Pokémon Scarlet & Violet: Is The Series Great Again?

The Pokémon series has suffered ever since its transition to the 3DS. With the exception of some spinoffs, opinions have gotten more and more divisive. It wasn’t until January 2022 when the series was saved by Pokémon Legends: Arceus. It changed a lot of mechanics while maintaining the franchise’s core philosophy: gotta catch ‘em all! It also has a decently seamless open-world design, and rudimentary JRPG mechanics that lay the groundwork for greatness. In that same year, GameFreak—in that classic Japanese overworkiness—had already released a new generation: Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. This is an important installment for the series, for it will ultimately cement whether or not Pokémon as a whole is great again, or if Arceus was a fluke. I decided to play Pokémon Scarlet, since I realized I’ve played the latter installments of dual Pokémon games way too often.

In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, you sign up for the prestigious Naranja Academy. Time to catch Pokémon and make some friends, such as a mysterious red/purple dinosaur that possesses superhuman strength. Oh, and go to school.

I don’t mean to go critical right off the bat, but… I really don’t like the school theme in these games. While it’s neat that the Pokémon school has a real purpose for once, it’s the exact antithesis of what you’d want in an open world game, which emphasizes freedom. For a Persona-like Pokémon spin-off, school would work, but not here. In fact, the school seems like an afterthought, since as soon as you get there, they skip months of in-game time just so their workaround for the school setting in the open world game kicks in: the Treasure Hunt. This is an independent study where all students leave school and do literally whatever they want, as long as it leads to them finding their true calling. It’s a cool idea, but it would’ve been just as good of an idea to have your character think there must be more to this provincial life, and heads out into the great wide somewhere. Unfortunately, in order to be able to keep playing after you beat it, your character never finds their “treasure”, meaning that you’re to be left an empty shell after all that transpires.

Fortunately, if there’s a good side of the story, it’s that of the antagonists in Team Star. Instead of a criminal organization, you have a group of students who were just misunderstood. They are perhaps the most relatable Team in the entire Pokémon series. The other thing that stands out is having the box-art Legendary—Koraidon/[Insert Boxart Legendary from Violet Here]—as a permanent traveling companion. This sandwich-guzzling fiend is just cool, whatever it is. Although there aren’t many scenes where you interact with it, this is still perhaps the most intimate relationship that the player can ever forge with a Pokémon.

The characters in Pokémon have been getting better… right? Well, it’s kind of hit-or-miss this time. The teachers at the school are pretty great, although a lot of your interactions with them are entirely optional. Your rival, Nemona, is… alright. They definitely gave up on making your rivals jerks, but this time, her quirk is an obsession with battling. There is a whole backstory with her (that you don’t get until after beating the game), but I don’t believe it justifies her addiction with beating people up. This dude named Arven is pretty cool; he has a heartwarming story where he wants to find legendary herbs to cure his dog. The headmaster of Naranja, Clavell… I mean, he’s okay, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Clive, who aids you in your battles with Team Star. Clive is just the coolest, and I’m not at all doing a bit to pretend that I don’t know that he’s obviously Clavell in disguise, because he’s not. He’s Clive. 

Unfortunately, that’s about it for positives. Everyone else has been more dumbed down than ever, which stinks because their character designs are up to snuff as usual. The Professor, Sada, is just someone who phones in on you every so often regarding one of the major questlines, and that’s about it for a while. The Gym Leaders, due to structuring mechanics, have been downgraded once more. You don’t even see them outside the Gym, not once, which sucks because a lot of them are actually really good going off of what little you see of them. I mean—come on—one of them might as well be the famous V-tuber Gawr Gura!

Before we get to gameplay, I must address the one thing that GameFreak will clearly never learn: graphics. Man… they cannot make good environments! There’s numerous bad textures, lag, pop-ins, and whatnot. What’s worse is that character animations have taken a step back as well; almost to PS1-era jank. Movements are stiff and awkward, plus the textures are even inconsistent. While important characters look fine enough, a lot of NPCs have bad textures and pudgy fingers that look like they’re from two console generations ago. GameFreak needs to learn from Nintendo and Platinum Games, who have made beautiful games using the Switch’s inferior hardware. At least the Pokémon themselves still look good. Heck, the crystal texture from the Terastallize ability is straight-up gorgeous. If they can make something like that, then why can’t they follow through with everything else?

