Tag Archive: platformer

Whether it’s a game that has platforming elements like Cuphead, or the standard bearer for the genre making a triumphant return like Super Mario Odyssey, we’ve had a great run recently with platformers. Of course, having these stellar examples also allows for easy contrast when we come across one that does not live up to expectations, and unfortunately, Super Lucky’s Tale is a pretty pathetic example of a platformer.

Like most platformers, Super Lucky’s Tale’s story is a simple one. You play as the titular Lucky, a brave little fox whose dream is to one day become guardian of the Book of Ages. The Book is said to contain tremendous power, and so it’s no surprise that a nefarious group of felines known as the Kitty Litter want it for themselves. Lucky’s sister is typically protector of the book, but while she is away, Lucky is the de facto protector-in-training—a perfect time for the Litter to strike. While working in his sister’s stead, Lucky accidentally knocks the book open when the Litter surprise attacks, and soon they are all sucked within its pages. Now, Lucky must navigate the worlds described in the book if he hopes to stop the Litter’s leader, Jinx, and prove himself worthy of being a true protector of the book.

At the very least, Super Lucky’s Tale does put together a series of fun little worlds to explore. Each represents a chapter in the Book of Ages, and is broken down into a series of stages that can be accessed from that respective world’s hub. Both the stages and hub are full of colorful characters that want to help Lucky, ranging from the worms of Veggie Village to the golems of the Sky Castle. Even the enemies Lucky faces off against seem like they popped out of a children’s story book, including rotund little bumble bees that fire their stingers at you or carnivorous flowers with cartoonish jaws that try to chomp on our foxy friend’s fluffy tail. There are also plenty of nooks to explore in each world that can lead to coins (for one-ups) or four-leaf clovers, which are used to unlock each subsequent world in much the same way stars or moons are used in Mario’s 3D adventures.

There isn’t much beyond this going in the fox’s favor, however. While the worlds are fun, there are just too few of them to really constitute much of an adventure. The game only has four to explore, with about 25 four-leaf clovers to be found in each (there are 99 clovers total in the game). This makes Super Lucky’s Tale feel surprisingly short—even for a $30 budget title—as it clocks in at about four hours to finish.

What’s really puzzling, though, is how the game tries to shoehorn in replayability by instituting some ridiculous barriers between worlds. While the first world only requires 10 clovers to advance, the subsequent worlds need 30, 60, and finally 80 total before the final boss—meaning that you need to snag nearly ever clover in the game before you can complete it. The problem is, collecting them can often be boring, running you through the same tasks over and over such as simply finishing the stage, finding tokens that spell L-U-C-K-Y, collecting 300 coins, or finding a particular secret in each stage. It’s natural that many players will pass up getting all of the clovers on their first time through stages, but that means that, once they hit a certain point, there will be no choice but to go back and grind a little. Fortunately, I was able to find 84 of the 99 clovers in the game on my initial playthrough, but if this is indeed a game intended for younger audiences, I don’t expect those players to have nearly as much patience.

Speaking of the final boss, there’s also a sharp spike in difficulty at this particular point in the game. I personally found Super Lucky’s Tale to be a breeze to get through, so actually being slightly challenged by the end boss was a pleasant surprise for me. The problem is, it’s so inconsistent with the rest of the game that if a younger gamer were to be playing this, I wouldn’t be surprised if they found this frustrating because of how unnatural a bump it was.

Where Super Lucky’s Tale really falls apart is with its gameplay. Movement in a platformer is vital to the experience, and Lucky is one of the worst-handling protagonists I’ve ever played as. His jumps feels extremely floaty, while on the ground he’s plodding and tank-like. This leads to an inability to tell when he’s getting enough momentum for a jump or if he’ll fall short, even with his mediocre double jump. One unique element to Lucky is that he can also burrow under the ground, which is great for solving puzzles or collecting coins. However, as he burrows, you feel like you’re fighting the controller, trying to make Lucky go the direction you want him to while the game seems to have other ideas, leading to an inaccurate zig-zag across the landscape. All these things combined makes Super Lucky’s Tale feel more difficult to play that it actually is given its simplistic puzzles and basic moving platforms. When the controller itself feels like your greatest enemy, you know a game has failed as a platformer.

The other aspect where the gameplay doesn’t stand up is in its camera. Most of the game takes place in a 3D world, but you rarely can adjust to camera for better angles to make critical jumps. These kinds of issues feel like something that was remedied 20 years ago, when game developers were still learning how to operate in a 3D space; it’s absolutely inexcusable at this point to not give the player full control of the camera to line up jumps.

At times, at least, Super Lucky’s Tale seems like it did try to make an effort to be entertaining. The game occasionally mixes up its primary 3D stages with 2.5D side-scrolling sections, and there are even some mini games that were a lot of fun—including an endless runner, and some Marble Madness-inspired sections where you have to roll Lucky around in a ball. These sections were probably so enjoyable, however, because Lucky’s movement was boiled down to the bare minimum in each, with little to no jumping involved.

Finally, Super Lucky’s Tale has a surprising amount of glitches. The most prominent one would be audio cutting out after a load screen, requiring me to restart the game. It only happened a couple of times, but even the uninspired soundtrack of this game is better than listening to nothing at all. Lucky is also poorly animated, leading to moments such as when he seems as if he he’s standing still for a couple of seconds while simultaneously sliding across the landscape as I was moving him with the joystick (until he finally broke into his running animation). There’s also your typical problems such as occasionally getting stuck on the environment, or phasing through what should otherwise be solid objects. Issues like these just seemed like the final bit of evidence of a lack of polish that this game desperately needed.

Super Lucky’s Tale is nothing short of a disappointment. It pales in comparison to contemporaries in the genre and feels like it might’ve been a decent effort decades ago from developers who were just starting to experiment in the 3D space. The world and characters are cute and provide a fitting “fun for the whole family” sort of motif that was clearly a goal with this game, but all the style in the world can’t save something with such little substance. Floaty controls, poor camera angles, and repetitive gameplay all spell doom for Lucky, who becomes just the latest in a long line of failed platforming heroes.

Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: Playful • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 11.07.17
Lucky is unrealized potential. There is always space for a new kid-friendly platformer, and Lucky’s cute and colorful world could’ve served as a great entry point for a new franchise. Sadly, poor controls, a terrible camera, and just overall lackluster gameplay leave Super Lucky’s Tale being a subpar effort not worthy of your time.
The Good A cute, colorful world fit for gamers of all ages.
The Bad Lucky controls terribly, glitches galore, and the game is awfully short.
The Ugly The hope I legitimately had for this game before playing it.
Super Lucky’s Tale is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

188 times. 188 times I died while playing Cuphead across the game’s 19 bosses, six run ‘n’ gun stages, and three mausoleum trials before finally beating it on Normal. Never across any of those deaths, though, did I ever become frustrated or angry. I only wanted to dig my heels in deeper, and my addiction for the game only grew as each subsequent boss or level offered up an enticing new challenge. Cuphead’s mix of brilliant presentation, easy to learn but hard to master gameplay, and ever-increasing difficulty has cemented it for me as a personal game of the year contender.

