Monster Sanctuary (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam

For me, Monster Sanctuary is a bit of an odd experience. It is, by no means, a bad game, a metroidvania combined with the monster raising and fighting type games many of us love so much. Its skill trees, balance, and difficulty curve appear pretty solid, and I like its pixel art designs.

So it’s bugging the hell out of me that I’m not terribly enthused with it, and can’t work out why.

Monsters, some tame, some not, protag, got it, I know where I stand!

It’s certainly not the thinnish story, or the obvious gamey unlocks of features based on progression. I’m used to those, and honestly, it’s not that big a deal. You want to be the very best Monster Tamer, bad things are happening, and you work in an organisation, so it’s all good there.

The grind, similarly, isn’t bad. After all, monsters in the line share XP, so if you’re in need of seriously levelling someone up, you can put them as a reserve, beat up some lower level monsters, and don’t put them in the frontlines until they’re needed. And, of course, monsters are the level you catch them at.

It’s some solid visrep of combat, and a clear UX too.

Even the combat is engaging, because it’s this balancing act of factors. Do you put a monster in the very front, where it won’t do as much damage, but it’ll rack up combos for the monsters after it? Do you use a powerful ability, or tone it down and do less damage, because the powerful version outstrips the mana regeneration that monster currently has? Adding to this, you can see the types of monsters in a group (and they are, apart from uniques, always in a group), and plan accordingly, looking at your monster journal for weaknesses, coming up with a plan for the following encounter.

So, the systems fit pretty well together, with multiple elements to play with, multiple different roles, and the fact that even healing will add to a combo helps you keep the flow going with a healer role in the party. Moving around isn’t bad, especially since different monsters have different abilities you can use in the world, from breaking open inaccessible areas, to mobility improvements…

An example of this would be the bird. Poor bird, he has to carry the protag. Can’t do it for too long, but it’s enough.

It’s a solid game. And yet… I had trouble keeping my enthusiasm going, and I don’t particularly know why. There’s still time to work it out. There’s still time to change my mind, or have my mind changed by some update or another. And it’s a solid mix of platformer and turn-based monster taming RPG. It just… Doesn’t really grab me right now.

The Mad Welshman hates not knowing why he doesn’t get on with a thing. Normally he’s much better than that.

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Piko Piko (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

This is, honestly, the first time a metroidvania has bewildered me. Not confused. Not a dislike. Just a sort of mild “Wha- What’s going on?” Part of that is that it throws you into the storyline quite quickly. Part of that is that it’s a colourful assault on the senses at times, especially during boss time… And partly… It’s confusing, and doesn’t currently tutorialise well.

The protagonist is only slightly less confused than I am. Although she does seem the Go with the Flow type.

So yes, this is the story of Piko, a Piko Piko hammer (A plastic whack-a-mole mallet with rubber ends) wielding girl and her fox friend, both students at the Blacksmith Academy, where… Oh no, the Great Blacksmith Hammer has been stolen, the school is in ruins, and Teacher has been framed! Piko and her friend must beat the everloving crap out of people, mostly fellow students, until they can get to the bottom of this!

No, really, that’s the premise behind this indie metroidvania type deal. You are a girl with a surprisingly whallopy plastic hammer, who goes around hammering things, and using her special abilities, to go from boss fight to boss fight, solving hammer and ability based puzzles, and gaining powerups along the way, in their quest to… Basically, find out what’s going on. And it’s here where we get into “Shows promise, needs work” territory. Let’s start with the visual.

In boss fights, whalloping enemies directly on the head is the best way to stun them. But it quickly becomes tough as nails.

On the plus side, it has a windowed mode, the UX is pretty clear, it looks pretty, and only a few enemies are hard to distinguish from the backdrop (mostly the leafy enemies.) On the downside, windowed mode is a little glitchy on the highest windowed resolution it has, not actually resizing the display, and, if you want over 1440 width, you might as well go full screen (or 760 and some change, if you want your window not to be 760 and some change with lots of blackspace.) The sound design is nice, some nice chunky noises, and a fair few cute ones too, and, if you expected character design to be cutesy with a side order of “The hell?” in the case of some of the bosses (Like the german third grader transfer student in a tank), then you’re doing well. Similarly, the maps have enough interest, and locations of interest, to be able to lead you around.

