioned above, many impressive Kinship Skill animations feature during combat and keep the combat looking stylish enough to grab your attention.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Environment Graphics
Many of the villages are detailed and vibrant.

Audio

Monster Hunter is a series widely-respected for its music, as I’m sure many series veterans will agree. Facing off against a fearsome Zinogre, Bazelgeuse, or Elder Dragon wouldn’t be anywhere near as tense without an incredible score to accompany it. Thankfully Monster Hunter Stories is no exception! The soundtrack can be divided into two broad categories: large, epic orchestral pieces with sweeping strings and blaring brass for tense and triumphant moments, or fast-paced, tribal percussion with rhythmic melodies for the heat of battle. While you’ll hear some music that’s recurrent throughout the series, most of the tracks are unique to Wings of Ruin and seem fit with the gameplay perfectly. Here are two examples of these vastly different musical styles:

The game’s orchestral title track.
Tribal vibes – the regular battle theme is a banger.

With far more of a focus on story than most other Monster Hunter games, there’s a considerable amount of fully-voiced dialogue, which can be changed between English and Japanese audio at any time. Being the weeb that I am, Japanese voiceovers were my preference and made the entire experience feel authentically like an anime, particularly when paired with the visuals. Cutscenes are often tense and emotive, and the quality of the voice acting is among some of the best I’ve encountered.

The only criticism with regards to the audio relates to some of the sound effects during combat. When a monster is knocked down, the same audio snippet of a pained cry will play on loop until the monster is back on its feet again. When this grating noise repeats sometimes for even a minute or two, it’s tempting to turn the sound off until your eardrums are no longer being assaulted.

Extras

In addition to the main story, there’s plenty of optional content to keep players invested both during and after the single-player campaign. Postgame content features areas that were previously inaccessible and more powerful monsters to fight and hatch. Numerous side quests are available, most of which revolve around hunting a particular monster or procuring rare items – these will unlock new recipes and skills to reward the player. Monsties can also put their skills to the test in arena battles, where groups of enemies must be defeated within a set number of turns.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 Wings of Ruin Nintendo Switch Review Ena DLC Outfits
The Ena outfits will set you back almost $5 a pop. Just like real clothing!

Two online modes are also available, which include PvP where players can battle head-to-head, and even online co-op if wanting to team up and explore dens together. Though I only briefly touched on these gameplay modes, it’s a nice option for those wanting a more social experience from a game that has an emphasis on single player. Future DLC outlined in a recent roadmap plans to add extra content to the game, including rare monsties and exclusive co-op quests, so this might keep dedicated players coming back. Sadly most of the current DLC is lacklustre and not worth your hard-earned Zenny; it’s disappointing many of the game’s costumes for Ena and Navirou can only be accessed through an additional purchase.

Conclusion

Despite being so dissimilar to the series on which it is based, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin achieves a unique blend of gameplay and manages to deliver a relaxed, charming, and engaging plot-centric JRPG experience over a ~40 hour adventure. What may seem like a Pokémon game with a Monster Hunter skin on the surface is actually a standout spin-off with more than enough to set itself apart in the monster-battling genre. Long-term series fans will be familiar with many gameplay elements and no doubt enjoy seeing iconic monsters in new settings, where series newcomers will be able to experience this brilliant franchise in an approachable, forgiving way. This story is a page-turner and a fine addition to the already vast Monster Hunter library.

So, why should you play it?

  • Engaging story, loveable characters, and stylish presentation.
  • Plenty of gameplay elements taken from the main series.
  • An approachable way for newcomers to explore the series.
  • Are you a fan of Pokémon? You’re almost certain to enjoy this.
  • Amusing dialogue and dynamic monster animations.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Repetitive gameplay loop may lose some players’ interest.
  • Simple scissors/paper/rock style combat will not appeal to everyone.

A review code for Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.
All screenshots and gameplay footage were captured on Nintendo Switch.

Death’s Door Review (PC/Steam)

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.

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.

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…”

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.

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!

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

AKIBA’S TRIP: Hellbound & Debriefed Review (PlayStation 4)

The action RPG that’s been stripped completely bare.

There’s no denying that Japan is responsible for some seriously messed up games. Chances are you’ve come across at least a few videogames made in Japan that are questionable at best. There are popular ones that are eccentric and outlandish (Katamari Damacy), trippy experiences that emulate what it’s like to be on hallucinogenic drugs (LSD: Dream Emulator), games featuring scantily clad macho men hurtling through space (Cho Aniki), pinball featuring squealing scantily clad girls atop the table (Senran Kagura: Peach Ball), and a plethora of games that I shouldn’t even talk about unless I want the police at my door.

Aah, Japan…

Then it should come as no surprise that the game based on fighting your foes by stripping their clothes originated in Japan, and is even set in the very heart of Japan’s world-renowned pop culture district: Akihabara. First released in 2011 exclusively in Japan for the PlayStation Portable, AKIBA’S TRIP took the unconventional and risqué concept and managed to turn it into an action RPG. Considering the PSP was on its last legs in the West during this time, the game never made its way to our shores. However, we would later receive the sequel, AKIBA’S TRIP: Undead & Undressed, on PS3, PS4, PS Vita and PC.

Now that it’s been over 10 years since the original release, AKIBA’S TRIP is back and released in English for the very first time. So strip down, take a seat, grab some Pocky, and let’s dive headfirst into Akihabara in our safe-for-work review of this borderline NSFW RPG.

Plot

As the epicentre of pop-culture, Akihabara is truly a paradise for otaku, anime fans, gamers, and cosplayers. It’s a literal heaven on earth for fans of anything nerdy. Having completed my pilgrimage to Akiba three times, I know first-hand how incredible this ward is, like a bustling city in itself, streets lined with fascinating shops and the crowds that flock to them.

Chuo Dori, the main street in Akihabara, is home to everything pop culture.

Sadly, Akihabara is in peril. Rumours are circulating of a group known as the Shadow Souls – dark, vampiric beings who take the form of regular people, and feed upon the blood of otaku. Anyone attacked by a Shadow Soul is afflicted with a curse known as Shut-in Syndrome, a disease that is quickly spreading throughout the inhabitants of the city. Those with Shut-in Syndrome become particularly vulnerable to light, and are forced to live life completely indoors, never again to venture into Akihabara’s busy streets. This plague is not only crippling Akihabara’s citizens, but even the suburb itself is at risk.

Evil has never been so cute.

That’s until one fateful day where the player encounters a particularly unique Shadow Soul, who through a tender kiss, shares her blood with the protagonist. Gaining the powers of a Shadow Soul while retaining their humanity, the player sets off on a mission to avenge his friend who has been afflicted, and in doing so stumbles across an organisation named NIRO. Together with a team of unlikely heroes known as the Freedom Fighters, a ragtag group of otaku, the protagonist and the organisation must work together to unravel the source of the Shadow Souls, and their fearless leader, the Mother Soul.

Generic otaku, ponytail otaku, maid, and… Professor Oak? What have they done to you!?

For a game that seems like it would be almost entirely fanservice, there’s quite an intricate plot to be explored in AKIBA’S TRIP. What starts out as a slow, carefree stripping spree, eventually delves into a plot brimming with deceit, intrigue, and mystery, with writing akin to a teenage fanfiction.

Gameplay

Set entirely in downtown Akihabara, the game unfolds over the course of a series of missions as the player begins to investigate the mysterious beings roaming the streets in broad daylight. Though powerful, the Shadow Souls have one distinct weakness: sunlight. By identifying these foes using a special camera, you’ll have to wail on them until their clothes are fragile enough to be torn off entirely – once completely exposed, the enemy will immediately perish in the sun like a pale otaku.

Remember, folks, a gentleman always leaves a woman’s clothes on.

However, this goes both ways. The main character, having gained the powers of a Shadow Soul, is also susceptible to sunlight, and must remain clothed at all times like a respectable human being. Enemies will have the chance to fight back and tear off your clothes if you’re not careful. This means that having a full set of equipment at all times is vital, and you’ll need to go into battle with appropriate headwear, upper and lower garments. These can also be retrieved from enemies, however the appropriate guide will need to be purchased at a shop, otherwise the clothes are simply torn and destroyed once removed.

Outside of combat, there are several other key elements to the gameplay. Quirky side missions will see the player helping out the residents of Akihabara with their odd requests, and be rewarded handsomely with some hard-earned yen. Players can also learn new skills from the Master of Stripping, who presents various challenges that will let the player earn rare clothing sets and new skills. Several minigames are also available, including an incredibly basic claw machine, quiz game, and strip scissors paper rock. Overall I enjoyed the addition of Pitter the most, which is a social network messenger that is available on the protagonist’s phone. By checking into Pitter occasionally you’ll get snippets into active missions, the goss about Akihabara, and mostly just some incredibly hilarious nerdy conversation. It’s like I’m actually on the internet!

