Categories
Gaming Reviews Switch

Review: Family Tree

Developer: Infinite States Games
Publisher: eastasiasoft
Genre: Puzzle, Platformer
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Rating: E for Everyone
Price: $7.99

A couple of years ago, I discovered an indie title called Rogue Aces—a rogue-like, WWII airplane game with addictive gameplay. As flooded as the Nintendo Switch eShop can get with hundreds of games released each month, this little gem became one of my favorite games of 2018. I eventually interacted with the developers over Twitter when I shared some gameplay clips of Rogue Aces and have been following their work since then.

Now, Infinite States Games is back with a unique puzzle game called Family Tree. Fall is a known busy season for gaming, and it can be easy for the work of small indie developers to fly under the radar. Maybe you just got your child a Nintendo Switch Lite for Christmas and can’t afford some of the more prominent first-party titles. At a budget price, Family Tree is a game that everyone can enjoy on that shiny new console.

Content Guide

Family Tree is rated “E for Everyone” by the ESRB. The antagonist of the game is a big skull that sucks in the Fruits Family’s children at the beginning of the game. Spend too much time on a level, and he shows up and causes the player to drop all of their collected items. During transition levels, players will have to run away from him as darkness and lighting begin to cover the level. A variety of enemies are also placed throughout the levels, such as a squirrel that throws nuts and piranha fish. The player does not take damage, but can lose their collected coins and fruits.

Review

Family Tree is a puzzle game that an audience of all ages can enjoy. It has a brightly colored art style, fun puzzle gameplay, and a catchy soundtrack. The premise is quickly set up once the game starts. Mr. and Mrs. Fruits tuck their kids into bed. Then, they all get captured by Pedro, the evil skull, and turned into real fruit, which leads Mr. Fruits to jump into action. The plot doesn’t make much sense, but also feels right out of a storybook. That is all there is to the story, but we don’t need much more than that.

The gameplay of Family Tree is a beautiful mix of puzzles, pinball, and platforming. Players can launch Mr. Fruits up in the air with the push of a button and use the stick to aim, with a line of trajectory to help with aim. The shoulder buttons are used for a short dash or hop for extra maneuvering assistance. Most of the levels are also vertical and have an end goal waiting at the top, hence the reason for the game being called Family Tree.

Each level includes various obstacles and enemies that players need to be aware of, including objects that help the player progress. My favorite objects in the game are the pinball-like bumpers and pots that work like barrels like the ones in Donkey Kong Country. The different kinds of enemies that appear to halt progress are block heads, squirrels that drop acorns, and flying piranha fish. Mr. Fruits doesn’t take damage from these foes, but can drop everything he’s holding if he is hit enough times. The gameplay becomes the most entertaining when entering an unstoppable flow through a level.

When jumping into a level, there are a few different objectives that can lead to a “perfect game” result at the end of a level. Players have the option to collect all the fruit and coins within a level, and won’t be penalized if a level is completed without doing so. The third is time based, meaning that Pedro, the evil skull, will show up if a player takes too long to complete a level. The one penalization comes from Pedro because he can cause you to drop everything to the bottom of the level. Completing a level as quickly as possible is the best way to handle that third objective, and it also encourages speedruns.

Progression is divided up into four seasons per year, with a total of 120 levels. My favorite aspect of the presentation is the change in aesthetic between each season. Spring and Summer are fun, but Fall and Winter are my personal favorites to look at. The change of scenery with each season makes Family Tree into a game you can boot up year-round, especially if you can’t wait for your favorite time of year or just need something to capture the feeling of whatever season you are currently in.

Between the many levels in Family Tree are what I’d consider the more challenging parts of the game. Between each season, players are thrown into transitional bonus stages different from the vertical setting of the main level. These stages move horizontally and share similarities with the auto-runner genre. Collecting is not the objective here as players must get to the end of the stage without being consumed by the storm of Pedro the skull. If you fall or fail, the stage starts over right away. What I enjoy most about these stages is that they bring the most tension that anyone can feel when playing this game.

