Review: Indivisible

Indivisible is a game spanning two genres, Metroidvania-style platformer and RPG. With many surface similarities to Valkyrie Profile, you may expect it to lean more heavily to the RPG side of that equation, but not so. Its exact genre is hard to pin down and drifts during the course of the game, but in the long run this is a beautiful platformer with RPG combat.

The game centers on its protagonist Ajna, an impulsive young girl who is thrust into a world-ending plot when her father is killed and her village is destroyed. For reasons unknown even to her, she can absorb people into herself, building a party out of them. There are a lot of characters to recruit, more than 20 in total, each with their own combat style. Ajna is very much the leader, though, whose power level determines that of the rest of the party.

The combat in Indivisible is reminiscent, as previously mentioned, of Valkyrie Profile. You have four party members whose attacks are mapped to the four face buttons. Comboing various attacks together to juggle enemies, break their defenses, and just generally cause mayhem is the name of the game. It is not turn-based in the traditional sense, though at any given time you can either attack or are being attacked and must defend with timed button-presses. Combat can be a bit of a slog in the mid-game, but is generally pretty enjoyable outside of that issue.

The platforming is where Indivisible really shines, and the game boasts an ability list that more than earns the Metroidvania genre claims. While many late-game abilities are simply overpowered (as one would expect), the earlier ones lead to a lot of interesting puzzles. For example, near the start of the game you learn the Axe Hang, which lets you cling to a wall and gain a bit of extra verticality without needing a second wall to bounce between. You can only do this once until you land again, and choosing where in a jump sequence to Axe Hang is often vital. Many other abilities follow similar patterns.

Indivisible’s plot and story won’t be winning any awards, but the varied cast can be quite charming, and the hand-drawn sprites look fantastic. This is a very pretty game, and that is one of its most appealing aspects. At the same time, the characters and particularly Ajna can be somewhat offputting. I spent most of the game wondering if the creators realized how flawed a character she really was (and they did, as it turns out). Like the combat, the plot becomes a bit of a slog in the middle, but recovers in the long run.

It’s hard to give a specific recommendation about Indivisible, because it’s not exactly what it appears. As an RPG, the mediocre plot and sometimes repetitive combat may be deal-breakers, but the game really isn’t an RPG. As a platformer, a lot of the more fun stuff doesn’t show up until later. In the end it’s a good experience, but that may not be immediately apparent. If the charming artstyle and characters appeal to you, give it a shot, but if they don’t, you may not end up sticking through the whole game.

Review Score: B+

Review: Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 takes the gameplay draft of Borderlands and fleshes it out in virtually every way possible. It’s also the point at which Gearbox fully embraced the zaniness of Borderlands. The plot is pretty serious, but few opportunities to inject humor are passed up. Claptrap is no longer the only truly ridiculous character (though he’s so ridiculous that they reduced the number of claptraps to one presumably because more than that would have been too much – to be clear, this is a good thing).

In most ways, Borderlands 2 adds features on top of the original rather than removing them. The one exception is the loss of weapon proficiencies, which are replaced by badass ranks. These reward you with minor upgrades to stats of your (somewhat randomized) choice for fulfilling various mini-achievement type goals. The effects are far less than weapon proficiencies, but the system still feels better overall, especially since it’s shared between characters. Revolver ammo was removed in favor of general pistol ammo as well. A fourth non-weapon slot, relics, takes over some of the more esoteric abilities found on Borderlands class mods, and serve as a similar but class-agnostic enhancement slot. A new currency, Eridium, now pays for all inventory and ammo capacity upgrades, which has the unfortunate side effect of making money largely useless most of the time. Max inventory size is a bit more constrained now as well, even for the thorough.

There are four brand new characters to play (six if you include DLC), aligning roughly but not exactly with the four Vault Hunters from the first game. There’s another Siren, albeit with different abilities, and the tank and sniper class types are a bit different as well. The biggest change is to skill trees, which are now longer and build toward an ultimate ability with a single rank for each tree. It’s a lot harder to double-dip until second and later playthroughs, but the trees feel more meaningful than they did (and a respec is still available whenever you need it). Class mods with effects so powerful that you’ll want to respect to take advantage of them are much more common this time around as well.

