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What ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’ Sat AM got right

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Sonic the hedgehog

As a kid, I unfortunately never knew about the existence of the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon. It was dubbed as the Sat AM one, as it was on early Saturday mornings. Many fans still love it to this day and regard it as being one of the best Sonic cartoons in existence. What made the cartoon stand out to me, however, was the way it got the balance between dark themes and lighthearted humor, something that’s never been easy to do, especially in kid’s media.

Pacing:

If you compare the Sonic The Hedgehog cartoon to the most recent game in the franchise, Sonic Forces, you can see some severe contrasting elements. In Sonic Forces, everything goes at a rapid pace, and not in a good way. A LOT happens in the first few moments of the game and ironically, it goes way too fast. Early on in the game, Sonic is supposedly killed and Dr. Robotnik (oh, sorry, I mean Eggman) has taken over the world. Sonic’s friends are now freedom fighters who are trying to fight Eggman and are still mourning the loss of the blue blur. A creation of Eggman’s named Infinite with the ability to warp reality has amassed an army of various Sonic villains that seem to be copies of their past foes to combat the resistance. Then we hear that Sonic’s actually alive but he’s been captured by Robotnik and is being tortured.

A massive issue with Sonic Forces is the sense of pacing. In the Sonic cartoon, we didn’t have a mountain of exposition rammed down our throats. Hell, even the first episode alone sets up the whole story pretty well. They manage to explain what roboticizing is (a process where Robotnik converts animals into mindless robots to serve his army), explain the plot and show us everyone’s definitive roles within the first episode. Forces, however, shoves everything in your face without barely any cutscenes or story: they just put it into text or have the cast talking about it.

After Sonic supposedly ‘dies’, all this exposition is just flung at you through text. The spontaneous nature of it makes it feel more difficult to believe this take over is real. The cartoon on the other hand was steeped in a feeling of fear and oppression from the start. Robotnik’s iron grip was believable because we saw his empire established and what happened to captured freedom fighters (aka being robotcized). The freedom fighters were fighting for their lives every second and were constantly under siege. Their struggle felt genuine because there were real consequences if they failed. In forces however, everything happens too quick so none of the stakes ever feel really raised.

That’s a partial roboticization on Bunny there, and she’s one of the lucky ones. Getting captured actually meant something in the show.

Establishing a dark setting:

While I understand Forces needed to set up their story right away, it still could have been done better. A lot of heavy ideas have been thrown into the players face. Sonic being tortured, Robotnik taking over the world, Sonic’s friends being freedom fighters etc. It’s all very jarring and we’re given no time to transition. Everything that happens in Forces is supposed to be taken seriously, but I can’t help but feel that Forces feels, well, forced, and the delivery is a bit ham fisted. In the cartoon, we start off with seeing that the world is already apocalyptic. We’re not told exactly everything, but we get the gist of it pretty quick: Robotnik took over everything and Sonic and his pals are trying to fight back. The cartoon established its tone early on while Forces came barreling in screaming ‘WE’RE EDGY NOW’ at the top of its lungs. Sonic the Hedgehog had a sense of world building that effectively structured the story and made the characters and the world they lived in feel alive. Forces, however, is extremely rushed and for a triple A game I feel the tone of the game isn’t epic: it’s desperate.

Realistic reactions:

In one episode when Sonic encounters his uncle named Chuck who has been roboticized, he actually manages to break through to Chuck and talk to him. Sonic is adamant on bringing him back to Knothole but then Chuck’s mind reverts back and the freedom fighters have to leave Chuck behind. Sonic is understandably distraught and his friends are forced to physically grab him and pull him onto a fleeing train before they’re caught by soldiers.

Now, compare this to when we see Sonic again in Forces after he’s been supposedly ‘tortured for months’. There’s not a scratch or bruise on the hedgehog anywhere and he’s exchanging smug insults with Zavok as he approaches Sonic’s cell. How am I supposed to take this game seriously at all when they don’t even bother to try and show the impact any of this has had on Sonic? I get that he’s supposed to be the chipper hero but I want to see a reaction, some proof that what’s going on is affecting him. Is he concerned about his friends? Does he know if he’s about to be tortured again? How are they torturing him? Why doesn’t any of this impact him at all? This is where forces falls flat for me: It tries to raise the stakes but there’s never any real impact from any of the actions. The consequences are either non-existent or treated as if they never happened. I can’t feel for the characters if I don’t see them struggle.

Balance:

Sonic sat AM got the balance of chipper cartoon characters and a dark setting perfect. Despite the heavy oppressive themes in the cartoon, Sonic and the freedom fighters always maintained their personalities and Sonic’s attitude is ever present. The context of the story itself makes Sonic’s insulting and mockery of Robotnik not only funny, but also incredibly brave. He’s mocking a terrifying villain that has been hunting him down for ages and his name calling shows a sort of defiance in the face of real danger. This source of comedy is also an act of rebellion that shows how Sonic handles the whole situation. The entire dynamic keeps in check with his character and feels a lot like how someone like Sonic would handle the situation. While you could just chalk it up to just being his attitude, it feels more like a sense of rebellion, that no matter how bad things get, there will always be people to oppose evil tyrants. In that way, Sonic isn’t just a part of the rebellion: He’s the embodiment of it.

So, what could the Sonic franchise learn from the cartoon? Well, there’s a lot to cover. For a long time, the Sonic franchise has been all over the place. It’s tried doing so much with ideas that hold potential, but keeps jumping if they don’t see immediate positive results. The games have had humans, dimension hopping, guns, a werewolf mechanic, aliens etc. Sonic Team has been so desperate to appeal to everyone that it keeps changing its style and never allows a good idea to develop into something better. The tv series didn’t jump around constantly: It had a consistent tone which solidified the series and it’s world.

Since Sonic games get so much flack, I can understand the wish to ‘find the right idea’, although their methods are more harmful than helpful. Mario and The Legend of Zelda have had the same formula with some mild tweaks and work wonderfully. If Sonic wants to establish a darker tone, or ANY specific tone, then they need to develop it. They’ve already done it with 3D and 2D sonic so I don’t see how it couldn’t work. Sonic Mania, for example, traced back to the 2D side-scrolling roots with bright visuals and an emphasis on creativity and fun. Sonic is a very flexible series, but it needs more work on developing those new ideas to make use of their potential and not just drop it for the next shiny idea. Instead of constantly changing and shifting to find a new identity for their main mascot, Sonic Team needs to slow down and realize he already has one.

Katie Soden is a games design student/author who has a tendency to cry over cartoon characters and watch cat videos as opposed to doing important things, like eating or sleeping or keeping on track with assignments. Despite her tendency to forget how to function as a human being and general laziness she still occasionally updates her blog and makes an attempt at having an online presence.

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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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‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.

RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.

resident_evil_3_psx_marvin_branagh_by_danytatu-d812bgk-768x480

Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.

The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.

resident-evil-Nemesis-768x402

The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.

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