CrossCode: Secret of Mana and 2D Zelda on Steroids

If there’s one variant of RPG I haven’t done much of, it’s the types like Secret of Mana, where you actually have to move and physically strike enemies to deal damage. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gave me PTSD with any RPG that has only one party member throughout the whole game. But, you know what, Sticker Star sucked. So today, I’m going to cover a retro RPG that gives a lot of bang for its buck: CrossCode for Nintendo Switch (I started playing this game before I got Steam)!

After a confusing opening sequence where you play as some angsty chick, CrossCode starts out when a girl named Lea logs into the high-tech MMO, CrossWorlds, in hopes of recovering her lost memories. CrossWorlds is set on an actual alien planet called Shadoon, and players have to travel the Track of the Ancients, in order to discover its secrets. If you’ve seen SAO, you know things are gonna get ugly.

This game sure knows how to hook players! They throw the intrigue right at you when some weird spaceman, who claims to know Lea, attacks during a tutorial. After that, however, it’s chill city as a lot of the early game is just getting acclimated to CrossWorlds itself. While I don’t normally care much for story in games, I must say that CrossCode nonetheless has a great story. It’s pretty straightforward, but is consistent at throwing you curveballs.

The story in CrossCode wouldn’t mean anything without its phenomenal writing. There’s your usual witty banter, but an indie game wouldn’t be an indie game if it didn’t break the fourth wall! As you can expect, CrossCode makes fun of RPG and videogame tropes. In fact, it even comes up with an actual justification for Lea being a silent protagonist! Since it’s an MMO setting, the meta humor feels much more natural in the context of the story than most indie games I know.

If you’re familiar with me, then you would know that I don’t care if there’s realism, especially when it comes to characters. However, CrossCode actually makes me proud to say that the characters are great because they’re realistic. Due to the setting, all the characters are, well, gamers. From the main cast, to random NPCs, the dialogue feels like how actual videogame nerds would discuss videogame stuff amongst one another, and it creates an intimacy with the player unlike any game I’ve played.

As mentioned before, Lea is a silent protagonist, and is one of the best I have ever seen. I’d dare say she’s the best next to Link himself. Over the course of the game, her friend who basically plays the role of Navi gradually unlocks more words for Lea. Despite her limited vocabulary, the writers give her tons of personality and emotion with what little they have to work with. Speaking of that Navi—i.e. Sergey—he’s also awesome. He’s smart and rational, but also has no shortage of quips.

The others are great as well. Her friend Emilie is a raucous tomboy who is just adorable when she’s dealing with her phobia of bugs, and her love for laser bridges. Along with her is C’tron, a nice, introverted boy who likes making fun of the game’s tropes. There’s also the egomaniac Apollo (who you’ll come to hate for gameplay-related reasons), and his down-to-earth partner, Joern. Even the Navi wannabe, Sergey, is a very likeable character. Unfortunately, a lot of characters don’t have enough eggs in their baskets. Most NPCs have their own stock designs, and even then, some named ones—specifically those involved in side quests—have no personality. It’s a real shame, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Before getting to gameplay, I must praise the graphics. The game is beautiful and vibrant, as expected of a lot of pixel art games. The spritework is so good, some characters—like a giant whale you fight at one point—look three dimensional. CrossWorlds itself brims with life as you observe other players running around and doing parkour alongside you. It really helps the game feel like it’s set in a real MMO, but without the toxic fandoms and newbie PK’ing of actual MMOs. Somehow, this thing was made using HTML 5, and apparently, this made it very difficult to port to the Switch. It works fine, but can lag a bit during weather effects or if there are a lot of large AOE attacks going off at once.

The gameplay is, of course, the most important part, and CrossCode gets it right. The game has your typical skill tree, with several branches, each containing different abilities that you unlock by spending CP, which you earn on level up. It’s the usual stuff. However, you’re only able to outfit Lea in this game, and that’s because your party members aren’t always going to be there. While you can use them all you want when exploring, things like Dungeons and PvP are done solo. More on those mechanics later.

CrossCode handles Quests really well. There’s tons of them, but they make it really easy to cycle through them. You can favorite a Quest by pressing Y on them, which will display the tasks for it on the HUD. But the best part is that you can favorite multiple Quests at once, and cycle through each one by pressing the Left Analog Stick. It’s a phenomenal way to manage tons of Quests that most RPGs don’t do. The only real issue is that you can’t favorite them at the initial prompt when receiving it.

Quests are nice, but it wouldn’t be a true RPG if there weren’t a million things to do. The other monstrosity is the Encyclopedia, which fills up by talking to NPCs, playing the main story, and learning about the world. This is basically Character Notes in a Falcom game… with additional notes regarding in-universe terminology. I didn’t bother getting 100% on this because of Trails of Cold Steel PTSD, but like in that game, I assume that entries are permanently missable in CrossCode. Additionally, plants of all kinds populate CrossWorlds, and there is a whole section in your Encyclopedia called “Botanics” that records data. Getting an item drop from a given plant is what moves analyzation along, so don’t be afraid to spend hours and hours violating the ecosystem.

Before covering combat, I must praise CrossCode for having an amazing overworld. It’s not just beautiful, but it’s chock full of stuff. You will have to really study the land to figure out “Just how am I supposed to reach that?”, and it’s really fun to do. Every area is full of puzzles, some of which extend to adjacent rooms. Other than some specific instances, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp of planes of the z-axis despite the 2D graphics. But when you can’t, you can always use your projectile attack to get a feel for the depth. Also keep in mind that Lea’s jump is NOT to be underestimated; it puts Link to shame!

Speaking of Legend of Zelda comparisons, the dungeons in CrossCode are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. CrossCode utilizes its mechanics to create an explicitly Zelda-like experience when going through them. They have seriously tricky puzzles that make use of all of the game’s mechanics, as well as the dungeon-specific mechanics that are taught to you organically with no intrusive textboxes. 

There are a couple of issues I have with them, however. While the puzzles are really great, a lot of them are extremely fickle, requiring pixel-precise setup. This leads into the other issue, which is Emilie’s addiction to racing you through the dungeon. Although it doesn’t seem apparent, you can actually try to win somehow. Unfortunately, if you’re going through the dungeon for the first time, as well as trying to get all the treasure before the boss, you’re NOT going to win a single dungeon race. Even if you were to speedrun it on a repeat playthrough, I imagine every single puzzle is a run-killer; it wouldn’t be an indie game if there was no “Hey do this thing with constant frame-perfect timing, please” BS. Since I’m a filthy casual, I have to accept being an absolute loser at everything.

Combat is a whole different story. When playing, you have your usual melee attacks, but Lea also has projectiles. To use projectiles, you have to move the right analog stick to aim while ALSO moving. Plus, there’s a dodge, but ALSO a guard. The latter won’t make you invincible from damage, but—naturally—there is a perfect guard that allows you to counterattack. Things can get ugly fast if you aren’t adept at all this. 

There’s also Combat Arts that are used with ZR. However, they work very strangely in CrossCode. Your arts aren’t mapped to ZR + a face button, but to ZR + a specific action. They come in four types: Melee Arts, Ranged Arts, Dash Arts, and Guard Arts. Pretty self-explanatory which is which. Note that you can only have one Art set to each action at a time. But fortunately, the skill tree allows you to freely switch between different branches with no CP loss, so there’s no consequence in learning an Art that you’re not sure about. As you find MacGuffins, you unlock further branches of the skill tree, which allow you to learn stronger Combat Arts that cost more SP.

As if things couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Elements. In CrossWorlds, players gradually acquire mastery of the Four Elements. As you unlock them, you can freely switch between them to give your attacks that property. This is great when fighting enemies with different resistances, so you’re not “Oh great, I’m fighting something weak to this and I can’t go into my inventory to equip my weapon with this attribute!” However, there’s Element Overload to watch out for. Basically, too much attacking with an element active can force you back into neutral for a while. It’s also important to know that attacking with no Element active will make your Elements cool down much faster. Each Element found opens up a new section of the skill tree, with their own Combat Arts (which means you’ll be able to have up to FORTY of them active once you gain all four Elements). The thing to notice is that each upgrade is only applied in that particular Element mode. For example, if you give yourself a bunch of base defense ups in Neutral, you will lose it when you switch to another Element. This needs to be kept in mind as you fight.

One mechanic that makes the game extra fun is Combat Rank. This is basically a combo system; defeat enemies in quick succession to increase your rank, which makes them drop better items. I only recommend it if you’re specifically grinding for rare drops, since the adrenaline rush can make you ignore loot your first time through an area. Fortunately, you can press minus after defeating all nearby enemies to end combat immediately if you don’t want to get that combo going. However, whenever you decide to go on a killing spree, Combat Ranks make it feel really good. It gets even better once you acquire equipment with the Botanist property, which causes plant item drops to be affected by Combat Rank. Thanks to this mechanic, I had more fun grinding for materials in CrossCode than in most other games I’ve played in my life.

There are also a lot of nuances that take much learning to figure out. The NPCs are very helpful in that regard, but there’s still some stuff you gotta figure out on your own. For example, when an enemy is glowing red, that means they’re charging up an attack that you can break them out of with a charged projectile attack. There’s also the dash cancel, where you use your dodge in order to prevent yourself from using a melee combo that has recovery lag in favor of continually dishing out damage, and more importantly, hit-stunning enemies repeatedly. Also, parrying with your guard ability becomes crucial if you want to be really good at the game.

You will need to learn these skills quickly; like most indie games, CrossCode wants to be on par with Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. Fortunately, unlike other hard-ass indie games, CrossCode actually considers EVERY POSSIBLE PERSON playing it. In the settings, you are able to freely tweak the amount of damage you take, as well as the frequency of enemy attacks and the leniency of puzzles. That last modifier is really good because you can mitigate the ridiculousness of the puzzles; you’ll still have to figure it out, but execution won’t be as much of a chore. Of course, these are at max by default. I had each setting one tick lower than max and it still gave me a consistently rough but fair time (maybe I just suck).

Despite how rough it was, I rarely felt truly frustrated. The game’s tough, but somehow, it makes the challenge feel fun. However, nothing’s perfect, and there are some specific points that can get VERY frustrating. One example is the case of Elite Quests. Most of them are harder versions of earlier quests. MUCH harder. For instance, the hard versions of these sadistic platforming gauntlets require the kind of frame-perfect perfection that most indie games have come to expect from gamers. There’s also some quests that have interesting ideas, but next-to-no leeway and require memorization of enemy formations. It’s also very easy to be walled by any of the game’s PvP battles. You can’t use items, and even if you could, your opponent is very capable of overwhelming you instantly, and tries various strategies built around stun-locking you until you go from full health to dead. It’s meant to teach you these strategies, but doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement yourself!

If that wasn’t scary enough, don’t get me started on the Arena. Late-ish into the game, you unlock the ability to challenge a preset of mobs from each region, as well as every single fixed encounter, miniboss, and major boss battle that you’ve been through. Beating the challenges is doable enough, but it’s getting the best scores that are insane. You need serious reflexes and ability to pay attention to multiple onscreen entities at once. And assuming you get platinum on each challenge? Well, guess what; you’re also going to have to do it again, but this time in Rush Mode. This is—you guessed it—every challenge within its given bracket in a row with limited healing. Yes, you’ll have to worry about getting platinum on this, and it’ll naturally be even worse to screw up.

I would’ve had this review out faster if it weren’t for the game’s long-awaited DLC: A New Home. It took until early 2021 to drop, and the wait for console users was even longer. However, it’s a bit complicated. The DLC, A New Home, is CrossCode’s post-game (I am unsure what happens if you beat the game before buying the DLC). To unlock it, you need to get the Good Ending. Now, before you assume that they pulled a Falcom by having a Good Ending in a long RPG, lemme reassure you: the sole condition that needs to be met is close to the end of the game. They’re very upfront once it comes up, so it’s not hard to miss. The problem is doing it right. I, thankfully, had managed to get the Good Ending in one try without even knowing that it was such an important thing. Fortunately, if you get the Bad Ending, you can warp right back to the start of the final chapter, retry the event, and then warp straight to the final boss at the point-of-no-return spot.

A New Home unlocks new quests, a new region, the true final dungeon, and resolves many unanswered plot twists. The new region, while beautiful, is kind of a disappointment considering how long I waited for it. It’s easily the smallest area in the game, and is very linear. On the plus side, you unlock special “ascended” equipment, whose base stats grow with Lea’s level, making them objectively better than anything else you can wear. A lot of these are upgrades from stuff you already have, so it’s easy for you to prioritize certain kits based on your playstyle. Also, the superboss at the end of the dungeon was probably the hardest fight I’ve experienced in my life, and taught me that my heart isn’t physically capable of handling that level of difficulty.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with A New Home. For completionists, you will need an excessive amount of materials found in the final dungeon in order to get all of the equipment. However, due to how dungeons work versus the overworld, you can’t take advantage of combat rank, making it one of the worst grinding spots in the game. Also, if you consider reaching level cap part of completion, grinding XP will be hard toward the end. The plus side is that the least amount you can earn is 1 per enemy, so finding a spot with a lot of enemies is the best strategy… but even spots with many enemies don’t exactly expedite this process. Also, the game doesn’t resolve EVERY plot twist, possibly intentionally so; it definitely baits a sequel, and there just so happens to be a very CrossCode-looking game, currently known as Project Terra, under development right now (that I hope has customizable difficulty and only one ending). Also, the final-FINAL segment is a bit anticlimactic. It doesn’t even take half an hour to get through despite the big buildup. Maybe it would’ve been better to have the final dungeon after it, since it’s a much better end to your journey. The cherry on top is that the game does the thing where it resets to right before the cutoff point after beating it, which is really arbitrary since not enough changes after finishing the DLC to warrant this.