Cuphead tells the tale of two plucky protagonists named Cuphead and Mugman. While exploring their home of Inkwell Isle, they stumble into the Devil’s Casino and are having the time of their young lives. In fact, they’re doing so well at Craps that the Devil himself comes down to watch the boys play—and then makes them an offer they can’t refuse. If Cuphead wins on the next roll, he and Mugman will get all the casino’s riches; if he loses, however, their souls become the property of the Devil. Cuphead can’t resist the temptation, and of course the roll comes up snake eyes. While pleading for their very souls, the Devil sees potential in Cuphead and Mugman, and—more importantly to him—an opportunity. He offers the boys one last chance: serve as his debt collectors and collect the souls of everyone else that owes him on Inkwell Isle, and he’ll let them off the hook. Easy right?

Stylistically, Cuphead is an absolutely gorgeous game. Its visuals harken back to the 1930s cartoons of Fleischer Studios (originally known as Inkwell Studios in the 1920s and paid homage with the name of the world, Inkwell Isle), who were best known for Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons. There’s even little scratch marks on each “frame”, much like you would see back in the old days on original animation cels. This classic look came from the fact that everything in Cuphead was similarly hand drawn and then scanned into computers. It’s no wonder then the game was delayed so long, especially when it shifted from primarily being a boss rush title to include some run ‘n’ gun segments, but the wait has been worth it.

Cuphead’s music similarly draws its inspiration from almost 100 years ago. Big band orchestras play fitting themes for each boss and section of Inkwell Isle. More haunting themes fill your ears against ghost trains, while more carnival-driven fare pumps through your speakers against crazed clowns. (My personal favorite theme is King Dice’s, who serves as the gatekeeper between each section of the Isle.) There is even a barbershop quartet that is happy to shortly serenade Cuphead and Mugman if you can put the band back together in the game’s overworld.

Where Cuphead excels even more than its art motif, though, is in its gameplay. As someone who cut his teeth on games like Mega Man and Contra growing up, I immediately felt right at home in the run ‘n’ gun style Cuphead offers up—even if it still leans more heavily on the boss rush aspects of its original premise (whether on the ground or even in the air). Each boss has multiple forms, and there’s definitely a trial-and-error aspect to everything as you learn how the bosses move and attack. But there’s still a real test of skill here that makes it all the more enticing. While each boss has a certain number of attacks—and there are some patterns apparent with each—there is also always some randomness, too, forcing you to still think on your feet.

A perfect example of this comes very early on with the Ribbit Brothers, one of the game’s first bosses. Although their first two forms are rather straightforward, their final form is literally that of a slot machine that will attack you three different ways—but there’s no way of telling what that way will be until the wheels on their face stop spinning. This is the first, but far from the last, example of Cuphead forcing you to adapt to what it throws at you in the moment, going beyond simple pattern recognition.

And if you think the game’s co-op feature (where a second player controls Mugman) will make things easier, you’d be mistaken. It makes sense that a boss’s health scales upward with two characters on screen, so both players need to be on their game to try to get past each boss. One neat feature if one character dies, though, is there’s a last chance to save them where you can parry (pressing the jump button again at the perfect time) off the ghost of your fallen comrade to give them one health point back. However, I’m saying this from experience: be careful when choosing your co-op partner. If all you’re doing is jumping on them to save their life, it gets old quick.

Cuphead also succeeds in giving the player agency enough to find their own way of beating bosses. Although you start the game with the straightforward Peashooter, you can purchase weapons and powers from coins found usually in hard to reach places in the game’s six run ‘n’ gun stages from Porkrind the Pig’s store to expand Cuphead and Mugman’s arsenals. I personally found the Spread Shot—which fires short-range projectiles in three directions, sort of like a shotgun—to be my personal favorite, but there are also homing shots, bouncing shots, and even shots that fire in one direction and then turn around like a boomerang to sail back the way they came. You can also get special boosts at Porkrind’s, like coffee that will continuously fill your special meter, or extra health that comes at the sacrifice of attack power. Mixing, matching, and finding your favorite combinations to fit your play style is critical to beating Cuphead, but it’s also part of the fun.

One of my most pleasant surprises with the game, though, came in the form of the Mausoleum challenges. There are three haunted mausoleums on Inkwell Isle, and the only way to bust all the ghosts inside is to use the parry move on each of the pink poltergeists. It’s a great way to really perfect this important move that you’ll need later against the game’s hardest bosses, and clearing each mausoleum rewards you with one of three special moves (like temporary invincibility) which are only available when your special meter is completely full. I just wish there were a few more of these around the island, because even more than the six run ‘n’ gun stages, they were a really fun change of pace given no shooting was involved whatsoever.

The only issue I ever had with Cuphead was that there were a couple of small glitches. Over my 188 lives, there were exactly two instances (about 1.1% of the time) where a boss would freeze up in the form that it was in. That allowed me to just wail away as it didn’t attack me for some reason until it shifted to its next phase, unless it was already in its final phase—at which point it just died. It was a weird hiccup when this happened for sure, and I don’t know what ever caused it. I’m sure I’d probably have a handful more deaths, too, had this not occurred twice, but it never really took away from the fun of the game, nor did it affect my score against each boss negatively. But since you unlock Expert mode after beating the game on normal, I had more than enough reason to come back to try to beat each boss properly anyway.

Cuphead is an absolute gem of a game. My playthrough on normal only took about eight hours to finish, but there’s replayability with trying to get high scores on each boss and coming back to try out the three difficulty levels. The gameplay is incredibly tight, and each boss offers up a new challenge whose addictiveness is only trumped by that feeling of accomplishment once you beat it. The art style is absolutely magnificent, and the world is full of little secrets that will have you searching every nook and cranny. There may be a glitch here or there, but they’re never something so frustrating that will make you want to turn the game off. In fact, I may never turn Cuphead off, period. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun with a game, and in my book, Cuphead is an instant classic.

Publisher: Studio MDHR • Developer: Studio MDHR • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.29.17
Cuphead is an addictive mix of fun and frustration that will constantly keep you coming back for more. It’s amazing combination of terrific gameplay, tremendous style, and an original concept immediately catapults it into every game of the year discussion.
The Good The art style, the music, and the addictively difficult gameplay.
The Bad The occasional glitch that suddenly makes those difficult bosses incredibly easy.
The Ugly How much power I waste now keeping my Xbox One on and the game playing so I can listen to its music all night long.
Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Studio MDHR for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

When Knack II was announced at PSX 2016, I admit that I was probably one of the loudest groans in the auditorium. Knack had left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, coming across more as a tech demo for the newly-launched PS4 than an action game any of us wanted to play—and definitely didn’t feel worthy of a sequel. Yet here I am, ready to eat my words, because Knack II has made me a believer. It’s not without issues, but for the most part, it’s a fun romp for gamers of all ages.

Knack II takes place three years after the original game. It kicks off in medias res, with the capital city of New Haven being attacked by giant killer robots, and our plucky protagonist Knack needing to again save the day. Just before Knack takes on the biggest of all the robots, we flashback to six months prior to find out how we got to that point, facing off against foes old and new as we start an adventure that will take us across a variety of locales in Knack’s world.

It needs to be said that the self-contained plot here is an improvement over the first game’s story. It’s twists, turns, and bombastic moments—although somewhat predictable—elicited a Saturday morning cartoon vibe at times that I enjoyed. If there should ever be a third Knack game, this is a direction the series might want to lean into more, considering our colorful hero and his perceived target audience. Even with help from God of War writer Marianne Krawczyk, however, a lot of the characters in Knack’s universe still feel very one note, especially the titular hero.

