Category: Reviews

The Last of Us: Left Behind Review

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The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s gritty, unflinching take on a post-pandemic United States, was a great step forward for interactive storytelling when it released last summer for the PS3, featuring unparalleled character development and some truly amazing sound design. However, it was frequently padded out by the same repetitive combat we’ve seen time and time again from the developer. Nearly a year after the game’s release, Naughty Dog has finally released the game’s sole piece of single-player DLC, titled The Last of Us: Left Behind, and though it’s significantly shorter than the core game, it finally delivers on the promise the developer set out to fulfill: to tell a moving story that’s not hampered by all the video game cliches that so often thwart such efforts.

Left Behind functions primarily as a prequel for Ellie’s story, but it also attempts to explain some of the narrative gaps from The Last of Us proper. Although Ellie may be the primary focus this time around, we also get meet her best friend Riley, a silver-tongued girl with a knack for bending the rules. The two girls have a very good rapport and their bond is portrayed in a very honest and realistic light; they play jokes on each other, make up games together and curse at each other in a way that only best friends can. Hands down, the key aspect of Left Behind lies in their relationship, and Naughty Dog has found the perfect way to make it completely sweet and endearing without being overly sappy.

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If you liked The Last of Us purely for its gameplay and not its story, not only are you crazy, but you might also be a bit let down by this DLC. Left Behind is primarily focused on giving us insight into Ellie and Riley’s lives above anything else. The game doesn’t have much of a difficulty curve to master, yet I never found myself thinking it was too easy. There are some challenging fights included, but the main focus here is on Ellie and Riley and showing us their “down time” together in a more laid back way. The game focuses on what any of us in Ellie and Riley’s situation would want to do: forget, even for just a couple hours, and the beauty of The Last of Us: Left Behind is its ability to make you forget about the infected, spore-filled baddies that are waiting to rip your head off and try to enjoy a leisurely carousel ride with your BFF.

There is no way to talk about this DLC in too much detail without spoiling what makes it so great. Yes it is a bit short, but once it was over I was still completely satisfied with my play-through. Left Behind is a well done continuation of The Last of Us that features the same alluring visuals, honest characters and subtle, yet superb score that drew us all in last summer.

A

Side Note: Last fall there was a set of four comics released called The Last of Us: American Dreams that followed Ellie and Riley’s story as well. The comics are not needed to understand Left Behind in any way, but there are definitely some references to the comics within Left Behind that I did enjoy. If you are interested to see what us here at Invisible Gamer thought you can read our review here.

 

Yoshi’s New Island Review: The New Generation

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Let’s not beat around the bush here: there’s nothing really new about Yoshi’s New Island. I know, that’s shocking, right? Just like in the original Yoshi’s Island, you’ll run around with a tantrum-prone infant on your back, flutter like a baby bird that’s just fallen out of the nest, and toss freshly laid eggs at winged clouds (think about that for a minute.) You’ll lick dirty coins, gobble up happy little flowers, and chase down annoyingly agile, anthropomorphic stars decked out in tap shoes ten sizes too big for them. And you’ll accomplish all these feats of wonderment in a sickeningly adorable world that looks like it was dreamed up by the star student of Miss Bendahan’s Kindergarten art class. In short, no self-respecting adult would be caught dead playing Yoshi’s New Island. Which is completely fine with me, because while they’re in the corner respecting themselves, I’ll be having a blast with an excellent new take on an enduring classic.

yoshi5 yoshi8The first thing you’ll notice about Yoshi’s New Island is how tactile it all looks. Nearly everything in the game seems to have been drawn by hand, cut out with kid-safe scissors, and affixed to the screen with Elmer’s glue. Clouds dance on skies of lavender and powder blue construction paper. Pencil-shaded beanstalks spring up out of the ground and loop through the sky like sketches come to life. Even polygonal characters like Yoshi and Mario beg to be touched, with a fibrous, felt-like sheen that stands in stark contrast to their sterile, corporate mascot counterparts in the New Super Mario Bros. games. The aesthetic of Yoshi’s New Island is a playful pastiche of visual styles that recalls ’80s era PBS shows like Reading Rainbow, and I absolutely love how it all comes together. It’s also got a brilliantly off-kilter soundtrack that sounds like it was recorded by a bunch of drunk toddlers, riffing on the same theme from stage to stage with whatever instruments they could find at the time. Trust me, it’s way cooler than it sounds.

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Every stage in the game is brand new, but if you’re holding onto fading memories of Yoshi’s Island, you might think they’ve been transplanted directly from the 1995 original. Déjà vu will be constant for players who are more familiar with the source material, but it hardly matters given the strength of the new game’s level design. Whether deftly dodging hordes of seed-spitting monkeys, fluttering across a patchwork landscape, smashing everything in sight with screen-sized eggs, or racing against the clock in special vehicle-based sub-stages, players are presented with an impressive variety of challenges from beginning to end. And though most stages can be completed with minimal effort if you’ve got a modicum of experience with platformers, the difficulty ramps up considerably once you start collecting all the red coins, flowers, and stars required to unlock each area’s bonus stage. There’s also a handful of two-player minigames that can be played across two systems with only one copy of the game,  but let’s just say “we played them so you don’t have to” and leave it at that.

Adjustments have been made to the Yoshi’s Island design to make it friendlier to first-timers, but players experienced with the series might be in for a small adjustment period. As a huge fan of the original, I was immediately taken aback by how much slower Yoshi moves this time around, though the more deliberate pace seems to have been put into place to counteract the increased size of characters and enemies on screen. There are also a few extra frames of animation worked in here and there that slow the action down by a notable, if minor, degree. The egg-readying animation, for example, is now needlessly belabored, making it more difficult to hit small targets on auto-scrolling stages; Yoshi’s “stunned” expression now lasts a split-second longer after he gets hit, making it extremely unlikely that you’ll recover Mario without losing any stars. Speaking of stars: checkpoints no longer retain your star count, meaning if you die after passing one, it’s usually impossible to collect all 30 stars without restarting. On the flip side, you no longer have to gather every kind of collectible in a single run-through of a stage, which takes some of the pressure off players going for 100 percent. For example, you might choose to focus one pass of a stage collecting all the red coins, then return later to track down the flowers. The overall experience is no better or worse for these changes, it just takes some getting used to.

