All posts by Mahamari Tsukitaka

Gamer, engineer-turned-attorney, classically trained pianist, visual artist, stinky-cheese fanatic, and aspiring hip-hop dancer. I write reviews for Game Chronicles when I've got a spare moment or two.

My Aunt is a Witch Review – Switch

Created by Russian game developer and publisher Sometimes You, My Aunt Is a Witch is something of a cross between a visual novel and an old-school point-and-click adventure game, combining more traditional visual novel elements of lush illustrations and otherwise primarily text-based storytelling with some elements of adventure game questing and search-and-find gameplay.

The protagonist in this visual novel is a young boy named Thomas, who, in this Hansel-and-Gretel-inspired tale, is essentially driven from his home by his stepmother. He ends up going to live with his aunt, Alice, who turns out to be an actual witch. Alice has a disturbingly bad track record with her apprentices and apparently poor business sense, but she’s is in need of a new assistant potion maker, and Thomas is apparently desperate enough to sign up.

If you’re familiar with either the visual-novel or adventure genre, you’ll likely feel right at home with this game. As with the typical visual novel, you can expect the majority of your experience to be reading lots and lots of text, and there is no voice over as there is with some more recent titles, so you’ll definitely be reading. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Anyone with an interest in visual novels likely enjoys reading anyway, and I, for one, far prefer reading to listening to sub-par voice acting.

Starting with the good: the illustrations, as most visual-novel readers generally expect, are beautifully hand drawn, with rich color palettes and lush, whimsical details (including the skulls of Thomas’s unfortunate predecessors tucked into nooks and crannies throughout Alice’s quaintly cluttered home) reminiscent of the intricate cottage-core environments of Studio Ghibli films. The characters are perhaps a bit orthodox (like the bookish young boy, the prickly and self-interested cat, and the mercurial and quick-tempered witch) but still cute. Overall, the art was one of my favorite parts of the game, and I enjoyed the fairytale feel of the overall aesthetics, which extend to the menus and settings screen.

Similarly, the soundtrack is pleasantly magical, with plenty of celeste, which most folks will probably recognize from its prominent use in the Harry Potter movie themes. The game also makes effective use of occasional sound effects, whether it’s the yowl of a cat or the bubbling of a cauldron, to help create a more immersive experience.

One of the weaknesses of the game, unfortunately, is the text itself. I noticed right off the bat that there were a lot of spelling and grammar errors—not just a few as can be expected to happen with such a text-heavy game, but so many that they can become a bit distracting, and I would not have considered the game ready for prime time if I’d been the developer or publisher. I understand that the game was originally written in Russian, and some awkwardness in translation can be reasonably expected, especially from an indie title with a lower budget, but the game would have definitely greatly benefited from at least one more pass by a good editor.

As for the adventure-game elements, which include a few simple quests that mostly involve the standard search-and-find type of gameplay, as well as some simple puzzles involving using certain objects found around the environments to accomplish other tasks, I had no complaints. The game provides reasonable hints for how to complete the puzzles, and there is an in-game log and inventory to help you keep track of tasks and objects collected. The difficulty level is fairly low and should be approachable for casual gamers.

Potion making only occurs a couple of times in the game and involves a simple minigame in which you’ll need to accurately press a specific sequence of direction buttons in a set time period, with each ingredient added involving a longer sequence and, therefore, higher difficulty. The minigame itself was not difficult (for me as a longtime gamer), and I’m not sure how challenging it would be for someone not as used to entering sequences precisely on a controller, but I will also say that the game is very forgiving when you make errors and will let you retry as needed. More on that in a moment.

One caveat, though: I did notice that while the directions (which must be entered on the plus-shaped direction pad on the controller) were easy to enter correctly on the Nintendo Switch Joy Cons, I found the minigame to be unexpectedly frustrating on the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. I think this has to do with the direction pad being four buttons on the Joy Cons, versus the plus-shaped single button on the Pro Controller, which might not provide as clean of a directional input, as I think sometimes the game read my button presses as a combination of directions, rather than just one direction. To use the Pro Controller successfully for the minigame, I had to be super careful about only pressing the plus shape on the very ends of the plus arms, which was annoying. I don’t typically have trouble with entries from the direction pad on my Pro Controller, so I think perhaps the game’s coding would benefit from some tweaking to give it a little more tolerance in this regard.

Anyway, regarding failure: there are a few points in the game when Thomas could potentially follow the footsteps of Alice’s unfortunate prior apprentices and actually die if you make a misstep (though you can save at any point and reload from your last save as needed to continue on), but I didn’t experience any deaths even when using the Pro Controller repeatedly screwed up my potion making inputs. In fact, the game seemed to just move me along to the next scene when I repeatedly botched the most complex last sequence of the final potion making session, which was a relief in terms of alleviating my overall frustration at the time, but it also made me wonder if doing well at potion making mattered at all in this game.

Regardless, the minigames are a very minor part of the overall experience of My Aunt is a Witch, so players that prefer the visual novel genre to the adventure genre and don’t enjoy puzzles or minigames shouldn’t be too turned off by them, while players that prefer adventure games would probably find them to be a bit tedious and probably not challenging or off-the-wall enough.

Storywise, I didn’t feel particularly invested in the characters or plot, which is slow-moving and only starts to pick up a tad close to the final moments of the game—at which point the game abruptly ends without resolving anything. I suppose it’s meant to be a cliffhanger because the ending screen promises that Thomas’s story will continue in a future episode. With how little happens in the game, though, at least for me, it was hard for me to feel enough impetus to bother continuing the story.

I should also mention that though this game is rated Everyone (10+), there is some mild language (a few instances of damn and hell, nothing stronger), as well as some iffy situations that, depending on your personal views, may not be appropriate for younger children. (I apologize for the mild spoiler, and this is revealed very early on in the game, but please skip over the next sentence if you’d rather avoid it.) For instance, the witch’s cat is her on-and-off boyfriend, whom she transformed into a cat without his consent and whom she frequently abuses throughout the course of the game; and there are quite a few off-color comments about women. Notably, despite Alice being one of the protagonists of the game, she and the other female characters in this game are generally portrayed as cruel, moody, unreasonable, and materialistic. I don’t know about you, but that’s a well-worn and distasteful sexist trope I’d be happier never seeing again in any kind of media, particularly media labeled as being for “Everyone.”

In any case, My Aunt is a Witch is available at the Nintendo eShop for $9.99 at the time of this writing, and it’s a very short game that I finished in three short sessions totaling about five hours, even with taking my time to thoroughly explore and take screenshots for the sake of this review. At least from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like there are multiple paths to explore, so there’s probably not much reason to replay it, but maybe future installments will prove me wrong. Your enjoyment of visual novels and the particular art and prose style of this game (as well as your tolerance for typos and sexism) will probably determine whether you feel the $2 per hour cost of this game is a good value for your buck.

House Flipper Review – Switch

Empyrean’s House Flipper is pretty much what you’d expect from its title: a simulator in which you play the part of a handyman/home renovator, cleaning up and remodeling homes for various clients or flipping homes for profit. If that sounds potentially like your jam, there’s a chance you’d find this game entertaining. If not, though, I’ll be blunt and save you some time: this is not the kind of game that’ll change your mind about a genre you didn’t think you’d like.

