My Top Ten Games of 2018: #10

My top ten favorite games of the year, presented in ascending order each day leading into the holidays. Look for my full Top Ten list with categories and awards on December 24!

#10 Dead Cells

Developer: Motion Twin
Publisher: Motion Twin
Platforms: PC, PS4, XBO, Switch

Metroidvanias and roguelikes are two of the most overused genres, and buzzwords, in indie gaming, but it’s still a genre I tend to love. Dead Cells is anything but a tiresome retread, pulling the best elements of both genres into an instantly likable neon art style of colorful death.

The level designs offer the perfect mixture of procedural generation and carefully crafted locations, while featuring uniquely branching paths that offer compelling choices and new locations to explore without artificially lengthening the game.

The classic 2D combat supports a multitude of playstyles by equipping multiple weapons and subweapons. I can succeed as a trap-deploying coward, a life-stealing hack and slasher, or a lightning whip-wielding fiend.

Dead Cells is a modern roguelike in that the progress you make carries over in the form of collected cells at the end of each level, letting you unlock new weapons and talents for future runthroughs. Death is still painful but much more manageable, and often exciting as you can experiment with different weapon loadouts and new abilities.

Much of the world design is built to respect the player’s time, keeping levels relatively short and sweet, and even including frequent teleporters at the end of any dead ends.

Dead Cells is always challenging but rarely frustrating, and that’s a very fine line to walk in this genre. For 2D action game fans it really doesn’t get much better than this.

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Dead Cells Review [Pixelkin]

Read the full review at Pixelkin

The metroidvania and roguelike genres have become overused buzzwords among indie games (see also the newly coined ‘roguevania’). Action-platformers have been refined and molded over and over again just in the last few years. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes every time a new one is released.

But forget all that genre cynicism, because Dead Cells is fantastic. With an evocative art style, buttery smooth combat, and perfect level of progression, Dead Cells is easily the most satisfying action-platformer since Rogue Legacy.

Read the full review at Pixelkin

Song of the Deep Review [Pixelkin]

Read the full review at Pixelkin

The underwater portions of old 2D side-scrolling games were often the bane of every gamer’s existence. Thankfully we’ve reached a point where not only can maneuvering underwater feel right, but we can play entire games set within a vast underwater wonderland.

Song of the Deep obeys the time-tested Metroidvania playbook to create a worthy adventure with a heart-warming story.

Read the full review at Pixelkin

My Top Ten Games of 2015: #7

Beautiful and challenging action-platformer Ori and the Blind Forest is #7 on my Top Ten Games of 2015.

My Top Ten Games of 2015

#10 MASSIVE CHALICE

#9 Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void

#8 Tales from the Borderlands

#7 Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori-and-the-Blind-Forest banner

Read my Final Thoughts on Ori and the Blind Forest

When you first see screenshots or videos of Ori and the Blind Forest your initial reaction is probably, “ohh, pretty.” Your second reaction might be, “oh, another indie metroidvania.” Stylistic action-platformers have become all the rage in the indie gaming scene, and Ori isn’t even technically an indie game, having been published by Microsoft Studios.

I dismissed it at first but readily admit to my terrible mistake. Ori and the Blind Forest is indeed beautifully drawn and emotionally engaging. Cute characters in peril tear at your heart strings. But the hidden depth and challenging difficulty are what really make Ori stand out as one of the shining examples of the genre. Continue reading “My Top Ten Games of 2015: #7”

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Unepic

An interesting 2D action-platformer-RPG with a few too many problems that keep it from indie greatness

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Francisco Téllez de Meneses

Publisher: Ninagamers Corp.

Release Date: October 2, 2011

rogues adventures final thoughts

Unepic has the unique quality of reminding me of a game I’ve never played. It feels like it utilizes a classic gameplay formula of meshing together elements of Metroid and Diablo in a 2D dungeon crawl, but I’d honestly never played a game quite like it. So while I lack any nostalgia for the gameplay, I found it inventive and interesting, despite some annoying difficulty spikes, immature, reference-filled writing, and a boring art style.

As you can quickly surmise from the banner image, our snarky hero is a modern day 20-something transported into a fantasy dungeon. He spends the entire first half of the game convinced that he’s taken some hallucinogenic drugs, and constantly spouts not-so-clever nerd-culture references at every opportunity. It grows tiresome a few hours in, and this is a 20 hour game.

rogues adventure

The one saving grace with the trite story (besides the surprisingly great finale and ending) is the shadowy creature that possesses the hero early on. Dubbed Zera, the shadow fails to possess our hero (who probably has a name but I don’t remember it at all) and winds up trapped within his body, becoming an unwilling companion to our adventures in the castle.

Zera provides a nice foil for our hero to play off of, as he’s constantly trying to get the hero killed so he’ll be freed. In one of the better nerd-references, their relationship is compared to X-Men‘s Xavier and Magento. Their respect for each other gradually builds over the course of the adventure, and by the end I grew to love Zera – murderous tendencies and all.

