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Game Reviews

‘Blasphemous’ Review: For God’s Sake

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I’m not a religious man, but have often found the gruesome and twisted fiction it can give rise to utterly fascinating. As such, Blasphemous instantly barged its way onto my radar with its gloriously macabre Kickstarter trailer back in 2017. Brooding and grisly, it evoked almost exactly what was eventually delivered in the final product, and — despite a number of technical flaws — the wait was definitely worth it.

Rather than putting it off until later in the review, the Dark Souls comparisons might as well be nipped in the bud at this early juncture. From its visual theme, narrative techniques, and gameplay bullet points, Blasphemous sets out its stall to be a mysterious and challenging affair of swords and monsters. It takes those familiar Souls facets and combines them into a non-linear Metroidvania platformer, and it’s a formula that has rarely been done with as much flair as it is here.

Defeating a boss feels suitably epic

Those familiar with FromSoftware’s narrative leanings will know what to expect from the story in Blasphemous — that being not a whole lot of surface-level understanding. The opening is mainly utter nonsense, comprised of your typical oldey-timey English and dogmatic scripture, and it doesn’t get an awful lot clearer as players fight through the campaign. However, nearly all the collectible items and powerups have readable lore at the press of a button, and piecing together these scraps of information will gradually reveal a greater comprehension of the story.

Players take control of The Penitent One — a masked man who seems to be permanently crying tears of blood — in a quest to reverse the effects of ‘The Great Miracle.’ This cataclysmic event devastated mankind as punishment for ‘The Age of Corruption,’ where everyone was basically really bad at religion and…blasphemed a lot? As a result, everyone in the world is a malevolent, murderous zealot intent on turning The Penitent One into The Pulverized One.

The abhorrent imagery, imposing scenery, and melancholy world of Orthodoxia really is a morbidly fascinating one. Featuring fully hand-painted, pixel-art cutscenes, its visual style is akin to an old Amiga game like Prince of Persia or Another World. Rarely have 16-bit graphics been used to paint such a grotesque scene, and as such, it’s an astounding game to look at. The excellent sprite work comes to life (or perhaps that should be death) with gory combat and executions, while enemies — particularly the bosses — are a thing of depraved, disgusting beauty.

Just what the hell is going on here? Horrific…

The combat, however, is perhaps a little too simplistic, relying heavily on the executions (usually triggered after performing a perfect parry and counter) to do the heavy lifting for a single basic sword weapon and a handful of extra powers. This is one of the biggest missed opportunities of Blasphemous. Keeping players engaged in labyrinthine, often confusing Metroidvania titles is key, and without an enticing loop of unlocks it can be a little difficult to maintain interest in exploring the world. Not every game has to be Dead Cells, but using the same sword that cannot even be enhanced (yet seems to power up by itself, despite you not leveling up in any way) denies players an important level of tangible progression.

However, simplistic combat doesn’t mean the game is simple — oh no, sir — as it can be extremely punishing — especially the bosses. What Blasphemous has to help players instead of new weapons or stat building is a litany of other sundries. Rosary Beads add various passive buffs like shorter cooldowns, damage and elemental resistance, and higher defense or HP. Relics enable environmental assistance to access new areas through platforms or vines, and Mea Culpa Hearts provide buffs at a price — higher strength at the cost of defense, etc. Prayers, which are essentially magic attacks that use up your expandable Fervor meter, can also be unlocked. They’re largely disappointing, as are the small number of abilities that can be unlocked using Tears of Atonement (souls, basically), which amount to only a handful; those movesets are then upgraded rather than expanded upon.  

Miyazaki, you bastar… oh, wait

What was unashamedly billed as a Metroidvania crossed with Dark Souls then feels more like the former than the latter in its gameplay, but a key element Blasphemous takes from Miyazaki’s masterpieces is that enemies only respawn when you rest at a Prie Dieu (which also refills your health flasks). It’s one of the most needed adaptations to the Metroidvania formula; nobody likes accidentally going the wrong way and having to kill all the same enemies again just to get back to where they started.

And go the wrong way players will, as Blasphemous breaks Metroidvania rule 101: don’t get the map wrong. The map isn’t terrible per se, but it is just slightly lacking in certain facets, which can make the journey through Orthodoxia needlessly annoying. By far the most egregious issue is that you can’t exit the map by pressing the map button again. Instead the jump button is used to exit, which will also make your character jump upon returning to the gameplay. It sounds pedantic, but with as many pitfalls and death traps as Blasphemous has, I certainly didn’t appreciate constantly jumping without intention, and died more than once because of it.

It might have taken an hour, but man was this satisfying

When players do die in Blasphemous, a marker will be placed on the map showing where they fell in order to help guide them back to reclaim lost Tears of Atonement and regain the portion of their Fervor bar, which gets gradually reduced with each death. This is helpful until realizing that the map can’t be zoomed in; having markers and a legend is all well and good, but when all you can do is view the map from a very zoomed-out angle, they might as well not be there. It makes finding those potential secrets — or even normal room dividers — much more difficult to pinpoint than they should be.

Unfortunately, Blasphemous is not only sprinkled with little design niggles, but it’s also quite buggy, and at times feels a little unfinished. At one stage I had the game soft lock so that I couldn’t use any of the trigger buttons (to heal or dodge), while another incident saw a boss glitch off the screen, initially attacking nothing before righting itself and appearing from thin air to kill me. Frame drops are also pretty constant — especially when playing in handheld mode — creeping down to single digits in busier areas, and when combined with the buggy camera, can lead to more than a few pitfall deaths.

I couldn’t move the camera that fast even if I wanted to (and I never would)

None of these issues truly spoil the experience, however, and so Blasphemous ends up as an intriguing and challenging title that easily holds a place in the upper echelons of its genre. As cynical as putting Dark Souls mechanics in a Metroidvania seems on paper, the execution here is largely successful, and ensures that the game can be regarded as more than just a pretty thing to look at. Its difficulty may put some people off, as might its vague story or numerous bugs, but the rewards of seeing the gorgeous new areas while brutally executing new enemies will keep hardcore purists going until the immense satisfaction of the final victory.

Crotchety Englishman who spends hundreds of pounds on video game tattoos and Amiibo in equally wallet-crippling measure. Likes grammar a lot, but not as much as he likes ranting about the latest gaming news in his weekly column.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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