A less obvious change is that the loot system has been broadened considerably. There are actually fewer manufacturers, but the remaining ones have a stronger influence on the nature of their items. They have general rules, like that Torgue guns are all explosive and Hyperion weapons get more accurate with sustained fire. As a result, the manufacturer can be nearly as important as the weapon type when choosing what to keep. In addition, there is a wider variety of legendary weapons with dramatic effects that usually need to be discovered by experimentation. Some of these are silly and difficult to use, while others can be key to specific builds. Fortunately, you can re-fight bosses at will, allowing you to farm specific legendaries you may need for your character.

The plot of Borderlands 2 centers on Handsome Jack, an antagonist that runs the Hyperion corporation and wants to use the power of (another) Vault on Pandora to his own nefarious ends. Jack talks to you frequently during the game, and makes for a funny and interesting villain who thinks he’s the hero. A wide cast of other new characters also appears, though your main allies are the Vault Hunters from the first game. You’ll fight alongside them at various times, which is a lot of fun for series veterans. In addition to the wide array of characters, the terrain in Borderlands 2 is varied. You start on a glacier and explore many different biomes that are thankfully not all just desert wastelands. This makes the game much more colorful than the original, and allows for a much wider variety of enemy types as well. The human(-ish) enemy list has also been dramatically increased, with some interesting foes like Goliaths that can be made to attack their allies and level up as a result.

In some ways, the original Borderlands felt like Diablo 1 made into a shooter. It had a predictable structure and was focused almost entirely on the gameplay. In similar fashion, Borderlands 2 fleshes out that gameplay and a whole lot more. It is roughly analagous to Diablo 2 in that way, but Borderlands 2 feels much more like its own thing. The plot runs through everything and often offers a strong sense of urgency. The sidequests are less monotonous and the early game is not bogged down with them. By the time you start seeing a lot of sidequests, you’ll have a central base area to return to. There are some dramatic and emotional moments that really set the game apart.

If the idea of a looter shooter is appealing to you, Borderlands 2 definitely deserves your attention. It’s a lot of fun, has plenty of replay value, and a truly ridiculous amount of DLC I haven’t even touched on. It’s fun in single player or multiplayer and with the addition of badass ranks and a shared bank, encourages multiple playthroughs as different characters. It’s dirt cheap these days, so check it out!

Review Score: A

Review: Borderlands Remastered

That an enhanced port of the original Borderlands exists is no surprise. That it was released ten years after the original version is. This game seemingly exists to make sure the entire series was playable on modern consoles to set up for Borderlands 3, but the changes made are entirely welcome.

As you would expect, Borderlands Remastered has improved graphics and presentation. However, the important changes were made to gameplay. First and foremost, while the in-game compass remains in place, the Remastered version finally offers a minimap. In addition, quest objectives are called out on screen in 3D space with a distance indicator, which helps immensely with certain confusing map locations. Sidequesting in particular goes much more smoothly than it did in the original version of the game. The other major UI update is an overhaul of the inventory screen to focus on item graphics more in-line with later Borderlands game. The layout actually causes you to see fewer items at once, but the addition of favorite and trash flags makes this a definite improvement on the whole. Those flags even work better than in Borderlands 2, as the game will not let you sell a Favorite item until you de-flag it.

Little has changed gameplay-wise, though some specifics have been retuned. Of particular note is that the final boss was made less trivial to defeat on normal difficulty. Some fancy new weapons were added for this version, as well as support for Golden Keys that can be attained through non-game means (such as codes distributed on Twitter) and give great loot whenever you need it. You are now able to re-assign buttons on the controller freely, which depending on your play style can be a big improvement to the basic shooting as well. The Remastered version also includes a fantastic improvement to basic looting, in that ammo and money are now automatically picked up from the ground when you walk nearby. These changes make it very difficult to go back to the original after playing this version (or any of the sequels, for that matter), not that you’d want to.

Every version of Borderlands Remastered includes all of the DLC, which consists of four packs that range from good to frustratingly repetitive. All four packs suffer from a strange decision not to add any fast travel locations beyond the initial one, leading to a whole lot of walking around. Moxxi’s Underdome avoids this problem by being a set of arena fights, but they go on interminably and offer very little in the way of rewards for your time. The other DLC is more imaginative, and embraces the weirdness of Borderlands more enthusiastically than the original game did. You’ll fight zombies created by Dr. Zed doppelganger Dr. Ned, and put down a rebellion consisting of Claptrap units. These scenarios are undeniably amusing, even if the leveling structure of the game makes them largely superfluous on your first playthrough.

