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Pokémon X & Y Review

The path to the release of Pokémon X and Y was a strange time for me, checking sites like Serebii and Bulbapedia in order to savour every new update and scrap of information.

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The path to the release of Pokémon X and Y was a strange time for me, checking sites like Serebii and Bulbapedia in order to savour every new update and scrap of information.

I didn’t even own a 3DS, but my resolution to play the new Pokémon game was so strong that by the time it was released I ensured I had one. I wouldn’t say Pokémon was the sole reason for my buying Nintendo’s handheld but it was these games that provided the major catalyst for spending £250 on a new console. So was my spending justified?

I have not yet finished the game, and I have no designs on rushing it at all to complete, so consider this more of a ‘review in progress’. Spoilers may be ahead however, so be warned Poke-fans. Also, I bought the Y version, so if you play X your experience will likely differ in some aspects.

Game Freak have followed an almost uniform approach to starting their games since Generation I. Your character has just moved into the Kalos region with your Mother (again, a curiously absent father) and you are soon invited by your neighbour Serena to join them in the next town. For the first time you are greeted to a group of four new friends. All of which have their own personality, likes and dislikes, and preferences in approaching the world of Pokémon.

The kid called Trevor (who reminds me heavily of Brief from Panty & Stocking) ‘battles’ you to see who has caught the most Pokémon. Tierno is always searching for Pokémon that dance, Serena (or the male equivalent) prefers battling and becoming the strongest trainer she can be. Shauna, who prefers collecting cute Pokémon for friendship, also seems to be an attempt at a one-sided romance (the protagonist doesn’t talk as always) which is a nice change. It’s interesting to  develop relationships with your entire friend group, and it helps that they all seem very real. Thankfully this group dynamic isn’t a one time throwaway away thing, you’ll find the group in different strands turning up on the routes and in cities with each one reacting differently to you in their own personality.

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Your first encounter with them presents you with your choice of three starting Pokémon the fire type fox Fennekin, the water type frog Froakie and the grass type chestnut Chespin. The same grass, fire, water dynamic remains unchanged and within minutes you’re treated to a battle. For the first time in Pokémon history I found myself with the type advantage. They then you’re off to see Professor Sycamore. This short introduction takes place within the first twenty minutes of starting up the game and before long you’re released into the wild. No hour long tutorials or cumbersome trips between villages before you’re plunged straight in, given poke balls and allowed to do with your time whatever you please.

Your character is a full sized 3D model for the first time, and it’s strange how much the experience is enriched for it. You’re also able to customize your character by dressing them in whatever you can afford and changing their hair and eye colour, making the character feel like yours, not just a carbon copy of everyone else’s.

The world you walk around is truly beautiful.The cities, often based on French architecture, are beautifully crafted. Daytime is accompanied with shining rays of light and the night is lit by glowing street lamps. Sometimes the camera angle is are unfortunately too high up to fully appreciate the settings though but it will often orient itself in order for the player to fully enjoy the amazingly detailed backgrounds.The player is also gifted various ways to travel, walking, running (straight away this time), via roller blades, bicycle, and eventually flying. You can even ride on the back of certain Pokémon. Being able to travel in 8 directions rather than the standard four is great too and makes full use of the 3DS’s analogue pad. (OMG, I can walk DIAGONALLY!)

Photo opportunities are present at the more scenic of places, giving you a chance to take pictures of yourself in front of these landmarks, you can control zoom and focus levels, and moving the 3DS actually moves the camera, it’s a nice touch, considering how beautiful the world has become. The Pokémon Gyms are nothing short of glorious, each one lovingly crafted. From the Eiffel Tower Quiz Show Lighting Gym to the Doll House Fairy Gym you’re treated to a rich experience each time, every gym leader is also extremely individual and extraordinary; they also really fit in well with their specific gym.

The Pokémon battles retain the same core system; turn-based exchanges where you pit your Pokémon against other trainers or wild Pokémon in order to faint or catch them respectively. Touch screen use has been perfected over three different generations of Pokémon games hosted on the DS, with all of your battle options made accessible by touch screen.

The most obvious change to Pokémon battles are the Pokémon themselves. Each and every Pokémon of the now incredible roster of over 600 has been lovingly rendered as a full 3D model. It’s nothing short of a tribute to the series that has been going on almost as long as I’ve been playing games. Each Pokémon is given its own unique attitude and attack animations, Meowstic’s glowing eyes and pulsing ears are cool to watch as she attacks. Actual attack animations are shared, but moves such as Brave Bird have been given really cool animations that you won’t mind watching again and again.

Battles are much faster now, and can also be enhanced by other bonus features like the Pokémon-Amie petting system. All of the Pokémon’s cries have been updated to fill the void between the scratchy ear penetrating screech of the first three generations so they fit in better, and new Pokémon cries are as good as ever. Certain Pokémon like Electrode still offend the ears unfortunately. Pikachu even has its own cry from the anime. Triple Battles are present in game now, available at certain places and restaurants, pitting three of your Pokémon against three of theirs. Admittedly the best part of this is the joy of seeing three of your Pokémon at once fighting alongside each other. Sky Battles also join the mix, pitting your flying type against hard to find sky trainers, usually over cliffs or across seas, these are new and interesting but don’t offer much variation on the usual battles except for that you’re usually outnumbered. It’s also a little odd to see an enemy use a Carnivine in a flying battle.

Pokémon catching itself now feels oddly optional, with so many Pokémon out there it feels redundant to ‘catch ‘em all’ as the old slogan would suggest. But if, like me, you still have a compulsive need to fill your boxes with caged Pokémon then catching hasn’t much changed, though two features have served to enrich the experience. Firstly I was told by one of the many hundreds of helpful NPC’s about an opportunity that once you’ve caught a certain number of Pokémon catching them become easier. If your catching level is high enough then it barely wobbles before sealing, this is great because it makes you feel more like an expert trainer and shows that catching Pokémon does go towards something.

