Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late to the Game: Little Nightmares – Big Presence

Little Nightmares is a side-scrolling horror puzzle game that was released in April of 2017 to critical acclaim. 

I originally passed as I was a little burned out on side scrolling games at the time (I know it’s like 2.5D, but that did not sway me any), and I wanted something a little more lighthearted. 

Also, you know, money. 

I recently picked up a copy so that I could start Little Nightmares II properly, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Though it’s not the longest game (I think It took me about three hours to beat) It managed to pull off a lot. 

So, I know I’m late to the game, but let me fill you in on why you might want to pick up a copy if you haven’t done so within the last three years. 

Enter the Maw

Little Nightmares follows Six, a nine year old girl trapped aboard a large submersible called “The Maw.” Now, the story of Little Nightmares is almost completely implicit, meaning that you’re never specifically told anything. Which can lead to confusion…

However, as you journey through “The Maw” you’ll be able to infer what’s going on. I don’t want to get into specifics, but when looked at as a whole, the game’s story, and world are one of the most terrifying I’ve ever experienced, at least on an existential level. 

What really sets “The Maw” apart from other game settings is the way in which it was stylized. Little Nightmares looks like a Tim Burton stop-motion picture that you control. The characters, the backgrounds, and even the toilets in the bowels of the ship give off the vibe that they might be set pieces from the Nightmare Before Christmas… only actually scary.

I appreciate the fact that even though there is nothing photorealistic about any aspect of the game’s design, I still felt like I ought to be able to reach through my screen and interact with the environment like It was some kind of diorama. Of course, I never would, because honestly this game was unsettling in a way I find hard to describe… but in a good way. 

A Puzzling Adventure

As I said in the intro, this is a puzzle game, so it would follow that the majority of your time is spent solving puzzles. Despite this, the puzzles in Little Nightmares are never obtrusive, as they can often be in similar games. Each one feels necessary to continue not only the individual levels, but the story as a whole. Not once did I stop and wonder why I was doing something; I only know that it had to be done. 

How I get through life

While none of the puzzles, or obstacles, were especially hard, the terrifying antagonists, atmospheric setting, and general diversity of locations kept me engaged throughout. There were a couple of encounters with “The Janitor” (the game’s first real antagonist) that left me stumped, until I finally had an “aha!” moment (which was usually preceded by my wife telling me to stop sucking so hard). 

What really made all the puzzles worthwhile—to me, at least—was how deftly the controls were crafted and how the physics of the game worked. I loved the layout of the controls, the way in which any given action was executed, and how every object in the world had presence and weight. This was all elevated by the way the character motions and controls correlated into actions. I wish every game felt as good to play as Little Nightmares.

Big Dreams

Little Nightmares is an amazing combination of form and function. It manages to tell a horrific, yet intriguing, story without a single word, and it does it well enough that I plan on buying, and playing, every single DLC before playing the second game.

I’m giving Little Nightmares an overwhelming 9/10, but I’m going to do it as far away from “The Maw” as possible. 

It was exactly what it should have been and then some. So, if you’re late to the game, like me, and looking for a short but sweet morsel of gaming, I cannot recommend Little Nightmares enough. 

Video Game Reviews

Unto The End: A Short, Somber Journey

Unto the End is a solemn adventure game handcrafted by developer 2 Ton Studios and published by Big Sugar.

It follows a man who falls into a chasm while on a hunting expedition. Alone, and with limited resources, he must journey through an unforgiving world filled with deadly traps, warring clans, and terrible beasts to make it home to his family once more. 

Before I bought this game, I thought you’d basically be playing as any Harrison Ford character from the late 90’s to early 2000’s.

…he wants his family back.

I mean, the trailer that I watched was non-stop swordfights and monster beheadings. So, I thought it was going to be an action-packed fantasy adventure where I was going to kill an entire kingdom to be reunited with my family.

So imagine my surprise when I booted up the game and it offered me a warning:

Unto The End is a defense-first combat experience. You play an average warrior trying to get back home to your family.

You’re less powerful than every creature you meet. You can drop your sword, run out of supplies, and bleed to death.

Fighting is demanding and deliberate, but not your only option. Success is about being observant and staying calm.

My initial reaction was “What the hell? Where is my action-packed thrill ride?”

But I decided to take their advice, setting aside my expectations to see what they had to offer.

I’m really glad that I listened to the warning. Sure, Unto The End wasn’t what I thought I was getting, but it turned out to be just as good, if not better.

The Better Part of Valor

One of the interesting things about Unto The End is that you don’t have to stab everything that moves. In fact, most of the time it’s better to avoid fighting if possible. The warning at the beginning says that “success is about being observant and staying calm” This is absolutely true.

Basically, you need to read the situation before deciding what to do. Unfortunately, you don’t always get a lot of time to make your decision before it’s made for you. So, you really do need to quickly and calmly assess the situation and decide if you’re going to sheath your sword or not.

I’ll give one example: I happened upon a humanoid creature kneeling on a snowy plane. As soon as I approached, it fled and hid behind a much larger humanoid creature. The larger creature eyed me warily but stayed between me and the smaller creature. 

This one was pretty simple. It was a parent protecting its child. I put away my sword and offered one of my healing leaves to show that I wasn’t a threat, and they gave me some sticks and let me pass. 

Great. Combat avoided. 

However, there were other ways to approach this. 

I could have chopped them up without remorse, and taken the stick by force. Or I could have tried to run past them, but that probably would have provoked an attack from the parent.

What makes this game so interesting is that any of the above options are viable. 

What makes this game a little frustrating is that it’s hard to know what you can and cannot do. Very little hand-holding is done, so you basically have to figure out everything for yourself. The first time I accidentally offered an Item from my inventory to an NPC I just started screaming at the screen because…

Unto Battle

Avoiding combat when possible is good, but not always achievable. Sometimes monsters just want your organs, and the only way to stop them is with your sword. Which is why it’s good that the combat in Unto The End is some of the best (read: rewarding/frustrating) I’ve encountered in a 2D side-scrolling game.

The best part about combat is that it’s simple. There are only a handful of moves, and you have all of them from the very start of the game, so don’t count on any stronger attacks to save you down the line. 

Your moves are:

  • High attack
  • Low attack
  • High block
  • Low block
  • Dodge roll
  • Knife throw / Close stab
  • Shoulder check 

When you realize that your moveset is so limited, you might feel discouraged.

But there is an abundance of nuance crammed into this combat system, and it can be quite powerful.

The worst part about combat is how brutally hard it can be. 

The warning at the beginning of the game called combat “deliberate” which is the absolute truth. Despite only getting a fraction of a second to see if the enemy is attacking high or low, you need to make sure you block accordingly, or you’re likely to die. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you attack with reckless abandon, your swings start to get sluggish. And if you dodge roll at the wrong moment, you might drop your sword, both of which can lead to a swift death.

Unto Adventure

 While a point-and-click adventure game this is not, it actually functions a lot like one in execution.

When you’re not deep in the throes of mortal combat with a troll, or fighting a tribe of C.H.U.D, the majority of the game is actually spent exploring desolate caverns and crossing snow covered plains. However, every once and a while you will need to get an item to continue forward.

There are usually two ways to get the item.

Fortunately the destination is the same either way.

The first option is to chop-chop the guy who’s holding it.

The second is to embrace the game’s other, more subtle elements. You might find a place off the beaten path where you can use an Item you’ve been carrying around for a while. In using that item, you might discover another item that can be used to garner safe passage through an area that might have otherwise been hostile.

The only hard thing about finding and using these additional items and tactics is that there is no dialog in the game (or at least none that you can understand), so most of the point-and-click elements boil down to trying every Item everywhere…

… which, now that I think about it, is how point-and-click games work anyway. 