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When Yoshi’s New Island was announced last year, it was met with a collective shrug from most fans, myself included; it just seemed uninspired. But now that I’ve played through it, I’m happy to admit I was wrong. It’s impossible to deny that in many ways it’s just a re-skinned, re-tooled Yoshi’s Island… but Yoshi’s Island is one of the greatest platformers ever made, and if this is how Nintendo wants to re-introduce it, who am I to complain? It’s been a long, long time coming, but Yoshi’s New Island is every bit as good as the original, and now, a whole new generation of players will get to call it their own.

A-Minus

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of Yoshi’s New Island is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo. The game launches on Friday, March 14th, 2014.

Retro City Rampage DX Review: Better the Second Time

When I originally reviewed Retro City Rampage back in 2012, I praised its breathless callbacks to ’80s and ’90s pop culture and classic, top-down GTA-inspired gameplay while lamenting its confusing mission objectives and frequent difficulty spikes. It was a game I desperately wanted to love, and indeed, I’d fallen hard for it after my first hands on at E3 2011. But by the time I’d finished the final game and watched the credits roll, the only emotion I could muster was frustration.

I hadn’t originally intended to revisit RCR when it landed on the 3DS, but thanks to an unexpected invitation to an eShop developer event in late January, I had a chance to sit down with Brian Provinciano, the game’s developer, and discuss my problems with the original release. Much to my surprise, Provinciano told me the issues I’d brought up had all been addressed for the 3DS version, which was being re-branded as Retro City Rampage DX. Now that I’ve played through it, I’m happy to say that RCR DX is a huge improvement over the original, and a pretty easy recommendation whether you’ve played it before or not.

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For those who haven’t, Retro City Rampage is the game you and your born-in-the-’80s friends fantasized about on the playground while passing around your older brother’s porn and eating Otter Pops: a shapeless mélange of Mario, Sonic, Contra, Ninja Turtles and Mega Man, mixed with an equally gaseous helping of Back to the Future, Batman, Ghost Busters and Saved By the Bell… all tied together within the free-roaming, choose-your-own-adventure structure of the Grand Theft Auto games. Sounds good, right? And it—

TIME OUT!

dukenorrisThe thing about Retro City Rampage is, it isn’t just spiced liberally with references to the ’80s and ’90s — it is those references. And while having grown up on a steady diet of this stuff means I basically  love all of it by default, there were times when I wished the game would slow down with the spoofing and offer up some ideas of its own. Still, the classic callbacks come in so fast and furious that it’s easy to get lost in the game as you race from mission to mission, chasing one hilarious sendup to your childhood after another.

TIME IN!

—is, as long as you grew up on this stuff. If you didn’t, you’re missing half the fun.

Thankfully, there’s so much wacky stuff to do here that familiarity with the subject matter isn’t strictly necessary. From feeding corpses to a haunted hearse and rampaging across the city on the back of a giant gorilla, to participating in a televised deathmatch à la Smash TV, most players will find something to love in Retro City Rampage DX’s 60+ story missions. There are plenty of optional activities to engage in as well, from earning medals in arcade challenges to unlocking hidden weapons and even playing a prototype version of Grand Theftendo (the NES homebrew game that would become Retro City Rampage). And there’s good news for those of us who were put off by the original game’s uneven difficulty: every single mission in RCR DX has been redesigned for ease of play, meaning you’re far less likely to give up and quit out of frustration.  In most cases, the challenges themselves haven’t gone through any drastic changes, but small concessions like hint cards, additional checkpoints, and the option to skip some missions altogether add up to a game that is much more friendly to modern players, and a hell of a lot more enjoyable as a result. I still had trouble in some missions— particularly those that pitted me against hordes of enemies with rocket launchers—but for the most part, I found myself spending less time in frustration and more time simply having fun, wandering around the city and taking in all the marvelous details that went into the creation of the game.

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Speaking of little details, those of you who played the game on other platforms will notice one immediate change—the field of view is a lot smaller than before. That’s the result of pixel-doubling, which gives the impression that the camera has moved closer to the action. And while you’d think this would make the game feel cramped, Provinciano has cleverly implemented a dynamic camera system that zooms out and pans ahead when players are moving quickly, meaning you’re almost never at risk for driving blindly off a cliff or crashing into a building. Moreover, the increased pixel size makes it easier to appreciate the game’s art, which simply oozes with charm, and creates a greater sense of agency between player and character (whose name, by the way, is Player.) Besides, it feels more like an NES game this way, which was kind of the whole point all along.

When I reviewed Retro City Rampage in 2012, I said it was “a great example both of the freedom that comes with independent development, and the perils of having nobody around to tell you no.” Provinciano was so slavishly dedicated to an idea that he sometimes forgot the most important thing: player satisfaction. In contrast, 2014′s Retro City Rampage DX is a marvelous example both of digital distribution and of the two-way dialogue between gamers and game makers: if something isn’t working as originally designed, there’s nothing stopping it from being fixed in a future update. While I’m still not amused by some of the game’s humor, I have an even greater deal of respect for the work that went into its creation than ever before. Retro City Rampage has always been an amazing idea—a love letter to everything that was great about the ’80s and ’90s—and now, in its DX incarnation, it’s finally become worthy of a little love of its own.

B-Plus

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of Retro City Rampage DX was based on an eShop download provided to us by the developer shortly before the game’s release.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review

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High school. It’s tough, right? Not only are you forced to waste your days away inside while old people drone on about pointless topics you’ll forget completely within a year, but you’ll have to do it while carving out a place for yourself in a social hierarchy consisting entirely of sociopaths. “Trust us,” they’ll tell you. “It’s for the greater good.” High school comprises the most important of your formative years, because it’s during these years you’ll learn the greatest lesson of all: the race to the top is paved with casualties, and the only way to succeed is to be as self-centered, cunning, and ruthless as you can while crushing the dreams of as many of your peers as possible.