Fortunately, Scarlet and Violet are so damn amazing and addictive that you probably won’t notice the bad graphics for too long. Right off the bat, there are more quality-of-life improvements than ever. The U.I. is easy, the map has SO many details, nicknames can be changed at any time from the Pokémon menu, moves can be freely relearned from that same menu, and battles are even faster than ever. Pokémon Centers are just kiosks now, meaning no more loading zones just to heal or shop. However, the biggest, most important improvement of all is… THAT THEY FINALLY GOT RID OF THE TEN MINUTE POKÉBALL TUTORIAL! NOW IT’S JUST TWO TEXT BOXES THAT TAKE THIRTY SECONDS TO READ!

Of course, the elephant in the room with Scarlet & Violet is its full open-world map. While I bet there’ll be a lot of memes along the lines of “Is this Pokélder Scrolls?”, the region of Paldea doesn’t quite hold a candle to its open world contemporaries, especially Breath of the Wild. However, Paldea is easily the best region that the Pokémon series has ever had in and of itself. There’s tons of slopes, ledges, bodies of water… it only took three years for GameFreak to finally do it right! It’s a truly beautiful world… well, it would be if they understood the hardware, but you know what I mean.

There is a LOT to do in Paldea. For starters, there’s Pokémon, Trainers, and loot pretty much everywhere. There are also hidden Gimmighouls who give you their coins (that are really important for a specific purpose). Most importantly, however, are the three major quest lines. You not only have the classic Gym challenge, but you also have the five Titan Pokémon and the five admins of Team Star. It’s a lot, but for the first time, they can be tackled in any order.

Towns are the best they have ever been, at least in a long time. Each has unique characteristics, and thoughtful designs that make them feel live-in-able. I was concerned with them at first, since the early ones didn’t have good shop variety outside of food (which is a whole other thing). Fortunately, the later towns start having really powerful shops; you’ll be able to buy competitive hold items and even Nature-changing Mints, which you would otherwise have to grind BP. Unfortunately, they have something I really am torn on: Gym Tests. Instead of a puzzle room with Trainers, each town with a Gym essentially has the town become the Gym. It’s a cool idea, but I feel like some of them are just padding. 

The Team Star bases kind of suck, gameplay-wise. Basically, you assemble three Pokémon with an advantage over the Type that Squad uses, then mash R. It can only be hard if you don’t have an advantage, but they give you tons of time to defeat enough enemies. I can appreciate the streamlined process, but it still feels like a waste of time when there is almost no chance of failure. The boss fights themselves are great, at least.

The Titan Pokémon are the most straightforward. You go to their location and fight them twice, that’s it. The second time is fun because Arven assists with a friend of his own. Your reward for each is a new field ability for your steed. Unfortunately, the Titans don’t show their level, meaning if you get bodied by one, there’s no way to gauge if it was your fault or if it was just too strong.

Battling Pokémon is easier than ever. In addition to touching them in the overworld, Arceus mechanics return in full force. You can hide in the grass, and throw your lead Pokémon’s Pokéball to engage in battle. Also, like in Arceus, you can strike Pokémons’ backsides to give yourself a free turn. Do you not even want to bother fighting but still want XP? Simple! Just press R to send your lead Pokémon on a murder spree, where it’ll instantly destroy any opposition in its way, provided that it has the proper advantages. 

Unfortunately, TMs have been nerfed. They’re all back to being single-use again! That means doing an entire playthrough all over again just to teach a Pokémon Earthquake—Psyche! TMs are consumables, but they are REALLY easy to come by. They are lying just about everywhere in the world, and Pokémon also drop materials with which to make more. You can track up to five TMs whose materials you need.

In battle, everything is pretty much the same. Well, except for the latest gimmick: Terastallizing. Aesthetically, I love it. Pokémon become crystal, and it looks really pretty; like they’re unleashing their inner Magical Girl. Mechanically, it might actually be my new favorite gimmick; it’s not too broken, but can turn the tide if used wisely. Basically, what it does is change the Pokémon to its Tera Type, and give a STAB bonus much bigger than regular STAB. This is a meta mechanic for numerous reasons, such as changing the Pokémon’s type to something completely different in some cases. Also, all Tera Types are pure Types, meaning that this state can potentially erase a Pokémon’s quad-weaknesses. Just have fun building a competitive team around this, because the mechanic to change a Pokémon’s Tera Type requires farming for an obnoxious amount of Tera Shards.