Pitter is actually hilarious. Definitely worth checking in regularly.

Despite all the added extras in the game, there’s one particular activity you’ll likely spend most of your time doing: stripping people. Surely that’s going to be the highlight of the game, right? I mean, it’s basically all about stripping. Well about that…

Combat

To put it lightly, the combat for the most part is unenjoyable, clunky, and unresponsive. If this was a serious fighting game without any of the stupid humour or ridiculous concepts like stripping your enemies, you’d more than likely throw it immediately in the trash.

Is this game even legal?

Playing out like a generic 3-button brawler, the combat is as basic as possible. By tapping triangle you’ll attack the enemy’s headwear, square will damage their shirt, and X will pummel their trousers. An array of weapons are available, including boxing gloves, swords, books, even old computer monitors. There’s also the option to dodge and block, though I progressed throughout the entire game without using either of these. Once you’ve damaged an item of clothing enough, you’ll receive a prompt to hold down the corresponding button and be able to tear off that garment. This can also be chained into a combo, taking off clothing from multiple enemies at once in a row, which helps significantly when surrounded by numerous deadly frogs.

Be sure to watch out for gangs of frog people if you ever visit Akiba.

What initially seemed like an amusing and light-hearted concept quickly became monotonous and tedious. Every fight is exactly the same, and requires almost no tactics or skill. Even the boss fights are unbelievably plain and feel just like fighting another enemy on the street. Towards the end of the game I was dreading any further fights, as the entire ordeal became such a pain that I just wanted to end.

Visuals

I’m going to be brutally honest here. AKIBA’S TRIP is quite possibly the worst looking game of 2021. Considering it’s essentially a “remaster” of a PSP game, I wasn’t expecting too much from the graphics department, though I was expecting more than this. The updated visuals feature new character models, improved textures, and modified lighting, and full 1080 resolution, but still feel as if they belong in another era. For a game that relies heavily on fan-service and eye-candy, there’s surprisingly little to enjoy here.

Left: the original PSP visuals, Right: the updated PS4 visuals.

That being said, the game does somehow manage to replicate Akihabara quite well through its outdated visuals. The streets are based on actual locations and have distinct shopfronts that parody actual buildings in the area. Environments too feature a pleasant filtered light that washes through the skyscrapers from time-to-time, which is an attempt to modernise the PSP-era aesthetic.

Just another day in Akihabara.

Luckily, there are some redeeming features. Character art and short occasional cutscenes are now far more detailed, and have an attractive manga/anime art-style, though I only wish the same effort could have gone into the rest of the game.

Audio

The music of AKIBA’S TRIP is by none other than Toshiko Tasaki, a name you may not be familiar with, but chances are you’ve played a game featuring her music. She’s responsible for the music of the original Persona game, Persona 2: Innocent Sin/Eternal Punishment, and several of the Shin Megami Tensei games. An impressive repertoire of excellent game music! Most of the tracks are inspired by those that you might hear in the real life location – there are upbeat poppy songs, some vocaloid, and others that feel as if they would fit right into an anime series. The game does however feature a proper OP by ClariS – if only the rest of the music was up to this standard!

“Dreamin” by ClariS

On the other hand, the audio of the voice acting is easily one of the best parts of the game, and makes dialogue much more enjoyable. Each character seems to embody a particular otaku stereotype, which is emphasised through their voices and intonations. It’s easy to pick the nerdiest of characters simply by the tone of their voice, or the villains by how sly and mischievous they sound. This can be swapped between Japanese/English at any point, but if you’re playing it in English then why are you even playing this game?

Conclusion

For a game concept as ridiculous and light-hearted as stripping your enemies, AKIBA’S TRIP somehow manages to do so in a bland, boring, and sometimes even unenjoyable manner. Many aspects of the game are already showing their age, particularly the poor visuals and the unintuitive combat – it’s a game that feels like an odd experience to be playing on a modern home console. There are, however, some redeeming factors that may convince you to stick through the entire game: plenty of otaku humour, amusing dialogue, and a reasonably accurate representation of Akihabara (albeit with far more stripping than what I’ve seen when I visited). If you’re a dedicated fan of Japan and its pop culture, this game may amuse you, but if you’re not that way inclined, then you’ll only be stripped of your dignity instead.

So, why should you play it?

  • Amusing dialogue and comedy from a wide cast of characters.
  • Reasonable representation of Akihabara.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Clunky, unintuitive combat.
  • Dated visuals that look out of place on modern consoles.
  • Incredibly repetitive gameplay.
  • Story that reads like a fanfiction.

A review code on PlayStation 4 was provided for the purpose of this review. The game was played and footage captured on a PlayStation 5.

Mini Motorways Review (PC/Steam)

These motorways might be mini, but they’re big on gameplay!

Imagine a brand new portable gaming device with almost no buttons at all. Just a massive touch screen and nothing else, running on its own proprietary operating system and only featuring downloadable games designed specifically for it, no cartridges or discs at all. Sounds absurd, right? Surely nobody would buy something like that. Well, it already exists, and has for over a decade: the Apple iPad.

This iconic touch-screen tablet, while mostly marketed as a device focused on productivity and functionality, has been used for gaming ever since its release in 2010. Like it or not, the iPad is technically an unconventional handheld gaming console, made easily accessible for casual gamers in households and offices across the globe. Early titles like Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Infinity Blade and Plants vs. Zombies HD proved that touch screen mobile devices could produce gaming experiences to rival that of dedicated handhelds. In the following years, many iOS games even achieved critical acclaim: Monument Valley, World of Goo, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (pictured below) to name just a few.

Years later, the obsession with mobile gaming still hasn’t stopped thanks to New Zealand developers Dinosaur Polo Club, the minds behind the puzzle strategy games, Mini Metro (2015) and more recently, Mini Motorways (2019). These simplistic, heavily-stylised, minimalist games make the mundane – traffic – into a mesmorising procedure through vast interconnected networks designed from scratch by the player. What starts off as a simple concept soon becomes increasingly complex!

So how does an iOS/Apple Arcade game like Mini Motorways with a casual style of play and heavy use of a touch screen translate into a dedicated PC experience? Far better than you’d think! Read on in our review that’s hopefully a bit more entertaining than sitting in traffic.

Mini Motorways PC Steam Nintendo Switch iOS Apple Arcade Review

Concept

When sitting in gridlock, have you ever wondered how you might be able to get home, to work, or to your destination just a bit quicker? Maybe with a more direct route, some extra roads, or possibly even a high-speed motorway to reduce your commute? Well, Mini Motorways will help make these thoughts a reality! By taking control of metropolitan networks from around the globe, the player has the opportunity to turn this disorderly drive into a highly-organised mesh of roads and motorways at the click of a button.

Mini Motorways PC Steam Nintendo Switch iOS Apple Arcade Review
Is this what it feels like to work for LA city council?

The game is divided into themed maps, each of which are based on a real-life location. You’ll have the option to build networks connecting huge cities like Tokyo, Beijing, Los Angeles, and many more. They also feature distinct geographical landmarks like rivers and coastlines that make the level not only more authentic, but add an additional level of challenge when building your network.

Gameplay

What might seem like a mundane and complex concept is stunningly simple and oddly-satisfying. The game will slowly introduce you to its gameplay mechanics through a short step-by-step tutorial, which clearly explains the key concepts of the game. The goal is simple: the player must connect coloured houses to similarly coloured destinations by adjoining them with roads by which the cars may travel. Cars must collect pins from their destination, and collecting a pin counts for a single point. As time progresses, additional houses and destinations will begin to appear, making the commute more complex.

Mini Motorways PC Steam Nintendo Switch iOS Apple Arcade Review Gif

More cars on the road will require additional means of managing the traffic. After each week of gameplay (which is the equivalent of a couple minutes), the player will be given additional resources: roads, traffic lights, roundabouts, bridges, and most importantly, motorways. By utilising these different structures, the flow of traffic can be made smoother and more efficient, which becomes necessary when the small map begins to expand a sprawling city.

Mini Motorways PC Steam Nintendo Switch iOS Apple Arcade Review
You’ll be able to build a sprawling network within minutes!

Eventually, pins will be popping up rapidly around the map. Failure to collect enough pins in time will set off a timer on a destination, which will slowly build up unless cars navigate to the pins. Once the timer is full, the level is finished, and the score is calculated by how many pins are collected. This is then automatically uploaded to a worldwide leaderboard to challenge thousands of other players.

Visuals

Clean, crisp, simplistic and minimalist – perfect words to describe the unique visual aesthetic of Mini Motorways. Though initially suited to handheld play, this visual style looks incredibly pleasing on PC, with its straight lines, curved highways, and intricate matrixes of roads. What the game lacks in detail it makes up for in style, with each map having a distinct colour palette and design reflective of its geographical location. For example, when playing in Tokyo, a light shade of pink is used to resemble that of cherry blossoms, and building roads through its trees will result in puffs of pink leaves.