Okay, so perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. High school can be rough, but it’s not literally going to kill you. Not so in the world of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, developer Spike Chunsoft’s latest PlayStation Vita game: in this school, murder is a prerequisite for graduation, and the only student who’ll earn a diploma is the one who manages to kill a fellow student and get away with it. It sounds absurd, of course, and it is: teenagers are all kind of wack, but nobody in their right mind would willingly subject themselves to such a deadly experiment. But over the course of its bizarre tale, Danganronpa does its best to convince you that everyone — from the jockiest jock to the so-sweet-you-can’t-help-but-love-him Everyman — can be pushed to the point of murder if given the proper motivation. It’s a story chock full of mystery, intrigue, anime tropes and tons of inappropriate jokes about teenage sex, and… well, you’ve probably already read enough to know whether or not Danganronpa is right for you.

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I’ve been vague about Danganronpa‘s plot because, like any good mystery, it’s easily ruined by spoilers. Having said that, there is an actual game under the seemingly endless walls of text that comprise the majority of the experience. At its most engaging, Danganronpa riffs on the procedural courtroom action of the Phoenix Wright series, though you’re playing for the prosecution rather than the defense. Once a student is murdered, you’ll spend a certain amount of time scouring the halls of the school for clues that might point to the identity of the killer, then proceed to a trial that generally ends in one of two ways: either you successfully reveal the killer’s identity and then bear witness as the school’s demonic headmaster executes them, or you guess incorrectly and it’s game over. Trials play out through a series of minigames; sometimes you’re given an opportunity to present key evidence that refutes a witness’s testimony; more often, you’re using an on-screen crosshairs to literally shoot down statements that don’t jive with the facts of your investigation. It’s basically a combination of twitch reflexes and logical thinking, and though the trial mechanics are pretty shallow, these segments do an admirable job of making you feel smart – like you’re actually solving murders the way they do it on TV.

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It’s this reward more than anything that makes the game worth seeing through to its conclusion, though unfortunately the story goes so far off the deep end by the final act that court proceedings begin to feel more like trial-and-error than forensic science. You  find yourself faced with multiple statements to contradict that are so minutely different from one another that it becomes near impossible to get it right the first time even when you know the answer, and because the dialogue drags so much by this point, you’ll spend minutes at a time cycling through repeated (and unskippable) dialogue until you’re given another opportunity to refute what you hope is the correct testimony. Not fun.

Still, despite the late-in-game unraveling of Danganronpa‘s plot, I’d become so invested in its characters over the 15 hour adventure that I couldn’t help but push through to the end. This was due in no small part to the game’s optional social sim minigame, which is basically a simplified version of Persona 4′s social links system. In between chapters — when students aren’t quietly plotting each other’s demise or freaking out about their friends getting murdered — you’ll have an opportunity to get to know each of the game’s extensive cast of characters. This is both a blessing and a curse. From a gameplay perspective, spending enough time with specific students (and wooing them with the right gifts from the school store) will earn you new abilities that can make trials a little easier to get through; at the same time, developing relationships with your fellow students makes the inevitable murders sting that much more as you find yourself struggling with the resulting loss or betrayal of a friend.

Because there are way more students to get to know than you’ll actually have time to talk to (people are getting murdered, remember?), you’ll never be able to max out your social links in a single playthrough. Thankfully, Spike Chunsoft has included a bonus “School Mode” for those who finish the main story and want to continue getting to know the characters without having to slog through the trials again. In School Mode, you’re tasked with collecting parts to make… uh… teddy bears (no spoilers, remember?), but in between jobs, you’re free to spend time with the rest of the characters without the threat of their murder looming over your shoulder (though the characters will reference the murders because the dialogue is recycled from the main game.) For those of you who prefer “2D,” you can even pursue romantic relationships with certain characters, though if that’s why you’re playing School Mode, might I suggest you put your Vita down and go outside for awhile instead?

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I’m conflicted about Danganronpa. On one hand, it’s yet another example of the fetishism of hyper-sexualized cartoon characters that continues to pervade gaming, and frankly, I find that kind of embarrassing. On the other, it’s a well-crafted murder mystery with an endearing cast of characters I continued to love even as the plot was unraveling to its unsatisfying conclusion. But as I mentioned earlier, just a quick look at a couple of screen shots will probably be enough to convince you whether you’re going to play Danganronpa or not. If you’re looking for a game that will frequently lift your spirit but don’t mind your heart being stomped on from time to time, you could do a lot worse.

B

 

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was based on a retail download provided to us by the publisher.

 

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition Review

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When Crystal Dynamics debuted its Tomb Raider reboot at E3 2012, it was hard to ignore the game’s emphasis on stomach-churningly visceral violence — a trend that, as it turned out, would characterize the vast majority of AAA action games released over the next 12 months. From a visual effects standpoint, it was easy to understand why developers were chasing the old ultra-violence: the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 had been on the market for the larger part of a decade, and they’d spent that those years learning how to make the two consoles sing. But it wasn’t the human viscera that made Tomb Raider feel so disturbing; rather, it was the constant beating down of its heroine, Lara Croft — rendered with heartbreaking vulnerability by actress Camilla Luddington — that had media and consumers alike wondering: had Crystal Dynamics stepped beyond an acceptable level of cartoon violence and into the realm of misogyny? And was this okay for a mainstream action game?