The game starts you off with minimal introduction or instruction in a grungy little starting office (which is probably also your home, given the nasty unmade bed right inside the front door, as well as a rather unprofessional poster that, while thankfully not X-rated, would quickly earn someone a sexual harassment complaint at my real-life workplace). I was a bit surprised to start off with a pretty generous chunk of money that could be used immediately on fixing up the gross office if I’d wanted, but as can be expected, it wasn’t enough dough to actually flip a house. Conveniently, there’s a laptop that you use to check for client emails and accept odd jobs to earn the cash you need. Besides earning you some money, these jobs also serve as the game’s tutorial by easing you into various tools and skills, such as painting walls, buying and placing furniture, and demolishing and building walls.

There isn’t much of an actual tutorial to the game, but the basic interface is fairly familiar and easy to pick up, especially if you’ve played other first-person-perspective games. The left analog stick moves your guy around in first person, right analog stick moves the camera, and there are typically on-screen prompts for the other controls. The top trigger buttons are used for most of the other tasks (such as tool selection and interacting with objects), the minus button is used to access your tablet (which allows you to purchase supplies and furniture, as well as to upgrade your skills), and the plus button accesses a general menu for things like game settings or quitting to the main menu. I’m not sure if the game can be manually saved, but it seemed to auto-save or ask if I wanted to save if I was returning to the office before completing a job.

Generally, the controls are pretty straightforward, reasonably serviceable, and probably simple enough even for someone who doesn’t usually play games to figure out. For example, my still-illiterate preschooler (who plays some videogames but isn’t coordinated or focused enough to play more involved games yet) was able to play much of this game without too much difficulty and with minimal help from me. One of the game’s strengths is that it seems accessible to people of varying skill levels and familiarity with games.

The issue with House Flipper, though, is that it’s probably only truly enjoyable for a very specific niche audience. Even if you enjoy the intersection of HGTV and games (e.g., games, such as The Sims or Animal Crossing, which significantly involve interior design, renovation, and/or other relatively mundane tasks), House Flipper may not hold your interest long unless you appreciate the meditative nature of repetitive simple tasks and don’t mind relatively simplistic gameplay or lower budget graphics. For all the promising marketing copy touting repair mechanics, interior design, and budget management, House Flipper sadly ends up falling short.

Don’t get me wrong – I think House Flipper’s premise has a great deal of potential. I’ve spent enough hours in The Sims franchise on simulated home improvement tasks and budgeting for these projects that I’m sure I could thoroughly enjoy a simulation that focuses on those aspects of The Sims, even without the human simulation part. It’s just too bad that House Flipper mostly focuses on the drudgery involved in actually cleaning up and renovating a home, rather than the fantasy aspects that I suspect many gamers enjoy more.

For instance, you might accept a job to clean up someone’s garage or paint a person’s bedroom. After reading an email sometimes rife with typos and questionable grammar (whether as a touch of realism or lapse in editing, I can’t be entirely sure), you can accept the job and be conveniently teleported to the job site. A list of tasks will appear in the right side of the screen, and this updates as you walk from room to room to reflect what needs to be done in the room you’re currently in – also appreciated. That’s also about where the smooth sailing ends and where tedium kicks in, though.

There’s usually at least some kind of cleaning to be done, whether it’s a job for a client or house you’re flipping. To House Flipper’s credit, the trashed houses are actually kind of hilariously disgusting. We’re talking piles of beer bottles, floors carpeted in broken glass (which you can choose in the settings to instead display as a mass of moving cockroaches if you want to up the grossness), and mysterious splatters that prompted my preschooler to declare to me that someone must have had the stomach flu. It’s probably a good thing that House Flipper’s graphics aren’t realistic or detailed enough to be truly stomach-turning.

To clean, you target pieces of trash with the camera and tap a right trigger button to dispose of each individual piece separately. Holding a left trigger button allows you to select the mop tool, and holding a right trigger button while the camera is pointed at a stain or cobweb cleans it away after a few seconds. To clean windows, you play a simple squeegee mini game in which you hold down a button and manually maneuver your squeegee around the dirty window until you scrape away all the filth – and you have to repeat this for each individual window. In short, none of the tasks are hard, but they’re time-consuming and, at least to me, unfortunately pretty dull.

Tasks involving walls, like painting, tiling, and plastering are similarly monotonous affairs. To paint, you’ll have to first use your tablet to buy a can of paint in the desired color, manually set down the paint can somewhere in the room, switch to your paint roller tool, dip the paint roller into the paint, then paint the wall one roller width at a time. After a few swipes (holding down a right trigger button for a couple seconds while the strip of wall you want to paint is selected), your roller will be out of paint, so you’ll have to look around, find where you set down that paint can, reload the roller (holding a trigger button while targeting the can), then turn back to the unfinished paint job and resume painting that wall, one narrow strip at a time. Tiling is much the same, except you buy stacks of tiles instead of paint, and you use a sheet of tile per narrow strip of wall. Plastering over holes in walls is a similar process except with a tub of plaster, and thankfully, you can fill an entire hole at once, even if it’s large.

With building and demolishing walls, though, you’re back to doing things in those narrow columns, and while I appreciate that using a smaller unit allows for more granular customization, it didn’t make up for the monotony of repetition for me, especially since House Flipper’s design and construction options are far too limited to inspire much creativity. At least crushing walls with a hammer is mildly satisfying, though I found it a bit weird that all of House Flipper’s homes seem to have interior walls built of bricks rather than, say, wood and drywall like I’m used to. Then again, I’m not a contractor, so for all I know, maybe houses are sometimes completely built of bricks.

Repairing and assembling installations like showers and radiators is a little better at least. The mini game for these mechanical activities isn’t anything to write home about, and the steps it portrays may not be entirely true to life, but it’s at least slightly more engaging. The screen displays a controller button to press for the current step (such as tightening screws or connecting pipe), and you simply hold that button to advance the current assembly animation until you’re instructed to press another button, a little like a slow-mo version of those button-sequence mini games popular in many other genres. The sequence of buttons for each type of installation is preset, though, so it can get a little stale if you have to install five radiators in one home. Still, out of all the renovation tasks, I probably found assembling and repairing the least mindless, maybe because I found it at least mildly enjoyable to watch the animations of the installation process.

If these menial tasks start to get a little old for you, one somewhat positive feature is that as you do tasks, the game rewards you with upgrade points that you can spend on various skill upgrades, such as working faster, using less paint or tile, earning more money on jobs, or upgrading your window squeegee so that it cleans properly instead of skipping all over the place. The upgrades aren’t terribly realistic (as far as I know, painting more has not reduced the amount of paint I’d need to coat a wall), but at least they slightly dial back the game’s overall annoyance factor. A less annoying slog is still a slog, however, and the upgrades system isn’t able to make up for that.

That brings me to probably my main beef with this game: it isn’t realistic enough of a simulator to engage me the way real-life manual labor does, or to teach real-life renovation skills, yet it also isn’t nearly unrealistic enough that I could fantasize about amazing homes I wish I could design. Instead, House Flipper ends up frequently feeling like arbitrarily imposed drudgery. I hypothesized at first that maybe the game tasks were purposely monotonous in order to more realistically simulate real-world renovation tasks, but House Flipper isn’t remotely consistent about the level of realism it adopts. For instance, though you have to keep reloading the paint roller every few seconds in order to paint a wall one thin strip at a time, you’re somehow generally able to reload the roller as long as you can target the paint can with the camera, even if you’re standing all the way across the room from the paint. Similarly, you can paint or tile strips of wall far too distant to realistically reach in life, yet sometimes the game tells you to set up scaffolding to reach higher areas that don’t seem like they should be unreachable given the extreme range of other actions. As a result, House Flipper neither satisfyingly simulates real-life activities, nor allows players to indulge in the fantasy of home renovation without real-life annoyances, and the inconsistent application of real-world logic or expectations can be jarring and frustrating.