How have I gone this long without talking about CrossCode’s soundtrack?! It is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a videogame, and perhaps the best I’ve heard in an indie game. There is so much variety when it comes to atmospheres and moods. I could rock out to any of the awesome battle themes, or chillax to the serene tunes of Autumn’s Rise.

Final Verdict: 9.95/10

CrossCode is awesome. I’d give it a perfect ten, but some of the puzzles really do feel excessively savage. Ah screw it!

Actual Final Verdict: 10/10

CrossCode has become my favorite indie game of all time, and is sure as heck up there with my favorite games of all time. I recommend it to anyone who loves JRPGs, puzzles, pixel art, great story, and phenomenal gameplay.

Still a Masterpiece JRPG: Xenoblade Chronicles Retrospective feat. The Definitive Edition

One of the most important YouTubers in my life is none other than Chuggaaconroy. I don’t just look up to him as a fellow autistic man, and as the man who introduced me to the TRG Community, the only community—physical and digital—where I’ve felt like I belonged; he also introduced me to the ding-dang greatest JRPG franchise of all time: Xenoblade Chronicles. Naturally, I had temptations to play the 2020 remaster, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, for the Nintendo Switch. However, I held off on it because I was like, “You know what, I’ll save it for 2022 when the game turns ten.” The thing is, I’m an idiot. The 2012 release I had associated with Xenoblade Chronicles was for the North American release. The game actually turned ten in 2020, an anniversary which was probably overshadowed by assorted world events at the time. As a result, you’re going to read a two-year-belated tenth anniversary retrospective, featuring the Definitive Edition. So without further ado, I need to ask the question that starts every retrospective: Is it really as good as I remember it being?

For the record, I have not re-watched Chugga’s series, nor have I seen any gameplay of this game since then. I remembered the basic gist of the story, the party members’ playstyles, the enemy types (since they’re also in the sequel), the regions, and specific side stuffs. I don’t remember the layouts for any of the regions, nor the vast majority of heart-to-hearts and sidequests. Overall, excluding the Future Connect epilogue, at least 70% of this game will still feel new to me. Also, I noticed that this game came with the Japanese voice actors. While I do actually think the dub is great, I was deathly curious about the Japanese voices. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to worry about “You’ll pay for your insolence!”, even if it means I lose Reyn Time.

Before I even get to the premise, I must say: HOLY SHIT THIS GAME IS GORGEOUS. The area design and the various vistas were astounding in the original, but the game looked… kinda bad. Now, this world is truly done justice. Everything has so much more life, especially the characters. Maybe the original being impossible to find was worth something after all; I doubt this remaster would exist otherwise.

You know what—and I know that I’m stalling on getting to the GAME here—but this is not your usual retrospective (in case you couldn’t tell from the fact that it’s a ten year anniversary retrospective when the game is twelve). The problem is that, normally, a retrospective would be a spoiler-filled rant on a well-known thing that’s been around for more than a hot minute. However, the original Xenoblade Chronicles on Nintendo Wii was notoriously difficult for people to find. As such, Definitive Edition is likely a whole generation’s first ever experience with the game. So… should I really spoil the story? I kind of ended up going halfway; not straight-up analyzing everything, yet giving away the biggest plot twists in the game. As such: UNMARKED SPOILERS AHEAD.

In Xenoblade Chronicles, two Titans—Bionis and Mechonis—are locked in battle. Said battle literally ends in a stalemate, but the residents of these Titans are still up in arms at each other. The Bionis people’s only hope to fight Mechonis’ Mechons is the Monado, a sword that can see the future. A boy named Shulk inherits it after his childhood friend, Fiora, is given the Red Shirt treatment, and sets off to destroy all the Mechon (afterwhich he realizes that the Mechon were the good guys but that’s neither here nor there).

What jumps out immediately in Xenoblade Chronicles is its setting. In case you couldn’t tell, the overworld for this game is the aforementioned Bionis and Mechonis locked in time. This is probably one of the most creative worlds in a JRPG. There aren’t many ways to describe how great it is without examples. One area is a body of water resting inside a giant thing sticking out of its shoulder blades (Bionis must’ve been a hunchback). Oh, and the way you get to Mechonis? You literally walk across the sword it thrust into Bionis’ shinbone. They even went into so much detail as having the ice area be in the part of Bionis that gets the least amount of sunlight (thanks for that particular deet, Chugga). 

Most people would say that Xenoblade Chronicles has a fantastic story, but honestly, I don’t feel as strongly about that. Everything is presented very powerfully and emotionally, but it’s pretty straightforward. I feel like the only development that can catch you off guard is the BIG twist where Shulk was actually the vessel of the final boss. Oh, and if you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then you’d recognize the same scientist guy from the end of that game; this game’s world is the one that he ended up creating.

No matter how good the story is, it still has some developments that are way too easily telegraphed. First off, Metal Face being Mumkarr is obvious since they both use the same knuckle-claw-thing weapons, and more noticeably, they have the same voice actors. Also, the thing with Dickson… I feel like they could’ve been more subtle about it. He outs himself very easily in one specific scene in Satorl Marsh, and it’s quite easy to remember since he’s never acted sus up to that point.

At the very least, the game has surprisingly enjoyable cutscenes, and this is from someone who normally can’t stand cutscenes in a JRPG. There are a number of scenes where it’s like “Okay, we’re here, and we need to go over there,” but those—at least in the Definitive Edition—have advanceable text. The actual, cinematic, story-important cutscenes are very well-directed and never felt like they overstayed their welcome. This was a pleasant surprise, because in Xenoblade 2, I remember being frustrated to no end at the length and abundance of cutscenes. I recalled going through the Spirit Crucible and there being at least eight different cutscenes where they’re like “Oh man we’re all exhausted in here” over and over again. Well, I guess I’ll know for sure if I ever get to do a retrospective of that game (which won’t be this year because Xenoblade 3 is priority one).

What gives Xenoblade Chronicles heart is its cast (even if I (hot take) think that the sequel has a better cast). Your main party members, with the exception of one, all have incredibly defined personalities and are very lovable. Shulk is pretty much a shounen protagonist, albeit a well-realized one. One of the best parts about him is that he often gets called out for the “main character sees something VERY IMPORTANT and says ‘It’s nothing’” cliché. He still does it… a lot… but I can let it slide this time.

Reyn is a great best-friend-type of guy, whose Time is very honored. Fiora initially comes off as a Red Shirt, but becomes more fully fleshed out—or should I say—mechanized out, after you find her with a bit of Mechon implanted pretty much everywhere besides her face. Best Girl Melia is the better waifu, who sadly doesn’t get her man (but more on that much later). Dunban is literally Shanks from One Piece, complete with only being able to use one arm. He’s a freaking awesome dad-type character. 

I don’t know about public consensus, but Chugga’s least favorite character was Sharla. What makes her a hard sell right away is her unusual battle style (sorry for getting to gameplay here but eeeeeeeeh), where her Talent Art isn’t an attack but a way to cool down her rifle when it overheats. To be honest, she’s not that bad in battle. You can use Cool Off before it overheats, and it’ll waste less time. There might be a possibility that Sharla’s A.I. was improved in Definitive Edition, because I recall Chugga saying it was awful. All that is well and good, but as a character, she’s about as much of a jackass as I remember. She has an unhealthy obsession with this Gadolt guy, to the point where it gets annoying. As soon as she says Reyn reminds her of a young Gadolt, you can see their ship coming from a mile away. Oh, and her betrayal of Melia in that one Heart-to-Heart? Big oof.

Obviously, the BEST character is Riki. This guy is a Nopon, a.k.a. the master race of the Xenoblade Chronicles series. With his typical Nopon broken grammar, he’s fun and cute and awesome and perfect. His only flaw is not being Tora from the second game. 

Like I said before, I played through the game with the Japanese audio, like a weeb. This is going to sound crazy coming from someone like me, but here: the dub is actually better. I had a feeling it would be, since we have Reyn Time and all. The voice actors aren’t bad, but nothing stands out from them. The Japanese audio is more necessary in Xenoblade 2, which has more anime tropes, and thus more interesting voice actors like Aoi Yuki. 

The chemistry between characters depends on you. Affinity is the bond between two characters, and is increased by actions in battle, among other things. Generally, you want to raise it as much as possible. One thing about Affinity that I’m glad has been simplified in the sequel is town Affinity. Unlike Xenoblade 2, where it was just the entire town as one entity, most NPCs have their own place on a massive Affinity tree. You’ll need to talk to them to get them to appear. And unfortunately, registering people on the Affinity tree is often a prerequisite for sidequests. Thankfully, the ones you need to worry about are green on the map. In any case, completing quests will increase the party’s Affinity with the respective town, allowing for even more quests.

Heart-to-Hearts are where it’s at for character development. However, in this game, bad choices can decrease affinity. As such, I ended up looking up every single one of them on the wiki. Some of the negatives can be funnier, plus there is an achievement for getting the worst outcome of a Heart-to-Heart. As expected, Heart-to-Hearts have various prerequisites, and you’ll have to remember them accordingly. On another note, one thing I don’t like about Affinity in this game is that certain party members will gain Affinity by being active when receiving given quests. There’s no way to tell who will react, but honestly, I didn’t worry about getting a reaction on EVERY quest, especially since some are from characters you don’t get until a significant time after the quest is available.

Speaking of quests… there are a ton. A good chunk of them are very simple and will auto-complete when accomplished, similar to the basic missions in Xenoblade X. As always, doing as many of them as possible is well-worth your time. Just be aware of Timed Quests. These will expire after certain story developments, but as long as you prioritize them, there’ll be nothing to worry about. One of the best parts of the game is that Shulk’s visions are more than just a plot device; they impact gameplay. A lot of quests, such as ones with multiple outcomes, show him what’ll happen with either option. Furthermore, you can even get visions of collecting materials for quests that you haven’t even started yet. New to the Definitive Edition, exclamation marks will appear for every quest, even if it’s not registered as the actively tracked quest. It will even highlight materials needed if any loaded in; great for not wasting time checking EVERY single item orb.

Unfortunately, the quests are kind of trollish at times. There is at least one case where one outcome of a multiple-outcome quest will open up a chain of future quests, but not the other. Also, some quests don’t appear on the map until you go up to them in the overworld, and yes, a number of these are timed. But in all seriousness, I really ended up hating the Affinity Chart in this game. It’s not just talking to people once to get them registered in it; you’ll also have to return to previous NPCs after registering new ones in order to get a status on their relationship with each other. Sometimes, you’ll have to talk to them after certain quests or story beats. All of these actions are often prerequisites to quests, and one in Colony 9 can be missed just by making the wrong decision with one of its residents. NPCs have very specific schedules, and there’s no way to really know if you have everyone in a given town. The Xenoblade wiki is a lifesaver for this, but having to use it at all honestly kind of sucks.

Anyway, the REAL rabbit hole when it comes to sidequesting is Colony 6. Starting from a certain point, you can relocate the residents of Colony 6 to, well, Colony 6. The place was ravaged by Mechon, and it needs rebuilding. In addition to a metric ton of quests and quest chains, you also have to make sizable donations in the form of rare materials found around the world in order to spruce it up. This would be the start of Xenoblade’s tendency to expect incessant and unfun grinding for completionists. Thankfully, they programmed it to where anything needed for Colony 6 in an area that expires will have an alternate solution after-the-fact.

One mechanic for collecting that has yet to return is trading. Named NPCs will be willing to trade for items, depending on your Affinity with the town. If you’re missing a material for a quest, then a trade might just come in clutch. Each item has a trade value, and you must give them something equal to or higher than it. There’s also the ability to overtrade, which nets you a bonus item if you give them something WAY more valuable. It’s a cool mechanic, but overtrading is tied to completing the “other” tab of the Collectopedia, and you have no hints on which NPC you have to trade with. I miss this mechanic, since it can save tons of material farming (maybe that’s why the other games are utter nightmares to complete?).

As far as the overworld is concerned, Xenoblade Chronicles has one of the best. There’s so much variety when it comes from the different areas, and the game does a great job in showing the scale of this game world. Even though I watched Chugga’s series years ago, I still remember seeing the Mechonis from exiting Tephra Cave for the first time. Bionis and Mechonis have a ton of stuff to do, from collecting materials, to mining regularly-spawning Ether deposits, to finding secret areas that net a ton of XP. It’s amazing how much there is when there aren’t any overworld chests!

So, what do you do with the aforementioned Ether deposits? The crystals you get from these—along with crystals from enemy drops—are used to craft Gems, which are stuck to equipment for added effects. The system is kind of complicated, and very random. Basically, you get one character to control the flames of the crafting machine, and someone else… to be honest I don’t know what the other person does. Basically, you insert crystals until one of the values exceeds 100%. Any Gem that’s over 100% is guaranteed to form, and any that fall short will be converted to cylinders for later use, depending on how much of the cylinder gauge fills up. Higher ranked crystals will form higher ranked Gems, but exceeding 200% will get you a higher rank.