A year removed from its original release, Crystal Dynamics has taken the opportunity of a new generation of game consoles to give Tomb Raider a new layer of polish, and aside from some questionable remodeling of Lara’s face, this new “Definitive Edition” is a marked improvement over what was already a stunning game. The most obvious upgrade is the bump in resolution to 1080p, which provides crisper, smoother, and more complex images than ever before. On top of this is a vastly improved lighting system and impressive volumetric weather effects, all rendered on the PS4 at twice the frame rate of the previous release without a hint of slowdown; If you’re not used to big screen gaming at 60 FPS, the effect can be dizzying. I should probably also mention I had a lot of fun with the game’s use of the Dual Shock 4′s light bar, which flashes white whenever Lara fires a gun, or flickers red and yellow whenever she lights a torch.

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Aside from the improved visual presentation and controller gimmick, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is the same game released last year, so if you like your action games with a heavy dose of spectacle, it’s still easy to recommend. Like the Uncharted games it takes most of its design cues from, Tomb Raider catapults players from one breathtakingly chaotic action set piece to another, all the while moving Lara Croft from one end of a mysterious island to the other as she attempts to uncover an ancient and deadly secret. Breathless escapes from collapsing caverns, death-defying leaps off exploding bridges, and heart stopping climbs to the tops of rickety radio towers — a personal favorite of mine that, like Far Cry 3, gives me sweaty flashbacks to an experience I had in the Peruvian Amazon — these are the rule of the day, and you’re hardly given a chance to breathe from one heart pounding moment to the next.

The campaign has a breathless sense of forward momentum that is difficult to ignore, but if you manage to take a few detours, you’ll be rewarded with a fair number of diversions within each of the game’s myriad environments. In the tradition of the Metroid games, Tomb Raider constantly teases you with areas you won’t be able to reach until you’re properly equipped. See a tantalizing dark cavern atop a ledge that’s just too far to jump to? Come back once you’ve acquired the climbing axe and you’ll discover an optional tomb that challenges your puzzle-solving abilities and rewards you with skill points to build up your character’s abilities. Notice a doorway that’s been sealed shut with a metal barricade, teasing you with the unknown riches that your GPS tells you are hidden within? You’ll need a grenade launcher for that. Long after you’ve completed Tomb Raider‘s story, you’ll want to go back to these areas, just for the fun of exploring every last nook and cranny of this amazingly realized island.

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But what about that violence? Is it still an issue now that we’ve had a year to digest it? Have we uncovered some deep, underlying point to it all? Does any of it even matter? These remain tricky questions to answer. Ostensibly, this Lara Croft has never before been forced to take a human life, and the early moments of the game see her pushed to that point by an increasingly disturbing series of abuses and tortures at the hands of her tormentors. The first kill is shocking, due in no small part to Luddington’s performance. But once the moment has passed, there’s no gradual development of the character from bookish academic to hardened survivalist: she turns on a dime into a ruthless, effective murderer, all the while sobbing bodily at the inhumanity of it all. You’ll kill, and you’ll kill, and you’ll kill some more, and at some point, you just have to laugh at the disingenuousness of the whole affair.

Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot is one hell of a ride regardless of the platform you play it on, but it remains flawed by its deep incongruity between narrative and gameplay. Hopefully, the developer will think long and hard about how to address these issues in the inevitable sequel.

B-Plus

 

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition review is based on a retail download provided to us by the publisher.

Super Mario 3D World Review

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The Wii U hasn’t been able to gain much traction at all in the year it has been on the market, with sales so poor that Nintendo was forced to cut the system’s price prematurely in an effort to encourage new adopters before the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hit the stores this November. Even New Super Mario Bros. U wasn’t enough to help long-term growth, and with Rayman Legends — initially announced as an exclusive for the platform — making its way to not only other current generation systems, but next-gen as well, questioning the early purchase of a Wii U shouldn’t seem unreasonable. Pikmin 3 was slightly underwhelming to me, delivering a solid experience that left me wanting more from a title that had been delayed months from its initial release date, but I knew I was really just biding my time until the next 3D Mario game was released. Luckily, Super Mario 3D World does not disappoint.

For the first time in several years, Mario is finally saving someone other than Peach this time around. Small creatures called Sprixies have been captured by Bowser (of course) and are trapped inside glass jars at the end of the game’s initial seven worlds. Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad are all available to tackle the game’s massive collection of stages, and their attributes are almost identical to those in Super Mario Bros. 2. Mario is the most balanced character, Luigi can jump the highest, Peach can jump the farthest and Toad can run the fastest, but the choice is largely just player preference; I personally found myself alternating between Mario and Luigi the majority of the time, but those are also the characters I’d usually use when playing Super Mario Bros. 2. In addition, an extra character can be unlocked after completing a few of the game’s bonus levels, which are made available after completing World 8. This character — who shall remain nameless to avoid spoiling the surprise — uses a special spinning attack that makes defeating groups of enemies easier and allows players to reach platforms following a botched jump.

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Make no mistake: while Super Mario 3D World is an enormous game, it doesn’t revolutionize the series like Galaxy did on the original Wii. Instead, it acts as a successor to the excellent 3DS title Super Mario 3D Land, with a flagpole at the end of most stages and similar mini-bosses on the last stage of each world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. While the basic layout of 3D Land remains largely intact, the levels are mixed up enough to keep it from ever feeling monotonous. “Captain Toad” levels force players to collect several stars without ever jumping, while special challenge stages force players to collect five stars within ten seconds of each other. These stages are some of the best in any 3D Mario, as I found myself on the edge of my seat, determined to not miss a single star. One has players rolling down a ramp to throw a giant baseball at a star before they fall over the edge, while another utilized jump pad and a “POW” block, with almost no room for error making it a white-knuckled affair.

Level design is also a sharp and creative as it has ever been, with awesome throwbacks to games like Super Mario Kart and Super Mario World mixed with towering areas that make fantastic use of the game’s signature power-up, the cat suit. This allows Mario to slash at enemies, pounce from the air, and, most importantly, scurry up vertical walls. Many of the game’s stars are only accessible with the cat suit, making it a must-have for quite a few levels. Other power-ups include the new “double cherry” which allows Mario to duplicate himself multiple times, as well as a few returning ones like the tanooki suit and the boomerang suit. I absolutely loathed the double cherry, as I found it far too difficult to control more than one Mario at a time, especially since it’s very easy for them to get separated from each other.

