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A Eulogy for ‘Dark Souls II’: The Strengths and Shortcomings of One of Gaming’s Most Divisive Sequels

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Dark Souls II

Calling Dark Souls one of the most compelling and influential video games of the past generation would be an unbelievable understatement. Developed by From Software and directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, the original Dark Souls itself was the spiritual successor to 2009’s Demon’s Souls, and served as a testament to how much a sequel can improve, polish and refine an original game’s core mechanics. Five years later, the franchise has gone on to inspire some of the most creative games in recent memory, has paved the way for the return of overtly difficult games, and has essentially created its own subgenre of challenging games with unconventional narratives. Naturally, any sequel following up what is widely considered to be one of the greatest action role-playing games of all time was going to be judged harshly.

Developed by a separate team and without the complete direction of its creator, Dark Souls II received a fairly positive reception by critics, but a surprisingly mixed reaction from the community. To this day, the game is a contentious topic among Souls fans, many of whom completely disregard its contribution to the franchise as a whole and choose to pretend it doesn’t exist. Although the sequel didn’t recreate the absolute brilliance that was the level design, atmosphere, and lore of Dark Souls, I find that it remains vastly underappreciated.

While Dark Souls II has very defined flaws, such as its problematic online system and inconsistent level design, it does its job as a sequel remarkably well. By no means does it serve as a substitution for the original game, instead, it complements and expands on the themes and systems that were already present. Although there are several lackluster aspects of Dark Souls II, its mechanical improvements, subversion of established themes and exploration of new ideas elevate it to the quality of any other game in the series and, in turn, one of the most interesting RPGs of all time.

One area that has undoubtedly improved in the sequel is its accessibility and general gameplay. As the sequel to a financially successful and critically acclaimed title, Dark Souls II has an extra degree of polish compared to its predecessors, creating subtle, yet effective changes to the series. For starters, nearly every aspect of the user interface was streamlined and simplified to be more intuitive to new players and faster to navigate for veterans. Inventory menus, character stats and upgrade trees that were incomprehensible messes of numbers and abbreviations in the original game were transformed into the easily navigated menu style that the series uses to this day.

The movement system now allowed for the players to dodge roll in eight directions, instead of four, while locked onto an enemy and jumping could be mapped to its own button. These small changes had a profound effect on how well players can maneuver during fights and explore the world. While the combat of the game has noticeably slowed down, this is really a matter of preference rather than superiority, as there are pros and cons to both the originals fast-paced and punishing duels and the sequels more methodical and tactical fights. That being said, the sequel benefits greatly from the inclusion of guard-breaking, power stance weapons and locked-on dead angles.

Dark-Souls-II-Boss

Additionally, a wider variety of weapons, spells, and armor (with many being accessible from early in the game) create a larger amount of possible character combinations, making each new character fundamentally different to play. This increased build variety, the ability to respect your character’s stats and the inclusion of content exclusive to New Game+ made Dark Souls II one of the most replayable entries in the series. As much as I enjoy Bloodborne, the sheer quantity of content in this game is what keeps drawing me back to it, even if it’s not as innovative as newer games in the franchise.

As much as I love the gameplay of Dark Souls II, I know that it is completely a matter of preference and is heavily influenced by whichever game you played first. People tend to just pick a side and dedicate themselves to that game, so whether I’m trying to get somebody to join a fight club in Darkroot Garden (DS) or the Iron Keep (DSII), it’s like arguing with a brick wall. The story of Dark Souls II, on the other hand, is both interesting and beneficial to the series, regardless of which game you think plays better.

While it’s absolutely possible to appreciate the Souls games solely for their painful difficulty, meticulously designed levels or imaginative bosses, the world building and lore found in these games are second to none. The amount of information that is conveyed solely through the environment in areas such as Aldia’s Keep, The Shrine of Amana and The Forest of Fallen Giants is staggering. Although Dark Souls II was criticized for having less consistent and interesting lore when it was first released, the Scholar of the First Sin DLC added enough content to the game to put it on par with the first game.

Taken at face value, the stories of both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II boil down to “kill a bunch of monsters for their souls.” But in reality, there is much more going on than just what your character is experiencing, as each game has an extensive history behind every location you visit and every character that you meet.

