Super Mario Galaxy: Critical Miss #25

Shoot for the Golden Stars

I’ve always loved Mario games. From the colorful, cheery art styles to the depth of the movement mechanics to the sheer creativity displayed in the games, Mario is the undisputed king of video games. But there are still major gaps in my experiences with his games. I never had a Gamecube growing up so I missed out on Sunshine and The Thousand-Year Door until recently. While I had a Wii as a teenager, I didn’t really play it all that much. This means I also missed out on Super Mario Galaxy, the debut 3D Mario game on the system released in 2007, still widely considered to be one of the best games in the series, until the recent rerelease of the game in the Super Mario 3D Allstars on the Switch. 

The core game of Galaxy appears to be untouched with its port to the Switch, but what has changed are the controls. Since the game was made to be the marquee 3D Mario title of the Wii, Galaxy was designed to be a showcase of the new Wiimote and its features. The pointer was used to collect Star Bits, grab blue stars to pull Mario to them, and sometimes even an air horn looking fan that blows Mario in a bubble. Motion controls were utilized too, of course. Wagging the Wiimote made Mario do a spin attack and specific levels, like the manta ray racing and ball rolling levels, have unique controls that all involve twisting the Wiimote around. The Switch port allows the player to substitute the motion controls for standard button and analogue stick controls, but offers the player two options for how to control the pointer. In handheld mode, you use the Switch’s touch screen to guide the pointer. In menus or simpler levels, this works fine, but in long Pull Star sections, you will find your hand blocking most of the screen, making it impossible to see what’s coming up ahead. In docked mode with detached Joy Cons, you can use the right controller to aim the pointer and this is how I would recommend playing the game. Since the Joy Con uses gyro motion instead of infrared sensors like the Wiimote, you will have to recenter the pointer often, but this is easily done with a quick press of the R button and is never a hassle.

I wanted to mention the differences in controls because that’s the only major difference in the version of the game I played. Besides those, Super Mario Galaxy is the same game at its planetary core. After Bowser steals Peach along with her entire castle and a short tutorial level, Mario finds himself on the Planet Observatory, newcomer Rosalina’s intergalactic vessel. As a hub world, the Planet Observatory is not my favorite. There are nice aspects to it, like how more instruments get added to the theme that plays and the more livelier it feels as you progress through the game, and I appreciate how contained and focused it feels. However, there’s not much to do there—no secrets or extra levels to find and all rewards like extra lives are in plain sight. I think I would have preferred a simple level select or world map instead because the act of climbing all the way up the Observatory for late game levels takes a little too long, and that’s time taken out of playing the wonderful levels.

The incredible amount of creativity and variety on display in Super Mario Galaxy cannot be understated. There are forty-two levels in the game and, besides a few common themes and a few outright reskins near the end, each has mechanics and challenges differing from the rest. Sometimes you will be running under little planets as the camera tries to follow you. Other times you will be in a side scrolling type section with arrows on the walls dictating which direction gravity will pull you. There are launch star pieces to collect, blue switch pads to hit, lasers to avoid, cages to blow up with Bullet Bills, Star Bits to gather to feed to hungry Lumas for power up and additional routes in levels and even additional levels themselves! The whole game feels like you are a kid adrift in Toy Time Galaxy.

Forty-two levels is a massive increase to Mario 64’s fifteen stages and Sunshine’s nine (even Odyssey’s sixteen later), but there is the same amount of Stars to collect in all three games. This is because Galaxy’s levels are much smaller and usually more linear than the other 3D games in the series. Most levels have only three Stars to get with maybe a secret Star or Prankster Comet Star (a remixed challenge of a previous Star) to grab. This leads to the designs on the levels having a more mission based, get-to-point-B objective to them instead of 64 and Sunshine’s sandbox approach to level design. You see the Star’s location and a general route in the initial flyover of the level and then it’s just completing the challenges in the way to grab it. This would get repetitive having to do the same challenges three times, but luckily Galaxy’s levels have a lot of bits and pieces that are swapped in and out for different stars like building different things from the same set of Legos. It’s a little disappointing that players can’t decide or make their own path through levels like you can in other 3D Mario games, but with most of them being composed of small planets, with each having their own unique goal to accomplish, I understand why. The levels you create from hungry Luma’s themselves are just one-off challenges with a single Star to collect.

The whole game feels sadly limiting to the player—almost to the point where it feels more like a 2D game in the series as opposed to a 3D one. Mario has all his acrobatics of Super Mario 64 and that means a long list of moves that can be performed; the long jump, the triple long, slide somersault, and backflip are all tools like your plumber overall to pull out and use at any moment. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give you much reason to ever use them in creative ways. I didn’t see anywhere I could take a shortcut by making tricky jumps like in 64 or Sunshine or any hard to reach nooks hiding secrets and collectables like the later 3D World and Odyssey offered. I may have missed them since it was my first time playing the game and it didn’t rather bother me that much in the end. With level design this stellar, it is not actually much of a problem that they are more linear because they are still incredibly fun to go through, but it did clash with how I expect a 3D Mario game to feel and that it was a little jarring.

The more I played Galaxy, the more it struck me how much of a transitory game between the older sandbox designed games in the series like 64 and Sunshine and the more linear 3D games of 3D Land and 3D World that took inspiration from Mario’s 2D roots. Oddly enough, this thought came to me most when thinking about the power-ups in the game. There’s a good handful of power-ups on display in Galaxy—more so than any other 3D game of the series at that point. The Fire Flower makes its debut in 3D, the Ice Flower creates ice under Mario’s feet and lets him slide across water, Bee Mario can fly for a short time and climb on certain surfaces, Spring Mario hops everywhere and is terrible, and the spooky Boo Mario can become intangible to phase through walls. All these power-ups are great fun to use, so it’s disappointing that they are as situational as the power-ups in 64 and some F.L.U.D.D. upgrades in Sunshine. Most are on a timer (including the Fire Flower which has always been an upgrade until the player was hit) and are used for specific challenges that must be completed with them. There is no way to take a power-up from the level you find it in and bring it to another for creative and experimental uses like would be possible in 3D World, there didn’t seem to be any chances to even bring them to different parts of the level to find secrets like you can with the Captures in Odyssey—you have to use them only for the specific challenge right in front of you. I get having more limited challenges help curate a more focused game, but it led to a nagging sense of inorganicness in the back of my head.

These are the things that came to my head when sitting down to write this review—the more linear, but still incredibly designed, fun, and creative levels, the disappointing situational requirements of the power-ups that had so much more potential, and the lack of utilization of Mario’s acrobatic movement, his greatest feature. But none of this is a deal break at all. Super Mario Galaxy is still an incredibly fun and rewarding game and very much deserves to be played today. I won’t say that I wasn’t disappointed with it because I was, but only slightly. After years of hearing how it’s possibly the greatest game ever, after countless reviews lauding its praises, and after playing Super Mario Odyssey—easily the best Mario game to me and possibly even one of the best games Nintendo has ever made—Galaxy had no chance other than to disappoint do to my in the clouds expectations and that is not the game’s fault. That’s the poison of hype, folks: it leaves you satisfied with even the greatest of games.