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Perhaps the highest praise I can give to Super Mario 3D World is that it takes the two worst parts of any Mario game — water levels and Ghost Houses — and actually makes them fun. No longer are players forced to swim through an entire level, crossing their fingers that an enemy comes for them just as they had started swimming in the wrong direction, and one level that used moving blocks of water was one of the best in the entire game. Boo and his buddies still pull some of their old tricks, such as disappearing doors and fake blocks, but these are much less prevalent than in the past, and a later level involving a headlamp power-up gives Mario a little bit of revenge for how annoying the Ghost Houses have been over the years.

Unfortunately, Nintendo has still shown very little reason for why the Wii U Gamepad is a necessity for fans of its classic first-party titles. A few levels make use of the touchscreen and the microphone, but these feel like tacked-on gimmicks. Blowing on the controller to make a windmill device spin doesn’t exactly validate my purchase. Moreover, 3D World is a successor to 3D Land, a game that took its title from the fact that it was on a system that actually had 3D technology. This means that gauging jumps can be quite frustrating, and if it weren’t for the addition of four-player cooperative play on a big screen, there would be no reason for the game to not be on the 3DS instead.

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Super Mario 3D World is the best exclusive on the Wii U, without question. It’s an excellent example of how Nintendo can bring unique design to the Mario formula, and although we’ve seen bits and pieces of this greatness in the past, never before have they come together quite like this. Also, you get to see Bowser dressed up as a kitty. That should be reason enough to buy it.

A

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Review

lbwyuga-noscaleIt’s hard to imagine a more influential game than The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Even after Nintendo dragged Zelda into the third dimension with 1998′s Ocarina of Time, the series continued to cling so tightly to A Link to the Past‘s exploration-heavy formula that it’s a wonder it took 22 years for the company to cook up a direct sequel to one of the Crown Jewels of the SNES library. It won’t come as a huge shock to longtime fans that the resulting game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, feels more like a remake than a proper sequel, with a world map that closely resembles its predecessor’s and a story that, more than anything, fills in the space between the lines; what is surprising is that, with just a few key changes to the formula, A Link Between Worlds manages to best its progenitor in nearly every way, making it the definitive classic-style Zelda adventure.

A Link Between Worlds’ version of Hyrule is familiar in broad strokes, but the small details and changes Nintendo has worked into its playground add up to a world that feels lived-in, rather than simply recycled. A lakeside cave, previously home to a generic potion seller, is now inhabited by a giant squid who’s too big to leave her home and search for her 100 missing children. A local pub, once sparsely populated (and without a bartender!) is now a popular spot to grab a glass of, er, milk and listen to local musicians’ unique renditions of classic Zelda songs. Though not all changes are welcome ones — a fat man dressed in a bee costume comes to mind as one of the most hideous additions to Zelda lore since the invention of Tingle — it’s a testament to the simple charms of Nintendo’s design work that A Link to the Past now feels lifeless by comparison. I’d rather wander a Hyrule populated by Maiamais, derby kids and middle-aged cosplayers than one without them.

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Where A Link Between Worlds celebrates and expands upon its predecessor’s geography, it’s downright shameless in its appropriation of A Link to the Past’s narrative. The SNES game introduced the concept of duality to the series with its pioneering Light World/Dark World mechanic, which saw Link travel back and forth between a prosperous version of Hyrule, and a cursed one. A Link Between Worlds gives a name to this dark reflection of Hyrule — it’s called Lorule, geddit? — and a history to match it. Lorule is ruled by the raven-haired princess Hilda, whose concern for the prosperity of her people is every bit as admirable as Zelda’s (even while her methods are not.) Like Hyrule, Lorule has its own Sacred Realm, its own Triforce, and its own evil sorcerer: a Gerudo-like man named Yuga who plans to expand the ruin of Lorule across Hyrule’s beautiful borders. Using a dark magic that opens up rifts between Hyrule and Lorule and a wand that turns people into paintings, Yuga kidnaps seven Hylian sages that are the key to resurrecting an ancient evil. You’ll use these inter-dimensional fissures to guide Link back and forth between worlds, rescue the sages, and halt Yuga’s plans before they come to fruition.

zeldalbwshopThough A Link Between Worlds is built upon the same three act structure that has defined the Zelda series for decades, the rigid path to completion that Nintendo has stubbornly clung to since 1992 has been tossed aside; instead, players are treated to a much more open design philosophy, one that hearkens back to the original Legend of Zelda , which was a revelation for gamers in the 1980s.  You’re no longer gated off from the most dangerous reaches of Hyrule and Lorule simply because you’re missing a specific tool that’s locked away in the basement of some dungeon; now, you can acquire pretty much every tool you need to explore within the first couple of hours of play. After a brief encounter with Yuga, you’ll be rescued by a mysterious rabbit-masked fellow named Ravio, whose only request for recompense is that you let him use your one-room house as a place of business. And what is that business, exactly? Well, Ravio’s somehow acquired all the signature tools of the adventuring trade — hook shots, magic wands, bombs and boomerangs — and he wants to rent them to you.

Okay, so it’s a goofy setup: you’re paying Ravio to squat in your home. But it’s a minor narrative hiccup compared to the convenience of having almost instant access to every item you’ll need to finish the game. There’s a catch, of course: the second you die, any items you rent will be repo’d by Ravio’s assistant, and then you’re forced to scrounge up the cash all over again to get them back. It makes for an interesting risk/reward proposition: the rental system frees you up to go pretty much anywhere you want, but you might quickly find yourself ill-equipped and regretting your decision to wander into unfamiliar territory.

