Neon White

Neon White is a FPS Puzzle Platformer with fantastic guns and incredible movement. I’d mention the story, but I want you to want to play it.

Neon White by Angel Matrix is a puzzle platformer FPS with some lite visual novel elements, and it’s brilliant. And while it might sound like a sort of game salad of multiple genres, that’s purely because I’m bad at describing things. The key point here is that I like it.

I think the easiest way to explain Neon White is to describe what a level looks like. So let’s start with that. You maneuver using traditional FPS controls around a stylized environment, and you have two goals to complete the level: kill all the demons, and reach the end. However, these aren’t Doom-style demons. These are more like… potted plants. They’re all immobile, and while they shoot projectiles, they’re not hard to dodge. They act as obstacles more than enemies, and each enemy type drops a different gun.

Oh, we haven’t talked about guns yet, have we? Guns reset between levels, and are represented as cards. You can carry two types of guns at once, and 3 copies of a particular gun/card (I’ll explain in a moment). Guns are dual purpose. You can shoot with them, and you can also throw away a copy to use a special movement ability. The shotgun lets you do a dash. The pistol has a double jump. The rocket launcher is also a grappling hook, making it one of the greatest weapons in any game. And if that sounds like I’m ripping off Zero Punctuation… well. Not deliberately. It’s just a fantastic weapon that’s incredibly fun to use.

Dear god I love this rocket launcher so much.

These are the core ingredients of Neon White, but the one thing I haven’t mentioned is that everything is timed. Not in a “countdown” sort of way, but a speedrun timer ticking up. In order to unlock more levels, you need to clear a set of levels from the current pool with a gold rank or higher.

While this might sound intimidating, the timing for getting gold medals is very generous. The same is true of the crystal rank medal, and it isn’t until you go for the secret red clear times (which don’t even show up until you beat them) that things get really challenging.

And while we’re talking about gold medals and clear times, we may as well talk about Neon White’s story. The short version is that you’re an assassin in the afterlife called in to hunt down demons for a chance at redemption. And while the story gets interesting in the last 25% of the game, much of what precedes that moment feels a bit cringey. Not bad, but I heard someone describe it as an independent webcomic from the early 2000’s, and I’d say that sounds about right.

This would be a great place to include a picture of story content. I’m not going to do that because I want you to buy this game.

Outside of the story, pretty much everything in Neon White is perfect. I saw almost no bugs in my playtime, and even the boss levels worked well. The game does a fantastic job with its progression and introducing new weapons and concepts as it goes. That said, it’s not a massive any means. A lot of the value comes from replaying levels multiple times for better clear times, and hunting for shortcuts and skips within those levels.

There is one more thing I want to talk about before I wrap this up, and that’s writing this article. This is version 7 or so of my Neon White writeup. Not “draft 7.” I have written and thrown away 6 earlier versions of this, because Neon White isn’t a super easy game to describe in a compelling manner.

So if you’re not convinced, I suggest watching either Zero Punctuation’s video on the game, or maybe Dunkey’s? I think they both do a better job of selling the game in certain aspects, and it deserves better than my somewhat poor writeup. But I legitimately can’t describe this game well. I’ve tried, failed, and now I’m going to write about other games, without this draft glaring at me judgingly while I write about something else for the eighth week in a row.

If you were convinced by this writeup, then, uh. Wow. You can get Neon White on Steam or Switch. It’s $25, and it’s a good use of that money.

Hazelnut Hex Review

Hazelnut Hex is a fantastic shoot-em-up that knows exactly what it’s doing and executes on it perfectly.

Hazelnut Hex is brilliant. The game is a to-the-point shoot em up that knows exactly what it’s doing and executes on it perfectly. Some folks might call the game minimalist; I’m calling it precise.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Hazelnut Hex, it’s a shoot-em-up/shmup¬†for the Switch. In terms of tone, it feels like a pastel colored version of Touhou. Also like Tohou, the music goes far harder than it has any need to. This is track 4 from the game, Bite After Dark. Do me a favor and listen to that while you read the rest of the review.

But what I want to talk about is the gameplay, because to me this is where the brilliance of the game lies. I wouldn’t ever describe myself as a shmup¬†person. I haven’t even played Touhou.