Secondly is the inclusion of gaining experience for catching as well as fainting Pokémon. This is a long awaited feature (at least for myself) and awards you for catching Pokémon which, aside from being a Pokedex and box filler, is a large money sink. Especially in a world where you’ve never had so many options and different ways to spend your money. Random minstrels and restaurant waiters ask for tips, odd items are available at each Pokémon Centre, TMs are now very expensive (though they do last forever) and customization is expensive; a new outfit from Lumiose City cost almost 250,000 poke dollars but it’s worth it to look unique

Ease of use has been greatly improved over previous generations. Pokémon and items are now displayed side by side with their health and items, which can be removed, added or switched using the touchscreen, streamlining any item changes. It also displays their health so that any restorations can be done quickly without switching back from screens.

When it comes to teaching your Pokémon new moves your HM’s and TM’s are also displayed alongside your Pokémon, each one displaying if either they already know the move, that they can’t actually learn the move, or they can. Saving you time again switching back and forth between ‘booting up’ TM’s. Lastly on this ease of use is the radial menu. Made accessible with the X button, the radial menu presents up to 4 items you can freely register from the item menu, most useful here is your bike, fishing rod and dowsing machine. The dowsing machine has also been improved, going from a radar like item to a seeking machine where different coloured beams point you towards hidden items. It also stays on until you deactivate it, providing you with the option of running around with it constantly. In short, every effort has been made to make X and Y as streamlined and convenient an experience as possible.

The music score is also beautiful, with nice melodies and calm tunes accompanying village and town walks, and cool heavy music accompanying Team Flare’s (this generation’s Team Rocket) strut, battle music is also heavily improved, and the score becomes extremely tense when your Pokémon are low on HP, which truly makes it feel dangerous.

Small but powerful additions are based on the bottom touch screen at all times whilst roaming the world. The first of these is the Pokémon-Amie System. Half mini-game, half fan service, you select a Pokémon from your team and take them into the Pokémon-Amie field area. With this you can use your touch screen to pet them, it’s a cute experience with the smaller Pokémon, extorting cooish awws from even a grown man. Rubbing the stylus next to them will sometimes make them try and high-five you, and certain Pokémon have areas where they preferred to be petted. Some of these even fall in line with the Pokémon’s description which enhances the immersion. For example Honedge, a new sword based Pokémon, is told to trap people’s souls if it touches its scarf, and whilst touching the scarf in Amie doesn’t trap your soul, it’s not appreciated. Amie is even funnier with larger Pokémon, the large and intimidating panda Pokémon Pangoro looks hilarious as he begrudgingly accepts your affection, likely resisting the urge to seismic toss you.

You can also feed your Pokémon Poke Puffs, little cupcake like food stuffs that you earn from playing in the three mini games, which to Game Freak’s credit, are a lot of fun. If this is where X and Y would have left it we would have parted as friends, but Amie does so much more than that. Your Pokémon have various levels that can be raised through Amie: affection, hunger and enjoyment. Once a Pokémon is getting close to maxing affection it has an effect in battles. The first time I started noticing that my Greninja had started dodging attacks because it ‘was so in sync with my wishes’ or clearing itself of paralysis or sleep ‘to stop Daniel from worrying’ I realised that the love I had given them returned to me when I needed it in battles. I think the best part about this was that I had no idea that was the outcome, I wasn’t told by the game, so all decisions to pet my Pokémon were made with no gain in mind except for my Pokémon’s happiness, (and my partners affection for cute Pokémon) being rewarded for something that would have been fine as a standalone feature is nothing short of an incredible reward for the player. Not only that, but a certain loved Pokémon can evolve if given enough attention via the Amie system too.

3d fighting 2

The second of these bottom screen activities is the Super Training System. This is also a great feature, giving players much more control over the growth of their Pokémon. If you’re a serious player, or a Pokémon aficionado then the odds are you already know about EVs, or Effort Values, and how they affect your Pokémon’s stat growth, These were previously hidden from the player but with Super Training, not only are EVs out in the open in a handy circle chart, but you’re able to influence them as you want with the fun mini game and punching bags you receive from them. The game itself is fairly interesting, as you float around an arena shooting footballs at balloon representations of Pokémon, and didn’t drag for me at all even when fully training 3 or 4 Pokémon in one afternoon to their fullest. It’s nice to have so much control this time around, and makes you feel like you’re really training your Pokémon. A little variety on the training could have been improved this, because every stat was trained in the same way. Attack and Defense were both trained by throwing balls at a balloon; couldn’t Defense have been trained by resisting being hit or dodging balls?

Fortunately though this mode doesn’t end when you have maxed out a Pokémon’s stats, a further two levels that offer cooler rewards like elemental stones and advanced punching bags for your other Pokémon are revealed, showing that Game Freak goes above and beyond when it comes down to even their mini-games, always thinking about their players even after completion.

The last feature are the O-Powers.These are powers you can access that temporarily increase aspects of your game, for example Prize Money, Experience, Attack Power and even Capture power. You are given a certain amount of charge, and these charge orbs are used up by the powers. Powers last 3 minutes and consume varying amounts of charge orbs. Your charge orbs are then charged up over time. This feature is reminiscent various RPG’s offering outside buffs (Blue Dragon comes to mind), and is a welcome addition to the already budding list of features. Pokémon however sets itself apart from the rest in that it’s possible to give these ‘buffs’ to other players for cheaper charge orb costs. Nintendo is known for promoting friendliness and teamwork amongst their players, a breath of fresh air in the FPS dominated scene of unfriendly gaming.

