25 Reviews liked by RaffiTheOwl
Coming off the heels of games like The Witness and Antichamber, Lingo is probably the best iteration of this "Explore Esoteric Spaces at Your Leisure and Solve Esoteric Puzzles" subgenre. But rather than say this as a mark of high praise, it leaves me questioning whether this formula is even worth pursuing.
Several hallmarks of the genre that appear in Lingo feel unnecessarily obtuse. To give one example, why are these games so fascinated with the idea of forgoing explicit directions? An ill defined rule set allows for the highly fetishized "eureka" moment, but it also creates way too much doubt in the player once puzzles begin to scale up in difficulty. In some ways this works in the favor of the developer who can play fast and loose with the internal logic of certain puzzles because the rules were never set in the first place. Someone whom this never benefits is the player, as they are often reduced to feeling their way around in the dark.
This approach essentially sells out the credibility of the late game in favor of a more "immersive" early game. Perhaps this isn't a bad business decision, as the percentage of the puzzle genre player base that even reaches the late game self-selects for smarter, more forgiving, and more enfranchised players. Regardless, it's bad design propped up by those that feed on the obtuse.
Esoteric, at times non-euclidean, environments are another hackneyed cliche of the genre that really need to go. Throughout my run of Lingo all I could think was "How does this level design add to the game?". The player spends the vast majority of their time navigating samey white hallways that bend physical space to create a layer of confusion. In an exploration focused game with more tools to aid in that exploration, this could be fun. In Lingo, however, it mostly amounts to running around aimlessly trying to remember where a certain wall panel is. It's somewhat amazing that the game manages to take something fundamentally alien to our existence, non-euclidean space, and make it simultaneously boring and tedious.
This is to say nothing of the cumulative effect it has on the player's mental load. Puzzle games are demanding; the puzzles in Lingo are demanding. It takes a lot of focus to play this game. Adding the mental stress of remembering and navigating intentionally vague, confusing environments that ask rote memorization of the player more than any amount of cleverness pushes the game to a real breaking point. Lingo is very frustrating to play at times, and every element of its design reinforces that.
It's amazing, then, that Lingo is a frustrating experience even when the player knows how to solve the puzzles.
Often, very often, the player will be staring at a puzzle with a complete understanding of it. They know the logic of the puzzle, how to transform the word in front of them. The only problem is that the English language is vast, and many word games have many possible solutions. Thus the player will sit there guessing solution after solution, all of which should work, until they find the one that the developer chose arbitrarily.
"Uncertainty" is the eleven letter word that solves this puzzle: Lingo is absolutely plagued by it. From the exploration, to the objective of the game, to the puzzles you don't know how to solve, to the puzzles you do know how to solve, the player is always left uncertain about their actions. There is some fun to be had if one enjoys puzzle games, but ultimately the juice isn't worth the long, aimless, foggy squeeze.
Friends vs. Friends
A fun little multi-player game, with just enough goof to keep things light while still allowing for some FPS muscle. It's a bit barebones, though.
I enjoyed the handful of hours I spend with it, but didn't feel compelled to play a ton of it. Got my money's worth for sure, though!
VVVVVV has faded into the background somewhat despite its positive critical reception upon launch, and that's a shame: I think more developers should take notes, as it succeeds at appealing to both casual and competitive audiences. From a casual viewpoint, VVVVVV takes a classic deconstructed concept ("what if we removed jumping in 2D platforming?") and expands upon this in meaningful ways with little downtime. I've often complained about the lack of tech-skill in 2D platformers, but VVVVVV remains a key exception because it's simple to pick up (just gravity flip and walking as controls) yet difficult to master due to its weightiness. Additionally, it never feels stale with its utilization of gravity flipping by innovating upon this with classic obstacle escalation, introducing flippers, screen wrapping, teleporters, and auto-scrolling in respective levels as just a few married mechanics. On the other hand, from a competitive viewpoint, VVVVVV presents itself as an almost perfect beginner's speedrunning game thanks to the general lack of RNG; all rooms begin from the same state once entered, following the same pattern every time. Upon exiting, the rooms will always reset to that exact same state playing the same pattern, meaning that timing cycles don't have to be accounted for on a broader scale and players can just focus on correctly routing the first time around. Due to the simplified routing and committal movement (since you can't flip mid-air and have very restrained control over aerial drift), players must both react quickly enough to meet single room cycles and carefully plan out input timings. It certainly helps that a solid speedrun takes less than an hour and individual sectors can be practiced as "challenges" added in a recent update.
