Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal

Throne of Bhaal, the expansion to Baldur’s Gate II and the finale of the Baldur’s Gate saga, is a satisfying ending to an epic journey. It brings closure not only to your quest, but to the story of your being a child of Bhaal, the God of Murder.

In addition to new post-game content, Throne of Bhaal provides enhancements and additions to the base game as well. Perhaps the most obvious and useful change is the addition of tab highlighting to find dropped items and treasure containers, a feature it’s hard to live without once you have it. The dungeon of Watcher’s Keep is also added, and can be accessed both before and during the expansion itself. This is a sprawling dungeon filled with puzzles and interesting fights, not to mention some fantastic loot. Its unique shared position also allows you to bring more items than you can carry over to the expansion, which is useful if you’re a hoarder.

Unlike Tales from the Sword Coast, the main Throne of Bhaal content is completely separate from the base game. Once you finish the original plot, you’ll find yourself on a new map with no ability to go back. The plot is also new, with few direct connections to that of Shadows of Amn. This time, you’ll be hunting down and fighting a variety of other Bhaalspawn, all of whom are dangerously powerful. With the experience cap more than doubled and weapons of up to +6 available to you, though, you’ll be quite powerful yourself. You’ll finally be able to memorize level 9 spells, and the addition of high level abilities such as making 10 attacks in a round or summoning high-level angels really ramps up the party’s capacity for battle.

Throne of Bhaal introduces a “pocket plane,” which acts as a home base that you can enter at any time. This pocket plane contains your alternate party members, several containers to store extra items, and your amusing imp butler that will construct powerful items from pieces you find (similar to Cromwell in the main game). It is somewhat reminiscent of, and perhaps the inspiration for, the Normandy of the Mass Effect series. It’s only too bad it took this long to get such an accessible base of operations. There’s only one new character to recruit, but they’re a doozy and a very fun addition plot-wise.

The relatively straightforward plot works very well for an epic-level expansion, allowing you to really flex your muscles and try out various crazy tactics. Your party’s resilience just keeps growing, to the point where multiple consecutive major battles with no rest are entirely doable (and good thing, since you’ll find yourself in that situation more than once). This is the kind of expansion where a demi-lich can be found as a no-big-deal random encounter.

Throne of Bhaal is satisfying in every sense, bringing closure to a character you may have taken all the way from level 1 and allowing you to play with powers typically reserved for heroes of legend. It serves as an amazing capstone to an amazing RPG series.

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn

Baldur’s Gate II takes the promise of the original game and delivers an epic story and some great Dungeons & Dragons action. Unfortunately, a number of questionable design decisions bring the game down a notch.

BG2 adds a number of features to the original Baldur’s Gate engine, including increased resolution and a better overall UI. It also adds new spells, new class kits, and even a few totally new classes from 3rd edition D&D (recently released at the time), in addition to greatly increasing the selection of monsters to fight. Notably, this includes actual dragons. Other rules tweaks like more granular weapon proficiencies add to the depth of the game. The main downside to the new options is that characters imported from the first game can’t take advantage of some of them (like the new classes), though they can choose to assign kits or change proficiencies.

Where Baldur’s Gate II shines is in its structure. The plot spans seven chapters, the middle several of which are a string of connected dungeons. At the beginning and end, however, you have free reign to explore the world and recruit a variety of new characters. The world map now consists only of relevant areas you’ve discovered through quests or other means, rather than semi-contiguous wilderness areas. This cuts down drastically on the exploration time required (or in the case of completionists, allowed). In a counterintuitive decision, there are fewer characters to recruit than in the previous game, but the characters here have more personality, interactions, and in most cases unique personal quests. You can even start a romance with several of them.

The game’s story has some tension with its structure, giving you a story reason to hurry up and get on with the quest while the game encourages you to explore and take things slowly. This isn’t a big problem, particularly since the early game has an open-ended quest goal that somewhat justifies your meandering, but character-specific quests are usually on a timer and this can make random questing seem frantic even when you’re taking your time. Party members will generally leave for good if you don’t follow their requests, though you are given ample time to keep everyone happy as long as you don’t ignore them.