In Family Tree, there is more to experience outside of the primary gameplay mode. Endless Climb is an alternative option and one that three other family members or friends can simultaneously play along. In this mode, the goal is to outlast your opponents since there is no finish line here. Players choose unlocked characters that we see from the main game and travel vertically via platforms as the challenge increases. Endless Climb has the potential to bring a barrel of laughs to the party, especially when more than two players are involved.

Family Tree has, overall, been a pleasing experience. This is one of the few games I’ve played that gives off an infectious feeling of comfort and joy. It was very easy to sit on the couch or lay in bed and binge a few levels. My one fear is that it may get repetitive for some players. The level design gets increasingly creative, but the gameplay doesn’t change very much. This will be a hard one for people to go back to when there are so many other video games out there.

At such a low price, I recommend supporting the developers and purchasing Family Tree. Its simplistic nature seems like the perfect game for very young kids to cut their teeth on before you have them playing some of the more advanced titles out there. It holds a style that beams with wholesomeness through the ever-changing seasons, and a game that I will be returning to whenever I’m feeling down and out.

Review copy generously provided by Infinite States Games and PR Hound.
Categories
Gaming PC

Review: MO—Astray

Developer: Archplay Inc.
Publisher: Rayark Inc.
Genre: Adventure, Platformer
Platforms: PC
Rating: n/a
Price: $14.99

Without giving away too many of my impressions in an introduction, MO: Astray is the remarkable product of a student project! According to the official website, the development team dubbed themselves Archplay in 2017, and created a graduation project called “MØ-Macrophages-.” Taiwanese developer Rayark came alongside Archplay as this graduation project would evolve over two years before it was re-titled MO: Astray. As the site describes, the trials that MO faces are analogous to those Archplay faced during the development cycle.

Content Guide

Though MO: Astray censors the four-letter words, until I took a look at my screenshots, I had forgotten that taking the Lord’s name in vain is “fair game.” Also, this is an example of MO taking possession of enemies.

The primary content concern in MO: Astray is that of violence. This game portrays scenes of humans transforming into feral, zombie-like creatures. Many of them, human and transformed alike, can be found maimed and driven on spikes. Along with humanoid alien creatures, they can also die via the activation of traps and automated guns. In one (very cool) sequence, a mecha mows down dozens of humanoids with gatling guns. Lastly, MO eventually gains the ability to explode heads while leaping from them; while players can avoid this throughout most of the game, one “boss” fight requires some mass murder to advance.

MO’s head-popping attack results in a lot of pixel blood and is on par with the worst of the game’s violent moments.

Review

Breaking through one realm into another.

Opening in a Limbo-like environment, the blob that the narrator later dubs “MO” slowly skips across the plane, absorbing the fruit energy from trees that bestow the organism’s physical features like eyes and a mouth. Soon after, the background cracks and shatters, bringing MO from purgatory into the reality of what appears to be a laboratory populated with hazards galore. A high-pitched internal voice goads MO onward.

On occasion, MO encounters a body to latch onto that will recall a memory. Here, some pestilence begins to infect the humans involved.

MO’s default ability to leap short distances and stick to walls and ceilings are central platforming features. As MO makes progress through the game, it will acquire some incremental upgrades used for plot discovery and traversal. The platforming talents are limited to a jump, a double jump, and a turbo jump that doubles as both a rapid advance as well as an attack.

Late-game, MO will have to use all of its skills to navigate rooms like these, including moving spike balls and platforms that disappear one second after being touched.

MO will also acquire the skill to leap on the heads of humanoids and control them so they can press buttons and pull levers to solve puzzles. Mean-spirited players can choose to kill by launching themselves from those heads, detonating them in the process. I say mean-spirited because exploding heads is avoidable, with the exception of a certain climactic trap room.

A story of war?