Notice how I said "general lack of RNG" however, because this is where VVVVVV throws a wrench into the works. One of the game's twists is that upon rescuing three crewmates (i.e. clearing 3 of the 4 main sectors), the player is thrown into a 2nd intermission dubbed "The Gravitron," an arcade-like section that bounces the player between two flippers as they must dodge incoming projectiles without any vertical control. This particular intermission is the only case of RNG (in the form of randomized projectile waves) throughout the game, and unfortunately sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise completely consistent speedrunning experience. As an endless arcade sidemode that can be unlocked via collecting every trinket, I think it fulfills this role as a reward well, but when considering it from a deathless run perspective, it is an absolute killer in the middle of the run that cannot be easily planned for. Outside of this complaint though, I find very few things that I can fault VVVVVV for. The game's simple visuals are bright and catchy, it's got a great sense of humor with its room names and stylized pixel hazards, and the soundtrack goes harder than it has any right to: Pressure Cooker and Potential for Anything never fail to blow me away with their energetic melodies. This is an easy recommendation for anyone looking to get into speedrunning platformers despite the need to heavily practice for the Gravitron, and it's an even easier recommendation for general players looking to understand how indies can thoroughly yet succinctly explore creative yet familiar concepts in a cohesive package.
the mascot is a disconnection from the real or natural, that creates a new solitary connection that simply relates back to itself (classic deterritorialization/reterritorialization for you sickos). there’s no cultural legacy of mario that doesn’t just relate back to mario and symbolic interpretations of nintendo. may mario relate to mario and the symbolic health to nintendo, and whatever. this is the desperation that hangs around every new mario game.
“the king is in his bedchamber. is he sick? we all wait with bated breath… unbelievable… ! IGN has given Mario Forever a perfect 10/10! the king yet lives! may his empire reign forever!”
so, every mascot is a failure. a failure to represent, to connect, to live. in the place of the straightforward identification, which has previously defined participatory storytelling, now there is a road sign. mascots point out, right out down the superhighway, leading right up to corporate headquarters. mascots draw attention to the success—or not—of the work at the expense of something emotive, something human. mascots are advertising, so the interpretive question they pose is as simple and condensed as possible. is this profitable? and you answer… maybe!
now here we have bubsy, a failure among failures. to fail at being a failure… that would imply a schoolyard double negative, you know, a success that comes from the heroic rejection of hegemony. that is definitely not the case. bubsy, the art object, not the guy, is the aesthetic personification of loser, the energy of an entrepreneur who is forced to teach because they couldn’t cut it, and hilariously they give their students the same bad advice. whatever, it’s gambling either way.
buby’s negation only twists and fucks with the process of reconnection. bubsy’s roadsign leads straight into the desert. we’re talking just deterritorialization, baby.
buby’s negation only twists and fucks with the process of reconnection. bubsy’s roadsign leads straight into the desert. we’re talking just deterritorialization, baby.
this is truly what’s funny about playing bubsy. it’s not a bad game. no seriously, you chucklefucks, it’s not a bad game, it’s just hard. I’m a demiurge for failures. I’m confident comparing bubsy to Superfrog, Rocky Rodent, and Zool, the rogue’s gallery of sonic-failures, and it’s the only one that makes you feel lost in a giant superstructure, it’s the only one that understands the juice behind Sonic the Hedgehog is disorientation.
designer michael berlyn claims to have played sonic 1 for 98 hours before making bubsy. I believe him, I don’t think that’s hype. bubsy is a studied intensification of that game. yes, you can’t pick up and play it. you gotta have patience with the game. take your time to explore the different routes. find the one that works for you. bubsy is not about “going fast” like a fucking generic downstream comic book videogame power fantasy, but merely having the ability. it’s one of your tools, use it or don’t. bubsy instead has a staccato-like rhythm to it, your jump feels like a triplet, always coming in controlled multiples, and there’s this percussive quality to it, as you improvise and stay in the air and figure out where this asshole is allowed to exist.
the difficulty cinches the pathetique of bubsy. he’s just not cool or heroic. I fuck with that. I’m plain sick of heroics. my favorite moment of the game is bubsy walking back on screen, after dying in a horrible, stupid way, because you can only die in horrible, stupid ways in platformers. his body looks like a corny cartoon accordion and he just quips, “what, and give up show business?”
bubsy comparing platforming to shit-shoveling briefly got me to misrecognize the game as playbor. I became aware of the electricity in my room, like one becomes aware of their breathing. it then became a little eerie to recognize bubsy’s complaints and desire to renegotiate the terms of his labor. one of bubsy’s only character traits is the fact that he’s proletarianized. he’s proletarianized and his creators and everyone just fucking hates him. what can possibly go wrong?
