Mini Review Marathon 2020

This should surprise no one, but this year I’ve played so. many. video. games. To give you an idea, I’ve played and finished over 50 new games. That’s right, 50. And that’s not including the games I’ve replayed. So the list of games that I haven’t yet reviewed is much longer than in past years. These were still interesting games in their own way, and most are still worth your time, I just didn’t have enough of mine to go into depth about all of these. Without further ado, let’s try to review 12 games as concisely as possible!

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin

A slice-of-life Metroidvania that blends Farming Sim and Action Platformer elements. Part of the time you tend and cultivate a plot of rice, and the other part you explore areas in 2D levels, fighting monsters and gathering materials you’ll need for farming. The farming aspect is significantly more advanced than other farming games you may be used to. For example, you’ll need to craft manure to nourish the rice, and the types of items you put in the manure will affect your rice’s stats. When planting, you’ll have to space the seeds apart just right to get the best yield. In addition, you’ll need to weed, harvest, dry, and thresh the rice. Most Farming Sims let you grow a variety of things but have simple mechanics, while Sakuna focuses on just one crop but goes into a lot of detail with it.

The 2D areas begin with very simple level layouts, starting more like levels from Super Mario Bros., but eventually they branch out into more complex designs. You will be going back to them often to complete new tasks and gather more materials. The combat in these areas is where they shine, though. You use a divine sash to rappel around and dodge enemies, allowing you to throw enemies into each other and deal lots of damage. It’s highly satisfying. The game is also highly atmospheric. I felt peaceful watching the seasons come and go on my little rice patty. If you’re a fan of both Metroidvanias and Farming Sims, then you will like Sakuna.

Also, not only can you pet dogs and cats, you can pick them up and hold them, too. 10 out of 10 game.

Abzu

More or less a walking simulator set in the open ocean. A SCUBA simulator, if you will, full of lush underwater environments to explore and wonderful creatures to meet. It’s incredibly short and easy, yet incredibly beautiful and atmospheric. If you’re stuck at home like me and are dying for a change in scenery, then Abzu will deliver.

Minit

A Zelda clone with a clever twist: you die every 60 seconds and are brought back to the nearest revive point. It’s Majora’s Mask set on a much faster feedback loop. This approach to game design means that the most difficult obstacles are simply ones that take a while to get to or beat. As you unlock different items and make new shortcuts, Minit gives you a micro-injection of why exploration-based action games like Zelda and Metroid are so satisfying.

New Super Mario Bros. 2

Honestly, this game was so close to being the most unique 2D Mario game ever. The coin gimmick flirts with the idea of playing Mario in an entirely new way, but sadly it never fully commits to this gimmick. The new powerups are fun, the level design is satisfying, and the 3D effect has a nice depth effect (but only when turned up just a tiny bit, too much and you can’t see the backgrounds). However, the game treats the Koopalings and Bowser as a simple copy-and-paste without any thought or consideration for the coin gimmick. If they had somehow integrated the gimmick into the story and the boss fights, then this game would have been amazing. Instead, it’s full of missed potential. It’s your average, play-it-safe Mario game when it could have been something much more imaginative.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D

This game is a significant improvement over New Super Mario Bros. 2. The environments are quite detailed and unique, even on the 3DS’s limited visuals. The level design blends seamlessly with the environments, using elements from the background a part of the challenge. One of my favorites is when tidal waves crash onto the foreground and you have to find a safe place to hide from them. I could do without the mine cart and rocket barrel levels, though. I’m not much of a Donkey Kong guy, but I am a big fan of Retro Studios, and they once again created a highly polished work. This game convinced me to buy Tropical Freeze on the Switch and consider playing the original trilogy, which are now conveniently on the SNES Switch Online app.

Poochy & Yoshi’s Wooly World

The 3DS certainly had a lot of 2D Platformers, didn’t it? However, I think this is the best of the bunch, even better than Donkey Kong Country Returns. The yarn and wool aesthetic is so stinkin’ charming, and the developers fully commit to the visual design. You pull apart the enemies and parts of the level, popping them out as yarn balls instead of  Yoshi eggs. I’m so impressed with the yarn-like details, such as the wavy flowing lava or the rippling water. The level design is superb, too. I can still recall several levels, such as when you have to pull yarn off of a chain chomp in order to move it, putting yourself at risk, and then throw yarn back onto it when you need it to stop. This was technically a port of the Wii U game, and obviously the Wii U version looks better, but I found this game running on a handheld from 2011 a technical marvel. Once again it’s worth turning up that 3D slider so the yarn critters really pop out of the screen.

Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir

Odin Sphere is a 2D Action RPG developed by Vanillaware, the same studio that I praised for developing Muramasa. This time though they tapped into Norse mythology for Odin Sphere, ditching the Metroidvania design in favor of a more complex combat system. I sunk my teeth deep into this combat and relished every moment of it.