Soon enough, you’re given the opportunity to buy your tools permanently, but the markup is exponential. Luckily, there are ample opportunities to load up your virtually bottomless wallet, from minigames to mini dungeons. Hyrule is absolutely brimming with things to do: you can wander for hours without ever stepping foot in a proper dungeon, playing baseball, rescuing baby Maiamai to upgrade your items, collecting heart pieces, and hunting for optional treasures, like the rare ore you’ll need to unlock your sword’s full potential. Once you do start tackling the dungeons, you’ll find your experience differs significantly depending on the order you approach them in. You might ease yourself into the quest with the relatively simple Swamp Palace, but by the time I wandered into my first Lorule dungeon, it turned out to be one of the most difficult: the Ice Ruins. It was a hell of a way to start my quest proper, with ice-covered floors and monsters constantly bumping me into bottomless pits… not something I’d recommend with a green tunic and only 5-6 hearts.

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Despite the navigational frustration I experienced by starting on a dungeon that would have previously been relegated to “late game” status, the Ice Ruin’s puzzling layout forced me to master Nintendo’s newest “Zelda gimmick”: the Merge ability. Early on, you’re given a bracelet that transforms you into a living, Byzantine-style drawing of Link that can merge with walls. Besides allowing the game’s designers to build some of the most unique and inspired puzzles in series history, Merge also made me consider the top-down world from a more three dimensional perspective, and as I slipped between cracks in walls and shimmied along the edges of cliffs, I gained an even greater appreciation for the work that went into updating one of gaming’s greatest landscapes for a modern presentation.

There’s so much to love about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I love how fluid it feels. I love the character designs based on concept art for the original Legend of Zelda. I love the Maiamai sidequest that hearkens back to Link’s Awakening’s hidden seashells, and the not-incredibly-difficult-but-still-awesome bosses, and the simple, challenging StreetPass battles that paid for several of Ravio’s most expensive items. And I love the ending. I don’t know if A Link Between Worlds is the best Zelda game ever made, or if I’m just riding high on the wave of good feeling I’ve had since I first witnessed its familiar title screen. But I do know this: The Legend of Zelda is in better hands than it has ever been, and that’s a rare compliment for a franchise that has been so prolific for so long. It can only get better from here.

A

 

 

Invisible Gamer’s review of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo. The game launches on November 22nd,  2013.

Pokémon X and Y Review: A Tale of Two Trainers

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When we reached out to Nintendo about our upcoming review for Pokémon X and Y, we didn’t anticipate the company’s PR branch would send us download codes for both games… but it worked out rather perfectly as it allowed two writers with two very different takes on the series to weigh in on what has been touted as the first major evolution in a series that has come to be defined by its sameness. Our main review (and the site’s official score) have been written by the young and hopeful Eric R. Miller, who’d barely stopped drinking from a bottle when the original Pokémon Red and Blue games came out in 1998. Providing a second opinion will be Invisible Gamer’s founder and resident grizzled oldman, Michael Burns, who hasn’t been able to stick with a  Pokémon game since giving up on Silver and Gold in high school.

Read on for our thoughts… you might be surprised!

Youngster Eric Wants to Battle!

For an entire generation that came into gaming after Japanese development ceased to be the behemoth it was in the ’80s and ’90s, Pokémon was our first proper introduction to a certain kind of RPG… one that has slowly been dying for the past decade. With their turn-based battles, deceptively simple mechanics and addictive collecting hook that encouraged players to get together with friends and swap and battle a roster of 150 unique monsters, the first Pokémon games released for the Game Boy were rich, rewarding, and instantly likeable experiences that many still look upon fondly. 15 years, 22 games and 600 more Pokémon later, Nintendo aims to recapture that magic with the release of Pokémon X and Y for the 3DS. While by no means a complete overhaul of the franchise, these new entries have changed the basic mechanics enough to breathe new life into a series of which many have long grown tired.

If you’ve played a mainline Pokémon game in the past 15 years, X and Y will be instantly familiar: you choose one of three free starter Pokémon, head out into the wild to battle and capture others you might be interested in — whether you’re attracted to their unique abilities, or simply think they’re dang cute — and train and evolve them until you have a team you’ll use to challenge gym leaders and become the best Pokémon trainer known to man or beast.

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Significantly, nearly every core mechanic underlying this pursuit has received significant upgrades. The most immediate improvement is the pace at which the game starts. Within the first half hour of play, your character is given roller skates in order to speed up movement. Though the skating controls are rather clunky when you’re trying to navigate around buildings, the fact that you’re permanently equipped with a set of wheels makes it significantly less of a chore to grind levels when raising your Pokémon, move forward through the Kalos region world map, and backtrack for any creatures you might have missed during your hunt. Also, you can use the d-pad to walk normally, but with the button layout on all 3D-equipped 3DSes, that’s more of a chore than it’s worth.

In regards to story, there’s not a whole lot here to excite veterans or newcomers. X and Y tries to entice players with a plot involving mega evolutions — special evolutions that happen to only a select few Pokémon during –  but unfortunately, that mystery never fully resolves, acting more like a sort of carrot on a stick that doesn’t realize most kids don’t even like carrots. It never really moves anywhere, and it leaves more questions than it answers. On the other hand, the pursuit of filling out your Pokédex by finding as many of the creatures as possible is present as always, though it’s been sidelined as the game’s characters encourage you to experience your own unique journey with your Pokémon.

On the note of “playing your way,” another significant new feature is the way trainer-monster interaction affects the way your parties perform. In the past, certain Pokémon have benefited from a little-defined “happiness” system, improving their stats and sometimes unlocking secret evolutions. In X and Y, the new Pokémon Amie tool allows you to directly interact with your pocket-sized companions, petting them with the touch screen, feeding them treats, and playing games with them. All of these interactions improve their affection for you, which makes them land more critical hits in battle and even boosts the experience they gain from each victory — a feature that was previously unlocked only for Pokémon you’d received during a trade.

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Still amazingly adorable after all these years.