It’s also possible some of my frustrations are from actual bugs, though it’s hard to tell with this game. For instance, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to paint over plaster patches. I tried using a paint-loaded paint roller on a plaster-filled hole, but absolutely nothing happened, and without explanation, the patch remained stubbornly white after painting. By far, though, the most frustrating bug (or possibly poor design choice) was that at some point, I noticed that the task list – which, for at least the first several jobs, helped inform me of what was left to be done in order to complete a job – mysteriously stopped appearing. This was pretty devastating because despite the client email you read prior to accepting a job, it’s often not at all obvious what you actually need to do to finish a job. For instance, the client might want a certain number of wall units painted a very specific paint color or a specific piece of furniture that isn’t stated in the email, and without that task list, you’re just shooting in the dark trying to figure out what the client wants. As far as I could tell, there’s no quest log to consult, and you can’t call up the client and ask them questions as you might on a real job. At times, there would be a leftover, nearly transparent stain that the game wanted me to clean up that I couldn’t see, and I’d have no practical way of knowing why I couldn’t complete the job without that task list. I couldn’t tell if the task list disappearing was the game taking off the training wheels, so to speak, or if this was a bug; but without that list of objectives, House Flipper quickly deteriorates from monotonous to exasperating. If I wasn’t writing this review, I sure wouldn’t want to spend my precious free time methodically walking around a virtual house, wildly swinging a pretend mop at every available clean-looking surface, just in case a practically invisible stain was preventing me from finishing a job. That’s not fun or relaxing – it just feels like a waste of time.

Luckily, it doesn’t take many of these odd jobs to pocket enough cash to buy your first shack to renovate and flip, and once you start flipping houses, you can make all the money you need from doing that instead of taking on smaller jobs with their picky objectives. House flipping projects are thankfully mostly freeform, though you’re probably going to want to consider the potential buyers’ wants in your design choices if you’re after the highest bid. You can access potential buyers’ profiles on your tablet, and their preferences range from reasonable to bizarre. (I might still be laughing about that one guy who for some reason has something against kitchens.) As you’re working on a house, prospective buyers will periodically make comments on your actions, so you can somewhat gauge how much they like what they’re seeing and what changes might improve their opinion before you put the house up for auction.

Strange preferences aside, though, the game sometimes just doesn’t make a lot of sense. For instance, the first house I flipped had one bedroom (in which I put a bed so the game would recognize the room as a bedroom), and I placed a couch in the living area. Weirdly, though, the presence of a couch caused some of the bidders to complain that the house had two bedrooms when they only wanted one. Maybe it’s fortunate that the game is also unrealistically lax in other ways. For instance, people who aren’t particularly happy with your house still tend to bid, if not as high; and as far as I can tell, no one particularly cares about your actual interior decorating choices, other than whether you included certain categories of items (such as some kind of bed or some kind of storage unit) or, for some clients, how much items cost. That’s just as well, since the lackluster selection of furniture doesn’t particularly inspire. Overall, the game isn’t deep or satisfying as a design simulator, but it does make it easy to quickly rack up a large sum of money. By your fourth house or maybe even earlier, you’ll probably be so loaded that you can buy whichever house you like in the game.

If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll have lost interest long before that happens. I’m certainly not knocking that niche audience that may derive great enjoyment out of House Flipper. I’m sure it exists, especially seeing as how the PC version has sold well on Steam with generally very positive reviews. If that’s you, the Nintendo Switch version will probably also be an enjoyable experience, as the game generally runs smoothly on the Switch, and the controls are reasonably serviceable. As for me, though, despite being one of those weirdos who actually enjoys cleaning and fixing stuff in real life, as a grown adult who cleans on a daily basis and does real home repairs now and then, spending my off hours on a much less satisfying virtual version of these chores is just not my cup of tea.

As a side note, for the benefit of those of you who might care about such things, I also found House Flipper in poor taste at times, with stereotyped characters including what appear to be a nerdy Asian student and a flamboyantly gay man, not to mention the unprofessional reclining woman poster in your starting office.

House Flipper goes for $24.99 at the Nintendo Store at the time of this writing, and if you happen to fit into that subset of gamers that finds repetitive home maintenance tasks and simplistic gameplay meditative or otherwise enjoyable, House Flipper could be fun for you for many hours and may be worth a try. Otherwise, though, if you’re more into the fantasy aspect of designing or decorating homes, I’d probably pass on this one.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD Review – Switch

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD may be a remaster of a 15-year-old action-adventure and first-person/third-person shooter game, but for a game of that age, it’s held up surprisingly well.  Stranger’s Wrath takes place in an arid, dilapidated, low-tech setting charmingly reminiscent of the American Wild West, but alien enough to feel distinct. As the titular Stranger, you’re a bounty hunter bagging up outlaws for moolah to save up money for an expensive, life-saving medical procedure. In the process Stranger also protects the land’s denizens, known as Clackerz, which happen to resemble walking, talking, plucked chickens. That about sums up the flavor of the game, which generally takes itself much less seriously than your typical action-adventure game.

Gameplay is mission-based, with new areas opening up as Stranger accepts specific bounty assignments. You can generally toggle between third- and first-person perspectives at will, with the shooting action done in first person and platforming-type jumping and climbing segments, melee, and running, better done in third person. It could just be me and what I’m used to, but even using an official Pro Controller, I found some of the controls to feel a little stiff or fiddly. For instance, Stranger’s jumps felt almost arthritic at times with how limited they are, and double jumping off a rope was, for some reason, frustratingly difficult to pull off a lot of the time. Aiming was also a little oversensitive and hard to control precisely at times. The biggest issue I had, though, was with the camera, which tended to get stuck on objects in the environment or otherwise refuse to move, making it difficult to peek around corners and such.

I don’t play a whole lot of FPS, but as someone who usually enjoys action-adventure games and RPGs (as well as the very occasional FPS), I found the combat in Stranger’s Wrath HD to be enjoyable and challenging. Stranger uses a double-barreled crossbow that, instead of traditional bolts, can be loaded with two types of “live ammo” (using each of the two trigger buttons at the top of the controller) at once, allowing the player to mix and match ammo types that work best for a given situation. These “live ammo” are various creatures that you’ll typically hunt down yourself in the environment and that produce varying effects.

For instance, chipmunk-like Chippunks lure enemies to the locations they’re shot, spider-like Bolamites disable weaker enemies for a short time by wrapping them in webbing, and explosive Boombats damage an entire area of enemies at once. The variety of possible effects, along with the incentive to capture bounties alive (as Stranger is paid a much heftier reward for live catches) and the generally well designed levels (many with built-in booby traps that Stranger can put to good use if you find them), combine to encourage a strategic approach to missions that I appreciated.

At Normal difficulty, I found that blowing guys up straightforwardly wasn’t necessarily difficult, but by mid-game, there were some bounties that I had a hard time knocking out without accidentally killing them, especially since the appropriately dramatic boss fights at the end of each bounty mission often involve a hard-hitting outlaw that isn’t disabled by your usual tricks and can make short work of Stranger if you attempt to tackle them head on. It’s delightful.

I never played the original Stranger’s Wrath, so I can’t compare the two versions, but though the graphics show their age a bit in the Switch release, especially in the compressed-looking cut scenes, overall, the HD remaster looks good on both a modern big-screen TV and on the Switch’s HD handheld-/tabletop-mode screen. Framerates are generally smooth, though I experienced some infrequent lag, mostly when entering or running through a big outdoor area with a lot going on. Fortunately, it didn’t detract significantly from my gaming experience. All in all, this remaster seems to be a good choice for the Switch, which may not have some other current-gen consoles’ beefier specs but handles Stranger’s Wrath HD quite well.