MO’s head-sticking ability allows it to read the thoughts of those it perches upon like a mask. This mounting is one of the primary ways players will learn  the lore that MO: Astray has to offer. However, because the game offers so much of its plot in segments, I struggled with making sense of it. A comic book with impressive artwork punctuates each of the game’s six chapters, but it concerns prequel story bits, the contents of which make me scratch my head even more. The best story bits come in the form of flashbacks from the rare glowing forehead. During these sequences, translucent illusions of people—and later, extraterrestrials—reenact the last time they were in that room, often depicting disastrous events. Among all the methods of conveying story in this game, I prefer these flashbacks.

I have some guesses as to what this is, but I do not know for sure, and that is frustrating.

As a platformer with puzzle rooms, MO: Astray offers rewarding experiences for conquering the challenges it poses. At first, the game begins with simple exercises such as leaping and sticking between insta-kill spikes and hanging from the ceiling while making angled jumps toward surfaces suspended over…more spikes. As the environments in MO: Astray transition from a science ship to a vegetated planet as players progress through the game, the insta-kill obstacles multiplay alongside the presence of hostiles who hate “Sky-People,” but inexplicably want MO dead, too. I appreciate Archplay’s dedication to providing different arenas besides a sterile laboratory; though I often dread aqueducts, MO surprisingly moves faster underwater, and is likewise aerodynamic when the game necessitates flight as a balloon and when—well, I do not want to say too much! These gameplay elements considered, MO: Astray is harder than Celeste, but  easier than Oddworld in terms of difficulty.

A macabre scene makes for a good aerial challenge.

I am always a fan of hand-drawn artwork, but not necessarily pixel art, because too many developers conflate the latter with retrograde effects that are often poorer than the capabilities of the old hardware that inspired their games. In other words, I tend to associate “pixel art” with poor, lazy rendering; that is not the case with MO: Astray, particularly because the size of the sprites mitigates the distortion of detail that usually accompanies pixel art. Archplay also implements HD textures for special occasions requiring large-scale encounters, making for a satisfying combination of artistry.

Someone is clearly a fan of Mad Max.

The most challenging part of MO: Astray is writing about it without giving away its revelations. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game so much that I lament that there are so few meticulously-balanced, industriously-rendered adventure platformer games. Also important to me is its favorable price-to-entertainment ratio, delivering ten fine hours of gameplay for fifteen dollars. I highly recommend MO: Astray as a 2019 holiday sleeper-hit.

Review copy generously provided by Rayark Inc.
Categories
Gaming PC Reviews

Review: Unheard

Developer: Next Studios

Publisher:​ Next Studios, Bilibili

Genre​: Detective

Platforms​: PC

Rating​: NA

Price​: $6.99

Most people love a good mystery because we are curious by nature. I grew up reading mystery books where the detective would survey the crime scene, interview the witnesses, and finally make his or her accusation of the criminal. Almost all the great detectives used their five senses to investigate the crime, but what if you could only use your hearing? How well do you think that you could pick up on what people say, or how people talk during the events leading up to a crime? Unheard by Next Studios presents us with a detective game where the only evidence the player has access to is audio recordings. The game asks the player to piece together the events leading up to a crime in order to solve it. Unheard is a masterful game that will have the player questioning everything they hear.

Content Guide

Unheard is about listening to characters speak to each other. There’s no visuals other than a map of the location where the investigation in taking place. Players will hear curse words such as the “F” word and the “S” word, and they will hear the sounds of violence when a character knocks out another character. The characters will also talk about adult themes like murder, blackmail, and drugs. I would recommend this game to older teens and adults.

The player interacting with the Acoustic Detection System.

Review

Have you ever been sitting in a restaurant and you wanted to know what the couple across the room was talking about, or maybe you have been at work and some co-workers are talking quietly while looking your way?Don’t you want to know what their saying? Unheard allows you to be a fly on the wall, overhearing conversations. There’s a catch, though, because this time you’re a detective who needs to piece together many different conversations in order to solve a mystery. That’s the hook that pulled me into the game when I first saw the trailer.