In addition to recruiting a party to suit your tastes, your main character can earn one of a variety of strongholds, depending on their class(es). These strongholds act as a home base (and somewhere to store extra stuff you don’t want to sell) and offer various unique quests. Playing through the game more than half a dozen times to see every stronghold quest is not practical, but it’s cool to have an incentive to try out different characters.

Baldur’s Gate II’s story is its crowning achievement. You start off captured by a villain with unknown motives, and by the time you take the fight to him in the end, you’ll probably want revenge as much as your character does. Your companions are varied and interesting, and their quests and interactions add a lot of flavor to the world. While the plot is pretty linear no matter what you do, you do have full control of your character’s motivations and the game can be played as any alignment. You’re not tracking down the villain because you’re the good guys, you’re tracking him down because he has wronged you personally.

There is one aspect to Baldur’s Gate II which does, in my view, hurt the game substantially. That is how it treats enemy mages, and particularly liches (of which there are a shocking amount). Mages use contingencies and spell triggers to put up defenses that require either a very specific set of counterspells or various types of cheesy tactics to defeat. Notably, none of the most annoying spells seem to actually exist in pen and paper AD&D, and those that do are made far more powerful in game. Granted, mage fights without these protections tend to be very easy, but these fights can quickly become tedious and annoying. Constant one-hit kill spells are no fun either, especially when bugs result in things like your romance being cancelled because your paramour was petrified.

Annoying magic fights aside, Baldur’s Gate II is a fantastic game and a model for western RPGs that followed it. The character recruitment and quests clearly inspired the systems for games like Mass Effect (also by BioWare), and the overall structure really nails the balance between linear narrative and exploration of part of a living world. The writing is excellent, the rewards for side quests are worthwhile, and the potential for replayability is high. There’s a reason this is one of the all-time RPG classics.

Review Score: A−

Review: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is the first Final Fantasy sequel numerically, though not the first that was actually released. Originally an episodic game for WiiWare, this sequel/remix of FF4 features SNES-style graphics, a new plot, and a whole lot of reused assets.

The structure of The After Years is reminsicent of Dragon Quest IV: each chapter features a separate set of characters, culminating in a final chapter that brings every character together into one big finale. Unlike the original game, the plot doesn’t heavily feature Cecil, which allows the game room to explore the various minor characters of the original. People like Edward and Palom and Porom get the spotlight they were never given previously, and a number of fun new characters are added to the mix as well.

Unfortunately, while the players in the plot are pretty novel, the plot itself is largely derivative of the original FF4. You’ll revisit almost every location from that game, sometimes several times, and many feature the same basic mechanics and enemy mix. There are a few new locations, particularly in the form of “challenge dungeons” you’ll find in every chapter, but nothing of any real substance until the finale. It’s fun to revisit old haunts, but it gets old pretty quickly, and the plot’s focus on mystery and putting off resolution doesn’t help.

Most of the game takes the form of the final chapter, which consists of a short plot introduction followed by a massively oversized dungeon. The first few floors are recycled from old content, but most of this final dungeon is brand-new. The enemies are not, however, borrowing from all of the first six Final Fantasy games. You’ll fight sets of bosses from each, and while the game does offer many opportunities to save or regroup, the constant boss fighting quickly becomes tiresome. The encounter rate would have been high even in the ’90s, which is even more frustrating in modern times.

If you like tailoring a huge party to your specific desires or hunting for rare items, there’s a lot to do in The After Years. However, much like the original Final Fantasy IV, you can overcome every challenge without doing half of the crazy stuff, making these special items feel somewhat extraneous. Only completionists need apply.

The After Years makes great use of the FF4 combat engine, using some mechanics (such as a separate timer bar for abilities) that the series didn’t follow up on, and most battles are pretty quick. The roster is incredibly large and there are dozens of discoverable combo attacks, though you don’t actually need to switch out from your favorite party in the final dungeon.