Tera Raid Battles are also a big improvement over the Dynamax ones. The A.I. for people who have no friends is more competent, and the fights themselves are faster. There is no limit to Pokémon that can faint, but it does run down the time limit, which is not a limit on turns taken, but a literal clock that trickles away in real time. These battles encourage fast and smart plays, and the faster pacing complements this a lot. Unfortunately, they are kind of buggy, at least solo. Stuff happens so fast that the game can’t seem to keep up with it; sometimes a fainted Pokémon will continue to act, or it will faint while it still has health left. Still works better than Skyrim, at least.

My biggest concern with the transition to open world was that Scarlet & Violet would be a repeat of Gold & Silver: abysmal level scaling to account for doing things in any order because apparently programming enemies to grow dynamically with the player is impossible (obvious sarcasm there). Does that actually happen? Well… sadly… kind of. There is a clear recommended order to do things in, and as a result, your journey will be all over the place, with difficulty being anywhere from really challenging to a mind-numbingly easy victory. Nuzlockes are a must if you want actual difficulty, maybe even hardcore nuzlockes since the games give you so many free items in the overworld—including Ethers and Elixirs! However, that would of course ruin the sense of discovery in a new generation of Pokémon. Additionally, nuzlockes can be unfair, since unwittingly running into something above your pay grade will cut your run short, and you have to start the whole game all over again. I thought that asking Nurse Joy for advice would clue you in on the intended path, but she seems to recommend random events, regardless of if you’re actually capable of taking it on or not. The descriptions of some of these objectives can give you hints on the pathing, but the key word is “some”. It doesn’t help that the actual intended path makes absolutely no sense from a game design standpoint. Boy, I’m sure doing a good job making these games look appealing, aren’t I?

Well, I might as well commit. Furthermore, the cooking mechanic is worse than ever. I feel like they become more excessive and complicated with each Generation. On the positive side, the minigame is fun. You basically have to painstakingly build a sandwich piece-by-piece with the added challenge of no drop shadow. However, the foods themselves are where it gets excessive. There are hundreds of sandwiches, among other cuisines, sold at the many, MANY eateries and food carts throughout the world. The buffs from them apply to specific Pokémon Types, making each buff situational. The real kicker is that every item has several buffs and they’re distributed across the foods like a hodge-podge with no rhyme nor reason. While you don’t need these at all unless you want to min-max, it’s still sad that cooking in Pokémon has never once felt practical for core gameplay. There is also a washing mechanic for when Pokémon get dirty. However, I had no idea about this mechanic for the vast majority of the game, and when I used it for the first time, none of my party actually looked dirty. What doesn’t help is that some Pokémon don’t even want a bath at all, and there’s no way of knowing which ones that applies to!

Also, when I said that the school felt like an afterthought, I meant it. Although, that’s definitely because I’m biased against all school-based mechanics in videogames. Unfortunately, taking every single class is actually worth it. All you have to do is answer various quiz questions, and you get rewards for passing each class’ exams. The classes actually give you good hints on game mechanics (especially if you’re not a Pokémon veteran), plus the history class actually helps with foreshadowing and worldbuilding. Speaking of building, you can also build your relationship with teachers through special events (indicated by an exclamation mark over their rooms), thus allowing you to… fuse higher-ranked Personas? Well, you do get various rewards for seeing these events through to the end, and more time with the teachers whom I praise so much is definitely a good thing.

If there’s one thing that’s both a blessing and a curse, it’s that they have a really good selection of new Pokémon. I ended up shuffling my team a lot in my playthrough—mainly because I didn’t plan on replaying either of the games in the near future if at all—but also because a lot of the Pokémon are really good. They have great designs and work well in battle. Also, one other collectible in the overworld consists of thirty-two black stakes. They come in four sets of eight, and finding all of a set awards you with a Legendary Pokémon. That’s FOUR Legendaries that you can obtain before the credits roll!

