Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle And The Millionaire’s Conspiracy Review – Merry Old England

So much of the appeal of the original Professor Layton games on Nintendo DS comes from the sheer warmth. It’s a mahogany-toned warm blanket of a series of detective games. The puzzles might be non-sequitur brain-busters, but when it’s all over, you’re welcomed back into the game’s world with all the comfort of a cup of tea. Come now, chin up, don’t worry about how annoying that last one was, here’s another bad pun to soothe what ails you.

Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires’ Conspiracy walks the series back to that original warmth of its humble roots in the visual mystery novel genre. It’s a game that revels in its relative simplicity the way the series hasn’t in some time. Dig in deep enough, though, and you’ll find a game that conceals more than a couple of devious surprises under its sunny exterior.

The latest entry in the Layton’s Mystery Journey series once again takes place in a sort of Studio Ghibli-fied version of turn-of-the-century London. The hero detective this time around is the good professor’s cheery, aloof, and persistently hungry daughter, Katrielle. She’s joined by Ernest Grieves, a straight-laced and faithful assistant if there ever was one, and a basset hound who Kat names, in the game’s single laziest pun, Sherl O.C. Kholmes. As it turns out, Sherl is actually suffering from Detective Pikachu Syndrome: He’s able to talk to a select few humans, but he also has amnesia so he has no idea how exactly he got into this mess. Unfortunately, poor Sherl has to stick it out for a while longer, since the intro is the last time the game addresses his whole predicament in any meaningful way.

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The game’s lack of an all-encompassing narrative is par for the course, however, and for most of the play time, it’s not necessarily to its detriment. The usual Layton series storytelling returns: It’s a visual novel at its core, with long stretches of dialogue with various characters broken up by point-and-click puzzles. As opposed to the earlier games’ overarching mysteries, however, Katrielle’s first outing is actually an episodic affair, where each case is its own self-contained little tale of low-stakes peril, ranging from the minute hand going missing from Big Ben to a wealthy madam’s missing cat, disconnected from any larger character development for the main protagonists until the literal final hour. What the game lacks in straightforward character arcs that build over the entire playtime, it makes up for in building an enormous and eclectic cast of oddballs and weirdos with hilariously punny names and peculiar quirks. Katrielle’s relationship with each character may only last for a single case, but each case is structured in such a way that the broad strokes–the frequent clapbacks, one-off zingers, friendly jabs at everyone’s expense–are allowed to make an impression. As far as the narrative is concerned, each new character is made to be memorable, not practical. And the episodic format makes it easy to enjoy the game in short bursts. Even if you only have a few minutes to spare, you can meet someone new, push the story forward, or finish a crucial puzzle.

Well, you can try to finish a crucial puzzle at the very least, but not all of them are pushovers. In lieu of any legitimate detective work, most of what you’ll be doing to help take a bite out of English crime is solving a vast series of one-off puzzles of various sorts for whoever asks. Some are just basic spatial problems, such as having a vat that holds five gallons of liquid and another that holds three, and trying to figure out how to get four gallons. Others are quirky little mini-games more akin to what you may find in WarioWare, just with a tricky twist like having a limit on how many moves you can make to finish the game. Some, however, are just flat out riddles, and these tend to be the ones that may leave you white-knuckle frustrated.

The game fires its first warning shot early on, with a riddle about the minimum number of times you need to touch a clock to get it to display properly. It’s a problem that’s very easy to overthink, not because the solution is simple, but because the description of the problem begs additional questions that the game does not answer.

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Thankfully, for the vast majority of puzzles, sheer persistence is enough to power through and guess correctly. There are also tokens you can find scattered around every environment that allow you to unlock hints. However, even in cases where the hint walks you right up to the solution, the answer and its explanation can defy common sense in a truly underwhelming way that leaves you less with an “aha!” feeling of brilliance and more of an “oh, come on” feeling of disappointment.

That flaw is even more mind-boggling considering just how well localized and executed the game is otherwise. Each character is charming in their own right, rife with British affectations and deep-cut historical references–the Mayor’s name is a play on London’s original name from centuries ago. And when the game slips into its all-too-short and oddly placed stretches of voice acting or fully animated cutscenes, it’s chock-full of naturalistic and pleasant performances across the board, from Katrielle’s gentle lilt to Sherl’s stiff-upper-lip aristocratic grumble. No small effort has gone into truly realizing this world, causing the lack of clarity when it really matters to sting all the more.

But, perhaps more than any other game in the series, there’s plenty here allowing you to step back from the source of your aggravation and recharge. Exploring each environment turns up special coins that allow you to unlock new outfits for Kat and new furniture for her office. As you progress, you also unlock mini-games that are completely disconnected from the main quest–you can help a local chef cook a perfect meal for the residents of Kat’s neighborhood, you can run a maze where you have only a limited number of moves, or, you can play any of the dozens of additional puzzles that aren’t connected to progress in any of the actual cases. On mobile, this content was parsed out, piecemeal, over time after release. On the Switch, the game is overwhelmingly generous with content within an hour of starting, and most of it is just as charming and endlessly replayable as the rest of the game.