The bottom line is, if you like Borderlands, you should play the Remastered version exclusively. All of the improvements are positive, and it doesn’t break the original game or try to shoehorn in new content that disturbs the original vision. This is just Borderlands 1 with a UI worthy of Borderlands 2 and beyond. Given how relevant the Borderlands cast is going forward, it’s worth it to play at least once.

 

Review Score: B+

Review: Borderlands

Borderlands helped define the looter shooter genre, taking the basic gameplay loop of games like Diablo and applying it to the first-person shooter genre. It hews closer to that inspiration than others of its genre in many ways, while keeping a style distinctly its own.

The tone of Borderlands is undeniably weird, as the game’s cover makes immediately clear. It features a masked Psycho, a common in-game enemy type, apparently shooting himself in the head with finger guns. The vibe doesn’t quite match that image in practice, though. Borderlands can be a wacky game at times, though the main plot is played mostly straight. The silliness is mostly injected via the various side characters like the Claptrap robots you find all over. The game’s distinct cel-shaded look also sets it apart from other shooters.

When you boil it down, the gameplay loop of Borderlands is pretty simple: you do quests, you kill bad guys, you get randomized loot. Most of this loot is in the form of guns, which are randomized not only in effect but in appearance. There are six main types of guns, as well as a variety of manufacturers that align with general attributes that are applied to each gun. You’ll also modifications for your basic grenades, more powerful defensive shields, and class mods that can have a huge variety of effects. The game uses a standard color scheme to indicate loot rarity, as well as keying the power of its loot to level, resulting in what is now a familiar scheme for searching for that next upgrade. Inventory size starts small, requiring you to sell off excess loot frequently, but can be upgraded to a pretty good size via sidequests. Ammo capacity can also be increased by spending increasing amounts of money (refreshingly presented as cash rather than some pseudo-futuristic credit scheme), which can otherwise be spent on the same kind of loot you’d otherwise find.

The gameplay in Borderlands feels pretty good by shooter standards, with the caveat that one of the stats is accuracy. Inaccurate guns can be a pain to use, and you’ll find yourself using them more early on before you find really good guns. Sniper rifles will always be more accurate than shotguns, so you’re not going to be completely helpless, but there has to be room to grow as well. There are four characters to play, each aligning with a specific class that has a unique ability. Each character has a three-part skill tree to improve, and it is laid out in such a way that you’ll be able to concentrate on one or dip into two during a typical playthrough. The level progression is based on points spent per tree, though, preventing a generalist approach to the game. Fortunately, you can re-distribute skill points for an affordable price at many points throughout the game, allowing you to experiment.

The characters are imaginatively setup, presenting classes that range from the pretty standard Soldier to the more supernatural Siren. Any class can use any gun type, though each has skills that suggest a focus on certain guns. The special abilities of each class are on a cooldown but can have battle-determining effects and are usually subject to significant upgrades by at least one of the skill trees. The characters have a lot of personality, though not as much as the various denizens of the world.

The plot of Borderlands doesn’t really live up to the creative spirit of the rest of the game. You (and your companions, in multiplayer) are Vault Hunters, on the planet Pandora in search of an ancient alien vault presumably filled with treasure. The plot centers around the machinations of various factions trying to find the Vault first. You’ll make friends and allies along the way, but the details are pretty forgettable: finding the Vault is always the priority. The game offers tons of sidequests, usually with several appearing at once after major plot points. Some of these are quite amusing and rewarding, while many others are just a slog. There’s no good way to know which is which on first glance, which is too bad because you definitely don’t need to do them all to be powerful enough to complete the game. There is a cash penalty for dying, but cash is plentiful and there’s not a lot to buy besides ammo upgrades, so that’s not really a concern either.

On the whole, Borderlands is a fun shooter with fun loot mechanics and a fun world. The series doesn’t fully embrace its wackiness in its first entry, and lacks a certain level of personality in all aspects aside from its graphics. The enemy types are interesting but there are a limited number of them, battles are challenging but often go on too long and in a repetitive fashion, and predictably most of the loot is vendor trash. The game also lacks a minimap, a serious oversight that is corrected in both its sequels and the Enhanced version of the original. Indeed, if you’re going to play Borderlands today, I highly recommend playing that version instead of the original. It’s worth it just for the minimap, and they added a number of other fantastic tweaks as well. Borderlands may not have received the love of Borderlands 2, either from its creators or the public, but it’s still a fun game in its own right and worth playing if for no other reason than to get all the later references. Your four Borderlands character choices all appear as plot characters in Borderlands 2 and beyond, so give Borderlands a shot.

