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‘Xenoblade Chronicles 2’ Review: A Rough Diamond

Despite its setbacks, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a joy to behold, and a ‘rough around the edges’ blast of delight.

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Even the most venomous of its criticizers can’t deny that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is erupting with passionate aspiration. The latest installment in the long-running franchise of Xeno exists as an indirect sequel to 2010’s acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles and presents a sprawlingly gargantuan role-playing experience. Often, it admirably delivers on its promises, serving a scrumptiously sizeable portion of addictive activities that demand countless spoonfuls of time to digest. Disappointingly, however, many instances of unsteadiness that its predecessors (Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X) were debilitated by still run rampantly throughout one’s adventure in the wide world of Alrest, preventing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 from its potential propulsion above the realm of ‘yeah, it’s pretty decent’.

The aforementioned Alrest, a world above a sea of clouds, sees protagonist Rex working as a salvager (somebody who picks up somewhat useful junk from the somewhat useless cloud sea). With humanity residing upon colossal beings known as Titans (much like in Xenoblade Chronicles), anxiety spreads as a result of various Titans, fundamental for providing the very surfaces humankind require to exist upon, mysteriously dying and plummeting below the vast cloud sea.

After a chance encounter with a being known as Pyra, Rex is requested to venture alongside her to Elysium, a legendary land that purportedly carries the potential of providing ample residency room for humanity in its entirety, being a rectification to the ‘Titans are totally dying and that sucks’ problem. Accompanied by various allies, Rex, Pyra, and friends begin their journey to Elysium, waging heated battle against the fierce threats seeking to oppose their plight. The fantasy fueled narrative of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 brings purposeful progression of characters alongside profound emotional sincerity, resulting in what can be described as one of gaming’s more successful examples of storytelling, even despite its clichés.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Graphically, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 brandishes anime-inspired visual charm, boasting colorful liveliness and cel-shaded loveliness. Despite its beauty during the Nintendo Switch’s docked format, in handheld mode the resolution suffers a shockingly severe blow. Whilst the overwhelming majority of Nintendo Switch games showcase a satisfactory degree of graphical competence in handheld mode, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 exchanges its crisp vibrancy for a sludge showered pixelated parade of dirge. With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild still turning heads during handheld mode for its drop dead gorgeous good looks, there is insufficient excuse for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to perform as lousily as it does when on the go.

Combat of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shares similarities to its preceding Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X, but also provides an array of alterations to the fighting formula that create an intricately strategic melding of concepts. Characters are placed into pairs consisting of a Driver, responsible for taking center stage and dishing out the damage, and a Blade, who provides elemental energy and assistance to their Driver. During combat, auto-attacks neglect to require any form of input from the player. Being automatic as their name implies, they charge up a character’s Arts. Mightier than auto-attacks, and possessing perks, Arts deal more damage, and their usage charges up a character’s Special Gauge. Specials can be executed at either level one, two, or three (a fourth level is attainable provided that a Driver has garnered a maximized bond rating with his or her Blade during combat), with higher numeric levels equating to deadlier damage, but requiring longer (more executions of Arts) to charge up. With each Special bearing an elemental property, executing a level one, followed by a level two, and concluding with a level three Special in a specific sequence will allow for a Blade Combo, a grandiose performance of fighting fueled eye-candy. Chain Attacks, Driver Combos, and Fusion Combos also play a role of importance, alongside Blade switching.

If it sounds bewildering, it’s because it is. Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s combat brings with it a lofty learning curve, and can perplex players as a result. Whilst it becomes digestible (and satisfying) over time, thanks in part to the nature in which Xenoblade Chronicles 2 drip-feeds its mechanics as opposed to suffocating players with an influx of information, further assistance (such as the option to replay tutorials or the inclusion of a training room for practicing incidental intricacies of battling) would have been welcome. However enjoyable as it may evolve to be, the road trip to competence at Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s confounding combat is a bumpy one to say the least and could have been cushioned by supportive features that are disappointingly absent.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

The insurmountable amount of activities offered to players in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is staggering. From unlocking and enhancing Blades to undertaking Merc Missions, to indulging in a retro-influenced mini-game (Tiger! Tiger!) in the interest of strengthening Poppi, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 provides to its players a jaw-dropping quantity of time eaters. Side-quests have undergone improvement, showcasing greater diversity than their iterations in Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X, alongside being more intelligently organized within the pause menu screen and less over-abundant in their quantity.

Positive points aside however, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 makes missteps that dampen the experience. The voice acting (specifically the English dub) of characters ranges from wonderfully realized to woefully rubbish, creating an off-kilter balance of quality throughout the range of cutscenes. Pyra, Poppi, and Dromarch all flaunt marvelous vocal delivery that matches their personalities perfectly, wondrously bringing them to life. By contrast however, Rex, Nia, and Taro are shackled with cringeworthy dialogue, being decimated by obnoxiously over-pronounced Scottish accents, or, in the case of Taro, cheap comic relief.

Players battling opponents of a level similar to their own, only for a separate baddie far outclassing them to butt in on the confrontation uninvited, never ceases to be a bothersome occurrence in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (much as it was in Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X). With a player’s allies maneuvering independently throughout the battlefield, they will at times bumble into a senseless choice of territory (such as the edge of a steep summit, or a bubbling pool of harmful liquid that inflicts gradual damage to them). With no means to demand their allies regroup at a selected location, players are at the mercy of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s imperfect ally and opponent artificial intelligence, which on occasion declines to play fair.

Finally, Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s default method of organizing acquired items chronologically results in some irritation. Whilst an alphabetical format of order can be selected from within the item menu, alterations made will automatically be reset to chronological upon exiting. This mechanic serves to create needless annoyance (especially for players that are particularly specific about their organizational preferences).

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Despite its setbacks, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is nevertheless a joy to behold. The colossal beating heart beneath its chest is radiating with a boundless passion that in rare instances drives one to embrace the mistakes on display. From the graphical and technical hiccups to the groan-inducing dialogue, even Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s rock bottom occurrences of failure can be partially endearing when considered alongside its bundle of brilliance. The array of actives to indulge in, the breadth and diversity of its environments, and a battle system that (despite its befuddling design) flourishes to offer an array of strategic satisfaction, results in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 being a ‘rough around the edges’ blast of delight.

(Author’s note: nothing in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 can top the adorably humorous dances that Poppi performs whilst idle.)

I have spent my life in England finding entertainment in both video games and music. Whilst not indulging in the latter, I invest my time in playing all manner of video games, and as of 2017, writing about all manner of video games. Email: harrymorrisharrymorris@yahoo.com

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Game Reviews

‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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Game Reviews

‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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Game Reviews

‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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