However, there is one Pokémon in my playthrough whom I ended up feeling at odds with. So, spoiler warning for a whopping one Pokémon that was probably announced or showed off in the leak: Toedscool and Toedscruel. This is a Ground-Grass regional variant of the Tentacool family. Toedscruel is really fast and boasts the same great special defense as Tentacruel. It also learns Spore. However, its ability is what makes it really awkward as a team member: Mycelium Might. This ability gives it minus priority when using status moves, but those moves ignore abilities. This sounds great, but I feel like there are almost no situations where this works out in its favor. It doesn’t ignore Safeguard nor Misty Terrain since those aren’t Abilities, and I presume it won’t work when Uproar is in effect for the same reason. I also used Spore on a Pokémon with Vital Spirit. While the move successfully puts it to sleep, I learned that Vital Spirit also checks if the Pokémon is somehow put to sleep anyway, and thus makes it wake up immediately after the turn ends. The minus priority also means that Toedscruel’s opponent can attack, and potentially one-shot it since it’s physically squishy (quad weakness to Ice doesn’t help either). As a Spore user, it’s still great for catching Legendaries, but Mycelium Might is too situational for the minus priority to feel like a good trade-off. Who knows, maybe Chuggaaconroy will prove me wrong when he plays through these games on his channel in ten years.

In any case, another plus with the newcomers is that I feel like their evolutionary conditions aren’t as BS as Galar. I remember having to look up almost all of the evolution conditions for Sword and Shield. This time, however, I only looked up a few, and those cases were actually ones where I was doing the right thing but I just didn’t do it enough times. Most of them evolve from level up, and pretty early too. Unlike the usual throwaway early game Pokémon, a lot of these very quick evolutions are really good, including the new Wooper’s evolution. The only late boomer is—as tradition—the new Pseudo-Legendary. Fortunately, it’s no Hydreigon (and I hope nothing ever will be).

I always have to discuss the post-game last, because—well—it’s the last part of the game, and the post-game content of Pokémon is always VERY important. You start by fighting every Gym again (without having to take another test, thankfully), and they’re way harder. After that, you can unlock a boss gauntlet that refreshes daily. Once this is unlocked, beating enough 5-star difficulty Tera Raid battles will unlock EXTRA difficult battles indicated by black crystals; you WILL need a team of four human, M.L.G. gamers to take these on.. You can also catch a second instance of the box-art Legendary, which mainly serves to trade to someone who owns the other game and help complete each other’s Pokedexes.

Hey, that’s a perfect time to complain about Gen 9 not being Arceus! You don’t get the other box-art Legendary, you don’t get the other two Starters, you don’t get Link Cables… Nope, you’re back to completing the Pokédex the old fashion way: by—*gasp*—socializing with people, and hoping they like Pokémon (which is really hard for adults since a lot of them are still very harsh on the series). Boy… Arceus was really great.

With that little aside out of the way, there’s a bit of a caveat at this juncture. Every single time I think I’ve done all the post-game content, there’s something I miss and never find out about. This time, I’m dead certain that there’s more than what I wrote above. Scratch that, I KNOW there is because… sadly, I was spoiled of it in the thumbnail of one of Tom Fawkes’ stream VODs (however I still would’ve had a feeling based on the Scarlet Book (or presumably Violet Book?) containing Pokémon that you don’t see in the endgame). Anyway, as of this post’s publication, I have not started this remaining post-game content. I have a feeling that it might actually be an Oracle of Ages/Seasons situation where you need to beat both to unlock whatever this content is; if I’m right, then that’s just mean. If the prerequisite really has anything to do with playing the other game as well, then that would be kind of BS, since these are probably the longest main games in the series and I doubt a lot of adults would even have the time unless they were gamers by profession. Also, the target demographic—kids—would probably not be able to convince their parents to spend over $100USD on both games. Whatever it would’ve been, however, I would not want to discuss it due to spoilers, so it won’t change the review anyway. 

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Final Verdict: 9.35/10

Pokémon Scarlet, despite its ugliness and other issues, has perhaps been the greatest main series Pokémon experience I’ve ever had, at least since my nostalgic days of Black & White 2. It does a LOT right for the series, but sadly, I don’t think it’ll save Pokémon from its critics. People’s obsession with 8k 240fps graphics are already enough to give Gen 9 a bad reputation, but knowing the Pokémon fandom, they’ll take any flaw with these games and balloon them to make it sound like GameFreak are gaming blasphemers. In any case, I highly recommend you play at least one of these two games, provided that you are capable of enjoying Pokémon.

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.

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.