 

Review Score: B

Review: Dragon Quest (Switch)

A remake of the original Dragon Quest, based on the mobile phone port, has come to the Nintendo Switch. This serves essentially as a graphically enhanced version of the existing Dragon Quest remakes (such as that for Gameboy Color), which means the game’s grindiness has been toned down considerably from its NES iteration (Dragon Warrior). And that’s a good thing!

One nice touch in this remake is a return to the ye olde English-style dialogue of the original NES version, after the Gameboy version played things totally straight. The ancient hero may be Loto in Japan, but to me he’ll always be Erdrick. If you have an aversion to thees and thous, this game will frustrate you a lot. The graphical style can also be offputting, as it is a combination of low-resolution backgrounds, standard definition map sprites, and HD monster sprites.

The structure of the game is mostly intact from the original. The biggest change is that the enemies yield more experience and gold, allowing you to progress through the game much more quickly. The game system has also been updated to feature more stats like Resilience, as well as items that give you permanent upgrades to those stats. Some of the items have been rebalanced, but all work in essentially the same way they always have.

The big change here is that the dungeons have been redesigned to varying extents. The game doubles the size of its grid system in line with later series entries (though still keeps the need for torches or the Glow spell), and treasure chests no longer respawn. The treasures contained in those chests have been upgraded substantially to compensate, leading to a situation where delving dungeons can be very rewarding early on. Specific dungeon layouts have changed, though most follow a similar pattern to their originals.

The problem with the remake is that the reduction in grinding reveals how sparse the content in the original Dragon Quest actually is. Even with leveling speed increased dramatically, you’ll spend most of your time trying to gain experience or gold to prepare you for the next challenge. The entire game’s plot would fit into two or three towns worth of quests in any game later in the series.

The bottom line is, you can live without playing the first Dragon Quest, but if you want to experience it, the Switch is the best place to do so. It’s not a big time or money investment, and it ties directly into Dragon Quest 2 and 3, both of which are also available (and are far better games).

Review Score: B−

Review: Link’s Awakening (Switch)

The original Gameboy version of Link’s Awakening is considered by many to be among the best Zelda games, though this is not an opinion I generally share. It has a number of gameplay flaws that I found frustrating. The Nintendo Switch remake addresses all those and more, bringing Link’s Awakening into its full potential.

Generally speaking, “remake” is the correct term here. While plenty of specifics have changed to fit the much more powerful console, some of which (such as being able to attack at 45 degree angles) have significant gameplay implications, this very much feels like the original Link’s Awakening. This is most apparent by the enormous size of the tiles the overworld and particularly dungeons are made of, since each room is still restricted to the amount of visible area as the original. These giant, detailed tiles enhance the game in an odd way, trimming the fat of dungeon design and leaving only the essentials.

While staying true to the source material, the game makes graphical improvements where it can. The overworld is no longer divided into distinct screens, and some large dungeon rooms are also treated as a single whole. This does have the effect of making it obvious just how small the world map is, but the charm in the transitions between areas and the generally stellar look make up for it. The graphical style of the game may look a bit boring and plasticky in still shots, but in motion the game looks great.

One major new feature has been added to the game in the form of a dungeon creator. This is most definitely not “Zelda Maker,” though we can hope it is a precursor to it. Dungeons are made up of rooms adapted from the in-game dungeons you’ve beaten, and any given room has a set number of chests, doors, stairs, and so on. The mini-game is divided into two parts. First you need to create the dungeon, and to unlock more options you’ll need to do so in the form of “challenges” where you need to fit your available pieces under specific conditions. Then you’ll actually play through the dungeon. The gameplay is necessarily simplistic (for instance, aside from locked doors there is no way to make a specific room impassable until some condition is met) but putting your Zelda skills to use can still be a lot of fun. This is an enjoyable mode, but one that can easily be brought down by high (or even middling) expectations.

Whether you like Link’s Awakening or just never played it, the Switch version is well worth a look. (If you dislike the original, you’re probably safe to skip this one.) It’s a beautiful and well-executed game with notably charming sound design and writing. The dungeons remain well-built and challenging. There are even more Pieces of Heart and Secret Seashells to collect, but the game tracks them and offers a Seashell Detector to make the process much smoother. This is a fine original game polished and enhanced into a must-play for Zelda fans.