Unto The End of the Unto The End Review

Overall, Unto The End was a breath of fresh air. It didn’t have any explosions or overly complicated themes. It was the story of a man (with an excellent beard) trying to make his way home to his family. While its combat was both simple and incredibly hard, I think I’ll remember it more for the lonely atmosphere and the decision to put an emphasis on mindfulness. 

Oh, I’ll also remember it for being real short. It’s only like four hours long, if that, so it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome. It was also like twenty-five dollars for those four hours, so the price-to-gameplay ratio was not great.

I’m giving Unto The End a contemplative 8/10. It may not have been a 40 hour experience, and it eschewed things like leveling systems, dialog trees, and overly complicated menu systems, but it still managed to be an amazing contained experience, and I think a lot of AAA developers could take a page from the 2 Ton Studios book. 

Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late to the Game: Children of Morta – A Family Driven Rogue-Lite

Children of Morta is an action-adventure dungeon crawler with some roguelike elements that was developed by Dead Mage and published by 11 Bit Studios. It was released at the tail end of 2019, making me only a little late to the game, but late nonetheless. 

It follows the trials and tribulations of the Bergson family as they try to contain the corruption that has spewed forth from Mount Morta. Unfortunately for them, the corruption is killing or converting everything around them, making their home more dangerous with each passing day. In order to stem the tide and cleanse the land, they will need to work together and free three spirits.

This was a game that I looked at for a long time, but never actually bought until recently. I kept making excuses as to why I was putting it off, even though I really wanted to give it a try. It’s what I like to refer to as…

There were two factors that eventually pushed me to purchase this title. The first was that it has couch co-op, which is always a plus in my book. The second was that it was story driven and rogue-lite, not unlike Hades, which I enjoyed a great deal.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into this game and see if it is worth your time, even if it did come out, like, three years ago.

The Family that Slays together

The main focus of the game is the Bergson family. They are led by Margaret, the family’s matriarch. She is the first to know of the corruption, and also the only one who seems to know what must be done about it. 

The other family members include:

  • John: A loving and level-headed father. He wields a sword and shield to protect his family
  • Linda: John’s eldest daughter and a violinist. She wields a bow and arrow with ease
  • Kevin: The youngest son of the Bergson family. He is swift and cunning with his two daggers
  • Mark: John’s eldest son. He studied the martial ways with an order of monks, making his hands lethal weapons
  • Lucy: The youngest of the Bergsons. Her carefree attitude belies the ferocity of her fire magics
  • Joey: The estranged son of John’s brother Ben. He carries a mighty hammer into the frey
So, basically, you have a whole family that’s a pre-made D&D party.

Unfortunately, when you start the game, you can only use two characters: John and Linda. They are the first chosen to seek out the gods and bring harmony back to the land. However, it soon becomes apparent that in order to defeat the corruption, the whole family will have to work together. 

For example: Kevin starts off pumped to fight the corruption, especially after his uncle forges a pair of daggers for him. Unfortunately, John and his wife Mary ultimately decide that he is too young to help. It’s only after Kevin ventures out into the corrupted lands on his own and returns unscathed that they agree to let him help. This eventually leads to Lucy—who’s like seven years old—being allowed to help as well. 

I know most families probably don’t let their children fight to the death with unholy abominations, but most of these decisions are predicated on the fact that the world is ending anyway, so it’s all hands on deck.

Gather Round and Hear the Tale

The story of Children of Morta walks a very fine line.

You see, the events of the game are actually being told by a narrator. So, instead of a character saying or thinking “that’s a bad Idea” the narrator, in his classically British voice, says “John thought it was a bad idea, but he was going to do it anyway.”

This can be an effective storytelling device, but it can backfire hard (looking at you Biomutant). Fortunately, the tale of the Bergsons is well told. In fact, the narrator brings a sense of calm and reflection to the story that lends it an air of dignity and heart, which it might have otherwise lacked.

This method of storytelling can also put a damper on climactic moments. Not too much of a damper, but it can certainly slow things down when they should be ramping up. It also makes certain parts of the story a little impersonal. 

My main example of this is anything the narrator has to say in a dungeon. Basically, once your character sets foot outside of the house, the narrator starts to forget the names of characters he’s talking about. 

So, it doesn’t matter if you were playing Lucy when you felled the giant monster boss, you don’t get to hear some commentary on how this pint sized sorceress incinerated her foe. What you get is “And so, the Bergson slew their foe, ensuring yada yada yada.” 

So, it’s always either “The Bergson” or “The Hero,” and it’s always as non-descript as possible. This takes a lot away from the actual dungeon crawling bits of the game. Thankfully, the actual story beats are much more personal and well crafted. 

A Level Playing Field

Where most Rogue-like and Rogue-lite games tend to have obtuse systems for increasing your characters stats, Children of Morta eschews this in favor of an actual leveling system… and an obtuse system for increasing their stats.

Each character that you can play as has abilities that they can learn at different levels, giving you a small skill tree to work with. These abilities can range from minor attacks to major passive bonuses. If these weren’t enough, you can also get some global passives that impact every family member, no matter who you’re playing as. This gives you incentive to play as every character, because if you do, you can stack those passives on top of each other, making even the smallest Bergson into a monstrous fighter.

A visual approximation

What’s interesting about the levels that you earn is that they do not impact overall damage or health. They are simply there to convey abilities. You improve your character’s stats by spending money in Uncle Ben’s shop. With the money you bring him, he can upgrade the family’s gear, and thus increase their overall effectiveness.

This multi-tiered approach is helpful when you get a new character halfway through the game. Sure, they don’t yet have any abilities to speak of, but they do reap the benefits of the upgraded gear.

Deja Vu All Over Again

My absolute least favorite part of Children of Morta is the level design.

Its sameness is pretty oppressive. 

The first level is broken up into three sections. Each section is between two to three areas long, and all of them are basically the exact same cave. There is very little variation, and going to a new area is never interesting in any way, shape, or form. 

When I finished the cave area and it opened up a whole new set of three levels, I was pretty excited to look at something that wasn’t a bluish-gray cave. What I got instead was a lifeless beige desert. 

The design was different… but it felt like more of the same

I know this is exactly what this type of game is like. You endlessly go down similar corridors until you find the entrance to the next area, and so on and so forth. But, for some reason, this felt extra daunting in Children of Morta. 

To add insult to boring dungeon design was the fact that I had to grind levels in a rogue-lite game. Usually, in rogue-lite games, playing the game is the grind. So, just by playing, you either get incrementally stronger, or you get incrementally better. This is where Morta gets it wrong on multiple levels. 

Upon reaching the beige desert, I was met with enemies that were much stronger than the ones I left behind. I probably didn’t have to go back and get money fighting through places I’d already been, but when the first group of enemies in the desert almost killed me instantly, I felt the need to beef up a bit. 

To sum up, I’ve seen a lot more of the starting area then I ever would have wanted. 

Family Meeting

Overall, Children of Morta was an alright game. It was fun to play—even more so with co-op—it had an engaging storyline, and the characters were relatable on a couple of different levels. There were some moments where some pretty dark, depressing things happened, but those moments were handled well, and never kept the tone of the game on a downswing. Sure, the level design could use some work, but game’s amazing and dynamic sprites picked up some of that slack.

I’m giving Children of Morta a relative 7/10. It was not an amazing game, but it had its moments. I loved the Bergson family and I hope to see more of them, or something of equal quality from Dead Mage. 

Of course, I’ll probably buy that one several years after the fact as well. 

Video Game Reviews

Wizard of Legend: A Mighty Magical Melee

Wizard of Legend is a rogue-like hack-and-slash dungeon crawler developed by Contingent 99 and published by Humble Bundle. 