Spiritfarer: The Ultimate Casual Game

I’ve definitely been getting a bit more into indie games lately (mostly because they’re relatively cheap), but most of the ones I’ve played are very much in the raw gameplay category. Of course, indie games are just as well known for being more “video” than “game”; as in, they fall into the realm of artistic and emotional experiences that have definitely turned the meaning of the word “videogame” on its head. From Journey, to What Remains of Edith Finch, Gris, and more, a lot of these are highly acclaimed and have brought tons of gamers to tears. I’ve watched people play a lot of the aforementioned titles, mostly from StephenPlays and his wife, Mal. While those games definitely presented themselves really well, I never cried over them. And honestly, it does kind of make me self-deprecate when I’m literally watching people break down in sobs and I… don’t. Basically, the crux of this long-winded preface is me thinking “What if it’s because I’m not playing these games myself? What if I need to be the one moving the character and pushing the buttons and looking at them from my own TV?” This is what’s led me to trying one of the latest emotional indie games, Spiritfarer. Well, that and the fact that you get to construct a cool boat in it.

In Spiritfarer, a girl named Stella suddenly awakens in the River Styx (or something). This creepy hooded guy named Charon looms above her, and says that he’s retiring from his job as the Spiritfarer. Stella, and her cat Daffodil, are given Everlights, which make them the new Spiritfarers. Their task is to find any spirit who isn’t ready to pass on and help them to pass on (which, in terms of gameplay, is to spoil them rotten until they’re happy). When they’re ready, she is to take them to the Everdoor, where they will finally join Prince in the afterworld, a place of never-ending happiness, where the sun shines both day and night. 

Normally, I discuss story, gameplay, and audio-visuals in that order. However, because of how Spiritfarer is, I’m actually going to discuss it in reverse, mostly because I want you to writhe in suspense over whether or not I—as the heartless machine I am—cried over the game’s story. For reasons I’ll get to throughout the review, the gameplay and story rely on how the game looks and sounds.

At a glance, Spiritfarer seems just alright visually. Indie games with hand-drawn art styles are nothing new, and this one looks no better than an American graphic novel (and if you’ve read my review of The Witch Boy, you’ll know how much I don’t care for that artstyle). However, you can’t truly appreciate Spiritfarer’s visuals without actually playing the darn thing, and lemme tell you… this ended up being one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever looked at. The colors are striking and vibrant, with beautiful lighting effects. The character design is fantastic, with every person having a unique and creative look. What really surprised me was the animation. Like I said, games done in hand-drawn style are nothing new, but I daresay that Spiritfarer has phenomenal animation. They know that good animation comes down to subtle mannerisms and minute details. And despite being a silent protagonist, Stella dynamically reacts to dialogue, which helps make her feel alive as well. Word of warning, though. Remember how old videogames loved giving you seizures? Something similar occurs in this game during specific scenes, such as when you welcome a new character to your boat.

The soundtrack is just as deceptively fantastic. As one of the few people who actually loved Zelda Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack, Spiritfarer’s was just as enchanting. It’s super chill (except at certain points, which I’ll cover later) and soothing. But unlike Breath of the Wild with having one overworld theme and then the final dungeon theme, Spiritfarer has several different themes. Sometimes, I’ll play as inefficient as possible just as an excuse to chill (that, and the fact that I’m never efficient in these kinds of games).

Regardless of what I end up thinking of the story, what made me more invested than anything was Spiritfarer’s gameplay, which will be discussed at length. In essence, Spiritfarer plays like a 2-D Raft, where you collect resources through various methods in order to craft facilities and structures for your boat. The system is pretty simple and intuitive, and you can place buildings anywhere within your boat’s space, since it’ll auto-construct ladders. The tricky part, especially early-game, is wrestling with the boat’s size. The various facilities come in wild shapes and sizes, and it’s as fun as it is frustrating to try and clutter it all together. Fortunately, there is an edit feature where you can freely move the buildings without having to dismantle and rebuild them. 

There’s also plenty of upgrades for your rig. You can go to Al’s Shipyard to increase the boat’s size, unlock new facilities, and a host of other things. One of the best aspects of this is that your quest menu will actually list the next upgrades, showing you what you need without having to go to Al’s just because you forgot what was required. You can also upgrade individual facilities, but you need to unlock those upgrades as they come. Stella herself also has upgrades. You earn Obols as payment from newly welcomed spirits, and by donating those to various shrines found throughout the world, you can give her improved mobility and whatnot. It gives the game a sort of metroidvania vibe, even though it really isn’t. 