The original game tells the story of how Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his race of Gods used the power of the First Flame to overthrow the immortal Dragons who ruled the world before them. Over time, the First Flame began to fade and the world started to fall apart, resulting in humans becoming cursed and turning into the zombie-like, undead hollows, which live forever but gradually go insane with each death. Gwyn sacrifices himself to delay the end of the world for a short period of time, but everything goes to hell without him and the world continues to decay.

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You play “The Chosen Undead,” a human hollow who’s destined to collect the souls of the four most important beings in the world (called “Lord Souls”) and rekindle the First Flame. At the end of the game, you can either choose to sacrifice yourself to the First Flame and delay the end of the world a little bit longer (as Gwyn did) or to allow the fire to fade and become the ruler of a world of darkness. The sequel takes place many years after the first game and focuses on your player character facing the same curse as the Chosen Undead in the first game.

Yet again you are tasked with collecting the four Lord Souls then rekindling the first flame, except now there’s a twist: your guide to the First Flame, Queen Nashandra, is actually evil and is manipulating you to bypass the barriers to the flame put in place by her King, Vendrick, when he found out she was evil. Towards the endgame, you learn that this same process of rekindling the flame as it fades has taken place countless times throughout history (called “The Cycle”) and will continue to create and destroy society as long as somebody is willing to fight the curse and sacrifice themselves to the First Flame. Finally, after defeating Nashandra, you are given the option to either accept that the curse is a part of life or walk away from the First Flame entirely, in search of a way to end the cycle for good.

The first game focuses more on building an interesting world and history around the First Flame, while the second is primarily concerned with the protagonist’s struggle against the curse and their fight to understand The Cycle. Both games’ stories work independently of each other, but when they are taken together, they become something truly special. The history of The Cycle provided in the second game retroactively adds a level of mythic importance to the events of the first game and, in turn, experiencing the Chosen Undead’s story in the first game creates a sense of nostalgia and gravitas when repeating the process in the second game. Not only does the sequel expand on the first game’s themes, it actively questions them. Although Dark Souls stands as a cornerstone of gaming, I believe it is grossly misinterpreted.

At a passing glance, Dark Souls is a historically difficult game where you are forced to overcome whatever stands in your way or continuously die trying. But this is only part of the bigger picture. While a lesser game would be content with the simple message of “Try your hardest and you can overcome anything,” Dark Souls takes an unsurprisingly grim step further, and makes the case that this arbitrary choice between a “light” or “dark” ending is just as meaningless as any other choice you’re faced with. No matter what choice you make, the outcome is the same; the game is over, and the player must restart the game or move on.

While both of these interpretations are equally valid, I think it’s remarkably telling that the harshest critic of the black and white “Prepare to Die,” slogan/mentality is the game’s own sequel. What was subtext in the first game directly becomes text in Dark Souls II. As the firekeeper in the sequel’s opening speaks of the last kingdom to rise and fall as a result of The Cycle, she states that “…one day, you will stand before its decrepit gate. Without really knowing why…,” Within the first 130 seconds of the game you are directly told how inconsequential your actions are and the game doesn’t stop there. Countless characters echo this same theme throughout the game.

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“I, too, sought fire, once. With fire, they say, a true king can harness the curse. A lie. But I knew no better…”-King Vendrick

“Many kingdoms rose and fell on this tract of earth; mine was by no means the first. Anything that has a beginning also has an end. No flame, however brilliant, does not one day splutter and fade. But then, from the ashes, the flame reignites, and a new kingdom is born, sporting a new face. It is all a curse! Heh heh heh!”-Straid of Olaphis

“Men are props on the stage of life, and no matter how tender, how exquisite… A LIE will remain A LIE!” –Aldia

While some criticize Dark Souls II for its overt bleakness, I believe it’s done purposefully, to both directly question its predecessor’s message and to interpret this “illusion of control,” in a new light. To further critique itself, the game’s structure initially mirrors the final sequence of the original game (Find the four Lord Souls, then find the King) but then goes on to subvert the player’s expectations in several ways. First, after hours of being told to seek the King, you arrive at Drangleic Castle and are introduced to the Queen.