Going Under & Weapon Durability

There are certain divisive mechanics or design choices in video games. These are things like escort missions, fetch quests, and grinding in RPGs—things that people either seem to absolutely despise, or it doesn’t bother them at all. The release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rekindled the fire of discussion around one such mechanic: weapon durability. Suddenly, the internet was aflame with debates of the merits, annoyances, and possible tweaks that could be made for breakable weapons in games. This discussion quickly spread from just Breath of the Wild and engulfed other games like the Witcher and Dark Souls series. I have to imagine the developers at Aggro Crab noticed these arguments burning up the internet and decided to double-down on the weapon durability mechanic because it is at the core of their recent game Going Under.

The game is a roguelite dungeon crawler that humorously mocks into late capitalism and startup culture with its story and characters while the combat is ripped right out of Breath of the Wild. There’s a variety of weapons that fall into a handful of attack patterns with swords and clubs swinging side to side, spears stab in a line, and heavy weapons slice in wide slow arcs or smash in front of the character. There are even ranged weapons with limited ammo, but they can be used for melee after all their shots have been used up and before they break. Every weapon is designed to break in Going Under and the player will have a lot of weapons break over the course of a run. Weapons break fast enough that you learn to never rely or expect any to last, but they last long enough to not be frustrating. Some people will get annoyed with the durability system, that is inevitable, but I think the designers at Aggro Crab did a fantastic job of tying pretty much every other aspect of the game in this mechanic.

The combat in Going Under has a hectic, chaotic energy to it thanks to the weapons breaking. If a weapon breaks in the middle of a fight, you have to decide whether to rush to grab another one, quickly switch to another weapon you’re holding, or finish the fight with your fists. You’ll find yourself constantly surveying the room you’re in for enemy attacks and weapons you could grab in the future all while dodging, attacking, and running around like an Amazon warehouse employee. Every weapon can be thrown too, meaning that if a weapon is close to breaking, you can use it for a bit of ranged damage by hurling it across a room. This is useful when you spot a weapon laying on a table or shelf you want to grab as you can position yourself next to it, chuck your old, busted weapon to create a moment, and then grab the next weapon and continue the battle.

Luckily, the rooms of the dungeons are small and confined. You have plenty of room to kite around enemies and avoid incoming attacks, but you will hardly ever be out of range of grabbing something, anything, that can be used as a weapon if your final one shatters in your hand before the room is cleared. The game has a sort of Dead Raising quality to it since pretty much everything can be used as a weapon. Chairs, pencils, swords, keyboards, even throw pillows can be grabbed and used to smack enemies around. And it is necessary to use everything you can get your hands on since weapons break so often, especially while fighting tankier enemies like the bosses.

As a general rule, I prefer boss fights to be one on one encounters. I like them to be big, imposing, and test my skills at the game. I’m always a little weary when a boss spawn basic mobs in the fight because it feels like a cheap way to complicate the fight instead of focusing on giving the boss tricky mechanics and harder to read attack patterns. This is obviously not a hardset rule, just a preference, since many games manage to design boss fights with basic minions in them too very well, and Going Under is one such game. Every boss in the game will occasionally summon mobs into the fight, but this is due to necessity. Bosses have long health bars and your weapons will break before you manage to chip it down completely. Having basic enemies spawn into the fight helps bring in new weapons to use once you defeat them. Sometimes beating the round of mobs will even summon a drone delivery, dropping off a box that can contain more weapons and even healing items.

As a roguelite, a big part of the appeal of Going Under is building a run as you explore a dungeon. Each floor has a room with a choice between skills you can equip, along with additional skills you can purchase from the shop or find in boxes that drop as you clear a room. These skills are all passive effects that range from changing the speed and damage of attack, acquiring and buffing enemies to fight with you, setting fire or freezing enemies under certain conditions. No skill actually affects the durability of weapons used in battles in the dungeon, which was disappointing at first. Then I realized the run building aspect of the game comes from the moment to moment gameplay and decision making with weapons to use then acquiring skills themselves.

There is something satisfying in the roguelike/lite genre when making a run work when the game seems to be working against you—not giving you useful upgrades or skill, nothing really tying anything together to build synergies between what you are handed. This can be frustrating in games like The Binding of Isaac or Slay the Spire where the best way to victory is creating a build as you play, but Going Under is more akin to Enter the Gungeon, where the passive skills and upgrades you get are secondary to the weapons you find. It goes back to the idea that during combat you will find yourself scanning the room for future weapons you may need. You will most likely acquire a preference for certain weapon types—for me, it was one or two handed weapons that attacked in a sweeping motion—but you can never rely on having those weapons available to use. So sometimes you will have to make do with what you can grab and this is where the run building aspect of Going Under lies for me—making use of weapons you may not like or know well, trying to ensure you keep as many good weapons you do like on hand at any giving time, and just making what you can get work no matter what. It adds a level of improvisation and strategy to the chaotic battles in the dungeons of the failed startups.

When Breath of the Wild released, I remember a lot of discussion about how the game needed a system or some way you could repair damaged weapons you liked so you could choose how long to keep them and when to toss them out. While the weapon durability mechanic in the game bothered me really, I agree with this idea. As a huge open world adventure, I think this would be a great way to add an RPG character building feel to Breath of the Wild and could be used as a way to reward players’ exploration. For a while, I thought Going Under was missing an opportunity to have a similar sort of mechanic in the game, either by a shop or consumable item that could repair your weapons or skills that could affect the durability of them. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was not necessary for Going Under and would possibly undercut the entire design of the game. Everything in the game, from level design to combat, is built around the weapon durability mechanic. Taking that out takes away all of the game’s uniqueness and charm.

Super Mario Odyssey & Player Rewards

When I was fourteen, I got my first Nintendo DS. Along with it came a copy of Super Mario 64 DS. I didn’t know at the time that it was a port of an Nintendo 64 game, I didn’t even know what the term “port” meant in that context, nor did I care. Super Mario 64 is such a great game, it didn’t matter that it was clunkier to control with the d-pad, I fell in love with it. It was one of the first moments I can remember of realizing games can be something truly special. And, much like how they revolutionized 3D games with Super Mario 64, Nintendo would completely rewrite the script on 3D platformers again over 20 years later with Super Mario Odyssey.

Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal game. It’s easily my favorite Mario game and probably sits in my top 10 games of all time. Recently, I played through the entire game again and I was constantly reminded of how good it is, how impeccably designed, how fun to play, how satisfying it is. And it is that one aspect that piqued my interest in my last playthrough: satisfaction. A common complaint I’ve seen against Odyssey is that there are too many Moons and players can collect them so often that they lose their value and stop feeling special. I’ve never felt this way and, in fact, feel that this complaint ties directly into the main design of the game. Odyssey constantly awards players’ curiosity and exploration to give them a sense of fun and satisfaction.

There are many ways to reward players: experience points for levels, skill points for unlocks, leader boards for competitive games. Being a 3D collectathon, Super Mario Odyssey rewards players with collectibles. Be it coins, purple tokens, or Power Moons, every level of Odyssey is filled to the brim with things to grab and collect. Besides collectibles, the levels are just full of stuff in general. It has some of the most densely packed level design I’ve ever seen but, thanks to the standard Nintendo polish, the worlds you explore never feel cluttered or sloppy. 

The collectables are the main tool the designers push players to explore the levels thoroughly and challenge themselves to find everything because they are actually worth something in Odyssey. In Super Mario 64, Power Stars were collected to unlock new levels and coins are only collected to restore health and get certain Stars. While the Power Moons in Odyssey only unlock progress, similar to 64’s Stars, coins have much more importance. Along with the purple tokens, which are needed to purchase level specific souvenirs and stickers for Mario’s ship, the Odyssey, coins can be used to purchase new outfits in the shop. This is so highly incentivized that upon death, the player doesn’t lose a life, but a handful of coins. The outfits, souvenirs, and stickers don’t actually have any gameplay effects, but they are still strangely addicting to collect. They add so much charm to the game—especially the outfits which can be mixed and matched to make Mario look utterly ridiculous. 

Even the enemies work as collectibles in a way. Mario can possess certain enemies by throwing his cap onto them and there is a whole bestiary-like list of all of them in the game. When possessing an enemy, the player has access to their special abilities. This replaces the standard power ups of a Mario game, but the creativity and variety enemy possession offers is unparalleled. The first thing in the game I wanted to complete was the enemy list because they were so much fun to control. It is always exciting in the game to stumble upon a new enemy and throw your cap at it for the first time, to see what new moves it’ll have and how it will open up the world around you.

So the designers fill a level with Power Moons, coins, purple trinkets, and enemies to play with and drop the player in the middle of it. The first time in the level, there will be an objective to complete but how you get there and how long it takes is up to the player. It’s tough to go from point A to B when there is a playground of things to do, collectables to be grabbed, and fun to be had in between. The designers know this too and smartly do not discourage players from going off the critical path. In fact, they encourage it. They use collectibles to catch the player’s eye and lead them to different areas. They use landmarks in the distance to keep pushing players forward. Finally, when a player fully understands Mario’s special jumps and movement abilities, they tease players with areas that seem to be out of reach.

Some of the best moments in the game are when you see a ledge that is slightly too high to jump to or an area just out of reach and think to yourself ‘I can get up there.’ So after a series of wall jumps, air dives, and cap bounces, you make it some place you’re seemingly not supposed to access and there is always something there for you. Sometimes it’s a secret Power Moon, but usually it’s just coins. But that’s ok because it feels like a wink from the developer, it feels like an in-joke between you and them and they are congratulating you. There is a staggering amount of depth to the movement options in the game and it feels good to accomplish a tricky jump to an area that seems like it would have been forgotten by the developers only to be rewarded. 

Collecting these Power Moon, coins, and outfits never stops feeling satisfying. It preys on the part of the human brain that likes feeling they’ve accomplished a task, no matter how simple, the part that likes filling out checklists and seeing things tidy and complete. It’s the same part of the brain that the game industry preys upon with loot boxes and limited time character skins. But this satisfying feeling is used for good instead of evil in Super Mario Odyssey because it requires nothing from the player besides skill and patience, no additional money or microtransactions, and I believe that makes it even more satisfying. 

It’s truly amazing how Ninendo can create seminal, groundbreaking games time and time again. But it’s not really surprising when you consider the attention to detail and focus they put into their games. Nintendo’s policy has always been to put fun first and that shines clear in Super Mario Odyssey in how they constantly reward the players’ curiosity. They provide playgrounds just begging to be explored and cover them with things for the player to find so there is no moment lacking satisfaction. This is why I seriously consider Super Mario Odyssey one of the most fun games to simply play.

Pokémon & the Nuzlocke Challenge

If I had to choose a video game series as my all time favorite, I would have to choose Pokémon. I started playing the series when I was 8 years old and even though I skipped the 4th and 5 generation, I’ve been back in the series strong since X & Y. I love this series, but I’ll be the first to admit the games are all generally the same. The core gameplay loop of collecting Pokémon to train them and build a strong team is so solid and fun that the sameness doesn’t bother me. It also helps that the games are built to be simple on the surface, but deep and complex for people willing to put in the time to EV train and breed perfect Pokémon. I’ve never gotten into any of that, but I do enjoy a good Nuzlocke run to add a little difficulty and tension to a playthrough.

A Nuzlocke mode is meant to make a playthrough of any Pokémon game more challenging by adding some restrictions to play. There are three main rules to a Nuzlocke challenge:

  1. You can only catch the first Pokémon you meet on a new route or area (cave, forest, etc.). If you fail to catch that Pokémon, you can not catch another one for that area.
  2. If a Pokémon faints, it is considered dead and must be released, never to be used again.
  3. Every Pokémon you catch must be nicknamed.

Due to these restrictions, it is actually possible to get a game over in a Pokémon game if you have a team wipe and have no more backup Pokémon to use in battle. Other rules can be applied to main ones too, like only using Pokémon Centers a limited number of times or not at all. I play my Nuzlocke runs with two additional rules being no healing items in battles and no catching duplicate Pokémon. Adding a little more difficulty to a game series I know like the back of my hand was the main reason I decided to do my first ever Nuzlocke run with LeafGreen. The reason I ended up loving the format, however, was because of how it recontextualized the entire game and made me appreciate the series on a deeper level.

When you first wander out into the Pokémon world, be it Kanto, Johto, Galar, or any other region, there is an excitement to every new route. Playing the game regularly, you can catch as many Pokémon as you’d like, but in a Nuzlocke the first Pokémon to appear will be your new friend and teammate. It’s the same type of excitement one gets from opening booster packs of trading cards. You might get a rare pull like a 4% chance to spawn a Ralts, or just another Rattata. But this randomness also forces players to build usual teams and use Pokémon they may have overlooked in the past. For my most recent Nuzlocke, I played Pokémon Sword and caught a Vanillite early on. I would never have thought to put one on my team before because I always prefer dual-type Pokémon, but my Vanillite, named Minnesota, became a staple of my team. They were with me from the first gym all the way to defeating the champion. 