The graphical fidelity of X and Y brings often striking improvements to a series that has historically relied on serviceable, barely animated sprite work. X and Y ditch sprites in favor of fully 3D modeled environments, characters and creatures, with lovingly animated battles being a particular treat for those of us who have always imagined what our favorite pocket monsters would look like if they actually moved.  It’s all quite glorious to look at… it’s just a shame the game struggles so much in the few instances it actually allows you to view it in 3D.

Overall, Pokémon X and Y is a fantastic step forward in a series that began to feel stagnant years ago. Playing Pokémon Y, I get the distinct impression that this is the game I always imagined playing as a 7-year-old playing Red and Blue. With its charming 3D graphics, new Pokémon, faster gameplay, and an online connected Pokémon experience, and Y delivers on a level that previous games in the series haven’t even come close to. Whether you’re a die-hard Poké-maniac or a former fan who gave up on the series years ago, I urge you to give Pokémon X ora shot. It’ll be the best portable RPG you’ll play all year.

B-Plus

 

 

 

Second Opinion: I Choose You, Trash Bag-shaped Pokémon!

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Pokémon X: a love letter to Airborne (1993), the Best Rollerblading Movie Ever

Considering how deeply my love runs for all things Nintendo, it comes as a pretty big shock to most people when I say I have absolutely zero interest in Pokémon. It’s true that I was obsessed with the games when Pokémon Red and Blue came out during my freshman year of high school–everyone was–and I have fond memories of selling freshly caught Mews for $5 a pop to every kid in school who wasn’t fortunate enough to have a Game Genie, but Pokémon Silver and Gold failed to hold my attention like their predecessors had, and the games have only become more unwieldy since then. With far too many Pokémon to capture and a competitive metagame that has become all but impenetrable to those of us who don’t have the time or inclination to make it a full time job, I didn’t expect any Pokémon game to ever draw me back in. I was wrong.

Pokémon X and Y seem like they’ve been designed specifically for those of us who’ve long abandoned the series. With a roster of monsters to capture that’ve been drawn largely from the first couple of games in the series, charmingly animated battles that draw on our memories of the cartoons, and enough nips and tucks to the Poké-formula that the pace seems infinitely improved over the past couple of games (which I dabbled in before ultimately giving up in frustration), Pokémon X is a game I’ve easily spent 40 hours on so far, and I’m still completely enraptured by it. What I appreciated most about X is the way the previously obscure EV training element has finally surfaced as a feature that anybody can get into; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the time I’ve played has been taken up by Super Training. I want to be the very best–like no one ever was–and it’s to Game Freak’s credit that I’m able to say that with a complete lack of irony.

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Um…yes. Yes, I do want a wild pet that looks like a pair of friggin’ swords

There is one thing I absolutely loathe about Pokémon X and Y, though, and that’s the way Game Freak has completely failed to optimize its engine for 3D. It’s a huge problem to me that a game that looks more or less like a second year DS game can’t cope with stereoscopic imagery, not to mention the fact that the feature is completely nonexistent for the vast majority of the game. Some interior locations have the 3DS’s trademark pop, and you can utilize it during battles, but you might as well just turn the 3D slighter off while you play, since the frame rate takes a devastating hit when the game has to push out the 3DS’s full 800×240 pixels. It’s obvious the game was rushed in order to meet the winter holidays (and sell a few million 2DSes), but I would’ve preferred Game Freak had completely disabled 3D rather than the messy implementation the game shipped with. And that’s coming from someone who always plays with the 3D slider on max on every other 3DS game.

Michael

 

Dragon’s Crown Review: For The Kingdom

Dragons-Crown-Screenshots-491Every new console announcement is usually accompanied with a deluge of game announcements. Some of these are new entries in storied franchises; some are brand new IPs. Most of these game announcements eventually see release, but in rare instances, some titles will disappear into obscurity. These so called “vaporware” projects seldom recover from this state of limbo and are quietly cancelled. One such game, Dragon’s Crown for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, was once thought to be doomed to this eternal gaming purgatory, after its initial publisher backed out.

Luckily for PlayStation fans, Atlus USA stepped in and decided to publish Vanillaware’s newest game. Famous for it’s PS2 classic Odin Sphere and Wii classic Muramasa, the developer showcases its fantastic art style with one of the best games in the PlayStation ecosystem. It takes the tried, true, and nowadays stale side-scrolling beat-em-up genre, injects new life into it, and makes it into an addictive and deep experience worthy of your time and your dollars, regardless of which platform you pick it up on.

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Dragon’s Crown casts you in the role of one of six classes: the fighter, elf, wizard, dwarf, amazon, and sorceress. Each character uses his or her own unique fighting style, giving players plenty of reason to take another romp though this game. Certain characters are geared towards more experienced players, while others are designed for first timers. Most players on their first run through will lean towards the fighter, with his balanced stats and forgiving attack and defense.

Attacks are carried out in a rather simple manner. Harkening back to the days of old arcade beat-em-ups, Dragon’s Crown boils down the attack to one main button, and one other button for a power smash. Rather than rely on combo memorization, different attacks are executed with different directions and through character upgrades. The leveling system unlocks new abilities for characters throughout your quest, but most of these upgrades are stat based rather than new attacks.

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The game’s level and progression system is a nice touch that motivates players to engage in tasks outside the main quest. While the main quest’s baddies and tasks will give your character experience, every completed sidequest will automatically provide 1 skill point to the player. This skill point can be used towards upgrades that affect either just your particular character, or any character that you create. This balance between specific vs. broad upgrades provides incentive to upgrade both, as the character specific upgrades are usually stronger. However, they will do nothing to benefit your other characters.

One facet of the game that cannot be overstated is the absolute beautiful art, animation, and visual style. Vanillaware has outdone their best work, creating a game that truly feels like a painting in motion, a look that many games strive to achieve but hardly ever reach. Each character has his or her own personality, animation, move set, and style, even if some of the proportions of said characters are a bit preposterous.