Anyway, equipment is actually fun in Xenoblade Chronicles. I always felt like it was too complicated in Xenoblade X, but too simple in Xenoblade 2 (although that might change if I do a retrospective on the latter). In the original, it’s just right. Equipment comes in varying types: regular, slotted, and unique. Regular is self explanatory, while slotted equipment can be equipped with the Gems. Unique equipment has a predetermined Gem setup, and can be very helpful. The original game had a glitch where damage rolling went WAY lower than the maximum that a character’s stats said they could, and I couldn’t tell if it was fixed in this version. It was fixed in the 3DS port, so it’s natural to assume the same here. 

Combat is what makes Xenoblade Chronicles as a whole feel action-packed… and it’s complicated. Your party members all use their standard attack commands automatically at regular intervals. Auto-attacks are really nice, because you can use them while moving as long as you stay in range of the target, whereas in Xenoblade 2, I recall that you moved insanely slow in battle and could only auto-attack while standing still. In addition to these standard attacks, you can select the various Arts of whomever you’re controlling. These have a wide variety of effects, as well as bonuses depending on your angle relative to the target. In the Definitive Edition, given Arts will have a blue exclamation mark when you’re in position to gain their bonus effect. Landing auto-attacks also fills up a gauge that—when full—allows you to use a fancy Talent Art. These are unique to the character, ranging from the Monado Arts to… Sharla cooling her stupid rifle. Arts need to be levelled up by consuming accumulated AP on them; this also includes each of Shulk’s Monado Arts. At first, you can only raise an Art to level four, but Art books can break that level cap… if you can find them! Most are available at shops, but those aren’t enough. You’ll need advanced Arts books to completely max out an Art. Unfortunately, these are only available as insanely low drops from random assortments of enemies late in the game. There’s no way to know which ones are where, but the higher leveled enemies that do have them give you the best odds.

Along with Arts, you also learn Skills. These are passive abilities that apply to the whole party or to the user. The system becomes kind of complicated with Skill Links, where you use Affinity Coins to give someone another party member’s Skill. Just experiment and see what works. Keep in mind that specific quests can reward a character with an additional skill tree that tends to be pretty powerful. If the game wasn’t ham-fisted enough with its ships, one of Fiora’s grants her all kinds of buffs as long as Shulk is fighting alongside her.

The main way to gain an advantage over enemies is to knock ‘em over. To do this, you hit them with a pink Break Art to unbalance them, then use a green Topple Art to literally trip ‘em up. You can extend the time they are down with a yellow Daze Art (which has yet to come back in the series). Topples and Dazes can be stacked, resulting in a technique called Topple-locking, but you don’t need to worry about that unless you’re fighting stupidly powerful foes (i.e. the superbosses). There are rare instances of being able to skip a step in the process, such as Melia’s Spear Break immediately followed by Starlight Kick. One great feature of the Definitive Edition is the visual indicator of these debuffs’ durations, similar to Xenoblade 2. Also, you can hit a target already suffering Break and Topple with another Art of the same type to refresh the status; something I DON’T remember in Xenoblade 2.

You also have to pay attention to Aggro. Whoever has the most Aggro has a red circle around them, and will have the attention of enemies. It’s optimal to keep it on people like Reyn, and not people like Shulk. There are various Arts dedicated to increasing and decreasing Aggro. Oh, and before I forget, I should mention Auras. These temporarily put the user in a unique state, and they can be VERY useful. 

Just like with sidequests, Shulk’s visions help in battle, even when he’s not in the active battle party! When an enemy is about to use a powerful—usually fatal—attack, you see a Vision of it, with a timer of how long you have to stop it. More often than not, the attack will be the enemies’ own Talent Art, each of which has its own level. Use Shulk’s Monado Shield to protect from it, but the Shield needs to be levelled up enough in order to work. The Shield will not work on non-Talent Art attacks. There’s also the ability to consume a block of the Party Gauge by warning a fellow character, which gives you a chance to use an Art on the attacker. I don’t recall that being in the original, but it’s been years since I watched Chugga’s series so I don’t really know for sure.

The best part is the Chain Attack. Getting crits and Arts’ bonus effects fill the Party Gauge, which goes up to three bars. It takes one bar to revive a character, and the whole darn thing is consumed to execute said Chain Attack. Basically, you use Arts of the same color to boost damage. What’s really helpful is that enemy resistance to debuffs is nullified, which is where the Topple-locking strategy comes in. Unfortunately, Chain Attacks kind of suck early game, because their duration depends on your party members’ Affinities. Also, Sharla doesn’t learn a red Art for a long time, making it difficult to add to the multiplier with her in the party. In any case, I forgot how great this Chain Attack was versus the sequel’s. Like I said before, Chain Attacks in this game make Topple-locking viable. I’m stressing this because you can’t use Arts in Xenoblade 2’s Chain Attacks; they’re only good for sheer damage. Furthermore, the same actions that fill up the party gauge normally still apply during the Chain Attack itself; ANOTHER great thing I don’t recall in the sequel. Some setups can refill the entire party gauge instantly, allowing for an immediate follow-up Chain Attack. When your party’s Affinity gets high enough across the board, you can really spam these with little penalty. It’s so much better than Xenoblade 2, where I remember Chain Attacks being something you had to work for, not just by filling the party gauge, but also because you need at least six element orbs from six different types of Blade Combo for it to be worthwhile. Boy, I really sound like I hate Xenoblade 2. I swear, I love it! It just has… issues.

Another thing to keep in mind is quick time events. Don’t worry; they aren’t the BS that kills you during a cutscene if you don’t see it coming. Basically, you just need to press B when it lines up with the blue circle that forms. You need to do this to keep party morale up, which affects how good you do in battle. Also, hitting these prompts gives you the chance to extend your Chain Attack’s duration. Hitting these when prompted can fill up to a whole block of the party gauge, so… practice makes perfect.

One of the nicest new features is Expert Mode. Calm down; this is not a higher difficulty. Basically, what this option does is convert some XP earned from non-battle antics to reserve XP. In the Expert Mode menu, you can level up or level down party members, similar to how the inns worked in Xenoblade 2. If you’re worried about being overleveled from completing all the quests, then use this to even yourself out by levelling the party down. This is especially helpful in the endgame, which involves fighting enemies stronger than the final boss. You can do those quests and get up to Level 99 for the superbosses, then just level down afterwards for the final boss (if you want it to be a challenge of course; utterly wasting Zanza has its own catharsis).

In terms of difficulty, Xenoblade Chronicles can be rough if it’s your first Xenoblade ever. Conversely, if you’ve played Xenoblade 2, then this game is stupid easy. It’ll still feel easy even if you’re using Expert Mode. For me, that gave me the perfect level of challenge. I’ve even had multiple fights against monsters marked as “yellow”, meaning it would be pretty tough but not as hopeless as fighting a superboss. I would not have been able to get through it without my knowledge of Xenoblade fundamentals as well as knowing every party member’s battle style. There are quests that take you into high-level territory underleveled, but it’s not required like in Xenoblade X, nor is it as insane as Xenoblade X. There is a proper tutorial for Spikes, which I don’t recall being a thing originally. Plus, enemy health bars have a visual indicator if they have Spikes; a phenomenal improvement!

Oh, and f*** the Nebula enemies. These things can only take full damage from Ether, and usually have annoying status ailment Spikes that reduce tension, which you need to keep as high as possible over the course of battle (at the very least, you can farm Affinity by encouraging your allies over and over again). When the Nebulae are low on health, they self-destruct. Even if you survive it, they don’t actually drop loot, and if you could properly defeat one, the items that you actually need for stuff are quite rare. I’m glad that these aren’t in future games (and if they actually are, then they’re definitely not as bad).

The real challenge comes from Unique Monsters. These are tougher versions of regular enemies that take—and deliver—quite a beating. They drop super good prizes, and are worth taking on (plus, they’re really fun to fight). The superbosses are five Uniques over the level cap of 99, and suck. I never did them due to wanting to save time (thanks, both Great Ace Attorney games and my life), but you basically need a perfect setup to fight them… at setup that I vaguely know how to build but not enough to where it actually works (I tried on regular overleveled enemies and it didn’t go well). You also need to be in a situation to endlessly spam Chain Attacks and Topple-lock them, as well as regularly using Shulk’s Monado Purge to seal the VERY DANGEROUS counterattack Spikes they have on them. Since Topple-locking is a thing, they are probably the easiest superbosses of the series so far.

A much more consistent challenge is the A.I. of your other two battle party members. I remember Chugga specifically riffing on Shulk and Sharla, but I had some troubles with them across the board. While they are good at following up with the Break > Topple > Daze chain, they tend to use those Arts willy-nilly, and by the time I actually inflict something on the enemy, their Art is on cooldown. They are at least good at using Arts that work in tandem together, but that’s hardly an offset. Shulk will also spam Monado Arts (and use Monado Purge against enemies without Spikes or Auras), but that’s at least not too bad as long as he doesn’t use Monado Buster, which reduces the Talent Gauge by the highest amount. Sharla wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I recall Chugga saying. Maybe they rebalanced her in this version? In any case, you pretty much need to be in control of Shulk for the superbosses, since he NEEDS to be ever on point with his Monado Purges there.

Since everything in Xenoblade is so damn good, it’s no surprise that it has phenomenal music. I’m very attached to this soundtrack; it’s pretty much perfect. I even own an official copy of the OST, straight from Japan. In Definitive Edition, the soundtrack is ever-so-slightly altered. The basic ideas for the songs are still there, but if you’re really soft for the old OST, the new ones could sound jarring. At least it’s not made worse by this change. However, I did notice an issue that I don’t recall from Chugga’s series. You see, the battle music dynamically changes to some sort of “Oh crap!” music when you’re getting a nasty vision or if things aren’t going your way. However, the game consistently had trouble reverting back to the usual music, even after averting said crisis. 

Oh, and one more thing new to the Definitive Edition is the Time Attack mode. This works like it does in Xenoblade 2, only it’s a lot easier. Unfortunately, from what I’ve tried, it doesn’t seem that practical. The rewards seem kinda useless for the most part, and you can’t even do most of the challenges right away. One big plus is that you can use it to obtain the super-rare materials for that gruesome final leg of Colony 6 reconstruction. Hallelujah!

Before getting to the final evaluation, I should list a couple of minor flaws in the game, for the sake of being comprehensive. Some enemies, specifically fish enemies, can be buggy and randomly disengage from battle for no reason. There are also at least two quests with multiple outcomes that will force the bad outcome if you have the necessary materials for it upon accepting the request. Also, I hate the quest where you get the weapon for Fiora right before taking on Mechonis Core, since you have to make a round trip through Central Factory with fast travel disabled; what’s worse is that it’s actually worth doing. And for some reason—I don’t know if it’s me having bad luck, but—I just could not get Chain Attacks to last very long. Maybe tension is involved in the calculations, but the prompt to extend was very rare even with characters who have maxxed out Affinity. This essentially means that the Superbosses are luck-based, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles in even the best JRPGs. Either that or I suck. 

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Final Verdict—Oh wait, there’s more!

Xenoblade Chronicles is over one hundred hours of top-notch JRPG gameplay. However, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition has one more addition in Future Connect, a post-game sidestory. Before evaluating the final product, we gotta play through Future Connect first!

In Xenoblade Chronicles: Future Connect, Zanza has been wiped from existence, and Shulk created a new world with no gods. Life is finally back to normal. A year later, Shulk and Melia pay a visit to Alcamoth, just to receive a giant laser blast to the face. Apparently, something called the Fog King has set up shop there and it needs to be taken out posthaste.

The story here is a pretty simple instance of the “we saved the world, but there’s still issues and junk” trope. It’s nowhere on the caliber of the base game. On the plus side, it basically serves as—after ten years since the original game came out on Wii—proper character development for poor Melia. She gets to spend quality time with Shulk, completely bereft of Fiora. Melia gets the full closure to her character arc that she deserved all this time. Accompanying the destined-to-be-friendzoned couple are two of Riki’s kids: Nene and Kino, who serve as your Reyn and Sharla respectively. They’re positively adorable, and that’s all there is to it; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Future Connect is set in the once-unused area known as Bionis’ Shoulder. For some reason, when Bionis fell over after beating Zanza… its shoulder decided to not fall? Why am I questioning JRPG tropes? In any case, there is a LOT to do on Bionis’ Shoulder! In addition to the Ponspectors, Heart-to-Hearts are replaced with Quiet Moments, of which there are many of. These don’t have any choices, and are fully voice acted; a nice change of pace from worrying that you could say the wrong thing. There is more incentive to defeat Unique Monsters, for they drop Art Coins, which are used to buy Arts Manuals now. Bionis’ Shoulder has a slew of optional quests, one of which is to find twenty of a certain Key Item scattered across the world.

A lot of mechanics have changed. Shulk can’t see visions, there is no more Skill Tree, and Chain Attacks are replaced with a special all-out attack. You also mine Gems directly from Ether deposits as you would for crystals in the base game. Anyway, the aforementioned special attack is a bit complicated. It’s unlocked by finding elite Nopons called Ponspectors throughout the world. With a full set of Ponspectors from the same team, your special attack can be performed based on that team’s specialities. Also, they autonomously assist in general, using Arts of their own. 

