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Game Reviews

‘Cadence of Hyrule’ Review: Rhythm Heaven

At its best, ‘Cadence of Hyrule’ takes strengths from both influences, and succeeds according to both measuring sticks.

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Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer Featuring the Legend of Zelda is a more cohesive experience than its clumsy name suggests. Announced than less than three months ago in a Nintendo Direct, Cadence marks the first follow-up to 2017’s watershed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which reinvented the Zelda franchise by emphasizing freedom and flexibility above all else. Developed by Brace Yourself Games of Crypt of the Necromancer fame, Cadence of Hyule proves nearly as daring an experiment as Breath of the Wild in its birth-by-partnership between Nintendo and an indie dev, as well as its unerring focus on rhythmic gameplay.

Cadence of Hyrule shopkeeperCadence of Hyrule kicks off with the player controlling Crypt of the Necromancer’s protagonist, Cadence, who has somehow found herself lost in the foreign kingdom. After the brief tutorial she disappears, and the player must choose between playing as Link or Zelda on a quest to find four musical instruments scattered across the land. Typical of Nintendo games, the narrative serves as a thin veneer that justifies the existence of some bizarre gamic happenstance — in this case, the merging of two game universes, and the newfound musical sensibilities of every organism in Hyrule.

Though the story plays it safe and simple, the world is a joy to inhabit due to its charming art style and mesmerizing beats. Indeed, the overworld and all the Zelda-famous creatures within overflow with vitality, and are drawn with intricacy and intimacy reminiscent of A Link to the Past. Much like scanning an Amiibo into Super Mario Maker to see pixelated versions of favorite characters, it is a minor delight to run into a classic baddie for the first time and see how they’ve seamlessly transitioned from their world into this one. But Cadence of Hyrule’s inventive remixes of vintage Zelda tunes may be even more remarkable than the game’s visuals, as the soundtrack boasts a whopping twenty-five songs, with nary a dull note to be heard. This is that rare sequel soundtrack that succeeds in reinventing some of the most inimitable tracks in video game history by infusing each classic with jaunty pulses and throbs of new life.

Cadence of Hyrule shovel

In terms of gameplay, Cadence of Hyrule essentially asks the player to play an old-school, top-down Zelda game to the rhythm of whatever song is playing at the time. Attacking, defending, moving — all are predicated on the player’s ability make spur-of-the-moment decisions in sync with the beat. While this core gameplay is taken from Crypt of the Necromancer, all the trappings are quintessential Legend of Zelda, from items like a bow, boomerang, and fire rod, to abilities like Din’s Fire and Nayru’s Love. But while these trappings are there in name, many of them do feel useless. In fact, I made it through my first playthrough never using most of the items for any purpose other than to try them out. Given that one of Breath of the Wild’s defining features is giving players the ability to create their own unique solution to a puzzle or combat situation, it feels like a notable step back that so many of the items here are so useless in both puzzle-solving and combat.

Moreover, most of the game’s puzzles are lacking in depth, focus, and variety, and combat scenarios rarely ever call for the use of anything other than the player’s main weapon. This lack of meaningful choice hampers the overall experience, and makes the game feel decidedly non-Zelda at times — a reminder that the game is a Crypt of the Necromancer sequel featuring Zelda. This is especially true in the game’s randomly generated ‘dungeons,’ which effectively amount to navigating dark rooms while fighting waves of enemies. Compared to actual Zelda dungeons, these are intensely lacking in theme, puzzles, meaningful item usage, and deliberate design.

Cadence of Hyrule boss

However, there are plenty of ways in which the Crypt and Zelda elements meld more seamlessly. Outside of the aforementioned aesthetics, Hyrule’s layout is rejiggered each playthrough, but never ceases to feel like Hyrule in theme and structure (though this also means that the overworld design is never quite as tight as a Zelda game on the whole, or on a screen-by-screen basis). And little touches like Gomha turning into Gohmarracas, or fighting against a Lynel as Cadence, give the game a unique flair that works as well as one could expect.

One other point of note is the game’s difficulty curve, which starts out fairly steep but just as quickly levels off, and then steeply declines. While not nearly as brutal as the original Crypt, newcomers will no doubt find themselves flailing for the first half hour. But by the time they reach the halfway point, those same players might wish for more of the challenge that was there at the beginning, as the latter half of the game becomes a cinch once the player has enough offensive and defensive upgrades. Some fine-tuning of this difficulty curve, perhaps by subtle changes to tempo or AI aggression (or a less subtle change to heart container capacity, or a “blood moon” raised difficulty scenario, etc.), could have lent the game a more consistent sense of the risk-reward it has in its best moments. Instead, most of the game’s enemies — including the bosses — can be easily spammed once the player has found a few key upgrades; that’s a shame given the passion and dedication that clearly went into crafting the design of each enemy. And even though there is a wonderful plethora of options that allow players to tailor their experience to their own needs, a couple of different difficulty levels would have also been a nice addition.

Nevertheless, Cadence of Hyrule is such a great Nintendo game that it can be easy to forget it’s actually an indie game. At its best, it takes strengths from both influences and succeeds according to both measuring sticks. It has the polish of an indie-fied Nintendo game, but also the smart randomization of a Nintendo-fied indie roguelike. It has the classic beloved Zelda world, but also the snappy rhythm gameplay of Crypt. And when Cadence strikes these balances, it strikes them wholeheartedly. But it also falters a bit where Zelda and Crypt especially diverge — arenas like difficulty, dungeon design, and item usage. On the whole, both Zelda and Crypt fans are bound to nitpick some of these inconsistencies, but it’s hard to argue that Cadence of Hyrule isn’t a fantastic entry to both franchises, and a high-water mark for AAA-indie collaboration.

Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he's not playing video games, he's probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn't always playing video games.

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  1. HystericalGamer

    June 17, 2019 at 7:12 am

    It’s a perfect game to play while we wait for Awakening. Necromancer was one of my favorite games of late year, so I’m trying to scoop some money to buy this gem!

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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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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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