The war against dust, grime, and general untidiness rages on. Originally released on the PC in 2012, Dustforce puts you in the shoes of four acrobatic janitors whose mission is to sweep the world clean of filth. The game is a kinetic platformer that challenges you to find the most efficient route through its winding stages. This new version, released for the PlayStation 3 and Vita, keeps that same core gameplay intact, and is more or less a straight adaptation of the old game on new hardware. Even so, Dustforce is still an enjoyable game that mixes a tranquil world with some seriously tough platforming.
As I noted in my original review, Dustforce has a strict economy of movement. Running and jumping are easy enough, but there are restrictions on how many times you can dash or jump again while in midair. It’s a bit confusing at first, but the game provides a comprehensive tutorial that quickly brings you up to speed on how to maneuver through this world. The simplicity of Dustforce’s early stages also helps ease you into your new role as ninja custodian before the game quickly ramps up the difficulty.
Each of Dustforce’s four heroes controls a little differently.
After you finish a stage, the game judges you on completion (did you sweep up all the garbage?) and finesse (did you sweep up all the garbage stylishly?), as well as noting your time. Each stage has its own leaderboard where you can compare your best time against others. You can also watch runs from other players through the leaderboard, which is an especially useful way for improving your own times on the more difficult stages. PlayStation 3 players can also record their favorite runs for later review, a feature that is missing in the Vita version.
Completing stages rewards you with gold and silver keys that unlock more advanced stages, and those behind the gold doors are no joke. Spikes, bottomless pits, and numerous enemies test every ounce of your platforming skill. Dustforce involves equal parts planning and execution, and feels at times like you’re playing a puzzle game. The developers have an optimal path laid out for you in each stage. All you have to do is find the path, and walk it. It’s an enjoyable challenge, and successfully mastering a stage is very satisfying.
Of course, reaching the finish line on those harder stages involves a lot of trial and error. This could drive some people to the breaking point, but Dustforce keeps you at ease with its soothing soundtrack and lush world. In my previous review, I mentioned how the music has a calming, trancelike effect akin to that of inMomentum and Mirror’s Edge, and that definitely holds true in this new version. The score is complemented by a soft pastel color palette that is easy on the eyes and doesn’t distract you with too much visual noise. Both elements work in harmony to keep you focused on the task at hand.
The simplicity of Dustforce’s early stages also helps ease you into your new role as ninja custodian before the game quickly ramps up the difficulty.
There are plenty of secret areas to discover in Dustforce. There’s even one on that little ledge up there.
Multiplayer in this new version of Dustforce remains the game’s weakest feature. Both modes–Survival and King of the Hill–put the focus on player-versus-player combat rather than terrain navigation, the game’s strong suit. Both modes also lack any sort of matchmaking function, and after each match ends, you are immediately booted back to the main menu without the option of a rematch, which means re-creating your lobby all over again. Ultimately, the online multiplayer feels like a negligible addition to the game.
Multiplayer aside, Dustforce remains a delightful platformer that is both soothing and stressful. The game’s pleasant world invites you in and puts you at ease, before shoving you off a cliff and into a bed of spikes. Or into a bottomless pit. Or sometimes a bottomless, spike-lined pit. The difficulty curve is smooth, but when it hits its apex, the challenge within is brutally satisfying.
When will the aliens learn? It doesn’t matter how much more advanced their technology is than ours, or whether they attack us from the stars or from deep under the surface of our own planet. They can never hope to defeat us, because we have one weapon whose sheer might they can never overcome: the indomitable human spirit. As it turns out, though, all those assault rifles, rocket launchers, and other weapons we have lying around come in pretty handy, too. Like its predecessors, Earth Defense Force 2025 is a gleefully destructive romp in which you use powerful weaponry to kill aliens and to lay waste to city blocks, all in the name of saving humanity.
Those city blocks don’t look the way we expect environments in games to look in this era of sophistication and refinement; like the laughable special effects in many of the alien invasion movies that clearly served as EDF’s inspiration, everything seems cheap. Appendages of giant insects poke through level geometry, and trees, once knocked over, blink out of existence. But then, there’s absolutely nothing sophisticated or refined about Earth Defense Force 2025. You can’t say that its chintzy graphics are an asset, but they’re not quite the detriment that they’d be in many games, because every aspect of EDF 2025 wholeheartedly embraces the series’ B-movie inspirations. The giant insects and massive enemy spacecraft recall the low-budget monster movies and sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, so when you hear the voice actors hamming it up with every cheesy line, their goofy delivery works to support everything else about the game.