Future Connected is also really hard. Everyone starts off in their sixties, but with crappy equipment and un-leveled-up Arts. With no Visions, big attacks can wipe your team instantly. Plus, the lack of Chain Attack makes it harder to Topple Lock (and the free Daze from the Ponspector attack can’t be refreshed by using a regular Daze Art). Shulk is pretty much essential, as Monado Armor becomes significantly more helpful than it was in the base game, but aggro management becomes difficult when you don’t have Aggro Up Gems on Nene.

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After All These Years: 10/10

Thanks to the quality of life improvements in the Definitive Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles becomes the best game in the series for sure… at least until I finish Xenoblade 3 or have renewed thoughts on Xenoblade 2. It’s a no-brainer that I recommend it to anyone who owns a Nintendo Switch.

Monument Valleys 1 & 2: What If Fez and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker had Kids?

I had an inkling to play the Monument Valley games, but I didn’t go through with it because they were mobile games. One hour on them would mean one hour of iPad life, period. I recently regained interest in them when they were ported to PC, with new, upscaled editions that include all the DLC. So, yeah, here’s my review of Monument Valleys 1 & 2, assuming that they play similarly enough to justify a single review of both.

In Monument Valley, you are a girl named Ida on a quest for forgiveness. In Monument Valley 2, a young mom named Ro takes her kid to the valley so she can be a better mom or something.

So… these games are gorgeous. Each level has a unique look, with the only consistency being in the minimalistic, abstract, isometric style. The music is really calm and ambient, perfect for puzzle-solving. The music is also very dynamic, adding little bits of flair as feedback when you solve a part of the puzzles, and when you interact with the environment. The Panoramic Editions, naturally, have a lot of negative space, since they were originally designed for portrait oriented screens, but it feels like that this enhances the artstyle they were going for; the levels feel like parts of their own little universes, cut off from everything else. Sometimes, I sat back and soaked in the game’s whimsical atmosphere.

You might as well, since they are both quite short. Even with the added DLC, each game is easily doable in under three hours. Fortunately, unlike other big indie games of similar length such as What Remains of Edith Finch, the Monument Valley games are much cheaper when it comes purely to the proportion of content versus dollar. The Panoramic Collection Bundle is less than 15USD as it is.

In any case, the basic gameplay boils down to optical illusion-based puzzles. Some components in each level can be manipulated, as indicated by some little nubs or by having a faucet thingy attached to them. By arranging them just right, you can build bridges and open pathways straight out of an M.C. Escher painting. The mechanic starts off simple, but gets more involved as you go on. 

It sounds like the perfect game that requires inducing a migraine to beat, but it’s not. The experience with these games is really to be impressed by how well thought-out the levels are. Every single one of them feels iconic and memorable in some way, and boy, it must’ve been a real pain to program them. Most of the difficulty comes in just processing what you can interact with and going from there. The DLC chapters in the first game are probably the hardest, but even then, they aren’t too bad.

Overall, I feel like Monument Valley 2 is the better game. It has more of a story, and they really push the games’ artstyle in an even wilder direction. Things get much more abstract and weird. However, I almost feel like it’s the easier of the two. It might be because the game cared more about its story? I dunno, maybe I just got mad gamer skills (*sarcasm*).

Speaking of story, I might as well discuss the games’ narratives, or lack thereof. Similar to the aforementioned indie titles I’ve compared this series to, it doesn’t exactly take rocket science to understand what’s going on in either game. While light in dialogue, there are plenty of context clues that telegraph what the takeaway is, especially in the second game. Neither are groundbreaking, but you’ll probably cry if you’re the emotional type… especially in the second game. Gee, I wonder how much more ham-fisted I can be with the notion that the second game has a better story.

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Final Verdict for Both Games: 9/10

There’s pretty much nothing wrong with the Monument Valley games (he says as he gives them an imperfect score). They’re short, but are a better value than a lot of other games on the market. While they aren’t as puzzle-y as Baba Is You, they manage to be very novel in their own right. There’s no harm in giving them a try.

Crystal Project: An Unexpected Marriage of Hollow Knight and Final Fantasy V

I got a long story with this Crystal Project. Basically, I haven’t actually beaten it. I have played the vast majority of it, though; enough that I feel like I can write a final piece on it (also I’m a filthy casual so it’s not like I follow the standards of the gaming community anyway). Also, I really want to talk about it, but if I try to push myself to grind out the rest of it, I might end up hating it, because some of the side stuff in the game is utter BS. I might not even finish it at all because the kind of experiences I want in games is starting to change (which is my fancy way of saying I suck). So… yeah, here’s this mess of a review of a game I’ve only done about 75% of.

In Crystal Project, you and your fully customizable party find themselves in the land of Sequoia, looking for adventure, and Crystals that give you new jobs. This game fully embraces the core spirit of JRPGs of old, and as such, the story is almost non-existent.

Before getting into the gameplay, let’s look at Sequoia first. It doesn’t seem like much just from the game’s screenshots, but I found myself growing attached to the quaint and vibrant voxel-art style. It’s like Minecraft, but cozier. The character designs are a bit lifeless, but that’s probably because it REALLY wants to have the old-school vibes, including how sprites tended to not be very expressive back then. The soundtrack is also really good, plus the game shows the name of each song and credits its composer on the HUD whenever you enter a different area (this doesn’t happen for battle themes, though).

What might attract an RPG-aficionado to Crystal Project is its Elder Scrolls-like sandbox structure. You are thrown into the game with no sense of direction, and no motive other than the pure desire to explore the world. The game is almost self-aware of this during what little plot the game actually has. In any case, the world is fully non-linear. Not only that, but it’s actually a metroidvania. This is one of the things that stands out about Crystal Project, and lemme tell you, exploring Sequoia is its own reward, and that alone makes the game worth buying. Combining the design philosophy of metroidvanias in a fully 3D space is truly something. You never know when an unassuming little alcove will lead to a whole new part of the world (seriously, that happens a lot)!

The other standout feature is the game’s platforming aspect. There are no invisible walls; just geometry. And most of said geometry can be stood upon, including opened treasure chests, NPCs, and light fixtures. If you’ve played Crosscode, then Crystal Project makes a good competitor in this department. 

Of course, just because it’s a competitor doesn’t mean it’ll win. While the platforming in Crystal Project is fun to figure out, there aren’t many instances of opening easy shortcuts back up. If you fall at any time, you more-than-likely have to walk all the way back to where you were…

Which brings us to one of the biggest turn-offs in Crystal Project: limited fast travel. Like many metroidvanias, you’re going to be backtracking a LOT. There are plenty of fast travel points scattered throughout the world, but only one can be assigned as active at a time (unless you enable the setting to activate three at a time), along with any number of Shrines that you find throughout the world. If there’s any pro-tips I can give, it’s to establish a warp point as high up as possible; no matter how far something is horizontally, descending is always faster than ascending. You will be able to earn various mounts, many of which allow for a LOT of developer-intended sequence breaking throughout the overworld.

What’s worse is that you can’t heal directly from the fast travel points themselves; you gotta find an inn or other source of healing. Fortunately, this can be offset with consumable items. I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not going to use consumables except on the final boss! But since I made such a habit of not using them, I forgot to use them on the final boss!” Well, too bad. With such limited means of recovery, you gotta do it. Fortunately, enemies universally tend to drop basic healing items very often for this exact purpose. 

Another big caveat is the map. While the map itself is great, getting the maps of each area is not. Again, think of it as a metroidvania; you gotta earn the map. My advice is to simply explore, and talk to any NPCs you see; one might be hoarding a map or two to themselves.

Combat is nothing new, yet it feels fresh at the same time. Like in classic JRPGs, you have unlockable jobs. Level up those jobs, and carry those skills over by assigning it as a sub-job while you work on something else. Learn passive skills to equip your characters to mix and match many types of playstyles. Battles are your basic turn-bases format. However, you get to see a LOT more of the action than in perhaps any RPG ever. Crystal Project allows you to see your stats, enemy stats, what attack an enemy will do, how much damage it’ll do, how much damage you’ll do; literally every parameter that is calculated during an RPG battle. This gives combat a fun puzzle element that is truly unique to the genre. And most importantly… Bosses are susceptible to status ailments! This really showcases the focus on strategy in Crystal Project.

Difficulty-wise… holy crap this game is tough. Even if you had the fundamental knowledge of turned-based RPGs—which you’re definitely expected to have—there are a lot of intricate systems, such as how aggro works. Also, an ability as basic as using consumable items in battle is restricted to a specific job. But even when you get that job—and start finding pouches to increase inventory space—Crystal Project can still shred you. Although mobs in the overworld are color-coded to indicate their danger level, I’ve gotten destroyed many times by enemies that the game said I was on par with. There really is no advice but to master the system as soon as possible. It doesn’t hurt to grind either; money is quite necessary, after all. 

One positive is that the dev of Crystal Project doesn’t hate gamers like how it feels with most indie games that try to be Dark Souls (which feels like at least 90% of them to be honest). The options menu contains customizable assists that make the game easier, and you’re not shamed for using them. You can increase the amount of XP, job points, and money you earn to save on grinding, for starters. You can also skip the game’s notoriously BS minigames that you need to win a lot in order to get everything (although I think you’ll be relying on RNG to win if you do that), and increase the maximum level cap, which I only feel would only be necessary for the superbosses.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Crystal Project can definitely be called unbalanced and unfair, but it’s still a very novel subversion of JRPG tropes, and one of the most underrated games of the year. I will probably use the minigame skip and increased level capacity as I work toward finishing it… much to the ire of the invisible people on the Internet. Anyway, you’ve been warned as to how brutally difficult it is. Proceed with caution (unless you’re a real gamer, in which case you can probably beat it with no assists).

Core Keeper (Early Access): This Game Could be the Next Big Timesink

Playing games in Early Access is a natural risk. What’s even riskier is playing a game in Early Access as soon as it drops; in its buggiest, most unbalanced, infantile state possible. But you know what… I’m feeling risky. Besides, I was planning to do this when Forever Skies dropped on Steam, so I might as well get used to it. Let’s see if Core Keeper has any potential to be a really great game.

In Core Keeper, you end up getting teleported into a sprawling cave, with a mysterious object at its center. With nothing better to do, your goal is to power it up and see what it does. 

Like Grounded and Minecraft, that’s all there is to the story of Core Keeper; what matters is the gameplay. Right off the bat, the game is more like the latter than the former, because it’s set in a procedurally generated world. No two save files are exactly alike, allowing for a lot of replay value. However, this means you can have bad luck finding the biome that you want. 

Before we go into what biomes you want, let’s discuss the actual gameplay. If you’ve played Minecraft or Terraria, then Core Keeper will be easy to jump right into. And if you haven’t played them, then prepare to swim in the deep end with no floaties. There is next to no tutorial about how anything works, which might be a nice change of pace for “true gamers,” but a hindrance to others. 

Fortunately, the mechanics are simple and follow expectations for this kind of game. Ores can be smelted, seeds can be planted, food can be cooked, and equipment can be forged and repaired. As you unlock better workbenches, you’ll be able to make potions, railways for fast travel, and more.

The problem is getting there. Every game like this has an early-game hurdle in one way or another, either because you need to go to a place where the enemies are really strong for the point you’re at, or because an essential resource is scarce in the areas you’re realistically capable of handling. Core Keeper‘s case is the latter. Tin is one of the most important resources in the game, because it is needed to craft a Tin Workbench that unlocks most of the essential mechanics of the game… which also need tin to craft. If you can’t find the specific biome it’s common in, you’ll be hoping RNG spawned enough wooden crates containing it. If you think that’s stupid, then this type of game is not for you. The big hurdle for me personally is scarlet—which I still have yet to find. Both tin and iron were in biomes adjacent to the starting area, but I’ve done a lot of exploring and still haven’t found any scarlet ore. 

In any case, I’m not particularly fond of ore distribution. It’s nice that hidden ores have a sparkly effect to push you in a general direction, but having them tied to specific biomes feels kind of bleh to me. Technically, it’s better because that means less pockets of your inventory will be taken up by several varieties of items. I dunno… maybe I’m just being picky.

As if the game isn’t grindy enough, it has the Quest 64 skill system. In case you have never heard of that game, here’s what it boils down to: you level attributes by using those attributes… a lot. Core Keeper gets even grindier because you need to level up an attribute five times to get ONE point to invest into that attribute’s skill tree. The upgrades are worth it; however, it seems that there are finite attribute level-ups, which is also kind of crappy. Pick your upgrades wisely.

Also, the game’s Early Access-ness REALLY shows. While there’s a lot of fully-fleshed mechanics, it’s very… archaic. For example, everything you use can ONLY be used on the quick select; if you want to plant seeds, they gotta be in quick select, and so does your watering can if you want to water them. Also, crafting of any kind requires items to be on-hand; no pulling from storage. I’m going to hope that they intend to add the necessary quality-of-life features in future patches. Another thing I hope is rebalanced is durability. The armor durability seems manageable enough, but I feel like it’s not generous enough with tools. I have the third tier of pickaxe and it loses durability VERY fast for what it is; in most games like this, the third tier is the first point where you don’t have to worry about durability too much.

