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Game Reviews

‘Just Shapes and Beats’ Review: Fun, Fast and Frantic Grooves

Just Shapes and Beats is an inventive, fun twist on the rhythm game genre. But is it worth the price of admission? Click here to find out!



just shapes and beats

Rhythm has long been one of the most inventive genres in gaming. Relatively recent gems like Crypt of the NecroDancer and Thumper have each put their own unique spin on what a rhythm game can be. Just Shapes & Beats continues to push things forward with what, retroactively, feels like one of the most natural genre crossovers ever: bullet hell and rhythm.

A Match Made in Rhythm Hell

The core gameplay of Just Shapes and Beats can essentially be boiled down to “Don’t touch the red!” Players take control of a small shape and try to survive each song-based stage by avoiding any and all red-colored obstacles that cross their path. The controls are similarly simple: players move around with the left stick and dash with the A or B buttons. Dashing grants players temporary immunity, allowing them to fly through obstacles for the split-second they’re dashing. 

Though bullet hell masters might be able to make their way through stages based on quick reflexes alone, that won’t be the case for most. Some songs are tougher than others, but the default difficulty is just punishing overall. Several songs require trial and error to learn the patterns and optimal routes for survival. Frustrating as this can be at the beginning, it makes every subsequent successful run that much more rewarding.

But for those who don’t want to avoid pulling their hair out at all costs, there’s a really smart (if not misnamed) “casual mode” setting. Whereas some games will cut content, dumb down enemies or slow down the action, Just Shapes & Beats’ casual setting serves to ease players into the game by giving them twice the health. That’s it—the only change to the game’s challenge is the number of times you have to be hit (6 instead of the standard 3).

This seemingly minor handicap works perfectly for this type of game. Having more chances to progress and learn significantly lessens the frustration of constant death and (with some perseverance from the player) effectively eliminates the worry of getting stuck on a particularly nasty level. That said, the casual setting is exclusive to story mode. Not only does this make sense as a way to introduce players to ease players into the game, but it also forces them to get better for the multiplayer-focused challenge mode.

The Story of a Square

It isn’t often that you get a cohesive story mode in a rhythm game, but Just Shapes & Beats manages to put together something that feels premium and heartfelt. Instead of a standard series of stages with a boss at the end, there’s actually a fairly engaging (if not basic) storyline complete with little cutscenes and even side characters. Playing as a little blue square, you’ll travel through a small variety of environments on a mission to stop a corrupted shape from going on a rampage, kidnapping your friend and destroying everything you hold dear. 

All of this is told through a combination of cutscenes, really minor platforming sections, regular stages, and boss encounters. It all works for the most part, though the platforming is easily the weakest in terms of execution. Cutscenes are simple yet fun, and the contrast between the neon environments and the pitch black backdrop really make the visuals pop. Each boss encounter in the story mode (all of which translate over to the other modes) appropriately ratchet up the difficulty and provide some of the most intricate stage designs in the game.

Though it only takes a few hours to complete, the true benefit of the story mode is the chance to have a more gradual introduction to stages. Afterward, you can go through scene select and choose where to revisit the story. It’s all a pleasant little surprise and well worth playing through. In fact, those 27 stages serve as the perfect introduction to the real meat of Just Shapes and Beats: Challenge Mode.

The Good Kind of Challenge

As soon as players finish the story, special challenges (e.g. “Finish a stage without dashing”) and the ability to earn Beat Points become available. Each completed challenge upgrades the home screen with more characters from the story mode partying it up. The number of challenges completed and number of Beat Points all count towards different goal tiers to unlock up to 10 additional songs. So, how does one earn these things?

Challenge mode is where the majority of players will spend the lion’s share of their time with Just Shapes & Beats. It covers all the multiplayer bases one could want: local same-system play, local wireless play, public online play, and private online play with friends. In a welcome twist, the multiplayer here is more cooperative than competitive. Players go through 3 rounds: 2 normal and one boss at the end. Nothing about the stages or gameplay changes from the story mode to the challenge mode. The only difference is that if a player dies during a song, they turn into a ghost that a teammate can revive by passing through them. It is always in the best interest of players to help their teammates because fewer chances to survive can end up in failure.  

At the end of each round players are awarded with point bonuses depending on what they did they did (staying on the right side of the screen a lot, being the first to clear a checkpoint, etc.). Not only is it fun to experience these challenges with a friend or stranger online, but earning points by doing so presents a pretty decent incentive for those who want to unlock everything Just Shapes & Beats has to offer. 

Bells and Whistles

Of course, none of this matters if the game’s soundtrack isn’t up to par. Fortunately, the core OST here is incredibly solid. It’s all EDM, but there’s such a wide array of sounds and ideas on display that tracks never feel too samey or uninteresting. Some tunes are especially catchy and memorable (the boss tracks in particular), but everyone is sure to have their favorites. 

If you do find that you love a particular song or stage more than the rest, Just Shapes & Beats offers a super handy “playlist mode” that lets players construct their own playlist of stages to run through. There’s even the option to play for Beat Points or just for fun. The “just for fun” concept also carries over to the game’s “party mode.” Party mode is literally a random, endless mode meant to be played as background. It’s a fun little extra, though its usefulness is a bit doubtful. 

The Final Countdown

Just Shapes & Beats is an undeniably fun fusion that works so well I’m shocked it hasn’t been done before. The learning curve here is serious yet rewarding; dying often can be the norm, but so can making harrowing last-second escapes. While the base song list isn’t super lengthy, the task of working together with others to complete challenges and earn Beat Points to unlock new songs is a welcome one. And though I did experience slowdown both in story mode and challenge mode, it was never enough to hinder my enjoyment of the game. If you’re looking for a fun rhythm game that loves to push you to your limits, Just Shapes & Beats is an easy recommendation. If you specifically want a ton of variety, however, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

Brent became infatuated with manga and anime after randomly stumbling upon Vol. 3 of Yu Yu Hakusho on a childhood roadtrip. Today he has a soft spot for colorful JRPGs, cozy anime, and both games and shows that indulge his innate love of adventure. Find him (im)patiently waiting for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and incredibly fulfilled by Fire Emblem: Three Houses @CreamBasics.

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Game Reviews

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



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.




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.”


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.


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 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.



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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