You start each mission by selecting one of four classes, then outfitting your chosen defender of Earth with weapons from the arsenal of firearms you’ve collected in earlier outings. If you’re playing solo, the well-rounded ranger is usually the best choice, since the other three classes function better as support than as one-person armies. Air raiders can summon vehicles and handle the targeting of missiles, mortars, and the like, but don’t have very effective weaponry for defending themselves in the frantic skirmishes that are so common in EDF. Fencers are the most heavily armored and can wield the heaviest weapons but lack the mobility of the other classes. By contrast, the mobility of the wing divers, who use their jetpacks to leap and soar about the city, makes them fun to control, but they’re also the most vulnerable class. (Unlike the well-protected, all-male ranger, air raider, and fencer units, the all-female wing diver unit has to wear skimpy, revealing armor; that’s the only way to make it light enough for them to fly in! It makes perfect sense!)
No matter which class you choose, your goal is the same: slaughtering slews of giant insects or destroying the spaceships and robots of the alien invaders’ armada. As a solo player, it’s fun to mindlessly mow down tons of huge, skittering ants, and even though the graphics are rudimentary, the sheer scale of some of the larger enemy ships means that it’s still impressive to see them come crashing earthward and then explode in a tremendous ball of flame after you’ve fired that last rocket into their glowing core.
Even though none of your opponents require much strategy to deal with, the variety of your attackers helps stave off a sense of repetition, and as you progress, you keep acquiring new, more effective weapons to take with you into battle. However, the simplicity of the game’s silly, large-scale combat–initially an asset–becomes a detriment as the game drags on across 80-plus missions, and you’ll have had your fill of defending Earth long before Earth has been successfully defended.
Oh, the carnage! Oh, the humanity! Oh, the graphics!
The appeal of EDF is increased significantly when you play with others, both because most classes function best in a supporting role and because there’s so much more opportunity for unpredictable comedic mayhem when there are four of you than when there’s just one. You might be minding your own business and gunning down some giant spiders when one of your comrades “accidentally” drives a tank right into a building and brings it crashing to the ground. Or you can work together, combining your destructive might to turn that row of buildings into rubble. After all, who’s going to complain about a little collateral damage once you’ve saved humanity from extinction?
The fact that you can revive your teammates when they go down in multiplayer also makes it preferable to playing solo. It’s frustrating in single-player to be several minutes into a mission only to be crushed under the leg of a gigantic walking fortress and have to start the battle all over again. EDF 2025 gives you a number of ways to play multiplayer, letting you do local split-screen co-op with one other player, or hop online by yourself or with a friend playing on the same console. There’s also a two-player versus mode, but it’s hardly worth your time; the entire appeal of EDF is in slaughtering aliens and destroying cities.
The simple mechanics don’t lend themselves to the long-haul, 80-mission-plus campaign. This is the video game equivalent of a mindless and enjoyable popcorn flick, not a captivating epic. Even if the shallow action can’t sustain the game for its entire length, EDF 2025 is committed enough to its vision of cheesy, B-movie-flavored destruction to be fun for a while, particularly with a few friends in tow.
Journal is a memorable game, but not a particularly good one. This creation of developer Richard Perrin and his company Locked Door Puzzle is noteworthy for its hand-drawn graphics, superb music, and vaguely morose teen-girl atmosphere that stays with you well after you wrap up the brief two-hour story. But the potential impact is watered down with too many after-school-special plot points and a disjointed narrative style that is way too avant-garde for the lightweight material.
Initially, however, Journal is very intriguing. The story centers on a nameless teen girl who finds that all of the pages of her daily journal have somehow gone blank. You start with a metaphysical mystery that might be termed The Case of the Erased Journal, but things veer off on a tangent almost immediately, with the journal being forgotten due to the girl’s many other problems at school and at home. Her mom and dad have split up, windows have been broken, tests have been cheated on, and snow globes have been stolen. Nobody knows the trouble she’s seen; if this kid were in jail, she’d be blowing a harmonica.
Journal has a point, and some moving moments. But the entire plot is twisted around to create an unnecessary mystery.
Nothing truly sticks, though. Journal is billed as a narrative-driven adventure–an interactive short story and a choose-your-own-adventure piece–but your choices in dialogue selections do little to shape the plot, and the girl’s problems are kept at arm’s length. Many have happened before the story starts, so you hear about them in retrospect. A point may be being made here about dealing with the consequences of your actions, but this storytelling at a distance dulls the impact of whether or not your character is the liar, thief, and self-absorbed twit she seems to be.
Other incidents force you into making dialogue choices without understanding the bigger picture. You can be a jerk when you don’t mean to be, simply because you’re not aware of what you’ve really done. Oh, sorry former best friend; I guess I broke that window and blamed you for it after all. Whoops. And some of the one-word choices given for attitudes you wish to adopt in conversations are needlessly confusing, leading you down paths you might not want to travel. The one ameliorating factor is that none of your choices matter very much in the end.
Hanging out with the mysterious guy who works at the city park doesn’t sound like the best way for a teenage girl to spend her afternoons.