Review Score: A−

Shadowbringers

Very few video games have affected me like Shadowbringers, the third expansion for Final Fantasy XIV, has. I finished the main plot weeks ago, and just seeing people¬†talk about the end scenes still makes me emotional. This is absolutely the best story in the Final Fantasy series, and maybe the best story I’ve experienced in a video game.

I want to talk about Shadowbringers, but I do not want to spoil it. This is an emotionally resonant story, and hearing about it in dribs and drabs would not do it justice. If you’ve played it, you already know what it’s about. If you haven’t, consider it. Granted, there are literally hundreds of hours of FFXIV between a new player and this story (and skipping the previous story, while an option, would undermine it to a large degree), but still.

What sets Shadowbringers apart for me is that it’s about your character, the Warrior of Light. Many people loved the story of FFXIV’s first expansion, Heavensward, but you really played a bit part in it. The big moments mostly involve other characters, though one scene in particular (before a battle on a certain bridge) shows how awesome your character is. Shadowbringers even tops this scene, though.

Prior to Shadowbringers, you spent much of your time killing pseudo-gods known as Primals. You have a rare special ability to resist their mental influence, an ability your main companions (the leaders of a group known as the Scions of the Seventh Dawn) lack, so these battles fall to you. Shadowbringers deconstructs this somewhat by putting you in a position of unique ability to save another world, but at great personal cost. (Not to imply this is a purely selfless act due to it being another world; the fates of that world and your own are intimately connected.)

One of the aspects of good writing is its ability to force you to suspend your disbelief. Obviously the game isn’t going to kill off your character in an ongoing MMO, yet the fear that you could die (or worse) grows to a very real level during the story of Shadowbringers. You are given several opportunities to show vulnerability or a facade of strength, and your long-time companions grow more and more concerned for your well-being. You press on because you must, but at a certain point when a character offers you a way out… well, I considered it for a moment. Not that the game would let you actually choose to do that. But the gesture felt very real.

Another neat trick Shadowbringers pulls off is causing you to feel sympathy for the Ascians: a group of genocidal black-robed baddies that have been behind nearly every evil act in the game since the re-launch. Shadowbringers changes none of that, yet by the end you will understand their motives and maybe even agree with them to some degree. For the first time, I hope the Ascian threat is resolved in some way other than simply destroying them all.

There is one aspect of the Shadowbringers story that really enhanced the experience, but I’m not sure it was intentional. The game pulls no punches from the start, showing the horrific conditions on a world that was nearly destroyed a hundred years ago. Creatures of Light, an aspect you normally identify with, keep the remaining populace in the tyrannical grip of fear. After a strong start introducing this doomed world, things slow down a bit. You learn a lot of lore, but as you get closer and closer to taking out the Big Bad and saving the world, something seems to be missing. Indeed, as the main plot resolved, I felt some disappointment. Things didn’t end as dramatically as I had expected.

Obviously the “end” was not the end, but even so, the game continued to lower expectations a bit. It teases you the whole time by hiding the name of one of the new zones, but that reveal is shockingly anticlimactic. For a time you’ll find yourself wondering where exactly everything is going. And at that point, when I found myself questioning the wisdom of their storytelling, it all came together. I don’t know if they meant to lower expectations like that (and if so, I suppose writing this is undermining their effort!), but it left me in a state to be utterly awed by what followed.

The climactic events of Shadowbringers are amazing, full stop. The way the plot unfolds leading to the final encounters is second to none. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the greatest sequence of cutscenes in Final Fantasy history happen here. And it’s because my character was at the center of them. Many hours of story culminated in a surprising but inevitable Moment of Awesome that I seriously considered using as my wallpaper.

Shadowbringers is inspiring. This is what video games can be. Playing a character puts you in a unique position to experience story in a different way than a book or a movie. When I was younger, I might consider it somehow crass to have a whole story basically build up to a raw emotional payoff. But what exactly are we looking for from our entertainment, if not that? I almost quit FFXIV before Shadowbringers, and while my reasons were (and remain!) solid, I’m very glad I didn’t. And I’m also glad I had fellow players and friends to share this experience with.

Retro Review: Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis Mini)

Mega Man: The Wily Wars is a collection of Mega Man 1-3 released for the Genesis. Unfortunately, this game was only released on Sega Channel in North America, so it is quite rare. With its inclusion on the Genesis Mini, it’s readily available to all for the first time.