Mini Motorways PC Steam Nintendo Switch iOS Apple Arcade Review
At times it’s almost hypnotic to watch.

It most certainly retains all the visual cues of a mobile game despite no longer having any touch screen aspects. Clicking to place and remove roads and other structures both looks and feels intuitive. The game becomes most visually satisfying once a detailed mesh has been created, with hundreds of tiny cars flitting about efficiently.

Audio

One of the most respected composers in the world of ambient videogame music is responsible for the sounds of Mini Motorways: Disasterpeace. Known for creating the music of games like Fez, and Hyper Light Drifter, it should come as no surprise that the tracks featured in this game are relaxing, hypnotic, excellent background music. There are no particular melodies that will grab you, as the music is entirely procedurally created, and reacts based on your own actions in the game! The songs generated are rhythmic and structured, varying with the scale of the traffic and gameplay, and could easily be listened to on loop for hours. Combined with the soft hum of traffic, the sound of Mini Motorways is a satisfying ambience to accompany the overall experience.

A short snippet of procedurally-generated ambient music.

Extras

Several additional features have been added with a focus on accessibility. Players have the option to remove particular animations, adapt controls, and adjust visuals based on their preference or needs. For a game as simple as this, it’s a nice option to include these added elements where many others would omit them.

Mini Motorways PC Steam Nintendo Switch iOS Apple Arcade Review
As if the game wasn’t already challenging enough.

Additionally, to keep you coming back for more, the game also includes daily and weekly challenges. These are changes based on existing maps – for example, the week in which I wrote this review had a Moscow challenge, which allowed unlimited roads but no motorways and a limited number of bridges (making the entire map incredibly challenging). These slight changes surprisingly make a dramatic difference to the gameplay.

Conclusion

Mini Motorways is a simple concept designed for a touch screen but elegantly adapted for PC, and retains every element of its captivating procedurally-generated gameplay with little to no compromise. What may seem simple on the surface has significant depth and will appeal to those who relish in high scores, trying their hardest to make it to the top of a leaderboard. More casual players too will receive plenty of enjoyment from Mini Motorways, though may already have had the option to play it on their handheld devices and there is no advantage to playing it again on PC. This is a game that can easily be enjoyed by anyone, so it’s worthwhile that those without iOS devices can finally try it out.

So, why should you play it?

  • You’re a fan of simple, procedurally generated gameplay.
  • Love trying to get the high score? This game is for you.
  • Crisp clean graphics and relaxing ambient soundtrack.
  • If you never had the chance to play it on iOS.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Have already played it on a handheld device.
  • If you prefer more complex strategy games.

A review code on PC was provided for the purpose of this review.
Mini Motorways is also coming to Nintendo Switch in Q1 2022.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX Review (Nintendo Switch)

The cult classic SEGA platformer is back and isn’t kidding around.

It’s the year 1985 and videogame consoles have begun to infiltrate living rooms across the globe, marking the beginning of what many now refer to as the “Console Wars“. Nintendo was at the forefront of the industry and Super Mario was quickly becoming a common household name thanks to its simple yet addictive platforming gameplay. So what was rival SEGA to do? Give up entirely, or create an iconic platforming game of their own as competition? It wasn’t until 1991 when the Blue Blur first raced onto our screens, so who was responsible for keeping SEGA and their Master System relevant during this highly competitive period?

It was just some Kidd.
But not just any Kidd, Alex Kidd.

Whoever did the box art really must have a passion for graphic design.

His debut was in 1986 with Alex Kidd in Miracle World, a side-scrolling 2D platformer featuring an expansive world, brutal difficulty, and neat upgrades like motorbikes and helicopters. Did Mario have a motorbike? No? Didn’t think so. Thanks to the popularity of this initial game, 5 further Alex Kidd games were released for SEGA systems during the following 5 years. However, 1991 marked the birth of Sonic the Hedgehog and thus the death of Alex Kidd. SEGA had essentially killed off their own character by turning their focus to another.

Alex Kidd briefly appeared in a Sonic comic

Alex Kidd had sadly faded into obscurity. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. Gaming history became legend. Legend became myth. And for 30 years, Alex Kidd passed out of all knowledge…

…until, when chance came, the Kidd ensnared a new developer.

Thanks to Merge Games and JanKenTeam, this classic platformer has been revived, revitalised, and re-released on almost every console currently available! But how does a 35 year old platformer hold up by today’s standards? Is it as thrilling as it was decades ago, or has your fondness for the game been clouded by nostalgia? I’ve never played the original, no kidding, so it’s about time I get stuck into Alex Kidd in Miracle World for the very first time!

Plot

Many centuries ago, on the planet Aries, there lived a boy named Alex Kidd. For seven years he lived on Mt. Eternal studying Shellcore, an ancient art that makes one strong enough to break rocks into pieces. Kidd would even put Mike Tyson to shame with his punches! One day, as he was leaving the mountain for his spiritual homeland, he encountered a dying man who told him that the peaceful city of Radaxian was in grave danger. Before taking his last breath, the man gave Alex a piece of a map and a medallion made of Sun Stone.

What is it about old men in caves sending little kids on quests?

Alex soon learns of an evil villain by the name of Janken the Great who has overthrown the king and captured the king’s son, Egle, and his fiancé, Princess Lora. The task of rescuing the kingdom from the wrath of Janken rests upon Alex’s fists, and so he ventures toward Radaxian to defeat the three Generals and overthrow Janken to end his tirade on the Kingdom.

There are plenty of interesting characters throughout Alex’s journey, and for an 80s platforming game, Alex Kidd has far more plot than I would expect – even more than most modern games in the genre!

Gameplay

You’ve played a platforming game, right? Surely you have by now, it’s been like 40 years. Well, Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is quintessential retro platforming almost unchanged, and those who have played the original game will feel as if they’ve travelled through time.

The game is split into 17 separate levels, each with a distinct theme, environmental hazards, plenty of enemies, and even some puzzles to help keep Alex’s brain as big as his fists. Each level will see Alex running, jumping, and pummelling his way towards a delicious item of food at the end of the level (you can choose between Onigiri, Burger, Fish & Chips, or a Spanish Omelette). Alex is armed with a deadly punch, numerous upgrades, and added abilities which can be purchased along the way. He’s gonna need all the upgrades you can get too, because Alex can only take a single hit!

Scissors paper rock is the only way to settle a score.

Certain levels also feature special vehicles like a helicopter, motorbike, and plane, during which the game briefly turns into a basic side-scrolling shooter. Most levels also feature a traditional boss fight at the end, and others instead end in a best-of-3 match of Jan Ken Pon (that’s scissors paper rock for all you non-weebs out there). It’s simple and fun platforming gameplay for the most part, but with a major criticism…

Alex moves like he’s been coated in detergent.
He’s slippery, floaty, and just all around awkward to control.
Like a well-oiled machine that’s been oiled just a bit too much.

I’ve played many platformers in my time, hundreds even, from the most iconic like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Donkey Kong Country to the difficult and obscure like VVVVVV or Syobon Action. Never before have I encountered a platformer whose controls I loathed quite like Alex Kidd. When trying to make precise jumps over a chasm, or even just walk up to an enemy so you can wail on it, the sheer slipperiness of the controls can make this an unnecessarily frustrating ordeal. It’s just blatantly unenjoyable at times, and I couldn’t help but blame the game for many of my failed attempts.

You’re going to make Alex die. A lot.

But I did persist through the controls, and eventually became slightly accustomed to their awkwardness. Inevitably the game became more enjoyable, and by the very end I found myself overall happy and satisfied with the experience despite these drawbacks. However, many players who do not persist through the first few levels may find themselves quitting entirely out of sheer frustration.

Visuals

While I found myself at war with the gameplay on numerous occasions, it was the visuals that kept me coming back time and time again. Some players might fondly remember the basic 8-bit graphics of the original some 35 years ago. Well guess what? They look like complete trash now. So what have Merge Games done instead? Created a brand new, gorgeous, highly-detailed pixel art style that perfectly captures the charm of every single level, character, and detail throughout the entire game. It’s without a doubt one of the most attractive platformers you’ll ever encounter. This becomes even more apparent when swapping back and forth between the DX and original visuals, which can be done as easily as pressing a single button!

Hmm, I’m not sure I can see the difference…

Having played both in handheld mode and on a big ol’ 4K OLED TV, I can confidently say every single aspect of the game looks brilliant on either. Even the simple, vibrant cartoony design of the characters really pops and seems to suit the rest of the visuals perfectly. Honestly, I would recommend playing this simply based on visuals alone.

Audio

Like 8-bit visuals, chiptunes too are a thing of the past. While Alex Kidd DX has not done away with them entirely, the majority of the iconic tunes have been rearranged, recomposed, and performed acoustically by a freelance composer and sound designer by the name of Bibiki Garcia. His arrangements of the old chiptunes sound refreshing, vibrant, and incredibly upbeat. Using mostly acoustic instruments like guitar, ukelele and mandolin, as well as melodica and simple vocals to convey a pleasant, childish and carefree style, the soundtrack has been completely modernised and is an absolute pleasure to listen to.

