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Yooka-Laylee review

I really rather like Die Hard. Yes, this is a Yooka-Laylee review, I promise – stick with me here, folks.

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Yooka-Laylee review

I really rather like Die Hard. Yes, this is a Yooka-Laylee review, I promise – stick with me here, folks.

The original Die Hard is one of my favourite movies of all time. It’s also the best Christmas movie ever, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. Its sequel, Die Hard 2 – subtitled ‘Die Harder’, which should have been a dire warning of what was to come – was inferior to the original, but it was still a bloody enjoyable experience. Die Hard With a Vengeance was also a stomping action movie.

Then, they should have stopped making Die Hards. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend there aren’t any more Die Hard movies. I like to imagine that they did indeed stop at three, and the fourth and fifth movies can’t hurt me or the legacy of John McClane any more. See also: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, all the Star Wars prequels, Terminator 3, Terminator Salvation, Terminator Genisys, and Prometheus.

Sometimes, something exists as a perfect slice in time, and it really doesn’t need rehashing. You see where I’m going with this one now, right?

The ghost of Banjo-Kazooie

Yooka-Laylee is, for all intents and purposes, a successor to Banjo-Kazooie. I’m reluctant to call it a spiritual successor – as many others have – because, other than the aesthetic stuff being different, it’s basically the same game. More on that later.

Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel, Banjo-Tooie, are 3D character platformers that were developed by industry veterans Rare and released for the N64 around the turn of the century. This was a time when 3D character platform games were wildly popular and Banjo-Kazooie really was up there with the best of them.

Times change, however, and Rare were bought by Microsoft a few years later. Following a couple of poorly-received attempts at 3D character platforming revivals – including a Banjo-Kazooie game that bizarrely included more car-building than platforming – their focus shifted to other areas. Specifically, Rare went all-in on Microsoft’s Kinect platform, which was the next big thing at the time.

But a small group of veterans, dedicated to the art of the 3D platform game, left Rare and founded Playtonic Games. They had a vision that the world wanted – nay, needed – a successor to Banjo-Kazooie, and they took their idea to Kickstarter. It was wildly successful.

Yooka-Laylee Kickstarter

The strange thing is, I’m not sure the world did want, or need, Yooka-Laylee. But the peculiar thing about Kickstarter is that when someone floats the idea in front of you, and the cost is relatively low, it suddenly seems like a good idea, even if it was the furthest thing from your mind five seconds earlier.

I’m sure if Kickstarter had existed in 2005 and Bruce Willis had pitched Die Hard 4.0 to me – including Justin Long in the buddy sidekick role, and the bit where he takes out the helicopter with the car – I would’ve chipped in a few quid, but with hindsight we know that Die Hard should have stopped with a vengeance.

So how does Yooka-Laylee pick up the Banjo-Kazooie torch? Rather literally, as it happens.

If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all

Yooka-Laylee begins with Yooka (the cute, bipedal lizard) and Laylee (the obnoxious bat) hanging out in their pleasant, 3D platform home.

Then an evil bee moves in next door and starts sucking up all the books in the world (because reasons, obviously) including a magical book that is torn into hundreds of pages, known as ‘pagies’, that are scattered throughout the worlds. Yooka and Laylee must then collect quills to learn a bunch of 3D platforming moves from a comedy snake salesperson, infiltrate the bee’s hub-world lair to collect parts of said magical book, use the ‘pagies’ to open up access to new worlds found within grand tomes, and ultimately stop the evil bee.

Now if you do a find and replace on that paragraph, with the following parameters:

  • Yooka = Banjo
  • Laylee = Kazooie
  • Lizard = Bear
  • Bat = Bird
  • Bee = Witch
  • Quills = Musical notes
  • Pages = Jigsaw pieces
  • ‘Pagies’ = ‘Jiggies’
  • Snake = Mole
  • Grand tomes = Jigsaw puzzles

Then you’ve basically got Banjo-Kazooie. There you go. I’ve saved you the bother of having to play it. No? That’s not enough? You’re really going to make me do this, aren’t you?