The “dark” deceitful Nashandra herself juxtaposes the “light” and noble Vendrick and Gwyn. Even when we first meet Vendrick, he is not the proud or fierce Lord we are expecting in the vein of Gwyn. Instead, the player fights their way through the decaying Drangleic Castle, endures the Undead Crypt, and defeats Vendrick’s Royal Guard only to be greeted by a fully hollowed King, aimlessly shuffling around his burial room as an undead. This same subversion is central to the overarching story of the sequel as a whole and is paramount in understanding the game’s climax.

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Before examining the true ending, it’s important to understand Dark Souls II’s change in perspective from a world based narrative to one driven by characters. One fair criticism of this game is that it featured a far less impressive list of supporting characters than Dark Souls. Regardless of what was or was not cut from the final version of Dark Souls II, I can’t really say it provided any characters as iconic as the likes of Solaire and Artorias.

The brief interactions with the majority of NPCs are serviceably engaging but the only real standout among them is Lucatiel’s slow deterioration to a hollow. What the story lacks in scope it more than makes up for in focus, as Vendrick, Nashandra, The Emerald Herald (a mysterious firekeeper who levels you up) and most importantly the player character, are all given ample space to be fleshed out. While the item descriptions of the souls of both the King and Queen serve as small character arcs, posing questions on the nature of “light and dark,” and The Emerald Herald is meant to parallel Nashandra’s manipulation of the King, I believe the driving force of the story comes from its obsession with the main character and the question of what their true motivation is.

The opening cinematic of Dark Souls sets the stage for a story of legendary scale involving Gods, immortal Dragons, wars deciding the fate of the world, eternally cursed humans and the source of life itself. Throughout the game, you seek “Humanity,” the blackened remains of fallen humans, in order to keep the undead curse at bay and remain human. Dark Souls II doesn’t frame itself as some grand epic. There are no wars, Dragons or Gods, only the player character and the curse. Vistas of impossibly large battlefields and kingdoms basking in sunlight are replaced by disturbing, claustrophobic shots of the curse tearing away at our character’s very humanity as their memory fades before their eyes.

Your character’s only tie to reality comes in the form of “Human Effigies,” small replicas of humans that function the same as Humanity. While the sequel is often criticized for being so upfront with the importance of the curse, as opposed to allowing the environment to gradually reveal its intricacies to the player, I think the change in perspective necessitates the change in tone from the past game. Although this story is seemingly more forward than the original, it does so to intentionally misinform the player’s actions so the rug can be pulled out from under them in the endgame.

As I previously mentioned, at face value, the original Dark Souls appears to be the token, soul-crushingly difficult challenge that it has become known for. However, this is actually a very elementary interpretation of the game. As fans of the series have come to learn through each games extensive history of hidden lore, the Souls series is actually just as complex at a narrative level as it is at a gameplay level. The encompassing theme of Dark Souls is that choice itself is an illusion. Light or dark ultimately cap off the game the same way and accomplish the same thing: nothing. The game ends, the credits roll and the player is kicked into NG+ to endlessly repeat the same actions in hopes of a different result. Just as the protagonist of the first game, the player comes to realize they are simply a pawn of forces greater than themselves, the game designers.

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The sequel, on the other hand, offers a slightly more optimistic, albeit vague, conclusion. The subtext of the original game’s ending is presented openly and directly to the player after the final boss has been defeated. There is no good or bad ending, no light or dark path, no choice, the player’s only option is to ascend the throne of want, rekindle the first flame and repeat the cycle anew. That is until Scholar of the First Sin arrived. Without the addition of Aldia (The king’s brother, who was consumed by the First Flame and now exists outside of all worlds) in this DLC, the game’s ending is somewhat unsatisfactory as there were constant hints of “breaking the cycle” throughout the vanilla game. Aldia guides the main character on their path to breaking free of the curse and constantly questions the futility of this process.

From a narrative standpoint, he serves to compare the inconsequentiality of the main character’s acts to the illusion of importance experienced by the player themselves. The new ending, enabling the main character to walk away from The Cycle and the First Flame entirely, arrives at the same nihilistic conclusion as the original story, but takes an unexpected turn:

“There is no path. Beyond the scope of light, beyond the reach of Dark…what could possibly await us? And yet, we seek it, insatiable…Such is our fate.” -Aldia, DLC ending

Just as Aldia states, it seems that it is human nature to desire what is intrinsically outside of our reach and to pursue it regardless. Dark Souls II does not shy away from this fact, it embraces it. Even in this ending, the player is encouraged to continue their Sisyphean journey and continue playing, the only true option available.