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If there’s any one thing truly getting in the way of your joy, it’s the Switch itself. The Professor Layton games were staples of the Nintendo DS, taking full advantage of the added screen real estate so whatever you did on one screen didn’t block what was happening on the other. The Switch, however, has limitations the DS didn’t. Playing in docked mode means using the Joy-Cons to move your cursor around like a mouse, which is nice, but also a bit too fast and twitchy for many of the puzzles. In handheld, you have the option of using the analog sticks to move your cursor, which has the same problem with even less precision. You can also use the Switch’s touchscreen, but your fingers are too often in the way of the rest of the screen. This is a game that simply begs for a stylus.

In Katrielle Layton’s London, it’s a season of golden leaves, stiff breezes, and sun that provides light but less warmth. It’s the perfect atmosphere for a game that provides such quaint joys for hours on end, cackling at its next pun, zippy one-liner, or absurd new scenario while putting creaky parts of the brain to good use. Sometimes the breeze is a bit too cold, or there’s rain, or, oh, you know, the solution to a logic problem you’ve been staring at for 45 minutes might be “air” and you hate everything for a few minutes, but it doesn’t last, and the next pleasant moment is never too far away.

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Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order Review – Never Tell Me The Odds

Star Wars games often feel estranged from the franchise that spawned them. Video games have gotten very good at capturing the aesthetic of Star Wars–the cold metallic angles of Imperial architecture, the powerful hum of a lightsaber, the electric snap of a blaster bolt hitting home–but can struggle to get beneath the surface. It’s the rare Star Wars game that reaches beyond how Star Wars looks to explore what Star Wars is really about.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the latest game in the canon, is one of the better offerings specifically because it tries to look beyond the trappings of Star Wars. It’s not just another Jedi power fantasy, although wielding the Force with skill and resolve will certainly make you feel powerful. Like the best Star Wars games, it’s one that adds to the ideas of the films and other material, exploring new corners of the galaxy while focusing on the core themes of the franchise: knowing yourself, fighting your own darkness, and braving adversity with the help of friends.

Friendship has always been one of the main drives of Star Wars, especially in the original film trilogy, and it’s the core of what makes Jedi: Fallen Order work in both story and gameplay. The primary relationship of the game is between Cal Kestis, a Jedi padawan in hiding in the aftermath of the Jedi Purge that took place in Revenge of the Sith, and BD-1, a droid entrusted with a secret mission by the Jedi Master that previously owned it. Once Cal and BD-1 meet, they become inseparable, working together as partners to solve puzzles in forgotten ruins, navigate alien environments, and beat back the Empire.

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The pair work throughout the game to complete a scavenger hunt created by BD’s last companion, Master Cordova. Before he vanished, Cordova locked away a list of Force-sensitive children throughout the galaxy that could be used to resuscitate the destroyed Jedi Order and challenge the Empire. He left clues to how to retrieve that list hidden in BD, requiring Cal and the droid to travel to various worlds, following in Cordova’s footsteps to free up BD’s encrypted memories.

Functionally, BD is Cal’s constant companion as he rides around on the Jedi’s back, and Cal regularly talks with the droid as they explore Fallen Order’s planets. BD also serves several support functions in gameplay. Most importantly, BD provides Cal with “stims” that allow him to heal himself in the middle of Fallen Order’s often-oppressive combat. He can also function as a zipline, unlock doors, and hack certain droid enemies to turn the tides of battle. BD is just enough a part of any given fight or puzzle that you’re always aware of his presence and his help, but it’s Cal’s constant interactions with the little droid that really build out their relationship.

You definitely need BD’s help and the upgrades you find for him throughout your journey, because Fallen Order can be punishing. It lifts a number of gameplay ideas directly from the Soulsborne genre; enemies are often tough-as-nails and can deal big damage if you’re complacent, whether they’re Imperial stormtroopers taking potshots or two-foot rats leaping out of burrows to snap at Cal’s throat. Fighting isn’t just about wailing on everyone with your lightsaber, but rather relies heavily on blocking and carefully timed parries if you mean to stay alive against even the most run-of-the-mill foes. You and your enemies also have a stamina meter to manage, which dictates how many blows you can defend against before you stagger, and adds a strategic element to duels. To win a battle, you need to whittle down an enemy’s stamina while blocking, parrying, and dodging to manage your own. Since every blow you sustain can be devastating, combat becomes an exciting, cerebral exercise in pretty much every case. You’ll spend a lot of time not only honing your parrying skills, but also making quick battlefield decisions about how you can isolate dangerous enemies or use your Force powers to even up the odds.