Another feature which I found delightful was the ability to make something called a PR video, it’s essentially a 10 second video to advertise yourself as a trainer. You can fully customize this from effects to music to the way your character looks and even feature a chosen Pokémon from your party in it. This sort of system is similar to making your intro sequence from various wrestling games, and is just as, if not more, fun. It’s one of those ‘get out what you put in’ minigames; where time and effort is often rewarded with something truly worthwhile.

This is unfortunately where the endless praise subsides for a little while, and the chinks in an otherwise flawless suit of armour begin to show. There are small niggling problems that aren’t terrible but do mark the game, for example being able to tip certain people is different, but only serves to give the player a two dimensional choice that has no effect rather than presenting the player as either a tight bastard or a big shot spender.

Swarms are a feature that wasn’t mentioned earlier because I find them so tedious. At first it was different and interesting, but it soon became annoying when the one Zangoose in a herd of Seviper became uncatchable due to the Seviper systematically ganging up on the poor thing before I could get rid of them. It’s great that they stick to the Seviper/Zangoose rivalry, but not being able to catch one because I can only send out one Pokémon against five was annoying after a while. Plus these horde encounters become a waste of time, especially when you’re vying for higher levels and they offer tiny levels of experience, even for fainting them all. What would have been interesting would have been a swarm of five different Pokémon, not 5 of the same that all do slow attacks, eating up your play time. For a game so seemingly focused on a streamlined experience this is the only time I feel bored playing.

One of the little things that also irked me was the breaking of the fourth wall ; I had one trainer assure me that my Pokémon’s power levels were ‘over 9000’. I appreciate memes as much as the last guy, but it feels out of place with the Pokémon World. Another was not so bad because it wasn’t just an out of the blue reference and involved the world. An NPC mentioned the story of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ in which a human is turned into a Pokémon, but the girl loved him even so’ the reason this wasn’t so bad was because it integrated our world with theirs which is always interesting. It wasn’t a random blurt that looked like unnecessary pandering from a company that should have enough self-respect to be the reference not the referencer.

One more little annoying thing, and sort of understandable, is the censorship. At my most immature of times I like to give certain Pokémon funny names, some of which certain people might find offensive. But never have I been censored when naming Pokémon. Now my free speech is gone and not even being able to name a Pokémon Poo, is a shame .

3d fighting

I’ve done the good, and I’ve done the bad, now for the somewhat ugly.

The game is extremely easy and for some this might be good. But I think the problem lies in the overpowered EXP Share. Now being literally an ON/OFF option rather than a hold item it affects all of your Pokémon. You’ll find that you can pretty much get away with using one Pokémon and your team will follow in levels without the need to train them individually. You could potentially use one Pokémon and have a team of six all at the same level. While this is part of the streamlining of the game I’m in two minds about it. On one hand I think back to Gold and Silver, which were brutal for Experience, you could spend hours grinding to get your team levelled up which frankly wasn’t fun. But then having all of your Pokémon at such a high level so quickly feels like the game is rushing you along. The story isn’t that long so it shouldn’t really be rushing the best parts. I wish there were a better balance, so that EXP Share could be used on a chosen number of Pokémon but you sacrificed the amount of EXP that is allocated between them. Again it’s the old Skyrim ‘fast travel argument’, if you don’t like it you don’t have to use it, but if something is there to make your life easier you will invariably end up using it, wouldn’t you?

The story is not Pokémon Y’s strong point. The story of the Titan’s past is rather interesting, and it’s beautifully animated, albeit with washed out stills. Reaching the legendary Pokémon Yveltal (who seems to quite like poke puffs and being stroked under his neck) was a matter of defeating a few cloned Team Flare trainers, who you would think would have a more unique Pokémon collection, and throwing one Ultra Ball. Whether it was that the game had been made too easy by the EXP share and O-Powers or I’m just an awesome Pokémon Master is up for discussion. The point is the story was very intriguing, but the meat of it wasn’t revealed until a very short sequence in-between the 7th and 8th Gym and odd messages and small skirmishes with the (though interestingly attired) fairly boring Team Flare. When it was good, it was great, but it just didn’t last long enough and had a fairly big anti-climax, with everyone just returned to what they had been doing before as though nothing had happened. Except that I now had a Pokémon in my party that apparently could wipe out the lives of thousands of creatures yet was almost fainted in two attacks.

The game also can’t seem to decide whether this is the main focus of the game, or if it’s about Mega Evolution, which apparently is at least the second most important thing about Pokémon Y. Call me old-fashioned here, but Mega Evolution has never appealed to me. I’m not going to say Pokémon shouldn’t have it at all, or that it shouldn’t be in the next game. I’m just saying that, pre and post release; it held zero interest for me at all. This ties into my major grumble with the game in that there are only 69 new Pokémon, where each new generation added at least 100 if not a full 150.

A personal wonder of mine (not based at all in any fact) is whether Game Freak simply couldn’t think of new Pokémon and then used Mega Evolution as a cheap copout, ever so slightly changing some already existing Pokémon to distract us. These evolutions are for temporary use in battle and require a hold item specific to the few available Pokémon able to use it. You are given a test ride with Mega Evolution, where you are given the chance of using Mega Evolution with a Lucario you are lumbered with, and I’ll be honest I didn’t feel my interest was piqued enough to pursue it with other Pokémon. This however is a personal opinion; I would have much preferred a seemingly taboo permanent fourth evolution instead. These temporary evolutions feel more tentative than anything, a shy toe in the water rather than a bold and confident leap forward.