The bottom line is, if you loved FF4 and want an excuse to revisit the world, The After Years is it. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something new, you will likely be overwhelmed with the old. There is good stuff if you go look for it, but you’ll have to put in the work.

Review Score: B−

Review: Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey is a Mario game in the style of Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine, meaning that it consists of a series of relatively open worlds with a variety of goals in each. While this isn’t my favorite type of Mario game, Odyssey may be the best expression of it so far.

The key gameplay innovation over its predecessors is that Mario Odyssey gives out Power Moons (the equivalent to Stars and Shines) quite generously. Instead of each world having a few large goals, they each contain dozens of small ones. While secrets would historically grant coins or extra lives, here they will almost always reveal Power Moons. This prevents the frustration of getting stuck on a particular objective (boss battles aside), and makes the game feel generally more rewarding.

The downside to having so many Power Moons is that Odyssey can feel like a collect-a-thon. In addition to the Power Moons, there are special coins to find in each world, and Mario’s usual golden coins are used as currency and a low-penalty stand-in for extra lives. The game provides you with lists and hints to find everything, but there is a whole lot to find and I’m not sure the fun needs to be stretched out that far. Still, the game comes to a perfectly acceptable conclusion even if you ignore this aspect.

Mario Odyssey introduces a new mechanic which essentially takes the place of power-ups: Mario now has a sentient cap he can throw at objects. Throw it at an enemy, and you can possess that enemy. Many enemies have special abilities, and the game makes excellent use of these to add new puzzles and interesting situations to the gameplay. Nintendo avoids grinding a fun mechanic into the ground, so there’s a ton of variety in what you can do. It’s an innovative and fun mechanic that works very well in the open-world style of Mario game.

The bottom line is, if you liked Mario 64 (and especially if you liked Sunshine), Mario Odyssey will fill you with joy. If you prefer the stage goal structure of Mario Galaxy, you’ll probably find a lot to like here as well, but this is not that game. Odyssey doesn’t focus on tightly designed gameplay (though it features plenty of it), rather favoring experimentation and exploration. Any 3D Mario fan will get something out of it, though exactly what you want from Mario will determine how much.

Review Score: B+

Review: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

If Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its name and really is the final Smash Bros., it certainly went out with a bang. Featuring every character from every previous game and then some, this is the culmination of decades of Smashing.

I am not a super technical Smash Bros. player, so I can’t comment on the niceties of balance or changes to core mechanics. What I can say about SSBU is that it preserves the fun of previous games while adding an overwhelming amount of stuff. If anything, there are too many characters, items, stages, and so on. With 74 characters at launch, 63 of which need to be unlocked, you likely won’t even see the full breadth of the game for more than a dozen hours.

When it comes to the core Smash gameplay, I don’t have much to say beyond “it’s Smash Bros., but moreso.” I will therefore focus on Adventure Mode and the spirits that go along with it. Spirits are equippable gear-like entities that correspond to characters and items from a variety of games (even beyond those represented with playable characters). They can grant a general level of power as well as specific rule-breaking abilities. You can earn many of these in Adventure mode, but also by challenging them, summoning them by consuming other spirits, and various other methods. There are enough spirits that you can mess with them forever, if you want.

The best use of spirits, though, is in Adventure Mode. You start out with just Kirby, and have to unlock all 73 other characters one by one. (Doing so unlocks them in the main game, but not vice-versa). Due to the design of the mode, some basic characters will remain locked for a ridiculously long time, which can make this mode frustrating if you have one or two specific main characters you can’t use. However, aside from the fights to unlock characters, every fight in the game is with a spirit, and this is where the cleverness of the spirit idea shines through.