The game focuses on a nameless wizard (or wizards, if you’re playing co-op) who is transported back in time to participate in the Chaos Trials. These trials pit a wizarding team against three members of the magical council. If the wizards are victorious, they can claim the title of Wizard of Legend, and are granted a Chaos Arcana which gives them access to primordial chaos spells.

It’s like the Triwizard Tournament, but with less angst

I bought this game for three reasons. 

Fortunately for me, it was also a pretty solid game.

There are a lot of games out there that claim that they redefine the mage class in video games. I’m not sure about the claims of other games (looking at you Litchdom: Battlemage), but Wizard of Legend manages this feat, and it does it with it’s own unique flair.

So, let’s take a look at what this game did absolutely right, and shine some light on which aspects might have needed a little more work.

Heart of the Cards

The magic system in Wizard of Legend is driven by Arcana, which are basically cards that allow your character to cast spells.

Arcana come in six different elements, and each element conveys a different boon depending on the form that the element is taking:

  • Earth: hits hard as rock, but also poisons or roots if the arcana is plant-based
  • Water: moves enemies as water, or freezes them as Ice
  • Fire: does significant upfront damage, but also adds a damage over time effect
  • Air: moves enemies and can slow enemies
  • Lighting: bounces between enemies and offers a stun that does a little damage over time
  • Chaos: incredibly rare and powerful, dealing huge amounts of damage

What’s so great about the Arcana system is that you aren’t limited to a single element. You can mix and match your arcana to fit your playstyle.

…This can be a lot of trial and error

You are, however, limited to four Arcana that you can carry with you into the trials, and each one fulfills a different function. 

The four Arcana types are:

  • Basic Arcana: This fulfills the role of your standard attack. These do not have a cooldown and can be used about as often as you can push the corresponding button.
  • Dash Arcana: This augments your standard dash, allowing you to leave behind damaging trails or shoot spells forward.
  • Standard Arcana: These are basically your run of the mill spells like Fireball or Ball Lightning. 
  • Signature Arcana: These essentially function like better versions of standard spells, but can also receive a huge boost if you cast them while at full signature energy charge.

I will admit that, while I could equip different elemental Arcana to maximize my effectiveness, once I’d unlocked enough lightning Arcana, I basically stayed a lightning mage throughout my entire playthrough. 

Shoot Magic into the Darkness

Once you’ve chosen your Arcana, you can enter the Chaos Trials and start blasting anything that moves—and some stuff that doesn’t.

What’s great about the combat in Wizard of Legend is that it feels amazing. You can dash around like a madman, leaving behind a trail of fire while you shoot out a rock dragon and then hurl a bolt of lightning that bounces between foes. You can swing an axe made of obsidian with reckless abandon while your foes’ faces fill with horror because you froze them in place with a fan of frost. The ability to have several moves combined with the relatively short cooldowns on most Arcana mean that you are very rarely doing nothing, and if you are doing nothing, then…

You’re doing it wrong.

If you do happen to take standard and signature spells that have relatively high cooldowns, you can supplement your build with Arcana that you can find, or buy, inside the trials. Basically you start each run with two empty spots, and can fill those with whatever you happen to find. This gives you more moves, which means that you can continue to do damage while you wait for your other cooldowns to end.

Basically, once you have a full six Arcana, you are ready to wreak complete havoc upon anything foolish enough to get in your way.

I also like that the spells and abilities feel substantial. There is a good amount of screenshake and some instances where things will slow down ever so slightly to really show the impact of the spell you’re casting. This ensures that you always feel like you’re doing real damage instead of just producing a bunch of numbers from the tops of enemy heads.

A Balancing Act

One of my least favorite things about Wizard of Legend is how well balanced the whole damn thing is.

Most of the moves do a relative same amount of damage no matter what they are. This means that you do the same amount of damage with a ten ton rock hammer that you do when you summon several dragons made of water.

I understand this decision in practice, but sometimes it makes certain moves a little underwhelming. Granted, some moves have more utility than others, so those might do less damage because they offer greater benefits elsewhere, but overall I thought that the Arcana that summons a thunder dragon should probably do a little more damage than a single ball of lightning. 

There is, however, a bit of a fix for this. Each Arcana has the potential to be enhanced, which means that you can improve upon them if you get the opportunity. 

Take, for example, the volt disk. It’s a basic attack that shoots a disk of lightning at a medium distance and briefly stuns foes. But if you enhance volt disk, it will hit it’s target and then bounce to a nearby enemy. Not only does that deal twice as much damage, but it also stuns two enemies instead of one. So, the enhancements are really where it’s at as far as increasing the amount of damage or utility that a spell offers. 

Unfortunately, without the enhancements offered by enhanced Arcana cards, or relics (items that offer benefits like increased fire damage), damage feels so even keeled that it can be a bit of a downer to get a really amazing-looking Arcana only to find that it does just as much damage as the one you were already using. 

The Final Trial

Overall, Wizard of Legend is a fast, frenetic, and fun experience. It might not have the depth and attention to detail of something like Enter the Gungeon,  the story of Hades, or the beautiful pixel work of Children of Morta, but it stands alone as something that has amazing controls and a combat system that is just plain exhilarating. While I feel that its spells were a little too balanced, I understand why it was created this way, and appreciate the dedication it must have taken to make that happen. 

I’m giving Wizard of Legend a magical 8.5/10 for making mages cool again.

Also, I just wanted to add that this game is very clearly a Kickstarter game. There are Arcana created by people with names that are clearly online handles, and some of the pictures that line the trial halls are just backers who paid enough money. I won’t say that it adds or takes away anything from the game… I just get a tickle out of a relic crafted by a “Virtuoso” named Tacobowls.

Recommendations, Video Game Reviews

5 Games That Should Have Had Sequels By Now

Some games have stories that just can’t be told in one installment. Others are so complete that all we want to do is spend more time in their world. This usually leads to a sequel or two for most games. However, there are occasions when an amazing game comes out and we spend years waiting for the announcement of a sequel, only for none to appear. 

I submit to you a list going backward in time of five games that desperately deserve a sequel.

Bulletstorm (2011)

Bulletstorm was an amazing first-person shooter during the PS3 era. The graphics were on point, the voice acting was top notch, and the story was better than it had any right to be.

It was about Grayson Hunt, a disgraced former soldier who wants revenge on the general that used him, and his team, to assassinate innocent civilians. So during a random encounter with the general after years on the run Grayson attacks the general’s ship and they both crash onto a nearby planet brimming with deadly creatures and insane psychopaths.

There were two things, however, that helped this game stand above its peers. 

The first of which was the Skillshot system. This allowed you to receive experience points for killing enemies. Shoot a guy in the head, you get 25 points. Shoot them in the groin and then kick their head off? Well, that’s worth 100 points. You see, the point of the Skillshot system was to encourage you to kill your enemies in the most insane ways possible, and with the game’s many guns—with multiple firing modes— there were a lot of insane ways to kill your enemies. 

The second thing that helped Bulletstorm to shine was its humor. There is barely a moment in this game where your character isn’t yelling about dicks or asses, or dicks in asses. While juvenile, and a little abrasive at times, most of the jokes actually do a pretty good job of landing properly. I will still, to this day, quote many of my favorite lines from this game simply because they bored directly into my mind with how funny they were.

Sure, the game hasn’t aged perfectly, but it was such an interesting title that it really deserves to have a follow up. This is especially true because it was clearly setting up a sequel, and I want to know what happens, damn it!!

Brutal Legend (2009)

There are few games that dare to do something different. So, when one takes the leap, it can really stand out. 