My issue with the lack of new Pokémon also extends to the prevalence of the older ones. I always assumed that the point of a new Pokémon game was to showcase its new world and its new creations. So coming up to release I was cynically saying ‘If I see another damn Pidgey, Rattata, Machop, Zubat or Geodude I’ll stop playing the game!’ and I was only half-joking, nothing was going to stop me from fully experiencing the most important step forward in Pokémon gaming history. But my first random encounter was with; yes you guessed it, a damn Pidgey. At the time this was hilarious, I smugly sat back and said ‘What did I say?’ but looking back it was a sign of things to come.

Meeting Professor Sycamore for the first time yields you a choice of one of three Pokémon; Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander; the starters from the very first Pokémon games. This felt like an insult to the player, personally when playing new generations I like every member of my team to be of the new generation, and filling up 1 of your 6 possible spaces with a Pokémon that I’ve already spent tons of time with just feels needless. Now this might be an effort to display Mega Evolution via friendly faces, but why not give the new Pokémon Mega Evolution? As far as I’m aware (at time of writing) none of the new Pokémon even have Mega Evolutions and you’re forced to use old ones to enable this.

Now this probably wouldn’t bother those that are newcomers (or the less irritable crowd) and in retrospect is good for those who might like familiar faces. Unfortunately for me it felt like another excuse for a lousy number of new Pokémon. The Pokedex, your catalogue for registering data about new Pokémon now feels like a given and doesn’t even feel important. The new Pokémon are collected together with the old in different region sections (admittedly cool) in an effort I wonder to hide how little of them there are.

4

Summary

Honestly though the lack of new Pokémon doesn’t completely take away from the experience, seeing even old Pokémon in their shiny new 3D forms makes a big difference and almost makes up for it. It’s a negative that is easily ignored amongst all the good. Pokémon Y is an amazing experience, it’s colourful and enjoyable, and really draws you in. New Pokémon and old are a joy to see in 3D in a game that has been slowly improving over the years. Pokémon’s X and Y are a massive step forward for the franchise and will stand for years to come as arguably the best Pokémon game yet, if not the best RPG on the market, and definitely a reason to own a 3DS on its own. Even the shoehorned story is vaguely interesting. Pokémon games have gone through a lot of changes through the years but thankfully this one stuck to its core strengths and came out on top, with only a few niggling remarks (that don’t take away from the experience) to make my resounding last statement is that this latest generation is damn near perfect.

Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

Daniel Bowes resides in Lincoln, when he's not playing or making games, he's writing or thinking about them.

Reviews

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 review

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 revitalizes the dormant skate series with a frontside 180 onto modern tech.

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Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
Activision

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 revitalizes the dormant skate series with a frontside 180 onto modern tech.

My experience with Tony Hawk has, more often than not, been mediated by Vicarious Visions.

The prolific studio once put out 14 games in a year (12 in their still-ridiculous runner-up), porting just about every popular early aughts IP to Nintendo’s handhelds. If there’s a mascot platformer you loved on consoles, chances are Vicarious Visions broke it down to its barest essentials – which usually meant a switch to 2D – and put out a Game Boy Advance version.

The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games got a similar treatment. Though Natsume’s Game Boy Color version of the original THPS is underwhelming, Vicarious Visions managed to capture much of the series charm in their subsequent GBA ports. I played a tonne of the studio’s isometric take on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 and dumped dozens of hours into the series’ blocky DS debut, American Sk8land. Meanwhile, I somehow never made it past the Hangar on my N64 copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

For much of its 30-year history, the Activision subsidiary has had the unenviable task of making worse versions of beloved games, dumbing down the graphics and simplifying the gameplay until they had something that would keep a seven-year-old kid happy enough on a long car ride. They did impressive work for unimpressive hardware.

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In recent years, though, Vicarious Visions has finally had the opportunity to give games glow-ups. With 2017’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, the studio lovingly reimagined Naughty Dog’s decades-old original run for modern hardware, kickstarting a wave of remasters at Activision (Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled from Beenox, Spyro Reignited Trilogy from Toys for Bob) and clearing a path for a brand new Crash Bandicoot game, Crash 4: It’s About Time, set to release next month.

Now, Vicarious Visions has focused that same love and attention on remaking the series they spent the ‘00s de-making for handhelds. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is a fantastic remake of the earliest games, and a wonderful return for a series that went out on the sour note of 2015’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. It also proves that if Activision is interested in continuing to cash-in on nostalgia, Vicarious Visions is one of their most essential assets.

Pretending I’m (still) a Superman

Skating in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 feels effortlessly good – exactly how you probably remember these games feeling. Despite the fact that I hadn’t played a Tony Hawk game in almost 15 years, re-learning the controls was easy and fun. An optional, extensive tutorial with VO instructions from the Birdman himself is a nice touch.

Though getting a hang of the basics is easy, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 will push you to put it all together. The addition of the revert, which was added in THPS3, and the manual, which was originally only present in THPS2, makes pulling off long chains of combos seamless. That isn’t to say that it’s easy, though. You will almost certainly curse when you land wonky, allowing a 100,000+ combo to slip through your fingers. As a result, though, the most enjoyable part of these games is the sense of slowly learning a park’s layout until you can navigate it smartly enough to successfully rake in those massive points.

This is what I enjoy most about this game: the perfect interplay between tight level geometry and the player’s moveset. Learning level layouts is an essential part of getting good at this game. But, unlike the pattern recognition required to take down a Cuphead or Dark Souls boss, the memorization you do in Tony Hawk is creative. You are memorizing a routine, sure, but it’s a routine that you made up, that plays to your particular strengths. And while I don’t love the fact that the remake retains the originals’ old school “Complete 8 More Park Goals to Unlock [next level]” model of campaign progress, I do appreciate the way it forced me to learn the intricacies of each park; to figure out where the massive combo hotspots are hiding in parks as initially unintuitive as Burnside.