The Wily Wars is somewhat akin to Super Mario All-Stars in that it is a 16-bit remake of several 8-bit games. All three included games are quite faithful to the originals, but with upgraded graphics that use more colors, nicer backgrounds, parallax scrolling, and other new effects. The music is also arguably worse due to the Genesis’s sound hardware. The games have been modified in various minor ways, and do appear to be tuned slightly harder than the original versions. The easier difficulty for Mega Man 2 has been entirely removed as well.

While the first three Mega Man games are all good in their own right, The Wily Wars also features some new content. If you complete all three games (made somewhat easier by a battery save, which replaces the passwords in the latter two games), you unlock Wily Tower. This section consists of three Journey to the West-themed stages followed by a new set of Dr. Wily levels. While the new bosses offer no new powers for Mega Man, you are able to freely choose any 8 weapons and any 3 special items from among the three games when tackling these levels. This offers a huge amount of variety, and may be the most fun part of the game. None of the new stages or bosses are particularly inspired, but they do feature an interesting mix of enemies from multiple games and a variety of side paths that often require you to bring along the correct weapon to access. There’s a lot to play with here.

The one serious downside to the Wily Wars is that the games suffer from input lag. I assumed this was an artifact of the Genesis Mini, but I understand this was true of the original game as well. This can cause a lot of frustration when you need to perform difficult platforming feats. This issue is assuaged somewhat by the fact that the game smoothed out some of the unfair difficulty spikes of the original. The overall difficulty of the games remains similar to the originals as a result.

The Wily Wars may not be enough to justify a Genesis Mini purchase, but if you’re at all interested in that device, this is a nice incentive. I’m very glad Sega and Capcom worked to make this game available to us. I wouldn’t say it’s a must for any Mega Man fan, but it’s an enjoyable addition to the series.

 

Review Score: B+

Gas in New Jersey: A Three-Part Odyssey

New Jersey gas isn’t as cheap as it used to be, but I still plan trips around buying it there whenever possible. That’s how I found myself in the middle of New Jersey on Father’s Day night looking for gas. And also caffeine. I wasn’t on the turnpike with its oh-so-convenient rest stops, so I was relying on the blue GAS and FOOD signs that show up before each exit. I don’t like those signs, because I’m always convinced I’m going to get lost before I find the gas (or food). Not that that’s ever happened. Usually the gas station is within sight of the exit, and things proceed swimmingly.

The First Trial

The first sign I saw indicated that both Exxon and Shell were available at the next exit. A short time later, a second sign indicated four different restaurants. I didn’t recognize three of them, but the fourth was McDonald’s. A drive-thru would be optimal, and I just wanted a Coke, so I made the decision to take this exit. The exit ramp indicated McDonald’s was 3.0 miles to the right. Exxon was 0.1 miles to the left, while Shell was 2.7 miles to the right. With vague thoughts of using my Stop & Shop discount and under the assumption that the two were likely near one another, I went right. I saw the Exxon station’s lights to the left as I made the turn. Even considering what I’d discover about Exxon shortly, I wish I had just gone left right there.

That’s not what I did, though. Instead, I noted my current mileage, added 2.7 to it, and determined when I should be in the correct vicinity. I was surprised to find that the road I was on ended abruptly in a T-intersection with a major road before I saw either Shell or McDonald’s. I had gone less than a mile. No signs indicated which way to go, so I figured I’d double down and go right again. My GPS did not agree, desperately begging me to make a U-turn (or what passes for a U-turn in New Jersey) and go the other way. I refused.

Two miles of sparse buildings and no gas later, I capitulated to my GPS. It indicated a jug handle unlike any I’d seen before. I’ve driven through New Jersey enough to have strong opinions on the liberties their civil engineers take, and I’ve seen and even used a jug handle or two in my day. But this time, the right was¬†after the intersection I was trying to make a U-turn at, with a circular ramp like the inside of a cloverleaf. It seemed like a reasonable enough idea conceptually, though driving past the left I could have easily made in most other states before turning right to come back to it was strange, even by New Jersey standards.

I assumed that I’d pass the point where I’d decided to turn right, go another few miles, and find that Shell station. Instead, I found myself back on the Interstate I had started on almost immediately. I had failed to get gas (or caffeine), but I still had 90+ miles of range left. I did want to get home sooner than later, but all I had to lose was time. So I tried again.

The Second Trial

The blue signs were so similar to those I had seen during my first attempt that I checked the remaining time on my GPS to confirm I hadn’t gone in a big loop. It was 10 minutes shorter than before, so I took that to mean this wasn’t the same exit. I almost wish it had been. This time, the exit ramp indicated that Exxon was in 1.7 miles, while Shell was further on at 2.4 miles, both in the same direction (once again to the right). McDonald’s was listed at 2.7 miles, also to the right. I expected to be diverted to yet another road long before I saw any of that, but this time things went smoothly and I saw the Exxon station come into view right on schedule.