The music for the first level, Mt. Eternal.

Interestingly, some parts of the game retain the chiptune audio aesthetic. Most boss fights and intense moments revert to traditional chiptunes with a modern touch of drum and bass added. It’s a nice homage to the original music, and contrasts with the lighter, more upbeat sound of the overworld.

So what’s new?

Of course some quality of life changes are needed for a 35 year old game – we’ve all become accustomed to things like save files, extra options, and accessibility over the last few decades. Thankfully there have been a number of changes in DX to bring Alex Kidd into the modern era.

Firstly, the option of infinite lives is available from the very beginning, a necessary feature for the vast majority of those wanting to complete the game. I tried several times to play without this turned on, but found myself needing to resort to it in order to progress through many difficult areas. It’s a lifeline that makes the game overall much more enjoyable. Each level also has numerous checkpoints and a save system whereby you can easily drop back in to the level where you’d left off, a luxury that was not available in the original for obvious reasons.

As mentioned above, the graphics can be reverted back to the original at any time with the press of a button, and though there’s no real gameplay advantage to this, it’s a nice touch for those who might have grown up playing the original. Once completing the game in full too, you’ll also unlock Classic Mode which is as close to playing the game on a Master System as you’ll get without blowing the dust off an old cartridge. Though strangely I feel like the controls in classic mode are more precise than DX.

Conclusion

There’s no denying that Merge Games have done a truly brilliant job in modernising this classic SEGA game and bringing it into the hands of a new generation of gamers. While those who played it all those years ago are bound to get a nostalgia kick out of DX, the decades I’ve spent playing polished platformers have spoiled me and as such there were many aspects of Alex Kidd’s gameplay that felt imprecise and tedious. Luckily, other aspects of the game such as its beautiful pixel art visuals and upbeat, rearranged soundtrack kept me hooked until the very end. While it’s not a perfect game, it’s a passion project that’s clearly been made with love for a game that is near and dear to those who grew up playing it.

So, why should you play it?

  • You’ve played the original and have nostalgia for it.
  • Gorgeous pixel art makes your eyes happy.
  • You’re always up for a challenge.
  • Need some upbeat music? Kidd’s got you covered.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Slippery, imprecise controls often become frustrating.
  • Feels unfairly difficult at times.
  • Many other better side-scrolling platformers available.

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

Death’s Door Preview (PC)

Reaping souls ain’t much for the Crow, but it’s honest work.

Devolver Digital have certainly garnered a reputation for being one of the best indie videogame publishers in the business. Their madcap approach to advertising and promotion coupled with handpicked creative and often unusual games has caught 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, Devolver only seem to get better with age.

Just a few of the excellent games from Devolver.

To add to their already vast library of published titles, earlier this year the team announced a game by the name of Death’s Door, an intriguing hack & slash following the tale of a soul-collecting crow set in a stylish gloomy world. Created by Acid Nerve, the two-person team responsible for Titan Souls, this immediately grabbed my attention thanks to its unique visual style and its avian protagonist and characters. Thankfully, the kind team at Devolver have provided me with a preview build to explore this entrancing world well before its launch on the 20th of July.

So what awaits behind Death’s Door?
Let me open the door a crack and give you a peek into the preview.

Premise

Office work can oftentimes be monotonous, and that’s no exception the Crow, who lives life by the clock, punching in on a daily basis and delivering the harvested souls of those who have died. Every day is much the same in this bleak and monochrome office, 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.

*Not an actual screenshot from the game.

However, this routine task doesn’t quite go according to plan…
Upon collecting the next assigned soul, the Crow [STORY DETAILS REDACTED] and when returning to the office, it’s made apparent that the Crow’s own soul may be in danger unless actions are taken to fix what has just occurred. Venturing back into the bleak landscape to seek a solution, he just so happens to stumble upon…

Though inconveniently (but convenient to the plot) the door is locked, and the key to opening it lies in collecting 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 complete the mission he has been tasked with. And so the Crow’s journey begins…

Gameplay

The game takes place across a sprawling map that is accessed through doors in the office-like hub world. By entering these doors, the crow is thrust into 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 and secret locations that effortlessly link back to one another. Even though the preview build only showcases 5 of these areas, I was fascinated by each and wanted to explore every single corner to satisfy my own curiosity. Environmental puzzles will hinder the Crow’s progress throughout these area, and while most are simple, they are rewarding and offer more of a challenge when simultaneously trying to fend off hordes of enemies.

After exploring the main area, the map eventually branches off into smaller, more intricate locations that have the feeling of a traditional dungeon and reminiscent of Zelda titles. In the preview build, exploring the Ceramic Manor (the Urn Witch’s Mansion) involved collecting several keys, solving small puzzles in each room, fighting challenging enemies, and collecting the souls of four deceased crows to unlock a door and progress. After unlocking this door, the Crow gains the ability to fling a fireball, allowing access to a deeper area of the dungeon and then to the boss that awaits menacingly at the end. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the dungeons of A Link to the Past or Minish Cap in this design, but this is truly a compliment to the gameplay.

The first dungeon’s puzzles involve lighting fires.

Combat

Harvesting souls is not without its dangers, and as such the Crow is equipped with weaponry to help on this treacherous quest. Three melee weapons were made available in the preview build (sword, daggers, umbrella), and two ranged attacks (bow, fire spell). 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. Collecting souls while progressing can be spent back at the office to upgrade the strength of attacks, the speed at which they can be performed, or other stat boosts that assist the Crow during combat.

Though I only played for just over 2 hours, by the end of the preview build I felt proficient in the combat and was able to take down the final boss without taking any damage. 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 bloom that sprouts from them. This means that every enemy encounter must be done with caution to avoid losing health unnecessarily.

Visuals

Interestingly, the game’s design and visual style seems somehow both charming and unnerving. The isometric view and detailed environments occasionally appear like miniatures or scale models, and the design and animations of the Crow are cute and at times juxtaposes with the bleak surroundings. Enemies feature a cartoonish yet grotesque appearance, and the design of some characters is just straight up hilarious, including a cast of characters whose heads have been replaced with pots by the wretched Urn Witch.

I love this character as much as I love soup.

It’s a lovely looking game and its eye-catching environments like detailed dioramas definitely had me pausing to appreciate the Crow’s surroundings on numerous occasions. 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. Though this has just been a taste, I’m excited to see the entire world in the full release shortly!

Audio

I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack. So how does Death’s Door hold up in only this short example? Well, the world of Death’s Door is bleak, so too should be its music. Each track in the preview build has a certain sadness to it, mostly 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:

What’s next for Death’s Door?

It’s hard for me to pass judgement on a mere preview of the game, but of what I’ve played so far, I’m eager for more. An intriguing world, smooth combat, and attractive visual style definitely make Death’s Door a game you’ll want to keep your eyes on like a hawk (or a crow). It releases shortly on July 20th for PC and Xbox One/Series S/Series X, and I’ll absolutely be playing the full version as soon as I can get my claws on it! Keep an eye out for the full review which I’ll be posting closer to launch.

You can find out more about Death’s Door below:
https://store.steampowered.com/app/894020/Deaths_Door/
https://www.devolverdigital.com/games/deaths-door/
https://playdeathsdoor.com/

Scarlet Nexus Review (PlayStation 5)

Plug in your brain and dive into the Scarlet Nexus in this brand new anime game.

For as long as there has been anime, there have been tie-in videogames. These date back to as early as the 1980s in which early Japanese animation paved the way for the popular media format. The iconic film Akira, and series like Lupin III, Yu Yu Hakusho, Fist of the North Star, Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop all received the tie-in game treatment. This tradition of tie-ins gained momentum throughout the ’90s and still continues today in which modern anime are adapted into videogames, many of which manage to achieve critical acclaim.

Some have have sought to reverse this concept, making anime series based off videogames. It’s not a new concept by any means, as popular titles like Street Fighter, Mega Man and most prominently, Pokemon, have spawned animated adaptations. It only makes sense that a game created with such an animated style would make for an eye-catching and engaging animation to attract different audiences to the series.

But how about taking that concept one step further – creating a videogame that IS an anime? New series have begun to blur the line between videogame and anime, and that is certainly the case with BANDAI NAMCO Studio’s brand new IP, SCARLET NEXUS. A videogame that not only looks, feels, sounds and plays like an anime, but is also being released almost simultaneously alongside a SCARLET NEXUS animation. We’ve finally come full circle.