Brutal Legend is just such a game.

It’s about a roadie named Eddie Riggs who’s transported backward in time when a stage prop crushes him during a concert. In this version of the past, demons rule the world and humans are merely slaves.

At first, Eddie is unsure of his place in this primordial era, but when he discovers that his favorite music (METAL) is the source of all power, he steps forward to lead a revolution and defeat Doviculus, the demon that has subjugated mankind. 

What made this game so special was the way it smashed two completely different game genres together. It was part hack and slash RPG adventure with a large helping of real-time strategy on the side. 

You spent most of the game driving around in your sweet ride—The Duce—trashing enemies and finding new songs for “The Mouth of METAL” which was the name of the radio in your car. Then, every once and a while, you would be thrown into an RTS battle where you still played as your character, but you used them to command troops against an enemy army. While this was a little cumbersome at times, it was an amazing way to marry the two genres.

My personal favorite aspect of the game (beyond the fact that Jack Black, Tim Curry, and Jennifer Hale were the voices for the main characters) was the mythology that the developers created for the game. They have an entire creation myth that you could piece together, and not only is it amazing, it ties directly into the story and completely incorporates the game’s musical motif.

I don’t know where a second game would go, but I’d love to find out.   

Bully (2006)

Bully was developed by Rockstar games, the team that continues to bring more Grand Theft Auto into the world. And by all accounts, it was an amazing game. 

You play as Jimmy Hopkins, a kid who is being forced to attend Bullworth Academy after being kicked out of seven other schools. The game takes place over the course of one year at the academy and chronicles the rise of Jimmy from new kid to king of the schoolyard. 

While similar to previous Rockstar games, Bully stood out for a number of reasons.

For one, it had much more structure than its predecessors. Sure, you could run around and cause all sorts of mayhem, but you also needed to attend classes, and engage in other activities to boost your social standing. These were key mechanics to not only keep your character from being expelled, but also to assert your dominance over the other cliques and their leaders. The game also changed aesthetics from season to season, which was something you rarely saw in games of the time. 

While it had its fair share of bugs, Bully is fondly remembered by those who played it, and most can’t stop thinking about the amazing things that a follow up game in this day and age could bring. 

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002)

There are few games that I remember as fondly as Eternal Darkness

Wait, did I say fondly? I meant, there are few games that I remember as terrifyingly. 

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a survival horror game that was published by Nintendo… That sentence really says it all. It was the first time Nintendo, a family friendly company, decided to try their hand with something a little more mature.

Boy, did it pay off. 

In Eternal Darkness, you play as Alexandra Roivas, who returns to her family home in Rhode Island after the brutal murder of her grandfather. Upon arriving, she finds a book bound in human skin titled “The Tome of Eternal Darkness.” Within its pages, she finds disturbing accounts of people dealing with eldritch horrors dating back thousands of years. So, she begins investigating the book to see if it had anything to do with her grandfather’s death. 

There were a couple very innovative things this game did to stand apart from the Resident Evil’s and Silent Hill’s of the time. 

The first was how the stories were told. Since Alexandra was reading a book, she didn’t necessarily read it in order. This made the narrative a little more dynamic and added to the mystery surrounding the book and her grandfather’s murder. 

The second, and the one everyone knows about, was the sanity system. Throughout the course of the game Alexandra, would lose her sanity for various, usually terrifying, reasons. While this mechanic has been used in a lot of games since, Eternal Darkness really went the extra mile. You see, as Alexandra lost her sanity weird things would start to happen, and not just to her. 

I remember once seeing a fly crawling across my screen… well, it turns out it was the game screwing with me. That was just the tip of the iceberg. The screen would go to “Video” mode, because that was a believable thing to have happened back then.

There were a ton of these little mindfreaks, and the game was made slightly better by each one. 

I shudder to think what could be accomplished with the amazing features of today’s console systems.  

Secret of Evermore (1995)

Secret of Evermore is one of my most beloved childhood games. In fact, I still play it every couple of years just because I can. 

This SNES game was developed by Squaresoft, and was one of the only games that they released exclusively outside of Japan. It follows the adventures of a young man who is transported to the land of Evermore. There, he battles across prehistoric jungles, ancient cities, and medieval castles to find his way home once more. 

While the story is simple, and more than a little campy in places, it had some really interesting features for a game that came out in 1995. 

The first of those features is that you have an AI companion with you (the main character’s dog) throughout 90% of the game. He helps you in combat, helps you solve puzzles, and even searches for items that you would spend way too much time looking for without him. You can even take control of the dog if you want…

I mean, it really didn’t help most of the time. But you could do it, by gum!

The other standout feature that anyone who played the game will remember was the alchemy. This was basically your magic system. You could combine two types of ingredients, as long as you had the recipe, and create a myriad of effects. You could combine water and ash to create acid rain, or wrap some clay around a crystal to create a homing rock lovingly dubbed “Hardball.” This system made it so that you had to, sometimes, manage your magic usage, because you could run out of crystals at an inopportune moment. 

I don’t know what I would want to see more, a sequel to Secret of Evermore or a remake. I think either has an amazing amount of potential, but the likelihood of seeing either after twenty-six years seems unlikely. 

 I know it’s wishful thinking, but hopefully, one day, this list will have fewer entries. 

Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late To The Game: Enter The Gungeon – So Many Bullets

Enter the Gungeon is a roguelike bullet-hell developed by Dodge Roll and published by Devolver Digital. It came out way back in 2016 so, as usual, I am incredibly late to the game on this one.

A gungeon, if you were wondering, is a dungeon that is filled with nothing but guns, bullets, and gun-related puns. 

The intro of the game states that the Gungeon was created when a great bullet fell from the sky and destroyed a grim fortress. Over time, this fortress was rebuilt, and at the bottom of it is the most coveted item in the universe: “The gun that can kill the past.”  Basically, it lets you travel back in time and change an event from the past., giving you a mulligan—or a second shot, if you will.

In the game, you play as one of four characters—eight if you unlock all the extras—each trying to kill their pasts for various reasons. You don’t really know what those reasons are until you actually beat the game with each character, because it’s not that kind of game.

It’s a bullet-hell. So, most of the game is spent shooting and dodging an inordinate number of bullets.

It’s always that last one that gets you

Now, bullet-hell isn’t exactly the type of game I play on the regular. I find them stressful and, honestly, really, really hard. There is a lot of information to process all at once, and a single slip-up could cost you dearly. 

That being said, I have played a lot of Enter the Gungeon lately, and because I’m sure there are plenty of others who are late to the game, I’d like to impart the things I’ve learned in case anyone else was interested in this bullet-riddled game.

Have a Blast

First and foremost. I’d like to talk about what, I think, is this game’s true strength. 

That’s right: I’m talking about puns

Not exclusively puns, but the attention to detail that revolvers around this game and its gun based theme is a barrel of amaze-bombs. 

Let’s start simple.

  • The inhabitants of the gungeon are called “gundead” and they look like bullets. 
  • There are Gunjurors who conjure bullets and guns. 
  • Instead of Iron Maidens they have Lead Maidens
  • There are zombie bullets called “the Spent”
  • The bosses include the Gorgun, the Beholster, and the Cannonbalrog
  • There is a sword in the game called “Blastphamy” and we’ll get into why in a second
  • There is a barrel weapon that shoots fish—and if you don’t get that, I can’t help you.

These are just the tip of a gunpowder-laden iceberg. The whole game is like this, and it is literally one of the best things I’ve ever seen. However, what makes this even better is the extent to which this gun theme is taken seriously. 

For example, in the Gungeon, any kind of knife or bladed weapon is considered heretical and picking one up will literally curse you, making the game harder. This is why that one sword was called “Blastphamy”—because it is and does. 