“For the curse of life, is the curse of want. And so, you peer… Into the fog, in hope of answers.” -Ancient Dragon

An aspiring journalist who spends too much time thinking about the games he plays

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10 Years Later: ‘Mass Effect 2’ is An All-Time Sci-fi Classic

Mass Effect 2 didn’t just nail the formula for a successful sequel, it tied together one of the greatest science fiction tales ever.

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Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect launched in 2007 as the boldest science fiction project ever conceived for consoles. The complex mythology, history and the many alien races, each with their own political/religious beliefs offered a depth rarely seen in the medium. Only a game as ambitious as Mass Effect 2 could not only match the pedigree of such a massive project, but surpass it in every single way imaginable.

Released 3 years after the original, a full decade ago, Mass Effect 2 set the benchmark for not just sequels but for science fiction gaming as well. Few sequels are able to overcome the weaknesses of their predecessors with such perfect accuracy while also doubling down on what made them good in the first place.

The first task that fell to Bioware was to refine the combat. The original game had more of a strategic angle to it but that strategy meant the game was constantly stopping and starting, stuttering the action and ruining the flow of the game. By streamlining the combat into more of an action RPG experience (emphasis on action), Mass Effect 2 created a much better sense of tension in battle sequences. Aiming, using techniques and issuing orders also flowed more smoothly with these changes.

Mass Effect 2

Another major change was the removal of the Mako, an exploratory rover the player drove around alien planets with. While a novel idea, the Mako often lead to aimless wandering as the player sought out resources on the many planets of Mass Effect. Instead of driving to their destination, players were now warped directly to the area they would be exploring. Resource collection was overhauled as a result.

While few players will talk about the thrill of spinning a globe around and aiming a reticle in order to collect resources in Mass Effect 2, the simple speed by which this process was streamlined offered a hefty margin of improvement over the original game. Resources that might have taken a half hour to collect in the first game could now be found in 1/10 of that time. Resource collection, while a vital part of the game, was never meant to be the time sink it was in the original Mass Effect, and by speeding up this process, Mass Effect 2 allowed players to get back to the meat of the game: doing missions and exploring the galaxy.

Of course, these aren’t necessarily the most significant changes that players will recall from their time with Mass Effect 2. The story and character roster were also expanded considerably from the first game, and these are without a doubt the biggest improvements that this sequel is able to mount.

Mass Effect 2

While Mass Effect had seven playable characters, Mass Effect 2 expanded that to twelve. Not only was the amount of characters an improvement, though, the quality of the characters on offer was also much stronger this time around. A full nine new characters were introduced for players to utilize in combat, strategize with and get to know throughout the game. Among them were badass assassin Thane Krios, dangerous convict Jack, morally dubious Miranda Lawson, and hivemind robot Legion.

In fact, the cast of Mass Effect 2 is so good that it has rightfully become a benchmark for the creation of a compelling cast of characters in RPGs, and video games, in general. The sheer diversity on display in the looks, personalities and movesets allowed for the cast is awe-inspiring, and this is without even considering the trump card that Mass Effect 2 flashed throughout the experience of playing the game.

The monumental suicide mission to raid the Collectors’ base and save humanity is the impetus for the entire plot of Mass Effect 2, and the reason for which the player is recruiting the baddest mother fuckers from all over the galaxy in hopes of success. It isn’t just a suicide mission in name either, many, or even all, of the cast can die during the completion of this mission, adding a layer of suspense and finality to the final stage of Mass Effect 2 that few other games can match.

Mass Effect 2

To this end, players were encouraged to get to know their crew through loyalty missions specific to each cast member. By undertaking these optional missions and completing them in a way that would impress or endear themselves to the character in question, players were able to ascertain the unquestioned respect and loyalty of that character, ensuring they wouldn’t go rogue during the final mission.

Still, even passing these prerequisites with flying colors wasn’t a guarantee for success. Players also had to pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the characters when assigning tasks and making split second decisions. Who you would leave to recon an area, repair a piece of equipment, or lock down a path, could make the difference as to who was going to survive the mission. Further complicating things, the characters you wanted to take with you to final branches of the mission might be the very people best suited for these earlier tasks.