Over hearing an interrogation.

Learning the simple interface for the game takes no time at all. Each mystery takes place in a small building with several rooms, the view being from above. A small dark figure represents the player while the characters are represented by dotted circles. The characters don’t respond to the players presence because you’re listening to recordings. There’s a list of names of the characters in the scenario of which the player must match up to each of the dotted circles. The player can move from room to room as they please while they listen to the sounds of the event. A time track control along the bottom of the screen allows the player to fast forward and rewind the event in order to hear everything. In the end, the player must answer one or two questions to solve the mystery. These answers require understanding the whole event, because characters often have complex stories.

Investigating a art theft.

Unheard amazed and engrossed me the whole time I was playing the game. I spent at least an hour on each mystery, following characters around listening to them. The most helpful thing to do at the beginning was to label each of the characters. Figuring out someone’s identity just by listening to them talk took a lot of time. Sometimes, a character would identify themselves to other characters, but other times, I could only figure out the identity of characters after following others around the map. Someone might talk to an unlabeled person, then, in another conversation a few minutes later, casually throw out the unlabeled characters name. 

Investigation in a police station

Once I had labeled all the characters, then I could start to construct the event. A helpful feature the game provides is a note taking system. Each note can only be about ten words long, and the notes can be time stamped in the event. I found this system very helpful, especially in keeping track of specific character actions in the event. I could be standing in one room listening to two characters talk when a note appears that lets me know what other characters are doing in another room. Once the characters have been labeled, you can see them move around the building, but the player still won’t be able to hear anything they say or do.

Unheard relies heavily on the voice acting of characters to convey the emotions and intent of each character. The acting is adequate, but don’t expect award-winning acting. I never felt like the voice acting was taking me away from the story. I appreciated that the developer took time to craft the dialogue of each character, giving them a part in the story. As I moved on to other mysteries, I also found that characters would pop up again in another mystery later on in the game. 

Solving a crime

Graphically, the game layout is simple, but very effective. The dark figure that represents the player moves smoothly through the rooms. When I moved rooms I noticed that the sound could be heard three-dimensionally. Depending on where I stood in the room, I could hear the sound coming from different directions. Unheard encourages the player to play with headphones, which I also recommend. 

I found that my only complaint for Unheard was the length of the game. It took me about four hours to beat the game. The replayability of the game is low because there’s only one solution to the various mysteries. There are alternate endings, but that’s only for the last mystery. I enjoyed the storyline of the whole game, and I hope that there might be a sequel or DLC with new stories. 

Unheard is a fantastic game that gamers should try out. Using dialogue alone as the medium by which to tell a story was great. The mysteries were challenging and really engaged me. At only $6.99, Unheard should be in every gamer’s library. 

Categories
Gaming PS4 Reviews Switch

Review: Crystal Crisis

Developer: Nicalis
Publisher: Nicalis, Pikii
Genre: Puzzle
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PS4
Rating: E 10+
Price: $29.99

 

Nicalis is at it again, with their epic crossover universe and I have yet to figure out what to call it—NCEU? NCU? Well, I can work on that later, because I’m here to share my thoughts on Crystal Crysis. I had the opportunity to review Blade Strangers, their first crossover outing in which their characters battled one another in a 2-D fighting game. Many of these characters meet again, but in a much different form of combat. Crystal Crisis is a competitive puzzle game inspired by the likes of Puzzle Fighter. So, if fighting games aren’t for you, then matching colors and smashing gems might be.

Content Guide

Spiritual Themes: The story takes place around a powerful magical crystal that the characters are after. Some of the characters have a supernatural origin being that they are a zombie, a vampire, and a demon.

Violence: Crystal Crysis may be a puzzle game, but two opponents are still fighting one another in the center of the screen. As players work to clear blocks of colors, their character performs attacks against the other. Clearing blocks also pile them onto the opponent’s playing field, and they are defeated when those blocks reach to a certain height. When fighting, the characters will attack each other with weapons such as swords, guns, and more.