Without this insane level of dedication to the overall gun theme, Enter the Gungeon would probably be a good game, but it would definitely fall short of greatness.

Gunz & Ammo

One of the things you probably guessed from the previous section is that there are a lot of guns in this game. Like, so many it borders on the ridiculous. What I like about this, combined with the roguelike elements, is that it means that no two playthroughs will be the same.

I also like that they left the guns unbalanced. You might find a gun that can wipe out any enemy in one hit, or one that is so pathetic that you might as well throw it at the enemy, because it would certainly do more damage.

This is something you can literally do in the game

I mean, they do balance this a little with the amount of ammo each gun has, or having to charge the heavy hitting  weapons up for several seconds, but for the most part it’s chaos. 

I also like that most of the guns in the game are references to popular culture, or an homage of sorts. Just to list off a few that I’ve seen recently:

  •  The Alien Sidearm is the plasma pistol from Halo
  • The Judge is Judge Dredd’s pistol
  • The Grasschopper is the Noisy Cricket from Men in Black
  • The Zorgun is from the Fifth Element

There are probably too many of these to actually list accurately, but I can’t help but smile every time I pick up one of these guns and immediately get the reference.

Other than the guns, there are active and passive items which can help you in your quest to claim the gun that can kill the past. I’m not going to bother with the active items. 

They’re fine. I guess.

The passive item is where it’s at. They can do everything from increasing your damage and movement speed to charming enemies and doing damage over time to anyone nearby. 

My favorite passive items, however, are the bullets. These little darlings influence how your ammunition acts once it leaves your gun.

You can get bouncy bullets, irradiated bullets, bullets that fire in a helix pattern, bullets that move slower but cause more knockback, and bullets that pierce through enemies.

What I really like about these, is that they stack in the most glorious of ways. If you get enough of them your standard pistol might be firing three bullets at once. These bullets will then poison, ignite, and charm an enemy, and then pass through them to do it to even more enemies before bouncing off a wall to start the cycle all over again.

Mysteries Wrapped in Enigmas

Another noteworthy aspect of Enter the Gungeon is how much is crammed into it, and how hard some of that stuff is to find. 

It’s harder than finding ACTUAL Waldo at a Waldo look-alike convention

I’m not sure how to get into this section without spoiling anything for a five year old game, but I’ll do my best. 

I’ll start with the killing of the past, since that’s the ultimate goal of the game. Well, in order to do this, you need to beat all five floors of the Gungeon to claim the gun that can do the thing I just said. Unfortunately, the first time you get to the gun you’ll realize something. The gun is next to useless without “the bullet that can kill the past.” So, when you shoot the GTCKTP (that’s a mouthful) it will only take you back to the beginning of the Gungeon. 

So where do you get the bullet? Well, you have to build it yourself.

You assemble it from four pieces. These pieces can be found on each floor of the gungeon leading up to the final floor. The thing is, just getting one piece to the fifth floor can be daunting, because just getting to the fifth floor can be a challenge all on its own. 

At least you only have to collect each item once, because once the bullet is assembled, you can just pick up another during your next run.

This is just a taste of what the gungeon has to offer, because it’s also hiding:

  • 5 secret levels, each with their own boss
  • 4 secret characters
  • A ton of NPC’s to rescue
  • Five different ways to augment your experience, and you can stack them.
  • Synergies that make your guns and items act differently depending on your loadout
  • A punch out game

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more secrets I’m unaware of, but for the moment, those are the things I can remember.

Farewell to Arms

Overall, Enter the Gungeon is a fantastic game. Its simple design belies the wealth of content and diversity that lies within. The controls are responsive, and if you die, it’s because you done fucked up. I also enjoy that it’s an easy game to pick up and put down, since you start at square one with every run.

I’m giving Enter the Gungeon a ballistic 9/10 because It manages to be a near-perfect iteration of what a bullet hell is supposed to be, and it does so while slinging puns and references at you at about a thousand rounds per minute.

Now, we’ll need to put a pin in this conversation so that I can reload my game and blast through another run, all so that I can shoot on over and do all this again when I shell out some cash for Exit the Gungeon… 

Too bad the Gungeon didn’t have a revolver door.

Additional gun pun.  

Video Game Reviews

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – And I Died A Lot

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the most recent of the Soulsborne games from developer From Software. Though, this should come as no surprise as they are literally the guys who put both the “souls” and “borne” into the genre name.

Unlike most of the other From Software games, Sekiro actually has a protagonist, and a story that is easy-ish to follow… for the most part. You play as Wolf, a shinobi (read: ninja) who has been tasked with rescuing Kuro, the divine heir of the Hirata, after failing to protect him sometime prior to the events of the game.

Of course, it’s a From Software game, so a good deal of the story happens off-screen, in item descriptions, or has to be inferred from several cryptic interactions with a handful of NPC’s scattered across the game. 

I have to say, I was pretty skeptical of this game for a while. I’d heard that it was somehow harder than Dark Souls and Bloodborne while simultaneously somehow easier than both—though this was depending on who you asked. 

Well, after having beaten Bloodborne, I was intrigued by the premise of something harder. This is mostly because I thought Bloodborne was pretty freaking hard. Though, I won’t say it’s the hardest game I’ve ever played.

I won’t say that because I’ve actually played through Sekiro now, and it will likely hold that title until Eldin Ring pries it from Sekiro’s cold prosthetic hand. In fact, I’m just going to get this disclaimer out here:

**THIS GAME IS HARD **

Relentlessly so. And if you decide to  set this one down and walk away…

With that said, however, I would like to talk about some of the aspects of this game that were worth the headache I got from banging my head against the wall that is Sekiro.

A Deadly Dance

Hands down the best part of Sekiro is the swordplay. 

I will attribute this to two gameplay mechanics: posture and deflect.

Posture

Posture is basically how grounded your enemy’s stance is. The lower their posture gauge, the more stable their stance. This means that, conversely, the higher the gauge, the less stable it is. If you are able to break an enemy’s posture, you can perform a deathblow, which will kill most normal enemies. 

Posture is an interesting mechanic because it does not replace enemy health bars, but it is informed by them. The higher an enemy’s health, the easier it is for them to recover their posture. However, once you’ve knocked a good portion of their health away, it becomes much harder for the enemy to recover. 

You inflict posture damage on an enemy every time you attack. If the enemy blocks the attack, they still take posture damage, even if you don’t touch their health. Unfortunately, if the enemy has full health, you’ll have to keep attacking so that the posture bar doesn’t drain completely.

Breaking an enemy’s posture is, in most cases, the easiest way to kill them. Which is why we need to talk about that other mechanic…

Deflect 

Deflecting is just blocking at a precise time. If you can time your block properly, you will deflect the enemy’s attack and deal a greater amount of damage to their posture. If you mistime, this you’ll still block the attack, but then you’ll take posture damage instead….

Did I not mention that? That you also have a posture gauge? Well you do, and it can break and when it does…

Anyway, learning to deflect your enemy’s attacks is paramount if you want to “get good” at Sekiro. Most regular enemies — and every single boss — will mess you up if you try and pull some Bloodborne-style dodging. 

Anyway… combining the posture mechanic with the ability to deflect makes the game’s combat both infuriatingly difficult and oddly satisfying.

I’ve often heard Sekiro’s combat compared to a rhythm game, which is fairly accurate except that if you fail you’ll get a sword to the face instead of losing the dance-off (or whatever it is rhythm games are doing these days).