The rule forcing players to nickname their Pokémon also helps deepen the affection felt towards them. It wasn’t just any Vanillite fighting, it was my Minnesota. The nicknames help differentiate them from other Pokémon and lets the player create little personalities for them too. I had a Mudsdale named Pokey and they were an absolute beast. With high attack and defense, they could dish out pain and take it in turn, especially with their ability Stamina, which raised their defense everytime they took damage. They were the wall that I depended on in so many battles and they couldn’t be stopped. At least until we came across a Durant with Guillotine, a 1 hit KO move with a 30% hit rate. One unlucky role of the dice later and my Pokey was gone.

It can be absolutely heartbreaking to lose a Pokémon in a Nuzlocke challenge. To prevent this, you will have to fight hard and get creative. Even though you have little control over what Pokémon you are able to catch, you do options of what moves they can learn. One of the best things that the later games in the series did was make TMs (items that allow you to teach a Pokémon a certain move instantly) reusable. This allows the player to experiment with the moveset of a Pokémon because they don’t have to worry about wasting the TM on the wrong Pokémon, or, in the case of a Nuzlocke run, one that dies later one.

Experimentation and type coverage with moves is crucial in a Nuzlocke challenge where you may not be able to craft your team to cover all 18 different types effectively. It becomes quickly apparent that doing super effective damage is better than STAB (Same Type Attack Bonus) damage. If you can’t knock an opposing Pokémon down quickly, it just gives it more time to do damage and possibly surprise you with a super effective attack that you may not have seen coming. During my last Nuzlocke, I had a Perrserker named Randy Moss that I taught Thunder to for water and flying coverage. It was a weird choice and one I would never have thought of unless I had to find a way to deal with gaps in my team composition. 

While there is always some strategy involved in Pokémon, when you turn each batte into a life or death struggle, you have to think much harder about your decisions. I went into the championship with only four Pokémon: a Haxorus named Battleaxe, a Golisopod named Wimberdon, a Musharna named Piglett, and my Vanilluxe, Minnesota. All I remembered about the finals from my previous playthrough was the dragon leader had a pain-in-ass steel/dragon type Duraludon and that Leon had a rather scary Charizard. So I had to get creative again. Wimberdon was given Brick Break to contend with the Duraludon and Battleaxe learned Rock Throw to help deal with Leon’s Charizard. I knew that the dragon leader’s Pokémon revolved around changing the weather to benefit his team, so I used Vanilluxe’s ability Snow Warning and the attack Hail to keep the weather tilted out of his favor. This also gave Vanilluxe’s strongest attack, Blizzard, a 100% hit rate instead of 70%.

These examples are why I enjoy the Nuzlocke format of playing Pokémon so much. I have always loved the series, but I learn more about its complexities with each different Nuzlocke run. First, I learned the type advantages beyond the basic fire beats grass which beats water. Next, I learned the real difference between basic and special attack/defense and which Pokémon should specialize in which. Then there was changing up moveset for type coverage, different strategies for dealing with tricky opponents, and deeper and deeper Scorbunny hole goes

I cannot stress enough how much I love this method of playing Pokémon. The Nuzlocke challenge changes a simple and already immensely fun series into a nail-biting endeavour for veteran players with higher stakes, more to gamble with risky plays, and an emotional investment in the little creatures battling for you, with a razor’s edge between crushing defeat and soaring victories. It is a great way to explore the depths of the Pokémon series. If you are like me and are beyond a casual player of the series but not interested in breeding and training a competitive team, I highly suggest giving a Nuzlocke run a try and see what new it teaches you. Just don’t come crying to me when you lose your favorite Pokémon.

Devil May Cry & Devil May Cry 3 – Critical Miss #16

Dude Bro Bayonetta 3

When Devil May Cry launched early in the Playstation 2’s life in 2001, it spear-headed a new genre of game often referred to as character action or spectacle fighter games. This genre would be popular throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s with the God of War series, the reboot of Ninja Gaiden, and Bayonetta. Actually, both the original Devil May Cry and Bayonetta were directed by Hideki Kamiya, now with Platinum Games. Devil May Cry gained major critical acclaim when released, with journalists and fans alike praising it’s combat, sense of style and atmosphere, and the character of Dante. I skipped Devil May Cry 2 because is is widely considered by fans to be the worst game in the series. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening improves not only on 2, but the original Devil May Cry, and is my preferred game of the two.

A spectacle fighter lives or dies on it’s combat and the fighting mechanics in the Devil May Cry is really solid. Balancing melee and ranged attacks in a battle is fluid and invigorating. The stylish system, a combo rating  from D to S rank in the original and D to SSS rank in 3, rewards players with more red orbs to buy upgrades and items the better they play. But the combat in the original Devil May Cry gets repetitive quickly. One button is used for melee attacks and one for ranged, with combos changing depending on where you pause in a series of button presses. While it’s fun to cut through a group of enemies and keep the stylish gauge high by pelting baddies with bullets between combos, the simple controls of the original ends up relying too much on button mashing.

Devil May Cry 3 introduces different styles of combat that players can choose and swap at golden statues. There are styles like Swordmaster, which offers more moves to perform with melee weapons, Doppelganger, which lets players summon a mirror double of Dante, and my personal favorite, Trickster, which gives you a dash ability. The simple addition of the different styles makes combat feel so much more open for experimentation and personal. Players can find their own preferred playstyle and cater to it or even switch it up if they get bored. The combo meter is also much easier to read in Dante’s Awakening. All they added was a little line under the style gauge to show when it is filling up or draining, but it makes a world of difference. Now players can see what contributes to getting a good rank (constant damage to enemies, using a variety of attacks, etc.) and work with it to get better ranks.

But better combat isn’t the only reason I prefer Dante’s Awakening to the first Devil May Cry. The truth is I found the first game to be very tedious, with combat, with level design, and with enemies. The moment I realized I had enough of Devil May Cry was the third time I had to fight the armored goo boss. That was my experience with the bosses in the first game. There are about four bosses that you fight two to three times each. Dante’s Awakening has about three times the bosses and, besides Vergil and a short boss rush mission near the end of the game, there are no repeats. Nothing saps my excitement for a game quite like a lack of enemy variety. Neither of the games have the best variety in terms of basic mobs (the enemies you fight on the first level will be in the last level to mow down), but Dante’s Awakening gets the edge over the original by having slightly more variety and not repeating bosses.

Of course, one doesn’t stop playing a game because the bosses aren’t great. I don’t stop playing games for one glaring issue unless I haven’t been fully enjoying the rest of it and there are other reasons I found Devil May Cry tedious. The biggest reason is actually the level design. Throughout the first game, you explore a single castle, backtracking constantly through the same rooms and hallways, only interrupted with platforming sections made extremely frustrating with the fixed camera. The atmosphere on display in the game is rich and imposing, but it lacks variety or new, interesting set pieces to keep the player moving forward to see what’s next and ends up feeling as repetitive as the combat. Traveling through the same rooms is still common in Dante’s Awakening, but it’s improved by having a larger tower to explore, more variety in the rooms in regards to layouts and looks, and by changing the rooms up slightly halfway through the game when parts of the tower are destroyed. 