Stylistic choices cause more trouble. The whole “missing journal pages” concept isn’t successful, partly because it seems like you’re bouncing from one juvenile catastrophe to another rather than solving any sort of mystery, and partly because the story structure shoehorns in more mysteries that don’t need to be there, or at least don’t need to be held back until a big cheesy reveal at the end of the game. You’re never sure who you are until the final act, when the illusions suddenly fall away with little rhyme or reason as the truth is exposed. If the circumstances behind that reveal had been part of the story background from the very start of the game, it would have been easier to empathize with the girl’s plight and feel more attached to a sympathetic character, not the flaky, self-absorbed liar you have to live with until the curtain is pulled back mere moments before the game comes to a close.
With that said, there’s something striking about Journal. The story structure may not work very well from a dramatic point of view, but it is atmospheric and weird enough to haunt you. One of the protagonist’s loves is ornate snow globes, for the perfect little worlds that they enclose. It feels like you’re peering into some kind of snow globe while playing the game, too, getting a sneak peek at a tiny teen universe. Distinctive, hand-drawn art adds to the appeal. Every scene in the game consists of a journal page filled with sketched characters and background buildings, with simple animations confined to minor objects like floating leaves and flying birds. The voice acting is also quite good, and the airy piano-laden soundtrack moves between bouncy and sad moods just like the protagonist.
The potential impact is watered down with too many after-school-special plot points.
For all of its flaws, Journal succeeds in making you think. Granted, most often this thinking is about how much better this promising game could have been if the developer had made some different design decisions. But it also makes you contemplate how much the little moments in life affect us, and how those little moments and their consequences are always colored by the bigger ones that loom large behind the scenes. It’s all dime-store philosophy, but it’s still a philosophy, and I credit Journal for a valiant attempt to say something, even if the message comes out tangled up in the end.
All of my favorite grand strategy games are pushing five to 10 years old at this point, and my search for the next big thing often leads to disappointment, given how few high-quality big-picture experiences find their way to our computers. But when Horizon stepped into my world, it took almost 50 hours of my life in less than a week. Not all of that time was pleasant, that much is certain, but the game is so unusual in how it pieces itself together that it’s difficult to tear yourself away.
Horizon is reminiscent of the Total War and Rise of Nations series. You have a big-picture strategic map through which you build infrastructure, coordinate large-scale troop movements, and so on, while the tactical map allows you to zoom into a solar system and micromanage your ships and attacks. This dualistic system has helped more than a few games succeed in the past. Unfortunately, Horizon doesn’t possess the finesse to handle all it’s trying to do, though it does make a valiant effort.
Keeping track of the galaxy map gets progressively harder as the game wears on.
Keeping track of two disparate map systems is far from an easy trick to pull off. Sins of a Solar Empire uses a real-time setup wherein you simply scroll the mouse to select the level of detail you need. Given the similarities of these two games, the comparison seems apt, but Horizon can’t replicate Sins’ interface successes. The first issue is one of accessibility. Horizon’s tactical view, or close-up of a given solar system, is generally reserved for the end of each turn, though you can click the Engage Sector button above a star and then double click it on the main map to zoom in at will. If you think this sounds cumbersome, you’d be right, and unfortunately, that’s just the beginning.
In Horizon, each ship and structure has a shield around it–a fairly standard setup in strategic space games. What Horizon does with that standard, though, might just be the best mechanic it has going for it. Each shield is divided up into eight sections. Hits taken on the front right section of the ship deplete the health of only that bit of shielding. If you can cause enough damage before the ship recovers, any ship with assault shuttles can then board and potentially capture the vessel. Star Trek: Armada is one of few games to utilize similar mechanics, and even then, it didn’t employ the directionality element. In Horizon, managing your shields is absolutely crucial; if you’re trying to maximize your efficacy in combat, you must rotate your ships and protect their weak points with other vessels. Sadly, that’s where the game starts hitting some real problems.
The research panel is remarkably dull.
In any given battle, you might deal with 10 to 20 ships per side. With that many possible targets and pieces to move about, the combat can slow to an agonizing crawl. There is a system that automatically runs your turns for you, but using it defeats a lot of the satisfaction of carefully maneuvering your ships and taking on a vastly superior force and coming out victorious anyway. Automated battles can prevent a lot of unnecessary combat, and are genuinely useful when minor events occur (such as an enemy scout wandering too close to your fleet of cruisers and motherships), but are not always a rewarding option. In one particular instance, the invaders launched 15 or 20 ships against my very limited planetary defenses. I turned on the automatic option and left the game to do something else. I came back some 20 minutes later, and the battle still wasn’t over. Beyond the fact that it’s never a good sign when you need to leave to go do something else while ostensibly “playing” a game, I shudder to think how slow that fight would have been had I micromanaged it myself. That was, thankfully, an unusual outlier, but it still happened a few more times than it should have.