On top of the posture and deflect mechanics, there are a few other other elements of combat that get thrown in on occasion to spice things up, like:

  • Thrust attacks: which can only be deflected or countered by a move you can buy
  • Grabs: Which can only be avoided by moving out of the way
  • Sweeps: Which can only be jumped over

These “perilous attacks,” as they are called, break up the fights in interesting ways. But boy howdy are they hard to get used to. I think I didn’t really start understanding how to deal with them until about three-fourths of the way through the game.

All that being said, the fights in Sekiro, while absurdly hard, are fair. Even if I was dying to a boss for the one-thousandth time, I would still nod and say “Yeah, that was my bad. Shouldn’t have tried to deflect that.”

A Much Needed Hand

While the Dark Souls games had more than a few RPG elements, and Bloodborne streamlined those elements to a certain extent, Sekiro almost entirely eschews the idea of stats and obtaining mountains of weapons to use. 

In Sekiro, you only have one weapon: “Kusabimaru,” the sword you start with. You don’t get any other primary weapons. You can get upgraded moves and passive abilities through esoteric texts, but those don’t really change up the game in any meaningful way.

What brings a diversity of style to Sekiro is the Shinobi Prosthetic. It is a prosthetic arm that can be augmented by finding items throughout the world.

At first, these augments might seem less-than-useful, but if you experiment with them, you’ll find that most serve a purpose. And that purpose is to help you defeat enemies in a much more expeditious manner.

It’s about using the right tool for the job

I’m not going to list out the ways in which all the tools can be used, but I’ll give a couple of examples to give you an idea of what is possible. 

  • Shuriken can be used on airborne opponents to deal increased posture damage, and knock them out of the sky. (Also, they kill dogs in one hit)
  • Firecrackers can be used to scare animal opponents and interrupt enemy attacks. 
  • The loaded axe can cleave enemy shields in half, and deal massive posture damage to shielded foes. 

While this is just a few tools, and only a couple of their uses, there are at least ten different prosthetic tools and each has at least three versions that you can eventually unlock. This plethora of available tools means that you have some agency in how you would like to approach fights despite the lack of primary weapon types.

Down the Rabbit Hole

For the first half of the game, Sekiro stays pretty grounded. Sure, there are a couple of weird things, like a giant snake or this one guy who shoots lightning at you, but for the most part things stay fairly normal.

Once you get to a certain point, however, the game starts to get weirder. 

When you start fighting monkeys with guns you might think “That’s weird, but not like the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” Then you run into some ghosts and guys who live in walls, and immortal monks with giant centipedes living in their bodies, and you’re like “All right, so this is a From Software game.

When you start running into fish people playing flutes, giant carp with human teeth, and fish-wolf hybrids, you’ll start to realize that…

What started as a thrilling adventure through feudal Japan turned into a nightmarish one.

This is usually something that pisses me off in games. I hate being forced into a stealth section of a non-stealth game. I hate having to run through a horror section in an action game (Ravenholm is the exception, but we don’t go there). And I hate when a game that starts off at least somewhat grounded in reality starts introducing supernatural elements until they take over the whole game… 

Sekiro is an exception.

Well, I grumbled about it a bit when I first played through the game, but upon reflection, it made sense if you view the story as a whole. Which, with a Soulsborne game, is really the only way to view the story. 

Outrospection

Overall, Sekiro is a magnificent game. The graphics are great and the animation is top notch. The gameplay is smooth, the combat is rewarding—if you can get into it—and while it has all the trappings of a From Software game, it manages to set itself apart in the best possible ways. 

I like that they chose to make the game a little more accessible story-wise, what with it having an actual protagonist and a narrative structure that runs throughout. However, Sekiro may have alienated more people than it included with its sheer difficulty—and I can say that as someone who died an incalculable number of times to the game’s many, seemingly insurmountable, bosses. 

Overall I’m giving Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a noble 8.5/10.

Now, If you’ll excuse me, I have to go and finish my second playthrough of this game… because it’s not a From Software game if you don’t miss at least half of the game because of the obtuse way they handle NPC’s and side quests.

Also… I’m a glutton for punishment. 

Video Game Reviews

Hades – Death Is Only The Beginning

Hades is a procedurally-generated rogue-light hack-and-slash developed and published by Supergiant Games—the studio that previously brought us such games as Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. 

The game follows Zagreus, prince of the underworld and generally chill dude, who is on a mission to escape the underworld and find his birth mother. Unfortunately, Hades—Zagreus’s Father—has forbidden him from leaving and ordered all the souls within the underworld to stop the prince’s escape. So, Zagreus takes up his sword and begins slashing his way to the surface. 

I’ve been playing a lot of procedurally-generated roguelike games recently, like Returnal and Enter the Gungeon, and was worried that I would be too inundated with the genre to really give Hades a fair shake.

[I cant take much more of this wonka gif]

 It turns out that, to me, Hades—like Hollow Knightis a nearly perfect iteration of its genre.

This game is amazing.

I know I’m showing my hand right at the beginning of this review, but I think it’s worth mentioning early on. It’s been a while since I was suitably impressed with a game straight out of the gate, but Hades really does deserve the praise that has been heaped atop it. 

With that out of the way, I’ll get down to the details of what makes this game so freaking good. That way, people who are on the fence (if there are any left) or who are interested but need more information can make an informed decision. 

Death Becomes Him

One of the strongest aspects of Hades is the way death is handled in game.

When Zagreus dies while trying to escape the underworld, the game does not restart like it does in Enter the Gungeon, or take you back to the beginning of a time-loop like Returnal. Instead, the story —and time—moves forward. The denizens of Hades’s palace know that you failed to escape and will talk to you about it.

Some conversations are more constructive than others

Now, death is not the ideal outcome. You need to escape to further the main story. But dying will give you opportunities to do other things, such as:

  • Further the individual storylines of the characters in the underworld
  • Buy new skills and abilities
  • Change out your weapon
  • Redecorate the palace interior
  • Learn to play the lute (later in the game)
  • Deepen your relationship with certain characters
  • Buy upgrades for the various regions of Hades to aid in your escape attempts

So, the more you die, the more you can do. This doesn’t mean you should aim for a death, but some of the best dialog is hidden behind many, many deaths. 

‘Tis a Boon

Now, I mentioned that dying allows you to buy new skills and abilities to further aid you in your escape attempts. There is, however,  another game mechanic that allows you to power up each run, but is lost upon death (or success):

Boons. 

You see, the gods of Olympus have heard of Zagreus’s plight, and have been moved to action. So, as you make your way through the underworld, the gods will occasionally lend you a modicum of their power to help you fight your way to the surface. 

What makes the boons so powerful is the way they stack and synergize. For example, Zeus’s boons focus on lightning damage. So, you might find a boon that allows your attack to hit nearby enemies with a bolt of lightning. If you find a secondary boon from Zeus, it might allow your lightning to strike twice, or to cause a secondary status effect called “Jolted.”

Effective against both babies AND demons.

By the time you’ve gotten through a couple of bosses, you might have over a dozen boons making you stronger and augmenting the way you play.

This makes each run almost entirely unique. This is especially true when you add in the different weapon types, which can further differentiate a playthrough since some boons are much more effective on certain types of weapons.

Unfortunately, this random boon generation can lead to some lackluster runs, but—if you die—you can start over and see what the fates have in store for you.   

Life After Death

Most of the characters in Hades are either gods, monsters, or shades (the spirits of those who have died). This means that they are all essentially immortal, and have been trapped in the underworld for aeons. 

This also means that Zagreus’s repeated escape attempts are upsetting the status quo, and each character has a different opinion about what is transpiring. 

Some characters are rooting—albeit mostly in secret—for Zagreus to succeed. Some want him to stop, and others are either indifferent or don’t really understand what’s going on.