Relieved that gas was in my future, I looked ahead and realized things were more complicated than I thought. The Exxon station was on my left, but there was no entrance from the road I was currently driving on. Just ahead, it did split into a four-lane highway, complete with concrete median divider. From what I could see, I had to be heading the opposite way to enter the Exxon station. Still, signs indicated that McDonald’s was to the left, and my GPS was telling me to go left and make a U-turn on this road to continue on my trip. I figured I’d go left, head to McDonald’s, then come back this way and hit up the Exxon before getting back on the Interstate. It was the perfect plan. It was, unfortunately, not what I actually did.

I found the McDonald’s at the end of a strip mall. I had only seen two previous strip mall McDonald’s before, and they always seemed a bit odd. As I pulled into the parking lot, I thought I recognized this particular McDonald’s. Perhaps this design was common in New Jersey, but I’m fairly sure I had stopped at this very McDonald’s a year earlier, learning how to use my phone as a hotspot to deal with some work issue or another. In any case, they had Coke, which was what was important. They didn’t have a drive-thru, but even at this point I was happy to take what I could get.

Aside from some disbelieving comments from the employees that people were still coming in at this hour, my order was filled without incident. I got back to my car and realized this was going to be more complicated than I had thought. The only exit to the strip mall took me on the same road I arrived at, going the same direction. With the median still in place, I was going to have to make a U-turn. Well, no biggie, I thought.

I proceeded up the road to a pleasant surprise: I was actually able to make a normal U-turn here, no crazy New Jersey traffic patterns needed! Things were looking up. I hadn’t seen the Shell station on the way, but the Exxon was still waiting for me. My GPS, however, was telling me to turn right off of this road almost immediately. I considered ignoring it to ensure I ended up at the one gas station I had actually seen so far, but the prices at that Exxon were 30 cents higher than anywhere else I’d seen in days (what happened to you, New Jersey gas prices?) and I still had plenty of range, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to listen.

The GPS told me to turn right almost immediately, but I was confused because to my right was some sort of non-freeway rest area. It looked like a park, not a driving route that would go anywhere. After missing that turn, it re-routed and told me to turn right up ahead. I ended up in a residential area, which would have been alarming, except I knew Google did that sort of thing sometimes. It usually worked out well. I’m struggling to make out the correct turn up ahead, and I see an SUV making it, so I assume I’m in good company. I turn left, and find myself on a surprisingly narrow road. It had no lines and seemed like it could barely fit two cars, which I quickly confirmed by having to nearly pull over to allow traffic to pass me in the other direction. I took a look at the GPS. I was supposed to turn in 1.9 miles and not before. This was going to be interesting.

Fortunately, I saw very few cars aside from the SUV I was following. I did see some deer, though, and proceeded to keep my speed to a bare minimum. I wondered whether my car’s obstacle detection would detect and brake for a deer in the road. I wondered what would happen if anyone was coming when we crossed the one-lane bridge. And I wondered where the side of the road was when I was trying to let the Jeep with the blinding lights pass me on a particularly narrow stretch.

Somehow I survived, and the tiny rural road spit me out right near the Interstate. That explained why Google thought it was a good idea to take me on this route, and I assume the same was true for the driver of the SUV I had followed for the full length. I had my caffeine, but I still needed gas.

The Third Trial

The next exit had no blue GAS sign that I saw, but the one after that did. Like the others before, it listed Exxon and Shell. This time, one had an A above it and the other a B, which I thought odd but didn’t think to keep in mind. It turned out that there were two different exits, A and B. I couldn’t remember which one was which, but I thought B was Shell, and after seeing Exxon’s prices I wanted to roll the dice on them.

For once, my guess turned out to be correct. A sign indicated that I should once again go right to reach my destination. And for the third time, I ended up at an intersection with an unexpectedly large road. Fortunately this time I caught the sign that told me Shell was to the left. The road was kind enough to give me another indication of the remaining distance to Shell, just over a mile, shortly before splitting with no indication of which way I should actually go. It seemed like the road itself was bearing left, so I did the same, my second consecutive correct guess. Not long after, I saw the Shell station. It was on the left side of the road, but I couldn’t tell if the cross street before it had an entrance to the station. The station itself was open to the road going to the other way, so I figured I’d just turn left into it.