Spirit fights are against normal Smash Bros. characters, but they are modified to resemble the spirit in some way. As a basic example, when you fight Dr. Wily you’ll fight 8 metal Mega Men (Mega Mans?), representing the usual 8 bosses from Mega Man games, followed by Dr. Mario filling in for Dr. Wily. Some of these only work if you squint a bit and don’t think too hard, but many of them are quite clever and work far better than they should. SSBU’s ridiculous roster size helps immensely in this regard, as some of the stand-ins for various spirits are inspired.

The problem with Adventure Mode is that it’s insanely long, taking dozens of hours to complete. If you just want an excuse to play solo Smash for weeks, that’s great, but it’s not an efficient method to unlock content and it is in serious danger of wearing out its welcome. Then again, Adventure Mode is entirely optional. You can completely ignore it and focus on normal Smash, Classic Mode, or just good old online multiplayer.

The upside of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that, whatever you want from Smash Bros. is probably in here. The downside is that a ton of stuff you may not care about is in here too. That’s a good problem to have, and this love letter to Smash Bros. fans is hard to complain about. If you like the series, you’ll find something to like here.

Review Score: A−

Review: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is a procedurally-generated action platformer featuring numerous roguelike elements. It splits the difference between permanent death and a Diablo-style loot fest in a smart way that keeps it interesting and enjoyable for an extended period.

While it is often referred to as a Metroidvania, I find that characterization a bit misleading. Dead Cells certainly borrows some basic Metroidvania concepts, but the gameplay is more about action and execution. Exploration is certainly not the main concept here. The gameplay loop centers around obtaining upgrades, but these are mostly in terms of weapons and other combat abilities.

Every time you die in Dead Cells (which will happen a lot), you start over from the beginning of the game. Any equipment you had is lost, but permanent ability upgrades remain. The pool of equipment you are likely to encounter is expanded in a similar way by finding and cashing in blueprints for new gear. As a result, even though permanent death is quite real, you will make long-term progress in the game. You do have to complete levels to cash in most upgrades, though, and this is not a game where constant iterating will win you the day.

Dead Cells is at its most interesting at the start, when you are seeking out a half-dozen permanent upgrades that allow you to traverse new areas. The sequence of levels always begins and ends in the same place, but as you earn these special runes, you’ll unlock a variety of different paths to explore in the middle. Getting all of the runes can take a while, and the game can start to become a bit rote after you’ve done so. At that point, your main goal is to unlock more upgrades and get good enough to complete the game at increasing difficulty levels. The moment-to-moment gameplay is incredibly fun, but it can nonetheless get a bit monotonous after a while.

You can get as much out of Dead Cells as you want, but its lack of a definitive ending leads to it being the kind of game you don’t finish so much as eventually stop playing. It’s great while it lasts, but if you’re like me and like wrapping games in a nice bow, you’ll likely end up a little bit disappointed.

Review Score: B

Review: Beat Saber

Beat Saber is a virtual-reality rhythm game where you use a pair of light sabers to hit floating boxes in time to music as they come at you. Based on that description, you probably already know how interested you are in this concept.

Rhythm games exist at various levels of abstraction, and Beat Saber’s gameplay has very little correlation to the music aside from the beat. Your twin light sabers are different colors, and you’ll have to hit blocks corresponding to each color from certain directions as indicated by arrows on their side. The game also offers a one-saber mode (unfortunately only available at the highest difficulty) as well as a mode where the block patterns are more complicated but you can hit blocks from any direction without respect to the arrows.

If nothing else, Beat Saber delivers on the promise of a VR light saber game by avoiding all of the problems involved with such a thing. There are no objects that would block your light sabers and destroy the illusion, aside from your other saber (and touching the two blades together causes your controllers to vibrate, adding to the illusion that they exist in some sense). You also don’t need to move or go anywhere. As a result, the immersion is complete. The VR world isn’t like anything in actual reality, but it makes sense and it easily understood.

The most important part of most rhythm games is the feeling it gives you, and Beat Saber feels great to play. It’s rewarding to learn various complicated patterns and start making cuts in preparation for future ones. The game’s patterns often look far more complicated than they are in practice, which helps you reach impressive-looking levels of skill in a reasonable time. Flailing your arms around madly can even burn some calories.