It’s these characters, and your interactions with them, that are the backbone of the entire game. Sure, the gameplay is satisfying, and the mechanics are nearly  flawless, but coming back to Hades’s palace and getting to talk to everyone was the highlight of the game.

You see, the more you play through the game, the more you learn about everyone. And as we all know, the more you learn…

…and the more you know, the better the story becomes.

When you first meet some of the characters, they might feel flat. However, if you make sure to talk to everyone, you’ll start to see that each and every one of them…most of them… have a much more involved story than you would have originally thought.

I will admit that most of these interactions are short but sweet, but if you’ve played through several dozen times, it adds up to a serious amount of dialog and story. 

Death By Degrees

As a game where death is a part of the story, both figuratively and literally, it has a lot of replayability right out of the gate. You could probably play the game from now until the end of time and be hard pressed to see two identical runs. However, the developers at Supergiant Games took things a step further. 

When you finally do manage to succeed in escaping from the underworld, you can start over again with something called the “The Pact of Punishment.” This essentially allows you to make the game more difficult on subsequent playthroughs. What makes the pact mechanic so interesting is that you can choose how much harder you would like the game to be. 

Sure. Why not?

Think that the prices in the store are too low? You can up them by 40% to start with. Getting bored with the boss fights? You can give them an extra move set. Are the enemies feeling too easy? Well you can give them extra armor, or have them deal more damage, or even give the tougher enemies unique abilities.

These adjustments, along with different weapon aspects and keepsakes (little trinkets that give you special passive abilities) ensure that Hades has a hard time overstaying its welcome. 

Once More 

Overall, Hades is an amazing game. The gameplay and mechanics are some of the best I’ve ever seen. The level design, while repetitive, never feels stale. The characters stand out in all the right ways and are easy to sympathize with. And the story, while given in small bites, is extremely well done.

My only gripe with the game is it’s menus. I’m not a huge fan of how they were laid out, and navigating them can be kind of a pain. Though you honestly don’t spend a lot of time in them, so it’s not a big deal. 

I’m giving Hades a divine 9.5/10. It hits all the right notes, at exactly the right time, and manages to exceed any and all of my expectations (menus notwithstanding).

With all that said, I’m looking forward to whatever Supergiant Games does next, and I’ll try very hard not to condemn it for not being Hades.   

Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late to the game – Cuphead: A Frustrating Faustian Fight

Cuphead is a 2-D run-and-gun platformer developed and published by Studio MDHR. Since its release in the Fall of 2017, it gained notoriety for its old-school animation style and soul-crushing difficulty.

The game follows the titular Cuphead, and his brother Mugman, who lose their souls in a bet with The Devil. Realizing what they’ve done, the brothers plead with The Devil and he strikes a deal with them. If they can get all of the soul contracts that his other debtors owe, he will consider letting them keep their souls. 

Seems trustworthy.

So, Cuphead and Mugman set off to claim the contracts and wipe away their debt. 

I really wanted to play Cuphead when it first came out. Unfortunately, I’m a Playstation guy and Cuphead was originally only available on PC or XBox. So, I bided my time, as most titles are eventually ported to other systems. 

This prediction finally came true in July of 2020. However,  I somehow missed its release. I eventually found it, and I’m glad/mad that I did—and not necessarily in that order. 

Hypertension

Cuphead’s gameplay is, on its face, pretty simple. You run, jump, dash, and shoot anything that moves. That’s basically it as far as controls are concerned. Sure, you can switch weapons, and there is a parry mechanic which is vital to several later levels, but for the most part, it’s pretty standard platforming fare. 

Each area of the game has two run-and-gun levels (where you acquire currency so that you can purchase different weapons and abilities) and several bosses. This means that roughly 75% of the game is made up of boss battles.

Unfortunately, this is a game that is easy to learn and hard to master. That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but Cuphead is one of the most pure examples of this. 

Near the start of the game, you get a little tutorial section on how to move and jump. The simplicity of the controls gives you a false sense of security. “Maybe this game isn’t really that hard,” you think to yourself. Then the game throws you out into the world, where you wander around for a little bit before deciding which boss to tackle first. 

Upon entering the first arena, you feel pretty confident. The boss appears and things are going pretty well, but you die anyway. No problem—you’ll do better next time.

And you do.

You do so well that you make it to the second stage of the fight. The boss’s eyes narrow and an evil smirk slides across its face. Suddenly, the screen fills with hazards, and you die almost instantly. You dive back in and die again, and again, and again.

Finally, you get through the second stage of the fight. You feel a thrill of exhilaration; you’ve made it further than you ever have before. Then the third phase of the boss begins, and you realize that everything that came before was mere child’s play. 

You are destroyed over and over and over.

Until that one try. That one attempt where you jump in guns blazing… and immediately die to the boss’s first form. To which there is only one correct reaction.

That is the exact moment that the difficulty of Cuphead will really sink in.

You will eventually defeat that boss, but boy howdy will you be pissed when the second boss is just as bad… if not worse.

Mix-And-Match

In Cuphead, your offensive abilities come from potions. Each potion conveys a different attack. You start off with a pretty standard attack that fires at a good pace and does a moderate amount of damage. Once you’ve acquired enough gold coins from the run-and-gun levels, you can begin to purchase more potions.. 

For example, the Roundabout shoots out a short distance and then flies backward across the entire screen. This can give you some coverage behind you. There is also Spread, a short distance attack that fires several projectiles in a cone shape. This can be devastating, but requires that you stay close to your foe.

Dangerously close

Luckily, Cuphead allows you to have two of these attacks equipped at any given time, and you can switch between them freely. 

You can also purchase Items that have different effects on Cuphead’s moveset. There is the smoke-bomb, which turns your dash into more of a teleport move, allowing you to avoid damage whenever you use it. There is also P-sugar, which automatically activates your parry maneuver whenever you jump, so you don’t have to concern yourself with getting the timing right.

Now, you might feel inclined to pick attacks and abilities you’re comfortable with and use them for every boss. While this could work, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. So, if you’re having trouble with a boss or a run-and-gun level, try switching things up. You might find that you really don’t need the smoke bomb so much as the P-sugar for a specific boss, or that there is no good opportunity to use the Spread attack even though you really like it. 

Art Of Darkness

My favorite thing about Cuphead is its art style. Actually, it’s not just its art style, it’s how complete it is. The film grain, double bounce animation, muted colors, and muffled sounds make you feel like you are somehow playing a cartoon from the early 1900’s.

I also like how they incorporated the trappings of that particular art style into how the bosses operate. There are frogs that turn into desk fans and then into slot-machines… Why? Because that’s how old-school cartoons used to work.

They also leaned into the whole “everything is alive” aspect of older animation, so it’s not too unusual if one of your enemies is a living stack of poker chips.

Beautiful, but terrible to behold

I think that the developers did an excellent job executing the vision of this game. Sure, it’s weird and bizarre, but it also works perfectly.

Devil’s Due

Overall, Cuphead is a pretty good game. I don’t think that I liked it as much as others did, but from a technical standpoint, the mechanics were solid, the controls were responsive, and the gameplay was… well it was hellacious (see what I did there?).

Anyway, I’m giving Cuphead a respectful 7/10.

There were times when I was ready to throw in the towel (mostly at Dr. Kahl’s Robot) and move on to something that didn’t cause the veins in my head to start throbbing. And while Cuphead was almost never “fun” to play, it did convey a sense of accomplishment and that’s just as good… right?

Please tell me it’s just as good. Tell me I didn’t suffer for nothing…

…Please.

Girl with curly red hair standing in front of a floral background while holding a glass of wine
Movie Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things: I’m Thinking of How to Review This

This movie was… it was… 

I’m not sure… how do I even?