I've heard good things about Tails Adventure, which I've gotten the impression is regarded as a gem among Sonic fans. Maybe I'm just listening to the wrong people, because I didn't care for it. Placing Tails in a search-action game is definitely a more worthwhile idea than whatever the hell Sky Patrol was going for (devil's advocate: it was never meant to be a Tails game), but its design is severely encumbered by the Game Gear's hardware, or possibly emulation issues with Sonic Gems Collection. Maybe a bit of both! I have no idea. All I know if it drops frames about as often as it drops inputs, and it's enough to make this a total chore to play.
Not that performance is the only thing dragging this game down. There's some... questionable design elements here. Tails can only carry four items at a time, and you can only change his load-out back at his workshop. In theory this forces you to be more considerate of what you're taking with you, but in practice it fails to gel with the rest of Tails Adventure's search-action design. In these kinds of games, hitting an impassable barrier should encourage the player to explore further. However, too often the barriers I encountered were the result of me not having the foresight to equip the specific set of items I need. As far as I can tell, there's no way to warp back to the map, so if you hit a dead end of any sort you get to slowly trudge your way back through the level or throw Tails into a pit, which for some reason doesn't kill him. How intuitive.
At least this looks impressive for a Game Gear game. I was genuinely surprised by the fidelity of some of the sprite art, and although the bosses are absolutely not fun to fight, they look great. I also love Tails' little submarine, but maybe that's the byproduct of reading the Archie comics as a kid. All of this could only carry me for about 45 minutes, after that I was begging for the game to be over.
I don't know what's up with these sidekick solo outings being so bad, but at least Tails Adventure is a few hairs better than Knuckles' Chaotix. Of course, nothing can beat Shadow the Hedgehog. Now that's a video game. Even if it weren't one of the greatest titles of the sixth gen, it'd be carried off the power of its lead character alone. Shadow the Hedgehog is a gift from the heavens, immaculate and created by God to be a modern day messiah. Knuckles and Tails can't compete with that.
You basically just slide around the stylus to reach point A to B to C before other Pokemon do while avoiding death water. Not really challenging but pretty boring, and somewhat tiring. I guess it's pick your poison with the bad Pokemon games: Pokemon Channel is drawn out but at least has some funny moments in how bad it is. Pokemon Dash is just tedious all the way through but at least it won't waste your time for more than an hour and a half.
Nothing is more frightening than a 50-turn game of Mario Party on Eternal Star with three so-called "hard" AI opponents. I hope you enjoy them constantly stealing your stars then throwing them away by intentionally visiting Bowser, because whoever built their AI was a god damn psychopath.
Mario Party is one of the few CIB Nintendo 64 games I own, and I got it at a pretty reasonable price. Still, I paid real money for it, more than any reasonable person should for Mario Party, and as always, if I bought it I gotta... I gotta finish it... I picked up a cheap bottle of whiskey (because there's no way I'm playing this game sober) and spent the last week getting hammered and tearing the flesh off my palm.
Right off the bat, Mario Party's greatest sin is its difficulty balancing, or lack thereof. It's similar in some ways to Mario Kart's rubber-banding, and I think borne from a similar design philosophy that if the player is winning for too long they'll get bored and turn the game off. I think most developers would look at that problem and probably think of some way to make winning just as engaging as clambering your way back to the top, but not Nintendo. Why craft a carefully balanced experience when you can just have the AI crack the player in the kneecaps with a pipe and rob them blind? In a way, Mario Party is reflective of Nintendo as a company. Oh, you're having fun? You're enjoying your video game? Not so fast, buddy!
The infuriating part is I can see how you could tweak the game as-is to make it feel less unfair. Just get rid of Chance Time spaces or have only one of them to reduce the frequency they're landed on and make it so you can't interact with Boo unless you land on the space directly in front of him. I don't even mind the bonus stars for minigame performance since those still seem to reward you for playing well, it's the ease of stealing stars and the computer's blatant cheating that make the game agonizing.
Well, that and the minigames. There's 50 total in the first Mario Party, which seems like a lot, 50 is a big number, but good luck not rerolling the same ones over and over again. Even at the bare minimum of 20 turns I have to play Shy Guys Says like, three times. Also, 50 minigames and not a single one of them is good. Incredible odds. Even setting aside how many require you to roll the analog stick around, none of them are particularly interesting or fun to play. Oh, it's the ice slide from Mario 64, but it feels worse. Oh, one player gets coins showered on them and occasionally one might roll off for you to catch, like a dog begging for scraps at the table. I'm ashamed to say the minigames were the main draw for me as a kid, but I think that was true of everyone else I knew. Nobody showed up to a Mario Party for the board game aspect, and if they did then I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that kid like, tortures animals or something.