To my relief, Horizon’s big-picture strategy section is strong enough to carry the game by itself, though even that doesn’t come with an unqualified recommendation. At the beginning of each game, you have many of the standard strategy game choices–race, map size, and so on–but Horizon packs a few more that resemble character creation in a tabletop role-playing game. You can actually create and name your own race using one of the templates provided. There are a few racial abilities and options to choose from, and they are balanced by a simple system of points. Some of the really advantageous traits (like the ability to not need food of any kind) cost quite a bit, and force you to give up other potential advantages. The high cost helps ensure balance and keeps you from waltzing into a game with every racial trait set to its max.
Horizon doesn’t possess the finesse to handle all it’s trying to do, though it does make a valiant effort.
Customizing ships for specific jobs can yield huge advantages.
Your racial traits have a lot of influence over what kinds of planets you can colonize, and what your major priorities are. Races that don’t need food would do well to not waste resources on building up farms and other typically vital infrastructures. Each planet can only hold so many structures, depending on its size. Depending on where the settlement is and a few other factors, certain planets may be better suited to tourism or industry, and that plays into what you can or should allocate your limited space for.
This also serves the purpose of creating the all-important scarcity needed to generate conflict. Humans, for example, can’t settle on some worlds. Therefore, expanding to those areas is a waste of time and resources. Conversely, if you’re running out of space and an enemy has the kind of planet you desperately need, sometimes you might want to get a little rough. Planets can also hold ancient technology from advanced races abandoned long ago. In such cases, the faction controlling the settlement can reap the benefits of that access and gain a distinct advantage over everyone else.
Research in Horizon is handled with a fairly unorthodox system as well. Instead of picking things for your scientists to look into, you need “breakthroughs” to discover completely new tech. They aren’t always predictable, either. Sometimes you need to wait quite a while. You could also ask more advanced civilizations for their help, or go hunting for new gadgets in ancient ruins. It’s a really cool system, but the interface is utterly boring and fails to present the genuine beauty behind it all.
Once you have picked up the latest and greatest in space guns and engines, you can begin plugging them straight into new ship designs. For each class of ship, you can pick a variety of modules, weapons, and core systems for it. This includes engine variants and the number of weapon banks. It’s an exceptionally deep mechanic that manages to avoid a lot of potential pitfalls. Each upgrade costs space to install, and it’s all managed with a simple and clean interface. More importantly, with only a few exceptions, new designs don’t make older ships worthless. Instead, managing the design and layout of these war machines is about tailoring one or another ship to a specific role. Light weapons can fire in any direction, and you can install more of them, but their overall damage is much lower. Therefore, they are decent light-patrol weapons, but are poorly suited for planetary invasion.
That’s…a lot of enemy ships. Earth might be in trouble.
Depending on the settings of your match, you might also need a specific ship for a specific mission. In the first tutorial, you’re asked to build a transport vessel with assault shuttles so you can capture and take some intelligence from a probe. If you choose to play without missions enabled, then the upgrade and customization system has a lot less utility but can still be pretty useful if you, for instance, want your mothership to be able to carry a colony pod and fire off fusion bombs. Sadly, there’s no multiplayer mode to test out some really zany designs against equally idiosyncratic players, but given the sluggishness of the tactical half of gameplay, that might be a blessing in disguise.
Horizon has some stellar ideas, and a good half of them are executed well. Others could use a bit more work, or a complete redesign. Sins of a Solar Empire remains the gold standard for providing seamless transitions between the big-picture kind of strategy and the tightly controlled movement of individual ships. And while Horizon could have stood to learn some lessons from its forebear, it is still easy to lose yourself in it.
Based solely on its Japanese-history-inspired setting and ornately costumed, sharp-steel-wielding heroes, Toukiden: The Age of Demons could pass for another sequel or spin-off in developer Omega Force’s Dynasty Warriors series. Before your oversized sword can draw its first drop of blood, however, you find the game’s surface similarities give way to an experience that shares more with Capcom’s Monster Hunter games than anything in the developer’s existing library of Warriors titles. From its save-the-world storyline and screen-swallowing boss battles to its party-based play and grinding loop of laying waste to uglies, looting their corpses, and leveling up your character and gear, Toukiden will feel comfortably familiar to anyone who has ever invested an evening into besting a towering beast in Capcom’s creature-slaying series. More than a mere copycat, though, Toukiden complements its cloned Monster Hunter elements with enough fresh features, nuance, and ideas to earn its own identity.