It’s not surprising that Devil May Cry spawned out of a failed prototype of Resident Evil 4 when you look at the Gothic art direction, fixed camera design, and the characters of Leon Kennedy and Dante. They are very similar, both cocksured and dripping with B-movie bravado, but Dante would only surpass Leon in utter cocky dudebro-ness in Devil May Cry 3. The story of the first game is rather plain, someone is trying to open a get to the demon world, go stop them. And, honestly, the story of the third game is no different, but it gains much more enjoyment by cranking the ridiculousness and self awareness to outrageous degrees. While the first games cut scenes are fairly campy, there aren’t any moments that stick out in my head. Dante’s Awakening is full of memorable story moments like Dante riding a motorcycle up the wall of the tower then using said motorcycle to fight off enemies midair and him saving Lady from falling only to be shot in the head. If Devil May Cry had as ridiculous and enjoyable cutscenes as the third games, I would have kept playing just to see what happens next.

That’s the real difference between the two games. While Dante’s Awakening is filled with interesting ideas and story moments, the original Devil May Cry feels like it only had enough ideas for a game half its length so the developers just doubled everything. Neither games are bad, but the third game is infinitely more fun, interesting, and better aged than its predecessor. If you are interested in the series, or action games in general, I highly suggest giving Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening a try. It’s on the right side of the PS2’s lifespan where games were starting to form designs more familiar with games today. Unfortunately, the original Devil May Cry is on the more archaic side of history.

Into the Breach & Enemy Intentions

Tactic games have been around for about as long as video games have existed. They are a great way to visualize battles between two groups of characters while making it easy for the player to understand. They are also a genre of game that I always want to play more of, but am hesitant to because I am so awful at them. Even as a child playing chess, the concept of trying to predict an opponent’s next move was completely foreign to me. It’s no wonder then that my favorite tactics game is Subset Game’s Into the Breach, who’s major mechanic is showing the player the enemies’ intents during battle. At first, this feature seems to be just a unique selling point for the game, but is actually the most ingenious aspect of the game and the most important crux the game revolves around.

Into the Breach is a teeny tiny tactics game where battles take place on an 8×8 isometric grid littered with buildings, enemies, differing landscapes, and your mechs. Everything is laid out in easy to read squares and the bright pixel art, along with the bold outlines, gives the game an almost cute diorama look. Battles only last for five turns, after which all surviving enemies, giant insects called Veks, retreat back into the Earth where they spawned. This means that unlike Fire Emblem or Advance War style games, victory isn’t based on defeating the enemies. Grid defense is the life blood of a campaign. If it drops to zero, it’s game over. You can have up to eight grid defense points and will lose one each time a building is destroyed. This makes protecting buildings and the citizens inside them the number one priority to consider in a battle.

While the game is turned base, it changes things by having the enemies take two turns and the player acting in between them. During their first turn, the giant insects will swarm to position to attack a building or unit, indicating their plans with an attack trail and red box with what will be hit. It is only during their second turn, however, when the enemies will act out their intentions to attack. This means the player’s turn is dedicated to preventing damage, be it by moving units out of harm’s way, blocking attacks to building, moving enemies so their attacks miss, or just killing enemies. This gives the game its unique edge and reinforces the importance of protecting buildings.

Since missions have differing objectives, like blocking enemies from spawning or destroying mountains, to gain resources, it varies what is most important to do on a turn, but the grid defense meter is the only consistent element throughout a campaign. Mechs automatically heal in between missions, but pilots will die if they are in a mech that’s destroyed. This isn’t as big of a deal as it seems at first. If mech doesn’t have a pilot to control it, it simply gains an AI pilot, with the only drawback being that they do not gain experience and level up to acquire passive benefits. This makes a mech’s health and pilot’s life a resource that needs to be considered in battle. Every move has to be judged on a case by case basis, but it’s almost always best to take some damage to a mech to save a building. 

So without showing the enemies’s intentions, it would be impossible for the players to make the decisions the game is built around. Battles can often feel like a resource management game, taking into account grid defense, mech health, actions available, and the enemy turn order to help decide the best move. Sometimes it’s best to lose a building if there is more grid power available on the island and you can focus on killing some enemies to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed on the next turn. For players like me, who often have difficulty anticipating opponents’ moves in games like XCOM, Fire Emblem, and even chess, Into the Breach is a great tactics game to cut your teeth on. Having a clear indicator from the enemies of where they are attacking and what you have to lose if you don’t act correctly is a great way to give every decision weight. 

Most of the attacks a mech can do in game have a secondary effect of moving an enemy to the next tile. This will disrupt their plan of attack because the Fireflies can’t shoot a building if another enemy is blocking them and a Scorpion can’t hit a unit with its melee attack if they’ve been pushed away. This encourages the player to experiment with attacks and how they can affect both enemies and allies alike. You’ll feel like a genius the first time you move an enemy onto a spawn tile for them to block the next turn and die in the process or use an attack to push an Vek away from a building and an ally just in range to attack. Moving enemies can also be touchy though. Sometimes attacking an enemy moves them into place to strike a building. This can lead to turns where it may be impossible to come out of without losing a mech pilot or a building. I’ve seen people say this is unfair but I disagree.

Into the Breach is a tactics game, not a puzzle game, which means there isn’t always a perfect solution to every turn. While a lot of pain can be taken care of through killing or blocking enemies from spawning, as a battle goes on, you will probably be overwhelmed with more enemies than can be comfortably dealt with. This is where reading the Vek’s intents is most important, to see which attacks are nonconcerns once you move a unit, which attacks can be cancelled by moving or killing enemies, and which ones can be blocked by a mech. Some turns, however, cannot be dealt with without losing a building or pilot’s life, turning them into plans to mitigate the most amount of damage. This gives the player’s choices meaning in the game because a planned loss of grid defense or pilot can be accounted for, while unexpected loss is much more difficult to come back from. 

I have an incredible amount of respect for Into the Breach. It’s not a game I play too often, but it’s one of those games that, when I do pick it up, I get sucked in for hours and it’s all I want to play for a week. The game’s small battles and relative short campaign lengths give it the perfect “just one more round” quality.  It’s an extremely clever and smartly designed game and stands out in a sea of tactics games by the simple addition of displaying enemy intentions. Everything in the game revolves around the mechanic and helps the player feel like the hero that has to weigh their own wellbeing for the good of the world.

