Retro Review: Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana is an SNES-era action RPG created by Square Enix, and the sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure (though that wasn’t obvious at the time). The game removes most of the Final Fantasy trappings of its predecessor, though there are still many elements of that series that inform specific monsters and items. The style of gameplay is unique to the series, however.

The most significant gameplay addition in Secret of Mana is that of two additional party members. While Final Fantasy Adventure had basic AI companions, the three characters in Secret of Mana are all equally playable. You have your basic beefy brawler and two casters, one focusing on support and the other on attack. The concept is solid, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The game takes place in an overhead view similar to contemporaneous Zelda games, but the way enemies are stunned and left temporarily invulnerable when hit is at the center of a number of cascading problems. Throughout the game, you’ll compete with your AI-controlled companions to see who gets to continue the stun-lock for a given enemy at any time, which has the added effect of rendering charged attacks very difficult to effectively use in combat. Even out of combat, your companions do tend to get stuck on terrain and prevent you from moving forward. The game supports two- and even three-player modes, which presumably help with these issues, but if you don’t have someone to play co-op with, you’re stuck with an unsatisfying system.

The enemies in Secret of Mana are beautifully rendered (much like the rest of the game), but they also contribute to the frustrations in combat. Whenever you or they cast a spell, the targets become invulnerable during the spell animation, and that’s assuming the spell animation doesn’t inexplicably get interrupted. Spells are highly effective but need to be leveled up through constant use. It’s very easy to train up spells by casting them on weak monsters near town, so the result of this system is largely just to waste your time. Depending on your equipment, monster attacks tend to be either insignificant or absolutely brutal. The boss fights, especially early on, can be quite challenging as well. The first boss you fight ten minutes into the game can essentially stun-lock you with a basic attack, and while in this case you will be automatically resurrected whenever you die, other early bosses can do much the same without any such safety net.

There are certainly a lot of positives to Secret of Mana. First and foremost are the graphics, which are reminiscent of Chrono Trigger and among the best seen on the SNES. While the upgrade system is annoying (you upgrade weapons as well as spells, though since this just activates largely ineffective charge attacks it’s less of a problem), the result is a lot of strategy for an action RPG. You have eight weapons to choose from, all with different characteristics, and they can be freely distributed amongst your characters and swapped out at any time. Once your spells are upgraded, they are highly effective and using them well is very satisfying.

Still, Secret of Mana feels like a preview of the Square to come, with a focus on presentation above all else. The game is just too frequently frustrating to play, and the fun is always in danger of being ground into dust by repetitiveness or that one obnoxious enemy type in a given area. They were ambitious in almost every respect, but failed to make the core gameplay loop consistently fun, which is a pretty big error.

Review Score: C+

Review: The Outer Worlds

The Outer Worlds is the latest RPG offering from Obsidian, a company with a legacy of great RPGs with great stories. The gameplay may be the best aspect of this game, however, as they’ve created an all around fun and satisfying experience.

The setting of the Outer Worlds is a colonized system far from Earth which is under the control of a number of corporations that make up the Board. The Board is an authoritarian ruling group that has made life in the colony miserable for most of its employees. The game was branded as a corporate dystopia, and that aspect is played up pretty heavily (and at times farcically) early on, though as the game progresses a more interesting and nuanced setting is revealed. The Board is in power, but they don’t control everything. The setting, as well as some specifics of the game such as your ship, is somewhat reminiscent of Firefly.

The gameplay is pretty typical of a modern shooter RPG, taking cues from everything from Mass Effect to Borderlands. The shooting is relatively simple, as you’re limited to your various weapons and up to two abilities used by your party members, rather than a tree of special powers or anything like that. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to use your words rather than your guns, or even use your words while using your guns. Pumping points into the various skill trees not only unlocks numerous options to complete your tasks, but gives significant bonuses. The perk system allows for bonuses of a similar nature, and is made all the more interesting because the game will occasionally let you take a flaw to earn an extra perk. For instance, if you take a lot of damage from one element in a short time, you can choose to become more vulnerable to that element in exchange for a nice bonus. It’s a fun system.