In the first Knack, the goblin boss, Gundahar, called Knack a tool—and in many ways, that single line of dialogue was telling of many of the problems Knack still has now as a hero. Previously, Knack was always being bossed around by Dr. Vargas (his creator), and although the good doctor has thankfully taken more of a backseat this go around, his assistant, Lucas, has taken up the role of barking orders, telling our hero exactly what to do and when to do it. This depicts a feeling of subservience that isn’t fun to play. I understand that Knack isn’t exactly Kratos when it comes to backstory, but him having a bit more say in the adventure—and feeling like he’s on the same level as the characters around him (it is his game after all)—would go a long way to making our protagonist a more likeable hero that people would want to play as.

Of course, I also understand that Knack II is first and foremost an action-platformer and is primarily gameplay driven. In that regard, Knack II is light years ahead of its predecessor, and would stand on its own as an impressive action game even without the first Knack to compare it to. One of the biggest—and most important—changes comes in the form of Knack’s original gimmick: the ability to change his size.

In the first game, Knack would constantly be forced down into “small Knack” size, typically around the size of a child with a diminutive health bar to match. Almost every level started with Knack at this size, and it was often frustrating to go through all the work of building him up only to be broken down again at every story beat. In Knack II, Knack usually starts around “normal Knack” size, somewhere in the five to six foot range, and many new gameplay mechanics branch out from this single decision. As a side note, we can tell exactly how big he is with the new size counter next to Knack’s health bar, which initially seems like a minor addition but really adds a nice sense of scope to things.

This starting size allows Knack to control like most action game heroes. Knack now has elaborate punching and kicking combos that weren’t present in the first game; he can parry projectile attacks, or just block in general; he has new moves like block-breaking strong punches, stunning boomerang attacks, a gap-closing hookshot, and even a “secret technique” that looks a whole lot like a short-range hadouken. We’ll forgive Knack for borrowing some of these moves from other franchises, because it adds so much in terms of both how you attack enemies and the variety of said enemies the game can throw at you. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

There is still a use for “small Knack,” though, and with a tap of the R1 button, Knack can shrink almost instantaneously. There are many obstacles and hidden paths in Knack’s world that only a smaller-sized Knack can navigate. With another tap of R1, Knack can use the magical abilities that allow him to control relics (the particles that make up his body) to call those pieces back, so he can return to whatever size he was before. Even when Knack grows to his giant sizes—he maxes out at 32 feet tall—he can still instantly shrink to just under three feet when he needs to. This was a critical gameplay component the original Knack lacked, and it offers chances to explore an otherwise linear world while still showing off the game’s powerful particle effects.

Even with all this, there’s still a lot more gameplay variety to Knack II. There’s a new experience meter, which you can spend your accumulated experience on four different branches of a RPG-inspired skill tree where Knack can upgrade his speed, power, and other stats. There are tank-driving levels, plane-piloting segments, platforming puzzles, puzzles based on Knack’s weight, and quicktime events. All of those except for the last one were a ton of fun. The QTEs were used too heavily, especially when Knack would learn new moves and they would weirdly happen before tutorials. They were also too frequently used as level transitions, but understandably tried to give a more cinematic flair to some of the action that Knack wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

And if you’re looking for replayability, Knack II has it in spades. Sure, there are 100 new secret chests to find, much like the first game, but there are also 143 different secondary challenges across the campaign—like beating a level in a certain amount of time or smashing all of a particular kind of crate to earn bonus points (those bonus points are great for trying to get the best online high score for each level). There is also a time trial mode with online leaderboards for speed runs, and an arena mode where you can fight wave after wave of enemies. Knack II even added drop-in, drop-out co-op where a second player can take control of a blue-tinted clone of Knack, and the difficulty scales appropriately when there are two players versus only one.

It may seem like I just rattled off a bunch of stuff there—and I sort of did—but the point is that in the four years between Knack and Knack II, Sony’s Japan Studio obviously took a lot of time to look at what people wanted from an action game, and what many of their contemporaries were doing, and tried to accommodate that. I believe they not only succeeded, but also far exceeded expectations, not only putting their own entertaining twist on familiar things, but actually turning Knack into a viable action franchise that could be fun for the whole family.

Knack II doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it is a very solid, very sturdy wheel if you’re looking for an action fix—while with its predecessor, many of us were tempted to throw out the entire cart. Whereas the first Knack often had me asking myself “when will it ever end,” Knack II held my attention throughout, and I was happy to play it all the way through. The story and universe of Knack could still use some work (and some much-needed fleshing out), but the gameplay has come so far from its predecessor that I won’t be groaning the next time I hear that Knack is back.

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment • Developer: SIE Japan Studio • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.05.17
Knack II fixes many of the problems of its predecessor, delivering a fun action-platformer worthy of giving this series a second chance. The story is still a bit bare-boned, but the gameplay alone will be enough to keep you going until you see the end credits.
The Good A large variety of gameplay and Knack’s expanded moveset allows you to tackle bad guys in a plethora of ways.
The Bad Too many QTEs; all of the characters in terms of their personalities, especially Knack, still feel very one-dimensional.
The Ugly I feel like there’s been some retconning between Knack games that none of us were made aware of.
Knack II is a PS4 exclusive. A retail copy was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

I’ve gushed over puzzle-platformers enough times at this point that it should come as no surprise that when I see a new one on the horizon, my interest is immediately piqued. So, when I saw the trailer for Little Nightmares, the same feeling of wonder and curiosity that usually comes over me again returned. Once I actually played Little Nightmares, however, any good will this game had garnered by crafting itself around one of my favorite genres was quickly lost, never to recover.

Little Nightmares follows the plight of a small girl named Six who is trapped in an underwater ship called The Maw. Six must try to escape this prison before she becomes the next snack for one of the Maw’s many hungry residents, and she will have to use all her ingenuity to outsmart her captors and earn her freedom.

I will say one thing that Little Nightmares does well—and which is evident almost from the very beginning—is the mood and atmosphere it established. The chilling music and sheer emptiness of the world that Six starts her adventure in immediately lets you know the odds are stacked against you. Her bright yellow tunic serves as a stark contrast against the mechanical, muted tones of each of the game’s five levels, providing a beacon that constantly pulls your eyes to it, similar to how Six’s singular tool—a small lighter—lights her way through some of the game’s more cramped corridors or ventilation shafts.

The cantankerous creatures that roam these oversized areas only punctuate the vastness of the Maw. Gluttonous, disgusting humanoids intended to elicit the most negative of reactions from all who glimpse their bloated forms will chase Six at the slightest hint of her presence for much of the game. Outsmarting them and, more commonly, outmaneuvering them is the only way to survive.

Unfortunately, these “people” also serve as the only form of real challenge in an overly simple game, and they are a paltry one at that. Almost no thought is required in order to overcome many of the obstacles of the Maw, with usually only a couple of well-timed jumps getting the job done, or Six sneaking by an unsuspecting denizen guarding the path. It feels like someone confused a running simulator with an actual puzzle-platformer.