For starters, the pacing of its combat is driven by more than the light and heavy attacks it initially teaches you. As an appropriately dubbed slayer, you must rid the world of oni, demons that aren’t particularly interested in living peacefully among humankind. Battling these netherworld baddies requires the expected hacking, slashing, and elemental magic casting, but purifying their dismembered body parts adds a satisfying wrinkle to the slaughter. The act temporarily leaves you vulnerable, but ensures the lopped limbs won’t regenerate. Purifying also loots resources from downed foes and siphons life from bigger bads who are still kicking despite losing an arm, leg, or spiky tentacle.
You’re not hunting these monsters. You’re slaying them. Totally different.
This extra strategic element is further complemented by mitama, souls of fallen slayers that are occasionally released through purification. These rare drops, representing the different offensive and defensive disciplines–combat, regeneration, speed, and so on–of their previous owners, can be assigned to slots in your weapons. Once a mitama is firmly rooted in the handle of a sword–or the grip of another upgradable death-dealer (spear, dual daggers, bow, gauntlets, chain and sickle)–it can be triggered during battle. By activating mitama, you can unleash various table-turning powers, all of which have limited quantities per mission and run on cooldown timers. Finding new mitama, which also unlocks collectible-card-like pictures and backstories of their slayers, quickly becomes a compelling little metagame, but managing them during boss battles brings a welcome strategic layer to the otherwise button-mashy combat. You monitor a regenerating focus meter, which can be activated to identify enemy weak points as well as other invaluable intel and items, adding yet another resource to your arsenal.
Sure, its similarities to the competition are undeniable, but Omega Force has crafted a Monster Hunter clone that generally stands on its own.
Armchair adventurers will discover more depth back at the hublike village, where the usual lineup of chatty non-player characters–merchants, blacksmiths, scared citizens–encourage you to buy and sell goods, upgrade and forge gear, and even level up those precious mitama. Those looking for a brief reprieve from facing inhabitants of the horned, fanged, and clawed variety can also interact with villagers and cuddly animals who’ll grant them side quests and gather resources for them, respectively.
Take a break from slaying demons by acquiring gear to more effectively slay demons.
Like Monster Hunter, Toukiden is best enjoyed with friends who don’t shudder at the thought of having their spines used as dental floss. Online lobbies, supporting four-player adventures and sporting a fairly robust search criteria for different game types, let you join the fight alongside friends and strangers in both ad hoc and infrastructure modes. While my online experience was generally smooth and seamless, I found myself braving the battlefield alone most of the time. Where co-op almost feels like a requirement in Monster Hunter, Toukiden’s solid solo experience makes going it alone a viable option. This is due in no small part to AI party members that are more a help than a hindrance; on top of holding their own in combat and playing to their specific strengths, they happily purify for you, doing all the busywork while the loot is deposited directly into your bank.
Toukiden’s pacing doesn’t stray far from the genre’s proclivity toward grinding. You spend plenty of time farming for resources, battling familiar foes, and facing bosses that take the better part of an hour to bring down. If you’re not a fan of this very specific, often polarizing style of gameplay, you’ll likely find its repetition more painful than any hurt a hell spawn can put on you. It doesn’t help that Toukiden’s visual presentation, while packing plenty of vibrant details and slick effects, lacks variety; environments aren’t especially distinctive, and enemies are often repeated.
Sure, its similarities to the competition are undeniable, but Omega Force has crafted a Monster Hunter clone that generally stands on its own. While it could have felt like a shameless rip-off with a few half-baked features grafted on for good measure, Toukiden manages to organically weave its defining elements–purification and mitama–into the genre’s comfortably familiar fabric.
Strider is the sort of man who flies a hang glider into a warzone. He doesn’t get bogged down in the details, preferring instead to slice first and ask questions later. His latest hack-and-slash action game is the same way. Without preamble or pretext, you’re dropped straight into the action, cleaving through one hapless guard after another. Strider’s capacity for carnage is boundless, and the acrobatic precision with which he dispatches his foes makes him a delight to control. Right away, you have everything at your disposal to feel like a one man army, and as your arsenal grows, so too will your enjoyment of this well-crafted game.
Simply being Strider feels great. The way he moves from running to sliding to climbing a wall to bisecting a robot is so seamless that you feel like a tempest on the battlefield. From the arc of his jump to the range of his slide, all of Strider’s movements are perfectly measured to give you complete command of the action. In the beginning you can do little more than jump and slash, but by exploring the world and defeating powerful bosses, Strider unlocks new techniques for his arsenal. Reflecting bullets, throwing knives, and summoning a eagle made of pure energy are just some of the powers you earn, and those powers expand your fighting repertoire in new and interesting ways. Instead of mindlessly cutting down the competition, you could send your eagle to intercept airborne foes while you take out those on the ground. Alternatively, you could employ a long-range strategy using the throwing knives and reflection cypher to dispatch foes from afar.