In lieu of a complicated ability system, the Outer Worlds allows a lot of customization in terms of your gear. You have a quick heal device that can be tied to consumables with various effects, and you’re given two methods of modifying your weapons and armor. First there are mods, which slot into different gear and can do things like change a weapon’s element, add a scope, or give various useful powers to armor. These are one use each, but the game doesn’t have so many tiers of gear that you’ll have to be too concerned with a modded weapon immediately becoming obsolete. This is especially true because of the tinkering system, which allows you to spend money to increase the level of your gear. This gets more expensive the further from the gear’s initial level you get, giving a nice tension that still encourages gear upgrades but doesn’t demand them at the first opportunity.

You can recruit six companions to join you, and bring two along at any given time. They’ll otherwise hang out on your ship, and interact with each other and you both there and in the field. It’s similar to the dynamic of the Mass Effect games, and the characters have some interesting personalities and fun dialogue. They’ll even resume a side conversation that gets interrupted by a firefight, which is a nice touch. In combat, you have some control of their strategy, and can order them to force fire a target or use abilities unique to each of them. They also get their own perks and can give you significant bonuses to skills, including non-combat skills. Choosing the right companions for a given mission can make things a lot easier.

My only real complaint about the Outer Worlds is that the setting and plot did not particularly grab me. To be clear, dystopias are not my thing, and by no means do I think the story was bad. The fact that I enjoyed the game so much despite these feelings is a testament to how well-constructed it is. I only played on Normal, but there’s the trademark Obsidian ridiculous survival mode available for those who want a real challenge (or enjoy a bit more tedium than the average gamer). If you like Obsidian’s games, I highly recommend the Outer Worlds, and if you’re looking for a fun and relatively brief shooter RPG, you could do much worse.

Review Score: B+

Review: Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3 was a long time coming, following up on the wildly successful Borderlands 2 seven years later. The story also resumes seven years later, tying together a number of loose ends and answering a lot of questions to give the trilogy a sense of finality.

Most of the Borderlands 3 formula remains similar to that of its predecessors, but the additions range from interesting to fantastic. Perhaps the most significant change is that many weapons now have two selectable modes. Each brand has its own style of modes, and gun brands are more important and obvious here than ever before. For example, all basic Maliwan weapons are not only elemental, but have two elements you can switch between. This allows you to fit a whole lot more options into your four equipped guns.

A variety of smaller changes exist as well. The elements have been reworked, and slag no longer exists. This allows for a wider variety of potential strategies at higher levels. And for the first time, the game takes you into the vicinity of the level cap on a first playthrough. As a result, True Vault Hunter Mode is somewhat underwhelming, but the new Mayhem modes make up for it. These allow you to scale any area to your level, and add four levels of additional modifiers that yield tougher fights and better loot.

As implied by the high levels attained during the main story, Borderlands 3 is long. It is, in my opinion, far too long. The story beats work just fine, but the number and immense size of the maps in the game is just too much. This is a game that could use movie-style editing. It could be a third as long and lose nothing but dozens of hours of repetitive battles. Make no mistake, battles in Borderlands are fun, but I’d much rather have the option to play the game for fifty hours than be required to in order to finish the story. Its interminable length is really the only major flaw I’ve found in the game, but it’s a doozy.

The plot of the game revolves around the Calypso twins, a Siren who can absorb the life force of other beings and her parasitic brother. They’ve started a bandit cult, and generally act like asshole influencers for the entire game. This isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I found the villains appropriately, well, villainous. The story does a good job establishing their motivations as well as their advantages.

For the first time in the series, the game moves entirely away from Pandora for large segments. You’ll visit a number of other planets with new terrain and enemy types, and you’ll learn a lot about the various brands you’ve been seeing for the entire series. There are various cameos from all of the other games in the series, and you get resolution to a number of character arcs. The variety is nice, though several of the planets really wear out their welcome before you’re done with them.