OK then, here it is: Yooka-Laylee is fine.

Now, I should point out that ‘fine’ is a terrible adjective, and if a writer turned in a review that described something as ‘fine’ then I wouldn’t be pleased. Writers shouldn’t ever resort to using the word ‘fine’, because they should possess the eloquence and raw mastery of language to never resort to such lesser adjectives, but on rare occasions the use of a word so banal as ‘fine’ is in and of itself an incredibly expressive piece of language. Particularly when you’re British.

But you’re going to want more than a sardonic “this game is fine” aren’t you?

The Yooka-Laylee review proper

First up, I actually think Yooka-Laylee is very pretty to look at. Modern standards of beauty have changed in games of late, and a 90s-inspired 3D platform game was never going to compete with the likes of Uncharted 4 visually, but it actually looks fine. And in that instance, I actually mean ‘fine’ for its other, non-British meaning: lustrous and splendid.

There are a few foibles to the visuals. Underwater scenes can be murky and confusing, as they often are with 3D platformers, and the less brightly lit environments – certain areas of the hub world, for example, or the whole of Moodymaze Marsh, which is largely a gloomy mess – aren’t nearly a patch on the technicolour vibrancy of the likes of Tribalstack Tropics.

Yooka-Laylee screenshot Tribalstack Tropics

Tribalstack Tropics is a joyous romp through the history of 3D platformers. From the endless azure skies and verdant fields of green, with plush palms and iridescent rivers, it’s a little slice of video game design 101. It’s unashamedly Emerald Hill Zone or Yoshi’s Island, and that absolutely fine with me.

The animations are adorable, too. While Yooka might be a Banjo surrogate, he’s far closer to Mario’s dinosaur steed, Yoshi, than his Rare forebear. From the way he catches butterflies (for health) with his long, sticky tongue, or how he strains for a higher ledge with a Yoshi-esque ‘flutter jump’, to the way he gulps down anything in sight and turns them into tools or weapons – projectiles, flames, bombs – everything is pure, vintage Yoshi.

Leave your heroes alone and, as with the best platformers, you’ll be treated to an idle animation. Yooka-Laylee‘s idle animation speaks volumes: Yooka is all heart and totally adorable, but Laylee – the tomato-nosed bat who rides on his shoulders – is an absolute dick, teasing Yooka for no reason.

While Yooka is a metaphor for everything that’s right about Yooka-Laylee, Laylee sums up plenty of what’s wrong. There’s a reason that The Simpsons quickly changed from a vehicle for Bart (Laylee, in this analogy) and centred on the big, lovable oaf, Homer (Yooka): there’s only so much teenage sass and relentless faux-anarchism one can take before it starts to grate.

And it starts to grate really, really quickly.

Yooka Laylee bee and duck

Yes, that’s the Rare style, and it’s part of Playtonic’s vision to bring back a style of yesteryear, but the schtick gets old fast. Literally a few seconds after starting, as it happens.

From an initially positive first impression, of adorable ukulele music and a cute, colourful menu screen, we’re thrust into a cut scene. In it we observe the game’s antagonists, a Dr Robotnik-esque bumble bee and a duck mad scientist who is a disembodied head in a gum-ball machine for some reason – did I mention the shtick was painful? – unveiling their dastardly plan to vacuum all the world’s books.

You remember the noises that characters used to make while talking in Banjo-Kazooie, right? That sort of, grown ups talking on Charlie Brown meets that poorly-drawn multiverse from Family Guy garbage noise, that seemed acceptable because it was the N64 and full voice acting would’ve been an unreasonable ask? Well, that’s back in Yooka-Laylee, and in the cut scenes – of which there are many more than there used to be in Banjo – you can’t skip it.

And I hate it. So. Much.