Getting everyone out alive is a truly Machiavellian task, requiring either a guide or multiple playthroughs in order to get it precisely right. To that end, my feeling is that it’s better to go at it honestly the first time around, dealing with the requisite losses that this experience entails. After all, it isn’t really a suicide mission without a couple of casualties right? Even with all of my preparations and foresight, I lost Tali and Legion in the final mission, but for the fate of the human race, these losses were an acceptable cost.

Mass Effect 2

Even outside the strength of this fantastic cast and the monumental undertaking of planning and executing this final mission, there were other key characters and elements introduced as well. The Illusive Man, voiced by the great Martin Sheen, emerged as a necessary evil, saving Commander Shepard from death but asking morally complex decisions to be made as the cost of doing business. The relationship with, and the choices the player makes, in regard to The Illusive Man have far reaching consequences for the remainder of the series, and as he emerged to become a primary antagonist in the final game of the trilogy, the considerations to be made were vast and insidious by their very definition.

With so many factors working in its favor, Mass Effect 2 is the rare game that is so perfectly designed that both its predecessor and sequel suffer by comparison as a result. While the improvements of ME2 make it hard to go back to the original game, the scope and ambition of an entire cast that could be alive or dead at the end of the journey also neutered the third game, causing many of the best characters in the trilogy to be excised from the final leg of the trip.

Truly, Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop. Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, Mass Effect 2 is the best exemplar of its universe and what makes it compelling and worthwhile in general.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘Speaking Simulator,’ ‘Iron Danger,’ and ‘Wildermyth’

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Iron Danger

PAX South brought an extremely diverse lineup of games to San Antonio, and in this next roundup, it’s time to look at another diverse assortment of titles. These include Speaking Simulator, the surrealist take on the art of speaking, Wildermyth, a beautiful new RPG based on D&D, and Iron Danger, a surprisingly player-friendly take on roleplaying.

PAX South

Speaking Simulator

When asked why he was inspired to develop Speaking Simulator, the developer promptly responded, “I don’t know!” That was exactly what I felt while playing its demo at PAX. It left me mystified, amazed that it exists, overwhelmed by its complexity, and delighted with its absurdity. Speaking Simulator follows a highly advanced android tasked with assimilating into human society in order to gain world domination – and to do that, he’ll need to learn how to speak first. Players are thus tasked with controlling every aspect of this android’s face and guiding it through increasingly difficult social situations.

Speaking is an awkward art for many people (including myself), and Speaking Simulator is just that: awkward. You can control nearly every aspect of the android’s face. You can move its tongue with the left stick and its jaw with the right, while manipulating its facial expression, eyebrows, and more with other buttons. This leads to a delicate balancing act where complete control feels just barely out of reach so that you must always be alert and able to sufficiently direct your mechanical face.

PAX

During each conversation, you’ll have so many different moving parts to consider. You’ll have to follow prompts about where to move your tongue, how to adjust your mouth, how your face should look, and so on. The more complex the conversation, the trickier it is to speak. Scenarios during my demo included a date, a job interview, and the most normal social situation of all, speaking to a man while he’s using the toilet. And of course, if you don’t perform adequately in these conversations, then your face will start to explode – which is only natural for awkward conversations, after all.

Speaking Simulator is the definition of controlled chaos. It shows just how difficult it really is to be a human – controlling the face alone was far more than I could handle, as my frequent face explosions during my demo showed me. Playing Speaking Simulator was an equally hilarious and surreal experience, one that I can’t wait to experience in full when it releases on Switch and PC at the end of January.

PAX

Iron Danger

Iron Danger was one of my biggest surprises at PAX South. When I arrived at the Daedalic Entertainment booth for my appointment with Iron Danger, I didn’t expect to enjoy it half as much as I did. As a western-styled, point and click RPG, Iron Danger was outside my comfort zone. Yet the game is explicitly designed for players like me, who can feel intimidated by the immense amount of strategies and decisions that the genre requires. This is thanks to its core mechanic: time reversal. Perhaps this mechanic isn’t entirely unheard of in RPGs (Fire Emblem: Three Houses comes to mind as a recent example), but the way it’s implemented in Iron Danger makes all the difference.