The only small semblance of difficulty comes from the camera and controls, and their technical limitations. The camera feels like it’s constantly swaying, as if it’s attached to the hull of the Maw’s ship and sliding along as Six works her way up and out of its different levels. This swaying, however, is not conducive to the platforming that often needs to be carried out to get by the pits that provide Six’s most common obstacle. It also feels at times like the camera is lagging behind her, catching Six at an odd angle instead of seeing her perfectly perpendicular from the side. This causes the controls to slightly shift depending on where the camera is positioned, and walking across thin beams can become a nuisance as forward is no longer perfectly to the right or left on your joystick, and you slightly start to veer off course through no fault of your own. There’s nothing more frustrating than slipping off the edge of a small platform that you thought you were walking straight on, or making a jump that you had the distance for, but find Six hitting the edge and falling because the depth made the next platform look like it was on a different jumping line.

Well, there might be one more frustrating thing. Six has very limited abilities in the game and therefore, in order to try to fill up buttons on the PS4 controller, simple traversal abilities that are often assigned to only one button in more complex games are divided up amongst the other buttons. If you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan, you’re likely familiar with the “claw grip” of the early games, where your hands are basically locked onto the X and R2 buttons (A and RT on Xbox controllers) in order to parkour through the world. Similarly, you must hold Square and R2 with Six in order to not only climb, but also grab ledges when you make jumps across pits. If you’re not holding both, Six will hit the ledge at her waist, and instead of latching on, fall to her death. This is made all the more complicated by X being the jump button, forcing three simultaneous button presses to be made to traverse most obstacles—and I just don’t understand why run and grab are on two different inputs. It felt like it was a desperate attempt to make the simplest game controls more complex in an attempt to cover up the game’s actual lack of challenge.

Some of this could potentially be forgiven if the mystery of the Maw and Six’s plight could pull you in, but sadly it failed to do so for me. I wonder if it’s because I never felt truly in danger traversing the environment, my only failures ever coming due to the shortcomings of the controls and camera. What’s worse is when the game finally starts to feel like it’s ramping up its stakes, Six’s plight, and the game’s underlying messages, it pulls the plug. I finished the game in just under three hours; while there are plenty of experiences of comparable length more than worthy of your time out there, like last year’s Inside for example, Little Nightmares felt like it was just scratching the surface of what it wanted to be when it runs out of steam.

I believe the most obvious message the game tries to convey is the evils of modern consumerism, portrayed by the gluttony of the Maw’s patrons, and Six’s own poignant near-starvation that crops up near the end of each level. Little Nightmares could’ve gone so much further than a buffet table and a kitchen, however; gambling, alcohol, sex, and other vices could’ve all had their chances to shine on the Maw, and would’ve lent length and weight to a game that feels incomplete as is. Even the weird lord of the Maw’s seeming obsession with beauty and physical perfection is barely touched upon with more than a few symbols.

Little Nightmares tries to surround itself in symbolism and mystery, and succeeds in painting a bleak and moody atmosphere at least. At the same time, it failed to find a way to make me care about the main character’s plight. What’s worse is that its poor controls and camera, and utter lack of challenge, had lost me by the time it started to feel like it was finally going somewhere. My only relief came when the end credits began to roll on this poor attempt at a puzzle-platformer.

Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment • Developer: Tarsier Studios • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.28.17
A stellar atmosphere is not enough to save such a puzzle-platformer that completely lacks any sort of challenge. While the story of Six is a sad one, it’s not for the fact that her adventure begins in a cage—but that the developer failed to find a way to make me care about it at all.
The Good Beautifully crafted, atmospheric world.
The Bad Controls poorly and the overall game lacks any sort of challenge.
The Ugly Is being eaten a really scary thing for European children? I don’t get it. That was never a thing for me as a kid.
Little Nightmares  is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Like many gamers around my age, my gaming prime came on the Nintendo 64. Those late adolescent/early teen years of my life were spent pouring hour after hour into the medium’s first 3D worlds, and few experiences hold as special a place in my heart as the action-platformers on Nintendo’s system. Driven to grab every collectible, I’d spend hours watching counters go up as I crossed items off, only to start a new save file and do it all over again. One of my particular favorites was Banjo-Kazooie, and so I was nothing if not intrigued when I found out many of the minds behind that classic from my youth had started a new studio, and successfully Kickstarted a throwback to that era titled Yooka-Laylee. While it was fun to walk down an updated memory lane, Yooka-Laylee is also a reminder in some ways of how far we’ve come in gaming, and how some things are better left in the past.

Yooka-Laylee follows the titular duo of a chameleon (Yooka) and his best bat friend (Laylee) as they enjoy a relaxing day at their new home Shipwreck Creek, which is just outside the corporate Hivory Towers. Meanwhile, the head honcho of the Hivory Towers, Capital B, sets in motion a plan to steal all the world’s literature as he looks for one special, magical book. It should shock no one that the book is actually in Laylee’s possession, and she and Yooka don’t take kindly to having it suddenly taken away from them. The book’s pages—dubbed “Pagies” in the game—don’t take to this idea either, ripping themselves from their bindings and scattering about the tower. Now, Yooka and Laylee must race to collect all 145 pages, put the book back together, and stop Capital B’s plans once and for all.

Yooka-Laylee is a textbook spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie. The names have changed, the worlds have changed, and even some of the powers have changed, but playing Yooka-Laylee is like forcing yourself to feel déjà vu for 10 to 20 hours depending on how many collectibles you go after (a one-hundred percent run took me almost 20 hours) and if you ever played those original games. For me, this was great, because I love the colorful characters, the tongue-in-cheek British humor, and the puzzle solving and platforming gameplay that served as staples for Banjo-Kazooie (and continue here). But, after wiping the nostalgia from my eyes like crud caked onto them after oversleeping, I realize there are also some problems with living in the past like Yooka-Laylee does, since the game largely ignores the 20 years of progress games development have made.


The first (and most) evident problem is the camera. Even after the day one patch, I still felt like I had to wrestle with the damn thing like it was 1998 all over again. Here I was, swearing at the TV that the angle wouldn’t let me see what I wanted to see, or that it had pulled in too close while Laylee was using her flying power, or that the perspective suddenly shifted, and so too did the controls. The good old days, right? It was a common and accepted occurrence back then, but we’ve progressed past that as an industry for the most part—yet here was this nuisance from the past cropping up once again.

The controls are also looser than all the bowel movement jokes worked into the game. While they’re rarely bad enough to ever actively get in the way of you beating the game, they can get frustrating—especially with Laylee’s flying or Yooka’s roll move that allows you to traverse steep inclines—when trying to grab collectibles as you just barely over or undershoot your target because it feels like you’re fighting the controls more than you should be.

Another favorite problem is the game-breaking glitch. Banjo-Kazooie had one that was never fixed (even when it was re-released with Rare Replay) called the Bottles Puzzle Glitch. This would make it so if you did a particular puzzle before collecting all 900 music notes in that game, some of them would magically disappear, and you’d be stuck just shy of 100-percent.