The sound is also good. I have surround sound enabled on my Switch and have it plugged into my home sound system, but honestly, I haven’t noticed mind-blowing sound from any Switch game so far, so it’s hard for me to judge that aspect of sound quality. That said, the sounds and music are clear and crisp, and I got a kick out of the Clackerz’s redneck commentary and the outlaws’ trash talk. The dialogue is great in general, and though the humor can be a bit juvenile (it’s not above a whole mission full of yo’ momma jokes, for instance), I’m certainly not above that, and I love that it doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The Western-inspired soundtrack does a bang-up job of setting the mood, too.

By the way, a quick note to fellow parents of younger children: Strangers Wrath, especially with its emphasis on capturing enemies alive, is more cartoonish and humorous than graphically violent compared to many other games of its ilk, and the NPCs use some mild profanity (no F-bombs that I encountered), but more for humorous effect than hatefully. It’s refreshing to see an action-adventure/shooter type of game that isn’t rated Mature (though it’s still rated Teen for blood, language, use of tobacco, and violence).

In summary, though I can’t speak as to how it compares to other versions of the game that have been previously released (including the original from 2005 and apparently multiple rereleases on PC and other consoles from 2010 to 2015), as a player experiencing Stranger’s Wrath for the first time in the HD remaster version released on the Switch, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s well worth the $29.99 it goes for at the Nintendo eShop, particularly if, like me, you missed it the first few times around.

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Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Review – Switch

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is pretty much what you’d expect from the title: a party game with a collection of sports-themed mini games simulating various Olympic events (as well as some “Dream” events that don’t actually exist in the real Olympics), starring many familiar characters from the Mario and Sonic franchises.

There’s a single-player story mode, which leans a little nostalgically cheesy with Bowser and Dr. Eggman trapping Mario and friends in a 2D pixelated game world, but does a nice job of introducing you to the available mini games, which come in both modern 3D and charmingly retro 16-bit-style pixel-art varieties. Story mode also unlocks some additional non-sports mini games (such as a Where’s Waldo kind of visual search game, a stealth game, and a high-speed chase game) and playable characters for some events. It’s also relatively short – I think I finished it over a couple nights of brief play. It’s also a nice bonus that the story mode throws in some Olympics-related trivia and educational tidbits about Tokyo (as well as a virtual map approximating the locations of various landmarks and venues) and the Olympic Games that were held in Tokyo in 1964, as well as the upcoming games to be held in the same city next year in 2020.  Otherwise, the Olympic events available, which range from judo and archery to the triple jump and rugby, provide a wide variety of mini games that you can directly play as a single player or in one of the multiplayer modes with family and friends or online strangers across the world.

The controls between events can be significantly different from each other, such that it can be difficult to switch gears between events or to remember which buttons do what. Then again, that’s one of the challenges of this game, and you can thankfully view the control scheme for each event just prior to playing it. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 may just be a little harder to pick up spontaneously as a party game, especially if some of the players aren’t frequent gamers, or if they are very young. This is particularly true given that many of the events ask players to enter timed presses of specific buttons, requiring reasonably good familiarity with the controller. Fortunately, some games, like the button-mashing fest that is the 100m, are easier (and more reminiscent of the simplistic Olympics videogames of my childhood) and may make up for the potentially more confusing or challenging events (like Sport Climbing or Gymnastics – Floor Exercise).

For many events, like track and field, the equestrian event, canoe racing, and gymnastics, the controls are fairly straightforward, and the results of your button presses are obvious. Gymnastics and diving, to name a couple, require timed presses of specific button sequences, somewhat similar to Simon (or, if you’re a gamer, various modern action games that demand similar set button sequences, usually during combat). The equestrian event has controls similar to horseback riding in several recent Legend of Zelda games (primarily involving accelerating and steering, as well as timed presses of a button to jump), and the fencing event plays like a simplified version of various fighting games, with understandable mechanics that you can practice and get better at.

I found some events a bit frustrating, however. Rugby, football, and volleyball, for instance, all involve the player controlling an entire team, and the controls are significantly more complicated than for the majority of the other events. Maybe it’d be easier for, or at least more familiar to, people who play team sports games, but I couldn’t tell you, since I am not one of them. It could be just user error, but I had an especially hard time figuring out how to win at volleyball, since I could never seem to spike the ball into just the spot I wanted, and there was too much of a disconnect between what I thought I should be able to do in (real-life) volleyball and what was happening in the simplified game version. Rugby and football felt similarly chaotic, though at least the ball seemed a bit easier to control in those events.

A few other events, like judo and boxing, seemed a little unpredictable. I used the controls as instructed and managed to win against the computer, but for the life of me, I couldn’t actually tell you what actually determined victory from failure. For instance, in boxing, most of the time after I knocked out my opponent, he would get up back up, whether or not I used a special move, and ultimately, I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t get up the times I won. I suppose that in a party situation, that might not matter too much, since the company is more the point than winning, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t figure out the techniques I should theoretically be honing.

That said, the controls generally work as they should, and the motion controls for directing the angle of a javelin throw or for leaning side to side in the dream racing event feel natural and responsive. I like that there are multiple options for controls, generally among using dual controllers (both Joycons), solo remote (one Joycon), or buttons only, allowing you to customize your game experience based on the type of controller you prefer or your play style.

In any case, the variety in events and control schemes is welcome because whether you like equestrian events or fencing, there will probably be something that’s up your alley. There are also three “Dream” events, Dream Racing (which is reminiscent of the Mario Kart games and was easiest for my preschooler to understand), Dream Shooting (where you run around shooting targets in the environment), and Dream Karate (in which you try to claim the most squares on a game board by knocking opponents down onto those squares). I found that the Dream events generally seemed to have wider appeal to people in a party environment, at least in my purely anecdotal experience, maybe because they’re a bit sillier by nature or maybe because they appealed to people who typically play games of other genres.

This game offers multiplayer in several flavors: local on the same device (up to 4 players), local on multiple Switch consoles on the same network, and online (which I did not try but requires a Nintendo Online membership and offers both ranked and unranked matches with other players around the world). I only tried the local multiplayer, and was glad to find that each Joycon can be used as one controller, reducing the number of controllers or Joycon sets you need to own in order to play with others. The multiplayer split screen looks great on a big-screen television, too, and I didn’t notice any significant lag.

Overall, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is a fun concept, and it’s weirdly heartwarming to see former rivals Mario and Sonic team up again in this latest Mario and Sonic crossover, along with appearances from other familiar faces like Luigi, Princess Peach, Bowser, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy. The graphics are brightly colored, very crisp, and smoothly animated – both on a television and on the Switch’s own screen in handheld mode; the sound production is equally high quality, as you’d expect; and the games play as intended. Yet, if I’m being perfectly honest, for some reason I can’t entirely pinpoint, I didn’t find the game to be especially fun. It could just be that I don’t generally go for sports games, though I remember growing up playing various ancient Olympics-themed video games with my family and having a blast, so there’s probably something else to it. The only factors I can positively identify are the seemingly somewhat random outcomes or frustrating learning curves in some events that I mentioned previously, and maybe a noticeable lack of humor (compared to, say, the Warioware games, or even Super Smash Bros.) that would otherwise make for a better party game. In my opinion, party games especially are best when they make you laugh, and this game was maybe just a tad too straitlaced for me.