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You can only heal from a limited number of stims or by resting at periodic meditation points, similar to Dark Souls‘ bonfires, and using them respawns all the enemies in the area, which makes being a smart combatant even more critical. Killing enemies and finding collectibles nets you experience, which accumulates into Skill Points you can spend on new abilities for Cal. But dying costs all the experience you earned since your last Skill Point unless you can find and damage the enemy who bested you.

Though the elements of Fallen Order are Souls-like–it’s probably most closely comparable to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in fact–on most difficulty settings, it’s far less brutal than From Software’s games. Fallen Order might be considered Soulsborne-lite, making use of the same elements but to a different effect. It’s tough, even occasionally frustrating, but not nearly so much as the games from which it draws its inspirations. That balance achieves something that feels essential to Fallen Order’s identity: It makes you a powerful Jedi Knight, without turning you into an unstoppable Force-wielding superhero. Ratcheting back on the Jedi powers (and forcing you to unlock them as you work through the story and deal with Cal’s past) helps Fallen Order’s take on the Star Wars universe feel grounded and believable–a place where people could actually live.

Your lack of overwhelming power also helps make the ever-looming Empire a frightening threat, even as individual soldiers comedically call out their own ineptitude in pretty much every battle. Cal spends the entire game hunted by the Inquisition, a subset of the Empire’s forces specifically tasked with exterminating Jedi. Because every fight is potentially deadly, running into the game’s specially trained Purge Troopers is always an event, and you’re forced not only test your lightsaber skills and timing, but to consider all the abilities at your disposal to make it out alive.

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The rest of the game often has to do with clambering around the environment and solving puzzles, not unlike Tomb Raider, God of War, or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Navigating the world is as much about using observation and problem-solving skills as your Force tools. Respawn’s Souls-inspired map design allows you to explore off the beaten path without ever really getting lost, and each planet is richly realized and fascinating to explore. The intricate pathways encourage you to wander off and visit each planet’s varied environments to see what you might uncover, and Fallen Order always make sure you’re rewarded with a bit of story, a cosmetic item, or even an optional miniboss fight.

When you’re between missions on planets, you’re spending time with Fallen Order’s two other major characters, Cere and Greez. They’re the pair who manage to save Cal in the early hours of the game when his Jedi nature is discovered by the Empire, and they put him on the quest to find the list of Force-sensitives before the Inquisitors can get their hands on it. Though the story is a little rough in the early going as Cal is thrown directly into the quest with little lead-up or explanation, Fallen Order’s story starts to excel around the halfway point as his relationships with BD, Cere, and Greez really start to develop. Once Fallen Order starts to invest in the interpersonal dynamics and deepening friendships of its cast, it really hits a stride–and its quest feels less like an elaborate series of tasks to fetch a MacGuffin, and more like an essential addition to the ongoing Star Wars saga.

It does take Fallen Order a while to get there, though. The first few planets are a bit on the dull side, rushing to get Cal on his quest through the galaxy without really establishing why you should really care. Until it starts to click later in the game as you unlock more Force powers, combat can be a hassle, especially at certain boss battles or chokepoints, when your last meditation point is some distance away and you have to navigate through the same chunks of the map over and over. And while parrying is an essential part of the game, at higher difficulties, the timing can feel finicky and unreliable.

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The game also loves to throw handfuls of enemies at you all at once, which can be overwhelming, and combat against lower-tier enemies is built to lock you into finisher animations in a lot of cases. Instead of making you feel like a cool, well-trained warrior, these usually just leave you open to some Imperial dork wandering up with an electrobaton and clocking you in the head. It’s only after you get enough Force powers to effectively control the crowds that these moments become more exciting than irritating. But throughout the game, there are always times when an enemy you couldn’t see because of the game’s tight targeting lock system gets in a cheap hit, forcing you to replay a fair stretch of its large, interweaving maps.

But especially as it wears on, Fallen Order becomes perhaps the strongest conception of what playing as a Jedi Knight ought to really be like. It’s true that Fallen Order borrows liberally from other action games, but those elements work together with Respawn’s combat and environment design, and a story that finds humanity in the Force and in its characters, to hone in on what makes the world of Star Wars worthy of revisiting again and again. Even with some rough edges, Fallen Order represents one of the most compelling game additions to the Star Wars franchise in years.

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Need For Speed Heat Review – Getting Warmer

Racing in Palm City–the fictional street racing capital of the world–is all about earning money and building a reputation. During the day there are sanctioned races on closed streets, with safety barriers, an adoring crowd, and substantial cash prizes awaiting those who cross the finish line. At night, illegal street racing engulfs the city’s neon-soaked roads, and the police respond in kind, blanketing the star-lit sky in the sound of thunderous V12s and whirring sirens. This dichotomy between day and night sets Need for Speed Heat apart from its contemporaries, and makes for Ghost Games’ best entry to date, stripping away a lot of the series’ needless baggage to get to the heart of what Need for Speed is all about.