You can’t even mute it. I went into the menu, vainly hoping for an option to change the gibberish into actual, spoken voice acting, or – worst case scenario – an option to turn it off altogether, but it wasn’t there. I could either turn down (or off) sound effects altogether, which would have removed so many charming yelps and boinks from Yooka and the environment, or leave them on and tolerate them.

And there’s so much of it. What could be simple, quick quest-giving chats quickly turn into twenty-line back and forth conversations. You’ll probably find yourself hammering the button to skip through the interminable conversation noise, but you’re not missing out on much. Other than a few puns – including a snake named Trowzer, snigger – and occasional self-referential gags that genuinely made me laugh, it’s pretty painful stuff.

I’m conscious that Yooka-Laylee is essentially a game for children – setting aside the fact it was bought and paid for by people in their twenties for a moment – but kids playing games nowadays are invested in more sophisticated experiences. In a world of limitless imagination (Minecraft), or big-budget immediacy (the Lego tie-ins), or toys that literally come to life (Lego Dimensions, Skylanders), a retro platformer with crude sound effects and 9am cartoon jokes shoe-horned in there feels a bit out of place.

Or perhaps, more accurately, out of time.

Let’s do the time warp again

Thankfully in other areas, Yooka-Laylee handles its retrospection far better.

The music, composed by Rare stalwarts Grant Kirkhope (Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie), David Wise (Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country) and Steve Burke (Kameo, Viva Piñata), is damn-near perfect. It’s a masterful combination of chirpy and twee, perfectly fitting the game’s saccharinely sweet visuals and retro ambitions. Like the best video game soundtracks, it’s eminently hummable and never becomes tiring.

The Yooka-Laylee soundtrack is available to buy, by the way, and I really can’t recommend it enough. In a game that has its flaws, it’s one very consistent high-point.

And how does Yooka-Laylee play? Well, very much like you’d expect: just like Banjo-Kazooie.

The classic progression of opening a world, then collecting stuff to buy new moves, to allow you to collect more stuff, to allow you to open new worlds, works exactly as you’d expect. Yooka-Laylee is a mechanically solid 3D platformer, and Yooka himself is chunky little ball of lizard muscle and sinew to control. Mastering new moves is fun and progression based on these new moves is challenging, though there are a few irritating sections and elements that don’t quite work.

There are also a lot of minigames that are predominantly a result of stretch goals in the Kickstarter campaign, but other than Rextro himself – the retro T-Rex (geddit?) who introduces them to you, who is one of my favourite (read: the least annoying) characters – the game isn’t particularly enhanced by their inclusion. Lots of them felt like they could have been knocked up in an afternoon, possibly by the work experience kid who usually makes the tea, and they haven’t compelled me to play more than once or twice.

While the game is crammed with stretch goal extras, the worlds themselves feel a little limited compared to the sorts of expansive level design we’re now used to – at least at first glance. But once you’ve collected enough ‘pagies’ you’ll be able to expand the worlds you’ve already discovered, in addition to opening up new ones to push forward. When you add the extra real estate onto the levels, which adds a significant amount of verticality and exploration, then they really start to feel like classic Rare levels.

As this is a 3D platformer, though, there are a few specific niggles.

For one thing, the camera can be a squirmy, flighty animal. But when you consider that nobody has really ever gotten a 3D platform camera right in over twenty years, I can allow a little leeway for it at least being no more terrible than anybody else’s. Playtonic have released a day one patch that should fix some camera issues, but I didn’t find it much different on a very brief tinker since the patch arrived (other than addressing a few specific sections where the camera broke altogether, that the PR folk did forewarn me about beforehand).

This patch is also designed to address some performance issues, many of which have been well-discussed by earlier reviews. To be fair, I didn’t personally see anything too horrendous playing on PS4, though your mileage may vary.

There is a little slowdown when things get rather busy on-screen, some evidence of poor optimisation that the patch should address, and a few bugs that publisher Team17 warned me about beforehand (and have assure me are addressed in the day one patch).