I'm surprised how many people are rating this game so highly, a lot of them saying things like "man, the first Mario Party is so brutal, it just goes in on you with nothing but contempt!" Hey, fair enough, but I've never been viciously kicked in the balls and said "I value and respect your savagery. More please!" Instead, I just puke and lay down for a while. Just like when I play Mario Party.
Despite the fact that System Shock 2 is probably my favourite FPS (dogshit ending and all), I’d never made a real concerted effort to go back and play the game that preceded it. I knew that much of what was to become become solidified in 0451 games originated in System Shock, but by the time I first encountered those elements in Bioshock, much of that piquantness had been watered down to a highly palatable bitterness, necessary for tent-pole games that hit several consoles simultaneously, from the highly acquired flavour of PC jank, when being able to play console or PC really meant a lot, of the Shock name-makers. Even going back and playing System Shock 2 a decade ago required one session of bouncing off and readjusting my expectations appropriately. So despite the immensely rewarding sense of place and possibility offered on that cold and hostile station, when I saw that what laid the track to get there was more archaic, more artifacted, more mystifying, and more unforthcoming, I thought that I could just play Dishonored instead.
When the remake for System Shock was announced though, I figured I could get the context without the homework; I would be able to cruise through The Citadel as The Hacker as easily as Alpha and Delta could through Rapture. NOPE! System Shock is a remake of the 1994, but it has not been remade. The environments are wonderfully updated without a beautiful voxel fidelity that feels foreign and tactile and industrial, and the interface is snappy and easy to navigate with the solidified 30 years of reinforced key-mapping schema and necessity - but, the design? The encounters? The puzzles? That’s all 1994 vintage, baby. At pretty regular intervals, I would do something by accident and wonder, “Jesus, they didn’t tutorialise that?” Nightdive made the call in their updating that Looking Glass’s original ideas still held water, irradiated though it might be, and that their job was to allow a new generation to see it, nothing more. And I think they were pretty spot on with this approach: the parts of System Shock 2 that are truly great, the level design, the environmental storytelling, the incidental characterisation, the unique and strangeness of how the game asks you to interact with it; that’s all here pretty much as fully formed as it was in System Shock 2. Maybe more so, if just because the face lift (and complete counter-intuitiveness to modern sensibilities in AAA shooters) allow for what was great about BOTH System Shock games to come through as clearly as it ever has been able to.
That said, the 90s ImSim jank is still pretty gritty, and your tolerance for slowly locomoting (with a pretty pitiful stamina reserve) through massive levels with barely any idea of which surface of The Citadel’s, like, 10 different spinning plates is about to serve you a big ol pile of Akira flesh is going to dictate how much of the game compels you. The combat, despite gluing me to the mouse and keyboard with high impact tension - each bullet smashing through me with the impact of most game’s artillery class weapons - is flatly complex, with a huge amount of lateral possibilities, but not much ability to upwardly advance in tactics. You can tell when peeking in and out of corners, taking your three shots and then waiting for the enemy to take theirs, that DOOM had come out only 10 months earlier than the original Shock, and was pretty much the only game in town for really interesting shooting. The guns in System Shock (2023) feel great, and they look amazing as models, but taking the Scorpion or the Railgun into combat won’t change your tactics: you'll be looting ammo and shooting that ammo, but that's about as complex as the gunplay can get. Also sorely missing from System Shock 2 is the progression path allowed (being that this system was innovated into the 0451 genre with that sequel so I understand it not being here, but, you know), making exploration a more exciting and integrated possibility than in either the original or the remake. Getting guns that pack more of a punch - and gadgets that drain your energy faster than should be legal for how useful they ultimately end up being - is not enough to curve the difficulty up the way they do; the game starts off far too easy, and it ends with demanding some pretty reprehensible quicksave tactics being necessary to save yourself from having to constantly hoof it back to the nearest floor with a decked out med chamber. The ultimately pretty static state of The Hacker removes a great deal of replayability, and I’d imagine that on a second go, knowing how little you need to scrounge up to get to the highest state of mechanical proficiency, it would be pretty easy to cut the playtime of the first go through of The Citadel into 1/4th of the initial time.