So for those wanting the anime experience without the need to commit to 700+ episodes, does Scarlet Nexus manage to deliver an authentic gripping sci-fi/brainpunk anime series condensed into an action-RPG? Well, plug in your brain and dive in, because you’re about to find out.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Kasane Yuito

Story

The story begins with what is the most important choice in the game, the player is prompted to choose between male character Yuito Sumeragi or female character Kasane Randall. Depending on which character is picked will vary the perspective on story dramatically, though they do run parallel to each other and overlap on numerous occasions. Honestly, these two distinct stories have enough individual content to have been divided into two different versions akin to Pokemon (maybe something like SCARLET NEXUS and AZURE NEXUS).

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Other Naomi
One of the horrific Others.

Playing as your chosen protagonist, you begin as a lowly recruit to the OSF – the Other Suppression Force – a group of highly-trained and specialised soldiers tasked with defending the metropolis of New Himuka (which is basically a fictional Tokyo). Members of the OSF are revered within society, as they possess unique psyonic abilities they can utilise to fend off the “Others”, interdimensional monstrosities who manifest in the Extinction Belt in the sky and wreak havoc upon the earth. The sole purpose of the Others are to pursue and kill humans and consume their brains, and the origins of these hideous creatures are initially unknown but are explored through the game’s story.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review General Karen
The badass generals of the OSF, one of whom is called Karen. How unfortunate.

Within the first few hours of gameplay dozens of characters belonging to the OSF are introduced, each of whom belong to several unique teams that carry out regular missions to pursue the Other invasion. Eventually Yuito and Kasane become squad leaders, each with a team of their own that you’ll interact with throughout the story, though their stories soon diverge and will again reunite at a later point with vastly different motivations.

I cannot discuss in-depth many aspects of the story without spoiling it significantly, though I will say the game has far more beneath the surface than it seems once you explore past the initial anime clichés. Political motivations, corruption, betrayal and deceit feature heavily as some of the themes at play in Scarlet Nexus, and there are multiple plot twists that will take most players by surprise.

Gameplay

The gameplay is divided into three main aspects: Story Phase, Rest Phase, and dialogue/cutscenes.

Story Phase is exactly what the name would imply: it’s the portion of the game that focuses on the main story. Taking control of the main character and their squad, you’ll be heading out on important story missions that involve exploring locales, defeating enemies, solving simple environmental puzzles, and inevitably duking it out with a boss at the end of the phase. Once the boss is defeated, you’re given more insight into the story and the characters around which it revolves. It’s a completely linear, simple experience, which though repetitive is still satisfying thanks to the game’s characters and combat.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Hyper Speed
Using hyper-speed on an abandoned highway during the story phase.

Each new area in the story phase features distinct Other foes that will often require use of different abilities to dispatch, and you’ll be faced with waves of these enemies as you explore. Defeating these enemies will steadily accumulate XP which automatically improves character attributes and allows the player to spend points on a skill tree to improve the main character’s combat abilities. There is also some incentive in exploration, as going out of your way will reward you with collectible items and materials that can be used to upgrade weapons, create gifts for your team members, or unlock unique cosmetic items.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Brain Map Abilities
Unlocking more of the brain map will help considerably during combat.,

Rest Phase is Scarlet Nexus’ version of the “Social Link“, providing conversation and insight into characters through light-hearted interactions. The squad base (which feels strangely like a college sharehouse), is where the characters regroup after a mission and relax after a hard day of slaughtering Others. During these segments characters will be able to interact and strengthen their Social Links bonds which will in turn provide incredibly helpful added bonuses during combat. Using materials gathered during the story phase you’ll also be able to create gifts to help level up character bonds a bit faster. These interactions are initially amusing, but quickly lose their novelty, as each bond conversation is essentially 5 – 10 minutes of small talk and become very tempting to skip.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Kasane Kyouka
Attempting to make friends in one of the more rest phase interactions.

The rest of the game is comprised of cutscenes and dialogue that are focused almost entirely on story, which is intriguing and unravels over the 30+ hour journey. At times it feels exactly like watching an anime, and at other times it’s more like reading an interactive manga. Thankfully these sections are far more interesting than the rest phase interactions, and are likely to keep you engaged and keen for more snippets of story.

Combat

Going into Scarlet Nexus completely blind and spoiler-free, I had little idea of what to expect from its combat. From previous experience I’ve noticed that most anime games generally seem to fall within the category of turn-based combat, or generic fighting game (with some exceptions). In this case, however, Scarlet Nexus has gone above and beyond with some of the most gripping, fluid, fast-paced and enjoyable combat I’ve ever encountered in an action-RPG.

Playing as one of the two main characters, most of your main combat abilities are focused on psychokinesis, the ability to control objects with your mind and use them as weapons against the enemy. Discarded items can be flung as projectiles, trains can slam into and destroy enemies instantly, or environmental ornaments like chandeliers can be flung around like a deadly spinning tops. Using psyonic attacks will deplete a meter which can be refilled through weapon attacks, all of which will slowly deplete the enemies’ break gauge. Once the enemy has been broken, a finishing attack can be performed which will unleash a devastating move that will either completely destroy the enemy or remove a large chunk of the bosses’ health. Though that’s really only the surface of the combat.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Special Move
Using a powerful finishing move on a downed Other.

Combat really ramps up when you get other OSF team members involved. As you progress through the game you’ll have several other recruits added to your squad, each of whom have a unique ability that can be used both inside and outside of combat. Activating their ability applies a modifier to your own skills, such as turning you invisible, giving you super speed, duplicating yourself, or adding elemental attacks. What initially starts off as a fun mechanic becomes engrossing when you unlock the ability to apply 2 or even 4 of these modifiers at once. You’ll be able to decimate enemies in seconds thanks to the abilities your team-mates confer. Turning invisible and activating hyper-speed to 1-hit KO an enemy with a sneak attack is supremely satisfying.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Brain Field
Activating the Brain Field is always satisfying.

Finally, the most satisfying element of combat doesn’t appear until you’ve dived deep into the game, when the ability to activate the Brain Field is finally unlocked. Plugging in and entering a space beyond reality, your attacks become overpowered and amplified, and can be used to quickly overwhelm the enemy. This is accompanied by a distinct visual sequence that transforms the world around you. Though this must be utilised with caution, as Brain Fielding for too long will be harmful to your character and can even kill them completely.

Visuals

Quite possibly the most anime aspect of Scarlet Nexus is its visuals, particularly in regard to its character designs and animations. Models for characters are clean and crisp, especially when playing on PlayStation 5 where the games runs at 4K and a buttery 60fps. Despite being rendered in 3D, the game achieves a character style that feels authentically anime, and the designs of the characters emphasise this with their varied characteristics, hairstyles, physiques and weapons. Each character during combat has distinct attacks and colours – these look great and help the player to distinguish which character is making an action or active in combat.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review Akihabara
Just going for a walk around Akihabara New Himuka.

While the cutscenes too look excellent and are well-animated, it’s disappointing that the majority of the game is presented as bland static scenes with character panels overlayed. It’s a simplistic way to convey character interactions, but just not particularly engaging, especially when you’re made to sit through lengthy scenes of exposition. Thankfully there is always a skip button available if you’re finding a conversation to be bland or tedious.

Scarlet Nexus PS5 PlayStation 5 Anime Visuals Combat Review
Most interactions are static with character overlays like this.

Most of the environments unfortunately are nothing to write home about, and occasionally feel quite generic. When out on missions you’ll explore locations like factories, abandoned quarries, mysterious libraries, suspicious research facilities, and overgrown highways, often revisiting these areas on several occasions. It’s not that they look bad, but they’re just not impressive or eye-catching. This is made even more obvious when you’re exploring the city of New Himuka, which looks comparatively brilliant with its hustle and bustle of neon lights and busy walkways.

Audio

Unusually, the composer Hironori “Guts” Anazawa, isn’t known just for his contributions to videogame music. Though he has prepared and composed music for prominent games like Pokemon Sun/Moon, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and Daemon x Machina, he’s also responsible for music heard in the anime Prison School, and featured in multiple Japanese TV commercials. An interesting and varied portfolio!

The music he has created for Scarlet Nexus presents a plethora of genres, spanning multiple musical styles. With songs consisting of synth/electro through to lounge/acid jazz, J-pop and hard rock, all the way to industrial metal, there’s something here that will appeal to almost everyone. Tracks feel distinctly futuristic fitting with the game’s setting, and music ramps up in response to your combat, increasing both the pace and pitch when certain abilities are activated.

This track gives off Persona 5 vibes, good thing too, because you’ll be hearing it a lot!

Thankfully a game featuring a truly colossal (and sometimes overwhelming) amount of dialogue also features some excellent voice acting performances. When beginning the game you’ll be given the option to pick between English/Japanese voiceovers, which is a nice touch for an anime-style game and will satisfy subtitle purists as well as dub heathens. Having played exclusively in Japanese, I can vouch for the quality of the Japanese cast, who could easily convince you into thinking you were actually watching an anime. The quality of these voiceovers certainly helps during some of the arduous dialogue.