Super Metroid – Critical Miss #15

Lost in Space

Getting lost in a video game is quite the balancing act for designers of adventure games. If a game is too linear, it can feel stifling and corridor-like, but if a game is too open, it can feel directionless and obtuse. Some game genres thrive on letting the players get lost and figure things out for themselves, mostly notably sandbox games and Metroidvanias. The term Metroidvania came to be after the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which had a world design and map strikingly similar to the Metroid series, especially the third game, Super Metroid, released in 1994. I enjoy the Metroidvania genre but had never actually played a Metroid game before. So to cut my teeth on the series, I decided to play the SNES classic.

A Metroidvania survives on the strength of its exploration and Super Metroid’s world seems deceptively small at first. When you find a map terminal, it only reveals a small portion of the surrounding area. It’s only after exploring the rooms, poking and bombing around for secret holes in the walls, that you see the true expanse of the map. The levels expand out like a spider web with hallways, vertical shafts, and rooms connecting and weaving together. The world is sectioned off into distinct biomes and interconnect throughout the game. With power-ups and missile increases hiding everywhere, you are incentivized to search every nook and cranny of the map.

Many of the power ups you’ll find often aid with the exploration. The high jump boots and space jump let you reach higher ground then before, the grapple beam lets you grab onto and swing from certain blocks scattered around the planet, and the ice beam lets you freeze enemies, turning them into platforms. Missiles and bombs work as a means to open up certain colored doors for progression. I’ve always preferred how Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Hollow Knight upgrades were changes in movement abilities like double jumps, wall jumps, and dashes. These allow the game world to feel more real, like a place that might actually exist, as opposed to something constructed solely to block passage until the right upgrade is found. Obviously, the upgrades don’t change the fact that the game is constructed and might block the player in order to guide them, but later games like Hollow Knight hide that fact much better than Super Metroid with its more organic exploration.

With constant exploration, you should be finding power ups at a very consistent rate and it does work to give the player a sense of growth throughout the game. Watching your health or max missiles increase helps the player feel better suited for the increasing challenge of the game; it empowers them. The game is great about helping the player figure out what a new power up does immediately after acquiring it. If it’s a movement ability like the grapple beam, it will be found in a room where you must use it to get out, and this lets the player think back on all the other areas it can be used. If it’s a weapon like the plasma beam, there are typically enemies you must get past that are much easier to kill with the new weapon.

It is on these small scales, the rooms with power-up designed to teach the player their uses, where the level design of Super Metroid is genius. With the minor annoyance of progress being locked behind boring colored doors, the world crafted in the beginning of the game is spectacular. The game does a lot to lead the player. Signposting boss entrances with monster heads and important areas with interesting landmarks helps the player remember parts of the map to return to later. The game actually feels rather linear in the beginning, where there is usually only one way to go without hitting a dead end. But Metroidvania games need to be open and the game soon flings wide open when you have acquired the high jump boots, ice beam, and super bombs. Sadly, as the game world becomes more open and explorable, I feel it also starts to collapse under its own weight. There is one moment in the game I can point to when this feeling cemented itself in my head and that’s when you acquire the X-ray scope.

With the X-ray scope, you have the power to shine a light on any surface of the game and reveal its secrets. Destructible blocks, hidden passages, missile upgrades and health tanks, you can now find them easily. This leads to the main area explored after finding the scope, Maridia, being plagued by seemingly dead ends and secret passages that either need to be found with X-ray scope or by blasting every tile with every weapon you have. The later part of the game feels like the developers either came up with the idea for the X-ray scope and felt justified hiding all progression from the player because they have the tool to find it, or that they built the levels with too many hidden passages and added the scope so it wouldn’t feel unfair. Either way, it doesn’t work because the X-ray scope is just too slow to use constantly. The game pauses around you while you use it and you can move with it activated, but the beam is slow and finnicking to direct. I’m sure it was the best they could do with the SNES hardware and controller, but it kills the pace. It’s a shame too because Super Metroid is a very fast paced game when you get into it.

And I did get into the game. Even while all my frustrations were mounting with the game as it went on, I wanted to keep playing. I found it very hard to put down because it was so satisfying and immersive. Part of it was due to my love of 16-bit games, but mostly I kept playing because Super Metroid has some of the best atmosphere on the SNES.

It’s hard to find a 16 bit game that is truly immersive, that makes you feel like you are in the world displayed on the screen, but Super Metroid accomplishes it with atmosphere, through incredible sound design and pixel art. One of the first things I noticed when turning on the game, is the sound effects all sounding muffled. Samus’s footsteps, her blaster, the cries of enemies, they are all slightly dampened, like they are being heard through a helmet. Explosions are crunchy, but soft, as if you were hearing them with Samus’s ears through the metal of her power suit. The world you explore is always interesting to look at. While Super Metroid doesn’t have the best pixel art I’ve seen on the system, the different biomes are lovely rendered with fitting color palettes and interesting backgrounds.The boss sprites are large and intimidating. The whole thing helps the player feel completely isolated in the game.

The atmosphere of Super Metroid is one of loneliness and bleakness. You truly feel that you are in Samus’s shoe, fighting for her life. You feel her anxiety when exploring an unknown area and her triumph when defeating a tough boss. I think that is why Samus, despite being a silent character in a relatively small number of games, is so beloved. People praise her for her bravery and for being “badass,” but she has no real character. Mario has more character than she does. I think that players projected onto her. It’s not that she is brave, you are. She’s not the badass, you are. But this gets confused in the mind because of the level of immersion the game offers the player, where they are not playing as Samus, they are her. The fact that Super Metroid, a 25 year old game from the SNES, can offer that kind of emotional experience is incredible. 

Return of the Obra Dinn & Lateral Information

It fascinates how video games convey information to their players. I remember picking up Ocarina of Time 3D for my brand new 3DS in 2014 and having the toughest time with the dungeons. After not really playing video games for 10+ years, my knowledge of how games design puzzles was dusty at best. Like any form of media, video games have certain things they expect the player to know coming in, a sort of jargon almost. Red barrels will explode, if townsfolk keep mentioning a cave to the west then that’s where you should go, solutions to puzzles are most likely located very nearby. Besides mechanics that can be used throughout the game, a lot of information found by a player in a level tends to stay there. But recently, I replayed Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn after finishing his other game, Papers, Please, and how that game tells the player important information through a concept I refer to as lateral information is truly incredible.

Lateral information is similar to lateral communication in an office. The term refers to how workers on the hierarchical level across departments will discuss and work to resolve issues that affect the company as a whole. Lateral information are details or information in a game placed throughout a playthrough to be used in different sections or at different times. It is information gained by the player through thoughtful level design or story. I don’t consider power ups or items to be part of this definition because those are more tied to mechanics than information.