There’s still a hackneyed story about crooked cops and racing crews that take themselves far too seriously; it’s full of corny dialogue, farfetched stakes, and irritating characters that wouldn’t make the cut in earlier Fast and Furious movies. Story missions occasionally crop up, too, forcing you to follow a character while they talk at you, and there’s even one instance of a dire tailing mission. Aside from this, however, the narrative is mostly relegated to background noise that’s easy to ignore, especially if you opt to skip any of its cutscenes. Need for Speed Heat is mostly focused on getting you behind the wheel of a car you’ve customized yourself, altering everything from the ludicrously oversized spoiler on the back, right down to the distinct sound of the engine.

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Each aspect of the game’s design is built around the core dynamic between day and night. Official circuit races dominate the faux-Miami streets when the sun is beaming, rewarding you with cash that can be spent on new cars, parts, and visual customization options. The autoparts companies and car salesmen in Palm City are a peculiar bunch, though. They won’t sell to just anyone–such is their love of cars. They have to know that you’re “cool” enough and are going to put their parts to good use, so the dead of night is spent competing in illegal street races to earn rep and convince them of your pedigree. This creates a clear divide between day and night that gradually cultivates this enjoyable flow, as you switch back and forth between the two time frames depending on whether you need money or rep.

The duality of this concept establishes an unmistakable vibe to each time of day–almost like they’re two completely different worlds. The sunlit streets feel relatively safe, with sanctioned events emanating a casual, crowd-pleasing atmosphere. Courses are clearly marked with barricades, there’s room to drift your car sideways around most corners, and the only thing you have to worry about is beating the other competitors to the finish line. By contrast, Palm City’s nightlife is risky and fraught with danger. Rain that was previously casting a gloomy shadow over the day’s races has now settled onto the surface of the road, as visually-striking puddles absorb the city’s neon haze and reflect it back. Traffic clogs the streets, making races feel more claustrophobic, and the threat of the police getting involved is a perpetual source of concern.

Cops in Need for Speed Heat introduce a unique sense of dread because of the way they’re intrinsically linked to your rep. As you win races and accumulate more and more rep during a night’s work, your Heat level will steadily rise. Catching the attention of the boys in blue will expedite your Heat’s ascension, with cops becoming more aggressive and plentiful the higher it climbs. There’s an element of risk and reward here, as a higher Heat level means a larger multiplier for all of the rep you’ve accrued in a single night. The only way to bank that rep is by escaping the police and reaching a safe house, but this is easier said than done when the police are on your tail like a bad rash. You can play it safe and store what rep you have, or extend the night by antagonizing the police in the hope that you’ll be able to shake them when your multiplier is higher. Need for Speed Heat’s best moments come when you’ve led the fuzz on a jolly merry-go-round and manage to ditch them by the skin of your teeth to bank a considerable amount of rep.

Although the police do have a tendency to feel unfair. If they get close enough and bring your car to a sudden halt, a “busting” timer appears, automatically signaling an end to your escapades if it ticks all the way down. The problem with this, aside from how fast it runs out, is that it will continue to count away the seconds even after you’ve accelerated away from the police. It should be difficult to escape the cop’s clutches, but since you can get arrested if they total your car, ending up in cuffs because an arbitrary timer counts down when you’re not even penned in is frustrating. There are also very obvious moments when police cars will spawn directly in front of you to prolong a chase. Sure, they might be crooked cops, but that doesn’t stop their blatant cheating from dulling the pulse-quickening thrill of each hot pursuit.

These scenarios can be thrilling, however, especially when you push your car into top gear. There’s a fantastic sense of speed in Need for Speed Heat, as cars and lights blur past your wing mirrors at what feels like 300 miles per hour. A noticeable lag on your steering inputs does make each car feel slightly heavier than they otherwise should, though. The handling model also doesn’t have the malleability to alter the handling from one car to the next, so they all end up feeling relatively similar to drive aside from variations in speed and acceleration. Drifting is also a tad iffy, borrowing its mechanics from the likes of Ridge Racer as opposed to Need for Speed’s past. Rather than feathering the brakes to get your car sideways, Need for Speed Heat asks you to let go of the accelerator and then pump it again in order to achieve a successful drift. It’s a realistic approach, boiling drifting down to deft throttle control, but it can be difficult to get a handle on at first, namely because pumping the brakes feels much more intuitive due to the past 15 or so years of racing games adopting this method. Thankfully you can alter the control scheme, and drifting is generally quite fun regardless. It feels a lot slower than it has in the past, but you have much more control over angles and potentially extending the length of your car’s rubber-burning slide.