All that said: wow, they really did place a lot of emphasis across so many more nodes of play possibility back in the day, didn’t they? Obviously as fidelity has become of preeminent importance for roping in gen pop, the design teams of games have shrunk their respective share of modern developers - to get someone who only plays 2-3 AAA games a year, you kind of need them to feel generally warm about everything in front of them. But Nightdive got off pretty sweet without making that deal with the devil: the design was right there, it can all be technical personnel for the remake if that’s what they want. I think Looking Glass would be proud as heck if they made this game - and whoops! They did.
Warning: The following is an angry rant written on my last day of vacation about how I, in my everlasting stupidity, spent a day "speedrunning" Pokemon Battle Revolution. I am fully aware of the consequences of my actions and have only myself to blame.
I've made a lot of jokes talking about how Pokemon is not a game of outplaying, but "outskilling" via calculated misses, well timed min maxes, and praying to RNGesus. Let's just say that I've paid my dues playing with shitmons in Random Battles on Pokemon Showdown, where quite literally anything can happen to anyone at any time. But never before did I think an actual Pokemon game would make me rage even more than Showdown.
Let's start at the beginning, shall we? I read Vee's review for Pokemon Stadium earlier last week, and had this sadistic feeling slowly build up inside me. I remember being somewhat disappointed by Pokemon Battle Revolution, but hey, I was just a kid with a lot of free time back then. I'd like to think that I've gotten a lot better at appreciating the finer details and that my inherent (hopefully improved) skill would carry me through! So, I decided to speedrun it today because why the hell not.
Firstly, here's the biggest difference between Pokemon Battle Revolution and Stadium; you only get pre-selected teams of midmons (mid evolution Pokemon) to work with, and you can only pick one team out of two at the very beginning. Want to get more teams? Then you're gonna have to beat the individual colosseums with your teams of midmons to unlock the "opportunity" to unlock more teams of midmons, which in itself requires you to win 6 straight battles with that sample team of midmons to unlock that Rental Pass. So if you want all 6 sample teams of midmons, not only do you have to complete the necessary Colosseums to even unlock the opportunity, you must then win 6 straight battles of midmons for each Rental Pass without losing any battles inbetween a run to collect the Rental Pass. And because these are midmons and have generally subpar moves and stats, this will take an eternity and a half. So I recommend you just skip this altogether and you should either have some decent enough Pokemon transferred from Diamond/Pearl/Platinum (and only specifically one game at a time locked to an account or you have to use some convoluted workaround via Wii Remote storage to bypass this!), or you just hack your Wii/play on emulator and download a save file with all the Pokemon already transferred in so you can think of it as the next step from Pokemon Stadium, albeit with actually good Pokemon and actually good sets. You'll have a miserable time attempting to use Rental Passes when they start pulling out decent enough Pokemon in the later Colosseums as is.
But even after getting over this major barrier, there are significant design issues. Mainly, all of the Colosseums are too close in terms of concept to one another. Remember when they had actual innovative ways to vary their battle approaches/wrinkles in the Pokemon Emerald Battle Frontier, with different facilities such as a dungeon crawler in the dark, a rental Pokemon system where beating opponents allowed you to take their Pokemon, and so much more? That's not a thing at all in PBR. Almost every Colosseum here devolves into some form of just battling opponents with standard teams until you beat the big boss at the end with no notable wrinkles whatsoever. In fact, the Crystal Colosseum (bracket of 16) and the Sunny Park Colosseum in its first run (standard knockout vs seven trainers in a row) more or less play out the exact same, and the two Colosseums are right next to each other. Sure, you could argue that some of the Colosseums attempt to differentiate by having one be singles and a lot of the rest be doubles, and that the round robin format of the Magma Colosseum is technically different in that it is more forgiving than standard knockout of Main Street Colosseum, but they might as well be in practice the same. But that's actually not even the biggest problem because they generally really fuck up when they try to be different.
Remember when I said I was shocked that a Pokemon game made me more angry at luck in Pokemon than Showdown? PBR brings three examples to mind, and they're all Colosseum wrinkles:
- Waterfall Colosseum turns the format into a series of 5 1v1s, and you won't know how your opponent is choosing to line up their team. So if you happen to "pick incorrectly" and line up your team to have unfavorable matchups against your opponent, sucks for you, back to the start you go! Isn't it fun to lose before the actual battle when selecting your mons? Outskilled!