While the story isn’t exactly as captivating as even the relatively simplistic tales in Castlevania or Metroid (or even Diablo), the gameplay makes up for it. The dungeon is made up of individual rooms that take up a full screen. Each room is darkened and made up of multiple levels filled with ladders, platformes, and enemies. Lighting the torches along your way becomes critical, and a neat way to gauge your progress through each zone.

rogues adventure

The castle is divided up into over half a dozen areas, each with around a dozen screens, creating an impressively large dungeon. I actually found it just a bit too long as the overall gameplay and tactics grew repetitive toward the end – not to mention some rough patches where enemies grew wildly in strength and numbers. Damn the skeleton-filled catacombs!

Unepic leans heavily on the RPG aspects of the genre. Leveling up awards 5 skill points that can be pumped into various weapon and magic skills. The system isn’t very user-friendly, and it’s designed for those that want to min/max their characters by dumping everything into only a few skills to get the best abilities and wield the strongest weapons. Of course you won’t know which skills and weapons you’ll want, so it’s a stressful bit of planning ahead in the early levels. There is a side quest about halfway through that allows you to reset your points – a very helpful feature.

Each area has its own major quest that results in learning a new piece of magic. While some of the quests are fun and take you to different areas of the castle, it also leads to lots of backtracking. It also downplays the latter magic skills (Alteration, Protection) as presumably you’ve already put points into the early ones like Fire or Frost.

By the way, I went with a rogue/ranger type build, focusing on daggers, bows, and axes. A unique dagger I earned from a side quest carried me far, but eventually dropped them to focus on bows and axes. I found a late-game unique bow that absolutely decimated everything, and became my weapon of choice, along with some support from Fire and Healing spells.

rogues adventure

Backtracking is alleviated with an admittedly great fast travel system. Especially coming from Ori and the Blind Forest, which didn’t have one at all. Gates are scattered around the castle, usually 2 per zone, and teleport you to a central room filled with other gates.

In addition you can buy scrolls and spells that instantly take you to the merchants in each area. Quickly moving around the relatively large dungeon wasn’t an issue at all, though trying to remember which merchants sold what ability tomes was a bit annoying.

Limited animations and pixelated graphics are more than fine for a one-person indie project, but I was disappointed at the very limited palette selection throughout most of the castle. The individual room designs are nice, but so much of the castle is brown and gray that it grows repetitive after a dozen hours. Enemy types are also repeated to a high degree, with skeletons, snakes, and goblins making up a bulk of the foes I killed.

rogues adventure

Bosses fare a little better, taking a cue from the large, area-defining bosses of other metroidvanias. Oddly enough despite my haphazard skill management and character planning, I found most of the bosses quite easy. Zera helpfully warned me about each one, and most were slow with easily dodged attacks.

With better writing and a tighter, more varied focus Unepic could’ve been something really special. It’s still an impressive collection of genre parts all working together to produce a fun experience. By the final few areas I was definitely ready for it to be over, though I did very much enjoy the twist ending and interesting gameplay mode they introduce for the final battle. An interesting indie RPG experience that rewards persistence, exploration, and careful character planning.

rogues adventure

 

Pros

  • Solid 2D action-platformer gameplay with lots of loot and side quests
  • Rooms are well-designed and fun to explore and lighting mechanic works well
  • Fast travel system works incredibly well, minimizing backtracking woes and death penalties
  • Neat twist ending that introduces a last minute gameplay switch

 

Cons

  • Immature writing filled with references that are more miss than hit
  • Each area has the same basic structure, which quickly grows repetitive
  • Not enough enemy or art variety for the 20 hour length
  • Bosses are mostly slow and easy, while certain areas are annoyingly difficult

 

Final Say: An interesting 2D action-platformer-RPG with a few too many problems that keep it from indie greatness.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Ori and the Blind Forest

With its perfectly balanced difficulty, simple but emotional story-telling, and intriguing world, Ori and the Blind Forest is easily one of the best metroidvanias I’ve ever played.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Release Date: March 11, 2015

rogues adventure

In many ways Ori and the Blind Forest has become the new standard for typical indie games; gorgeous 2D art, hardcore platforming, and a whimsical, faerie tale-like story. It also helps to be published by a giant like Microsoft. Thus it’s easy to initially dismiss a game like Ori. I know I initially felt a been there-done that vibe, even when the great critical reviews started rolling in.

I finally decided to take the plunge when it went on sale during the Steam Summer Sale, and now I’m ashamed at myself for dismissing it so quickly without ever having tried it. With its perfectly balanced difficulty, simple but emotional story-telling, and intriguing world, Ori and the Blind Forest is easily one of the best metroidvanias I’ve ever played.

rogues adventure

The story centers on the titular little spirit creature that becomes lost from its parent tree during a great storm. In searching for Ori, the great tree ends up burning through the forest, and the giant owl named Kuro fights back by stealing away its light source. It’s up to Ori and little tree spirit companion Sein to gather together the other elements around the forest and restore the tree’s light.