Whichever you choose, juggling these powers together is a real delight, and cartwheeling through the air while dispensing death at 360 degrees is extremely empowering. There are plenty of locked doors to be found early in your quest with no means of entry–this is the game’s way of teasing you with the promise of new powers–and they grant you no choice but to pass them by. As you unlock new powers, referred to as cyphers, you are able to return to these spots and open the doors associated with your new cypher. This can help you advance along the main storyline or reward you with hidden unlockables such as concept art and new costumes.
As you acquire new cyphers, Strider’s scarf color will change to indicate which cypher you currently have active.
While Strider’s world is filled with surprises, the backdrop itself is disappointingly drab. The game looks slick and clean, with a subtle scanline effect that harkens back to the ninja’s arcade roots. However, the moment you touch down you’re greeted with a futuristic, industrial aesthetic that rarely relents as you progress. Gloomy pipes and heavy machinery follow you wherever you go, splashed with all the browns, greys, and whites you can handle. Admittedly, this style has the benefit of making Strider–in all his crimson-scarfed glory–pop against the background, but even so, more variety in the different arenas would have been welcome.
Certain enemies also sport a splash of color to indicate a weakness to a particular cypher. Against such a foe, Strider must switch to the appropriate cypher and use it to disable the enemy’s defenses–most often a color-coded shield–before dispatching him. These enemies help keep fights feeling dynamic as they force you to mix up your tactics and utilize Strider to his fullest. One cypher, the cold cypher, does rise above the rest with its incredibly powerful ability to quickly freeze enemies. Frozen enemies can take no action, and are locked in place for several seconds. Other cyphers add to the enjoyable chaos of Strider’s combat, but the cold cypher does the opposite. It simplifies encounters and feels more like a crutch than a compliment to your other abilities.
Unlike most rank-and-file grunts, Strider’s bosses maneuver around the arena making them very different–and enjoyable–encounters.
Once you finish Strider’s main adventure, you can try your hand at the game’s challenge modes. These challenges come in two varieties: survival and beacon run. Survival challenges are all about testing your combat prowess. You’re granted a pre-selected loadout of cyphers and turned loose against wave after wave of enemies. Beacon runs, on the other hand, are all about speed and agility. Your goal is to pass through each of the beacons on your way to the goal, all the while navigating a trap-and-enemy-infested environment. This mode is especially welcome since Strider is so fun to control and the main game rarely tests your platforming capabilities. When a challenge is completed, you are graded on your performance and can compare your stats against others on challenge-specific leaderboards.
From the moment you embark on your journey right up until the final deathblow, Strider is a blast to play. Controlling this agile ninja feels empowering right out of the gate, and each new upgrade brings with it an enjoyable new way to engage your foes. While his world is a little drab there’s still plenty to explore even after the job is done. Strider is fun, pure and simple, and serves as a fitting revival of a classic video game hero.
I’ve read developer Jason Rohrer’s account of the events that inspired his game, The Castle Doctrine, many times, in many places, leading up to its release. His family lived in a bad neighborhood. A dog attacked his wife during a family bike ride. He bought a club to beat away any other dogs that might threaten them in the future (a club that he’d later offer as a reward for an in-game contest). It’s begun to sound like a mantra, imbued with greater significance through the act of repetition. Rohrer sought to probe the conflicted feelings that haunted him about the event–about his role as de facto protector of his family and his home. The Castle Doctrine is the game born of that narrative, and named after the principle of law that a resident is free to use deadly force on intruders.
That’s a touchy proposition. Emotions swirl around the doctrine. It’s bound to systems of economic and racial disparity, to prejudices and fears that are inherently irrational. Yet The Castle Doctrine nimbly leaps that moat, and assumes a scenario in which a break-in is inevitable. You’re given $2000, a vault to hide it in, and a pixelated nuclear family that looks on, expectantly, for you to construct a fortress. And you’d better do so, because a server’s worth of other players will get a chance to invade the minute you step out the front door. They’ll be coming for the cash you’ve left in your vault, and the only things standing in their way will be the walls, traps, and pit bulls that you’ve placed in between.
Mistakes were made.
You may also mask your face and play the more directly villainous role yourself. Upon leaving your own home you’re presented with a list of everyone else’s abode, top-down from rich to poor. After you’ve tediously scrolled your way through to a house that looks viable, you’re just a click away from their doorsteps. When attacking, you face a darker, more imposing version of the same sort of plot you’ve been given, usually made unrecognizable by its owner’s unique renovations. Stepping into a home is a matter of pressing the corresponding arrow key to move to an adjacent space on the grid. Surviving the owner’s labyrinth is another matter entirely.