The core rules of Hazelnut Hex are simple. Shoot the enemies, and don’t get hit with projectiles. Do that, get to the boss, and beat the boss to win. After all, it is a shoot em up. But Hazelnut Hex isn’t random. Instead, each level follows a predictable pattern. And while you can restart if you die, you lose your score. I think this is a nice balance. Even if you’re terrible, you can still play the entire game.

Every subsystem in the game feels perfectly designed. Let’s start with lives. You start with 3 lives (or 5 if you turn the value up because you’re bad like me) and getting hit costs you a life. Get 500,000 points and get another life. This is one of the very few times a game has actually made me care about points. Sure, you can get points for just blasting enemies, but you can get more by waiting for your shots to charge and hitting chains of enemies with more powerful blasts.

In addition to getting more points, charged shots also destroy enemy bullets, and build your special meter. You can use specials to shoot a massive blast that gives you invulnerability frames and clears bullets off the screen. But at the same time, it also gives points based on the number of bullets on the screen. It can function as a panic button if you find yourself trapped, but it’s also a scoring tool.

All of sudden, instead of just blasting non-stop to clear the incoming waves, I found myself actually looking at enemy patterns, and trying to spot moments when they lined up for clean charge shots, so that I had extra lives going into tougher spots. I’d describe it as the difference between button mashing and trying to actually understand what’s going on in a fighting game.

And pretty much every subsystem feels like this. There’s a set of end of level scoring bonuses that include one for having your squirrel Sam with you when you clear the level. It’s 20,000 points which is a fairly large amount. Why is it so high? Because you can only pickup Sam before the boss fight. This isn’t just a bonus for keeping Sam alive, its a bonus for clearing the boss fight without getting hit! Other score bonuses are only applied when you clear a level. This makes it so you can get large payouts, but the level keeps you from getting them too early, and getting easy bonus lives.

Hazelnut Hex can be played through without understanding any of these systems. That’s how I beat it the first time, after all. But if you want to master it, the game also provides the ability to do so. You can start any level with any combination of weapon, weapon power, and health. Want to practice a boss fight without playing the first half of the level? Go right ahead.

Other people might criticize the game for not being very long, since you can play through the whole thing by just continuing after death. I don’t think that’s actually a problem. Hazelnut Hex doesn’t include any bloat. It’s not trying to be anything else other than an expertly crafted shmup. And playing it gave me, terrible as I am, a bit more of an appreciation for the brilliance of the genre.

Hazelnut Hex is $8 for Nintendo Switch. You can buy it here.

Ed Note: Images in the article are taken from the Nintendo Store page.

Minecraft Dungeons

I spent months seeing ads for Minecraft Dungeons and assuming it was a fancy Minecraft mod. As it turns out it’s a completely different game. It uses Minecraft textures, sounds, creatures, and trappings (like the currency is emeralds), but its actually an Action RPG.

Blocky Diablo would also be accurate.

If you’re new the genre, ARPG is just a fancy name for a Diablo clone. It’s a 3rd person top down dungeon crawler where you collect loot and level up your character. As a big fan of Diablo II and a big fan of Minecraft, you might expect that this would be my kind of game… and you’d mostly be right.

I mostly enjoyed Minecraft Dungeons. While I didn’t play much endgame content or go to the much harder difficulties, I did clear the full story, and some of the postgame, and had a good time with it.

However, I have three fundamental problems with the game

  1. Lack of twangy guitar music.
  2. Consumable arrows.
  3. Map readability and collision.

While issue one pretty much speaks for itself, issue two is a bit more nuanced. Why does it matter that Minecraft Crayons has consumable arrows? To explain that, let’s talk about how the game handles skills.

Minecraft Funyons has an interesting “class” system. I put class in quotes because there are no set classes; how your character approaches the game depends entirely on what kind of gear you wear and enchantments you apply. If you want to be a rogue, you equip armor that makes you deal more physical damage. To be a tank, you equip armor that reduces the damage you take. If you want to be a caster, you equip armor that reduces the cooldowns on your artifacts (effectively your abilities), and then equip artifacts that deal damage. And if you want to be an archer, you equip armor that gives you extra ranged damage and extra arrows.

The problem is that the arrow economy is such that even with bonus arrow armor, enchantments, and artifacts, you STILL run out of arrows at some point each run. With at most 10 de facto classes, it’s a strange design choice to make one of them effectively unplayable.