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 retails for $59.99, and whether or not the cost is worthwhile to you will probably largely depend on how much you and your family or friends enjoy the sports mini games. As far as I’m concerned regarding party games, however, if I had to choose, I’d probably prefer to spend the same money on Smash Bros. Ultimate, which retails for the same price, but offers more character variety, collectibles, and overall replayability, as well as easier controls for newcomers or casual players and a more lighthearted atmosphere.

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, unfortunately, doesn’t have as much to it that would merit long-term play, unless you truly enjoy the simulated Olympic events. On the other hand (and I’m not judging), if you’re a parent that wants a game to play with the family but doesn’t want your kid playing brawler-type games like Smash, maybe this isn’t a bad choice, and it’s even mildly educational. Given that there are party games that I enjoy more at the same or lower price point, though, this game isn’t such a must-play that I wouldn’t recommend waiting for a sale.

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Star Sky Review – Switch

Star Sky is an independently developed “interactive experience” that doesn’t quite feel like a game but still has some elements of one. The concept and controls are simple. You’re a fellow going on a little nighttime stroll, and you can sometimes stop to watch some weird happenings. You move your guy along by holding down one button, occasionally releasing the button so you can stop walking to observe something happening. That’s about it. You can choose to run, though the game warns that you’re likely to miss things if you do. Otherwise, however, there’s no jumping or climbing, no going backward, essentially no item collecting or dialogue, no combat, no crafting or shopping, nor other typical interactions we’ve come to expect from a game. There’s just your avatar (a human silhouette moving among other simple black silhouettes against a blue night sky) walking along and perhaps stopping now and then to witness an event.

At times during your walk, you’ll hear an auditory cue, which hints that an event may be about to occur. At these times, you can stop walking, and if your avatar begins to sparkle, you’ll know that the event will actually take place if you stay still and wait patiently. If your guy doesn’t sparkle, you’ll know that an event can take place at that spot, but you didn’t meet the requirements for it to happen this time, so you can move along. That brings me to the choose-your-own-adventure aspect of this game.

Star Sky is clear about being a slow-paced experience that requires patience to experience fully. You won’t be able to see every event in one playthrough because some events preclude others and some are required to experience others. You’ll probably notice within the first few walks how some of your choices in experiences will affect future events. It is, of course, entirely possible to expect nothing much from this game and simply see how things play out, especially at first. The events do not appear to be randomized, however, and can become quickly repetitive, like re-reading the same choose-your-own-adventure book to try the options you missed the last time. In any case, I’m apparently not laid back enough to go about this experience in a more relaxed way, and I instead spent an evening going through the events systematically and testing which combinations of events unlock which other events.

For example (and please excuse me, since discussing an example experience of this game necessarily contains some spoilers, and while I’ll try my best to keep it mild, please feel free to skip over the rest of this paragraph if you’re planning on trying Star Sky and don’t want any spoilers at all), there is a house that you may come across during your walk, and depending on which events you experienced before you reach the house, you can end your walk settling down in this house with your sweetheart, partying with strangers, or experiencing something paranormal; however, only one of these events (if any of them) can occur in one playthrough. It looks like there are 18 possible events that you could experience along your walk, and given that the combination of events experienced influences available events later in the walk, there are a great number of possible combinations to try, and after going on walk after walk for this review over the course of one evening, there are still maybe four of those 18 events that I have not seen.

A single walk seems to generally take anywhere from maybe four to 10 minutes, depending on what you decide to do during your walk and how often you stop. At its best, Star Sky provides a relaxing backdrop of nighttime noises, such as rustling foliage, crickets, and falling rain, managing to capture the peaceful semi-quiet of a calm summer night. The musical portion of the soundtrack is of a monotonous New Age-y variety and not especially inspiring or memorable, but I enjoyed the ambient nocturnal sounds.

The graphics are simple and mostly black silhouettes without excessive detail. Generally, these graphics are reasonably well animated and serviceable for the simple stories Star Sky conveys, but I found myself wishing that the unusual occurrences were more lushly presented somehow, either musically or visually, if not both, to better evoke the sense of magic I suspect the game intended. Instead, I somehow just didn’t find the various events visually, aurally, or emotionally compelling enough to want to spend additional time figuring out how to unlock the few I missed, and relaxing to the nighttime sounds still didn’t compare favorably to taking a break from the screen and cracking open a window or going out and taking a real nighttime stroll.

In sum, Star Sky can be a pleasantly relaxing, slow-paced interactive experience if you go into it with an open mind. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’s really for me. Going for $4.99 as of the time of this writing, it’s not an expensive experience to try, but personally, I’d rather just go for a real walk at no cost and play a more stimulating game when I’m relaxing in front of a screen.

We. The Revolution Review – PC

I’m a bit ashamed to say that history was probably my weakest subject in school. Even so, learning about the French Revolution of the 1780s and 1790s left a relatively strong impression on me. This is greatly oversimplified, but for the sake of this review, let’s just say it was a period of great political upheaval in which the monarchy and the feudal system were ousted, and it entailed a lot of chaos and bloodshed. I think this is important to understand going into this game because though you play a judge in We. The Revolution, this is not a courtroom drama or a criminal investigations kind of game. You won’t be applying legal doctrines or examining much evidence. It’s primarily a historical simulation, and from what I understand of that time period, probably accurate in its brutality and the oppressive weight of its pervasive unfairness.

You play Judge Alexis Fidelis, apparently a known gambler and drunk, who also happens to be a hapless lowly cog in an unforgiving political machine that you soon discover you have little control over. Sure, you preside over a courtroom where you hear cases and pronounce life-or-death judgments day in and day out, even personally handling the executions by guillotine when they come up, but it soon becomes painfully obvious that justice is a laughable ideal in this system. You’re given some minimal documents that explain each situation, and from these documents, you’re expected to connect various statements to categories such as witnesses, evidence, and accusations. When you get the connections right, you’re rewarded with an unlocked question that you can ask the accused.

While some category connections are fairly straightforward (the documents, for instance, will typically tell you clearly what the accused is charged with, and what items constitute evidence is usually obvious enough), there is often seemingly no rhyme or reason to which category a statement connects to, so there is a significant amount of guesswork involved. That said, the questions are almost entirely leading questions designed to herd the jury toward your preferred opinion (acquittal, jail, or immediate execution), and the final outcome that you find affects your standing with various factions (such as the people, the revolutionaries, and the aristocracy), as well as with various members of your family.

You’ve got to listen to the jury, and your report – a kind of multiple-choice quiz on the facts of each case – needs to be accurate, or your reputation takes a hit. As the game progresses, it becomes more and more evident that there’s simply no use in trying to find even a shred of justice in passing these judgments; the only thing that matters in the end is that you keep the various factions happy so that Alexis doesn’t get himself guillotined. The more you play, the clearer this message becomes.

Eventually, you’ll need to also worry about the impatient crowd rioting if you ask the accused too many questions, further pressuring you to wrap up cases quickly (and asking only the questions that guide the jury toward your desired reputation outcome) instead of with any amount of actual fairness. Later on, you’ll even have an additional docket of quick cases you’ll have to make snap judgments on after only reading a short summary of the facts and weighing how the decisions affect your reputation with each faction.

Then, at the end of each day, Alexis goes home to his family – his father, his wife, and his two sons – and must choose how to spend the evening. This, too, is a faction-balancing activity, as family relationships also affect your standing: your father has ties with the people, your elder son has ties with the Revolution, your relationship with your wife affects your overall reputation, and your relationship with your younger son affects your relationships with the other family members. For example, choosing to make your elder son, whose passion is music, study law will decrease your relationship with him (and, therefore, the revolutionaries) and, to a lesser extent, your wife (and damaging your public image) but increase your relationship with your father (and, therefore, the people).