In Yooka-Laylee, there seems to be a similar glitch in world four, the Capital Cashino. In order to obtain most Pagies in the level, you need to collect 10 coins on various casino-based mini-games, a fun change of pace that adds variety to the experience. I discovered late in my playthrough that by destroying out of order slot machines, you could grab a bunch of coins at once. Thanks to that, I wound up cashing in four Pagies worth of coins at one time, after which the little auto-save icon popped up and then faded away. I ran around for a few more minutes looking for (but never finding) more coins, and then I proceeded to turn my game off for the night. To my horror, when I returned to Yooka-Laylee the next morning, not only did I not have all four Pagies I had cashed in my coins for (I only was credited with two of them), but the coins and the out of order slot machines themselves were gone from the world. So, too, was every other coin I had already collected from the world.

Now, this wouldn’t stop me from beating the game, but it’s clearly a glitch that prevents you from getting 100-percent in the end (like the Bottles Glitch). I believe the autosave point happened in-between the Pagie counter increases but after I cashed in all the coins at the same time. It was unfortunate, and it’s—admittedly—a lot of speculation on my part to the hows and whys of the matter, but after several hours I resigned myself to starting a new game, beginning from scratch, and cashing in 10 coins as soon as I got them every time in Capital Cashino—then getting my full clear on that playthrough.

Yooka-Laylee does do a fine job of following in its ancestor’s footsteps on the positive side of things as well, however. The worlds are absolutely gorgeous, with colors that you didn’t even know existed just popping off your screen. As well, the soundtrack is amazing; I’m still humming the opening theme while writing this, and honestly you’d be hard-pressed to get the Capital Cashino theme out of my head.


The worlds are also absolutely massive. There may be only five of them—six if you count the main hub—and they may start out at a size comparable to what we were used to in the N64 days, but Yooka-Laylee adds variety by allowing you to spend Pagies to quadruple the area of each world, offering up hours of additional puzzle-solving and keeping each world from growing stale as a new cavalcade of characters are introduced with even more quests to complete.

And, my glitch notwithstanding, each collectible feels challenging, but not ever unobtainable. This is a difficult balance to strike to get people to keep playing and not be bored of the collection process, yet Yooka-Laylee makes it feel effortless. There’s also a great open-endedness to each challenge, which is something I had forgotten I loved about these games. You can bend the rules once you have the proper tools at your disposal in order to circumvent some of the difficulty. In fact, I’d recommend doing the bare minimum to open up each basic world and concentrate on obtaining the full repertoire of Yooka and Laylee’s moveset. Once you unlock all their abilities, you’ll be able to find faster, more efficient ways of solving puzzles and beating bosses when you subsequently backtrack.

Speaking of powers, Yooka and Laylee also have a bevy of transformations courtesy of a character named Dr. Puzz that would put Mumbo Jumbo’s magic to shame. Plant, animal, and even vehicle forms allow the duo to explore every nook and cranny of each world. There’s also an additional power you can utilize over the course of the game called Tonics that offer everything from more health to more special ability meter, or even just fun stuff like giving Yooka familiar-looking blue pants to wear—but you can only ever have one active at a time.


One other minor addition sees Yooka-Laylee borrow something from the modern era: multiplayer. A polygonal dinosaur character named Rextro is the purveyor of old-school arcade games inside the main campaign, and he also offers up some local co-op and versus multiplayer options for up to four players on one couch. It’s a nice touch from a crew that supposedly always wanted to add a multiplayer component to the Banjo games, but could never do it back in the N64 days.

Finally, there’s the writing. Personally, I loved much of the tone of this game. It never takes itself too seriously, and the toilet humor finds an interesting sweet spot between what we saw in Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Banjo-Kazooie—including in the very first level, where you need to loosen the bowels of a talking cloud in order to get it to rain or snow in the world to unlock new challenges. I also liked many of the characters, like the aforementioned Rextro, and Trowzer, the special move-selling snake. Heck, even the loading screens make fun of the game itself, or how games used to be back in the N64 era. You could potentially alienate some of your younger audience with references back to the days of memory cards and cartridges, but I found it to be charming.

Yooka-Laylee was a fun stroll down memory lane, but it also serves an unintentional purpose: It reminds us how much better things have gotten in games over the years. While still being solid in its own right as an action-platformer, its humor and style won’t resonate with everyone, and there are definitely some technical issues holding it back. However, for those of us who grew up with Banjo-Kazooie, our rose-colored glasses can remain mostly intact as we hunt for countless collectibles, even as our tastes have matured along with the industry. Hopefully, those unfamiliar with the roots of this game will be able to forgive that, sometimes, we older gamers just wanted a talking, constipated cloud to change the world around us, and focus on the platforming instead.


Publisher: Team17 • Developer: Playtonic Games • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 04.11.17
Some long-forgotten issues from way back in the day crop up again in this throwback action-plaformer, but even if you aren’t playing it through the nostaliga of someone who grew up with Banjo-Kazooie or other adventures like it, you’ll still find a solid game to play in Yooka-Laylee.
The Good It’s a love-letter in every imaginable way to classic 3D platforming adventures of the N64 days.
The Bad It stays too true to form from the N64 days, and carries over a lot of the issues with those games as well.
The Ugly The save glitch in the Capital Cashino world that required me to start my entire game over if I wanted to make a one-hundred percent run.
Yooka-Laylee is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC and coming later for the Switch. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Team17 for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Bending over backwards for Fru

It’s hard to argue the fact that the Kinect is the latest in a long line of failed gaming peripherals. We could be here all day talking about why, but one of the main reasons is that in the nearly six years since it released, I can barely name a handful of good games for it. Most were too gimmicky, too unresponsive, or just simply weren’t fun. Although the Xbox One’s second generation Kinect was better equipped to deal with these shortcomings, it couldn’t do enough to warrant the system’s higher price tag, helping to turn away many would-be early adopters. Even those of us who took the plunge with Kinect 2.0 have either packed it away or simply use it as a quick way to sign-in and enter download codes. So, I was downright flabbergasted to find one developer still working on a Kinect game (even though we hadn’t seen it since E3 2014), and even more so when that game turned out to be pretty damn enjoyable.

Fru is a puzzle-platformer that tasks players with guiding a small, masked girl through a mysterious world. Over the course of the game’s 110 stages, you’ll come to learn what happened to this world, what the girl is trying to reach, and why you, the player, have the ability to help her through this adventure.

There’s really not a lot to Fru’s story, which is definitely one of its drawbacks as it tries to differentiate itself from the failed, gimmick-driven games of the Kinect’s past. All told, there are only eight sentences of narrative in the entire game, and a few short scenes that string together the simple story. But for what the story lacks in depth, the gameplay makes up for in spades.


There are only two controls in Fru: running and jumping. You can run with either joystick on the Xbox One controller, and jump with either trigger. The reason for this is it allows you to play the game one handed, which is not only a great test of coordination (since many of us will have to fight hard against our gaming muscle memory), but also a necessity, as in all of Fru’s stages, your body will act as the catalyst that allows the little girl to advance.

You see, your silhouette—as detected by the Kinect—will activate switches, reveal hidden platforms and collectibles, block hazards, and even at times serve as a pool of water the girl can swim through. Each of the game’s four chapters adds more complexity to your responsibilities as the girl’s shadowy guardian, which also adds to the fun. In many instances, I found myself contorting in ways I didn’t know I could to help the girl advance. Whether literally rolling on the floor to adjust my position, arching my back to cut a wall in half and create makeshift stairs, doing squats to hit multiple switches at once, or even (almost) doing splits to fill up most of the bottom of the screen, I was ready to do whatever it took to create the perfect position for each puzzle. And as gimmicky as it may seem on the surface, I was hooked, not to mention impressed by the amount of depth Through Games was able to concoct to never make any of the game’s 110 stages feel cookie cutter or boring.