Borderlands 3 isn’t as tightly tuned as Borderlands 2, and its not without some technical issues. It’s overly long and the plot isn’t for everyone, but nonetheless it enhances the already enjoyable gunplay of the Borderlands series. If you liked the previous games, this one is definitely worth checking out. If you like the looter shooter genre and some nice stylized graphics and a slightly weird sense of humor, this game will scratch that itch too. (Though if this describes you and you’ve never tried Borderlands 2, what have you been doing the last seven years?)

Review Score: B

Review: Tales from the Borderlands

Tales from the Borderlands is interactive fiction, existing somewhere on a continuum between video game and movie. The game is about its narrative rather than gameplay or game over conditions, though those exist as well.

There are five chapters in the Tales from the Borderlands series, each following directly from one to the next. Various dialogue and action decisions you make in each episode have repercussions both later in that episode and in later episodes. The game will inform you when a decision you make is noteworthy in this way, though there’s no direct indication when any given decision gets paid off. In theory you can play the game multiple times to experience different story beats, or you can enjoy the story as a bespoke narrative.

Since the game is so focused on story, it is well served by the fact that the story is quite good. It has a few cameos from all of the previous Borderlands games, but the two core characters and the supporting cast introduced here are all solid and serve the narrative well. You play as two characters, Rhys and Fiona, sometimes even choosing actions for both during a single scene. The game’s frame story allows for a lot of fun with the two characters, including some unreliable narration that can lead to highly amusing scenes.

The actual gameplay of Tales from the Borderlands takes a few forms, all of which are very straightforward. Often you’ll walk around, interacting with various people and objects in a style reminiscent of an old-school adventure game (albeit without the obtuse puzzles). During action scenes you may need to move in a direction or press a specific button, and failure to do so often results in your gruesome death followed by another chance at the last few moments. It’s certainly not a difficult game, though you do need to be on your toes at times.

As a video game, Tales from the Borderlands is somewhat lacking, but as an interactive story it is great. The writing is excellent, the visuals take great advantage of the Borderlands style, and each episode has a theme song that works better than it has any right to. Telltale Games was on point making this game, and having played it, I am sad that they no longer exist. If you’re a Borderlands fan, it’s worth checking out. The story even has several major effects on the status quo of the universe, and introduces a few characters who appear in the Fight for Sanctuary DLC for Borderlands 2, as well as Borderlands 3.

Review Score: B+

Movie Review: Children who Chase Lost Voices

Of all of Makoto Shinkai’s movies, Children who Chase Lost Voices stands out as the most unique. This is inherently ironic since it’s the most like a traditional anime, clearly inspired by Studio Ghibli movies. And while it deals with similar theme’s to Shinkai’s other works, this is an adventure story rather than a romance.

The story follows Asuna, a young girl who’s grown up too fast due to the loss of her father, who meets a mysterious boy one day. That boy soon dies, leading Asuna to a quest to the mythical underground kingdom of Agartha. Her companions for this adventure include the brother of her late friend, and an older man seeking the power of this place to resurrect his dead wife. Along the way, they meet various strange people and fantastic beasts.

From the plot description, Children who Chase Lost Voices sounds like many other fantasy coming of age adventure stories. What sets it apart is Shinkai’s attention to detail in every aspect. While the beings that inhabit Agartha range from the strange to the truly unsettling, everyone’s motivations and all of the events of the movie track in a very solid way. The fantasy is treated like a reality, making the narrative much more coherent than similar adventures. All three main characters are interesting in their own ways, and each feel complete if not entirely real. The obstacles they overcome and the decisions they make cause the movie’s two-hour runtime to progress more quickly than many of Shinkai’s shorter works.

The story of Children who Chase Lost Voices works because it rings true. The struggles the characters are going through are everyday struggles, exaggerated and warped into the context of an adventure movie, but they’re identifiable. This is particularly true of Asuna, who jumps into the adventure without much thought and has to discover on the way what she’s actually looking for. The emotional beats are very strong, and the movie doesn’t hesitate to put even its young characters in harrowing situations.