I started I’m Thinking of Ending Things because it looked like it might be a good horror movie.

It was not. 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a movie that is utterly hard to describe, let alone understand. I’m not even sure what genre it’s supposed to be. The worst part is that the longer you watch the movie the more you think you understand, until…

Gif of man with clipboard shaking his head with tagline "No, no you don't"
You just don’t

Now, I pride myself on being able to guess the ending of a movie with a certain degree of accuracy. Some I can even guess within the first ten minutes or so. That being said, one of my favorite things a movie can do is subvert my expectations. Well, I’m Thinking of Ending Things certainly did that… but I’m not happy about it. I’m still a little confused even now, and I’ve read several articles explaining what the movie is actually about. 

So how do I review something so thoroughly confounding?

Seriously… I’m asking because I don’t have a clue.

Alright then. Plan B it is.

I’m going to do my best to describe the move… and put a succinct little review at the end. So…

*Spoilers Ahead*

Awkward Car Ride

The movie starts with a car ride through a building snowstorm. An awkward car ride that is made even more awkward by how long the scene is. It introduces us to a man and a woman who are on a road trip to visit the man’s parents. 

Every part of every conversation in this particular scene is uncomfortable. From the way the two interact, to the voice over of the woman talking about how she has an intrusive thought that keeps repeating — “I’m  thinking of ending things”. The only two possible meanings to this are that she is either going to dump this guy soon, or kill herself… orrrr both?

Emperor's New Groove Characters Saying "Both? Both? Both. Both is Good." in gif format

Anyway, this scene goes on for over twenty minutes. By the end of it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue watching. My main thought was that the long awkward car ride was going to inform the rest of the movie. You know… make the whole car ride worth it. 

That did not happen.

Meeting the Parents

Then we get to the parents’ house.

This is where the movie goes off the rails. The parents seem nice enough, but again, everything is so awkward and unsettling that it makes you feel like you’re watching a horror movie… which, again, you are not. One scene even introduces a creepy basement door that’s covered in scratches and has been taped up.

After some long-overdue introductions, everyone moves to the dining room where dinner has already been prepared… And this is where it starts to get a little weird, because the dining table had been empty only moments before. 

Dinner itself ups the ante with everyone behaving erratically from start to finish. The mother and father seem to be lost in their own little world, where all they want to talk about is how great their son is. They laugh uproariously at things that aren’t funny, and always seem to be looking to their son for cues as to what they should do. It starts to feel like maybe they aren’t his parents.

This is also where people start to change details about themselves. By this point in the story the woman is a physicist, a painter, and a poet. Which are certainly things someone can be, but they are each given as the characteristics that define her. Even the story of how the woman and her boyfriend met changes each time it is told.

As dinner winds down, the woman starts picking up everyone’s plates because she wants to get the hell out of there. She repeatedly says that she wants to go, but is continuously ignored. Eventually, she goes to check on how bad the weather is, only to turn around to find that everyone has teleported to the sitting room for dessert.

From here, things get almost too incoherent to even describe accurately. The parents and the man continue to teleport about the house, and every time you see the parents, their ages change drastically.

It’s like watching the Scooby Doo hallway scenes, but it’s terrifying

The family dog appears and disappears from scenes, and when it is on screen it is continuously shaking water off itself like a gif that won’t go away. 

What makes everything infinitely unsettling is how okay the woman is with all the madness going on around her.. She just kind of goes with the flow. Even when she enters a room to find her boyfriend’s mother lying on her deathbed, and her boyfriend’s father walks in looking about fifty years old, she just acts as if it’s only mildly off-putting.

The whole movie is bonkers this way. There are so many details that I’ve left out, and I can’t even begin to get to them all. We’d be here all night. What I can say is that details change from scene to scene, and what was true in one scene will be contradicted in the very next scene.

Eventually, the woman and her boyfriend leave the house and start the trek home. Which brings us to…

Another Awkward Car Ride

So, now the two are back in the car for another twenty minutes of awkward conversation. In this second scene, the personality of the woman changes a few different times, and the woman even changes actors once. I had to rewind the movie three times to really make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.

They stop for ice cream in the middle of the still-raging blizzard, and even the people running the ice cream shoppe are acting super weird. 

When they finally get back on the road, neither wants the ice cream that they specifically stopped for, so the boyfriend decides he’s going to stop at his old high school to dump the treats into an old dumpster he knows is there. 

The woman starts to object vehemently, but he stops at the school anyway.

This is where things become completely deranged. 

The man goes to throw the drinks away and leaves the woman in the car. He does, eventually return, and he tries to get romantic with the woman, which doesn’t go well at first. But then, for no reason, she decides to try and kiss him back. 

Me, for the entirety of this movie, especially from here out

There is a flash of a janitor watching them through a window, and the man can feel it for some reason and decides to go into the school and teach the janitor a lesson. 

The woman, not wanting to die waiting out in the cold alone, eventually heads into the school as well.

I’m Just Going to Give Away the Ending, So Don’t Read This if You’re Still Interested in Watching the Movie

The school is where everything falls apart. 

The woman passes a dumpster that is chockablock full of ice cream as she enters. She calls for the man several times before she sees the janitor and tries to hide, only to be caught. 

She asks the janitor if he’s seen her boyfriend, but he hasn’t… and she suddenly starts acting like she and her boyfriend have never gotten along, and she, in fact, only went out with him because she has a hard time saying no, and that she never wanted to go out with him. 

When she’s done talking with the janitor, she turns around to go and find her boyfriend one more time. 

When she finally runs into him, another version of herself and her boyfriend appear and start an interpretive dance that takes them to the gym, where another version of the janitor appears and fights the boyfriend in an interpretive dance fight.

Then the janitor is the only person remaining.

He goes out into his truck to find that it won’t start. He starts taking off his clothes as he begins to hallucinate. He is then led by a talking pig hallucination to a stage, where he turns into an old version of the boyfriend and begins singing a song from the musical Oklahoma.

As the song ends, the movie cuts to the font of the school where the janitor’s truck is covered in snow.

The End.

Seriously… The. Fucking. End.

Now, again, I did leave out details because time reasons, but even if I told you that the boyfriend mentioned loving Oklahoma, or that he told a story about pigs, or even if I mention that the movie did keep flashing to the janitor cleaning the school every once in a while, I still don’t think it make much sense. 

It doesn’t make much sense… unless you actually know what’s going on.

What’s Going On *HUGE SPOILERS*

It turns out that the whole movie is the musings of the janitor. He led a completely uneventful and lonely life, and in his final hours was wondering what would have happened if he had asked out a woman he met one time.

He tries desperately to figure out who she was by giving her different identities and trying to create an ideal version of himself that any version of the woman can love. Unfortunately, he has a hard time keeping his thoughts straight. Which is why he can’t decide when they would have met his parents.

Were his parents still young when they were introduced? Were they older? Were they on their deathbeds? 

In the end, the Janitor dies alone in his truck, filled with only regret at the decisions he didn’t make.

It’s really a heartbreaking movie, and it’s unfortunate that you have to slog through so much weirdness to get to this almost profound ending.

If You Skipped The Other Stuff, This Is The End Of The Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is as bizarre as it is unsettling upon a first viewing. Subsequent viewings, with the actual plot in mind, might be required to fully appreciate this unique and, at times, intriguing movie. Unfortunately, I’m not willing to put in the time to try it again. The move is roughly two and a half hours long, and honestly I’m not willing to put myself through it again just because I might like it a little better the second time round. 

So, with all that in mind, I’m going to give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a monkey on a unicycle reading a list of all of your greatest fears / that time you tried something new at your favorite restaurant and were thoroughly disappointed. Because that ranking system makes about as much sense as the movie itself.