Unfortunately, what might be Fru’s fatal flaw is that it won’t last longer than a few hours for most players, even with all those aforementioned stages. Once you get past the ingenious interaction with the Kinect and solve all the puzzles, there’s really little reason to come back to Fru—a problem that hurts puzzle-platformers that already aren’t fighting the Kinect stigma.


There are 24 collectibles scattered in the game, which do up the difficulty a tad, but I was able to collect them all on my first run through. There’s also a bonus mode that was spawned out of Fru’s tech demo, which offers a two-player option. Giving a friend a chance to play side-by-side with you is nice, but the mode is really only a short offering due to the tech demo nature, and not nearly as deep or as polished as the main game.

I did find some replayability in the game when showing it to friends at least. If it was fun rolling around trying to solve the puzzles by myself, it was just as entertaining to watch someone else do it. We even passed the control around to others, offering up some unintentional multiplayer and impromptu teamwork as one player would pose while the other would use the controller to guide the girl across the screen. It still remained a short affair, however, thus torpedoing its party-game possibilities as well.

Even with its lack of depth, Fru succeeds in showing us that the Kinect may have never reached its full potential. The puzzle-platform genre adapted for the device worked well, adding a pleasant surprise to the lineup of dance, music, and workout games that seemed to work the best with the peripheral. The sad fact of the matter is that Fru still has a couple of issues, and as fun as it is, it’s not something that can lift the Kinect back up to a state of relevancy. If you have a Kinect, Fru is a good way to get a couple more hours out of it. Otherwise, we all can just lament over what could’ve been.


Developer: Through Games • Publisher: Through Games • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 07.13.16
It’s sad that Fru came out so long after the Kinect was a viable gaming peripheral. Had it released closer to the Xbox One’s launch, we might’ve been able to laud it as a reason to own a Kinect. As is, it’s a solid little puzzle-platformer that might be worth a look if you haven’t packed your Kinect away—assuming you ever got one in the first place.
The Good Inventive take on the puzzle-platformer that keeps finding new ways to test you.
The Bad A little on the short side, and not much really in terms of story or replayability.
The Ugly This is the game the Kinect needed all along. It’s a shame it’s probably about two years too late.
Fru is a Xbox One exclusive (Kinect required). Review code was provided by Through Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.


Mech-Star Warrior

Whenever I think that HAL Laboratory and Nintendo are going to run out of fun gimmicks to wrap Kirby up in, they find a way to keep surprising me. Whether it’s as a pinball, a yarn creature, or riding a rainbow-painted path, part of the series’ charm has been how the gameplay always seems to be morphing into something fresh—much like Kirby himself when he copies an enemy’s ability—while still sticking to the pink puffball’s action-platforming core. The duo seem to have done it once again with Kirby’s latest outing for the 3DS, Kirby: Planet Robobot.

It’s another peaceful day on the planet Pop Star, with Kirby resting under a tree, King Dedede playing chess against a Waddle Dee, and Meta Knight patrolling the skies in the Halberd. The serenity of this scene is quickly shattered, however, when a mysterious UFO lands on the planet and begins terraforming Pop Star, transforming its inhabitants into mechanical monstrosities. Kirby immediately springs into action in order to get to the bottom of the appearance of these strange aliens and turn Pop Star back into the nature-loving home he knows.

At its core, Planet Robobot is much like any other mainline title in the series. Kirby must fight his way through a half-dozen levels, each broken into a handful of stages, and copy the abilities of the foes he comes across in order to solve puzzles, collect items, and bring the pain to the bosses he’ll face along the way. Along with that, there are several new elements that help Robobot stand out from its predecessors, and that add a lot to the game’s enjoyability.


Any fan that has played Kirby games before will immediately pick up on the first of these changes, which is a brand new aesthetic. The terraforming plot point means exploring locations Kirby has never dealt with before, such as casinos, roadways, trains, pipeworks, and more. These also provide Robobot with an interesting contrast in its design, with the colorful, cartoony vibe we usually get from the series crossing with an urban, mechanized motif. Even old-school bosses take advantage of the theme, with the cyborg-like Clanky Woods serving as the hardest version of Whispy Woods we’ve seen yet.

The other major changes come on the gameplay side. Planet Robobot features four new powers for Kirby to wield: Jet, Poison, ESP, and Doctor. You can roast enemies in Jet’s afterburners, throw psychic energy around a room with ESP, bounce pill projectiles at enemies with Doctor, or surf on sludge with Poison to get through a level quicker. While each power has its moments in the game, I found ESP to be the most useful of the four—both because of its offensive strength against enemies, and its ability to help with puzzles by sending projectiles through walls to hit previously-inaccessible switches.

As nice as the new powers are, the biggest gameplay change, though, comes from the fact that Kirby now can pilot his own personal mechanized robot, which he acquires early in the game and utilizes on various stages. The mech not only affords Kirby super-strength that he can use to move large set pieces around each level (opening up new puzzle and platforming opportunities), but also allows for duplicating enemy abilities much like Kirby himself. Copying the flame ability, for instance, turns the mech’s arms into a pair of flamethrowers—great for lighting cannon fuses that can open up previously-inaccessible areas or toasting enemies.


In some cases, the mech does more than just amplify Kirby’s abilities, too—it changes the very nature of the game. For example, the aforementioned Jet ability transforms the mech into a Gradius-like starship, providing some interesting side-scrolling shooter gameplay. Working in this stage variety provided a nice change of pace from the standard platforming that comprises much of the game, and had me switching powers at a far more frequent pace than when I normally play Kirby games, as I couldn’t wait to see how the mech would transform next.

As great an experience as this all provides, Planet Robobot does suffer from something that has plagued many Nintendo games in recent years: a lack of challenge. Life-hoarding became a game within the game for me, as I never died more than a couple times throughout my playthrough. HAL Laboratory tried to bump up the difficulty by adding three keys to each stage for you to collect—with you needing a certain number of said keys to unlock each boss—but aside from one or two stages, I never had an issue with collecting them all on the first go.

Lack of challenge aside, Kirby: Planet Robobot does a great job of continuing the tradition of what the best Kirby games do: provide a fun adventure that captures your imagination. The difficulty may not have been high, but it’s still a top-quality, tight-handling platformer that I couldn’t help but enjoy for the short time it lasted—and which I didn’t want to put down until I’d seen every power, solved every puzzle, and brought peace back to Pop Star. The new mech gimmick was a delight to mess around with, and in the end, Planet Robobot’s few new features paid massive dividends that any Kirby enthusiast should love to play.