My third issue was map readability. While the Minecraft style maps are very pretty, because all the elements are visually similar, I often found it hard to quickly figure out which terrain was walkable and which blocked me. And that’s a big problem when trying to make a split second decision with a million mobs following me. Hit a wall, and you’re dead.

Being pinned against terrain by a wave of enemies wouldn’t be terrible if the standard roll ability let you roll through the enemies, but it doesn’t, unlike almost every game I’ve ever played with a dodge. It also doesn’t actually dodge hits. All it does is give you a quick burst of speed followed by being slowed. Looking back, I found this design decision this most frustrating part of the game.

And there are a few other things that don’t quite make sense to me. The enchantment system seems to be built to encourage you to try out new sub builds frequently. But this never really worked. There are only two ways to get your enchantment points/levels back to try out a new item or build.

Option 1 is to salvage the original item, getting rid of it. If you do this and then don’t like your new build, you’re shit out of luck. Option 2 is go give your items to the Blacksmith, which gives you back your enchantment points, and then upgrades the item after your clear 3 levels. But again, if you don’t like your build, you’re still shit out of luck, abeit only for 3 runs. Why there isn’t just a “refund enchantment points” button is beyond me.

The game is also a bit buggy. While none of these are “Eat your savefile” or “Crash your machine” levels of bugs, they’re still annoying. For example, I fought a miniboss at the start of a level, and then spent the entire level listening to the dramatic boss music. Almost every chest you open spews some consumable items out of the level, entirely wasting them. Another time I rolled in the middle of combat and got stuck in a hole in the map.

Overall, I did have fun with it, even if it was somewhat simple. It honestly felt like the game was initially designed as a roguelike, but at some point they changed it to a perpetual gear chase. The addition of the Tower, a game mode that is quite literally a roguelike adds to that theory.

Minecraft Dungeons is available on pretty much every platform, and also has cross-play between all of them. So if you’re looking for a solid, but simple ARPG you can play with other folks, grab a copy, and sit back. Just be prepared to deal with some annoyances along the way. And if you’re still on the fence, you can read more about it here.

Ed Note: The post-game content is actually surprisingly extensive, and decent. I played it even if Max didn’t. It functions similar to PoE’s mapping system, in that the zones themselves are remixes of previously cleared areas with increased mob variety and specialties. It also has it’s own special gear chase with gilded items and whatnot. TLDR: Postgame good!

Kirby and the Forgotten Land

Kirby and the Forgotten Land is fun, but I wish I could play the challenging parts without beating the game first.

Kirby and the Forgotten Land is fine. But even though I just finished the game, I don’t really have any strong feelings about it. I think if you’re looking for a fairly relaxing 3D platformer, or are newer to video games, Kirby would probably hit the spot. That said, if you don’t play Kirby and the Forgotten Land, I couldn’t really make a strong argument that you’d be missing out on much.

Kirby games are generally fairly easy*. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Kirby is Nintendo’s entry level franchise. Making a game that everyone can beat, but still feels fun to play for both folks who might be picking up a controller for the first time as well as jaded freaks like myself is a tough balancing act. If you want more insight into that sorta thing, I suggest you check out this article from the Washington Post, with the creators. Even how the game handles detection isn’t straight forward, and is built in such a way that if an attack looks like it should connect, it connects! Which is brilliant, and clever, but still easy.

*Many Kirby games have post-game content in the form of boss rushes/time attacks/etc. These are NOT easy.

This writeup is about Kirby and the Forgotten Land though. So let’s get the bit of this article were I describe game mechanics verbatim over with, shall we?

In Kirby and the Forgotten Land, you play as Kirby. Like most Kirby games, the primary mechanic is being able to swallow up enemies, and copy their abilities. Unlike most Kirby games, the game is the first true 3D entry in the series. You don’t quite have the ability to jump/float infinitely, as it would break most of these 3D maps. Compared to something like Amazing Mirror, the game is incredibly linear, taking place over a series of levels played in order.

Each level has 5 mini-objectives, and two main objectives that are always the same. Objective one is to complete the level, and objective two is to find hidden captured waddle-dees. Usually the waddle-dees are in some sort of hidden area off the main path, or in something that needs to be destroyed. Objectives 3-5 are usually to complete some sort of additional task, and while these start out as hidden, each time you complete a level, you’re given a hint about what these extra goals are.