Conclusion

Thanks to its intriguing story and truly excellent combat, Scarlet Nexus offers one of the better original anime game experiences in recent years. Although the game achieves some phenomenal highs and will almost certainly appeal to those seeking brilliant sci-fi action, there are unfortunately many moments where interactions and excessive dialogue feel like bland filler episodes and will tempt you to skip them entirely. Thankfully the enjoyment of the more important parts of the game vastly outweigh its drawbacks, and overall anime fans would be foolish to avoid Scarlet Nexus because of this. Bandai Namco have created a brand new series that I’m already eager to see return, even to the point where I would happily consider playing through the game once more to experience the other protagonist’s perspective.

So, why should you play it?

  • You’re a fan of anime, particularly those with an emphasis on sci-fi/action.
  • Truly brilliant combat system that is engaging and fast-paced.
  • Intriguing story with numerous unexpected plot twists.
  • Colourful cast of characters.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Excessive dialogue can be tedious and bland.
  • Gameplay can feel repetitive at times.

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

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights Review (PC)

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain (of death)?

Love it or hate it (and many do hate it!), the word “Metroidvania” is one that has become widely used across the videogame community. An amalgam of Metroid and Castlevania, this portmanteau describes a specific sub-genre of action/adventure videogames that feature 2D platforming, role-playing game elements, and vast interconnected locales that promote exploration and backtracking. Popularised by iconic genre-defining games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, this style of gameplay has since become a staple of many modern games within the indie scene.

Though the origins of the genre arose in the ’80/90s, this group of games is now more popular than ever. Indie titles over the last decade have solidified the Metroidvania (sorry, I’ll stop using that word now) as one of the most prominent and admired: games like Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge, Dead Cells, Guacamelee!, and Ori and the Blind Forest just to name a few. Any self-respecting indie studio nowadays seems intent on releasing a game to compete with the ranks of these celebrated titles. And just when I thought I had seen them all, I discovered the most engrossing action/adventure game I’d encountered since I delved into Hallownest

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights, published by Binary Haze Interactive, a new player in the indie scene, is a dark fantasy 2D action RPG releasing on PC, Nintendo Switch this month, and Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, PS4 and PS5 later this year. At first glance this might just seem like another gloomy, gothic adventure inspired by the likes of those that have preceded it, but assuming that would be grossly underestimating the experience on offer in Ender Lilies. So how does a game so clearly inspired by others hold up against the source material, or sometimes even surpass it? Well, it’s time to dive into End’s Kingdom and the endless deluge that awaits…

Plot

In Land’s End lies a fragile young girl, lost and alone; a White Priestess awakens to discover the entire Kingdom has fallen and its inhabitants now afflicted and corrupted by a fowl Blight that has scoured the entire land. Greeted with the muted, soothing sounds of raindrops, the Priestess ventures further into a ruined cathedral to discover a downpour inundating and infecting all those that it touches: the Rain of Death. Though not truly alone in this ruined world, the Priestess is accompanied by the soul of one who in life strived to protect her, a valiant knight whose spirit joins her on this journey to unravel the mysteries that await.

It is the task of the lone Priestess to explore the source of the Blight, face those who have suffered from the ceaseless rain, and purify their souls so that they may find peace. Through the act of purification, the foes whom she faces may be redeemed and join her side to aide her quest. In the style of the Souls games, snippets of story are pieces together through character dialogue, depictions, and discarded notes that lay amongst the dilapidated ruins. What initially seems like a cliché gothic storybook evolves into an engrossing, entrancing setting that simply begs to be explored.

Gameplay

If you’ve ever played one of the games that belongs to this sub-genre, you’ll feel immediately familiar with the gameplay of Ender Lilies. Exploring an intricate, sprawling map with distinct locales, environmental puzzles and littered with secrets and collectibles feels as thrilling as the first time I ever played Symphony of the Night. Before you awaits a corrupted world divided into regions each featuring unique enemies, bosses, and blighted to purify, and feels as through you’re stepping into a 2D Kingdom of Lordran. In a style of game with such a heavy emphasis on platforming, the controls during running, jumping and dashing feel like second nature, and both the character and enemies have a distinct weight and momentum to their movement.

Google Maps isn’t going to help you here.

Throughout the Kingdom you’ll encounter the discarded corpses of those who have succumbed to the blight – some of whom may take you unaware in ambush, or others that lay menacingly in wait the end of foreboding arenas and hallways. Defeating these foes will allow the Priestess to purify them, and in turn their spirit will fight by your side. Collecting these souls will expand your repertoire of skills, adding elements like a double jump, dash, swimming, ground slam, all elements that will help unlock new areas that were previously inaccessible. It’s typical action/adventure fare that offers a means of player progress, but executed cleverly in a way this does not seem dry or uninspired.

Taking a moment to rest.

With systems that feel akin to Hollow Knight, the player may pause at benches and swap their equipped souls to ones that are more suited to particular area. Treasured trinkets may also be gathered on your adventures and equipped to enhance your abilities, though these will take up equipment slots that may be expanded by discovering necklaces scattered throughout the Kingdom. In another similarity, the player’s health can be restored by pausing in a solemn moment of prayer, which is useful when exploring but leaves the Priestess vulnerable. Prayers can be replenished not through combat, but by discovering white lilies that grow in even the most horrid, desolate environments.

Combat

It is truly difficult to put into words the flowing combat of Ender Lilies, which is some of the most responsive, intuitive, and enjoyable combat available in a game of this genre. What initially feels slow and awkward becomes a fluid combination of attacks, skills, dodges, and special moves that are easy to learn but difficult to master. An almost infinite repository of combat skills and attacks are on offer thanks to the spirits the Priestess purifies throughout the game, each of whom adds a new weapon to the arsenal. Whether you’re a player who prefers a swift onslaught of attacks, keeping your distance through ranged attacks, or a barrage of slow-but-heavy destructive moves, the combat can be customised to suit your liking.

If you want to survive in the blighted Kingdom, you’ll need to be observant, as each enemy has a distinct set of choreographed moves with tells that will alert the keen eye to the next incoming attack. By watching the movements you’ll be able to perform carefully-timed dodges and parries, allowing you to quickly counter and break the enemy. This becomes even more important through the inclusion of a stamina/stagger meter, which can be depleted through steady attacks on an enemy, leaving them wide open. Chaining together a series of uninterrupted attacks to tear down the stagger and then the health bar of a difficult boss is the ultimate feeling of satisfaction.

Wait a sec, I didn’t think this was a bullet hell game?

Although the environments and regular enemies can at times pose quite a challenge (especially when you are locked into arenas where blighted knights must be defeated before progressing), it is the game’s bosses that capture the true essence of Ender Lilies’ combat. The sheer variety of bosses and the skill required will put even seasoned players to the test, especially when the boss you thought you had just defeated transforms into a gargantuan, disgusting Eldritch abomination with twice as much health. There is no doubt that many of the foes you face will require numerous attempts, but the inevitable defeat of a boss is an experience that will have your heart racing by the end of the encounter.

Visuals

Combining the magnificent and the macabre, I do not exaggerate when I say that Ender Lilies is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous games I have encountered thanks to its detailed and distinct environmental art. While obvious nods to the likes of Castlevania and Hollow Knight appear throughout the Priestess’ journey, such as resting and saving at distinct benches scattered throughout the Kingdom, the game manages to create a truly beautiful, gothic-inspired art-style unlike any other game I’ve played. Each new region presents with it a unique visual aesthetic, while maintaining the overall art-style of the game which feels like playing a morbid fairy-tale.

Detailed environments, while bleak, are a pleasure to look at.

The visuals are at their best when elements of beauty can be found within even the darkest, most grotesque settings. While standing upon a mound of skulls, a serene light engulfs the scene and washes over the character. A darkened and lonely bedroom offers a brief respite and moment of comfort in an otherwise violent and dreadful deserted castle. Colossal cathedrals loom in the background and frame the boss fight occurring in the foreground – you’ll often be distracted to admire the sheer detail within all of these environments. Though enough of me trying to explain how beautiful the game can be, here’s some screenshots that speak more than words:

Audio

The music to Ender Lilies has been composed entirely by Japanese indie group, Mili, who have created songs that feature in anime like Goblin Slayer and Ghost in the Shell and rhythm games like Cytus and DEEMO. Few words are more fitting when describing the music of Ender Lilies than melancholy. The game’s sombre sounds of solo piano and haunting ethereal vocals echo throughout its disturbing environments, and sound as though they offer a fleeting glimmer of hope amongst the dark and daunting world. Songs will vary considerably based on your surroundings – heavy rain in open areas will dampen the track and remove its vocals, whereas the same song played indoors will be calming and detailed, adding extra layers of audio that were not previously present.

The theme of The White Parish area.

Overall the soundtrack features 50 tracks and a colossal 144 minutes of music, which is a massive amount for an indie game. There’s a lot to love about the music to Ender Lilies and I’ll likely be listening to it for weeks to months to come.