And speaking of performance issues, there is also this hilarious frame rate drop that kept happening on the loading screen, basically because there are too many animated collectibles on screen at once:

Nothing dreadful, but still, indicative of some optimisation issues in there that need working out.

With a dearth of co-op games of late, Mrs B and I were also really looking forward to the two-player campaign experience – similar to the collecting/shooting mechanic in Super Mario Galaxy – but without the Wiimote’s pointing ability, it just doesn’t work. At all. Between player one wrestling with the camera and player two having to track across the screen using analogue sticks, it was practically unplayable.

It’s one minor final point, in the grand scheme of things, but one that’s symptomatic of another nice idea with an imperfect implementation.

Yooka-Laylee
3

Summary

From the promise of the Kickstarter and the people behind it, you might have expected Yooka-Laylee to be like a great band, getting back together for a new album after a long hiatus. What we’ve ended up with is something that feels like a cover version – of something a bit old-fashioned, not especially relevant today, and more than a little bit flawed – but if you loved Banjo-Kazooie, then you’ll probably love the cover version just as much, and that’s just fine.

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.

Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

Reviews

Super Mario 3D All-Stars review

Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Switch rises above a host of small niggles to remind us that when it comes to gameplay, Nintendo’s Italian plumber is still king.

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Super Mario 3D All-Stars
Nintendo / Thumbsticks

Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Nintendo Switch rises above some small niggles to remind us that when it comes to gameplay, Super Mario is still king.

I’m not sure what it would take to satisfactorily celebrate the anniversary of an icon with Super Mario’s legacy and stature. It’s evident, however, that Super Mario 3D All-Stars has fallen short of what some fans hoped for. And although it’s easy to be disappointed by what this new Nintendo Switch collection doesn’t include, it’s thankfully easier to be entertained, enthralled, and exhilarated by what it does.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars features three titles plucked from the Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii eras. Two of them are universally acknowledged as classics. The other is a divisive title, ripe for reappraisal. Each game runs in high-definition with a few modest enhancements such as improved HUD elements and some updated art assets. HD rumble is another welcome addition. Super Mario 64, in particular, benefits from the subtle pulses and purrs that now support Mario’s acrobatics.

This anniversary collection is completed by three soundtracks, and that’s it. If you’re a fan of Digital Eclipse’s work with the Mega Man franchise, for example, I expect you’ll be disappointed by what’s on offer here. Put simply, 3D All-Stars is a compilation of three classic games presented as close to their original format as is possible given the requirements of modern HD televisions. It is the bare minimum, then, although it’s worth noting that all three games look splendid nonetheless.

Mario 3D All-Stars artwork

Super Mario 64

Much of the disappointment surrounding this collection is directed at the presentation of Nintendo 64 classic, Super Mario 64. Unlike Activision’s Crash Bandicoot and Spyro trilogies, the All-Stars version of Super Mario 64 is not a remake, but it’s also not a full remaster. Instead, it’s the Japanese Shindō Pak Taiō version of the game presented in 4:3 ratio at 720p resolution. The frame-rate is locked tight at 30 fps, but the in-game camera is still the Lakitu-controlled experiment of incremental positioning it was in 1996. The one concession to modern gameplay expectations is a switcheroo of the horizontal camera axis, from inverted to normal.

All of this would be a problem were it not for the game still being absolutely brilliant. Those black borders on the side of the screen are disappointing, but then I tumble into a strange swirling pool of colour and land in a subterranean maze. I long jump across a ravine to escape a nasty bug. I weave through a path of tumbling boulders. I plunge into a pool of water and climb on to the back of a sea monster. I discover a small island topped by a ring of gleaming coins with a glowing star at its centre. I take the star, and I win. It’s an action movie refined into 84 blissful seconds.