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There are dedicated drift events, too, which require you to purchase the appropriate parts if you want to come out on top, and it’s here where Need for Speed Heat significantly improves upon its immediate predecessor, Payback. There are no luck-based Speed Cards needed to improve your car, nor are you limited to using specific vehicles in designated events. Instead, the upgrade system in Need for Speed Heat gives you the freedom to take a Nissan Skyline and mix and match parts such as the suspension, tires, and differential, until you have a car that can compete in road races, off-road races, and drift events–it’s just a shame there aren’t a few more event types to partake in. On top of that, there are also myriad parts available if you want to fully upgrade each car’s performance, along with a veritable bucketload of customization options, just in case you’ve ever wanted to control how much fiery overrun spurts out of the exhaust pipes. Each part is moderately priced so money is never much of an issue, and better parts are unlocked simply by increasing your reputation.

With only a select few events, no discernible difference between each car’s handling, and a simplistic driving model, Need for Speed Heat does stumble into repetition during its final few hours. It’s not quite a rip-roaring return to form, then, but this latest entry puts the Need for Speed series back on the right track. The duality of its day and night events props up what would otherwise be a fairly run-of-the-mill racing game, but the renewed focus on hurtling around the track, racing wheel-to-wheel, and customizing each car in numerous ways, taps into the essence of what Need for Speed used to be about. Need for Speed Heat may not revolutionize racing games, but it’s the best the series has been in a long, long time.

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Pokemon Sword & Shield Review – Polteageist And Crumpets

With each new Pokemon game comes a new set of Pokemon, mechanics, and a region to discover, and Sword and Shield are no exception. The vibrant Galar region is a consistent delight to explore, incentivizing and rewarding collecting and battling in equal measure, and grandiose battles add an exciting dimension to the familiar Gym formula to deliver an engaging adventure beginning to end. But most notably, Sword and Shield cut down on the tedious and protracted elements from previous games in favor of amplifying what makes Pokemon great in the first place. This is the most balanced a Pokemon game has felt in a long time, and with that, Sword and Shield mark the best new generation of Pokemon games in years.

The games waste no time in getting you a starter Pokemon and off on your way to becoming the Champion. You can even skip some of the hand-holding you’d get in previous games, including the “how to catch Pokemon” tutorial, which hasn’t been done since 2001’s Pokemon Crystal; if you simply catch some Pokemon right away, the character who would have taught you acknowledges that you’re already good to go instead. You can reach the new Wild Area, an open-world expanse filled with all kinds of Pokemon of all levels, within an hour or so of starting your adventure.

And the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day’s weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It’s all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven’t caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn’t realize you could catch in the wild. There’s constantly something new to do or discover, and it’s there to engage you right out of the gate.

Both in the Wild Area and outside of it, the Galar region is stunning. Locales from industrial city centers to rolling hills in shades of green and gold are vivid and beautiful, and small details, like Wooloo playing in a field, add a lot of charm. The United Kingdom-inspired motif includes both crumbling medieval castles and booming football-inspired stadiums, punk musicians and posh snobs–though Galar is still surprising to explore, not adhering so close to theme as to be totally predictable. I even found myself pushing ahead to the next town hoping to find a boutique with new clothes and accessories, on top of everything else waiting to be discovered in each locale, because the UK-inspired plaids and streetwear looks are cute.

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You’re given much more freedom to explore than in previous generations. Sword and Shield go even further than Sun and Moon did in banishing HMs for good; you can fast travel to locations you’ve visited before from anywhere outside starting quite early in the game, and you have a bike that can later convert to a water vehicle to replace Surf. All other roadblocks, like trees in your path you need to Cut or large stones you need to move with Strength, are relics of the past. There are still hooligans that will artificially block your path at certain points in the story, but the actual hurdles to movement are completely gone.

Random encounters are also gone, and instead, you see Pokemon roaming all of Galar–even in the traditional routes and caves–which helps distinguish one area from the next. There are some Pokemon that remain hidden in the tall grass, denoted by an exclamation point, but you have to run toward the rustling grass to actually initiate the fight, so you’re never caught totally by surprise. Some Pokemon can only be found this way; this further encourages you to explore each locale thoroughly while making return trips painless, free of constant interruptions by wild Pokemon or stopping to use Repels to keep them away.

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For wild Pokemon, battles are true to the established formula, but for big battles, Sword and Shield strip out Mega Evolution and Z-moves in favor of a new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing, which is sort of a combination of the two and can only be activated in certain locations. A Dynamaxed Pokemon grows to a massive size and is stronger overall, and its moves convert to superpowered ones based on type. It’s much more bombastic than Mega Evolution or even Z-moves, but functionally, it’s simpler–and that’s refreshing. After years of using both Mega Evolution and Z-moves in high-level battles, Dynamaxing is a welcome reset that also feels like a natural evolution of the increasingly high-octane battle mechanics of recent games. Any Pokemon can Dynamax, too; you’re just limited by location rather than an item, so it’s a more flexible way to battle that works for relaxed and competitive battles alike.

