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Cuphead (2017) Review

For a few years now we have been in a sort of Renaissance for classic-style video games.  New games are being released mixing new technology and trends with old-school gameplay and design.  In many cases, this has been great.  Hands-down the most well-known occurrence of this trend is Shovel Knight, an excellent, stylish platformer that feels timeless.  Cuphead is the next major entry in this time of rebirth and rediscovery, blending traditional platforming elements with sleek HD graphics.

Immediately upon picking Cuphead up the amazing visuals stand out.  Resembling a 1930’s cartoon with fluid animations and beautiful watercolor backgrounds, It creates an atmosphere that is unlike anything I have ever seen in a video game.  Visually, everything is just perfect.  It revives a style and theme that we just haven’t really seen in video games and it is a welcome change from rough-edge soldiers and anime chicks.  Every one of the unique bosses are interesting and well-thought-out, having their own design and individual twists.  Nowhere in the game are there reused enemies from level-to-level.  Everything is original and even the many references to famous enemies from classic games put a unique spin on their design.

The gameplay is tight, responsive and as close to perfect as you can get with a platformer of this type.  The closest game I can compare the feel to is Mega Man X.  Cuphead has all of the elements that worked for that masterpiece so well but tailored to fit its own hyperkinetic world that rivals that of the famous Maverick Hunter in design and variety.  It’s a refreshingly-skillful work of game design from a crew of relative newcomers to the titanic industry.

Now, one point of controversy surrounding Cuphead is its divisive difficulty.  This game is not easy; It’s not casual; It’s not for the faint of heart.  Cuphead will test your skills to an extreme degree.  There are three major components to this level of challenge from my observation: First is the progressively-chaotic boss fights that add more and more challenging components as the battles go on, leading up to an enrage phase that acts as a final gauntlet for each fight.  Then there is the rule that you have to beat each boss on the Regular difficulty to progress the game, with the optional Simple mode being nothing more than basic practice.  Then there’s the RNG, which deserves a little paragraph of its own…

The one and only complaint I have with Cuphead is the RNG.  For those who do not already know, RNG is a common speedrunning term meaning “Random Number Generator”, and references randomized events in games.  For instance, the variable damage your attacks can do in an RPG, or the chance of getting a solid gun drop in Destiny 2.  In Cuphead’s case, RNG comes in the form of enemy positioning and movement.  This manifests more commonly in the non-boss gauntlet levels, but it’s there across the board nonetheless.  It is a common problem in many games and can make parts of Cuphead frustrating.  However, it is in many areas manipulatable with a little skill and so far I have only found a few places where the RNG is particularly egregious (“Perilous Piers” being a gruesome example).  Randomized enemy placement and attack timing seems to be overwhelming at times and appears more manageable if you simply rush through the gauntlet stages, never really stopping to fight.

The bosses are where Cuphead shine and they are the focus for the game.  Most of the stages involve interacting with an animated feature on the explorable world map, the initiation of which takes you straight into a battle with one of the games many creative big-bads.  Most bosses follow a traditional video game 3-phase battle with a few exceptions.  The first few phases are a warmup to the enrage, where the boss changes form and the fight gets more frenetic.  In a few cases, the enrage phase changes the dynamics of the fight entirely from the previous phases.

There is a little bit of progression in the form of purchasable upgrades in the form of weapons, abilities and charms.  These determine which of the two weapons from your loadout that you can carry as well as the effects of your dash, your ultimate attack and one other optional boost that you can equip.  These upgrades are purchased with coins obtained in the non-boss levels.  It is possible to play through Cuphead never getting a single coin or a single upgrade.

In closing, Cuphead is a masterpiece of modern gaming.  Critical reviews claiming it’s “too hard to be fun” are missing a key factor: This game is not for everyone.  This is really an appeal to  nostalgia for the much-harder 16-bit era of gaming with its pace and design and older players are more likely to get the majority of enjoyment from this title.  Do not be fooled by its cartoonish aesthetic, Cuphead is brutal and will require every bit of gaming skill and acumen gamers such as myself have accumulated over the past few decades.  Cuphead is fun, challenging and worth the miniscule $20 price tag.  This is a game that I predict will be ageless and just may become the next big speedrunning game, so members and fans of the running community can look forward to thousands of cumulative hours across many Twitch channels of frustrated gaming veterans cheering upon finally beating their PB!

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Destiny 2 Review

Full disclosure before I begin: I really enjoyed Destiny when it came out and logged quite a bit of time in it, so needless to say I was quite excited about this much-hyped sequel.  I didn’t expect, however, to find so much to like about this game.  I wanted to at least finish the campaign and get a taste of the end game content before I really wrote this review as well, to reduce my chances of misrepresenting anything.  That said, I can recognize why it wouldn’t be for everyone and this is definitely going to end up being a successful-but-niche game after the initial fervor dies down.