My only issue with Beat Saber is it’s tiny list of songs, just over a dozen as of this writing (though they have started adding some as free DLC). The PC version may be preferable to the PS4 version due to the availability of mods and user-generated content. That said, what is here is a lot of fun to play. In addition to simply playing each song at increasing difficulty and with various modifiers, there is a campaign mode that introduces those modifiers and a range of special rules that offer unique challenges.

If you like music games and have a VR setup, you’ll probably love Beat Saber. I can’t say it’s necessarily a VR system seller, but it’s a lot of fun and avoids many common VR pitfalls. Hyper-realistic VR games have a lot of hurdles to leap, but if the future of VR is in experiences like Beat Saber, I think I’ll be pretty happy.

Review Score: B+

Review: Mega Man 11

The original Mega Man series has always worked best with 8-bit graphics and a focus on core gameplay over innovative abilities. Mega Man 11 manages to break both of these trends, creating the first real departure in the series that manages to stand on its own as a good game without simply relying on a 30-year-old formula.

In terms of structure, Mega Man 11 is not trying to innovate at all. You have 8 bosses to choose from, you use each boss’s weapon to defeat another in sequence, and then you go through a few Dr. Wily stages before the game ends. Unlike the retro-style Mega Man 9 and 10, Mega Man 11 brings back the charge shot and slide, adding to them the new “gear system” to round out Mega Man’s basic abilities.

The gear system allows Mega Man to get temporary boosts of speed (slowing the game down) or firepower, and managing these boosts can get you past tough platforming puzzles or through nasty enemies. Neither is strictly necessary, but they definitely help. When low on health, you can engage both powers at once, though you’ll be offensively penalized for a short time afterwards. Enemy bosses can and will also use the double gear system, usually resulting in two distinct phases in these fights. One of the nice aspects of the double gear system is that its limited time of engagement puts less focus on waiting for a charged shot to build, allowing the basic Mega Buster to shine like it usually can’t in games where you can charge it.

The bosses here have some personality, a la Mega Man 8, but this aspect works a lot better than it did in that game. You’ll find a number of basic archetypes here, like the cold, fire, and electric bosses, but their attack patterns take advantage of both the increased graphical fidelity and the double gear system. The right weapon is usually devastating against the right boss, but several weapons have very limited usage so the battles are not always a cakewalk even when properly armed. Alternate weapons can be useful for hitting bosses more easily than the Mega Buster even when they don’t deal devastating damage, giving the game a bit more of an open feel as to boss order.

One of the highlights of Mega Man 11 is the stage design. Each stage is uniquely themed and takes full advantage of the HD graphics to present an interesting scenario. The boss weapons are not the best in the series in terms of moment-to-moment use, but the stages are designed to give them moments to shine. The ability to switch weapons with the right stick, along with having dedicated face buttons for the Rush Coil and Rush Jet, encourages experimentation and item use (not to mention speed running).

The best thing I can say about Mega Man 11 is that they finally managed to extract the fun of Mega Man out of its original 8-bit context. Sure, plenty of its spin-off series have been great outside the NES, but original Mega Man has long lacked something in its later sequels. This game feels like old Mega Man but in beautiful HD, and for the first time there’s a clear vision for how to create new Mega Man games on modern systems going forward.

Review Score: B+

Review: Mario Tennis Aces

Mario Tennis Aces represents a bit of a return to the basics for the Mario Tennis series. Eschewing both the ridiculous roster size of some of the earlier games and the more ridiculous options of the newer ones, it’s a pretty pure Mario Tennis experience that should please newcomers and series veterans.

With no current major tennis series in regular production, Mario Tennis Aces serves as the de facto multiplayer tennis game of this generation, and fortunately it (mostly) lives up to the expectations that carries. While the game is normally played with a variety of super powers and special shots, you can turn those off for a bit of simple but deep tennis action with your friends. You inexplicably can’t play a full-length tennis match (multiple sets of six games each), but aside from that Aces gets the basics down.