I’ll understand if that little story causes a hefty amount of eye-rolling. It’s difficult to convey how well the relatively simple tale is effectively told using poetic narration (translated via text on screen by the tree spirit – who sounds like an operatic Jabba the Hut). There’s very little dialogue; Sein is the only one that really speaks to explain about new abilities or tasks, while Ori’s journey and Kuro’s backstory are told via beautiful cutscenes. The presentation is just fantastic.

The gameplay is pure metroidvania. The beautiful forest can be easily navigated thanks to the lovely in-game map, probably one of my single favorite feature of the game. It’s a really great map. If you’re game has a great in-game map, chances are I will love it.

rogues adventure

Ori steadily gains new traversal abilities, allowing it to climb walls, float, bash through rocks, and stomp through the ground, gaining access to new areas and previously unreachable goodies. Collectibles come in just three flavors, life and energy cells that give you more…life and energy, as well as ability cells that are essentially big experience point boosters. These can be spent on three different skill trees to grant Ori various passive buffs and help, like revealing secrets on the map or granting double and triple jumps.

Without any loot or weapons, Ori’s sole means of attack is through the spirit Sein, a constant hovering point of light that fires off a rapid burst of fireballs at the nearest target, not unlike Dust’s companion in Dust: An Elysian Tail. Enemies are auto-targeted once they’re in range, allowing you to focus on avoiding their attacks as well as the many traps and pitfalls that remain a constant threat.

The game is challenging as hell, and it knows it. The biggest innovation comes from the ability to expend energy to create manual save points called Soul Links. In the early game I was quite nervous about hoarding this ability, but by the midpoint I had so much energy it was never an issue. Good thing because creating constant Soul Links becomes imperative if you want to minimize redoing a particularly difficult section over and over. The stats screen ominously keeps track of your deaths; by the end of the game I had over 150.

rogues adventure

Though the gameplay is metroidvania, the actual structure is more akin to The Legend of Zelda. Each of the three main areas you travel to after meeting the tree first has an object you must acquire, followed by a dungeon that must be completed. Each of these dungeons has a unique hook that utilizes a certain ability or feature in all its puzzles and platforming challenges, like the shifting maze of the Misty Woods or the gravity-defying orb of the Forlorn Ruins. It made each area have a really unique spin on top of its lovely aesthetics.

Pretty much the only complaint I had while playing was the complete lack of fast travel. Most metroidvanias have some sort of limited fast travel between certain areas, allowing for some quicker means to backtracking and gaining previously missed collectibles. Ori and the Blind Forest has no such convenience, and the world is just big enough to make me really miss it.

Ultimately it prevented me from going back to some of the more remote areas to gather the last few pick-ups I had missed (I left most areas at around 95% completion). At least one area you were prevented from returning to after beating due to story reasons – an aspect I wish we would’ve been warned about.

rogues adventure

The story ends up being predictably sappy and sentimental but it’s wrapped up in such a beautiful package that I couldn’t help but be swept up in Ori’s plight. The scripted and challenging gauntlet sequences with Kuro are the right mixture of stressful and fun, though the shine wears off when you have to repeat them more than half a dozen times. The final one is especially brutal, allowing little room for error. I found it annoying that I was simply prevented from using a Soul Link to at least create checkpoints for myself.

At around 10 hours Ori and the Blind Forest never wears out its welcome. New abilities come quickly and the world is a joy to explore, discovering new secrets and gameplay mechanics. Wondering how the hell you reach an unobtainable goodie, only to smugly return later armed with your handy new ability is par for the genre, but Ori really creates a satisfying experience with its intuitive map design and streamlined experience.

rogues adventure

Pros

  • Beautiful artwork and world design
  • Perfectly balanced and steady ramp of challenge and difficulty
  • Effective story-telling and presentation
  • Streamlined experience focuses on all the best parts of the genre
  • Soul Link mechanic is brilliant

Cons

  • No fast travel or teleportation system
  • Numerous scripted chase sequences are especially difficult, and offer no checkpoints or Soul Link usage

Final Say: Beautiful, poignant, challenging, and fun, Ori is easily one of the best metroidvanias I’ve ever played.

New Final Thoughts – Dust: An Elysian Tail

I’ve finished another backlog game from the excellent Humble Indie Bundle I purchased earlier this year. You can read my latest Final Thoughts on my gaming blog, and enjoy the excerpt below.

Dust-An-Elysian-Tail

Video games are extremely difficult to make, in cost, time and skill. The concept of the auteur has been around in film for decades – that a single filmmaker’s work on a film was as complete and total as an author of a book, but in games it’s exceedingly rare due to the amount of work involved. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dust: An Elysian Tail was created (designed, drawn and programmed) by one man – Dean Dodrill.

Originally crafted to be an old-school Castlevania-style platformer, Dodrill won the 2009 Dream.Build.Play Microsoft Challenge, resulting in a contract to provide a full-fledged release on Xbox Live Arcade, which eventually released as part of the Summer of Arcade promotion in 2012.

I mention all this as a testament to how well crafted the story and themes of Dust are, and though every indie studio can’t secure a big contract from Microsoft it’s an absolute joy to see the auteur surface in gaming.

Read the full Final Thoughts on my gaming blog >>