It begins simply enough for an RPG. Your village is under attack, and as you attempt to escape to safety, you have the misfortune of dying. But death is only the beginning: just as you fall, a mysterious being blesses you with the ability to rewind time at any moment you’d like. That means that if you ever make a wrong move during combat, then you can reverse that decision and try something else. Time is divided up into “heartbeats,” which are measured in a bar at the bottom of the screen.  If you want to go back in time, simply click on a previous heartbeat. There’s no limit on how often you can use this ability: battles become a process of trial and error, of slowly rewinding and progressing as you discover what works. If you end up walking into an enemy trap, simply click back to the heartbeat before the ambush, and try a different strategy.

Iron Danger takes the stress out of roleplaying. RPGs are all about making decisions, and typically, making the wrong decision comes at a high price. But thanks to the time-reversal mechanic, Iron Dungeon gives you the room to experiment without consequence. As the developers at the booth explained to me, the ability to undo your actions turns Iron Danger into more of a puzzle game than an RPG. It’s all about evaluating your situation, the abilities at your disposal, the locations and actions of different enemies, and so on. And if everything goes wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.

That doesn’t mean that Iron Danger will be too easy, however. Current indications point to the opposite. After I played through the tutorial, the developers took over and showed me an advanced, extremely complex level from later in the game, filled with deadly enemies and dynamic environments to consider, with fields that can catch on fire and explosive barrels to throw at enemies. You’ll have to constantly skip forward and backward in time only to survive. This combination of player-friendly mechanics and hardcore roleplaying combat is an exciting mix, extremely appealing for someone like myself who loves RPGs but doesn’t enjoy the stress that often comes with them.

Wildermyth

Wildermyth

In addition to video games, PAX South also had a substantial portion of the exhibit hall devoted to tabletop games – including, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. But if you wanted to experience D&D-style action without leaving the video game section of the expo, then Wildermyth perfectly fit the bill.

This new RPG is a hybrid between DnD storytelling and worldbuilding with XCOM-esque combat. Like D&D, it allows players to forge their own adventures and stories. Decisions during story events can impact everything from the way the larger story plays out to the weapons your character can use in each battle. Story sequences play out randomly, with events occurring differently depending on which enemies you’ve faced, which characters are in your party, which regions you’ve explored, and so on. It’s an extremely variable story, but with such adaptable writing, each story sequence feels natural, despite its apparent randomness. Instead, it should encourage replayability, to experience every possible story beat there is.

Wildermyth

Combat plays out in a grid-based strategy style, similar to games like XCOM. Each character is decked out with unique abilities of their own, and can interact with their environment dynamically. My favorite ability to experiment with was with the mage character, who can imbue environmental objects with magical abilities, such as attacking enemies who get close or inhibiting nearby enemies with status debuffs. I loved exploiting my surroundings and constructing the best strategies during my demo, and cleverly using special abilities like these will likely be key to strategically mastering combat later in the full game.

Like so many other games at PAX, Wildermyth also boasts of a visually distinct art style. The entire game is framed as a storybook; narrative sequences play out in comic book-like illustrations, and environments and characters consist of flat paper cut-outs in 3D surroundings. Pair this with a muted color palette and a simple, hand-drawn style, and Wildermyth has a quaint, comfortable art style that really supports the fairytale feel of the whole game. Currently available on Steam Early Access, the full game is set to release later this year.

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Indie Games Spotlight – Pastels, Parenting, and Pedestrians

Check out five of the most creative and compelling upcoming indies in the second Indie Games Spotlight of 2020.

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Indie Games Spotlight

Indie Games Spotlight is Goomba Stomp’s bi-weekly column that shines a light on some of the most promising new and upcoming independent titles. Though 2020 is already scheduled to have several of the most anticipated indie releases of the last few years, this time we’re going to focus on games coming out in the immediate future. From vibrant brawlers to daughter raising simulators, you’re bound to find something that tickles your fancy in the coming weeks.