All of Shinkai’s other movies so far have a lot of thematic parallels to Your Name, but what Children who Chase Lost Voices shares with that masterpiece is that it is immaculately crafted. The visuals, the music, the characters, and the story all work in perfect sync. This is a movie that looks and sounds like a Studio Ghibli movie, but it’s not that. At its heart, it’s an exploration of loss and grief, yet not one that wallows in either. It is, in a word, excellent.

Review Score: A

Review: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

The oddly (but accurately) titled “Pre-Sequel” to Borderlands uses the Borderlands 2 engine, but introduces a number of new mechanics and classes to give a substantially different play experience. The story bridges the first two games, albeit from the perspective of Borderlands 2’s villain (who here is ostensibly the good guy, and in any case your character’s employer).

In story terms, the Pre-Sequel works fairly well. I didn’t detect any massive discontinuities in the storyline, though it suffers from the usual prequel problems. Specifically, some events occur that don’t contradict the story of Borderlands 2, but it sure seems odd they were never mentioned during that game. The general zaniness of the Borderlands universe lets them get away with some pretty amusing explanations for things, though. This is particularly true of Claptrap, who you can actually play as in this game.

The four classes are all new and bring a nice variety to the game. They aren’t analogs of the other games’ classes to nearly the extent they were in Borderlands 2, and the new action skills in particular are a lot of fun. Claptrap is enjoyably random, if you’re into that sort of thing. In addition to new classes, there is a new weapon type: lasers. These range from semi-automatic pew pew type lasers to constant lasers to railguns, and always have an elemental aspect. They start off a bit underpowered but in the long run are very useful and a lot of fun to use.

The game takes place on both the Hyperion space station you’ve seen so much, and Pandora’s moon. As such, you will be fighting in various levels of low gravity, which fundamentally changes both exploration and combat. O2 kits replace relics as an item type, offering various and often situational bonuses, and allowing you a double jump (more of a jump adjust) as well as a slam attack. This maneuverability leads to a lot of crazy but enjoyable platforming. Unfortunately, the enemies tend to have a lot more verticality than in other Borderlands games, often using jetpacks, and this makes them very difficult to track. They added above and below indicators for enemies here, but it’s often not enough.

The story of the Pre-Sequel is pretty straightforward, and a lot shorter than that of Borderlands 2. One big change in game flow is that you need to do most if not all of the sidequests to keep up with the recommended level here. Whether that’s a positive or a negative really depends on whether you’re an impatient completionist or the kind of person who thinks optional content should actually be optional.

All in all, the Pre-Sequel is a bit disappointing after Borderlands 2. The additions are fun, especially the low gravity maneuvers, but combat can be frustrating due to bland enemy design and the aforementioned issue with verticality. On the upside, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the character classes are fun. The plot introduces seemingly important elements but nonetheless isn’t required to understand the story, so this is a Borderlands game for fans of the series more than anything else.

Review Score: B

Review: Game Dev Tycoon

Game Dev Tycoon is, predictably enough, a tycoon-style game where you play as a game developer. It lets you make games and grow your company from the post-video game crash early ’80s right through the generation to be released in 2020.

The gameplay of Game Dev Tycoon is simple and addictive. It’s the sort of games where hours can pass without you realizing it. You start off in your garage as a solo developer, and eventually work your way up to an office with a team of up to seven devs. But all of the mechanics and complications along the way are introduced at the perfect rate to keep things interesting but not overwhelming. You need to balance research and training with development, though making a good game is always paramount.

One of the reasons Game Dev Tycoon works so well is that a game’s success boils down to just two values, design and technology. How these are increased gets pretty complicated, but the core understanding of what they are and why you want them never changes. There are six genres of games to create, as well as mixed genres and MMO versions of them all, and each has its own optimal balance of the two. Games also increase in size as your team grows, necessitating specialists and a good mix of skills among your devs.

