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Game Reviews

‘The Sinking City’ Review: A Great Old Time

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As a long time H.P. Lovecraft fan, I was pleased to see how lovingly crafted The Sinking City is. The most directly inspired Lovecraftian based game I’ve ever played, the game beautifully brings to life the central themes and lore of the Cthulhu Mythos with immediate, direct citations to the pulp author’s iconic work. Regardless of affinity for elder gods, however, The Sinking City serves up satisfying investigation gameplay, a captivating narrative shrouded in mystery, all swathed in a rich, ambivalent ambiance appropriate for the dark depths of a drowned city. Less seemly are the survival horror elements which are perpetually plagued by clunky combat mechanics, and the tedious world traversal, an initially exciting invitation to explore the world that inevitably overstays its welcome. These issues aren’t enough to sink the game and in the end, I enjoyed visiting the soggy streets of The Sinking City.

The Sinking City review

The title takes place in Oakmont, Massachusetts, a fictional city along the eastern coast separated from the mainland and half-submerged following “The Flood,” a supernatural disaster. The protagonist, Navy man turned private investigator, Charles Reed, is there in search of answers concerning the nightmares that plague him daily. As madness grips its citizens, Reed quickly realizes that the titular city houses a lot more than just the answers he’s looking for. The game wastes no time submerging the player in the themes and tropes of Lovecraft. In mere minutes the player is on a case concerning lineage, racial bias, and madness, complete with direct callbacks to the short story “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” and the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The game, for instance, alludes to the events of Innsmouth and establishes the preexisting city as neighboring Oakmont, situating the game’s events cleanly within a textual context while still paving its own distinct tale.

Yuggoth This!

The first case introduces the player to the primary gameplay loop, private investigator legwork with a supernatural spin. As Reed, players will collect clues at any given scene, interrogate individuals with needed information, or research events within relevant archives before logging that information in a Casebook alongside information on given side quests and other narrative detours. For cosmic horror, a lot of the detective work is satisfyingly mundane, relying on newspapers, cross streets on a map, and down to earth evidence over the puzzle based play of other games in the mystery genre. Certain clues, however, are only visible in utilizing the “Mind’s Eye,” which can reveal visions of the past, illusory walls, and omens, shadowy figures guiding the player to the next clue. In certain contexts, if enough evidence is inspected a sort of portal will emerge allowing the player to step into a spectral past courtesy of the “Retrocognition” feature, allowing Reed to chronologically sort events. Collect enough clues and the player is able to make deductions and draw conclusions in the “Mind Palace” page of the Casebook, often giving players the choice of interpretation which later shapes the outcome of events. From there, its following clues to the next scene or case closed, collect the reward.

The Sinking City review

The investigation work is satisfying if a little straight forward save for the occasional un-clicked clue barring progress requiring players to retrace their steps and some overly obtuse archive research which often felt more like guess and check than anything. While proceedings can feel rather routine after a while, particularly since the game follows this same pattern from beginning to end, and events may unfurl predictably, particularly for the Lovecraft initiated, gameplay remained gripping throughout, largely thanks to a captivating narrative overall and engaging changes in scenery.

“Dead Cthulhu Waits Dreaming”

Perhaps The Sinking City‘s strongest asset is its open world setting full of enthralling environments that enhance the narrative and produce boatloads of atmosphere. The briny, seawater-soaked city is suffocated by a dense fog and coated in seaweed, barnacles, and the wastes of the sea, evoking awe, apprehension, and downright dread, particularly when wading through the drowned out streets on a dingy dinghy or diving in the nearby oceanic depths. Different districts bring variety and prevent the atmosphere from ever getting stale while remaining equally as immersive and absolutely reminiscent of Lovecraft’s signature settings.

The strong sense of atmosphere is only enhanced by era accurate details placing the game firmly during Prohibition, roughly the time of the Cthulhu Mythos’ writing. That includes the prejudices of the time and the writer in his time. The game even features a warning at the opening that in an effort to paint an “authentic depiction of that time,” these biases against “ethnic, racial, and other minorities” were included “rather than pretend they never existed.” While the biases at play within the game have less to do with race than fictional lineages, it was a bold choice by developer Frogwares that helps current audiences contextualize the text, the author, and the game in an important way and within their time.

A Slog-Sothoth

All that said, Its just a shame that the game insists that players get more than their share of these locales with tedious trips between destinations and sorely limited fast travel options. Even on land, Reed runs as if underwater, run here really meaning a shambling jog, and the slog between destinations is often only exasperated by submerged streets that must be navigated by boat. While the flooded streets lined with makeshift docks do give credence to the conceit of a largely submerged city, too often they felt in the way of proceedings and the game’s overall pace.

Sinking City

If the generally sensational setting provides the skeletal framework for the game, than the characters would be there to help flesh it out. In general, the colorful cast succeeds in just that. Each written with a unique voice and well acted, the characters felt tonally and historically accurate all while helping endue Oakmont with life. The only obvious outlier here is ironically an outsider, the protagonist, Charles Reed. Not that Reed isn’t well acted, the character is simply too much of a cliche to see past. Returning to the metaphor, Reed only goes skin deep and there’s no meat or depth to the character for the audience to sink its teeth into. Think of a generic detective type and you’ve got Charles Reed. There’s no real descriptor for him beyond “hardboiled,” to the point that one of the upgrade traits is even called such. That he was a military man might play into the cliche, but is at least a plot device in the overall narrative and explains why the character knows how to dive. Ironically enough, he doesn’t know how to fight,  at least not well.

Fish Are Fiends, Not Food

The true cosmic horror within the game isn’t derived from the awakening of ancient, eldritch gods, but from clunky, uncomfortable, third-person combat controls that feel more antiquated than any god Lovecraft ever wrote about (think the original Resident Evil on its original platforms). The game continually warns players that resources are limited and to be conservative with ammo, however, I found myself opting to risk running out of ammo on even the weakest of enemies rather than contend with the absolute nightmare that is Reed’s melee ability. Even upgraded, accurately engaging an enemy with a melee attack felt like more of a struggle than any investigation and often felt like suicide. Luckily, The Sinking City is fairly generous for a survival horror title, and I always had plenty of scrap to craft more bullets, not that shooting ever felt much better. Clever level design, however, often allows the player to gain safe vantage points on the assorted horrors the game throws at you or avoid them all together, thank the Great Ones.

Sinking City

Buoyed by enthralling environments, engaging investigation mechanics, colorful characters, and a carefully constructed world submerged in all the trappings of Lovecraft, The Sinking City stays afloat despite the weight around its neck, namely tedious world traversal and clunky combat and movement. With multiple endings and several side quests, there’s a wide breadth of content to be uncovered within The Sinking City. Though approachable for the uninitiated, there’s more to be enjoyed for those that know the source material, from street names to quotes, to references, to ancient, unknowable horrors. Though anchored by some of its key mechanics, The Sinking City is one of the best Lovecraftian titles in recent memory.

Tim is not the droids you are looking for. He resides quietly in the Emerald City where he can often be found writing, reading, watching movies, or playing video games. He is the Xbox editor for Goomba Stomp and the site's official Pokémon Master.

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Game Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Game Reviews

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

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

Riverbond grass

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

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

Riverbond boss

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

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

Riverbond bears

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

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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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