Now, here’s where it gets annoying. The keyboard layout is, in and of itself, not bad. But it’s not signposted. So you won’t know without experimenting that jumping, then holding down and jump, will do a very useful move: A slam. You’d think it would be, for example, down and X (attack on the keyboard), but… No. It’s jump, and, in midair, whether you double jumped or not, down and jump. It wasn’t until a second run through that I even noticed Piko had a jumping special attack on C, because C normally results in your partner throwing a drill.

The characters are also quite expressive.

Oh, and down and C is a slide, which I also didn’t know about. Perhaps you can see why this might be a problem. Options? Not really. Is the hammer slam useful? Yes. But this leads into another thing… The hammer slam is, inarguably, one of your best tools for stunning bosses, letting you get free hits in. It’s also a bitch to land. So… It’s somewhat obtuse, requires experimentation with the controls, and some of its more useful skills, while you have them early on, are hard to use.

Does that make it a bad game? No. Once I got into the swing of things, I beat a few bosses, explored quite a bit, had a lot of fun, and, as mentioned, beat the everloving crap out of lots of cutesy things with my hammer. I even explored the world quite a bit, although there doesn’t appear to be much of a reason to visit many areas (maybe I haven’t gotten far enough.) But it does make it exactly what it is: A work in progress, an Early Access game with some “Mileage May Vary” warning in there. If you’re looking for another pixel metroidvania fix, and don’t mind the game being a work in progress, it’s worth a shot. Otherwise, wait.

The Mad Welshman also has a hammer, but it is not a Piko Piko. It’s a rather large Lucerne, for henchfolk who displease him.

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Blaster Master Zero 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £8.99 (£1.79 for Soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, Blaster Master. The original was a bit of a cult classic, in that it could be bastard hard, was somewhat difficult to get hold of, and so, built up a small following of very devoted fans. Including, it seems, IntiCreates, who created Blaster Master Zero, a fun little Metroidvania type dealio with the same general idea of “One boy, a frog, and his tank.” And, you know, the friends you make along the way, your friend who you want to save from a mutant parasite slowly taking her over… Usual stuff, really!

You’ll believe a Tank can fly…

And, while there is a lot to like about it… Dear god, some of it is finicky as hell. Like the game’s walljump, which does what I’d like for it to do in terms of my opinion toward it… But not in terms of what I’d actually want it to do. So, metaphorically, it can go jump on some spikes. In actuality, I’d really like for that to stop happening, whether it’s through tight windows, reading a jump as a hover, not jumping the whole way between walls when it really can, or… Well, any combination of the above. I eventually got over that hurdle, but while it was happening, I was less than impressed.

The game does have other potential turnoffs that have been part of the series since… Well, since its first incarnation, really. The tank’s jumps are pretty floaty, its movement has a little bit of inertia, and, while you can get used to it, I know some folks dislike it. Meanwhile, I’ve always liked the “get out of the tank” idea, even if your protagonist, in the tank part of the world, can easily injure himself… With his own jump. Indeed, falling off a shortish ladder can be a lethal error, so… Don’t do either of those things.

Special abilities in combat are the equivalent of parries, and god-damn are they fun when you pull them off. And you can pull them off relatively easily.

But each has their own strengths. The tank gains more abilities over time, and so does the pilot, Jason. Admittedly, each character’s abilities can only really be used in their respective worlds (for the most part), but each gets interesting fairly quickly, getting special weapons, mobility powerups… And, of course, each fighting different styles of bosses. For Jason, it’s Zelda style forced perspective battles with giant mutant spiders, other Mobile Armour pilots (Jason thought he was the last, but he is wrong), and, for the tank, things like a giant bee holding its hexagonal hive below it, both as a shield, and, of course, as a spawner of its ilk. They’re interesting fights, and it’s pretty easy to get the pattern down in only a short time. And, of course, if you screw it up, the save points are always there pre-bosses (They’re… Not terribly generous elsewhere, but just enough that you don’t feel like they’re too far apart. Just… Somewhat far apart.)

Aesthetically, it’s a lo-fi pixel dealio, with some lovely chip-tunes and SNES like sound effects, making it feel retro while… No, it is a modern game, and while some of its tricks are old school, the rest are modern indeed.

Okay, so some of you would want your companion to turn into a slimegirl. But, y’know, this isn’t that sort of game.

And I may have spent a couple of paragraphs griping, but, honestly, Blaster Master 02 really… Isn’t bad. It’s the second game in the modern series, itself an interesting take on the Metroidvania formula, it’s aesthetically pleasing and clear, and, apart from some mobility finickiness, I never really felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall.