After the Traveler is captured by an intergalactic Genghis Khan named Gaul, all of the Guardians, revered for their strength, lose the Light, the source of all of their powers.  It is up to you (and the millions of other players), to recover the Light, turn the tables of the struggle against the warlord and return the Traveler to its greatness, restoring the Light in the guardians and saving Earth.  It’s a pretty epic story, albeit cliched, but Gaul is an excellent villain, and the final battle with the vile menace is arduous and menacing.

Destiny 2 is built much like its predecessor with a few changes.  You have a short list of planets, each of which is its own open world, where you can travel, explore and take part in various public events and challenges but there only a few goals in the end: Complete the short-but-great campaign (including a stellar final series of levels that rank among the best of any FPS), grind public events and side missions to get gear upgrades and power yourself up for more difficult missions, prepare for Strikes to maximize your growth and face exciting bosses, then lead up to Raids which remain the ultimate challenge.  It is all built around a quality gear system that tiers to your level.  Rarely will you ever get a drop that is far too weak to be worth at least trying out, with the only discards generally being weapon types you do not want or old gear you’ve outgrown.  It never feels like loot drops are a waste and while everything is very randomized, you can use mods that drop regularly to alter gear to your playstyle.  

Destiny 2 plays a lot like your typical FPS, though a bit faster, and the ability to use various skills speeds things up significantly.  Different class perks also change the approach to the game.  I invested most of my efforts so far into the Titan, a resilient class built for close-quarters combat with numerous foes.  Essentially, the Titan is Destiny 2’s tank class.  Each of the three classes (Titan, Warlock and Hunter) have 3 subclasses, and each of those subclasses have two passive skill sets that affect how that subclass functions in combat.  Subclasses also allow for a selection of 3 types of grenades and the differing functions of the double-jump.  You can freely swap between each subclass and skillset, grenade and jump type you’ve unlocked at any time, even mid-combat.

Outside of that, it’s standard loot-based-FPS fare.  Think Borderlands, only more frenetic.  Public events place you right in the center of onslaughts of enemies, boss battles take place in massive arenas that fill with enemies, open worlds are slathered with randomized mobs, and everything is ready to ruin your day!  Optional missions allow for longer excursions with greater rewards and are often similar to story missions.

Once you defeat the villainous final boss, more content opens up for you, including giving the option to replay side missions for further rewards, take part in patrols (very short, random side missions that can be chained for easy loot), and take part in more public events to get medal drops that allow you to raise your reputation with the NPC from that area.

Destiny 2 looks great, but it isn’t going to blow your mind.  Comparing this to Far Cry, Just Cause, or a PS4 exclusive like Horizon: Zero Dawn, seems unfair as this is an online game and thusly some visuals may be throttled for performance (which so far for me has never taken a hit, or even so much as lagged).  Some areas of Destiny 2’s worlds are dark and the absence of a toggleable flashlight can make navigation in some areas difficult.  The open worlds themselves vary in aesthetic appeal as well.  For-instance, Earth’s overgrown, post-Apocalyptic wastes have a desolate feel to them, especially as you navigate further and further away from the starting section of the planet.  Titan is a series of cold steel and concrete platforms built outside of a massive arcology that is filled with lush greenery and a colorful mall that seems eerie in its abandoned nature, its holographic and neon signs still spinning on and flicker as though nothing has changed.  Nessus is filled with lush, bright-red fall greenery and giant rectangular pillars of marble that tower and shape the world.  Lastly, Io is a toxic wasteland of golden soil filled with dangerous radioactive liquid and dank, hazardous caves.

It is obvious a lot of care went into sections of these worlds, but some sections can feel like rehashes of each other, with a few map segments seeming as though they could be placed in other worlds with different textures and it wouldn’t matter at all.  This isn’t typically to the detriment of the game itself, but it does make the initial awe of the new world’s visuals lose its appeal quite quickly.  Sadly, these few planets are the only open worlds you can really explore and while they are somewhat large, it would have benefitted Destiny 2 to offer a little more variety in the areas themselves.

With each planet having its own theme, you can be assured that each area has its own story.  These plots are head up by a single NPC that represents that world who also provides commentary as you fight through the map but their constantly-repeated lines get very, very old.  In an obvious attempt to add some humorous banter to the grind to give it a little character, you can get “witty”, overwritten dialogue that may be occasionally funny at first but can wear on you making you reach for the volume controls for your TV after the story missions are complete.

