Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Month In Games: January 2016

Axiom Verge - PS4

If you've kept up with this blog over the years, you probably know that I love Metroid-vania games. The best ones combine tight platforming, copious upgrades, tons of exploration, and a bit of puzzle solving into a gameplay formula that I've always found highly entertaining. Axiom Verge received a fair amount of hype and accolades when it was released last year, but I waited to play it until I had the time to fully dive in an experience everything it had to offer.

To be sure, Axiom Verge offers just about everything a Metroid-vania devotee could ask for, but it ultimately falls short in one key way that left me feeling cold. It has a terrible story. It's funny really, because I would never have thought to include story in a list of must-haves for this kind of game. In fact, most of my favorite titles in the genre tend to offer up meager storylines at best, but something about this game's attempt to bring gravitas and a deep lore to the table struck me as particularly egregious. It's not that it's too heady for its own good, it's that its a mess of gobbledegook that does little to entice you to keep playing. Something about organic computers that dwell in a parallel dimension fighting off an unknown invader or some such nonsense. It's hard to piece together because most of the story is told through a series of cryptic notes that must be unearthed by the player and translated from an alien language. I mean, look, if you're going to make your players traipse through your game world to discover the magic device that translates a bunch of unreadable story beats (which you shouldn't do), at least have them make some kind of sense. And don't even get me started on the player character. The protagonist is so bland, and the game offers so little explanation as to why he's even there in the first place, that it just doesn't ever work.

Don't care, bro.

Another problem I had with this game is that it really is TOO much like Metroid. It looks like Metroid, it plays like Metroid, hell, it even SOUNDS like Metroid. And the parts that don't steal from that series were clearly lifted from other NES-era classics such as Bionic Commando and Blaster Master. I like a good 8-bit throwback, and I realize that nostalgia can be a powerful source of inspiration, but Axiom Verge just takes things a step too far.

Bionic Commando-esque

Again, Axiom Verge is very solid mechanically, and I give the game's sole developer Thomas Happ a lot of credit for his efforts, but in the end it just felt like little more than a love letter to Metroid written by an obsessed fanboy. Those who just can't wait for Nintendo to release the next 2D entry in that vaunted franchise might be pleased with what this game has to offer, but as for me, I need more than just a decent homage that exploits my love for the past.

Grade: C+

Nidhogg - PS4

Nidhogg is a cool little fencing game with solid mechanics and a surprisingly deep combat scheme. I appreciated the expressive animation, the trippy soundtrack, the pixelated environments, and the moment-to-moment intensity as I dueled my way past dozens of cunning AI opponents in the relatively short (around 2 hours) single-player experience.

Behold the mighty Nidhogg!

I didn't spend any time with the player vs. player aspect of Nidhogg, but with gameplay mechanics this solid I can see that aspect of this game having a long life amongst fighting enthusiasts.

Grade: B

LaserLife - PS4

Once in a while I like to browse the digital bargain-bin of the Playstation Store looking for hidden gems. I was drawn to LaserLife partially by its small price tag (I got it for around $3), but mostly by its title. I mean, come on, LaserLife? I HAD to see what that was about!

Turns out it's a decently constructed, yet fairly simple rhythm game with a "story" about recovering lost memories. Gameplay consists of using the analog sticks to guide two laser beams toward various targets while tapping the shoulder buttons in time with the music. In many ways, it reminds me - in a bizarrely positive way - of a generic console launch title. The graphics and sound are decent, if a little stark, and the gameplay concept is solid, if a little simplistic. I had fun with it for the first couple of hours, but once I got past the easy bits I ultimately found the control scheme to be rather problematic. My thumbs kept slipping on the analog sticks due to constantly pushing them in opposite directions while at the same time trying to hold them relatively steady, with the result being the dreaded "claw hands". It's tough to recommend for that reason, but otherwise, LaserLife is an interesting budget title with an intriguing aesthetic.

Grade: C+

Q*Bert Reloaded - PS4

Ah, Q*Bert, my old deserve better! This update to the classic action puzzler is dragged down by floaty controls and lacks much of the character that made the original great. Attempts to update the level design and the addition of time and scoring challenges also do little to freshen up the proceedings. A "classic" version of the game is also included in this package, but something feels off about it. I suspect that the classic version is actually a port of an earlier console build and not the arcade original. It's a bit of a shame, but Q*Bert Reloaded should be avoided.

Grade: C

Metal Slug 3 - PS4

I have always thought that I liked Metal Slug games, but the fact is that they're actually not very good. The sprite art and the animation are high points, but these games are ruthlessly difficult and clearly designed from the ground up to be chaotic, arcade-style quarter munchers. It was kind of fun to finally be able to blast through this with unlimited continues, but these games ultimately just feel unfair.

Grade: C

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