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Vicarious Visions has done a fantastic job preserving that god-tier level design, while sprucing up the environmental art to make each level feel suitably distinct. Looking back on videos of the original games, there’s a sunny drabness to most of the levels. But, in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, each level feels like its own unique place.

Burnside is dark, moody and rainy now in a way that borders on neo-noir. The Mall, which previously just looked empty, now feels almost apocalyptically abandoned. The School is bursting with newfound colour, and COVID-era messages about the “new normal.” All the while, the soundtrack – featuring plenty of the original tracks and some new ones that fit in perfectly – blasts a ripping array of punk, ska, metal and hip hop.

If you were a big fan of the early Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, or if you just w11nt to see what all the fuss was about, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is a fantastic return to form for the beloved series. Activision has a fantastic platform here and I only hope they continue to build on it. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and 4 are right there!

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
4.5

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Vicarious Visions (original games: Neversoft)
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: September 04, 2020


Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 marks the triumphant return of a beloved franchise. With a vibrant updated look and remixed soundtrack, Vicarious Vision’s remaster brings Neversoft’s stellar originals shredding into 2020.

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Reviews

RPG Maker MV – Nintendo Switch Review

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker.

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RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch review
Degica / Thumbsticks

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker.

The tides of time, life, and a career have put paid to those ambitions, unfortunately. Unless I win the lotto or retire, I doubt I’ll ever find the time to learn how to program and design a game from the ground-up.

One hope is access to an increasing number of game-making applications designed to do much of the heavy-lifting and offer a guiding hand to aspiring creators. The RPG Maker series – currently under the stewardship of Degica – is one such example.

Ostensibly a program for PC and Mac, RPG Maker debuted in the early 1990s. The series has also made occasional appearances on consoles with versions produced for the Super Famicom, the original PlayStation, and most recently, the Nintendo 3DS.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

The series has continued to grow in popularity by offering a comprehensive suite of tools that let users create 2D role-playing games that echo Pokémon, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest favourites of the past. Some developers have also pushed the boundaries of the platform to make genuine classics. Kan Gao’s exquisite To The Moon and Future Cat’s sublime OneShot being prime examples.

The most recent version of the program – RPG Maker MZ – was released for PC and Mac last month. Now, NIS America is bringing a port of 2015’s RPG Maker MV to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Unlike the Nintendo 3DS version – which was significantly reworked to suit to its dual-screen home – the console edition of RPG Maker MV is a seemingly straight port of the PC original. The decision to take this approach comes with its benefits and problems.

Let’s take the positive path to begin: It’s a seemingly straight port of the PC original, which is an excellent, full-featured game-creation platform with a mind-boggling array of configurable options. At a base level, anything you can create in the desktop version, you can also create here. That is a very big positive indeed.

For this review, I embarked on creating a small-scale RPG called A Short Adventure About Long Distance. Please be excited.

A Short Story About Long Distance

Development in RPG Maker MV is broken down into logical components. The map creation module lets you create overworlds, town maps, and interiors from a range of tilesets. The event editor is used apply conditions to almost every in-game object, creating reactions, triggers, and dependencies on a local or global scale. The battle system is similarly expansive, covering weapons, abilities, spells, items, and effects with every variable you can think of. You can also manage character classes and level progression with infinitesimal detail.

Keeping track of everything isn’t always easy, but development is underpinned by a well-structured database that organises everything from enemies and animations to weapons and party members. For the most part, if you can imagine it, you can make it.

If this, then everything.

The included selection of themed graphical assets is also impressive. At first glance, some of the in-game objects and building components look rather lacklustre, but they can be combined and used to create locations with variety and personality. One perk of the console version is the ability to recolour assets, increasing their usefulness a hundredfold.

There’s certainly an RPG Maker look that, despite your best efforts, you’ll never quite escape. Nonetheless, the tilesets are well designed and the results are often more impressive than you’d expect. The flexibility also extends to characters and NPCs. Mixing and matching character face parts is part Mii Maker, part anime fever dream.

On PC, RPG Maker MV is supported by a wealth of extra content that ranges from official DLC to plugins and user-created assets. RPG Maker MV on Nintendo Switch and PS4 has none of this. It’s reasonable to expect some official DLC packs in future but the absence of mods and plugins to enhance the experience is keenly felt.

And that’s the problem with RPG Maker MV on a console. The limits are just as evident as the possibilities. You can create a complex RPG, but only with the assets available. You can use character close-up images on dialogue boxes, but you can’t download the plugin to dynamically change them.

If this, then maybe that.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

These niggles also extend to a user interface that is fundamentally unsuited a game controller. An action that would normally involve a quick mouse scroll and a right-click becomes a Monster Hunter-esque fumble of thumbsticks, triggers, and face buttons. The result? Simple. Tasks. Take. Much. More. Time.

It’s initially infuriating, although over time – mostly due to sheer repetition – navigation gradually becomes second nature.

Thankfully, RPG Maker MV on Switch supports a keyboard when docked, and in handheld mode. The touchscreen also is used for selected actions and is an absolute godsend when it comes to entering dialogue and text. However, such is the size of the Switch display you’ll need fingers the width of chopsticks to perform some of the more precise menu inputs.

Loading times are also an improvement on last year’s Japanese release, noticeably so when moving from the database to the map editor.

RPG Maker enemy editor

The other Lavos-sized compromise is the ability to export your lovingly-crafted creations for others to play. RPG Maker MV games on PC can be exported to a variety of formats and are playable on a range of platforms. Here, you’re restricted to sharing via the game’s native online library. Fortunately, the free RPG Maker MV Player app – available from the Nintendo eShop – lets your Switch buddies download and play your games at no cost.