It’s also worth noting that the person responsible for the game’s sound effects is Keichi Sugiyama, who you might not know by name, but you’ll certainly recognise the games he is responsible, notably Rez, Daytona USA, and Rule of Rose. His experience in sound design is certainly reflected in the quality of the game’s audio, particularly in its frequent use of rain, water, and numerous audio cues that add to the overall experience.

Conclusion

Combining a bleak yet entrancing world with expansive exploration and seriously satisfying combat makes Ender Lilies one of the best in the genre, and in ways surpasses the games that have inspired it. Every moment throughout its 10 – 15 hour journey is captivating to say the least, and the game has taken me completely by surprise in what I can comfortably say has been one of the finest games I’ve played so far this year. If you consider yourself a fan of games like Symphony of the Night and Hollow Knight, you would be doing yourself an absolute disservice by not playing Ender Lilies. This is a game you must play.

So, why should you play it?

  • You’d consider yourself a fan of games in this genre.
  • Challenging and satisfying combat that never feels unfair.
  • Truly gorgeous art style, environments and soundtrack.
  • Interesting world that is intriguing to explore.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • You struggle with challenging combat and swift dodging.
  • Not a fan of platforming games.

A review code on PC was provided for the purpose of this review.
Find out more about Ender Lilies here: https://www.enderlilies.com/

Shantae (GameBoy Colour) Review: Nintendo Switch

How does the Half-Genie Hero’s debut hold up after almost 20 years?

WayForward, an independent videogame developer and publisher based in California, have certainly made reputation for themselves over the last decade. Though the company was founded in 1990, it’s not been until the last decade that they’ve become a common household name. Memorable titles like Ducktales: Remastered, Aliens: Infestation, and most recently River City Girls have well and truly proven the studio’s knack for creating modern side-scrolling games and keeping this retro genre alive.

River City Girls Nintendo Switch
Kyoko and Misako fight for their boyfriends in River City Girls (2019)

However, one WayForward series stands hips and shoulders above the rest. I’m of course talking about the entrancing, belly-dancing, eponymous Half-Genie Hero: Shantae. Conceptualised in the mid-’90s during the boom of Nintendo’s killer handheld, the Gameboy, it wasn’t until the end of the console’s life cycle that Shantae made her debut on the videogame stage. In a bold move, the game was developed entirely for the GameBoy Colour and released in 2002 after the launch of the GameBoy Advance, a choice that game director Matt Bozon says contributed to the game’s poor sales.

Shantae Art Nintendo Switch
Shantae’s stylish character design definitely put WayForward on the (treasure) map.

Despite its poor sales performance, the original Shantae is widely-recognised as one of the best games released for the GameBoy, and it pushed the hardware to its limit. Additionally, gaining quite a cult following, it has become one of the most valuable games on the handheld, with original boxed copies occasionally going for upwards of $3000USD. Almost 20 years since its inception, WayForward’s flagship character now boasts five separate entries and over 3 million sales across the entire series. An incredibly impressive figure for a series that initially struggled for financial success!

Shantae Gameboy Color Colour Prices
Screw BitCoin, I’m going back in time to tell myself to invest in Shantae.

Now in collaboration with Limited Run Games and Modern Vintage Gamer, WayForward have revived the original Shantae title, republished, enhanced, and ready to dance on Nintendo Switch. This means that for the first time ever, all 5 games in the series can be played on a single console! So forget about taking out a personal loan to secure a copy of the original Shantae, because for a mere $10 it’s time to step back in time to one of the best GameBoy Colour games ever made.

Shantae Dancing Sprite Gif

Plot

Scuttle Town is a peaceful abode by the sea, bordered by a vast desert and inhabited by a cast of quirky characters. It’s also home to a mystical Half-Genie who lives not in a bottle, but in a lighthouse. However, that peace is soon interrupted by the nefarious lady-pirate, Risky Boots, who catches wind of a ancient technology recently unearthed in Scuttle Town: the Steam Engine. With the ability to produce an immense amount of power, Risky will stop at nothing to make this mystical invention her own, and whisks the dangerous device away for her own selfish plans.

Shantae Ret 2 Go Nintendo Switch
Shantae is always ret2-go!

As the self-appointed “Guardian Genie” of Scuttle Town, it’s up to Shantae to get Scuttle out of trouble! In order to thwart Risky’s plans, Shantae must recover the four Elemental Stones, each of which can be used to harness a unique power that can run the steam engine indefinitely. Spread out across Sequin Land and protected within ancient labyrinths, Shantae will need to uncover her hidden genie powers to obtain the mythical items and put an end to Risky’s escapades once and for all.

Gameplay

This initial entry in the series introduced a style of gameplay that has helped define all the other Shantae games that followed it. A unique blend of side-scrolling adventure, platforming, exploration and RPG elements combine with clever animal transformations making for a GameBoy experience unlike any other. I’d go so far as to say this is some of the most ambitious gameplay you’ll find on the console, and thanks to this it has aged incredibly well. The game takes place over three main areas: the overworld, dungeons, and towns, splitting the game into three distinct styles of gameplay.

Exploration: Spread across a sprawling map, there’s a vast world to explore in Sequin Land, which at times sometimes feels a bit overwhelming due to its impressive size for a GameBoy game. Each location has distinct enemies, platforming challenges, and environmental puzzles that you’ll need to overcome by using abilities that are acquired throughout the game. Using her hair as a weapon, Shantae will also need to fend off enemies spread throughout the overworld.

Shantae Overworld Gameboy color Colour Nintendo Switch

With a day-night cycle, numerous hidden collectibles, and expansive exploration, you’ll spend the majority of your time trekking the overworld in between its dungeons and towns. This can occasionally become bothersome, as the technical limitations of the GameBoy mean the screen is only capable of displaying a small portion of the area, and considering Shantae at times controls like a floating brick, you’ll often fall into obstacles that you have no way of predicting or avoiding.

Dungeons: Four major labyrinths appear during the game, each containing one of the four Elemental Stones. These are comparable to dungeons from early Zelda games, which feature a unique ability that will need to be utilised in order to progress. Through the mystical power of dance, Shantae can transform into one of four creatures: Monkey, Elephant, Spider, and Harpy. By rescuing the dungeon’s genie and unlocking a new transformation, you’ll be able to gain access to new areas and solve puzzles in order to progress. Then, at the end of each dungeon awaits a large boss that often also requires clever use of the transformation. These dungeons are entertaining, satisfying to solve, and in my opinion the overall highlight of the game.

Shantae Transformation Elephant Gif Nintendo Switch
Transforming into an elephant lets Shantae smash through obstacles.

Towns: These laid-back areas are the most entertaining aspect of Shantae, featuring colourful characters and incredibly amusing dialogue. By chatting with NPCs you’ll obtain not only snippets of information to aide Shantae on her quest, but also some legitimately hilarious conversation. Each town also contains a shop to purchase items like potions and weapons, a bath house to restore your health, a Warp Squid (for fast travel), and generally some form of optional minigame that can be played to accumulate currency. It’s a nice change of pace and some of the most unique presentation in a GameBoy game.

Shantae Nintendo Switch Gameboy Color Colour Zombie Caravan Joke
The Zombie Caravan is my personal favourite and is packed full of hilarious dialogue.

Visuals

When playing Shantae, there’s one key fact to remember: this is a port of a GameBoy game. While the newer Shantae games feature gorgeous, vibrant, detailed graphics, the original somehow manages to achieve this despite the technical limitations of the hardware at the time. Character and enemy sprites and their animations are detailed, environments are colourful and packed full of detail, and the towns offer an impressive over-the-shoulder view unlike anything I’ve encountered in a game of this era.

Shantae Nintendo Switch Gameboy Colour Pixel Art
The pixel art is particularly eye-catching.

WayForward managed to create a unique visual aesthetic drawing influence from both The Legend of Zelda, Aladdin, and real life Middle-Eastern Culture. This game’s visuals have formed the foundation of the series as a whole through its distinct art style and iconic character design. For players wanting to appreciate this further, there’s the inclusion of a bonus art gallery which features plenty of interesting concept art.

Shantae Nintendo Switch Gameboy Colour Art Gallery

Audio

At the time of its creation, the music of Shantae was composed by a mostly-unknown video game musician, who had actually dropped out of school to take up game music full-time. Having made soundtracks for only a handful GameBoy games, WayForward recruited the young musician and in doing so unknowingly helped create one of the most prolific VGM composers of all-time: the now legendary Jake Kaufman. Best known for his incredible music to Shovel Knight, Jake’s distinct chiptune style shines through every track of Shantae, which features many songs that have been used throughout the entire series.

Despite being a mixture of blips and bloops coming out of a Gameboy, the soundtrack has a distinct Middle-Eastern sound, as if being played by an 8-bit oud. It’s appropriate for the setting, catchy as heck, and honestly never gets old, which is important considering GameBoy tracks often have very short loops.