By the time I completed most levels, I had found 8-9 of the 11 waddle-dees. Beat enough levels, and you’ll reach the boss. Actually unlocking the boss does require that you freed enough of the waddle-dees from earlier, but I never actually had to go back to replay a level. I always had enough waddle-dees anyway. Beat the boss level, you unlock the next world.

Let’s talk about the bosses. They’re solid. Like most Kirby games, there are mini-bosses, which are fairly easy, and main bosses, which are the only places in the game I died. They’re fun spectacles and are somewhat challenging.

Outside the main game levels and the bosses, there are a few more activities. There’s a home town area that gives access to several mini-games, which I never played. There are also side areas called treasure roads that serve as time-trials/skill checks to get currencies to upgrade your abilities. I played like two of these, and then decided I didn’t care.

Complaining about Kirby being a generic video game is like complaining about Lord of the Rings being generic fantasy. Kirby is meant to be an easily played and approachable game, with a certain level of challenge and depth offered in the post game for more skilled players. As I mentioned in the intro, it’s not like it’s easy to make a game anyone can beat and feel good about it.

But with that said, I also don’t have strong feelings about it. Kirby and the Forgotten Land doesn’t offer anything I haven’t seen before, or seen at a similar level of polish. It’s a new Kirby game, with all that the series entails, including bright and colorful visuals, a story that takes a surprisingly dark turn in the last 90% of the game, and a final boss that looks like it belongs in a JRPG.

If you’re newer to gaming I think it’s a really solid place to start. Not because it is easy, but because it’s well designed. It’s good training ground for a lot of the habits and ideas that could serve well playing other games. Kirby and the Forgotten Land is $60 for Nintendo Switch. It’s a fine 3D platformer, with a fair amount of content and side objectives, but it doesn’t redefine Kirby games, and outside of the boss levels, there wasn’t anything super memorable about it. I don’t dislike it by any means, but I don’t feel passionately about it.

Post-Script: So after finishing the game, and dying a bunch in Elden Ring, I went back and decided to play the post game. It’s much harder and could best be described as a remix of the base game. It takes sections from each world, compresses them into a single level with juiced up boss fight at the end. Then it adds extra enemies to each section. It’s a lot more fun and interesting, because it isn’t as easy. I appreciate that it’s there, but I wish there was just an option to start with this version of the game.

TLDR: There’s a harder game mode, but you have to beat the game to unlock it.

The Cruel King and the Great Hero

Ed Note: We requested and received a review copy of The Cruel King and the Great Hero from Nippon Ichi Software.

The Cruel King and the Great Hero is a a turn based RPG by Nippon Ichi Software. It has a beautiful story book art style and the story is solid. With that said, I’m on the fence about recommending it. The mechanical aspects of its combat system sit somewhere between “Unfun” and “Rudimentary.” This isn’t helped by the game’s random encounter system, and early to mid-game world traversal.

The game starts out with Yuu, the main character, living with her father, the Dragon King, where she trains every day to become a hero. We learn fairly early on that Yuu’s actual father was a hero who traveled around defeating monsters. The details on how she ended up in the Dragon King’s care are fairly hazy, though they do get fleshed out by the end of the game. While training, the stick that she uses as a sword breaks, and the Dragon King suggests she go to the nearby monster village to get a replacement. This means traveling through the forest, which is populated by dangerous monsters that will attack her. After defeating monsters and visiting the village, she gets a new sword.

After this the game opens up a bit. I won’t go into great detail to avoid some spoilers, but the general structure is “Someone has a problem, Yuu volunteers to help them, they join as a party member, and Yuu has to go to a place to do a thing.” A majority of the game follows this structure, prior to the climax and finale.

The localization is generally solid. There was only a single quest where it fell flat.

But it does bring us to the point I want to talk about the most: the game’s combat and RPG systems. Let’s talk about the RPG systems first, because there aren’t many. You have a maximum of up to two party members at any point in time, consisting of Yuu and one other character. Prior to reaching the climax, you have no ability to choose who is in your party. The game has a level system, but there are no choices related to leveling up, or character customization.