- Neon Colosseum has you picking your team from a pool of your original team + the opponent's team... using a roulette. That's right, it's up to the heart of the cards what you pick up for your team, and since many of your opponents will absolutely use shitmons (i.e. Metapod) and throw those into the pool, it's actually optimal to use Battle/Rental Passes of midmons or shitmons yourself so you don't accidentally screw yourself over by giving PIKACHU Fan Ian your Salamence when you've only got a Beedrill and a Plusle to fight back with. So if you want to play it safe, this may take an excruciatingly long time. Fuck you Ian.
- Moonlight Colosseum is the actual absolute worst, and I say that knowing that Neon Colosseum exists. There's one wrinkle to this otherwise standard 2v2 knockout tournament... every other match or so, Fog will appear in the battle, and the only thing Fog does is make all attacks miss more often. Don't have access to weaker moves that skip the accuracy check or Defog? Well, you better get used to having turns where nothing hits and no one gets damaged because Fog is a thing! Nothing like having your Starmie miss 5 Hydro Pumps in a row thanks to Fog... guess Swimming Club Member Bryce outskilled me real good this time...
The closest actual variation that I liked in a Colosseum would have to be Sunset Colosseum, where you and your opponent pick from the same pool of 12 Pokemon and duke it out. Admittingly, the same issue of the pool consisting of midmons so the move set is questionable and the battles still take an eternity and a half, but it's at least a good step forward in that respect.
Let me just point out a few other strange or questionable design choices before I wrap this up...
- The game doesn't know when it wants to use motion blur and when it doesn't want to use motion blur. Sometimes the motion blur will be off while your Pokemon is posing and getting ready, so you can admire the background in all its beauty. But then a few seconds later, your Pokemon will be in its attack animation, and then uh oh, they suddenly turned on the motion blur around your Pokemon so everything looks like that Mr Krabs blur meme where everything's going south! Make up your goddamn mind Genius Sonority, should I look at your well textured backgrounds or not?
- There's not a lot of personalization choices to be found for customizing your character, and most of the choices require you to beat the Colosseums to unlock them for purchase, much less gain the currency necessary to purchase them. They don't even have different hairstyle forms for purchase for the set trainer model, just palette swaps there...
- The commentator for Pokemon Battle Revolution reminds me a lot of Vish & Chillin's commentary in SSBM. "Both sides better think their opening move carefully because I think they both really want to win right now." "One side has taken a lot of damage but you know, you can never count out a comeback!" "Oh no, Vulpix just hit itself while confused and knocked itself out! That's some unexpected self destructing behavior!" It's not bad per se, and was strangely comforting at times considering how much bad Melee commentary I've had to sit through. Pretty interesting parallels to be made I suppose.
- Want to 100% the game? The Courtyard Colosseum's post game challenge requires you to win 100 battles in a row, with only one opportunity after winning 50 battles to switch your team. And you don't get automatically healed after every fight... you have to spin a roulette to determine how your Pokemon will be healed after winning a fight. Just keep that in mind if you have 100% completion syndrome like me. There are better things to aspire to achieve in life, that's all I'm suggesting.
All in all, I have now been thoroughly reminded why Pokemon Battle Revolution was one of the biggest letdowns as the so-called successor to the Pokemon Stadium series: you can't rent the entire Pokedex to build custom teams and in fact have to grind to gain a slightly larger pool of midmons to build mediocre teams out of, the customization is sorely lacking and unimaginative, the wrinkles pale in comparison to last gen's Battle Frontier and are forgettable at best and an absolute RNG clownfest at worst, and there aren't even any silly party minigames to indulge yourself in with friends should you get sick of actual Pokemon battling! At least the Pokemon animations themselves are excellent and it provides a good visualization for competitive Pokemon battling with friends (or strangers back when they had Wi-Fi battles). But I can promise you that there are no hidden gems to be gleaned in this aggressively mediocre mire and you might have more luck trying your hand with Pokemon Colosseum or XD. God knows I'll probably talk myself into finishing those later this year, I'm on a hotstreak of being disappointed by childhood Pokemon games and it doesn't look like it's letting me up any time soon.
I haven't written a retrospective review in a while, but there's something in the background that I've been working on that I think writing a base review for the original game would benefit from. That, and I honestly haven't seen any reviews talking positively about the gameplay for all the high scores discussing how much they loved this childhood classic. So, why not knock out two birds with one stone?