So how do you get resources? Well, the main way is to visit various islands. Your map starts out pretty small, but expands as you explore further. And while you could theoretically shoot in the dark for a new island (especially on repeat playthroughs if you know where they are), you can also receive quests and random messages in a bottle that will mark out those otherwise darkened areas. Like Wind Waker, your boat actually needs to sail to it. And honestly, I think the sailing in Spiritfarer is better than in Wind Waker by a long shot. Once you start getting new facilities, you can kill the long sailing times by doing tasks (more on that later), fishing, or just straight-up relaxing. The ship cannot move at night, but that can be remedied by going to bed. Just remember to ring the bell just outside of your room to wake your guests (and also remember to never ring it unless the time display on the HUD has the bell symbol, especially not while they’re supposed to be asleep). 

Also unlike Wind Waker, there are a lot of resource gathering areas that regularly respawn en route (although you can and should go out of your way for them if you don’t have a straight shot to your next island). THESE are where things get fun. Despite the game not having any stakes or feeling of death, these special respawning zones (with the exception of collecting drifting crates) make resource collecting fun and exhilarating. From jumping around to collide with space jellyfish that live in random rifts in space-time, to letting yourself get struck by lightning to capture it in empty bottles, Spiritfarer somehow makes an adrenaline-pumping experience even though you can’t die. The soundtrack ramps up during these sections to make it even more fun. One of the best parts is that despite how “casual” Spiritfarer is, you are still rewarded for having intrinsic platforming skills, since you get more resources that way.

That philosophy extends to the facilities in the boat. Normally, the loom or the furnace are used like normal crafting tables, except you sometimes have to wait a minute for results. Here, you have to make them yourself. From playing a rhythm game to speed up plant growth to precisely cutting logs into planks, there are different mechanics for making various resources. Again, you are not straight-up punished for doing bad, but doing good gets you a bonus increase in results. They really keep you busy while the boat is moving. If you can’t stand the long journey (or don’t have any speed upgrades), you can sail to a bus stop (once unlocked) to fast travel around the world.

Cooking is done really well in Spiritfarer. At first glance, it seems like the usual “put ingredients in, get a thing, and slam your head against the wall trying every possible combination in order to get all the recipes”, but it’s a bit more than that. One thing I learned was that you could insert up to five of the same ingredient to get five that dish at once with the cost of more cooking time. Furthermore, your kitchen is a deceptively good source of coal because the sawdust you obtain from cutting logs can be cooked into it. There are also treasures that contain recipes so you don’t always have to brute force them.

SO… all of that covers what you can do on your way to a given island. How about when you GET to an island?! Sadly, the islands are hit-or-miss. Some are just flat albeit lovely plains, while others have a fair share of nooks and crannies. In any case, you will regularly need to visit these places to replenish your basic resources. Fortunately, the preview of it on your map will indicate if resources have respawned, which is a really nice touch. 

As expected from a resource collecting game, the platinum trophy is tied to obtaining at least one of every item in the game. These are presented to a lovely walrus named Susan, who is probably one of the best collector-type characters I have seen in any videogame. At certain milestones, you will get some great rewards, so stop by often.

Anyway, I’ve just talked about the faring part of Spiritfarer for about ten years but not the spirit part. Basically, you find wayward souls on various islands. A lot of people are dead in this world (for some reason), but the ones you want will have a silhouette over their heads. When recruited, they will begin to make the ship their own. As previously discussed, you need to make them happy.

The main way of doing this is to complete quests. This ranges from building new facilities (like their own private quarters) to going to particular areas of story relevance to them. You also have to worry about their moods. You’ll have to feed them regularly, keeping their individual tastes in mind. One of my gripes with the game is that the feed menu itself doesn’t show you their preferences, but honestly you just need to regularly look at their favorites (in the Mood tab) BEFORE you select feed. Unfortunately, they also fail to show what you’ve fed them already, making it an incredible grind to find their favorite dish. As far as I know, there is no trophy for finding everyone’s favorite food (and if there was then I missed it).