Dynamaxing is a fixture of the new Max Raids, in which you and three other people or NPCs take on a giant Pokemon at certain locations in the Wild Area. Raid Pokemon can vary from run-of-the-mill, easy-to-catch Pokemon to ones that are incredibly hard to find in the wild, but regardless, the rewards are fantastic; completing a raid, even if the Pokemon escapes and you fail to catch it, nets you tons of rare and important items. Plus, the Pokemon you get from raids are guaranteed to have some perfect stats, so even duplicate Pokemon are worth catching again.

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At the lower levels, the raids are pretty easy, and you’ll likely have no trouble taking them on with only NPCs in tow. But the four- and five-star raids are challenging to the point where I couldn’t even complete some of them without the help of other human players. This is a welcome level of difficulty in the post-game, and communicating locally to get a raid group together is seamless–all you have to do is put out a call for raid partners (or people to trade or battle with in general), and nearby players will get a notification and have the option to join you from the social menu. It’s a great alternative to traditional competitive play after you’ve beaten the game, and while it does feed into competitive battling in both the item rewards and the caliber of Pokemon you’re catching, it’s satisfying just to overcome the challenge with friends.

The new Pokemon themselves are fantastic as a set. Quite a few of them seem geared for competitive play, with abilities and moves that inspire interesting strategies. Galarian Weezing, for example, has an ability that neutralizes opponents’ abilities; because many battle strategies involve use of abilities like Intimidate or Sand Stream to set up the battlefield to your advantage, Weezing could be a serious threat. There are also the aesthetically-inclined Pokemon, like the incredibly goth Corviknight or the adorable electric corgi Yamper, to inspire collectors. Throughout my journey, I was consistently delighted to discover each new Gen 8 Pokemon and the Galarian forms of older ones.

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The starters, sadly, are among the worst of the new Pokemon; while they’re cute at first, their final evolutions are all not great. Each fits the British theme in a clever way and has a unique move to go with it, but on a purely visual level, all three are awkward with no clear winner among them. I still feel guilty confining my starter to the Pokemon Box, but it at least freed up a spot in my party to try out the new Pokemon I do like.

The Pokedex features a healthy mix of old Pokemon from each previous generation as well. There are certainly surprising omissions, but like with the new Pokemon, the list includes both fun Pokemon and competitive ones, plus an even spread of types. Sword and Shield might not have every Pokemon in existence, but what’s here is balanced exquisitely for battle, cuteness factor, and type. And because there are items that give Pokemon experience points now–and because you can access your Pokemon boxes almost anywhere–you can easily change up your team on the fly without having to stop and grind just to get a new Pokemon caught up in level. I experimented with different Pokemon more during Shield’s main story than I ever did in a previous Pokemon game, and it made me appreciate the Gen 8 Pokemon even more.

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It also makes for a more digestible experience. The Wild Area is expansive, and because the available Pokemon change with the weather, it can look very different from one day to the next. There are enough Pokemon to keep things dynamic and surprising as you explore each day, but with some consistency across each biome so you know at least what kinds of Pokemon to expect. Even after 55 hours, there are still Pokemon I have no idea how to find, and uncovering the Wild Area’s secrets bit by bit has been a treat.

If anything, the constant draw of the Wild Area made the pacing of the story a bit choppy. I wandered and explored for five hours before challenging my first Gym, then defeated the next two in quick succession before breaking again to revisit the Wild Area. That said, I also was never too over- or underpowered for each Gym, and I was eager to explore in between them regardless. You can also do more in the Wild Area than just battle and catch Pokemon–you can camp out and make curry with your Pokemon, and that ended up being a lovely distraction. Making curry and playing with my Pokemon was a great way to break up longer excursions, plus a convenient way to heal everybody at once, and it’s really just an adorable way to spend a few minutes.

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The Gyms themselves are a refinement on the longstanding formula in which you would have to go through a maze or solve a little puzzle to reach the Gym Leader. Similarly, each has a Gym Challenge, but they vary from herding Wooloo to competing with NPC trainers to catch a Pokemon, and this keeps things from getting stale. Dynamaxing combines with anime-style drama to make the Gym battles themselves appropriately exciting, too, as your opponents tend to put on quite the show when they enter the stadium. While the Gym and other story battles are largely pretty simple, some of the later ones do take more thought (and a few revives, in my case).