That’s when I saw the police patrol car sitting in the parking lot, ready to head out onto the road. I was about to make a left right next to him, not only over an unbroken double yellow line, but one of those diagonal line-filled median areas. Was that illegal? It seemed like it might be, even thought it made no sense for it to be here. And that cop was right there, presumably waiting for some idiot to do exactly what I wanted to do. So I drove on.

I had slowed down to make the turn before aborting, and now the SUV behind me was right on top of me. His lights were blinding, and I was on a windy road with a lot of driveways and very few lights. It was hard to tell what was going on. I knew that I could turn on any side street and make the U-turn I needed, but I kept passing by them before I saw them. I checked my GPS, and the first “street” it indicated turned out to be a driveway. I was nervous with those SUV lights in my eyes, so I kept hoping, to no avail, for a traffic light. Even a second lane would have been a godsend, but it was not to be.

I proceeded for nearly two miles, frustration at the tailgater building, before my GPS told me to turn left up ahead. It looked like it wanted me to make a U-turn on that road, but something was odd. Very rarely has Google Maps told me to make a straight U-turn on a road without a median, and only when I was already on that road. It looked like that’s what it wanted, though. And mercifully, the intersection had a traffic light. Relieved that my gasoline odyssey was almost over, I got in the left turn lane to wait for a green.

The road I ended up on was another windy road through residential areas, though less trafficked than the one I had been on. It had a double yellow line, though, so I knew I couldn’t just make a three-point turn, even if Google seemed to want me to. The road was not wide enough for a U-turn, either. The GPS indicated I should U-turn at an intersection ahead, so I figured I’d turn onto that street, make a three-point turn there, then retrace my steps. So instead of a U-turn, I turned right. I was very surprised to see the “Private Drive” line in my lights as I did so.

Rather than a wide residential street, I was on a small dirt path barely wider than my car. I could either proceed into private property, or blindly back out onto the road. I weighed this decision for a few seconds, then made a little prayer that my backup camera cross-traffic detection was up to snuff and put it in reverse. As you may have guessed by the fact that I am writing this, I did not in fact end up killed right then and there. Instead I managed to retrace my steps and find that Shell station with upwards of 70 miles of range left to go.

I was so relieved I didn’t even look at the price. And no one asked for my Stop & Shop card, so I got no discount. As an aside, I did pass a few gas stations that were closed during the night, which gave me a new reason to resent New Jersey’s stance against self-service gas stations. I guess only the big ones were willing to pay people to man the pumps all night. I was fortunate and ran into no significant traffic for the rest of the night, but I did degrade New Jersey from the top spot in my Where To Get Gas rankings. And I got a dumb story out of it, so there’s that.

Retro Review: Gargoyle’s Quest II: The Demon Darkness

Gargoyle’s Quest II follows up on its Gameboy predecessor by largely playing it safe. It is a very similar game, albeit presented in color and on a larger screen, and to a degree it suffers from a lack of ambition.

The original Gargoyle’s Quest made excellent use of its small screen with slow-paced, precise platforming. Oddly, the NES sequel has a lot of problems with forcing you to make blind jumps, most frequently in a downward direction. Avoiding enemy attacks was difficult on Gameboy due to a lack of room to maneuver, while here the attacks tend to be faster. The result is a similar necessity for planning and skill, but the difficulty feels cheaper on the NES.

The good news is, Gargoyle’s Quest still has excellent gameplay. It remains largely unchanged, with the major exception being the platform-creating Magic Tornado weapon. It’s given to you relatively early, but the fact that it arcs upward and you can’t rise while hovering keeps it from being a game-breaking ability. Instead, you’ll find yourself switching weapons tactically, trying to maximize your advantage.

Magic Tornado aside, Gargoyle’s Quest II consists of a series of stages you need to traverse, all filled with highly vertical platforming and nasty traps. The random encounters from the original are gone, and you now move much more quickly on the world map, leaving the well-designed stages as the primary focus of the game. You receive ability upgrades at regular intervals, leading to a highly satisfying progression loop. The game does suffer slightly from the problem with other games of its ilk, in that the hardest stages tend to be towards the beginning of the game when you’re lacking some abilities and maneuverability.

The bottom line is, if you liked Gargoyle’s Quest, this is more of that, and it’s a lot of fun. The game is pretty short by NES standards, and fairly hard to find, but if it’s available it’s worth checking out.

Review Score: B−