Walls tend to get short shrift in video games, which see them only as physical barriers to be scaled or bypassed with X-ray vision. But walls can also partition information. The Castle Doctrine uses them thusly, and to great effect. They reduce the field of view, shrouding invaders in dark, cramped hallways, and hiding the contents of rooms. Walls funnel prospective robbers like a cattle run, away from critical sections of your dwelling and into the deathtraps you’ve laid elsewhere. Should an invader get cooked on your electrified floors, or mauled by one of your pit bulls, you claim a bounty and any items they had on their person. The incentive then, is not to repel invaders, but to draw them deeper–to play off their confidence or curiosity and lure them into putting their own heads in the noose.
Show him what he’s won behind Door #2: more angry pit bulls!
Information is the grand advantage that the defender has over the attacker in The Castle Doctrine, and savvy players put that advantage to diabolical use. While the game requires you to prove that you can bypass your own defenses without tools prior to opening your home to invasion, foreknowledge of your own traps makes this a formality. A winning strategy quickly reveals itself: force would-be burglars into a guessing game with impossible odds. Tuck your vault in the back of one of a few dozen identical hallways, and a guaranteed death behind the rest. Every home worth the effort of a break-in has some version of this gambit within its walls, with an intimidating tally of deceased attackers steadily growing alongside the value of its vault.
There are other strategies, too, puzzles and psychological ploys that players have lent expressive names like “Schrodinger’s Corpse.” There are the commit gates that prevent retreat by activating when certain thresholds are crossed. The pit bulls that catch sight of invaders through windows, then move to attack through unknown channels behind the walls like Dead Space necromorphs. The massive spans of electrified floor that only receive a current the moment a burglar is too far from the end to make a break for it, and too far from the start to go back the way they came. The most devious of the bunch place cats—which move away from the player upon sight—in a position where they retreat towards an off-screen assemblage of switches that control traps attackers must step over. Only the owner knows the specific pace required for safe passage.
The incentive then, is not to repel invaders, but to draw them deeper–to play off their confidence or curiosity and lure them into putting their own heads in the noose.
Every trap has a corresponding tool that can be used to bypass it, in theory. Wood walls can be sawed, pit bulls can be fed a drug-filled steak, and so on. These weapons are intended to be the means by which robbers can circumvent inauspicious pathways, or rectify a wrong step. But it’s no difficult task to introduce enough redundancy to your home to tool-proof it, when a section of steel wall costs $40 and the one-time-use cutting torch needed to bypass it costs $800. Entering another’s home is a bad bet in The Castle Doctrine, a lottery ticket’s chance at success measured against near-infinite permutations of grisly death.
Perhaps parity isn’t the goal for The Castle Doctrine. Indeed, there’s something of the desperation that might drive someone to attempt a real robbery in the game’s model. Nobody tries to shoot the moon here unless they’ve been dealt a bad hand, one way or another. Perhaps you fell to another player’s traps. Or you returned home to find your metaphorical castle sacked, the vault empty and your family dead, and committed suicide. There’s no end-game here; one fate or the other catches up to everyone eventually. Death means a hard reset: a new vault, a new $2000, and a new pixelated family with new randomly generated names.
A wife, two kids, and a safe. You’ll be returning to this screen often.
The tragic story of your faux-family dulls each time they’re bludgeoned to death. You start viewing them as board game pieces, to be distributed in the defense of your vault. You use their panic buttons to trigger traps. You give your wife a gun. You turn the children into sentinels. You stop checking their randomly generated names. They’re doomed anyway–by the end you’re about as broken up over their loss as you are when the opposing team captures your flag in Call of Duty. The zero-sum structure of The Castle Doctrine encourages this sort of casual indifference. Cynically, the game parcels out half of your cash to the wife character with the expectation that a mechanical concern for her safety will bleed into an empathic one. But the decision provides a motivation for attackers to kill wives, too.
What is The Castle Doctrine, without empathy, without emotion? Just a game, in the most pejorative sense of the word. From their removed, isometric vantage point, the player gets no sense of the concerns or fears that could rouse a new father from sleep, baseball bat at the ready. Nor do they get a fair look at the political and ethical undercurrents that run just underneath just such a hypothetical. Any semblance of reality evaporates the first time they attempt to return to their house only to be turned away with the message “Your house is currently being robbed. You can’t work on it right now.”
Rohrer may have set out to make a game that puts players in his shoes, that plays at conflicted machismo and the fuzzy logic of home invasion paranoia. I would have been interested to play that game. But the flawed, nihilistic, trap-building simulator that resulted isn’t worth a look. In the whole of the game, only one metaphor hit home for me. Sometimes when you manage to reach another person’s vault, you find it empty, pillaged by a previous robber. There’s nothing to take away, and all the time and effort you’ve put into the endeavor has been wasted.