As usual, the characters are divided into various archetypes with their own strengths and weaknesses. The game uses all four face buttons for shots, allowing more powerful versions of three of them by double-tapping. This isn’t possible with lobs or drop shots, which share the X button (and can also be performed via combinations a la the older Mario Tennis games). Your extended set of special abilities uses the triggers and right stick as well, keeping the core controls intact for all modes. The main strategy in Mario Tennis Aces is to get into position for your shot early, to give you the most power and control. Characters are very good at keeping shots within the lines, so the main focus is on outsmarting or outworking your opponent.

While multiplayer is certainly the main draw of Mario Tennis Aces, the game does come with a few single-player modes as well. There are three surprisingly easy tournaments to complete, but the primary mode you’ll play solo is Adventure Mode. You can unlock new courts with optional hazards for use in free play mode, but other than that Adventure Mode is purely optional. New characters are unlocked via participation in online tournaments, though you automatically get the characters that were featured in previous months. Before too long, every character will be unlocked for everyone as soon as they load up the game.

Mario Tennis Aces gets the job done, with that job being serving up some good Mario Tennis fun in HD. Tennis has always translated very well to video game format, and doubles Mario Tennis is hard to beat as a four-player diversion. Aces does lack a bit in the extracurricular activities, which may be a bonus if you’re just here for the multiplayer. The core gameplay that makes Mario Tennis so good is intact, though, and that’s what really matters.

Review Score: B

Review: The Messenger

The Messenger is a retro-style platformer that looks and feels a lot like Ninja Gaiden, but has a whole lot more going on than a basic stage-by-stage action game. It is a wonderful synthesis of tried-and-true techniques and some cool new platforming ideas.

Like so many modern retro-style games, The Messenger can be described largely as an amalgamation of various NES games. However, a few things set it apart. First and foremost, while most such games blend their influences, The Messenger is very nearly split into two entire games. The first is an action platformer in the style of Ninja Gaiden, while the second is an open-world adventure more in the style of Symphony of the Night-style Castlevania games.

As with many good platformers, you gain various new movement and attack abilities during the game. The first ability you get is the most original, and serves as the core piece of gameplay that sets The Messenger apart right away: you can air jump every time you attack anything in mid-air. This applies not only to enemies and projectiles, but also objects, many of which are placed for this specific purpose. You will face many rooms where the challenge is to navigate a room without hitting the floor, or perhaps without having a floor at all.

The Messenger is a tightly-made experience that doesn’t get bogged down in dozens of upgrades and abilities. Your action set is fairly limited, and aside from upgrades purchasable with the plentiful in-game currency, you’ll earn all your major abilities during a normal playthrough. There are 45 “Power Seals” to find that will unlock an extra ability, but this isn’t a typical Metroidvania in the sense of having an ever-expanding arsenal. Instead, the game itself expands, opening up levels you played through previously with new passages and mechanics.

The world map is not a sprawling maze, but rather a series of interconnected caverns. Navigation is somewhat reminiscent of Castlevania II in that way, but various shortcuts are introduced later on to make it easy to get around. The exploration part of the game is less about traversing entirely new ground than it is about finding nooks and crannies that were previously hidden or inaccessible.

I don’t want to spoil any major plot points, so suffice it to say that the game introduces a lot of fun mechanics that keep the gameplay fresh despite technically retreading a lot of old ground. The writing is fun and very self-aware, though if you’re not into that kind of humor it could be a little grating. The graphic style is attractive and smooth, and the fact that you play as a ninja basically guarantees the game plays stylishly.

If you like retro-style platformers and are not looking for a game that will take up weeks of your time, give The Messenger a shot. There’s a lot of great platforming and some very cool ideas on display here, and the game is consistently fun to play. It’s a satisfying experience, and one that will keep you guessing as well.

Review Score: A−