You also need to make sure you talk to them whenever an exclamation point or a random text box appears. Usually, it’s just a reminder that they’re hungry or have a quest; but sometimes, you get random tidbits of their backstory. You should pay attention to what they say, because if they talk about an unpleasant memory, it will decrease their mood, and you should respond appropriately by giving them a hug (yes that’s a thing in this game).

So, we’re finally onto the story. The story that many have said is emotional, heart-rending, and powerful. I’ll admit that I was impressed. The writing is phenomenal, with a lot of dry humor that somehow fits in well with the more emotional stuff. All of the characters have basic personalities, but are given more life by the excellent writing and emotive expressions. The game is great at building anticipation for releasing them, and the actual cinematics when that happens are breathtaking. 

And yet, I didn’t shed a tear.

There are some reasons that can be blamed on the game. While the writing is really good, a lot of the more nuanced aspects of the spirits’ character arcs are very loose. Heck, you won’t even be explicitly told exactly how they died. Also, you could literally just be checking on them while you make your rounds, and they’ll suddenly be like: “Let me share with you this traumatic memory!” I tried to pay attention for the most part, but it’s hard to pay attention while you’re trying to make sure everyone (including assorted farm animals) are fed, your windmill is actually rotating, your plants are watered, while also squeezing time to smelt ores or use the loom. This game was something that had to be left up to interpretation, but the Lily Update that came out early 2021 straight up tells you Stella’s backstory and each spirit’s role in the overarching story.

However, the blame still rests on me, and it probably has to do with my autism. I say that the characters are loose and interpretive, but that could easily be my inability to understand people. There are some aspects of the brain that completely elude our best neurologists to this day, which are part of some sense of “understanding” that I do not have. Most neurotypical people can probably read the lines of these spirits as it is, and piece together exactly what happened to them—down to their cause of death—with no problem. In fact, based on one of the patch notes I read, the fans knew more about one character than the devs themselves! Honestly, I feel jealous. Games like this are part of why I question if I like having autism. 

Regardless of what the exact backstories of these characters are, with Spiritfarer being a slice-of-life, they’re all going to amount to being a normal, realistic, human issue of some kind. People and critics seem to think that those are the most objectively and unequivocally fascinating narrative themes, but I don’t. I suppose you can blame my autism again.

Also, my impression has sort of been colored by the content updates. It’s not really the content of the updates, but the fact that they were announced when I was in position to beat the game. Since I wanted to play those first, I ended up waiting months for them. And as a result, a lot of the plot was lost to me. My clearest memories are the above passages that you just read, written while they were fresh in my mind (this review, consequently, took over a year to write to completion).

Beyond all I’ve discussed, there are still a couple of flaws with Spiritfarer. It’s nothing game-breaking, but I don’t want to sound like that guy who glosses over issues just to sound “right”. First off, while the game appears to be pretty open world, progress is deceptively linear. Usually, these kinds of games gate you from certain progression by just not giving you certain resources, and having you craft what you can in order to gradually find those resources. Spiritfarer is a lot more strict than that. The resource collection events, such as lightning and stuff, are tied to a specific character, requiring you to have them on your boat before you can obtain the resource. Also, certain regions of the game are locked behind specific boat upgrades. Those upgrades require a Spirit Flower, which is only obtained by releasing a spirit, making the game even more linear. This also, sadly, can make you look forward to releasing a spirit, which kind of kills the emotional value of the sequences. Other than that, some chests require blind leaps of faith to reach. There’s no punishment for missing, of course, but the lack of bottomless pits doesn’t make that kind of level design any less annoying.

It also gets grindy if you go for the platinum trophy. Fishing isn’t too bad if you can find the optional upgrade that allows you to catch even the most difficult fish in less than a minute. The problem is the cooking. If you don’t look up all the recipes, you’ll end up brute-forcing a lot of them. While most items take any of a given type of food, some are more specific. It didn’t make the game fun anymore, so I just gave up on it. Oh well, like Hudson Hornet said: “It’s just an empty digital cup.”

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

Spiritfarer is one of the greatest casual gaming experiences of my life, and definitely one of my favorite indie games. It didn’t make me cry, but it’s something I will never forget. I’d try the other two games by this team, but they—in a stark contrast to this game—look rip-your-ass-off-difficult. Hopefully they’ll start working on a new project soon-ish? In any case, I recommend Spiritfarer if you like Stardew Valley and Edith Finch and stuff.