Sexual Content: Some of the characters wear outfits that reveal cleavage. One of them is Solange, from Code of Princess EX, who is infamous for her attire, or lack thereof.

Language: “Screw you” is the worst you’ll find here.

Review

In Crystal Crisis, universes collide once more while being drawn to a powerful crystal. The forces of evil want it for destruction, while a team of heroes aims to protect it. Nicalis continues to bring characters from their intellectual properties, but also more guest characters.  We have Astro Boy and Black Jack joining the roster from the Tezuka Productions animation company this time around. 

Instead of the 2D hand-drawn art style of Blade Strangers, Crystal Crisis goes 3-D with chibi-like characters.  I prefer the previous aesthetic, but the latter pays homage to the Puzzle Fighter series that the gameplay itself was inspired by. In browsing the Extras art gallery, I discovered that the character design is labeled “cutie” for this specific presentation. This art style is a fun direction that should be visually pleasing enough to get people of all ages into the action.

The competitive puzzle gameplay also seems reasonably accessible for all skill levels. The basic idea is to create blocks of colors as pieces fall and shatter them with a crystal of the same color. Clearing the clusters and executing combos creates timed garbage on the opponent’s playing field. That garbage changes into its respective colors after five turns so players can remove it. Each character also has individual offensive and defensive abilities that can be activated once enough meter is built up. The fun part about using these abilities can be whether you use them to save yourself from defeat or seal your victory against an opponent. 

I found some of these special moves to be very helpful in my victories. One of my favorite offensive abilities has Astro Boy shifting the opponent’s blocks to the right. It can throw off any plans they might have been putting together on the way down. One of my favorite defensive abilities is where Quote blasts away a large chunk of blocks on his playing field. Though simple, it became super useful in giving me some more space as I was on the verge of defeat.

Crystal Crysis uses the playing field more unique than I have seen other puzzle games do as well. Most in this genre limit movement within the left and right walls, but that isn’t the case here. You can divide your two colored blocks on either side of the field or take a shortcut to the opposite side. It makes some snap decisions much more manageable, instead of wasting time moving blocks from one side to the other.

Crystal Crisis‘ biggest failure is in what they call a colorblind mode. This option that is in the features list lets you choose a set of block colors based on the different characters. However, in many cases, some of the colors in a selection are quite similar to themselves. It can be especially hindering when I’m looking at the guidelines of where my blocks are going to land. Luckily, I did find a color set that ended up working for me, but it made the onboarding process rather cumbersome. The game also starts with an angled playing field by default. It is a unique effect, but you can turn it off and go back to the standard flat look that offers a more unobstructed view of the action.

If this game already sounds like it is up your alley, then let’s discuss the offering of gameplay modes. Allow me to begin with some bad news—the story mode is lackluster. It is told through ten matches, but feels more like a vignette of a potentially great story. The characters talk before and after fights, but there isn’t much between that other than Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) briefly setting the stage. Before some of the battles, you can choose which character to control. Sadly, it doesn’t affect the story in any way. This story mode left me wanting more—perhaps an anime adaption? Either way, it’s worth playing through to hear Peter Cullen speak who also narrates the game’s intro.

The rest of the game modes are fairly standard, and where you’ll get the most action. You can test your skills in an arcade mode with varying difficulties, survival mode, tag battle, and a few more that are unlockable. When those skills are ready to be tested, you can face off against other players online. The online features also include what comes standard, such as ranked, unranked, and private matches. Luckily, there are plenty of options beyond the short story mode.

Crystal Crisis includes a few fun extras that we don’t often get to see these days. The first being an art gallery; which is something I enjoy looking through when a game includes this kind of content. The other is a music player, although there weren’t any tracks that stood out to me. I like that the developers went the extra mile to include these even if more effort could’ve been in other areas.