Difficulty-wise, Core Keeper is actually about as punishing as Terraria or Minecraft. Even with good armor, mobs can end you as quickly as they respawn. The bosses are very tough; in fact, I almost died at the first one, and I have no idea how you’re supposed to go about fighting the giant worm. There are also situations where a horde of enemies can go out of their way to hunt you down from well off-screen. As obnoxious as that sounds, the worst ones are the larva enemies simply because they destroy items such as torches; you’ll need to rely on glow buffs to explore those areas with any sense of visibility. 

Fortunately, Core Keeper is very generous compared to other games of its kind. If you die, your stuff will still remain in that location, but it’s ONLY the stuff that’s NOT on your quick-select. Because of this, you’ll still have your armor and tools, which mitigates those annoying situations where you can soft-lock yourself out of getting important equipment back because you had to go into dangerous territory naked while the mobs that killed you camp your corpse. Please don’t change this, Core Keeper people!

Sadly, the game oozes the intention to play with multiple people. While the combat seems balanced enough, there is an almost excessive amount of stuff to do. From exploring, to expanding your main base, to building tracks for fast travel… this will easily go beyond a hundred hours for a solo player, and whether or not that’s a worthy timesink will be entirely up to you. With that being said… 

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Current Verdict: 8.5/10

Core Keeper has potential to be a really great, and addicting, game. It’ll also be a lot of bang for your buck, especially if you go solo! However, it doesn’t really do anything new. I admit that, for me, it’s currently just scratching an itch while I wait on Forever Skies, and further updates for Grounded. I’ll continue to slowly work toward beating every boss to power up the core, but there’s no guarantee I’ll accomplish that. They’re going to need to roll out quality-of-life updates in order to keep my interest.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus — Gotta Catch ‘Em All (About Twenty Times Each)!

Pokémon has not had a good run on Switch, and I of course mean that in terms of public consensus, because I still enjoy the series as is. People hated Let’s Go!, Sword and Shield, and the Sinnoh Remakes. Well, given the marginally better reception that the Mystery Dungeon remakes and New Pokémon Snap got, it looks like spin-offs are the way to go. Wow, that only supports my comparison of this series to Star Wars. Anyway, since I’m committed enough to follow this series into the fires of hell, I pre-ordered Pokémon Legends: Arceus with NO knowledge about it beyond the blurbs on Nintendo Switch News. Did I make a big mistake?

In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the titular god of the universe speaks to you, and challenges you to seek it out (after giving you a slick new smartphone of course). With no clue what the hell is going on, you are plopped out of a rift in the space-time continuum and into a mysterious region called Hisui. The Pokémon Professor finds you immediately, and helps you get recruited to the Survey Corp. of… Team Galactic?! 

Okay, before we address that Mamoswine in the room, allow me to—for the first time in Pokémon’s life on the Switch—gush at the game’s visuals. Okay, well, maybe “gush” isn’t the right word; some areas, such as caves, look absolutely abysmal, and there are draw distance problems. However, when the game looks good, it looks real good. Pokémon Legends: Arceus borrows from Zelda, and makes a very picturesque world. In each region, Mt. Coronet—and the rift you fell out of—wait in the distance, and I find it awe-inspiring to look at. Also, this game has one of the best skyboxes I’ve seen in a long time; sometimes I just love looking up and vibing. 

Now that that diversion is over, we can finally talk about what’s going on in Hisui—or rather—Sinnoh. This region is the Sinnoh of the distant past, back when humans were first studying Pokémon. Team Galactic is actually good this time around! Anyway, the plot is pretty straightforward, but I love it. The reason behind it is quite simply the fact that we really haven’t gotten to experience the ancient Pokémon world firsthand. We get to learn so much about Pokémon lore, and as a long-time fan, it makes me fan-gush. There’s a chance that some stuff was retconned, but you could chalk it up to historical stuff having been lost to time.

The most important part of this being set in the past is that the Jubilife City of old looks a lot like Eurekatek; and that means Japanese culture! Kimonos are in fashion, and almost everyone has Japanese names. This even extends to the U.I. and the music (including the best evolution animation I have ever seen). If you couldn’t tell, my final score for this game will be biased.

Another thing I love about the story is the potential for this to be a full-on spinoff franchise. The Pokémon world has so much lore that’s only been alluded to in books, it would be so amazing to experience the franchise’s history using this game’s system. However, since Pokémon Snap took twenty years to get a sequel, we probably shouldn’t count on that.

Let’s talk about the characters next. Your main character is, as always, mute. Fortunately, no one else is. Professor Laverton will never be Oak, but he’s a pretty cool guy. Team Galactic has several captains, and the one you’ll report to is Cyrelle; let’s just say you can tell that her descendants will inherit her stoicness. We also have the Diamond and Pearl clans, two indigenous tribes who worship opposing gods (hm I wonder what Pokémon those would be). As cool as a lot of this stuff sounds on paper, I must admit that they have pretty basic tropes. There is character development, but most of it boils down to the Saturday morning cartoon arc of “really dense people learn that they shouldn’t be so dense.”

There are several things that Pokémon Legends: Arceus promises, and we’re going to need to go over all of them one at a time. Let’s start at Jubilife Village. This quaint little place has all the facilities you need. There’s crafting in this game, which is pretty self-explanatory. Pastures function as the PC, but this time, releasing Pokémon gives you EV-manipulating items. This swole lady named Zisu can help teach Pokémon new moves as well as master existing ones (more on that mechanic in a bit). She can also help you farm more of those same EV-manipulating items. You have to worry about inventory space, but you can upgrade it via training with the puntastically named Bagin. Crafting is an important mechanic for creating essential items, and while at the village (or a campsite), this can be done with the items in your storage.

You also—FINALLY—get dedicated sidequests. Obviously, these are worth doing. Also, make sure you hop into Galactic HQ to check Laverton’s bulletin board for requests. There’s a LOT of them, and doing them is very helpful. Some of them contribute to upgrading Jubilife, while others count toward a specific entry in the Pokédex. The latter ones are my favorite because it actually shows how people discovered a lot of well-known Pokémon facts for the first time.

When exiting Jubilife, you can travel to any unlocked region in Hisui, which is its own, self-contained area. Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn’t truly open-world, but these areas are expansive enough to feel like it, full of Pokémon and resources. As you progress, you unlock Ride Pokémon with all sorts of field abilities. Hisui’s overworld kinda-sorta falls into the realm of overly large and empty. However, I never really got mad at that, since there was some good variety in geography. They at least learned their lesson from Galar’s Wild Areas. 

Also, there’s actually stuff to do besides grinding (although you’ll be doing a fair share of that for completion), although most of it doesn’t open up right away. There are over one hundred ghostly wisps to find throughout the world… and series veterans would know exactly what they’re associated with. It’s more doable than Breath of the Wild’s nine hundred Korok Seeds, plus they are very easy to notice from afar at night. In addition to that, each form of Unown is hidden in a specific place, waiting to be caught. AND ON TOP OF THAT, there are Old Verses buried in the ground that need to be unearthed with the Ride Pokémon who can dig. Every so often, a Pokémon outbreak will occur, although it doesn’t tend to spawn anything exclusive to that area.

Here’s another fun fact: THERE’S STILL MORE TO FIND! One repeatable mechanic is the ability to find the satchels of people who have died in the overworld. I assume that you’re meant to have a Nintendo Switch Online feature to do this, but when offline, the game consistently spawns enough NPC satchels for you to find. Turning them in gives you Merit Points, which can be redeemed for exclusive items, including every evolutionary stone and trade evolution item. Also new are Linking Cords, which are a very welcome addition to the franchise. These will trigger any trade-based evolution without having to do any trading (hear that, fellow introverts? We can finally get Pokémon like Gengar!). This also applies to items like the Metal Coat and Reaper Cloth.

But wait, THERE’S MORE! One of the coolest and most terrifying mechanics is the Space-Time Distortion. Every so often, one of these will spawn in a set location in each region, affecting the area within. Once inside, you can find a load of rare items, such as Shards. However, more often than not, you’ll find many exclusive Pokémon. Here comes the rub: those Pokémon tend to be overleveled for the area, and spawn out of nowhere in large groups. It’s risk-vs-reward, baby!

A LOT of mechanics have been changed… and I mean that literally. Catching Pokémon is one of the biggest ones. Like in more recent games, they appear in the overworld, but they actually react to you this time. Sometimes, they flee, but most of them want to eat your face. When spotted, you’ll have to physically avoid their attacks. Unlike the main games, tall grass is your friend, for it hides you from the critters’ sight. You’ll also need to manually aim and throw Poké Balls, and your range will vary depending on their weight. Using berries to lure Pokémon, and hitting them from behind, greatly increases your catch rate, which always has a little visual indicator (green is the best odds). 

However, if you have to fight, throw one of your teammates at your challenger (the back attack technique stuns the opponent for a turn, which is really useful). In combat, the series more-or-less conforms to the traditional turn-based battle system. You can use items and try to catch Pokémon, under the same rules as before. This is where things get complicated. Speed works in an entirely different way than before. In addition to governing who goes first in battle, it also works like attack delay in Trails of Cold Steel; basically, some moves can increase the time it takes for your turn to come around. Conversely, priority moves will make your turn come around faster. If fast enough, a Pokémon can attack twice in a row, which is huge. Combat is the fastest it’s been in a long time, simply because they play battle animations AND textboxes at the same time. They also stop their nagging you about the weather; although that won’t help people who aren’t familiar with the series’ mechanics.

Priority moves aren’t the only change; in fact, the whole meta is basically changed. For starters, stat modifications are simplified, with both offensive and defensive stats able to be changed at once. For example, Sword Dance is for both Atk and Sp Atk… however, it doesn’t give +2 (in fact, I don’t even think there are stages to stat boosts this time around). Flinch doesn’t exist, and Sleep is replaced with Drowsiness, which is basically Paralysis but with an additional defense debuff. Entry-hazard moves now have 40 base power, and do residual damage over time based on Type effectiveness. Most importantly: ABILITIES AND HELD ITEMS DO NOT EXIST. By the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg with how changed the mechanics are.

There are two new aspects to moves that I absolutely love, and will dearly miss in subsequent Pokémon games. The first and most important thing is how moves are learned. Like in a traditional JRPG, all Pokémon moves are permanently remembered, and can freely be assigned as the Pokémon’s active attacks however you wish (have run REMEMBERING to do that). Another thing is that Pokémon can master moves as they level up. When mastered, you can use it in a Strong or Agile Style. These effects are pretty self-explanatory; more damage for increased delay, and less damage for decreased delay.

Since no one has been to this region before, there’s actually a reason for the Pokédex to be empty this time. As such, you have as good of an idea of what a Pokémon’s entry is as Laverton himself. To essentially build the Pokédex from scratch, you must accomplish research tasks for EVERY Pokémon. This includes catching multiple specimens, defeating them with certain types of moves, seeing them use certain moves, and more. This gets REALLY grindy. Fortunately, you don’t have to do all of it to fulfill the research requirements. Getting enough of these tasks done will contribute to raising your status in Team Galactic. These work like Gym Badges, so you better do that if you want more Pokémon than just the very first ones you ever find. The annoying thing with this mechanic is that your monetary payments are based on Pokémon caught, regardless of how much research you’ve done. Fortunately, there are other ways to get money, such as occasionally finding Stardusts and such in ore deposits.

Despite not being a Gen IX (that’s going to be later this year), there are a couple of new faces in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. One of the most iconic ones is Stantler’s evolution, Wyrdeer. In addition to new evolutions, there are new regional variants, such as Growlithe and Zorua. Each starter has a regional variant, in fact. Some of the new evolutions, such as the aforementioned Wyrdeer, are about as obtuse as recent Pokémon have gotten. However, the Research Notes know how to nudge you toward finding the conditions organically, as opposed to every main Pokémon game that isn’t Black and White 2.

Nuzlockes have become the new standard in Pokémon, so I doubt the community will ever concede that a new Pokémon game is difficult in its base state. However, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is probably the hardest that we’ll have for a while. As mentioned before, a lot of Pokémon want you dead; you can actually DIE. Fortunately, you have safety nets. An old lady sells charms that can help you survive, one of which is consumed in place of your inventory upon death. 

In any case, this game really taught me how terrifying Pokémon can be. Something as puny as Stunky can rain missiles of poison from the sky just like that… and it only gets worse from there. You also have to worry about Alpha Pokémon. They’re basically the Unique Monsters from Xenoblade Chronicles, and tend to be very overleveled. If you can catch one, though, it’ll be pretty helpful, since it knows rare moves right off the bat. 

There are also boss fights to account for, and I don’t mean Trainer fights (although there are some Trainer fights on occasion). The actual boss fights are against Noble Pokémon; beings worshiped by the local Hisuians. Strange happenings have made them go berserk, and you need to feed them a crap-ton of food to calm them down. In these fights, you must avoid their attacks, and figure out the strategy to stun them. Once you do that, you fight it in a Pokémon battle, and when you win that, they’ll be stunned further, and are open to a barrage of tasty treats. The fights are very straightforward, but are actually quite stressful because it’s pretty much programmed that you can barely dodge out of the way of their attacks. 