For competitive battles, small but significant quality-of-life tweaks greatly reduce the remaining barriers to entry. There are now items that allow you to change a Pokemon’s nature, which was the main missing piece in getting Pokemon battle-ready without hours and hours of tedious breeding and soft-resetting. You can also leave two Pokemon of the same species in the Daycare together, and one can pass Egg Moves to the other, meaning you don’t have to re-breed a Pokemon just because you forgot to put one Egg Move on it or changed your strategy a bit. The post-game Battle Tower also includes rental teams right off the bat to introduce you to some basic strategies, which also means you can start climbing the ranks without scrambling to prepare a slipshod team of your own first. All of this gets you battling at a competitive level much more quickly than was possible before, which is the whole point.

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In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokemon games so captivating in the first place. You’re not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokemon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokemon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series’ proper debut on Switch.

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Pokemon Sword & Shield Review – Wild Things

With each new Pokemon game comes a new set of Pokemon, mechanics, and a region to discover, and Sword and Shield are no exception. The vibrant Galar region is a consistent delight to explore, incentivizing and rewarding collecting and battling in equal measure, and grandiose battles add an exciting dimension to the familiar Gym formula to deliver an engaging adventure beginning to end. But most notably, Sword and Shield cut down on the tedious and protracted elements from previous games in favor of amplifying what makes Pokemon great in the first place. This is the most balanced a Pokemon game has felt in a long time, and with that, Sword and Shield mark the best new generation of Pokemon games in years.

The games waste no time in getting you a starter Pokemon and off on your way to becoming the Champion. You can even skip some of the hand-holding you’d get in previous games, including the “how to catch Pokemon” tutorial, which hasn’t been done since 2001’s Pokemon Crystal; if you simply catch some Pokemon right away, the character who would have taught you acknowledges that you’re already good to go instead. You can reach the new Wild Area, an open-world expanse filled with all kinds of Pokemon of all levels, within an hour or so of starting your adventure.

And the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day’s weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It’s all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven’t caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn’t realize you could catch in the wild. There’s constantly something new to do or discover, and it’s there to engage you right out of the gate.

Both in the Wild Area and outside of it, the Galar region is stunning. Locales from industrial city centers to rolling hills in shades of green and gold are vivid and beautiful, and small details, like Wooloo playing in a field, add a lot of charm. The United Kingdom-inspired motif includes both crumbling medieval castles and booming football-inspired stadiums, punk musicians and posh snobs–though Galar is still surprising to explore, not adhering so close to theme as to be totally predictable. I even found myself pushing ahead to the next town hoping to find a boutique with new clothes and accessories, on top of everything else waiting to be discovered in each locale, because the UK-inspired plaids and streetwear looks are cute.

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You’re given much more freedom to explore than in previous generations. Sword and Shield go even further than Sun and Moon did in banishing HMs for good; you can fast travel to locations you’ve visited before from anywhere outside starting quite early in the game, and you have a bike that can later convert to a water vehicle to replace Surf. All other roadblocks, like trees in your path you need to Cut or large stones you need to move with Strength, are relics of the past. There are still hooligans that will artificially block your path at certain points in the story, but the actual hurdles to movement are completely gone.

Random encounters are also gone, and instead, you see Pokemon roaming all of Galar–even in the traditional routes and caves–which helps distinguish one area from the next. There are some Pokemon that remain hidden in the tall grass, denoted by an exclamation point, but you have to run toward the rustling grass to actually initiate the fight, so you’re never caught totally by surprise. Some Pokemon can only be found this way; this further encourages you to explore each locale thoroughly while making return trips painless, free of constant interruptions by wild Pokemon or stopping to use Repels to keep them away.

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For wild Pokemon, battles are true to the established formula, but for big battles, Sword and Shield strip out Mega Evolution and Z-moves in favor of a new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing, which is sort of a combination of the two and can only be activated in certain locations. A Dynamaxed Pokemon grows to a massive size and is stronger overall, and its moves convert to superpowered ones based on type. It’s much more bombastic than Mega Evolution or even Z-moves, but functionally, it’s simpler–and that’s refreshing. After years of using both Mega Evolution and Z-moves in high-level battles, Dynamaxing is a welcome reset that also feels like a natural evolution of the increasingly high-octane battle mechanics of recent games. Any Pokemon can Dynamax, too; you’re just limited by location rather than an item, so it’s a more flexible way to battle that works for relaxed and competitive battles alike.

Dynamaxing is a fixture of the new Max Raids, in which you and three other people or NPCs take on a giant Pokemon at certain locations in the Wild Area. Raid Pokemon can vary from run-of-the-mill, easy-to-catch Pokemon to ones that are incredibly hard to find in the wild, but regardless, the rewards are fantastic; completing a raid, even if the Pokemon escapes and you fail to catch it, nets you tons of rare and important items. Plus, the Pokemon you get from raids are guaranteed to have some perfect stats, so even duplicate Pokemon are worth catching again.