There’s something about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze that’s just a little off. Maybe it’s the way Donkey Kong doesn’t quite land with the firm-footedness you’d expect from a Nintendo platforming mascot. Maybe it’s because, despite the introduction of the likes of Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong as playable characters with new abilities, Tropical Freeze’s levels see little in the way of new challenges or designs to accommodate them. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because–despite some fun moments–this is one of the least exciting platformers I’ve played in some time.
The problem lies with Tropical Freeze’s reluctance to stray too far from the formula of its predecessor–or indeed, many a ’90s platformer–without maintaining the same levels of quality, and without adding anything meaningful along the way. When we’re spoilt with the likes of Rayman: Legends and Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U, Tropical Freeze feels like a step back in time–and not in the good, retro-chic kind of way. None of its levels are bad, but while its competitors mix up elegant puzzles, platforming challenges, and clever new ideas to great effect, here your journey gets very familiar, very quickly.
In the first level, you leap over a few easy platforms, and maybe bash a few baddies on the head. In the next, you might bounce on some sprung platforms to reach some taller ones, or climb some vines to do the same. Later, you might even get a few zip lines loosely slung over some bottomless pits of death. Then the game starts to repeat itself. Sure, the backdrops change, and some jumps become trickier than others, but the mostly unimaginative level design doesn’t mix those ideas up in new or interesting ways.
It’s all a bit stop and start. Platforms and enemies are laid out in odd ways, making it difficult to establish the sort of smooth, free-flowing rhythm that makes the best 2D platformers such a blast. For instance, you might be leaping across a level, picking up a good rhythm between jumps, before being stopped by a set of collapsing stone walls. In a good platformer like Tropical Freeze’s predecessor, those walls would be timed to fall in rhythm with previous jumps and obstacles, letting you zip past them quickly, and make you feel like a platforming pro. But here, no matter how you approach those walls, you’re stopped dead in your tracks, making you lose your rhythm.
Dixie Kong’s ability to make DK float and jump a little higher, Cranky Kong’s ability to give DK a bigger bounce, and Diddy Kong’s jetpack are nice additions to the formula, but the mundane level design fails to make much of their new powers and offer up a different challenge. Only the levels unlocked by collecting all of the hidden KONG and puzzle pieces do better.
There are some cheap tricks used along the way too. Thankfully, they’re rare, but when they do appear, it’s frustrating. Sometimes I’d perform a leap of faith during a particularly tricky section, only to land on an enemy on the other side that had lurked just out of shot. Other times I’d be racing down a zip line, only to find that the visual cues for jumps, like well-placed bananas and coins, were all too easy to miss, causing me to plummet to my death. It’s a shame that you can’t have the game show you the best path like in Donkey Kong Country Returns; it’s very much a process of trial and error when it comes to surviving some of Tropical Freeze’s cheaper tricks. Extra lives are plentiful, though, and if you get stuck, you can always purchase more using coins you collect along the way.
Tropical Freeze’s vehicle sections fare much better than its standard levels, and help to break up some of the more monotonous moments of DK’s adventure. Whether it’s riding on the back of Rambi the Rhino and carefully guiding him through destructible blocks and rows of enemies, or zipping through the air on the back of a rocket-powered barrel, these sections are fast-paced and nicely challenging too. Trying to keep the barrel afloat long enough to dodge obstacles and collect bananas is a great bit of twitch gaming, as are later sections where you guide a speeding mine cart along some wobbly-looking tracks.
Boss battles are similarly good fun, thanks to some interesting-looking characters that aren’t your usual three-hits-to-kill type of opponent. A battle against a giant owl has you dodging ice balls and throwing bashed baby owls before you’re whisked up in the air to dodge projectiles against a mighty storm. Another has you fighting a trio of bomb-throwing monkeys, ducking, rolling, and jumping across the level to avoid their spinning hammer attacks, while also trying to pick up their bombs and hurl them straight back at them.
This is one of the least exciting platformers I’ve played in some time.
Tropical Freeze can get challenging and feel unfair when you’re sent back to the beginning of a long, multistage boss battle, just because of a less-than-forgiving checkpoint system. Practice the patterns, though, and you’ll make it through alive. Battles are also easier if you grab a friend and indulge in two-player co-op. While the game doesn’t make clever use of the additional player, you’ll appreciate the extra help during particularly tough bosses: just make sure you’ve got plenty of extra lives stocked up.
If the regular levels were as inventive as the boss battles, then Tropical Freeze would be a surefire hit, or at least a game that demands more of your attention. No matter how much I was looking forward to seeing DK in HD, it’s difficult to maintain that enthusiasm when the end product plays it so safe: even the visuals fail to make an impact. They’re nice enough, but like the level design, the environments are mostly bland. While you could argue that the visual style is true to the series, I think even traditionalists wouldn’t mind something with a little more pizzazz behind it. As it stands, this a sometimes fun but mostly uninspired and unimaginative entry in the Donkey Kong series.
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