As for the quality of games created in RPG Maker MV, well, that’s down to you. For this review, I decided to developer a slimline 15-30 minute RPG with light combat, town exploration, and a happy ending. Even a game this simple in scope takes a lot of time, but it’s a slow, pleasurable progression of inspiration, planning, testing, and execution. The process will definitely give you an appreciation for the complexities of video game development.

I was hoping to have A Short Adventure About Long Distance completed in time for this review. Alas, it’s mired in development hell while I untangle a spaghetti bowl of cause and effect. As soon as it’s complete, I’ll update this review. Please understand.

A Short Story About Long Distance

There are multiple products on console that aim to bridge the gap between a creative spark of inspiration and a video game. Across PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, you can choose from Dreams, Super Mario Maker, Little Big Planet, Wargroove, PlataGo, and FUZE4, to name just a few. RPG Maker MV sits at the semi-professional end of the game-creation spectrum, but it’s accessible to newcomers and also has the benefit of a strong support community.

RPG Maker MV is not a shortcut to creating an excellent RPG, but it serves as an illuminating introduction to the principals and mechanics of game development. If you can cope with the idiosyncrasies of the console port, it’s an intuitive and fun to use game creation platform that can bring your RPG ideas to life.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Developer: NIS America
Publisher: Degica
Release Dates: NA: Sept. 8, 2020. EU: Sept. 11, 2020. AU & NZ: Sept. 18, 2020.


As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker, and now I am. Creating games in RPG Maker MV is more of a grind than I expected, but the platform makes levelling up game development skills an enjoyable experience. There are compromises on console, but it’s still recommended for aspiring game creators.

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Control: AWE DLC review

“Alan, wake up.”

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Control AWE review
Remedy Entertainment

“Alan, wake up.”

Coming hot on the heels of March’s The Foundation DLC, Control’s second helping of post-launch content easily offers the more interesting setup. Picking up on the numerous teasers and easter eggs found in the original campaign, it sets out with the goal of officially crossing over the Control and Alan Wake universes, and sees Jesse Faden investigate the eerie horrors that plagued Remedy’s beloved 2008 cult-classic.

It’s without question a tantalizing elevator pitch and seeing Remedy sow the seeds for its recently announced shared universe threequel is exciting. However, AWE can’t help but feel like more of a three-hour tease than a continuation of either story. It still has its moments, but it seems Remedy sees this new narrative as a vehicle to lay the groundwork for a sequel rather than a fully-fledged tale of its own.

The story of AWE begins with Jesse receiving a strange series of messages from Wake himself, who summons her to the Investigations Sector of the Oldest House. Much like the Foundation, Investigations is an expansive new area, with fresh mysteries to uncover, side missions to complete and enemies to face. That being said, it doesn’t do much to stylistically distance itself from the grey architecture and tunnels of interwoven pipework that were explorable in Control’s campaign.

Control AWE screenshot 1

The trade-off is that players get to face Control’s most overtly horrific antagonist yet, with a nightmarish, almost Cronenbergian monster stalking your movements throughout Investigations’ eerie hallways. Discovering exactly what this terrifying creature is makes up the majority of the DLC’s narrative, with Remedy proving once again that it excels when allowed to operate in spookier territory.

Few moments prove the studio’s aptitude for all things that go bump in the night than your frequent boss encounters with this horrifying creature, who will often force you into rooms with wide stretches of pitch-black darkness illuminated only by limited light sources, where it cannot reach you. Each of these battles act as intense, high-stakes puzzles, made all the more terrifying by the fact you can see the lumbering creature stalking you from beyond your well-lit haven.

For all the present Alan Wake fans, these light mechanics probably sound pretty familiar to you, and yes, AWE does frequently take inspiration from Wake’s flashlight focused combat-style. It pops up most frequently in the aforementioned boss encounters and sometimes in the occasional puzzle, but one of the biggest issues with the DLC is that it doesn’t do more with it. To be honest, although it does add a useful new gun form and the ability to hurl several objects at once, there is a sense that nothing AWE brings to the table is particularly fresh.

While The Foundation offered new ways to traverse and fight enemies with its crystal-based abilities, it feels like AWE needs something similar to match that big shift in playstyle. Whether that’s the ability to wield a flashlight to battle some new, darkness-based foes or maybe just a powerful new ability that achieves the same goal, it can’t help but feel like AWE misses a pretty wide opportunity to make something special.

Control AWE screenshot 2

The same goes for the overarching story, which feels like its building to a grandiose, jaw-dropping climax but is snuffed out with little fanfare. For one, while fans are likely paying the admission fee here to see Alan Wake – he is the feature attraction after all – there’s surprisingly little of him on show. Don’t get me wrong, this without a doubt begins to highlight what a Control and Alan Wake sequel could look like, but it always feels like more of a trailer for what’s to come rather than a fully-fledged continuation of that universe. Some fans even speculated AWE would offer answers to the puzzling conclusion of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare DLC, but don’t go into this thinking it’s going to spew out new revelations for that story.

Saying all this, it’s not that AWE is bad. It’s just safe. Everything you liked about Control is still here. The combat encounters are a hell of a lot of fun, the dark sci-fi humour returns in force and, while the additional side-missions focus more on fetch-quests, they offer an entertaining diversion from the main storyline. At the end of the day, I’m sure we’ll look back on this final adventure in The Oldest House as an essential bridge between Control and whatever comes next.

It’s just, for the time being, it feels like Remedy maybe could’ve been a little more ambitious with its first major crossover.