Okay… maybe I’m overselling it. Pokémon Legends: Arceus will not provide the challenge that the fandom wants out of the base-game mechanics. As long as you don’t overextend yourself by going into overleveled areas, there really isn’t any danger. Also, your Ride Pokémon can generally outspeed any Pokémon that wants to chase you out in the overworld; by endgame, they become more of an annoyance. Dodging, like in many games, gives you i-frames. It’s incredibly easy to become overleveled if you go after research tasks and optional stuff, but conversely, doing that too infrequently can make you dangerously underleveled. Due to the lack of many Trainer battles, wild Pokémon are your main source of XP. 

Because of that reason, I didn’t really feel like I had a team, compared to main Pokémon games. As I said before, there are next to no Trainer battles, and the open-ended world design allows you to traverse areas quickly, especially as you earn more Ride Pokémon. It is what it is, though.

As with any Pokémon game, Arceus has a truck-load of post-game… and it’s meaty, that’s for sure. In fact, this is one of those cases where the post-game is the true conclusion of the story. It opens up a lot of new Pokémon, and if you have save data from Pokémon Sword and Shield, you can catch Shaymin. Of course, the new objective is to catch these Pokémon and make the long grind to complete the Pokédex. And lemme tell you… it’s a real grind. While it’s not too tough to complete a Pokémon’s entry, the last hurdle to the maximum Team Galactic rank is insane; you pretty much have to complete more research tasks than what you need. Also, I don’t know about you, but a lot of Pokémon seemed arbitrarily elusive to me (*cough* Cherrim *cough*). Fortunately, one of the best aspects of the post-game is something that the main series desperately needs: being able to obtain the other two starters without having to trade for them!

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a massive leap in the right direction for Pokémon. In fact, I’m not technically finished with it yet; due to what I said in my post from last week, it’s more realistic for me to try to go for completion in this game, but it’d probably be next year if I waited until then to upload this post! My willingness to attempt Pokédex completion shows how much I loved it, although I will be very salty if they don’t continue to build off of what Arceus sets up. I recommend it to any Pokémon fan who needs a change of pace, and possibly, to other gamers who couldn’t get into Pokémon in the first place.

Pokémon Black & White 2: Ten Years Later, Still One of the Series’ Best Main Installments (A Retrospective)

I’ve been playing Pokémon for a while (*understatement*). My first game was Pokémon Platinum (which I certifiably sucked at). But as good as that game is, it wasn’t until Pokémon Black and White 2 that I started to become a devout Pokémon fan. I know that people like the first Black and White better, but I definitely prefer Black and White 2 for a number of reasons. Since these games actually turn ten this year, I might as well do a retrospective on them. I have played through this game several times since I first got it in 2012, but this playthrough is the first time in at least one and a half years. I always had a copy of Black 2 so I wouldn’t have to nuke my original White 2 file. But you know what… I think it’s poetic to nuke that file now, just to showcase how much I’ve changed as a person.

When it comes to the second installment of a given generation, it’s usually a remake of the first with new content. Not here. Black and White 2 are—to this day—the only main game sequels. They take place chronologically after the events of the first Black and White. Everything starts off nice and campy, but the return of a new—and eviller—Team Plasma is afoot. Time to once again beat up criminals with our pet animals!

Pokémon Black and White are generally considered the best installments in terms of story. And, well, yeah… I can’t refute that. It’s a rare time where one of the main antagonists really builds a relationship with the player, and the ethics of Pokémon training are put into question. This time, it’s pretty standard. The new Team Plasma, led by the one-dimensionally evil Ghetsis, is bent on world domination. But instead of beating around the bush and manipulating the emotionally insecure N by sheltering him and crap, he just magically has the post-game Legendary from the previous game, Kyurem, and shoots ice lasers at cities.

So yeah, it really does stink. It’s not bad, but it’s a start to the wildly varying quality of Pokémon plots moving forward. There really was no one in this series quite like N, or the rivals from the previous Black and White. The gym leaders also lose the presence that they had before. You don’t really get to know them at all outside the gym, and there isn’t that awesome scene where they fight Team Plasma together. That scene with Elesa isn’t here either (and for the record, it’s not THAT great of a scene, but that’s probably because I’m an emotionless, un-altruistic monkeybutt). They also add Marlon, a gym leader with a very weird sense of neutrality, that ends up not being explored at all.

While we’re on the subject of characters, I might as well bring up the whole cast. The main character is, well, unchanged, but that’s not a surprise given their nature. Your rival is basically the Sinnoh rival, but instead of being constantly happy, he’s constantly angry. He gets less angry later, but I couldn’t—to this day—tell what changes him. Maybe it’s the power of Pokémon? 

Team Plasma has gotten a downgrade, but it at least introduced one of my favorite characters in Pokémon: Colress. He’s a scientist who’s as enigmatic as his hair. He’s also one of those neutral characters who will only side with knowledge, and that means he actually respects you as a person.

The Pokémon League isn’t too great either, and that’s for both games (fun fact: I never found the League members to be particularly great until Gen 7). As per usual, you NEVER see them until the actual fights (with the exception of a brief encounter with Marshal in the sequels). It’s a shame, because this League has some of the cooler designs. One of them is actually someone from the Battle Frontier in Sinnoh. 

Since the gameplay of Pokémon is expected to be understood when reading a spoiler-filled retrospective, let alone a review, of one of its main installments (also, it takes a while to explain it), the gameplay section will moreso be an evaluation of the games’ structure, as well as the capabilities of the Pokémon introduced during this generation. And the first thing to bring up is that Black and White 2 starts SLOW. It’s still faster than most games, but it doesn’t feel that way compared to the “superior” first games, where you get the starters IMMEDIATELY. Also, as the last game where the starters don’t have their first stab move immediately, it becomes an even harder sell. The first gym, being Normal-Type, is uncharacteristically difficult no matter which starter you pick. The only good way to do it is to find Riolu in Floccesy Ranch, and it happens to be a rare spawn. The starters of Unova are all more geared to defense and setup, making it a button-mashing game at the beginning, even with their stab moves. Oh, and even when you beat the first gym, you are forced to do the first segment of PokéStar Studios, which is painfully tedious (and an area that I—for the sake of this review—gave an honest college try to complete for the first time in my life). 

In fact, the definition of “slow burn” doesn’t just describe these games, but most Unovan Pokémon. A lot of level-up evolutions do not trigger until super-late into the story, some of which are even post-game at the earliest. This problem isn’t as bad in Black and White 2, since levels are much higher by the Pokémon league. One of the most notorious examples is Unova’s pseudo-Legendary: Hydreigon, evolving from Zweilous at LEVEL 64. Even with the better level scaling in the sequels, you will still not be getting this thing through level up until the post-game, or just before the Pokémon League at the earliest. The only way to straight-up catch it before the Pokémon League is for the infinitesimally small odds of a dust cloud in Victory Road spawning it. Of course, if you can get it, it’s a freaking BEAST. Hydreigon was at its prime in Gen 5, before the Fairy-Type gave it a nasty quad-weakness. 

Another Unovan powerhouse is one of its Fossil Pokémon: Archeops. Insane Attack and Speed, but an ability that hampers Attack and Special Attack if its HP goes below half. To be honest, it’s almost always going to go first in battle, and if its opponent survives and attacks, and Defeatist activates from the hit, the opponent should have low enough HP for the next attack to finish it off. And since Defeatist doesn’t lower Speed, Archeops will still go first and deliver the finishing blow. It also evolves from Archen at a very reasonable Level 37. Archeops is still one of the most powerful physical sweepers, but like with Hydreigon, it was also at its prime in Gen 5 thanks to the unique Gem items. These Gems each represent a Pokémon Type, and they get consumed as held items to boost their respective type of move once. When using the move Acrobatics, and consuming a Flying Gem, the game counts that as not holding an item. Thus, Archeops can benefit from the Flying-Type damage bonus as well as the 110 base power from not having an item when using the move. I wanted to use its defensive cousin, Carracosta, for the first time, but the Fossil guy isn’t in Relic Castle in the sequels. In fact, Fossils aren’t available until the post-game!

Unfortunately, not every Unovan Pokémon is as great as they could be. One example is Garbodor, who’s still a hard sell even to this day. It evolves at a reasonable level, is a great tank, with an equally great physical attack stat. The rub is that it doesn’t learn a single physical stab move through level up. Scratch that, it doesn’t learn a single physical stab move, period… with the exception of Gunk Shot. It has a respectable Special Attack stat, but it’s the principle of the thing. 

Another great Pokémon that can be handicapped is Golurk. It’s all around a great physical Ghost-Type, with a cool design and lore to boot. The thing actually has rocket feet, which is a detail that’s acknowledged by allowing it to learn Fly despite not being a Flying-Type. The problem with it is that it can either have the great ability Iron Fist—perfect for its punch-based movepool—or Klutz… an objectively awful Ability that prevents held item use. There is nothing more heartbreaking in Pokémon than having a Pokémon with the best possible nature, but not the preferred Ability. Sadly, due to Black and White 2’s structure, the earliest opportunity to get it is Victory Road.

On a better note, another great Pokémon is Bisharp. It hits like a truck, and is very scary to deal with thanks to its Defiant Ability; any stat reduction will be countered with a free +2 Attack buff. On the other side of the coin is one of Unova’s best special sweepers: Chandelure. Its awesome design isn’t for show; it hurts, plus it can learn Energy Ball to counter Water-Types.

Two more interesting Pokémon that I have never used and, sadly, can never use are Escavalier and Accelgor. They are evolutions of Shelmet and Kerrablast, obtained by trading one with the other (hence my lack of having them since I don’t have friends). Escavalier has the risky Bug-Steel typing, with great physical Defense to boot. On the flipside is the glassy Special sweeper, Accelgor. It has next to no defenses, but has unsurpassed Speed, moreso than Archeops. 

Unova also has two version exclusive birds: Ruflett and Vullaby, which evolve into Braviary and Mandibuzz respectively. Like most Unovan Pokémon, they take forever to evolve, and you can’t even encounter them until Victory Road. Fortunately, the sequels have a static encounter with the evolved form very early on, plus that encounter has its Hidden Ability. Fun fact: Braviary with Defiant is a good thing.

I suppose I should talk about the starters, right? Like I said before, Emboar, Samurott, and Serperior are some of the chunkier starters in the series. Emboar is the most brute force of them all. It learns Flame Charge very early on, and its guaranteed Speed buff is a great setup for sweeping. Samurott is the most well-rounded, and learns some unexpectedly great moves like Revenge, and an assortment of powerful Bug-Type moves. Serperior has powerful Grass-Type moves and the great setup move of Coil to boost its Attack, Defense, and Accuracy. Unfortunately, it has the weakest move pool, only able to learn Grass and Normal-Type moves. It’ll serve you well against pretty much anything except a Steel-Type… well, once it gets Leaf Blade.

If you didn’t think this game had any more tanks, don’t worry; there are more. Druddigon and Ferrothorn are particularly rude, because they both have an Ability that inflicts contact damage on opponents. And like with any Pokémon with those Abilities, the effect stacks with the Rocky Helmet equipped. Just be wary with Ferrothorn; being a Grass-Steel physical wall, one good special Fire-Type move will end it.

Last but not least are the Legendaries. The main two, Zekrom and Reshiram are—to my knowledge—the first and only plot-relevant Legendaries who cannot be caught until the post-game (at least in the sequels; in the originals, you catch your boxart Legendary right before the final boss). They are all around great Pokémon, bolstering strong attack and bulk. Kyurem, who’s also respectably strong by itself, is able to fuse with either of Zekrom or Reshiram. This replaces its signature move with a powerful two-turn attack that can inflict Paralysis and Burn respectively.

There are also the Swords of Justice, who are notably all obtainable before the post-game. They have VERY powerful attacks, but the best one defensively is Cobalion. It’s Steel-Fighting, which is awesome before Gen 6 nerfs Steel. There are also the Mythical Pokémon Victinni, Meloetta, Genesect, and Keldeo. Unfortunately, since those are Mystery Gifts that need to be obtained through an event during a specific time, I have only ever obtained Genesect and Meloetta. Genesect is basically a watered-down Arceus; a cool-looking Bug-Steel Type whose signature move changes based on the type of a hold item called a Drive that it holds (and I’ve only ever been able to find one anyway). Meloetta is a special attacker that alternates between Normal-Psychic and Normal-Fighting through use of its signature move.

Let’s get back to the actual structure of the game. Unova was already a very chunky region in the first game, but Black and White 2 has a LOT more. A LOT MORE. It has a whole bunch of new areas, and a much wider variety of Pokémon than in the previous venture (even if the Unova-only Pokémon idea was pretty fun in Black and White 1, and much appreciated compared to the more recent games where newer Pokémon tend to be rare). However, there wasn’t exactly much I didn’t remember, since I—you know—remember so much from loving these games to death.