Developer: HAL Laboratory • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 06.10.16
It’s probably one of the pink puffball’s shorter adventures, but the new mech gimmick provides a fun and fresh take on Kirby’s action-platforming core that I couldn’t get enough of.
The Good New mech adds a surprising amount of depth and variety to the classic Kirby gameplay.
The Bad No sense of challenge whatsoever.
The Ugly All of Pop Star and its inhabitants becoming mechanized reminded me an awful lot of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Kirby: Planet Robobot is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

A dose of déjà vu

Like many gamers my age, I grew up with a bevy of great and quirky titles developed by Rare. What I didn’t realize until I sat down with Rare Replay—a celebratory compilation of 30 games developed by the company since its inception in the mid-80s—though, was how much they grew up right alongside me. From thumb-numbing affairs like R.C. Pro-Am for the NES to more refined efforts for the Xbox 360 like Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Rare Replay is a magnificent showcase of one of gaming’s more beloved developers and how they’ve evolved over the years.

At its core, something like Rare Replay is admittedly nostalgia driven. While reviewing the collection, hours flew by in the blink of an eye as I rediscovered titles like Cobra Triangle (my personal first Rare game from 1989) and Battletoads. And in many cases, the games played just as well now as they did back in the day, with muscle memory taking over after only a few moments—which wasn’t really all that hard considering I only had to remember two buttons usually.

Rare Replay even touts an awesome “behind-the-scenes” series of never-before-seen interviews and features that are unlocked the more you play. These fun “Rare Revealed” unlockables give you insight into your favorite titles and how they came to be, and why certain creative decisions were made—like how Conker became the foul-mouthed squirrel we now know and love, or what the genesis of Battletoads really was.

Of course, even while being swept up in the memories of my childhood and teens, it quickly became evident that not every game in the compilation stood the test of time. My rose-colored glasses cracked a bit in particular when playing Killer Instinct Gold or Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll, but that’s also to be expected to a degree when covering such a large swath of gaming history.

Where Rare Replay shines brightest, however, isn’t just in how it lets you take a stroll down memory lane. Since it’s unlikely most people have played every title in this compilation, the best moments are really when you discover a game you might’ve missed the first time around. Suddenly, you have another favorite in your gaming library, even if it’s coming from a game older than you are. In my case, that game was 1983’s Jetpac—technically developed by Rare’s eventual founders Tim and Chris Stamper and not the studio itself—that kicks off the collection with some classic early-80s arcade action.

Now, it would’ve been easy enough for Rare to just pull these games together and call it a day, but Rare Replay tries to offer up a slice of originality, too, in the form of the game’s “Snapshots.” All of Rare’s older titles come with five Snapshots—mini-challenges from a specific slice of each game—that will put a player’s skills to the test. Whether it’s defeating a boss without losing a life, earning a high score in less than a minute, or cumulatively playing a game for a certain amount of time over your career, the Snapshots try to offer up something new to pull you back into the NES era if you need some prompting.

While an interesting idea, I would’ve loved for Snapshots to be more varied. You’ll always have a cumulative one, a high score one, a combat challenge, and then maybe a couple that are more specific towards the given game. The most curious decision with Snapshots comes from the fact that not every game has them, though, and they stop altogether once you reach the N64 generation of Rare’s library. If Rare was going to try to implement something new, they should’ve done so uniformly throughout Rare Replay.

And the same goes for a special “Replay” feature in those older games. Similar to the “Rewind” option you see in games like Forza, by pressing the LT button you can actually replay the last few seconds of your game to avoid losing a life and keep going for that high score. A novel idea—even if it somewhat defeats the purpose of those older arcade games—but it’s only available in the older Rare titles.

As fun and as nostalgia-driven as this collection may be, Rare Replay is actually about a lot more than just Rare’s history. A more subtle benefit of the collection may be how it helps pave the way for the highly anticipated backwards compatibility for Xbox One. While you’re downloading and installing the bulk of the collection, separate downloads then start for games that were on the Xbox 360 like Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo: Elements of Power, and more. It ends up being nine separate Xbox 360 downloads, plus the Rare Replay collection of the remaining 21 games for 10 downloads total.

The one downside to this is, for the time being, you can only access the Xbox 360 games via Rare Replay, which acts as a sort of emulator launcher—even though each game takes up space separately on your hard drive (close to 50GB for all 10 downloads). That’s supposed to change when backwards compatibility fully comes to Xbox One sometime this fall, and in the meantime, if there are Xbox 360 games you don’t want, you can delete them apart from the main collection. At the very least, the transition between Xbox One and Xbox 360 is quick and relatively smooth after the first time you try it, and by simply holding the menu button, you can switch back to Rare Replay and the Xbox One whenever you want.

Rare Replay is a tremendous collection of great games that show how integral Rare has been to game development for the past 30 years. It may not offer up a lot that’s new gaming-wise, and it may lack some of the company’s biggest hits due to licensing issues (most notably Goldeneye 007 and the Donkey Kong Country series), but there’s plenty here that should still be celebrated. If you’re a Rare fan, there’s no better way to do so than with this compilation.

Developer: Rare Ltd. • Publisher: Microsoft • ESRB: E – Everyone to M – Mature (varies by game) • Release Date: 08.04.15
A great collection of classic games. Whether you’ve been a fan of Rare for three years or for thirty, there’s something here for everyone, with plenty of gems waiting to be discovered for the first time.
The Good Whether a Rare game junkie or a relative newcomer to their brand, everyone should find something to enjoy.
The Bad Snapshots don’t provide a lot of variety and aren’t available for all titles. Not every game stands the test of time.
The Ugly Even after nearly 25 years, I still can’t beat the Clinger-Winger stage in Battletoads. Damn you, Hypno-Ball!
Rare Replay is a Xbox One exclusive. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review.

Just the two of us

When I first saw Kalimba at last year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, it was still called Project Totem, but what started out as a quirky side project meant to entertain guests at the Press Play holiday party a few years back quickly intrigued me with its potential as a full-blown puzzle-platformer.

I’ve always had a penchant for this genre, with friends from college still referring to me as an idiot savant when it comes to effortlessly working my way through any number of twisting, trap-filled corridors. But Kalimba is novel in that you’re never controlling just one protagonist, but two—and the duo must work together in myriad ways in order to progress.

On the surface, even with the duality twist, the game seems simple enough. You find yourself on a tropical island named Kalimba, which has been protected for generations by the magic of a totem pole. An evil shaman appears one day, however, and shatters the monument, looking to cloak the island in his unique brand of dark magic. The totem pole’s guardian realizes that she can control remnants of the old pole, two pieces at a time, in the hopes of building a bigger, more elaborate magical ward. Taking control of these pieces is where players step in. With guidance from an aloof talking pink bear named Hoebear, players must work their way through 24 levels, collecting intricate wooden carvings on the way to sealing the dark shaman away forever.

The most impressive thing about Kalimba is how smoothly the difficulty scales. You start off with minimal obstacles to demonstrate how the two characters work in unison, but the action ramps up. You’ll begin by just pressing the A button to jump, but you’ll eventually swap your characters back and forth, acquire special amulets that let one of your totems walk on the ceiling or change their size, and even obtain the power of limited flight.

Even with all these new mechanics building on top of each other as the game progressed, I never felt the challenge was too much to handle. That’s partly because some levels include themed minigames based around your new powers, which give you the chance to perfect your new skills before continuing on. Not once did I feel frustrated by a puzzle—instead, I welcomed each new one with glee, and even the handful of times I had to resort to trial-and-error, the checkpoint system was generous enough that I never found myself having to replay huge sections to get back to where I’d initially gotten stuck.