Control: AWE review
3

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: August 27, 2020


AWE offers an interesting first look at the future Remedy envisions for both the Alan Wake and Control franchises alongside featuring a terrifying main antagonist and some creepy boss encounters. That being said, it’s still somewhat underwhelming, acting as a teaser for the future with few crazy story beats or new features to get excited about.

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EA Sports UFC 4 review

Callum grapples with EA Sports UFC 4, and he thinks it might just be the series’ best outing to date.

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EA Sports UFC 4 review
EA

Callum grapples with EA Sports UFC 4, and he thinks it might just be the series’ best outing to date.

For a genre littered with incremental annual upgrades and a distinct lack of innovation, the EA Sports’ UFC franchise has always been a shining beacon of how to do a sports game justice. Opting for a biennial schedule, it has built itself up considerably since its admittedly rough first iteration back in 2015, introducing meaningful, transformative overhauls over the last five years and quickly becoming the best combat-sports simulation since 2011’s Fight Night Champion.

Its fourth entry, EA Sports UFC 4, is no different. While there are fewer all-encompassing changes and practically no game-altering new additions, EA Vancouver has instead spent some much-needed time refining and fine-tuning the UFC experience. Its gameplay flows more smoothly, its various modes have been polished and its new suite of accessibility options means anyone can jump in regardless of their skill level. As is usual for this constantly adapting franchise, this is easily the biggest and best EA Sports UFC package available to date.

So, what’s new in UFC 4? Not a huge amount. In truth, it’s EA Vancouver’s focus on removing tedious frustrations that truly changes how this fourth iteration feels to play. Takedowns have been switched from an irritating combination of triggers and thumbsticks to a much simpler two-button control scheme, while combos feel easier to execute with less emphasis on perfect timing.

However, It’s the clinch that easily benefits most from the tune-up, with UFC 4 completely switching up the mechanic to instigate more organic stand-up brawls. While players would previously have to engage in clunky, mini-game focused tie-ups while grappling on their feet, UFC 4 instead offers the ability to move in and out of the clinch in seconds.

UFC 4 Screen 3

Fighters merely press a button to enter the clinch, land a series of punches or knees, then push back the thumbstick to retreat to normal striking distance. Grappling-efficient fighters can even use these tie-ups to unleash huge slams or pull off impressive submission techniques, with a fighter like Jon Jones able to perform a guillotine while clinching his opponent. It often feels like that one key aspect the series’ stand-up combat was missing, and while moves from the clinch are slightly overpowered, fights generally benefit from the free-flowing pace they provide.

Newcomers are also catered to a lot more than in previous games, with UFC 4 specifically offering a simplified version of the game’s complex wrestling system. Grapple assist, as it’s called, strips away the more position-based style for a simplified alternative, giving players a three-prompt menu that allows them to posture up, lock their opponent into a submission, or return to their feet. Of course, it’s entirely optional, so players with more experience can instantly switch back to the more intricate wrestling options in the game’s settings.

While on the ground, players will also be met with a brand-new submission system, which switches out UFC 3’s needlessly complicated mini-game for two fresh ones. The more frequent of the pair sees the victim of the submission move a small bar around a circle, while the attacker moves a second bar on top of their opponents and tries to keep it there as long as possible. Think of it as a thumb war, just, you know, with more opportunities to break someone’s arm.

The second mini-game is used for joint submissions and works similarly. This one utilizes a much smaller gauge, however, with players using the L2 and R2 buttons to move from side to side. Both are far more intuitive than their overly complex predecessor, relying less on frantic button-mashing and prompting some fun mind-games.

As for who players can expect to utilize in combat, UFC 4 boasts the biggest and most diverse roster the franchise has offered yet. From current UFC Lightweight and Strawweight champions Petr Yan and Weili ‘Magnum’ Zhang to notorious British boxing mainstays Anthony Joshua and ‘The Gypsy King’ Tyson Fury, the roster is stacked with new names. But the standouts are easily the game’s updates to now-notorious fighters, such as cover star Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal, ‘Sugar’ Sean O’Malley and ‘The Last Stylebender’ Israel Adesanya. Some models don’t look fantastic, with Connor McGregor and Gilbert Burns standing out as particularly soulless, but for the most part, they’re on point.

Players will have the opportunity to fight in some new locations too, with the game offering a small backyard arena and, more excitingly, a stylized “Kumite” ring ripped straight from Bloodsport.

UFC 4 Screen 8

Then there’s the game’s revamped career mode, which is probably the most contentious new upgrade to UFC 4. Early on, it makes some welcome changes to the noticeably rigid career mode of UFC 3, showing you rise up through the independent scene and even giving you a chance to fight for an indie title if you so desire. However, once you reach the upper echelons of the UFC itself, it becomes less enticing, seeing you take countless uninteresting fights with little fanfare or fun.

Meanwhile, its new skill system smartly lets you build up your moves and perks through actual play, meaning any strikes you naturally lean on become more powerful as you progress. However, training camps are long and boring, especially once you reach the latter half of your fighter’s career.

There’s also the campaign’s rivalry mechanic, which feels like a wasted opportunity to sidestep the rigid structure of previous career modes. While it seems like the feature will let players call out fighters and set up dream matches, it instead falls to infrequent, fixed social media interactions and a bar which depletes every time you purposefully knock out an opponent in sparring. By the time your character is 10 years into their career, they’re locked into fighting unfulfilling opponents with no overarching goal to aspire to.

All in all, though, EA Sports UFC 4 is a solid new update to the series which introduces some much-needed quality of life improvements. Of course, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a wholly new take on the series. Like many sports games, it’s an upgrade that offers some crucial improvements and new features, so if huge innovations are what you’re after, you might be disappointed. But for fans looking for the best possible UFC experience, this is without question the most complete envisioning of the seminal MMA brand to date.