Meanwhile, choosing to take a stroll will make everyone happy except for your elderly father; and working on the next day’s cases or facilitating the building of a statue that the government wants you to finish on a tight deadline irritates all your family members. It’s always choosing between a rock and a hard place in this game, which I imagine is the point. And, if that’s not unhappy enough, there are days that something out of your control happens (say, an assassination attempt), that prevents Alexis from spending any time with his family, which causes relationships to plummet all around. You might say this is unfair, and it is, but it’s the French Revolution, and unfairness and suffering are pretty much your meat and potatoes.

At the end of each day, you’re also given the opportunity to move your agents around a map of Paris, as gaining and maintaining territory in the city through your agents will allow you to improve your standing with various factions, as well as increase your influence, which in turn gives you Influence Points to use toward actions such as gaining insight on political opponents or someone you’re trying to court favor with. This aspect of the game was the most frustrating to me, as your mysterious political nemesis always seems to have more agents than you do (which allows them to easily incapacitate your agents or take over areas of the map more quickly than you can protect them), and there are additional third parties that are hostile to both you and your opponent.

There are also political intrigues involving rooting out your political rival that occur between court days. The intrigue events are some of the more interesting portions of the game, as they propel along Alexis’s personal storyline and include some of the more gripping scenes in the game. These intrigues seem to frequently involve persuasion, which requires you to either discover (by spending earned Influence Points based on how much territory Alexis controls) or guess at your audience’s attitude toward a topic and then to respond with the correct tack when approaching a subject. Because gaining territory is so dicey with the unbalanced numbers of agents on the map, though, I found that this process also generally involved a lot of guesswork, as I never had much Influence to spend.

We. The Revolution effectively creates an atmosphere of chaos and helplessness, which I think is purposeful, given the bloody period of history it simulates. It’s certainly a unique and potentially distressing game experience that requires a stomach for (simulated) injustice and one that, somewhat unexpectedly, inspires some sympathy toward characters like Alexis Fidelis, who, given the inescapable pressures of the political climate, inadvertently become villains reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo’s Villefort. It’s a thought-provoking—though maybe not the most relaxing, fair, or even necessarily fun—game. The highly stylized, angular, and largely monochromatic art style (reminiscent of vintage propaganda posters) and the morose soundtrack fully complement the harsh and oppressive atmosphere of Alexis’s world.

We. The Revolution goes for $19.99 on Steam, which I think is a reasonable price for the impactful and educational experience (particularly if, like me, you end up brushing up on the French Revolution after playing) that this game offers. It’s not kid-friendly by a long shot but could maybe be an interesting simulation supplement to history class for a more mature pre-teen or teen, probably with parental guidance.

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Rainswept Review – PC

Rainswept is a mostly one-man effort by Indian developer Frostwood Interactive, a murder-mystery point-and-click adventure game focusing on exploring the topics of “love, relationships and unresolved trauma.” The first time the game loads, there’s a prominent trigger warning that the content of the game includes sensitive topics such as suicide and sexual abuse. That said, it’s not a particularly graphic game – the art style is fairly minimalist; however, you may want to be aware that the potentially triggering content is not only in text. There is a crime scene with blood, an animated portrayal of gun-related violence, and at least one mildly sexual scene involving vague human figures in a state of undress, so this game may not be appropriate to play around young children, though the simplistic visuals probably won’t bother the majority of a more mature audience.

Rainswept takes place in Pineview, a small idyllic town where detective Michael Stone has been sent to solve what at first looks like a possible murder-suicide of a young couple, Chris and Diane. It doesn’t take long for you to discover that solving the mystery of their deaths will be a tricky business, since it seems the local police force has already made up their minds without much of an investigation, and many members of the close-knit community have many biases against the late newcomers that make investigating the case challenging. To solve this mystery, Detective Stone will have to delve into Chris and Diane’s relationships with the community, as well as their apparently rocky partnership with each other.

Gameplay mostly involves a lot of running around Pineview via keyboard and pointing and clicking around the two-dimensional town, studying points of interest, and interacting with its residents.  Unlike the typical adventure game, though, other than rare moments of busywork required during, say, examining the crime scene, there isn’t much in the way of puzzles or inventory, either collecting items or making outlandish combinations between items as you might be used to if you play lot of adventure games. Instead, true to its themes, Rainswept is driven primarily by a gentle suspense fueled by the need to solve the crime at hand, as well as the mystery of Stone’s traumatic nightmares, and it focuses on the information Detective Stone gleans from his conversations with and observations of others, as well as the relationships he himself forges with those he interacts with.

Through his conversations with Chris and Diane’s acquaintances, Detective Stone is able to better understand the couple’s turbulent relationship from its beginnings and to its bloody conclusion. During these moments, the player plays as Chris instead of Stone in order to experience events in real time. While these scenes allow the player greater immersion in the story, I was disappointed that though these scenes are recreations of moments described by third parties, the player never experiences them from Diane’s point of view, leading to a very lopsided and male-centric presentation and understanding of the relationship, hardly one that seems remotely objective or fact-based as you’d want if you really meant to understand the relationship in order to solve the mystery of their deaths.

For example, from Chris’s perspective, we are essentially told that Diane is emotionally unstable, unable to control her mood swings, and cruelly insensitive during arguments, and meanwhile, Chris is presented as rational, organized, ambitious in his career, and always the only one trying to bridge the growing gap between him and Diane. He’s the only one who is willing to attempt couples therapy when their relationship starts going south. He extends an olive branch even when Diane hurts his feelings, and she never returns the kindness. This horrifyingly typical sexist and one-sided presentation of a troubled heterosexual relationship unfortunately ruined much of the game experience for me. There was almost no way for me to feel any kind of empathy toward Diane, the epitome of the unreasonable girlfriend stereotype, particularly as you’re never given the chance to know her side of the story. I find this especially unforgivable given that Diane is the developer’s tool for introducing certain topics of mental illness and abuse, unfortunately of a type that is heavily overused in female characters in popular media.

Other than that, Rainswept does a praiseworthy job of sensitively exploring Stone’s own traumatic past and encouraging those struggling with feelings such as of guilt or sadness, or suicidal thoughts, to seek help, connect with others, and talk to someone. The game manages to communicate this without being overly pushy or heavy handed, and it helps that Stone’s partner in the local police force, Officer Amy Blunt, serves as a steadfast voice of compassion and reason throughout the game. Officer Blunt and her refreshingly believable friendship and professional mentee-mentor relationship with Stone is the primary reason I was able to tolerate Rainswept through the segments detailing the blow-by-blow accounts of Chris and Diane’s burning train wreck of a relationship.

Despite its simplistic point-and-click interface, however, Rainswept has a few moments when it becomes a bit unintuitive how to proceed. The game takes place over the course of several days, and typically, there is a journal you can reference to remind yourself which people or what evidence you should look into on that day, but there are a few moments when the journal is unavailable, when it isn’t immediately obvious what should be done next to progress in the game. I also found that navigating Pineview was not immediately obvious, since you are also given a map, and intuitively, you’d expect to be able to walk to various locations by following the map or to use the map to fast travel to key locations, but neither is possible. Instead, you’re expected to travel on foot to certain street signs, then click on those street signs to fast-travel to key locations.

The writing could also do with some additional proofreading and polish. Some of the awkward bits in the dialogue could be attributed to lack of localization, however, as certain turns of phrase (such as clicking a picture) are commonly said in English in India but not in the US.