The core gameplay loop of Obra Dinn is based around gathering lateral information. In the game, you play as an insurance agent investigating what happened to the titular ship, which has drifted to harbor with its entire crew and passengers either dead or missing. In your possession is a stop watch that transports you to the exact moment a death has occurred. With this ability to view deaths, you are tasked with two goals: figure out who each person is and how they died. A death memory feels like entering a diorama and it can be overwhelming at times when you first experience the chaos of sounds, still figures, and rooms. There is a lot to take in but it is important to study everything you can in a scene: who is present, items characters may be holding, what jobs they seem to be performing, etc. All this information is important and it is up to the player to notice the details.

Most memories require information discovered during other memories to solve. The game becomes more and more open design-wise as the player discovers new memories, and it is left to them to gather the information and make the deductions needed to solve the fates of the crew. This gives the player plenty of time to investigate memories at their leisure, plenty of time to find the important clues, and plenty of time to think of how everything is tying together. This is lateral information. Using clues in memories to solve other questions in the game, all while treating all information as equally important, is the lateral information that Lucas Pope uses to great effect in Obra Dinn.

As a board concept, lateral information can be used in many different ways. As mentioned before, one use is to incentivize players to investigate everything in a memory. Since there is no way for a player to tell what they’re looking at will prove to be a useful piece of information, they have to comb through every little detail and commit what they can to memory. This does wonders to draw the player into the game world. By focusing on everything, players will naturally learn the structure of the ship and the peoples’ relationships aboard it. Add in the unique, monochromatic art style and you have a game world that is deeply immersive that keeps players grounded in it through constant focus.

Lateral information also helps structure progression through Obra Dinn. As you visit memories and discover the fates of the crew members, you will write down their identities and deaths in a book. Each disappeared person has a portrait for themselves and those portraits will be clear if you have found enough information to determine their identities or cloudy if you have not. This helps guide the player through the game before they have found all the memories because it tells them that either they haven’t found enough information, therefore needing future memories to solve, or they have found enough so they could puzzle out that person’s identity right there. Identities do have levels of difficulty to solve so it is often better to save difficult ones for later, but the picture system tells players that all the necessary information they need for that particular character can be found in previously discovered memories.

The greatest strength from lateral information that Obra Dinn gains is how it leads players to organically revisit and explore past memories once they have all been found. Since the bodies can be found in a nonlinear order, it’s nearly impossible to solve all the fates before the storm comes over the ship, indicating that all the memories have been discovered. This means that the player will have to go through memories they think have important information and reexamine them. In most other games, the solutions to a puzzle would be in the general area of the puzzle or there would be a near linear path to the solution. Obra Dinn is not like this. Since the whole design of the game is based around collecting lateral information from everywhere throughout the game, it’s natural that players would need to re-explore past areas and the game encourages this simply by how it is designed. Since the players have already been exploring the ship at their own pace and learning how to look for and collect important details, they are completely ready when the reigns are let off entirely. Even other puzzle games tend to increase the challenge by changing the mechanics whether it be through adding more rules as the game progresses, adding more variables to levels, or making the movement to complete the puzzles more complicated. Obra Dinn is different to these too because the gameplay and mechanics are the same throughout the entirety of a playthrough. Difficulty is only determined by the details players are expected to find. 

I hope games start to utilize more lateral information in their design. Not just puzzle games, but all types of games. This style of giving the player information helps the world of a game feel more organic and less constructed, it helps players become immersed in the world, and it helps them feel clever after solving a puzzle by recalling information found previously in the game without any indication to do so. Lucas Pope utilized lateral information so well in Return of the Obra Dinn, that I, someone who is usually pretty bad at puzzle games, managed to complete it. Not only that, but it has become one of my favorite games from a design aspect because it just fascinates me how the game feeds the player information.

Shovel Knight & Difficulty Curves

Shovel Knight by Yacht Club has become one of my favorite 2D platformers since its release in 2014. The game is near perfection with great music, 8-bit art style, and level design that focuses on shoveling through dirt blocks and pogo jumping off enemies and obstacles. It is funny to think about how I picked the game up on a whim when it released. I hadn’t played many NES platformers at the time so there was nothing about Shovel Knight that I was nostalgic about. It’s also funny to think about how I couldn’t beat the game the first time without an invincibility cheat enabled. Since that first playthrough, I have beaten Shovel Knight a handful of times and I’ve come to realize that Shovel Knight might have the most perfectly crafted difficulty curve of any game I’ve played.

When talking about difficulty, it is important to first acknowledge that the term is completely subjective. People all have different skill set and levels of experience with games that lend certain games or genres to be more or less difficult. To use myself as an example: puzzles games are typically difficult for me, games like Fez and Grim Fandango I had to put down when I couldn’t wrap my head around certain puzzles, RPGs and action games like Person 5 and Bayonetta 2 always seem to click and I manage to play through no problem, and games like Bloodborne, The Binding of Isaac, and Megaman titles are second nature after playing through those games or similar ones, many times. Shovel Knight was extremely challenging for me during my first playthrough, but has become much easier after multiple playthroughs and playing other, similar titles.

Basically what I’m saying is Shovel Knight’s difficulty is hard to discuss. I can’t say what makes the game difficult for everybody overall. However, there are things in the game that make certain levels in the game more difficult than others. This is what creates a difficulty curve in a game.

Difficulty in a video game can be defined as how the game applies pressure on the player and Shovel Knight does this in two main ways. The first is by making jumps trickier. This is usually done by adding spikes or bottomless pits, which work as an instant death, around platforming challenges. This is most noticeable with the spiked ceilings in the Iron Whale, the many lava pits in the Lost City and the long sections of the Flying Machine over bottomless pits. The second way the game pressures the player is by restricting their time to be still and process their surroundings. This is done a lot in the Clockwork Tower with the conveyor belts and auto scrolling sections, but this method also appears in the Explodatorium in the section with the birds drop bombs on you and with the ice physics in the Stranded Ship.

A difficult curve in a video game is a tricky thing to get right. If things get too hard too quickly, players might not be able to keep up, but if it takes too long to increase the challenge, players may get bored. Shovel Knight’s difficulty curves raises at a perfect rate by starting with a tutorial level that teaches the player all the basic mechanics while lacking most hazards besides enemies until the end. Then the game increases the pressure on player a little more with each passing level. But Yacht Club games also did something very smart with the difficulty curve, that being they didn’t have the difficulty just consistently increase throughout the entire game. 

A standard difficulty curve equates to the difficulty of the game increases with every level the player completes, but Shovel Knight has what I call a wave curve for its challenge. The game is split into three main sections and once you’ve completed all the levels in one section, you move to the next. With this structure, the first level of a new section will be slightly easier than the last level of the previous section. The slight dip in challenge before raising it again does wonders to keep the player engaged because it gives them a moment of slight rest after a difficult level, let’s them feel that they are improving at the game, and makes the difficulty of the game feel more dynamic and less predictable.