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At the lower levels, the raids are pretty easy, and you’ll likely have no trouble taking them on with only NPCs in tow. But the four- and five-star raids are challenging to the point where I couldn’t even complete some of them without the help of other human players. This is a welcome level of difficulty in the post-game, and communicating locally to get a raid group together is seamless–all you have to do is put out a call for raid partners (or people to trade or battle with in general), and nearby players will get a notification and have the option to join you from the social menu. It’s a great alternative to traditional competitive play after you’ve beaten the game, and while it does feed into competitive battling in both the item rewards and the caliber of Pokemon you’re catching, it’s satisfying just to overcome the challenge with friends.

The new Pokemon themselves are fantastic as a set. Quite a few of them seem geared for competitive play, with abilities and moves that inspire interesting strategies. Galarian Weezing, for example, has an ability that neutralizes opponents’ abilities; because many battle strategies involve use of abilities like Intimidate or Sand Stream to set up the battlefield to your advantage, Weezing could be a serious threat. There are also the aesthetically-inclined Pokemon, like the incredibly goth Corviknight or the adorable electric corgi Yamper, to inspire collectors. Throughout my journey, I was consistently delighted to discover each new Gen 8 Pokemon and the Galarian forms of older ones.

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The starters, sadly, are among the worst of the new Pokemon; while they’re cute at first, their final evolutions are all not great. Each fits the British theme in a clever way and has a unique move to go with it, but on a purely visual level, all three are awkward with no clear winner among them. I still feel guilty confining my starter to the Pokemon Box, but it at least freed up a spot in my party to try out the new Pokemon I do like.

The Pokedex features a healthy mix of old Pokemon from each previous generation as well. There are certainly surprising omissions, but like with the new Pokemon, the list includes both fun Pokemon and competitive ones, plus an even spread of types. Sword and Shield might not have every Pokemon in existence, but what’s here is balanced exquisitely for battle, cuteness factor, and type. And because there are items that give Pokemon experience points now–and because you can access your Pokemon boxes almost anywhere–you can easily change up your team on the fly without having to stop and grind just to get a new Pokemon caught up in level. I experimented with different Pokemon more during Shield’s main story than I ever did in a previous Pokemon game, and it made me appreciate the Gen 8 Pokemon even more.

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It also makes for a more digestible experience. The Wild Area is expansive, and because the available Pokemon change with the weather, it can look very different from one day to the next. There are enough Pokemon to keep things dynamic and surprising as you explore each day, but with some consistency across each biome so you know at least what kinds of Pokemon to expect. Even after 55 hours, there are still Pokemon I have no idea how to find, and uncovering the Wild Area’s secrets bit by bit has been a treat.

If anything, the constant draw of the Wild Area made the pacing of the story a bit choppy. I wandered and explored for five hours before challenging my first Gym, then defeated the next two in quick succession before breaking again to revisit the Wild Area. That said, I also was never too over- or underpowered for each Gym, and I was eager to explore in between them regardless. You can also do more in the Wild Area than just battle and catch Pokemon–you can camp out and make curry with your Pokemon, and that ended up being a lovely distraction. Making curry and playing with my Pokemon was a great way to break up longer excursions, plus a convenient way to heal everybody at once, and it’s really just an adorable way to spend a few minutes.

No Caption ProvidedNo Caption Provided

The Gyms themselves are a refinement on the longstanding formula in which you would have to go through a maze or solve a little puzzle to reach the Gym Leader. Similarly, each has a Gym Challenge, but they vary from herding Wooloo to competing with NPC trainers to catch a Pokemon, and this keeps things from getting stale. Dynamaxing combines with anime-style drama to make the Gym battles themselves appropriately exciting, too, as your opponents tend to put on quite the show when they enter the stadium. While the Gym and other story battles are largely pretty simple, some of the later ones do take more thought (and a few revives, in my case).

For competitive battles, small but significant quality-of-life tweaks greatly reduce the remaining barriers to entry. There are now items that allow you to change a Pokemon’s nature, which was the main missing piece in getting Pokemon battle-ready without hours and hours of tedious breeding and soft-resetting. You can also leave two Pokemon of the same species in the Daycare together, and one can pass Egg Moves to the other, meaning you don’t have to re-breed a Pokemon just because you forgot to put one Egg Move on it or changed your strategy a bit. The post-game Battle Tower also includes rental teams right off the bat to introduce you to some basic strategies, which also means you can start climbing the ranks without scrambling to prepare a slipshod team of your own first. All of this gets you battling at a competitive level much more quickly than was possible before, which is the whole point.

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In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokemon games so captivating in the first place. You’re not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokemon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokemon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series’ proper debut on Switch.

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