The world is structured around a main hub town, with specific locales and missions being accepted outside of town. There are numerous places and dungeons to visit, and the world variety keeps the game fresh enough. Each dungeon is perfectly paced and bite sized; most won’t take more than 20 minutes to complete. This rhythm makes the game easy to play on the go, helping it succeed as a handheld game in addition to a major console release.

Dragon’s Crown truly shines at refining and making an old gaming genre feel fresh and new again. Modern games, such as Double Dragon Neon and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World The Game, have tried to modernize the side scrolling beat-em-up genre, but with only moderate success. Most of those games were spent recovering from an attack that knocked you on the floor and left you vulnerable. Dragon’s Crown rarely places the player in such a state of vulnerability, keeping the pace and intensity up. Frustration has been replaced with flow and progression, keeping the players engaged far longer than the previous mentioned games, which tired me out only after a few levels. Local co-op on the PS3 and online multiplayer on the Vita make the game a blast to play with your friends; it’s just a shame that it takes a while to unlock. The lack of cross-platform multiplayer also may disappoint.

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The loot system is a novel concept and adds to the games addictiveness, but I mostly found it to be arbitrary and somewhat confusing. About halfway through the game, I found a set of armor and weapons that I used for almost the entire remainder of my journey. Keeping the stats and names of the loot a mystery until the player pays to unlock it is unique, but I often found myself selling it off and not even pursuing new items.

Overall, Dragon’s Crown is an addicting, beautiful brawler for the PlayStation faithful. No other game on the market currently has as much style and depth, while still maintaining fairness and incentive. The lack of cross-buy and cross-platform multiplayer may upset some, but the support for cross-save makes it an experience that you can easily take on the go. Dragon’s Crown is one of the best games this year on PlayStation, and it easily cements itself as one of the premier Vita experiences. Don’t pass this one up.

A-Minus

Remember Me Review

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On the surface, Remember Me looks like it has a lot to offer. The first release from Dontnod Studios, the game is based around a dystopian future Paris, where memories have become a commodity and one corporation controls them all. We are introduced to our protagonist, Nilin, as she is having her memories forcibly removed in jail. Before her mind is completely wiped, she is broken out by Edge, who hacks into her communication headset and guides her throughout the game. Edge, who only communicates with Nilin through her headset, recruits her to help him take down Memorize, the corporation in charge of the Sensen memory technology.

The world of Neo-Paris is one of the most compelling parts of Remember Me. From Nilin’s escape from La Bastille fortress at the opening of the game, we are brought into an environment that will occasionally make us pause just to take it in. The areas that we are brought through range from the desolate Slum 404 to the high-fashion Saint Michel district, where modern glass mixes with Parisian landmarks. NPC’s that are human and robot alike operate shopping stalls, have conversations, and preach from street corners.

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However, with all the world building that exists in this game, I never felt particularly free to explore it. The game is extremely linear, and the few branching paths usually only lead to a power-up a short way away before we turn back to the main path. Nilin has her fair share of climbing and jumping to do to get around, and the path is usually well indicated. If it isn’t, it usually doesn’t take long to find out what is the one way to go. Even so, awkward camera angles often become jarring and make drastic shifts between close and far shots. As deep as the game’s world appeared to be, and as the information packet collectables scattered around seem to suggest, I still wanted to be able to absorb myself into the game so much more.

The story needed something more as well. The character of Edge is a mystery for most of the game, and he asks a lot from Nilin.  I actually found it surprising that Nilin didn’t question her instructions more, especially with her powers to remix memories. Her moral compass swung wildly, with her ruminating over the events of the game in one moment, then yelling what amounted to catchphrases in the faces of enemies. It was jarring, and made me feel that I never really understood Nilin’s character, because she never really centered on who she was. Perhaps that was a side effect of the memory wipe.

While the world of Neo-Paris is intriguing in itself (though deceptively shallow), Dontnod brought some innovations into the gameplay of Remember Me. The fighting system is constructed around the “Combo Lab,” which allows players to create combos with various abilities. Each element of a combo is called a “Pressen,” which can heal, cause extra damage, reset cooldown timers, or double previous Pressen effects. Nilin also unlocks supercharged moves called “S-Pressens,” which are activated during combat to cause a variety of effects. By rearranging the combos, players can develop different strategies for dealing with the various enemies throughout the game. For example, when facing enemies that are only visible when in bright light or when stunned, Nilin uses her stun S-Pressen, called Sensen DOS, to freeze them and take them out. However, the move takes a long time to cool down, so a combo with a large amount of cooldown reduction Pressens becomes essential.

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While the Combo Lab is certainly useful, executing the combos could sometimes be a difficult task. Fighting often feels clunky, and dodging enemies often causes combos to be interrupted.  The great ideas that exist behind the scenes simply don’t carry over into the melee combat very smoothly. Getting a full combo is a challenge, which often left me to simply put necessary Pressens at the beginning of the combo and hope for the best.

Most of the enemies are rather repetitive, but some of Remember Me’s boss fights are rather fascinating. While some seemed to last a bit too long, they were varied and interesting. Bosses were more than simply larger, tougher versions of the stock fist fodder; rather, they were characters in the game that were built up within the story.  They provided a nice break from the standard traversal and fighting formula. Dealing with them was one of the brilliant touches that kept me wanting to progress through the game.

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One of the game mechanics that did succeed, however, is Nilin’s ability to remix memories. The system plays off of the butterfly effect, where Nilin watches a person’s memory, and then goes back through it, altering the memory by interacting with objects. By getting the right sequence of events, Nilin is able to manipulate current events in her favor. It’s a great mechanic, and getting the right elements lined up is a perfect puzzle. The one downside is that there are only a handful of remixes in the game, which left me wanting a few more.

Remember Me is a solid first game from a new studio. The game lacks some polish, and leaves something to be desired, but it shows a lot of great promise. The game brings with it some intriguing mechanics and an interesting premise, but it needed a bit more to make it truly shine. Dontnod took some risks, and hopefully they are able to grow from what Remember Me has introduced.

C-Plus