Part of the charm is that every actual significant console comes and goes during the game, complete with messages about how people thought they would perform and how they actually did. These can be especially amusing if you lived through these generations, watching the Dreamcast’s hype peak and immediately crash and the like. Knowing each console’s strengths is key to making best-selling games, though the game allows you to create games for the worst consoles around if you want.

The only real issue I have with Game Dev Tycoon is that it’s a lot simpler under the hood than it sometimes implies. You may be carefully considering which Level Design features to include, but the truth is, they’re all just numbers. No one is actually going to care that your RPG doesn’t allow save games. Still, even given this, the game has a lot of depth and just enough randomness to keep you looking for good opportunities.

If you like tycoon simulation games, Game Dev Tycoon is an easy recommendation. The topic is almost surely of interest to anyone playing these sorts of games, and the gameplay is quick, fun, and repeatable. They even let you carry over knowledge gleaned from one playthrough into the next. So have at it, see if you can host a convention to hype up a AAA MMO on a console you built.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

The very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for NES is unlike basically all of those that would follow in that it is a strictly single-player experience. It also makes less use of the brand than one might expect. It feels like one of those licensed games that didn’t really need to be licensed at all, but it’s still a pretty fun platformer.

TMNT isn’t a typical action game in that it isn’t divided into linear stages. Instead, there are six areas to explore, each connecting side-scrolling areas with an overhead city view. It’s not exactly “non-linear” but its structure makes for a few interesting gameplay quirks. Not every side-scrolling area is relevant to the plot, but most of those that aren’t will reward you with items or health pickups (naturally in the form of pizza). All of these renew upon leaving and re-entering an area, and due to the game’s limited continues, it can be worthwhile to farm out items at times to give yourself a leg up. It is somewhat reminiscent of Blaster Master in that way, though almost every action area has at least some obvious upside.

The way the game uses the titular turtles plays into the overall gameplay style. You can freely switch between any of the four, each of which has its own weapon with wildly variant damage and range. Donatello is clearly the best turtle to use in most situations, but if he dies, you can no longer use him. In this way you essentially have four lives, or more accurately, four health bars. Switching between turtles to manage this overall health pool is vital to making it through the tougher areas of the game. Each turtle can also pick up sub-weapons, so switching between them allows you to stock multiple types of attacks for various situations.

The structure and ideas behind TMNT are solid, but the execution is unfortunately lacking. This comes across in two main respects. First is the difficulty: many specific sections of the game are quite difficult and require some combination of practice, patience, and outside-the-box thinking. A key example of this is the underwater level, which is the furthest many players get despite being found in the second area. The strict time limit and bypassing of the usual four lives structure make it very challenging, though even a mediocre player can clear the stage pretty easily by simply being overly aggressive rather than careful. This is very counter-intuitive for an NES game. Later stages throw difficult jumps and obnoxious enemies at you, and losing one or two key turtles can rapidly bring your game to a halt. You’ll need to learn the tricks of any given encounter, and with only two continues, it can be difficult to get far enough to try a hard section again.

On the whole, TMNT is a pretty solid game. The difficulty can be nasty but isn’t as punishing as some of the harder platformers of its time, and the strategic gameplay and free turtle switching contribute to an intriguing play style. The lack of co-op or more normal enemies a fan of the franchise would recognize are both flaws, but only as far as the license. As a game it holds up fairly well.

Review Score: B+

Movie Review: Weathering With You

Weathering With You is the follow-up to Makoto Shinkai’s masterpiece Your Name. It shares broad similarities to that movie and Shinkai’s other works in that it is at its core a story of a boy and a girl and their relationship. But while Your Name used the core conceit of a body swap, Weathering With You stars a “sunshine girl” who has the power to control pockets of the weather in a rain-soaked Tokyo.