That said, the voice cast is quite good, complete with an A-list of respected performers in the field including Nolan North of Uncharted fame, who is near-unrecognizable as your companion Ghost, Firefly’s Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres as two of the guardians who join you in the struggle against Gaul’s forces, and The Wire’s Lance Reddick as the righteous leader Commander Zavala.  The voice acting, when it isn’t grating with repetition, is very good and helps shape the tone of the game.

For most, Destiny 2 may slow as it ages due to its grindy nature.  There is variety in what you can do, but after just a few days of doing the same patrols, strikes and public events over and over, it can feel exhausting.  The push to level 20 goes by quickly enough, but then you have to very slowly raise your average gear rating by finding more and more valuable drops.  There are many ways to grind in the game, but if the repetition turns you off, there will be little for you after completing the campaign.  However, there are rewarding events that come to those willing to stick it out.

I would say Destiny 2 is a worthy sequel and it came out at a great time, preceding the onslaught of fall releases by a little over a month, giving players time to become invested in the online action.  It was smart to get it out to players before the barrage of online shooters and co-op action games that are right around the corner slam gamers with a near-insurmountable backlog.  Sadly, the PC version of this game is being pushed back to mid-October because of the contractual obligation of Bungie to release the game on consoles first.  This is unacceptable for me but if you are willing to wait, that version is coming as well, only expect a brutal framerate cap and throttled graphics to keep it from being too competitive to the console releases.  This is the tragic reality of today’s gaming.

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Game Review: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017; Naughty Dog)

A major problem with video games is sequelitis; the unfortunate trend of a long-running series seeing a steady decline in quality with each entry. Since its introduction on the PS3, the Uncharted series has shown a surprising resistance to this curse by focusing heavily on exciting and inventive level design integrated with captivating (albeit formulaic) stories. Likeable characters deliver well-written dialogue and everything just feels natural. You cannot have a story about people and not make those people relatable. Combine this with solid, consistent and responsive gameplay and bombastic, adrenaline-rush levels and you have a formula for an exciting spectacle!

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy turns the narrative away from Nathan Drake and his band of thieves and puts the focus on the popular anti-hero Chole Frazer, a thief and inspired treasure hunter who isn’t afraid to get her hands a little dirty. She was shockingly-absent in the excellent Uncharted 4 and here makes a welcome return. This time she joins up with Nadine Ross, a villain from Uncharted 4 who runs a powerful and ruthless mercenary company. This new dynamic duo finds themselves trekking across the lush landscapes of India in search of Ganesha’s Tusk, a task inherited by Chloe from her father.

Along the way they cross paths with a warlord named Asav who is attempting to overthrow the legitimate government in India for his own gains and his coup seems dependent on his attainment of the Tusk. If this sounds familiar, then congratulations! You played Uncharted 2! Yep, the plot is pretty much recycled from that game, only with a slightly less cartoonish villain. I actually like Asav, though. He’s a well-written and intimidating character and proves to be one of the most worthy foes in the franchise.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017; Naughty Dog)

The gameplay is lifted right out of Uncharted 4, polishing some of the rough edges with grabbing some ledges and interacting with objects in the world. Traversing the landscape is still smooth and satisfying and each successful swing from the grappling hook feels like an exhilarating achievement. The shooting mechanics, however, seem a little different. Enemies can absorb an insane amount of bullets before dropping and the one-woman-army idea is thrown out entirely. I would say this is an adjustment to some complaints that Uncharted 4 was a little too easy, but it can be frustrating when you land an obvious headshot with a sniper rifle only to just mildly stagger and annoy the target. I can presume this is an issue of polish on Naughty Dog’s part and hopefully we will see some patching to resolve some of this issue.

The levels are standard fare for the franchise and, while they are gorgeous, can feel quite linear for most of the game. The gunplay areas are more stricter and more confined than many of those in other entries in the series. Still, the open world segment of the game is quite good, although it is only available in one chapter. The various events are scattered throughout the game and while they never reach the level of spectacle seen in its parent series, they are well-made and exciting. They only real complaint I have is that many of the levels and associated events feel like rehashes of things we saw in previous games in the series like climbing and fighting your way along a speeding train and driving a jeep through muddy roads while taking out attacking motorcycles. There is definitely a sign here that they were running out of ideas, a fear that never crossed my mind while playing Uncharted 4.

Overall, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a solid entry in the series and a great placeholder until the inevitable release of a game starring Nathan and Elena’s daughter, Cassie. It is much shorter than the other games but at a retail price of just $40, it is worth checking out, especially for fans of the series. There is a lot to enjoy here!

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