The gameplay of the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series plays out like a very traditional turn based dungeon crawler roguelike. As a newly transformed amnesiac Pokemon who can only faintly remember being a human, you and your partner must traverse floor after floor of randomized mystery dungeons layouts, fighting scores of hostile Pokemon while micromanaging your hunger (represented by a belly capacity), health, and stamina (PP) to safely make it out in one piece. In between dungeons, you can participate in the daily toilings of Treasure Town as a member of Wigglytuff's Guild, claiming fortune and fame in the name of adventure while helping out those in need through various job board requests and bounties upon those who seek to do wrongdoing to others. By completing quest after quest and gaining rewards and experience along the way, and recruiting a few friends and allies in your journey too, you and your partner slowly begin to make out your place in this familiar yet ever so sprawling universe and seek to put an end toward the growing calamity that threatens to put an end to the very domain of life and death as we know it.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Explorers of Sky to me is that it's almost a picture perfect translation of the Pokemon JRPG turn based battling system as a spinoff, in that almost every move has a purpose and can't be easily labeled as "useless." Weaker moves with lower base power and higher PP have their use because you can't just go to a Pokemon Center whenever you run out of PP; you have to use a Max Elixir to restore PP, and inventory space is a very coveted resource. Meanwhile, a lot of these weaker moves also distinguish themselves from their stronger cousins, in that many of these weaker moves have differing range (i.e. using Heat Wave or Lava Plume over Flamethrower to hit all enemies in a room over all enemies surrounding the player respectively) that can be strategically used to pick off enemies (or deal with more than one at a time) that would otherwise pose a more significant threat up close and personal. Stat gain and reduction moves like Growl are just as useful too, because health is absolutely a resource when you don't have all day to just sit around and recover, and Vile Seeds (which decrease enemy defenses when thrown) are far too valuable to just be used on singular dungeon enemies. Even the gimmick moves that you'd never normally see in competitive Pokemon battling or factored in during min-maxing have niches here. Pay Day, the move that gave you a bit more moola if used in Trainer battles, is suddenly invaluable in EoS because Wigglytuff's Guild is extremely stingy and will take away 90% of all your Poke currency earnings from jobs. Recycle, the move that was really only used on the "Funbro" infinite stall set on Pokemon Showdown, can be used here to restore used TMs, an absolute godsend when TMs are a super rare treasure/lottery earning and cost thousands of Poke to purchase from Kecleon that you probably don't have. Even Rock Smash, a base 40 attack that's forever relegated to HM slaves in the mainstream Pokemon games, has a practical use here as a reliable way to destroy dungeon walls that can hide treasure and provide safer routing to other rooms and stairs. I could go on and on about the creativity of the greater Pokemon system translated into the roguelike medium, but needless to say, there's a surprising amount of freedom of expression to be found in the combat in Explorers of Sky from the moves alone.
I'll point out the elephant in the room as a follow-up; one of the biggest gripes that I've always had with the Pokemon series is the huge amount of luck/RNG to be found with the combat, and Explorers of Sky is no exception to the rule. Remember the gen 1 miss? EoS often feels a bit like that but more exaggerated; moves love to miss randomly for no apparent reason, and even moves in the base games that typically have a starting accuracy of 100% like Thunderbolt (as opposed to stronger moves that have a set lower accuracy like Thunder) and the standard attack from tapping A can miss for no apparent reason. In general, all attacks in EoS have "Hit Ratios" that don't align 1 to 1 with accuracy in the other Pokemon games, and in fact have two accuracy checks if the move is damaging. As such, I can agree that combat can be a bit frustrating as such; Water Gun shouldn't just randomly miss, Dragon Breath shouldn't be paralyzing me every other hit, and Mud Shot shouldn't be slowing me down every single time. Often, the randomized behavior of enemies plays just as huge of a part in survival as your inherent skill. And yet, I think this challenge is what makes Explorers of Sky so interesting to me; learning to roll with the blows and mitigate the danger plays a significant part in your personal growth and a strong reason why I find EoS a lot more fun at times than the main series.
To elaborate upon that, there are two major factors regarding this "problem" of taking damage, where defeating the opponent with little negative consequence is the solution. The first factor is in regards to recovery and acting during danger; even when crippled or affected by RNG, there is usually something you can do. For example, while paralyzed, your Pokemon's turn speed is halved and it won't be able to use moves or standard attack, but you can still move around and use items. So, one solution here is to switch places with your ally Pokemon and have them take up the gauntlet, or you could instead throw a seed at the enemy Pokemon to cripple them or throw damaging items in lieu of an attack, and so on so forth. Similarly, when your Pokemon is cringing as a side effect from getting hit by Rock Slide or Bite, etc, you can still move despite not being able to attack with moves, so a perfectly viable solution is to step backwards and force the opponent to approach while you regain your turn. Playing in part to this is also the preparation beforehand; negative statuses and damage can be mitigated or prevented entirely with the right items, IQ skills (from ingesting enough Gummis), and seeds or berries. In a similar vein, traps and randomly spawned Monster Houses (rooms where tons of enemy Pokemon suddenly descend upon you) can be a huge pain, but having the right ranged moves and offensive Orbs for crowd control can save a run from total chaos. Despite how difficult and often unfair the game can feel, there really is a certain satisfaction to being prepared for all of these different nightmare scenarios and carefully plotting out your next moves to navigate and escape dungeons with great loot and valuable experience.