Shovel Knight takes a lot of queues from the classic Megaman series. This show mostly in the level design, but also appears in its nonlinear structure when choosing level. Each new section of the game presents few levels that can be completed in any order. Most the time, nonlinear games like this have a tough time constructing a satisfying difficulty curve. Either the difficult is very erratic because there is no structure to what levels can be completed or it’s flat, with every level being on the same difficulty level. Besides sectioning off later levels until after the early levels had been beaten, the developers at Yacht Club utilized a very subtle and smart choice to silently guide the player. When each section is revealed, the clouds on the map screen wipes away from left to right. When this happens, the players eyes will be drawn to the top left of the map and they will scan across the same way the clouds move. This mean the first levels they see will be the easiest in the section: Pridemoor Keep, Explodatorium, and Clockwork Tower in their respective sections. These levels are also the shortest distance for the players to travel when entering the next section.

The last thing to discuss on the topic of Shovel Knight’s difficulty would be the bosses. Honestly, I find all the bosses to be on the same level of difficulty. Later ones add more mechanics to the fight, like Plague Knight changing up the terrain or having to dig through dirt in Mole Knight’s fight, but none of them are very challenging. The only time I died to a boss was when they introduced instant kill elements to their fights. Propeller Knight has bottomless pits, Polar Knight  has spikes, and the Enchantress, the penultimate boss, will destroy the floor beneath you and creates pits to fall into. I am not a fan of any boss with an instant death mechanic, but since Shovel Knight waits until the final few bosses to use them, I don’t find it that intrusive. It is the natural time a player would be expect a meaty challenge.

Shovel Knight excels at keeping the player engaged. The incredible soundtrack fuels them through levels with constantly new mechanics and obstacles that are all still tied to the central mechanic of the little blue knight and their shovel. The player keeps playing to see what the next level will introduce, but there is another guiding force working behind the scenes to engage the player. That is the perfectly crafted difficulty curve that knows the exact rate to introduce new challenge, what levels should be completed before players can access others, and even when to let off on the player to give them a breather. All this combines to a difficulty curve that make Shovel Knight one of the most consistently challenging games of its type, but also one of the most fun and rewarding ones to play through.

Astral Chain & the Legions

I got Astral Chain for my birthday from a couple of friends. It was a great gift because it was something I fully intended to get myself, but they came in and saved me $60. Every since playing Bayonetta 2, I’ve loved Platinum Games and the reviews I saw for the game were glowing so I knew it would be quality. When I picked up the game, going in as blind as I could, I found an over the top, outrageous plot, deep and fluid combat mechanics, and a perfect dodge mechanic (which I’m on the record of being a sucker for), all things that Platinum excels at. From the trailers I saw, I was iffy on the monsters all the characters were throwing around, but they become the most interesting and unique thing about the game.

The central mechanic of Astral Chain are the Legions, armored beasts used for combat and puzzle solving. They are attached to the player character by a chain and are invisible to the general public, as are the Chimeras you battle. You’ll start with just one Legion, but since your character is anime special (this is: special in a way that is never explained and is just meant to be accepted) you’ll acquire more Legions as the game goes on. Each of these Legions have special abilities. Some help in combat, like a shield or powerful range attack, and others are utilized for police work, like tracking scents and lifting heavy objects.

A lot of games with different gameplay styles like Astral Chain’s combat and police work would have them separated, with different mechanics for each playstyle, and those systems would only affect each other tangentially. Platinum Games, however, did something very smart by having the Legions work as the main mechanic for both types of gameplay. It makes the gameplay feel connected, each style feel equally important, and the whole game overall feels very consistent, even when switching between combat and puzzle solving.

The thing about Astral Chain that impresses me the most is how fleshed out and fully realized the Legions are in terms of gameplay mechanics. The developers explored every possible use a giant, invisible creature attached by chain would be in combat and investigation work. This creates a fighting system that is deep and encourages experimentation while also having side quests and police cases that feel varied and fresh.

For example, in combat you can go in by yourself and never summon your Legion at all. However, the fights will be brutal and long (not to mention less fun) so you are encouraged to summon your Legions to help fight. When summoned, the Legions can act independently and attack the nearest enemy, or you can command them to focus down a specific foe. You can perform powerful co-op attacks with your legion after performing a 3-hit combo, after performing a perfect dodge, or have your Legion save you from being knocked to the ground after being hit by a nasty attack. The chain comes into play as you can pull yourself to your Legion with a press of a button, enabling you to cover large amounts of ground quickly. You can even wrap the chain around enemies to stun them for a few free attacks or trip the enemies who perform a charge attack. Along with each of the five Legions special abilities, the combat system is vast and very fun.

The combat can feel overwhelming at times, I feel it’s slightly over-designed, but the coolest thing about Astral Chain is that a lot of the same mechanics that are used in combat are also utilized in the exploration and investigation gameplay. Using your chain to pull yourself across gaps is used both on the Ark and in the Astral Plane, many police cases involve you constraining fleeing criminals by wrapping them up with your chain, and the Legions’ special abilities are all used in some way or another. Examples of this would be riding the Beast Legion to traverse areas faster, using the Shield Legion to pass spewing fires or poison gas, or hitting switches by aiming with the Arrow Legion.

Despite all the abilities and mechanics that are used in both combat and the investigation gameplay, there are still mechanics that are only used in the latter. I’ve mentioned before that the Beast Legion can track scents and this becomes a go to ability to track down both criminals and lost civilians alike. The Sword Legion can remove red shifting, a disease that slowly turns humans into Chimera-like monsters, and the Shield Legion can break open barriers to access chests and new areas. The Legions are also invisible to the general public, so moving them to a suspicious person and using them to eavesdrop is a great, organic mechanic that stems from the rules of the Legions and the context of being a police officer.

The best moment of the game, for me, comes in one of the last few chapters. Before heading out for the final raid against the big bad, you can walk the city streets one last time. If you do so, you can take on a quest from a mother to watch her daughter while she is away. To help keep the girl entertained, your friend tells her that the player character is magical and the little girl tells them to prove it. Following your friend’s lead, you summon your Legion near a stack of boxes to blow them apart, take a neon sign and hurl  down a busy street, and use the Arm Legions ability to hover off the ground. This moment is just brilliant. It uses all the small mechanics you’ve learned throughout the game in a completely new way. When I first picked up Astral Chain and started to learn each new Legion ability and mechanic tied to them, I knew I would be fighting giant and impressively design enemies. It’s a Platinum game; that’s what they do. But I would never have expected to be using those same learned skills to convince a child my character was a magical being. 

That is what’s truly special about the game, the central mechanic of the Legions is varied, yet well realized enough that it can still throw new things at you even at the end of the game and have they fit perfectly. Most games either lose steam halfway through after all the mechanics have been introduced or feel disjointed as they continually introduce new gameplay styles all the way up to the end. Astral Chain stays fast ahead of the curve by exploring a strong central mechanic and how it could be used for both of its gameplay styles. It truly is like two beings working as one.