EA Sports UFC 4 review
4

Summary

Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Developers: EA Vancouver
Publisher: EA
Release Date: August 14, 2020

Although it doesn’t offer many game-changing new features, EA Sport’s UFC 4 is without question the most comprehensive release in EA Vancouver’s MMA franchise. Setting aside some issues with the career mode, it offers a solid update to UFC 3, with smoother combat, a more accessible entry point for new players and the most complete roster of fighters yet.

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Windbound review

What’s refreshing about Deep Silver’s Windbound is that it isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve.

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Windbound review
Deep Silver

What’s refreshing about Deep Silver’s Windbound is that it isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve.

As many have noted from its pre-release trailers, it has a clear admiration for the excellent Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, adopting its sense of unbridled freedom and strikingly colourful cel-shaded art style. However, it’s also evidently found some new grounding in the survival and rogue-like genres, pulling in inspiration from the likes of Stranded Deep, Don’t Starve and The Forest.

And while Windbound does feel like a blended assortment of different games and genres, the smoothie that comes out the other side is more refreshing and fulfilling than you might expect. It’s a constant surprise how well the game’s survival elements fit within a roguelike structure, and even more surprising how snuggly both feel in the kind of expansive open-world that Windbound provides. The end result manages to make for a more laid-back survival game than you might expect, offering both a liberating open-world adventure on top of an enthralling survival experience.

The core concept is pretty simple. You play as Kara, a member of a seafaring clan who gets shipwrecked following a violent storm. You awaken on an island in the middle of nowhere, alone and with little more than the clothes on your back and a trusty rock in your hand. From here, you’ll have to navigate across a procedurally generated landscape of islands in search of crafting items, food and magical towers which push forward the game’s story. Along the way, you’ll encounter a variety of locations, including murky swamps, harsh deserts and tropical paradises, each with their own resources and unique threats.

Windbound Screen 6

The first big deviation from most survival games is that Kara doesn’t really have many needs to attend to. Her stamina meter will slowly deplete as she grows hungry and health won’t regenerate on its own, forcing players to scavenge for food to replenish both. But, thankfully, there are no sleep meters to manage or temperamental thirst bars to watch out for. It’s the first of many signs that Windbound is a much more streamlined survival game than you’re used to, which is excellent because it means more freedom to explore without limitations.

Of course, that’s not to say the game doesn’t punish you. Death in Windbound is far more permanent than you might expect, with the game clocking you back to the first of five chapters if you’re unfortunate enough to see your health bar deplete to zero. Not only that, but all the items you amassed and the stat boosts you discovered perish alongside your progress, literally kicking you all the way back to square one.

Seeing as my winning run clocked in at around six hours, that’s a lot of time to spend on what might be a fruitless stab at reaching the credits. In truth, the permadeath focus can be a little too punishing for its own good. However, it does facilitate a type of learning most survival games don’t offer. Every run of Windbound brings a new discovery; every death teaches you to be cautious of something you were slightly too gung-ho about approaching before.

One of these exact teachings is to rely heavily on the game’s boat-building mechanic, with it quickly becoming essential to construct a ship that can withstand more than a slight gust of wind. In essence, boat-building in Windbound takes the place of crafting an intricate shelter in other survival games, especially as a sturdy craft will solve a number of your more pressing issues. You can store items on ships, use them to hide from pursuing foes and, of course, set sail to new islands in search of much-needed resources.

Windbound Screen 3

Constructing an awesome sea vessel quickly becomes Windbound’s most compelling feature, as you go from a hapless small fry in your little grass canoe to a cel-shaded Moana, skimming through the high-seas on your towering, hand-crafted sailboat.

Yet, on the opposite side, Windbound’s biggest issue is its lack of depth. While I’m completely behind the decision to strip away the classic survival tat and focus in on exploration, it can feel like there’s very little to discover after a few hours of play. Crafting boils down to slightly enhanced versions of tools you’ve utilized in the first few chapters. Sailing never evolves into something more challenging and the game’s central objective remains exactly the same.

Combat is plagued by the same problems, with slim enemy variety and clunky battles that rely on a dodge and attack system with unpredictable enemy hitboxes. Meanwhile, it often feels like there’s little reason to visit islands outside of gathering resources and accessing magical towers, which is unfortunate when they are such visually rich locations to explore. The addition of some Zelda-like dungeons with unique armour or weapons might have added a little something to sweeten the deal here. But, as it is, there were often islands I actively avoided because there was nothing to entice me off the beaten path.

Then there are Windbound’s technical issues, which are far from game-breaking but definitely noticeable. The game crashed a handful of times for me (with one resulting in around an hour’s playtime lost) while visual issues and infrequent bugs followed me throughout the campaign. None of it is going to truly ruin your time with Windbound, but there definitely will need to be a few patches.

Windbound screen 1

Other than that, what’s here is a surprisingly enticing survival game that’s a lot of fun to play. It might not be able to match the sheer scope of something like Breath of the Wild, while other survival games offer much more depth, but its combination of several different genres and styles makes for something that stands out from its more gritty, self-serious peers.

Deep Silver has clearly aimed to blend the line between the single-player adventure game and the crafting-based survival genre, and for my money, it’s a solid first attempt.

Windbound review
3.5

Summary


Platform: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Developers: Five Lives Studios
Publisher: Koch Media
Release Date: August 28, 2020


Windbound almost feels like a mixing pot of some of this decade’s most visually striking and compelling games, and for the most part, the end result is surprisingly effective. It could do with more depth, but its focus on exploration and fantastic ship-building mechanics make for a pretty liberating survival experience.

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