Despite its foibles, Rainswept is enjoyable for its atmosphere and overall story, and the visuals and soundtrack both contribute greatly to the wonderfully moody atmosphere of the game. The graphics, while simplistic, have bold colors and shapes charmingly reminiscent of cut-paper art. Most memorably, the view from the top of the hill where the church stands is nothing short of breathtaking, and the flapping of Stone’s tie in the wind as he runs is a nice touch. I also loved the sound of falling rain present throughout much of the game, and while the background music isn’t exactly memorable, it provides a suitably melancholy and at times creepy ambiance to the unfolding drama.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about Rainswept, and it feels more like an interactive visual novel than a game because it’s very dialogue-heavy, and there’s not a whole lot for the player to solve or do except further the story scenes, but I would not hesitate to say that it excels at creating an appropriate atmosphere, and Stone’s traumatic nightmares and flashbacks are some of the most compelling scenes I have experienced in an adventure game to date. For $12 on Steam, the price of a typical movie ticket in my neck of the woods, I think it’s reasonable to say this game is probably worth experiencing if it sounds like something you might like to try.

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Battle Princess Madelyn Review – Switch

Causal Bit’s Battle Princess Madelyn has an heartwarming backstory: according to the game’s 2017 Kickstarter campaign, when the daughter of the company’s creative director Christopher Obritsch voiced her desire to be in Capcom’s Ghouls ’n Ghosts, the father decided to make a new game just like the 1988 classic, starring her as the titular character. He even made her honorary assistant creative director and consulted with her while designing the game. It really doesn’t get much cuter than that.

As a game co-designed with a kid, BPM is family-friendly, but its innocent charm belies an old-school level of difficulty that will likely try the patience of all but hardcore fans of the old-school platformer. I’ve never played the original Ghouls ‘n Ghosts that BPM emulates, but if it was as challenging as I’ve heard, BPM surely follows in its inspiration’s footsteps.

The controls may be simple – primarily involving jumping, climbing, and throwing a weapon horizontally, up, or down – but expect to hit the ground running. You can also expect to spam that weapon button like you would with a shooter. Your survival may depend on it.

BPM includes two styles of play: Arcade Mode and Story Mode. Story Mode includes some cartoon cut scenes to flesh out BPM’s simple story somewhat. Madelyn’s family, including her dog, are murdered by an evil wizard, and she’s off to do something about it. Story Mode includes some features not in Arcade Mode, such as currency and inventory systems for upgrading Madelyn’s armor and weapons over time, quests for various NPCs involving searching out and collecting hidden items or rescuing townsfolk, and the ability to warp to locations you’ve visited and explore the game world in a semi-open fashion. The playstyle is somewhat similar to the Metroidvania games, as Madelyn must find certain items, such as double-jump boots, to access some areas, and finding secret areas is a large part of the game. In this mode, you’ll restart at a checkpoint if Madelyn dies, usually at the beginning of the area you’re in (such as a dungeon or boss door), but you won’t need to restart the entire level.

Arcade Mode is exactly what it sounds like: it foregoes the story elements of the game and condenses the introductory cut scenes from Story Mode into a brief explanatory pixel-art animation before launching Madelyn directly into arcade-style action. You can still collect coins for points, but there are no quests or inventory. You start off with the double-jump boots and collect power-ups as you play, and in true arcade style, if you die, you restart at the beginning of the level, even if you die during the boss fight at the end.

BPM’s system for handling lives is innovative and one rare feature that’s more forgiving than classic games. It’s also representative of the game’s overall tough-but-fair approach. Throughout the game, Madelyn is accompanied by the ghost of her late dog, Fritzy. Fritzy primarily helps Madelyn by bringing her back to life when she falls in battle – but only if he has enough magic, which is gathered by absorbing defeated enemies. His magic bar can revive Madelyn roughly three times when it’s full, a standard old-school life allowance. This means that Madelyn can theoretically keep going as long as she defeats enough enemies. For much of the game, this is doable, since you rarely get a few seconds of peace with the rapid respawn rate. Recovering magic is less likely during boss fights in Arcade Mode, though. For instance, the Arcade Mode first boss is differently designed from the Story Mode version to give you trash mobs that could possibly refill Fritzy’s energy bar, but I found if I was having a tough time with the boss, benefiting from the revival system was also unlikely.

Later on in Story Mode (or from the start in Arcade mode), Fritzy can also help Madelyn by attacking enemies; however, this draws from the same pool of magic that resurrects Madelyn when she dies. This may just be a limitation of my current skill level, but, as a result, I didn’t use these powers much because I was too concerned with survival, especially since dying can set you back considerably.

BPM’s main weakness is probably also something that the hardcore set would see as a point of attraction: it’s old-school to a fault. When I first started playing the game for this review, prior to its launch-day patch, it was like the Wild West. No instructions, no handholding, nada. As with old classics, after you play for a while, you’re bound to hit an obstacle, such as a platform obviously unreachable without a double-jump or a waterfall blocking your path. The game prior to patching gave next to no clues as to where a player could find the necessary upgrade or what action to perform in order to continue. Everything was time-consuming trial by error and random exploration, and while I fondly remember the exquisite frustration and satisfaction of discovery playing similar classic games in my childhood, I no longer have that kind of luxury of time. I was ready to put the controller down after some hours stuck at the same impeding waterfall, which you don’t even reach until the end of a rather trying sequence of jumping and climbing across a chasm while surviving a gauntlet of skeleton archers and fire-breathing snakes.

Apparently it was a common complaint, though, because the official release now includes newly added hint signs and NPCs (including one rather unceremoniously pointing out the exact location of the aforementioned double-jump boots, which initially took me hours to accidentally discover). These hints are almost obnoxiously in-your-face, though, and I honestly can’t tell if the designers are passive aggressively throwing shade. I’m not sure why the hints aren’t integrated more gracefully (say, with an NPC mentioning a landmark that could be easily recognized by the player), but with leisure time being such a precious commodity in my adult life, I suppose I’d take “HEY, DUMMY, THE BOOTS ARE RIGHT HERE!” over wasting another few hours wandering aimlessly around two levels and trying every floor and wall, trying to figure out what the heck I missed.

The patch also added a feature where a skeletal hand appears when Madelyn is close to a hidden item to point you toward it. This is mildly helpful, but not always. It doesn’t always point to something you can actually reach at that moment, and you’re not able to select the objective you’re searching for.Of course, you can bypass all this by playing Arcade Mode and skipping the Story Mode, and for that reason, I’d recommend Arcade Mode out of the two. Though you won’t experience Madelyn’s story, it’s more streamlined and hits all BPM’s gameplay high points while avoiding the frustrations and time-wasting pitfalls of Story Mode. I love RPGs, so that’s saying something. If you’ve got the time and don’t mind repetitive backtracking and at times wandering around aimlessly, though, Story Mode’s levels are pretty different from Arcade Mode’s, so they’d both be worth playing.

In short, BPM is unapologetically difficult, and unless you’ve got well honed platforming skills and reflexes, you can expect to spend a lot of time dying and practicing the same area numerous times before you can survive it. In Story Mode, even with the added hints, there’s no quest log, map, or other system for tracking what you’re doing, so you can expect a lot of backtracking and time spent on wandering around and looking for whatever you’re expected to do next. Combined with the game’s overall difficulty level, gamers less dedicated to this level of challenge may be discouraged from continuing after a certain point. That said, other than a few areas where Madelyn respawned somewhere she’d get immediately killed again (possibly fixed in the release-day patch), annoying blind leaps of faith, and cheap enemy placement, BPM is a generally fair game that you can certainly practice and get better at over time.

