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kicking and screaming and crying and pounding a hole through my wall because I couldn't use the Burial Blade on my first play-through but otherwise I feel like this may be the single most perfect FromSoft game I've played as far as its mechanics and narrative are concerned; this is the Soulslike where the ambient storytelling of trying to piece together a bunch of little clues from item descriptions, snippets of dialogue and environmental clues felt the most satisfying. The combat is at its peak, the rally system is a fantastic way to make the more highly paced combat work, and god!!!! Every trick weapon!!! Every piece of armor!!!! They're all fucking fantastic!! My only real complaint, and the thing that keeps it from being a 10/10 in my book, is that I feel as if my time in the base game was spent waiting for a boss that would actually blow me away, and that just never really came. There are highlights! But by and large I feel like the really good fights lie in The Old Hunters, and honestly? I'm cool with that.
Austin Powers Pinball features two tables. International Man of Mystery and The Spy Who Shagged Me. I remember watching an interview for Austin Powers 2 in a little Sky Interactive window about a hundred times. I would have been about 12 or 13 and very insecure about puberty. Hearing that Austin had lost his "Mojo" had me looking up the word in the dictionary, which told me it meant something like "sexual prowess". I didn't really understand and assumed the film was about Austin Powers being castrated against his will. I still have not seen Austin Powers 2.
When you first play Austin Powers Pinball, you will attempt to figure out which buttons are used to control the flippers. Pressing anything other than the correct ones will warn you that you have "tilted" the board and will lock you out of playing until your ball falls down the hole.
If you register your copy of Austin Powers Pinball with Take 2 Interactive, you will be entered into their free prize draw to win £100. Imagine what you'd spend that on!
There's no trackable achievement data to determine how many people have played through all of The Cartel with a full party of 3, but the Xbox tells me that only 1.55% of people who bought the game made it through the first level in co-op. Multiply that over some 15 progressively worse missions, account for maybe a half million sales on the generous side, and I'd be willing to bet there are less than 300 people on earth who played this game the way I did. My experience was one of the least vicarious, relatable, backloggd-review-write-about-able that I've ever had, but it leaves me wanting so badly to get someone else on board. I need to talk about these secret missions with someone.
Now, if you know about The Cartel, you probably mostly heard about how racist it is, and, yeah. You'd have to look through bottom-rung Newgrounds flash games or something made by actual hate groups to find much worse. This is a game where you play as US law enforcement and murder several hundred anonymous non-white "gangbangers" and "vatos" in an effort to save American women from cartel trafficking, while occasionally also hunting for cursed Aztec gold. Typo-ridden subtitles consist mostly of lines like [MEXICAN: Hey, cabron!] It is, plainly, foul. The mechanical framing for all of this bullshit is a woeful lump of a first-person shooter, the kind where they mapped the A button to a 1-inch vertical leap even though there are no required or even functional moments of "jumping" within the actual level design. Hours on end of reviving your teammate only to fall down immediately and need them to revive you, back and forth. But if this were the whole of the game, I wouldn't have made it into that club of 300 true gamers.
Between (sometimes during) the excruciating combat, the game will offer each individual player their own personal objectives, almost always in the context of hidden items or interactables. Because your characters are all trying to fuck each other over, these bonus missions have to be kept secret. You want the experience for that glowing brick of weed laying in the middle of this cemetery, then you better pick it up alone, without any teammates seeing you. If your homie is anywhere on your screen when they sneak a lil' secret, your camera swivels and zooms in on them and you poach their experience points, unlocking more identically awful guns. I cannot possibly overstate how much this stupid mechanic changed the entire game for me and my friends. It took over our brains for every single second of play. Boring gunfights became miniature The Thing stage rehearsals as we policed and eluded each other's every movement. My character kept receiving very obvious phone calls in front of my teammates, and the "I was just calling to hear my own Mr Brightside ringback tone" excuse almost never worked. I laughed until my face hurt more than once during this weirdly long campaign, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about the secret missions when I'm playing other games.