I'd be remiss not to mention the new additions and changes between Explorers of Time/Darkness and Sky, which is considered to be the "definitive" version. Time and Darkness both have exclusive items (Vile vs Violent seed) and exclusive Pokemon (picking between Celebi and Mewtwo for example), and Sky, as the Platinum of its series, forgoes this entirely; the whole gang is here to be recruited to maximize your friend list. Sky's also got Spinda's Cafe, which streamlines item management and stat growth in the form of drinks that can provide random stat boosts alongside using up seeds/berries/Gummis and a Recycle Shop that finally provides a reliable source of Reviver Seeds without spending over a thousand Poke and has a Prize ticket lottery where you can win rare TMs among other great loot by discarding unnecessary/useless items. There's also the post-game Shaymin Village + Sky Peak sidequest with tons of other Pokemon to recruit (including, you guessed it, Shaymin!) and Sky Gifts to send to your friends. Finally, Explorers of Sky has some side episodes where you can play as other important story Pokemon facing their own struggles and further illustrating the depth of characterization to be found in the game. I'd be spoiling too many memorable moments by explaining the plot details here, but needless to say, it was great learning more about the background of those that the protagonist meets in their adventure, and you won't want to miss any of those episodes.
Many before me have spoken at length about this, but ultimately I think the reason why Explorers of Sky is so compelling is because the game is a journey of growth. Of course, there's the gameplay perspective regarding this growth; the mechanics that you deal with at the beginning of the game are the exact same as the mechanics required to tackle the final dungeons and the challenging and plentiful post-game dungeons. While there are more elements of danger to juggle and more creative elements to abuse, it all boils down to the same tense yet satisfying turn by turn dungeon crawling roguelike combat, just with higher stakes on both your end and the opponents' end; the personal growth through what your team has accomplished and become feels so gratifying because it was all your own hard work, and your increased experience and knowledge base will continue to carry you through. Nevertheless, there's also the journey of personal growth as reflected in the overarching narrative. Again, I won't get too nitty gritty with the details in case others want to make the dive, but you and your partner really do go from anxiety ridden, budding greenhorns to legends of Treasure Town by overcoming previously thought to be insurmountable obstacles and fighting against the very nature of time and destiny itself. I'd be lying if I said there weren't plenty of moments where I teared up from the emotional stakes across the colorful cast, and the fantastic soundtrack and vibrant visuals really help sell the spirit of adventure and fighting for those who have supported you every step of the way.
Look, I get it; as a kid who absolutely had to get his hands on every single Pokemon game imaginable and has still been closely following the future of the franchise, Pokemon has changed. Going from a once beloved and epic monster collector battle simulator where some kid from the middle of nowhere became a champion, to game after game, sequel after sequel of watered-down, repetitive, thoughtless, and empty hand-holding titles inundated with padding and souless exhaustion has not done Nintendo's cash cow any favors in terms of critical reputation, and the perception of my once favorite franchise has nosedived off a cliff. Even going back to classic Pokemon spin-off titles from my childhood has not held up well against my nostalgia, and I've been constantly disappointed so, so, many damn times. Finally, it didn't help that the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon franchise met a strange stagnation after its peak, with the immediate WiiWare successors only being released in Japan and the following global successor resulting in a noticeable drop in quality. Having said that, even in the face of the growing critical reevaluation, we'll always have Explorers of Sky. It's proof that Pokemon, at some point, was more than just another copy and pasted 4Kids sellout that's taken us for granted and in fact had some of the most complex, varied, and compelling gameplay that I'm happy to say more than holds up and remain glad that it was an integral part of my childhood. From the little I've played of the original Pokemon Mystery Dungeon's remake, I'm cautiously optimistic regarding the franchise's future, but even so, maybe the era of the superfluous videogame remake doesn't matter here. Sometimes, it's just nice to revisit the good times and remember that despite all the doom and gloom in the modern video game industry, they'll never be able to take away those moments that define us; maybe those then, were the real treasures that we've been searching for all along in Explorers of Sky.
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