Crystal Crysis is an entertaining spiritual successor, but this isn’t something I can recommend to everyone unless you are familiar with the genre. If so, then I would say it might be fun to play with your kids or young relatives. I ended up getting a good grasp of the mechanics, but there wasn’t enough for me to keep playing very long. However, Nicalis continues to impress with significant production quality for their second crossover. 

Categories
Gaming PlayStation VR PS4 Reviews

Review: Ghost Giant

Publisher: Zoink Games

Developer: Zoink Games

Rating: E for Everyone

Platforms: PSVR

Genre: Adventure, Puzzle

Price: $29.99

 

 

 

Ghost Giant has been one of my most anticipated PSVR games since it was announced at last years E3 conference. I must admit the wait has paid off. Zoink is the developer behind Ghost Giant, whose studio is located in Gothenburg, Sweden. While perhaps not a household name, Zoink has some award-winning games such as FE, STICK IT TO THE MAN, Zombie Vikings, and Flipping Death. Central to all Zoink games is innovative gameplay and a great story—Ghost Giant is no different. As I’ve said before, PSVR games need to be immersive and fun, like Moss or Astro Bot.  Thankfully, Ghost Giant meets those criteria. The game draws you in right from the opening scene where we meet Louis, a kitten who happens to be the main character, found crying by a body of water. 

Ghost Giant is available at North American retailers including Amazon, GameStop and Best Buy for $29.99

Content Guide

Ghost Giant is void of questionable content. If anything, it could work as a family bonding game where children can learn to depend on someone. This game also teaches players that anyone can be your friend, even if you are different. But the issues of depression and loneliness are addressed in an age-appropriate way.

Positive Themes: The game looks at depression, abandonment, and loneliness. For me, this deeply resonated, as I spent three months in a rehab hospital. The loneliness and depression could sometimes be and occasionally still is unbearable. I was around doctors and nurses all the time, but my wife and kids were three hours away. Like Louis, I became courageous and I depended on other people for help and comfort, put my faith in God, and made the best of a bad situation.

Review

The story behind Ghost Giant was written by Sara B. Elfgren. It’s a well-crafted emotional journey that takes place in a wonderfully-looking world. The characters look like Tearaway, LittleBigPlanet or even Yoshi’s Crafted World; like a diorama kids take to school for an assignment. If you’ve watched Dinner for Schmucks, the game reminds me of the scene where Steve Carell builds lifelike scenes with Calico Critter toys from Target.

Gameplay in Ghost Giant is quite enjoyable. The player controls the hands of the giant via PS Move controllers which means you can point pinch, push or poke as well as grasp, turn keys and pull or pick up items. There is light teleportation action when moving to new acts or areas of the story.  When Louis first meets the Giant, he is frightened because the giant unexpectedly pokes him. I also enjoyed that only Louis is able to see the Ghost Giant. In one part, I even pulled sunflowers out of a field for Louis.

Throughout the game, you help Louis by moving rocks, lowering bridges and other tasks to solve puzzles, as well as assisting the people of Sancourt that Louis encounters. In certain levels, there are basketballs and basketball hoops. Shooting some hoops makes for a fun mini-game in addition to the base-level puzzles. Throwing pinecones to knock over a bridge is fun and takes a little practice for depth. Throwing, poking or grabbing also surprises the other characters, which makes for funny interactions with supporting NPCs.

Even though the game and story are great, I found the move controllers and motion inputs to be frustrating. Immersion and seamless motion controls are a unique aspect and selling point of VR, so I wish developers would tighten up this facet in their games. I don’t want a Wii 3 or PS move 2.0; I want a new experience.

In Ghost Giant, I had issues with tracking and drifting. I was able to fix this issue by recalibrating my PSVR headset and move controllers. However, my session turned into a checklist of quick fixes. I wish that there was an option to use a DualShock 4 controller. At least in other VR titles I’ve played requiring Move, the DualShock was an optional controller. Since I now play one-handed, this would greatly aid in accessibility and enjoyment of games.

Review copy generously provided by Wonacott.