When it comes to starting in earnest, I’d say that Black and White 2 opens up after the third gym. Route 4 is when you start getting a lot of interesting Pokémon, and get to explore a pretty big area with the Desert Resort. Unfortunately, there is some padding even still. While you aren’t forced to do the tutorial for the musical place (which… we’ll get to later), you are forced to do the Pokémon World Tournament after the fifth gym (in addition to the aforementioned PokéStar Studios). I don’t know if you have to win to advance, but it comes down to already knowing what your opponents have (fortunately, they’re always the same). There’s also a very late point in the game where you have to fight someone with four Roggenrolas. Since this is before they could have Weak Armor… you have to fight four Roggenrolas with STURDY. It’s stupid and pretty much impossible to lose; it’s just there to be annoying.

So, we’ve gone over a number of side areas with unique mechanics. Well, there’s still more. One of my favorites was always Join Avenue. Every day, you’d boot up the game and talk to NPCs walking along the street, where you’d either have them open a shop or recommend them to an already opened shop. This place sucked so much of my life away ten years ago, and it’s worth it. The raffle place has a Master Ball for the grand prize, and I—to this day—have never obtained it (if Chugga ever plays these games for his channel, he will probably get it very easily). The antique shop is a great place to obtain a lot of random and useful items (get ready to have a new hate for Hard Stones). There are also places to raise base stats, friendliness, and EVs. 

Full transparency here: I did some of these side mechanics in my copy of Black 2, since I already had grinded up some other Pokémon for post-game stuff. PokéStar Studios… I gave it half an hour before I gave up on it (yes, that’s more than I ever gave it). I like it, but even when watching Twitch in the background, I found it emotionally draining and mechanically stupid. In PokéStar Studios, you choose one out of a staggering number of movies to shoot. You are provided rental Pokémon and a script to follow. You generally want to follow the script… but the problem is that you’re actually encouraged to find a very obtuse and specific combination of deviations to make something more avant garde. Since Bulbapedia, the most trustworthy source of Pokémon info on the Internet, didn’t have a guide for this to my knowledge, I gave up pretty quickly. As much as I love the unusual scenarios it puts Pokémon in (which I would’ve loved to see done in the main games more often), it’s just too much.

And honestly, I didn’t really want to do the musical studio either. The fun part is dressing up your Pokémon in ridiculous ways with various props, and that’s about where the fun ends. On stage, you perform a number that takes about five whole minutes, and you’re supposed to have more pizzazz than the other performers. Sadly, I have no idea how it’s measured. I know that hand-held props can be used as one-time flourishes, but I—to this day—have never had any clue on the best timing. Also, you have to do this a massive number of times to get everything out of it, and there are not enough dances to select from for variety’s sake. It’s the kind of repetitious grinding that can drive a completionist insane.

To add to the unprofessional-ality of this retrospective, I couldn’t do the competitive battle areas for crap either. The Pokémon World Tournament starts off weirdly easy (at least it was for me). You go through a cup where all eight Gym Leaders of Unova are thrown in as contestants. If you win, you unlock similar cups featuring Gym Leaders from Gens 1-4. While this is no doubt really cool, it’s also really difficult. I just can’t wrap my head around the insanity of competitive Pokémon-ing. The Battle Subway, which features different types of battle gauntlets against random trainers, is more forgiving, but it’s also less exciting.

When it comes to overall difficulty, Black and White 2 can be nasty if you don’t know the series’ mechanics REALLY well. Levels tend to hike up when it comes to gyms, creating a lot of walls if you don’t have specific Pokémon to account for them. I enjoy playing Pokémon slightly underleveled, since knowing the mechanics tends to outweigh pure stats, but man, not having the Gen 6 and onward Exp. Share is… hard to go back to. And for anyone who thinks that particular mechanic in Gen 6 makes things too easy, well… I’ll elaborate on that if I ever do a 10th Anniversary X and Y retrospective next year. I don’t really know how hard mode is, but according to Bulbapiedia… yikes.

In case Black and White 2 didn’t seem long enough to you, then get ready for its massive post-game! This opens up a ton of new areas: the northwest and southeast corners of the map (i.e. the areas around Icirrus City and the starting area of the first games). It also opens up Clay Tunnel, where you can obtain the Regis. The thing is… they’re all in the same room, and require the Key System setting to change the room to accommodate each Regi. These Keys were obtained by beating the game and doing other stuff, and had to be shared with other versions of the game. One set of keys is a difficulty modifier, however, I don’t know if you can have it to where you start a new campaign with one of those keys right off the bat (I kind of wanted to play the game on hard mode). In any case, you need both versions to obtain all three Regis, and unlock Regigigas as well. There was also a mechanic that allowed you to see N’s past, and randomly spawn Pokémon formerly owned by him into the wild. However, I don’t remember much of that mechanic nor how to do it.

It also opens up the version-exclusive Black City and White Forest. The former represents corporate greed and is really miserable and ugly, while the latter is quaint and happy. However, unlike the previous games where White was objectively better, both areas are more balanced in Black and White 2. Both of these areas have a unique challenge dungeon. Each set of floors has you go through a procedurally generated dungeon, fighting random trainers for hints on where the gatekeeper trainer is. Beating the gatekeeper trainer opens the door to the boss. Items cannot be used, but levels aren’t fixed either, so you can theoretically grind to level 100 and have an easy time. In any case, making progress opens shops in Black City and White Forest, each with unique items, and beating the final boss gives you a Shiny Gible and Shiny Dratini respectively. There is also an area that opens up after completing the Unova Regional Pokédex, but to this day, I have never managed to get it, especially since this game doesn’t have two rivals to register all three starters with (and it’s not Sinnoh where it’s programmed to make Regional Dex completion easy). 

And here’s the cherry on top: the Medal system. This is technically not post-game content, but it is part of getting to rate these games as 100% completed in your book. There are Medals for everything, from basic stuff, to completing everything in the side areas such as PokéStar Studios. This also includes completing a Pokémon League run with a single-Type team for EVERY Pokémon Type (fortunately, dual-Types count as long as one Type matches across the board), as well as a run with a single Pokémon (shouldn’t be too hard for those very first fans who just used their starter for the entirety of Red and Blue as kids because they didn’t know how the game worked). It’s a tad bit excessive.

Some of this stuff seems like it requires monumental grinding, and it does. Fortunately, Unova is by far the best generation for this sort of thing. Every day, stadiums in Nimbasa city spawn trainer battles (as long as it’s the right time of the day, otherwise they’ll be closed off). By the post-game, there are TONS of battles, enough to take at least half an hour total. In addition to this is a fight with your rival, a tag-team battle involving the trio of Gym Leaders from the first game’s Gym, and a fight with Colress (if you’re willing to go through two routes to get to him every time). ALL of these respawn daily. Furthermore, a rare Pokémon named Audino can spawn in any light-colored Pokémon grass, and that thing drops a LOT of XP!

Generally, I consider Unova to have excellent design in terms of layout and stuff to do (especially the latter), but I do have one qualm with it: seasons. There’s a reason that this only occured in Gen 5, because it’s handled stupidly. Basically, the game will track the date and time on your DS, and dynamically change the overworld depending on the seasons. While this is a nice detail, it results in some areas that cannot be reached except on specific seasons. And what’s worse is that autumn and winter are—to my knowledge—the only ones that really matter in terms of gameplay. 

For this passage, I need to make something clear: for some reason, I really love the world of Pokémon. It does have questionable ethics (and a lack of law enforcement), but I always loved existing in it. It always felt like a lucid dream to me (which is ironic since dreams are a theme in this game), and Unova always felt like one of the dreamiest. Pretty much every town has some sort of personality that makes it stand out, and a lot of them have my favorite atmospheres in the series. One such example is Village Bridge, which is an area that you just go through, with no plot relevance in either games. As a result, I always felt like it was a place removed from the rest of society, and it had a sense of quaintness to it.

I also love the visuals of Gen 5. This was the first generation where the POKÉMONS’ NAMES WEREN’T ALL CAPS, and more importantly, the first where their sprites were animated, showing off their full bodies in battle. The 3D is also much more intricate than Sinnoh’s, and the games run better as well. It’s also the first game where Abilities have a flashy visual that appears when they are activated.

The soundtrack is also one of my favorites in the series, with awesome overworld and battle themes. People generally love Route 10 from the first game, but as great as that song is, I also love the Route 23 that replaces it in the sequels. Colress also has one of my favorite boss themes in the series, but Ghetsis’ ominous, minimalist theme gets a remix in the sequels which kind of kills the impact of the original. One thing that Gen 5 does that is never revisited until Gen 7 is dynamic themes. Gym Leaders play an alternate theme when on their last Pokémon, but it doesn’t stop there. Certain NPCs in towns can play music which adds to the actual town’s theme. The most prevalent example is the aforementioned Village Bridge, which becomes a fully composed song complete with lyrics after you talk to all the NPCs involved.

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After All These Years: 9/10

I love Pokémon Black and White 2, but since then, Game Freak has greatly streamlined gameplay. It’s just really nice that the newer games are programmed so that all your Pokémon will be fairly balanced for each challenge as long as you fight every regular trainer battle. Oh, and those side mechanics… ew. Since the DS is kind of dead, I obviously can’t recommend these games whatsoever. But hey, if you somehow have copies lying around that you bought ten years ago and never played, then I think you should play them.

Slime Rancher: A Wholesome Management Game Draws Near!

I had known about Slime Rancher for a while thanks to StephenPlays’ First20 video he made years ago. I never watched the video, but it at least got me to acknowledge the game’s existence. And when I finally looked at its Steam page, I kind of wanted to try it. So, here we are. I just love making time management increasingly difficult.

Slime Rancher throws you in like cold turkey as you assume the role of Beatrix LeBeau, who runs a slime ranch in the Far, Far Range. Raise slimes and profit, basically. That’s it.

Like many games of its kind, Slime Rancher is complicated. The basic idea is to corral slimes, and feed them food to earn plorts, which are sold for money. However, you have to account for the many different slime types, as well as their behaviors and diets. Also, slimes can eat plorts, and eating a different type than their own turns them into a largo slime. These poop out plorts of both source types when fed, but eating a third type turns them into dangerous tarr slimes that can cause SERIOUS trouble.

The game doesn’t hold your hand, but in a good way. You get all the knowledge you need in your Slimepedia, and it’s up to you to figure out how to make all these different systems mesh. If you jump the gun trying to raise multiple types of slimes too soon, it’ll get ugly and high-maintenance. Also, if you place too many slimes without the higher wall and ceiling upgrade for their corral, they can pile up enough to escape pretty easily and eat your stuff (and each other’s plorts, creating more tarr). 

Fortunately, things really get going once you get cash. Spend it on various facility upgrades, as well as expansions of the ranch to allow more variety (and room) for slimes to be raised in. Essential upgrades include the jetpack, for exploring, and the ability to store and use water, ideally against tarr slimes. However, new upgrades seem to unlock completely at random. There are likely hidden prerequisites, but it’s not all clear what those are.

Exploration is the key here. There’s a LOT to the Far, Far Range. It’s full of presents, which are pretty useless as they only contain cosmetic items. The important stuff are the map stations and gordo slimes. The former is self-explanatory, but gordo slimes are large, stationary slimes that come in every type. Feeding them a lot of the favorite food of that slime type will give you important rewards, from keys to unlock new regions, to your source of fast travel from one region back to the ranch. While the world ends up being pretty small, there is a lot to it. The best aspect about it is that its design allows for sequence breaking in a lot of spots. With enough jetpack upgrades, you can fly up to the highest point in the level!

The lab opens up a massive portion of the game. With it, you can craft gadgets with Slime Science. These gadgets can place automated devices to find resources, and more importantly, the ability to create your own fast travel points for yourself and for items found while exploring. Simply deposit plorts and the various resources found with the automated devices into the refinery, and consume them in the fabricator to create your gadgets. Buy blueprints to get more rewards.

However, despite the “family friendly” tag on Steam, Slime Rancher can be tough. Not only will it be overwhelming at the beginning, but those tarr slimes are very scary early on. You can easily avoid them spawning on your ranch, but they can naturally spawn in the overworld (and I wasn’t willing to test if they can spread to your ranch from there). They can’t even be dealt with until you get the ability to store water, but once you do, they aren’t so bad.

You can disable them by playing the game in Casual Mode, but that doesn’t remove feral slimes. These guys will very aggressively hunt you down until you feed them something. Unfortunately, slimes are weird with acknowledging food. While not a problem on the ranch, since you can just vomit it into their corral and they’ll eat it eventually, but obviously feral slimes are a different situation. There were way too many times that I fired their preferred food directly at them, and had that food completely ignored, while I got bodied. Also, the Slime Sea is an instant death trap, and there are areas where you will have to platform over it. If you want a real challenge, play the game in Rush Mode, where you’ll need to be the best dang rancher you can be to make money fast.

In addition to a large world, there are side distractions, one of which is The Wilds. Here, you’re thrown into an area filled with feral slimes, and the entrance as well as the exit is in a random location. Collect as much of the special fruit found only in this area and redeem them for rewards to aid you in your ranch.

There’s also a fun challenge from this narcissist named Mochi. With her, you do a timed minigame where you collect lightning projectiles to shoot at an area-exclusive slime for their plorts. These plorts are automatically collected, and you turn them in for a lot of money as well as other perks.

The third and final side activity is the Slimulation. This is a virtual replica of the overworld. Vacuum up glitch slimes, which disguise themselves as regular slimes (but with Ditto faces), and as geometry that isn’t present in the real version of the world. After a while, glitch tarrs will appear to cause chaos. Once the exit portal appears, follow the guides to escape before you become a virtual snack. All glitch slimes are converted to bug reports, which are redeemed for an exclusive resource as well as other rewards.