Aaaand I’ve got a brand new Mobile Armour, and I’ll give you the key…

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Minoria (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Minoria is cute. Minoria is melancholy. Minoria has an interesting world, that gets better the further you play into it. And Minoria… Has some brutally unforgiving boss fights, where single mistakes will cost you about three rooms worth of running and a cutscene to rejoin them. And, in the early game at least, there’s a big difference in challenge between the enemies… And the bosses.

Sister Devoir. She’s nasty, but… Maybe she has a point… About the church, silly, not the point of her sword.

Which, let’s face it, seems a very odd thing to say, doesn’t it? But the difference between the earliest enemies and the second boss, or even the second tier of enemies compared to the first, is clear. And everything that can hit you… Hits like a bloody truck. You start to get used to it, but… I have to admit, I bounced off hard, and bounced off early. Second boss, in fact.

And, honestly, there’s no shame in that. Single mistakes, especially in boss fights, cost dear, and, since the combat is akin to… Sigh… Dark Souls, in that fights with bosses are long, tense affairs in which, as noted, mistakes can quite easily cost your life, it’s merely beyond my own ability, rather than a condemnation of the game. More… A caution to those who, in turn, bounced off games of the Soulslike persuasion.

Wait, this woman looks… Familiar, for some reason…

The thing is, Minoria is also very lovely, aesthetically. Contemplative pianos give way to dramatic violins, beautiful princesses (Who… Remind me of someone. Hrm) and cute, but deadly small witches fit well in the well drawn corridors and steps of the cathedral, and everything is clear. It’s somewhat minimalistic in approach, but this works, and I do love it.

But, alas, I don’t really get on with its style of play, and, if we’re being honest, its keybinds. It’s most likely recommended that you play with controller, or rebind the keys, because it’s all too easy, with the default, to fatfinger the “Use Incense” key when what you meant to do was attack, or, less commonly, to switch your insenses when you meant to parry or dodge.

LET. US. PRAY!

Obviously, take this review with a grain of salt, because, as mentioned, I was not able to get too far due to the high damage you take for pretty much any mistake, but it’s a beautiful game that is recommended for soulslike fans, while not, generally speaking, recommended for beginners to its metroidvania styled exploration/combat. Specifically the combat.

The Mad Welshman is legitimately sad he couldn’t get as far as he wanted here.

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Grizzland (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I like me some Metroidvanias. I do love me some lo-fi pixels. And so, Grizzland immediately caught my interest, because it is, essentially, a short Metroidvania, with lo-fi pixels, that still has encounters, boss fights, and challenge.

Not pictured: The actual fight, because they disappear and summon MANY TRIANGLES OF DOOM.

Maybe a little too much challenge at some times… But what the hey, checkpoints are mostly reasonable, so I’m not too irritable with that.

In any case, Grizzland’s premise starts out simple. It’s a fantastic world into which you’ve somehow teleported, except… Not all is as clear cut as it seems, from the very first journal you find. Wait, landed? Computer? Buddy, I’m swinging a sword and there are magicians with giant triangles comin’ at me, what is this gobbledegook?

Even basic enemies will dodge out of the way of your sword most of the time. Which isn’t as frustrating as it sounds, since they don’t jump very far.

Well, it quickly turns out that someone did land here, destroying the trees as they went toward the centre of the world, and, considering there’s only 5 of them, and they’re sentient? Well, that’s deep trouble indeed… Away we gooooo (to save the day)

Now, one thing that should be made clear is that enemy routines, combined with the fact that very little can be slain in one swing, make combat more difficult than you’d expect. Whether it’s the bats, who wake up, and mercilessly chase you, but retreat on the first blow far enough that you may have difficulty getting the three hits you need in before they hit you, or enemies which revenge fire when hit, it’s something to consider about the game’s difficulty.

“Not everything has to make sense.” Well, yes, but I do appreciate bears.

Happily, I can say I’ve enjoyed my time with Grizzland. The world is basic, but the journals, some of its stranger (1-bit) enemies help bring some oddity, as do the secrets, which are sometimes… Quite amusing. As the first you find states: Not everything has to make sense.

So yes, overall, there’s a solid attention to a consistent style, there’s some good chiptunes and sound effects, and, as a short Metroidvania, it can still pretty easily eat up an hour or four of your life (more if you’re looking for eeeeeverything. Which I am.) Reasonably priced to boot, I would definitely recommend Grizzland.

The Mad Welshman would probably also go on a quest of sword swinging if he found people uprooting trees. He’s very pro tree.

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