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.
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.
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.
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.
Where To Get It: Steam
Ah, the story of Cain and Abel. Two bears, both proud warriors, and one of whom is… No, this is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain definitely tries to kill Abel… It’s just…
Okay, alright, this is one of those procgen not quite metroidvania type deals, where some abilities are kept between runs at a castle, and others are only used or obtained during that run. And yes, the story involves a bear named Abel, whose brother, Cain, appears to have been corrupted by something, something that seems to have corrupted others, as Abel finds out when he and a doggy merchant are thrown into a world between worlds. And wouldn’tcha know it, Abel accidentally has the key to those worlds!
It’s not a bad premise, all told, and the writing sells that confusion, the questioning and hurt that comes from seeing people you know and love become twisted. It also creates some interesting characters, although some are more fleshed out than others. As in… It’s pretty much Abel and the Merchant who flesh out over time. From what I’ve seen so far, at least. As to the game? Well, there’s a fair bit that I like, and a couple of things I’m… Not so fond of. But hey, Early Access, things are subject to change, including my opinion.
So let’s begin with what I like. The character designs are pretty damn nice. For example, Abel is a soft boy, for being a warrior, and that’s thematically fitting. Yet he still animates well, and while the enemies aren’t pushed back by normal blows, there’s nonetheless strength and speed in the swings. The secondary abilities, the passives… Most of them feel like powerups. The enemies are an interesting mix, and, once I’d learned to spot certain traps, I appreciated the tension in certain layouts. The fact that only some items and abilities stay from run to run is less fun, but there’s some compensation in picking one of the special abilities you earn (by finding in-run abilities you haven’t collected yet) for an extra benefit, such as being able to damage foes by jumping on their heads, having better healing, and that sort of thing.
I am less appreciative of the keyboard controls. Just, overall. The defaults feel a little confusing, and even with rebinding them to something I’m used to, I have problems. Controller is recommended for this one folks.
And similarly… I’m not exactly having fun with the bosses. Damage in the game is brutal, and bosses can quite easily murder the heck out of you with just a few hits, which, on the one hand, is similar to the enemies… On the other, you have to get through the enemies to reach the boss, and, while I didn’t have a problem with this in, say, Dead Cells, I feel like I’m having more trouble here.
Despite this, do I recommend it, at the present stage? Yes. It’s showing a lot of promise, some solid writing, a good aesthetic, and hell, you might have a much easier time of the bosses than I am.
The Mad Welshman dislikes when he’s having a tough time of it. Just… Overall, to be honest.
Price: £8.23 (Soundtrack £7.19, Deluxe Edition £13.72)
Where To Get It: Steam
Sayonara Wild Hearts fits in an interesting place in my mind. It’s somewhat akin to Audiosurf, in that you’re collecting things to a musical track, but it is, at the same time, less and more than that. It’s a game that rapidly, often to the point of disorientation, shifts gears on you, from floating to flying to quick-time fighting (space only for that, no worries on that front), to moments where you just enjoy that sparkle of things being collected and… Oh, yeah, photosensitive epilepsy warning, folks, because there’s a lot of flashing. The hearts flash, the world can flash, the fights are flashy in both senses of the word…
But it can’t be described with reference. Because it’s its own thing, and that thing is an arcade music video. Or, more accurately, an arcade music movie, sort of like Interstella 555 (Go watch that if you haven’t, it’s pretty good.) The multiverse used to be a cool place, full of love, and ruled by three of the Major Arcana. But then five of them decided to get up in everyone’s business and break those hearts. So they used the pieces of a broken heart to create a magical girl, a magical girl who’s going to heal the hearts of those broken hearted Arcana.
If you guessed there was a queer as fuck subtext here, you’re wrong. It’s text, and it’s fucking amazing. Biker girls, wolf girls, literal sword lesbians… And the music starts bittersweet, and, while it gets lonesome and bitter in places, that’s the point. You’re fighting that. You’re fighting, by the end, an avatar of homophobia, and then? Well, you get to do it again, this time with the goal of beautiful smooches, now you’re a proven Magical Girl Heart Mender!
And, as you might have guessed from the idea that it’s a music movie, yes, the aesthetics are gorgeous, the tunes vary quite a bit, but they’re all good (I happycried the first time I went through some of them), the visuals are… Ah. Yes. Let’s talk about the heartbreak for me, and probably some other folks.
You see, even though the game is forgiving in terms of forgiving deaths, and having low score barriers to finish the main story… As mentioned, the game flashes a lot, there’s a level where it’s twisting in a way that’s guaranteed to set off somebody’s motion sickness, and when it gets twitchy, it gets twitchy. As in “You have precisely 0.1 seconds to reorient yourself, because here’s a narrow corridor/sudden obstacle/need for a turn-pad very quickly after another one” twitchy. The QTEs are actually just fine. They’re friendly, they pause for a short, grey moment before you screw it up (and don’t let you screw it up because you pushed it before the prompt even appeared. And the game takes itself in directions with little notice, from race-collecting, to shooters, to even a Space Harrier or Panzer Dragoon like experience where you’re locking onto enemies to shoot them.
The controls, thankfully, are accessible, and twitch was expected in a game like this, but, even with that forgiveness, it can get brutal, and I had real trouble getting through the aforementioned twisty level, the second Moon level against the Howling Moons Gang, precisely because it was fucking me up. And I will also mention that this disorientation is only fitting, considering it’s a coming out story, set to music, and narrated by Queen Latifah. Shit’s disorienting, and things can come at you from unexpected angles… It is fitting!
And so, while I’d heartily recommend it to the quick fingered and strong stomached, and while I would less heartily recommend it to folks who are at least strong stomached (Because, as noted, you’re going to finish the levels regardless, and getting bronze is definitely do-able on each level), I find myself reacting to its cuteness, coolness, and positive, bubbly nature like the disaster bisexual I am: Longing for mutual fulfilment, yet finding myself gunshy about engaging, because… What if it rejected me or hurt me?
Like I said, even though it’s a recommendation with some heavy qualifications, it is a recommendation. I just wish it didn’t seem so out of my league, y’know?
The Mad Welshman is, in case you hadn’t noticed, pro queer rep. So to see this was a balm to an otherwise terrible month for him.
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!
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.
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.
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…