What is it that makes this mechanic, for lack of a better term, work? Well, at the base, nothing but exactly three players, 3D geometry, and first-person raycasting. Moving a camera around, having your sightlines obscured, reaching out and "touching someone with your eyes," to grossly misquote Cliffy B. With two or four players, it'd be too easy to buddy up and keep an eye on each other. With three, you're always worrying about that one other person scurrying around. It's stupidly simple (does not even require shooting in order to work!), and The Cartel isn't making any remarkable use of the concept. It's less inspired and more context-sensitive than something like The Ship. And yet this half-baked baby stealth had me completely entranced, pulled me through nearly 8 hours of some of the most Polish gaming I've ever borne witness to. This, this right here, is the cursed gold of Juarez. I see this game, and I see the first-person VR mode they're adding to Among Us, and I break out in a cold sweat. Gaming is going crazy places.
Paweł Marchewka, The Cartel's lead designer, has alternated (within the same interview) between calling the game a "mistake" and weaselishly claiming it as "not bad, just not finished." The guy runs literally Techland, so a little buffoonish confusion of intent is to be expected, but the quotes make me giggle nonetheless. Paweł, buddy, I cannot envision what amount of further development would've made your game a finished, good, non-mistake in the eyes of everyone except me and my other 299 online co-op soul warriors. You definitely did this on purpose, and we can all tell. Own your shit, dog. Take me to the Land of Tech. Stop wasting my time with Chris Avellone games and just give me more secret missions. Give me something so unplayable that I will receive a medal of honor for being the only one to finish the whole thing. I can take it.
Beyond: Two Souls
A painful example of a game trying to imitate Hollywood movies in the least subtle most agonizingly self-serious manner imaginable. The only way to atone for this game's existence would be for Elliot Page to kick David Cage down a long flight of stairs (which I hope happens someday, let's be real that would be tight)
Deltarune: Chapter 2
This review contains spoilers
Bursting at the seams with charm, and a dark current of abandonment issues, and denied individualism run through the bloodstream of Deltarune Chapters 1 and 2.
Kris, struggling to deal with the fact they are being controlled by a force beyond their understanding, being forced to go where it drags them along to, meeting characters ranging from cute and whimsical and silly to mirroring their own existence as a puppet. Controlled by forces and people that seek only to use them for their own gain.
You can eat moss.
Tomba! is a game I didn't even know existed until a few years ago when a friend was lamenting this loss of his copy, having lent it many years earlier to a friend who never returned it. Great game, it turns out. I both understand why my friend would be so upset about losing it, but also why his ex-friend would be so inclined to steal it from him.
Tokuro Fujiwara of Ghosts N' Goblins fame was both the director and art designer on Tomba!, which probably explains both why it feels so good to play and why it's so great to look at. The titular Tomba has a very particular way of moving, a specific gravity to him, which gives platforming a well defined feeling. Similar to Ghosts N' Goblins, it feels as if a lot of consideration and care was put in to designing how Tomba control. If I jump as Tomba I know where I'm going to land, and that's the key to making any platformer feel good. The character designs are equally as great, and the 2D sprites that depict them compliment the vibrant 3D environments they're set in perfectly.
Tomba! has an interesting structure to it, being primarily built around completing individual missions and earning points which can be cashed in for items, upgrades, and to advance the story. A sizeable amount of these missions are optional, you only need so many to complete the game, and this in turn provides the player with quite a bit of freedom in how they want to take on the adventure. Puzzle-platformers can be pretty hit-or-miss with me, but I really liked figuring out some of the missions in Tomba!, and looping around to previously explored locations while chipping away at them never felt tedious or frustrating like they might in other games.
It also has the distinction of being the only game I've played that actually made my Raspberry Pi overheat, which is... interesting. I'm curious how exactly the game is rendering its characters and environments and if something about that process just isn't optimized. I also experienced quite a bit of slowdown which might not be present if played on actual hardware. I am curious how well the game runs in other emulation environments, but have yet to test it on my Pi 4.
Really though, it's a testament to how fun Tomba! is that I was not only willing to push through bouts of slowdown and having to let my Pi cool down but had a pretty damn good time despite it. It's a shame this series was so short lived, but poor sales of both Tomba! and it's sequel put Whoopee Camp under pretty quickly. Then again, considering how "good" Tomba 2 is...
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