The story of Weathering With You follows Hodoka, a high school runaway who has come to Tokyo. He meets a variety of interesting characters including Hina, the aforementioned sunshine girl. She gained her powers through an event shown in the opening, and the two end up running a small business giving people pockets of sunshine during a months-long rainstorm. The two are both interesting characters, with Hodoka being a bit of a hothead with a penchant for making bad decisions, and Hina being preternaturally nice. She lives with and takes care of her little brother. She is certainly a pleasant character, with a thematically sunny disposition, but she does feel idealized beyond the point of believability.

The supporting cast is interesting as well, consisting mainly of a somewhat sketchy character that befriends and takes in Hodoka and his credulous assistant. They write tabloid articles, and the movie sets up a lot of the plot during their research of the sunshine girl phenomenon. Weirdly, this research is unrelated to Hina’s existence and powers, and the fact that both are going on doesn’t really reach a satisfactory resolution.

As with Shinkai’s other work, Weathering With You is absolutely beautiful. The animation is enchanting, and the fact that it’s almost always rainy and wet just makes that achievement more notable. The soundtrack is fantastic as well, and features Radwimps, the same band that recorded the soundtrack for Your Name. There are half a dozen lyrical songs that fit the themes very well, though only the main track is presented in English, even in the dub. Regardless, the movie is an audiovisual treat.

On its own, Weathering With You is a great story with likable characters, excellent writing, and breathtaking presentation. Where it suffers, it must be said, is in trying to capture the lightning in a bottle that made Your Name so memorable, and failing. The movie would have been well-served to take a divergent course from its predecessor, and at the start it seems that it will. There are too many parallels to ignore by the end, though. Weathering With You does make a lot of bold choices, but it lacks a special something. The emotional connection Shinkai is so excellent at evoking doesn’t work here as well as it does in his other works, either.

If you like beautiful anime with a good touch of the supernatural, Weathering With You might be the movie for you. If you like naive teenagers falling for one another, or saving the day despite the adults in the room, again, this is the movie for you. It’s not life-altering or anything, but it is a joy to watch.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Bionic Commando

Bionic Commando is a classic and unique NES platformer. Unlike virtually every other platformer that has ever existed, in Bionic Commando you lack the ability to jump. Instead, you navigate the world with a grappling hook.

The grappling hook mechanic is the heart and soul of Bionic Commando. You can fire the grappling hook forward, straight up, or up at a 45 degree angle, and can swing or climb to most obstacles. Your character can also fire a gun, though only forward. Several unlockable guns have different firing patterns, but for the most part you’ll be using your grappling hook to position yourself to attack enemies. Swinging puzzles are also quite common, often resulting in instant death or close to it if not executed perfectly. The game is particularly challenging when you find yourself trying to swing in the vicinity of enemies, any of which can knock you off of whatever you’re attached to.

Bionic Commando has an extremely odd difficulty curve. The first stage is one of the hardest, due to starting the game unable to take multiple hits and with only three lives and no continues. Leveling up by collecting bullets dropped by enemies will solve the first problem soon enough, but the way continues work in this game is among the strangest in gaming. You start with none, but it is extremely easy to earn enough to keep you going indefinitely. As a result, once you get a few levels and completed stages under your belt, even the game’s toughest platforming puzzles become much less stressful to navigate.

In addition to the RPG-like leveling system, Bionic Commando features a variety of items to collect. You can bring one of each type (weapon, protection, special, and communicator) into any given stage, and many of these are required to progress through certain stages. Some are found in hidden locations, but most are earned when you complete any given hostile area. The “RPG Elements” even extend into an open world of sorts, where you can travel to most stages at will if you’re willing to take on some random encounters. Of course, practically speaking you have to mostly go in order to complete the game.

Bionic Commando is a charming combination of weirdness and difficulty. The grappling hook is tough but satisfying to master, and expanding your arsenal is a lot of fun. This isn’t an easy game, but it’s certainly beatable if you stock up on continues. The stages are short but have a lot of variety, and the puzzles and plot progression are fair despite the somewhat broken translation. It’s a good game, though it’s well-known more for its uniqueness than anything else.

Review Score: B+