The biggest problem with Slime Rancher is that completion, as is with most games like this, can be a hassle. While the map is good for your bearings, it’s not easy to find stuff in the world. Gordo slimes are marked off after you feed them once, and gadgets that you place get added to the map as well. But that’s it. Treasure pods—both unopen and otherwise—cannot be marked on here. In addition to a number of strange achievements, you must also earn a highscore in Rush Mode, which is a money-focused speedrun mode with a time limit.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Slime Rancher is an addictive and wholesome management game that puts a smile on my face. I already have the sequel wishlisted, and hopefully it’ll expand on the established mechanics to make something even better than this. I recommend it if you like management games like Stardew Valley.

Apparently, Triple-A Gaming is Scary: A Rant

I’m a Nintendo kid. Despite its shortcomings, such as terrible online servers (which I don’t use because I choose not to have friends), and games that don’t even remotely meet people’s expectations (that they continue to make despite negative feedback), I am prepared to follow them to the bitter end. In recent years, I’ve learned that many triple-A game studios are, for the most part, heartless swindlers, and Nintendo was the least of many evils.

One bad thing I’ve heard of is microtransactions in pay-to-win games. Normally, they show up in games that are free. However, I’ve heard of them showing up in a lot of games that cost money to buy, too (such as one of the Crash Bandicoot racing games). That’s pretty gross, but that’s only the tip of a much larger iceberg. And gamers are the Titanic.

The worst I had heard of was Bethesda, the creators of Fallout and Elder Scrolls. Their games are buggy; notoriously buggy. And. They. Don’t. Care. This studio rolls in millions of smackaroos by consciously putting out dysfunctional games that people still buy for some reason. Not only that, but some of the controversies I had heard of are actually illegal, such as a scam in Fallout ’76 Collector’s Edition merch, where people didn’t actually get what they paid for.

However, seeing is believing, and I had no idea just how bad triple-A gaming is; it’s gotta be the most corrupt consumer market next to car dealerships. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I bought a new gaming laptop. It’s small, but it’s a beast, and it can play pretty much any triple-A game coming out in the foreseeable future. There were some coming out this year that I actually wanted… and this is when I saw the corruption firsthand.

The first sign is Square Enix’s Forspoken. Apparently, PS5 games cost $69.99USD, but Forspoken costs that much on PC as well. According to the Steam forums, Forspoken will start a new precedent by Square Enix to gradually increase the price of all triple-A games… eventually topping off at $100USD. It’s not only disgustingly corrupt; it’s stupid. At this point, the only thing that this generation’s games have is better graphics, and to even appreciate those, you need to break out thousands on a TV that can support such ludicrous resolutions. And that’s not even taking into account the amount of these massively anticipated games that flop hardcore. Even if Forspoken was a good game—heck, even if it was a really good game that’s worth the money—buying it would only feed the beast.

Another problem is Bethesda’s Starfield. I ignored this game when it was announced, but recently, I’ve been watching Tom Fawkes play through Elder Scrolls IV: The Krug Khronicles. Elder Scrolls is my kind of game: open world sandbox, non-linear structure, a myriad of playstyles, and multiple solutions to quests. Bethesda has a good design philosophy… but sadly, they can’t—and won’t—execute it well. I would love to play Starfield, but it’s such a huge risk. As a weeb, I’m also interested in Ghostwire Tokyo. Although Bethesda’s merely its publisher, not its devs, they probably have the authority to tell the actual devs something like “So, if you happen to come across any bugs in the game’s programming, don’t do anything, ‘kay?”. They’ve gotten away with selling broken products for decades. In fact, people still buy their games despite this.

That last phrase is the real crux of the matter, isn’t it? Despite the glaring flaws that these games have, people buy them anyway. It’s almost like a vicious cycle. Square Enix can get away with what they’re pulling, because people will pay anything for the next big thing. I’ve lived through so many games that were supposed to “transcend reality” that ended up being mediocre disappointments. 

Us middle-class plebes boycotting a game won’t do much of anything, because of how the gaming landscape has changed. We have to factor in gamers, and I don’t mean people who play games as their hobby; I mean those who play games for a living. The algorithm is ruthless, and playing the right game at the right time is literally what puts a roof over their heads. Square Enix can raise their prices however high they want, for the professional gamers are obligated to buy any and all highly anticipated releases. They’ll shell out the triple-digit-dough for a special edition when applicable, especially when factoring in collectors. If Square Enix really plans to shift the market like this, they will succeed. It really won’t make any difference if I buy Forspoken or not. In fact, I’m tempted to get it day 1 because it would be an interesting experience to be part of the inevitable controversy surrounding its main protagonist, since apparently having a Black female lead protagonist in 2022 is utterly outrageous.

In addition to all that, we have to worry about these things called NFTs (short for Non-Fungible Tokens). I had heard of them on the Disc Only Podcast, where they were alluded to as harbingers of the apocalypse (I distinctly recall one person in chat responding with “We live in a dystopia”). No one on the podcast actually explained what NFTs were, so it meant they were a big enough deal to assume that everyone knew what they were. Of course, I didn’t because I’m me. Based on what I looked up, NFTs are simply the digital equivalent to a certificate of authentication on a collector’s item. The most corrupt aspect about them just seems to be the fact that rich people have spent millions on them, as opposed to giving that money to charities. I don’t quite know how they will bring ruin to our lives, but apparently, if they become incorporated into videogames, us consumers will suddenly find ourselves with empty wallets and no First Amendment.

The objectively better thing to do is back out and play indie games. While these smaller teams can still make equally bad decisions as triple-A studios (possibly even more-so), they at least cost less, at most half the price of a triple-A game. Best case scenario, you’ll have something that’s just as good as, if not better than, most triple-A games at their finest. Indie games will likely not be affected by an increase in triple-A game prices; in fact, it would only make people flock over to their more affordable games instead. I’m already stoked for this year’s indie titles, with Sea of Stars, SacriFire, and Slime Rancher 2 to name a few (oh right, I gotta upload my review of the first game eventually…). Not to mention that Nintendo still has a promising lineup of $59.99USD games, such as Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, Mario and Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, Splatoon 3, and more. In fact, listing these titles off already made me more excited for them.

Speaking of Nintendo, I want to end this off positively. Not all of these studios are bad; you just have to look past the ads blaring “NEXT-GEN GRAPHICS” and whatnot. Some triple-A games are actually worth the $59.99USD, and not just Nintendo. For example, Yakuza is a very beloved SEGA I.P. that I’ve never once heard any of these con-art stories from. Also, I’ve been playing Grounded in Early Access. It’s by Obsidian, which is—I believe—a triple-A studio. I’ve really loved it, even in Early Access (although I can’t get any achievements because I don’t have an Xbox account and have to play offline). There are no absolutes in the infinitely complex world of gaming, except for “absolute wastes of money.” 

So, the moral of the story? Don’t play triple-A games, and don’t take up gaming as a career. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but you should be wary of how the market is because it is capitalism at its rudest. What is your experience with the con artists who make up triple-A studios? Have you converted to indie games because they’re cheaper?

Black Skylands: My First Early Access Experience

The idea of playing games in Early Access was always interesting to me. If you don’t know what Early Access is, allow me to define it: basically, you pay to play a partially finished game, and support it as it develops over time. Of course, the biggest risk is the possibility of the game having to be abandoned for whatever reason. One such thing apparently happened last November with Among Trees. However, there are a lot of popular Early Access games, such as Raft, Death Trash, and Satisfactory. There are also some that are more off the beaten path, such as Black Skylands.

In Black Skylands, you have your usual race of humanoids who live on sky islands (or skylands, hence the title drop). This world, known as Aspya, has been plagued by the Swarm (a common noun turned into a proper noun, as is tradition). The main protagonist is a girl named Eva, and her dad is captain of the Earners. He has a crackpot plan to journey into the Eternal Storm because he thinks the solution to beat back the swarm is there. However, when scientists bring back a sample of a Swarm creature, everything falls apart. Seven years later, Eva has to fix everything herself.

It’s easy to impulsively buy Black Skylands because it is gorgeous. I’ve grown to love pixel-art, and how deceptively versatile it is for conveying different artstyles. This game is vibrant, and full of color. As you sail on your skyship, you’ll see creatures of all sizes that are just there for cosmetics; from flying manta rays above you, to massive behemoths that thankfully hang at much lower altitudes. Unfortunately, the nature of the game’s top-down perspective can make characters look the same in the overworld. That’s why they have their portraits during dialogue.

The weakest part of the game is no doubt the story. A lot is thrown at you very fast, and the worst part is the catalyst of all of it: the aforementioned incident regarding the Swarm creature. In its aftermath, this dude named Kain turns into a maniacal sociopath, whose faction, the Falconers, pillage and murder the people of Aspya in some twisted sense of justice. It’s your usual “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and the worst part is why. He gets mad because his bird died in the incident. While I can’t imagine the grief from losing a pet animal, I don’t exactly think it’s a reason to form a dystopian government.

Fortunately, Black Skylands shows fantastic potential even in Early Access. In fact, I’ve played finished games that were worse. There’s a ton of stuff to do in the overworld, most of which is on the various skylands. These are full of resources, treasures, quests, and more. By defeating all enemies on a skyland, you reclaim it from the Falconers. Doing this rescues the population, who for some reason, act as a currency to enable special passive upgrades. Islands can be retaken, but it doesn’t happen that often, and the game at least shows a time limit on the HUD (something I’m pretty sure other games with similar mechanics don’t do).

Inventory management can be an issue. Your skyship can only hold twenty items at first, and they don’t stack. Quest-relevant NPCs you need to transport are stored in crates and count toward that inventory, which is admittedly pretty funny. The rub is that essentials for your ship to not go derelict, such as fuel canisters, repair kits, and ammo boxes, take up this space as well. 

There’s a lot to do in your main base of operations, the Fathership, as well. This place has seen better days, and it’s up to you to fix all of it from the ground up. Like in many games of this kind, you consume resources to build facilities that produce more important resources.

The best part is customization. There are a ton of weapon types and playstyles to pick from. Most weapons can have mods installed, which can be crafted or found in mod crates scattered across the world. Your skyships also have a wide variety of components to equip. Unfortunately, equipment tends to become useless fast, since you can level up facilities faster than you can get all the resources necessary to craft every piece of equipment, allowing you to get the next tier of equipment.  

Yes, I said skyships just now. Once you build the ship workshop, you can buy new types of ships and new parts for them and modify literally every aspect of them. As of this review, they only have four types of ships. From what I can tell, there are no cases where you need the little lightweight ship to fit into a narrow passage (although there are some really narrow passages that I have NO IDEA how to get through). 

There are also artifacts. By solving puzzles scattered throughout the world, you obtain crystals that grant you and your ship cool abilities. These are very helpful, and naturally, they can’t be spammed. Eva’s artifacts have a cooldown period, and the ship consumes energy, the latter of which can be replenished by destroying the many asteroids scattered throughout the world, or flying enemies. It doesn’t regenerate over time or when you take it to the shipyard, which kind of sucks, because I don’t think the asteroids respawn either.

Combat is where things get interesting. Black Skylands has a fun mix of range and melee combat. You have your arsenal of guns at your disposal, but it’s encouraged to use your grappling hook for sneak attacks, or to yeet people off of cliffs. Your only source of healing is medkits, but refills tend to be common enough.

Speaking of the grappling hook, you better learn that thing fast. It’s your main source of movement over the vast skies below. Fortunately, if you fall, you don’t immediately die. For some reason, you can somehow try to grapple the nearest grabbable ledge and save yourself. It’s really nice, especially when you’re learning to use the darn thing.

Skyship flying can be difficult at times. They seem to have so much momentum that once they hit top speed, I could let go of the gas and it would move forward perpetually until I hit the brakes. Also, the cannons on them are… interesting. They point at different angles depending on the ship, which makes combat a bit weird. Also, the controls are kind of bizarre; you can only shoot just the right cannon or all cannons. The Annihilator Beam artifact helps because it is a head-on frontal attack. 

So far, Black Skylands is surprisingly difficult for a chill sandbox game. Once you’re asked to go to the ice region, the game really starts to test your grappling and fighting abilities. Fortunately, dying has virtually no penalty… not that I would know that from experience, of course *sweating emoji*.

One thing that can end up being a downer is that fast travel costs money relative to the distance from point A to point B. This sucks because you need money for a lot of things. It’s plentiful enough in the overworld, but it’s amazing how fast you can empty your pockets. One protip that you’re never taught is that cabbage, the cheapest crop to grow, sells for an obscene amount of money for such a common resource. As far as I know, cabbage isn’t used for anything else, so they probably intended for them to be your main source of income.

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Current Verdict: 8.75/10

Black Skylands could become one of this year’s most underrated games once it’s complete. Hopefully, that’ll actually happen, considering that this isn’t as popular as the aforementioned Early Access titles. As fun as it is, the lack of many facilities, among other small things, betrays its incomplete state. If the game gets cancelled, I’ll update this post with that information. Otherwise, I highly recommend you give it a try if it strikes your fancy, and support its development by doing so.