So what’s new?

Although the game is mostly unchanged, the Switch port makes several welcome improvements that help this near 20-year old game feel just a bit more modern. Save states are available, meaning that at any time the game can be paused and saved/loaded, which makes some frustrating areas much less tedious. I found myself not using it much, but it’s a welcome addition for those not accustomed to retro games. There are also several added visual options allowing the game to be played at a native resolution, with a sharp filter, or with an LCD screen effect layered on top.

Shantae Nintendo Switch Gameboy Colour Pixel Visuals Sharp LCD Filter
Sharp filter (left) and LCD filter (right).

The entire game now also includes the “GBA-enhanced” version, which features improved colour palettes and an additional “Tinkerbat” transformation that can be unlocked, allowing Shantae to fly. These all come as welcome additions, but do not add any massive enhancement to the overall gameplay.

Conclusion

Considering this piece of GameBoy history would have previously cost you almost $1000 to own and play legitimately, a mere $10 feels like a bargain to experience the first game in this brilliant series. Though the gameplay at times may feel clunky and frustrating to control, there is a wealth of enjoyable content in Shantae that ensure you forget any of its shortcomings. Not only is this an incredibly charming, amusing adventure introducing an iconic cast of characters, but it’s also a sheer technical marvel when you remember that it was designed solely for the GameBoy Colour. Although it might not be Shantae’s most outstanding performance, fans of the series and retro gaming alike would be foolish not to at least give this excellent Switch port a go.

Shantae Nintendo Switch Gameboy Colour Pixel Art Dancing Sprite

So, why should you play it?

  • You’re a fan of the Shantae series and want to explore its origins.
  • Retro platformers are up your alley.
  • Gorgeous pixel art and catchy chiptune soundtrack.
  • Satisfying dungeon design akin to older Zelda titles.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Dated gameplay compared to the rest of the series.
  • Controls are at times clunky and frustrating.
  • Won’t appeal to those not fond of retro games.

A review code was provided for the purpose of this review.

Mighty Goose Review: Nintendo Switch

Let loose the Goose of war.

Videogames where the player takes control of an animal are not a new concept. Whether it’s gliding through the sky in games like Eagle Flight, stalking through the streets of Japan in Tokyo Jungle, wreaking ragdoll havoc in Goat Simulator, or sprinting across open fields while leaving a trail of gorgeous flowers behind you in my all-time favourite game, Okami, animal games feature in almost every genre. Even triple-A titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot are widely popular series where the player assumes the role of an animal.

Then, in 2019, a small Australian developer named House House released an animal-themed videogame that absolutely took the world by storm. With a cheeky waddle, a startling honk, and wily waterfowl antics, it was an experience that stole the hearts of gamers much like its feathered protagonist stole a town bell. I’m talking about none other than Untitled Goose Game. The quintessential example of an animal game; this perfectly captured the distinct traits of a goose and allowed players to wreak havoc upon a quaint English village. However, after playing it, this got me thinking: why aren’t there more games where you play as a goose?

Untitled Goose Game Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch

Well, my question has been answered above and beyond all expectations thanks to the other goose game: Mighty Goose (available on PS4/PS5, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch). This brand new indie run n’ gun title developed by Blastmode, is not only a guns-blazing game where you play as a bounty-hunting space goose, but it’s the closest experience to Metal Slug outside of the classic arcade series. Considering Metal Slug has been as good as dead with its last main release now over 10 years old, a massive tank-shaped hole has been left in my heart. But you know what? This game just shoved a goose right into it.

So how exactly is a goose similar to a slug? You’re about to find out.

Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch Xbox One PC PS4 Gif

Story

You are the galaxy’s number one bounty hunter. Samus Aran? Not quite. Defending the universe and thwarting evil is no easy task, and that’s why you play as the only one who can get the job done: the Mighty Goose. In a chubby goose-shaped space craft and a drop pod resembling a goose egg, no mission is too dangerous for this brave hero. The story is delivered through short snippets of dialogue between characters (and the occasional honk from the protagonist), but the main goal is to take down an Interstellar Flying Fortress known as KOLOS and the king who controls it.

Void King Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch PC Xbox One PS4
Void King roasts the goose before enjoying a roast goose.

With the aid of his companion, Regular Duck, this daring goose must explore treacherous landscapes, rescue valuable allies, and form a team capable of taking down the evil Void King and any foe that stands in your way. At times the story is quite amusing, but this is by no means a game you’ll be playing for its deep narrative.

Gameplay

This is where the goose is at its mightiest. This is the ideal example of snappy, responsive, satisfying run n’ gun gameplay. If you’ve ever played a Metal Slug game, you’ll feel right at home with what’s on offer in Mighty Goose. You’ll be blasting hordes of enemies with a barrage of bullets and piloting overpowered armaments through 9 different levels, and fans of the genre are likely to love every single minute.

Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch Xbox One PC PS4 Boss Fight
Now it’s the Goose doing the roasting.

Simple controls and a mild level of difficulty make this gameplay easily approachable even for those completely unfamiliar with the genre. Exploring each level lasts approximately 10 – 15 minutes and features a mixture of platforming combined with hectic onslaughts of enemies. Power-ups are plentiful, which are dispersed throughout each level and provide new weaponry (machine guns, rockets, lasers) or vehicles that can be piloted for extra fire-power. The game also features a Mighty Meter that charges up during combat and can be activated once full. Mighty Mode unleashes the sheer fury of the goose, making the player will become invincible for a short period of time and upgrading the current weapon to quickly decimate all enemies on screen.

Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch Xbox One PC PS4 Metal Slug
Metal Slug Goose

Progressing through the game will unlock optional upgrades that can be equipped in the armory after each mission. These include secondary weapons (reflector honks, chonker bombs etc.), new companions to assist you during missions, and abilities like double jumps or extra ammo. Using these wisely will make combat dramatically easier, and once you become comfortable with these additional skills, you’ll be chewing through enemies quicker than a duck chews through a piece of bread.

Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch Xbox One PC PS4 Combat

The game is certainly at its most thrilling during the massive bosses, which quite literally allow every level to go out with a bang. Seasoned players will be able to beat these with minimal challenge, but they’re each incredibly enjoyable, frantic and fast-paced fights packed with explosions. Activating the Mighty Mode at the perfect time and blasting through the boss’ health bar is incredibly satisfying and leaves every level on a high.

Visuals

Equal parts comical and epic, Mighty Goose features a stylish and detailed pixel art with vibrant colours, exceptional attention-to-detail, smooth animations, and explosions aplenty. It’s an absolute pleasure to look at, and the design of each level and boss is distinct and stands out from the rest. UI and menus also have an aesthetic not unlike an arcade game, and the entire visual feel of the game takes clear inspiration from the likes of Metal Slug while applying its own unique goose-themed aesthetic.

Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch PC PS4 Xbox Graphics Visuals

Slow-motion sequences will randomly trigger during intense battles, and the occasional massive goose head (pictured above) will launch across the screen with an echoing honk. Visual touches like this certainly add an amusing style to the already attractive experience. Having played the game in 50% handheld and 50% docked mode, it performs exceptionally on each and the visuals work incredibly well both on the small and large screen.

Soundtrack

As stylish as its visuals is the game’s pumping synth soundtrack. Composed by Dominic Ninmark, who has created soundtracks for several other indie games, his music is a delicious side dish to accompany this main course of goose. Most of the tracks feel as if they’ve been plucked from an ’80s action movie and then compressed into an arcade machine. They’re high-tempo, catchy, and fit the arcade style gameplay perfectly. At times it even feels like you’re listening to songs that might have been featured in Kung Fury – that’s a massive plus for me.

Conclusion

Albeit short, with 100% completion possible in as little as 3-4 hours, Mighty Goose offers a thrilling experience with joyous gameplay in a succinct, action-packed adventure. You don’t have to be a dedicated run ‘n gun fan to enjoy the game, as difficulty is forgiving and simple enough for anyone to easily pick up and play. However, if you are a run ‘n gun fanatic, this game is a must-play and will likely have you grinning ear-to-ear with subtle (and not so subtle) references to the iconic series that inspired it. My only criticism is that extra content is lacking – multiplayer (which would have been perfect!) is lacking completely, and once you’ve completed all the levels there is little incentive to keep playing.

Mighty Goose Nintendo Switch Xbox One PC PS4 Cool Gif Riding

So, why should you play it?

  • Are you a fan of Metal Slug? Then this is a no-brainer.
  • Wanting to try out a run ‘n gun game? This would be a great place to start.
  • You’re after a short, punchy action game that’s just plain fun.
  • Gorgeous pixel art and design.

But why shouldn’t you play it?

  • No multiplayer and you’d rather play a game like this with friends.
  • You prefer games that offer endless hours of gameplay.

A review code for Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.
Some footage included is from the Xbox One version of the game.