Like Muramasa, the story is told through various playable characters. Each one has their own unique moveset, skill tree, and perspective on the story. Each is trying to avert Armageddon in their own way, and each provides you more pieces of the plot’s puzzle. Eventually the answers begin to fit together and you can stand back and see the big picture. Once again, the art style is to die for. The way light filtered through the trees, or how the lava shot from calderas, or how the food glistens on a plate, no detail was left untouched. In fact, you level up by eating at restaurants. How adorable is that?! There’s both a PS Vita and PS4 version, so if you haven’t picked this game up, do yourself a favor and do so.

Gato Roboto

A short but sweet Metroidvania where you control a cat, who in turn controls a mech. The mech is upgradable like any Metroidvania, but in some segments you have to get out of the mech to explore as a cat. This leaves you very vulnerable, but it offered a good challenge. It had that tried-and-true gameplay flow of exploring, growing stronger, beating bosses, and unlocking new areas with your abilities. It’s not super ambitious, but it’s unique enough and I adore Metroidvanias anyway. This one is usually on sale for pretty cheap, so I suggest checking it out.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (3DS Remake)

In a way, I found parts of this game more enjoyable than Paper Mario: The Origami King. This game actually shares the same inspiration – both were intended to be spiritual successors to Super Mario RPG, but whereas Paper Mario took off into more a experimental direction, the Mario & Luigi series remained more consistently in the RPG realm. That doesn’t mean it’s without its own unique mechanics, though. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga revolves around controlling both Mario Brothers simultaneously. The A button controls Mario’s actions, and the B button controls Luigi’s. This works for both exploring the world and during turn-based battles.

Controlling two characters at once sounds difficult, but it’s surprisingly intuitive. In the overworld you learn techniques to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles, and those same techniques can be used as special attacks in battle. Not only that, but in battle the A and B buttons can enhance Mario’s or Luigi’s attacks and allow them to dodge enemy attacks. In fact, if you time your button presses just right, you can avoid all damage during a fight. Superstar Saga is a fresh take on turn-based RPGs and it develops its ideas to a satisfying degree. Even if you don’t like RPGs, I think you would enjoy this highly underrated game.

Grow Home

An odd game, to say the least. You control a robot who is tasked with taking care of a giant plant, finding glowing rocks for it to get energy from. You have to climb, glide, and stumble your way up the plant and grow parts of the plant to reach the rocks. There are no enemies, through the janky ragdoll physics are a bit of an antagonist all on their own. Imagine Breath of the Wild with a tweaked climbing mechanic and a smaller but more focused sandbox.

Pikuniku

This game is a joke. Literally. It was punchline after punchline, and I rarely went five minutes without the game making me laugh. Regarding gameplay, it’s all over the place, but that’s kind of the point. You have platforming segments, you have stealth segments, you have puzzle segments, you have a few odd boss fights… and then you’re done. But that’s okay. It can be really difficult to get humor right in a video game, but Pikuniku did it.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

I may do a full review of this later, but suffice it to say, Age of Calamity was my first Warriors game (or if you prefer, “musou game”), and I quite enjoyed myself! The gameplay is an Action RPG where you participate in epic, large-scale battles. You mow through waves of enemies while taking on bosses to meet certain objectives. There are some light strategy elements thrown in as well, and various map layouts to keep each mission interesting. Some people say that these Warriors games are too button-mashy and repetitive, but Age of Calamity has some tricks to keep this from happening. First of all, there are several different characters with different movesets and ever-evolving button combos to keep you on your toes. Secondly, there is almost always a pressing objective that you need to meet. You barely have time to relax because you have to send characters here and there across the map to put out fires as they come up. I only wish that the companion AI was a bit better at actually doing stuff when you’re not controlling a them.

Move over, R2D2, there’s a new baby robot in town.

However, while I was pleasantly surprised by the gameplay, the story was unexpectedly disappointing. The game’s whole premise is that you see what happens in the war leading up to the Great Calamity. However, that’s a bit of a false pretense. It dives more into alternate timeline shenanigans, and a deus ex machina solves the characters’ main problems. There was surprisingly little character development for the Four Champions, though Zelda and her father had a lovely growth arc. The antagonist is the most flat and underdeveloped Zelda antagonist I’ve ever seen. In a way, I kind of prefer the way Breath of the Wild handles its story, as it only gives you vignettes and allows your imagination to fill the rest. Age of Calamity, meanwhile, gives a lot of screentime to our characters without them actually saying all that much.

Urbosa is one of my favorites – she’s such a boss.

The redeeming quality and appeal to this game are the playable characters. If you always wanted to play as Zelda, or one of the Champions like the smarmy Revali or the awesome Urbosa, then this game is 110% wish fulfillment. I got a good laugh out of the unlockable characters as well. With that in mind, I still recommend it to anyone who liked Breath of the Wild, but I advise that you to go in with lower story expectations.

And there you have it! I told you I played a ton of games this year. As is tradition, this is my last post of the year. I’ll go on break for the next few weeks and start back up on January 11th. Thanks for sticking with me throughout this mess of a year. I’ll see you in 2021!

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