As for the game’s presentation, the soundtrack, which can be played in either a more retro-sounding chiptune version or a more modern-sounding MIDI “Orchestral” version, is pretty excellent and certainly evokes a warm 80s and 90s nostalgia. The visuals I have more mixed feelings on. The in-game pixel graphics are detailed and beautifully rendered, slightly dopey running animations and all. The enemies are sometimes harder to see against the backdrops than necessary, however, and even overlooking somewhat frequent typos, the text is unfortunately atrociously blurry-looking and difficult to read, whether the Switch is in TV mode or portable mode. While I respect the desire to maintain that old-school pixelated look, a more legible font or maybe eliminating the anti-aliasing could have saved me some eye strain. The cut scenes would have probably looked better at a crisp, modern resolution, too. As is, it’s obvious they were downsized to a low resolution from high-resolution drawings, rather than originally rendered in pixels, and they look low-res and blurry, rather than charmingly retro. That said, these are just superficial criticisms and didn’t detract significantly from my enjoyment of the game.

Would I recommend Battle Princess Madelyn? I suppose that depends. If you enjoy classic games from the 80s, punishing difficulty and minimal direction and all, by all means, you’ll probably love this one. If, on the other hand, you’re not the best at platformers and don’t have a whole lot of time on your hands to try and try again, you may want to consider a more accessible option. I’m probably in the middle of the road, and I still enjoyed the game with its rough edges, so it’s worth considering if you’ve got interest in similar games.

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams – Owltimate Edition Review – Switch

Having never had the opportunity to play the original The Great Giana Sisters from the mid-80s or its 2009 reimagined version on the DS, the only prior knowledge I had of the Giana Sisters franchise was some vague impression that it started life as a Super Mario Bros. knockoff – albeit one that many gamers spoke of with fond nostalgia. In fact, it was popular enough that German company Black Forest Games, whose team includes many members of the original company that previously developed Giana Sisters, garnered enough support in their 2012 Kickstarter campaign to bring us a solid sequel, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams that year.

In Twisted Dreams, Giana and her sister Maria are sucked into the world of their dreams and nightmares. Unfortunately, once there, Maria is captured by a dragon called the Gurglewocky, and it’s up to you, as a teenaged Giana, to rescue her. In this game, Giana can switch generally at will between her Cute and Punk personas, which simultaneously changes the landscape around her, as Cute Giana lives in the nightmare version of the world, and Punk Giana inhabits the cutesy candy-cane-dotted dream version.

Switching personas and worlds isn’t purely aesthetic, however. Both versions of Giana can run, jump, and duck, but only Cute Giana can initiate a twirl, allowing her to float across distances and fall slowly, while only Punk Giana can dash, allowing her to punch through most enemies and ricochet off surfaces. The landscape changes in functional and interesting ways, too. For instance, a solid stone bridge in the dream world could be a gaping ruin in the nightmare world; and some hazards, like thorn bushes and invisible platforms, transform between one world to the other, often opening and closing various paths through each level. Especially as you advance through the game, you’ll find that it’s not just advantageous but necessary to constantly switch between the two personas and worlds, sometimes very rapidly in succession, in order to progress.

Luckily, Twisted Dreams’s controls are tight, responsive, and intuitive, and as a result, the game is a pleasure to play. It’s just too bad, though understandable given the game’s overall design, that multiplayer co-op isn’t an option in this game. The levels ramp up in challenge at what feels like a natural pace, and it’s clear to see that they’ve been lovingly designed with a great deal of attention to detail. Each area makes clever use of Giana’s deceptively simple ability set and world swapping effect, gradually opening the player’s eyes to new and more complex ways these few abilities can be used.

Also, besides getting to the exit, you’re tasked with collecting the gems placed throughout each level. At Normal difficulty, collecting gems is optional; however, certain numbers of gems are required to unlock boss levels in Hard mode and beyond, and gathering these gems isn’t always easy. Either Giana can collect blue gems, but only Cute Giana can pick up yellow gems, and only Punk Giana can grab red gems, so some passages require some quick switching to collect them all. Also, Twisted Dreams is riddled with numerous hidden areas to discover, many requiring getting through a more challenging platforming puzzle to access them. The game encourages you to explore and seek out its secrets, as these often hold large caches of gems required to fully complete the level, as well as the giant gems that additionally unlock bonus concept art.

On the subject of art, it’s hard not to stop and admire the gorgeously detailed graphics in this game, with their juicy, vibrant colors and fantastically springy world transformation animations that can be mesmerizing to watch. Sometimes in the middle of a level, I’d find myself switching back and forth just to watch fallen tree trunks morph elastically into giant spiny vertebral columns, dining tables into torture devices, or turtles into giant leaping piranhas. The soundtrack goes through a similarly seamless shift, the same melody flowing from sugary, crystalline synth to Swedish band Machinae Supremacy’s heavy-metal guitar riffs without missing a beat.

Difficulty-wise, Twisted Dreams isn’t the most punishing platformer I’ve ever played, especially thanks to the generous checkpoints in Normal mode, where Giana restarts if she accidentally runs into an enemy or environmental hazard. It’s not a pushover, either, so more casual gamers may find it on the difficult side. I cut my teeth on old-school platformers and had my own moments of frustration, dying over 50 or 60 times on some levels. If Normal isn’t enough of a challenge for you, though, there’s a Hard difficulty with fewer checkpoints available right from the start, Hardcore difficulty (unlocked for levels you’ve beaten on Hard and which removes all checkpoints and forces you to start the level over if you die), and Uber Hardcore difficulty (unlocked through completing Hardcore and which forces you to start the entire game over if you die), for players who have already mastered the Normal difficulty and still want more. If that’s not your cup of tea, there’s also a Score Attack mode, in which you try to collect as many gems and kills as fast as you can in any given level, and a Time Attack mode, in which you try to get to the end of the level as fast as you can, ignoring gems and enemies.

That said, the game isn’t wholly perfect. One mild downside of the lush 2.5D graphics is that all that depth and detail can occasionally make it less than immediately obvious which objects can be jumped on, or which details in the environment (like some crystals, plants, and propellers) can kill you when touched. Also, even in this later release, I encountered some bugs in the later levels, and Giana ended up stuck inside a wall with no way out on at least a couple occasions. Unfortunately, there’s no way to manually restart from the nearest checkpoint, so encountering a bug may also mean restarting the entire level, which can be pretty annoying if you’ve already made your way past some gnarly sequences before glitching. Load times at the beginning of each level are also a little longer than I’m used to with platformers, and while I enjoyed watching the shadow-puppet-esque pre-level animations (which impart helpful gameplay hints and sometimes give us poignant glimpses of Giana’s real life outside of the dream world) during my leisurely playthrough, I can see how someone trying to perfect a level would find the delay exasperating. Still, these are just a few nitpicky weaknesses in an otherwise very enjoyable puzzle platformer.

The version of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams released on the Nintendo Switch, the Owltimate Edition, includes the base game (which itself has 31 levels, including boss levels), the Rise of the Owlverlord expansion (which adds a fourth chapter of additional levels and a new boss), and other extras, including bonus Halloween and holiday levels accessible right from the beginning. With the secret-packed and multi-branched level design, multiple unlockable game modes and difficulty levels, and collectible gems and concept art for the completionist, this edition offers good replay value. It also runs smoothly and looks beautiful in both portable and big-screen modes. At the time of this writing, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams – Owltimate Edition is going for a reasonable $29.99, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this puzzle platformer on the Switch.