Super Mario 64 - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

That’s the magic of Super Mario 64. The game’s age is almost its defining feature. Displayed in HD and released from the fuzz of a CRT screen, it looks dynamite, even at 720p. Sure, a full visual makeover would be an interesting exercise, but there’s also a chance it would shine a harsh light on the game’s limits and those hazy, out of reach borders. There is an innate beauty in the simplicity of its polygons simplicity. Unlike its successor, every shape and colour in Super Mario 64 feel deliberately positioned to create the ultimate digital playground. Whereas the muted, earthy tones The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time benefit from its Nintendo 3DS upgrade, Super Mario 64 looks and feels timeless.

For me, revisiting Super Mario 64 is an exercise in flexing 24 years of muscle memory. Newcomers might struggle with its camera or find some the trickier platforming sequences frustrating, but Mario can still turn on a dime, wall bounce with grace, and triple jump with a finesse that no other video game character can muster. Age can not diminish that, and it never will.

Super Mario Sunshine

Super Mario Sunshine has always been considered the black sheep of Mario’s 3D family. It was acknowledged as a minor classic in 2002, but over time it has been quietly pushed aside and forgotten, like a misguided holiday romance.

Super Mario Sunshine - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

On Nintendo Switch, Sunshine finds itself upscaled to 1080p and given much-needed room to breathe with a 16:9 aspect ratio. These welcome changes are offset by a stubborn refusal to allow the inverted aiming controls to be changed, despite a reversal of the horizontal camera. The F.L.U.D.D. mechanics have also been migrated from one pressure-sensitive GameCube trigger to two digital shoulder buttons on Switch.

It’s not an ideal compromise, especially when combined with the game’s wayward camera and looser approach to level design. All of this would be a problem were not for the game being such a uniquely singular Mario experience. Aiming F.L.U.D.D. is needlessly counter-intuitive, but then I swan-dive into a stream of water, and I forget all about it. I slide down a hill and launch into a jump. I bounce from a rope and hover in the air, held aloft by two jets of water. I climb a windmill to battle Petey Piranha in a mess of water, goo, and ground-pounds.

Super Mario Sunshine is a hodge-podge of the sublime and the ridiculous, a vacation of wild highs and hangover headaches. It’s a flawed, scruffy game by Nintendo’s standards, but I predict those expecting a disaster will be pleasantly surprised.

Super Mario Galaxy

Of the games in this collection, Super Mario Galaxy requires the least amount of polish from a visual perspective. Nintendo’s artistry looks wonderful in 1080p, and the game runs a silky smooth 60 fps without any hiccups. The implementation of the Wii version’s motion controls is more of a mixed bag, however.

In docked mode, you can play with a Pro Controller or two Joy-Cons. They work well enough, but the motion aiming is not as precise as Wii players will recall, and the absence of an infrared sensor means frequent recalibration.

In handheld mode, these actions are transferred to the Switch’s touchscreen. It’s an obvious solution, but in practice, some of the more intricate levels result in a spaghetti of fingers as your hand moves back and forth from the controller to the screen in quick succession. Thankfully, Mario’s spin-jump can now be performed with a simple tap of the Y button.

Super Mario Galaxy - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

All of this would be a problem were it not for the game remaining one of the purest distillations of platforming ever committed to silicon. The touchscreen controls can be fiddly in the heat of the moment, but when that moment is a journey across a galaxy featuring castle planets, physics-defying bridges, a glass space station with constantly flipping gravity, and a gauntlet of lava-filled boulders, those problems fade away. It’s simply a joy to watch this version of Mario in action, bending the rules of space and motion across a series of varied and outrageously imaginative environments.

It’s striking how significantly video games changed in the decade between Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, and how little they have evolved since. Despite Super Mario Odyssey‘s obvious achievements, it sits firmly in Galaxy‘s shadow. It’s another outright classic from Nintendo and a masterpiece of video game construction.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars review
4.5

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: September 18, 2020


Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a limited time release in both physical and digital formats. We can only guess at the reason but whatever misgivings you have about the nature of this collection – or its position as Nintendo’s big fall release – it’s still an essential purchase. All three games look better than ever and provide hours and hours of exquisitely designed and consistently inventive entertainment.

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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.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 02

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.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 01

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.

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.

Continue Reading

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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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