The levels also feel distinct enough that there’s never any sort of repetition. Each puzzle is carefully crafted to push you to explore new ways to use the increasing range of your abilities—and this makes each successful solution all the more satisfying.

What’s more, the simple-yet-colorful art design ensures there aren’t any unnecessary distractions to take you away from the task at hand—which I appreciated, since the puzzles only get more intricate in the game’s limited local co-op mode. While this option only consists of eight levels, having four totems bouncing around the screen (with each player controlling two) requires some intense teamwork and concentration.

These level designs also succeed because of the tight controls. It wouldn’t be much of a puzzle-platformer if they stunk, but there’s a precision here that veterans of the genre can appreciate. All the jumps (particularly in the later levels, once it becomes ingrained how far your little totem avatars can go) are spaced out just perfectly, and the obstacles are set up just right so that you can make some impressive runs through each course as you start to master them.

Kalimba’s primary fault is its length—or lack thereof. Between co-op and single-player, the game offers 32 levels in total. Yes, some of the charm in a game like this lies in mastering the levels, collecting every item, or performing a speedrun courtesy of an always-running clock, but it shouldn’t take players more than three hours to get through that initial playthrough, and then it’s diminishing returns after that.

Some extra options do enhance the replayability—like “Old Skool” mode, which places you at the start at the first level with three lives, and from there, you must get through the whole game in one sitting. But again, I can’t imagine Kalimba continually drawing players back again and again, because once you solve the puzzles, it’s much easier to replicate your results the second and third time through.

When a game leaves you simply asking for more, though, it’s hard to be too disappointed. What Kalimba lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in style. With inventive puzzles, tight controls, and colorful worlds, there’s more than enough to keep those twitch reflexes sharp, and Kalimba should prove to be plenty of fun for gamers looking to put their puzzle-platforming skills to the test.

Developer: Press Play • Publisher: Microsoft • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 12.17.14
I only wish Kalimba were a bit longer, because its inventive puzzles, charming art style, and tight controls equal a winning combination for this quaint puzzle-platformer.
The Good Inventive, fun twist on the puzzle-platformer; the challenge steadily ramps up; excellent co-op mode.
The Bad A very short experience.
The Ugly Hoebear making fun of me for Achievement hunting. That hurts, dude.
Kalimba is a Xbox One exclusive. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review.

A monster mash

With all the power of PCs and new-gen hardware, it’s easy to get lost in the allure of modern amenities when it comes to videogames. But what really matters, and what keeps us coming back for more, has always been the gameplay itself. So, for me, it’s always a joy when someone decides to buck the trend and bring us a 2D platformer, hearkening back to a genre that served as a cornerstone of the industry for so long. The latest title that wants to remind us of the importance of substance over style? An indie game called Blood of the Werewolf.

Selena is one of the last living werewolves in existence. She and her husband have done their best to hide their bestial natures from the world around them and raise their son, the last hope for the werewolves, in seclusion. Some friends from the old country named Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein aren’t too keen on that idea, however, and they slay Selena’s husband when she’s not home and kidnap their child. Unfortunately for them, they decided to do this on the night of the full moon. Unleashing the monster within, Selena’s now in a race against time to get her son back and taste vengeance for her slain husband.

After playing through only a couple of levels as Selena, you’ll immediately flash back to the “good old days” of platforming where each stage is chock-full of pummeling pistons, crumbling shelves, and some purposefully placed bad guys as you work your way through the game’s 10 stages and five boss fights in the form of classic monsters Mr. Hyde, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster.

One instance in particular that screamed “old-school” for me was when I had to jump down a shaft that seemed to go on forever while automated pistons fired just above my head as I fell. If I adjusted the wrong way in mid-air, I was turned into a bloody paste. After what felt like several agonizing minutes (it was probably only a few seconds in reality), and a few heart (and body) crushing deaths later, I successfully made it to the bottom of the chasm and the end of the stage. However, Blood of the Werewolf does adjust a tad for modern audiences. While difficult traps like the one described above are present throughout, there’s no limit on lives, and generous checkpoints are scattered throughout each stage.

Coupled with the tight platforming is some solid action. Since Selena’s a werewolf, you’d be right in thinking she’d have all the powers of one—and then some. The twist here, though, is she can only use her wolf form when she’s directly touched by the moonlight. This means that for a lot of the game’s interior levels, Selena has to use other means, specifically a crossbow, to work her way closer to her lost son.

Each form has its own benefits. Selena’s attack range in human form reaches across the screen with the crossbow. She can also burn opponents when she unlocks fire arrows and when you consider many of her enemies are undead, fire can be a huge boon. Her werewolf form, however, has a double-jump, which has obvious benefits in a platformer. While the range of her claws is very limited, they can often kill most enemies in one hit.

Though I enjoyed the idea of not being in wolf form all the time and appreciate that both the crossbow and wolf forms can be upgraded by finding hidden relics scattered throughout each world, I wish I would’ve had a choice over whether or not I could enact the change in Selena, instead of having it dictated by the a level’s design or motif. The wolf is far more powerful than Selena’s human form—understandably so—and it made me miss those abilities when I was forced to remain as a human for long stretches of the game. A meter of some kind would’ve satisfied my longing for better balance between the two forms.

Speaking of better balance, the stages themselves can be brutally difficult at times, but that makes it feel invigorating when you finish each one. The boss battles, on the other hand, feel more like a break from the rest of the game instead of continuing the pulse-pounding action that builds up to the confrontation with these classic horror characters. Their patterns are easy to recognize and even easier to avoid. That’s a bit of a letdown, even if it’s fun to see each character was reimagined here.

Now, when this game was first released on PC last year, a major issue some folks had was the replayability. While the campaign’s enjoyable enough and lasts about six hours depending upon your skill level, there’s not a lot to bring you back to it. The Xbox 360 version (as well as an upgraded PC release) solves this issue with two additional gameplay options.

The first is Endless mode, which sees how far Selena can go in a single life as she takes on 100 different rooms not seen in the main game. Thankfully, your upgrades from the campaign carry over here, giving you a reason to go back to the story mode and find collectibles you might’ve missed the first time around. The second inclusion is Score Attack mode, which features a timer that counts down to test how fast you can work your way through each non-boss stage, earning points and extra seconds for collecting items and killing enemies. Plus, each mode has a global leaderboard, to help appeal to your competitive side.

Blood of the Werewolf exudes a vintage charm that cannot be denied. With its spot-on controls and interesting premise, there’s more than enough content here to warrant the cheap price of $6.99 on XBLA. Because of this, it begs gamers to test their skills and see just how much they can get done before the full moon sets and the sun rises.

Developer: Scientifically Proven • Publisher: Midnight City • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.11.14
Blood of the Werewolf is a solid 2D platformer that hearkens back to a bygone era. Tight controls and decent action make up for somewhat bland aesthetics, while the extra modes seen in this version offer more than enough replayability to garner a look from most gamers.
The Good Crisp platforming and tight controls reminiscent of classics in the genre.
The Bad Needs better balance between wolf form and human form; boss battles are a breeze compared to the levels.
The Ugly How many bodies did Dr. Frankenstein dig up to make a 50-feet-tall monster?
Blood of the Werewolf is available on Xbox 360 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by Midnight City for the benefit of this review.