Super Crush KO; Indie Games Spotlight

Be John Wick for a Day in Super Crush KO

The neon-tinged shoot ’em up Graceful Explosion Machine quickly became one of the best indies on the Switch in 2017. Almost three years later, the same crew at Vortex Pop is back again with Super Crush KO, a fast-paced brawler set in a vibrant, near-future city. Despite the change in genre, however, it’s clear that Vortex Pop haven’t lost their design sensibilities in the slightest.

Super Crush KO plops players into a pastel world full of evil robots and cat-stealing aliens. Such is the situation of protagonist Karen when she’s rudely awoken to find her fluffy, white-furred pal catnapped. Thus, she embarks on a mission to punch, kick, juggle, and shoot anyone trying to keep her from her feline friend. Just like with Graceful Explosion Machine, the goal here is to clear levels with style, rack up high scores, and climb the leaderboards to compete with players around the world. Super Crush KO is out now for Switch and PC.

LUNA: The Shadow Dust Rekindles Lost Memories

Luna: The Shadow Dust is an absolutely stunning, hand-drawn adventure that follows the quest of a young boy who must restore light and balance to an eerie, enchanted world. This lovingly crafted point-and-click puzzle game originally began as a Kickstarter and is finally seeing the light of day after four long years of development.

Beyond its frame-by-frame character animation and appealing aesthetics, LUNA also promises to offer all manner of environmental puzzles to keep players engaged. Control will be split between the boy and his mysterious companion as the two gradually forge a bond and try to uncover the boy’s lost memories. With emphasis placed on emergent storytelling and atmospheric mastery, LUNA should be well worth investigating when it releases on February 13th for PC. Don’t miss trying out the free demo either!

Georifters – An Earth-Shattering Party Game

Genuinely entertaining party games are shockingly hard to come by in a post-Wii world. Georifters looks to fill that gap by offering a multiplayer-centric platformer centered around spontaneous terrain deformation. Players will be able to push, flip, twist or turn the terrain to overcome challenges and battle competitors in hundreds of stages in single-player, co-op and four-player multiplayer modes.

Of course, multiplayer will be where most of the fun is had here. Each character boasts a unique terrain-altering ability to help them attain the coveted crystal in every match. This makes character selection a serious consideration when planning a winning strategy against friends. To drive this point home even further, there will even be dozens of unique themed skins for players to customize their favorites with. Just like the original Mario Party titles, get ready to ruin friendships the old fashioned way when Georifters launches on all platforms February 20th.

Ciel Fledge; Indie Games Spotlight

Master Parenting in Ciel Fledge: A Daughter Raising Simulator

To say the simulation genre is ripe with creativity would be a massive understatement. Ciel Fledge: A Daughter Raising Simulator takes the Football Manager approach of letting players manage and schedule nearly every aspect of their daughter’s life; classes, hobbies, time spent with friends, you name it. The week then flies by and players get to see how their decisions play out over the weeks, months and years that follow. To keep things engaging, extracurricular activities and school tests are taken via a fascinating blend of match-three puzzles and card-based gameplay.

Just like in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it’s easy to imagine the strong bonds that’ll form after investing so much time and energy into Ciel’s growth into an adult. Better yet, Ciel Fledge is filled out by what Sudio Namaapa calls “a cast of lovable characters” for Ciel to befriend, learn from, and grow up with. Prepare to raise the daughter you always wanted when Ciel Fledge: A Daughter Raising Simulator releases on February 21st for Switch and PC.

The Pedestrian; Indie Games Spotlight

The Pedestrian – Forge Your Own Path

The Pedestrian puts players in the shoes of the ever-recognizable stick figure plastered on public signs the world over. From within the world of the public sign system, players will have to use nodes to rearrange and connect signs to progress through buildings and the world at large.

The Pedestrian is a 2.5D side scrolling puzzle platformer, but the real draw here is the puzzle aspect. The core platforming mechanics are on the simpler side; players can jump and interact with different moving platforms, ladders, and the occasional bouncy surface. The possibilities of where this novel concept can go will all depend on how inventive the types of signs players can navigate will be. The character is also surprisingly charming; it’s inherently fun to guide the little pedestrian man through buildings and environments he wouldn’t normally find himself in.

Whether you’re a puzzle fan or simply appreciate the aesthetics, be sure to look out for the full journey when The Pedestrian launches on PC January 29th. Get an idea of what to expect by trying out the free demo too!

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