The closest thing to customization lies in the equipment. Each character has 4 equipment slots, a weapon, an armor, and two accessories. However, I never found two weapons the game that were equivalent but with different abilities. Every new weapon was just an upgrade. The accessories are the actual customization, but even then, I used the same 4 accessories for more or less the entire game (the accessories in question were two that auto-healed each turn, one that made guarding reduce damage even further, and a stat stick that increased speed and damage). This is really the extent of character customization.

Having covered the RPG elements, let’s talk about combat. Combat is basic. You have health and energy. There are a variety of status effects, but they follow fairly standard RPG tropes. Energy is used to perform special attacks. For abilities, (if I recall correctly) prior to the final boss, Yuu had 7 skills, of which only 5 were really relevant. More on that later. These 5 could be summarized as: Heavy Attack, Fast Attack, Conditional AOE, Protect Ally, and Heavy AOE. My other party member had 4, which could be summarized as: AOE and Team Buff, Self Buff, Single Target Damage plus Status, and Heavy AOE.

Each character also has a normal attack, and a guard. The guard is the only part of the combat system I have any actual praise for, because guarding restores extra energy, making guarding vs attacking an actual meaningful choice.

These two raccoons are about to be absolutely flattened.

The problems I have with combat are multi-layered, so let’s go through them. I mentioned above that there are conditional multi-attacks. These attacks will only hit enemies if they are lined up correctly. The problem with these attacks is that enemies never move around in combat. There is also no way to move them around. That means these attacks are only useful when enemies just happen to show up in ways that are convenient. Of the 3 potential party members, only one had access to non-conditional AOE, and so was the party member I brought with me when I could choose. Remember: you can only have one other party member.

The boss fights are the only source of real difficultly I encountered, and they don’t feel particularly fair. There were two instances of frustration I encountered. One was around the middle of the game. In that fight, the enemy used an attack that would do about 100 damage. Unfortunately, the max HP of my characters was respectively about 120 and 70. So if I ever let myself go below max, there was a non-zero chance I would get wiped by a random attack, with no telegraphing.

The other situation was the final boss fight. While I only failed it once, before returning to clear it, that first failure took around 45 minutes, and the second attempt took around 30-40. It is simply not a fun fight. Bosses are not affected by status effects, even temporarily, so the only real strategy devolved into “Make sure that they can never do an attack to kill both party members at once, and spam healing items.”

Combat just isn’t fun. Characters don’t have enough attack variety to keep things interesting, or exciting, and tactics for any encounter almost always boiled down to “Spam big AOE attacks, and hope you kill them first.” I used the word “rudimentary” in the opening paragraph, and I really mean it. The combat structure feels like it was copy-pasted from a default RPG Maker project.

All of this would be less annoying if combat wasn’t such a large portion of the game. Almost every quest and sub-quest involves traveling from point A to point B, with random encounters along the way. And while there is an item you can use to “prevent” encounters, I’m not convinced it actually works. At the very least, it doesn’t quite work as described.

Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about traversal. Traversal is my other big gripe with the game. Yuu moves incredibly slowly. For an idea of how slowly, let me tell a story. Early on in the game, you get access to an item that lets you return to a hub zone. Later in the game while doing side quests in the ice zone, I found myself using this item often. This was because it was faster to complete an objective in the ice zone, warp back to the hub zone, walk to the teleport near the hub, and then teleport back to the ice zone, rather then just walking from one part of the ice zone to another.

But despite all this, I did finish The Cruel King and the Great Hero. I won’t lie, part of that is because I had a review copy, and I refuse to write a review of a game I can’t finish. Which is why we don’t yet have an Elden Ring review.

But the other reason is that the story is good. It’s a curious and compelling take on story book tropes. It’s not subversive, and it’s not going to win a Caldecott award or anything, but it’s generally comfy and interesting, and the story incredibly well accompanied by the art. The game’s side quests and writing all feed into this, making the end result feel like reading a set of children’s books.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about that art for bit. It’s great. I love the painterly feel, and the general soft tones. The animation is good. The UI elements are clear and crisp. The game absolutely nails a theme and feel, and that’s supported by the music. It’s just unfortunate that so much of this incredible art and comfy, if simple story, is left to carry the weight of a mediocre paint by the numbers RPG.

And those are pretty much my thoughts on The Cruel King and the Great Hero. A solid 9/10 for art, music, worldbuilding and tone. A 6/10 for passable mechanics that aren’t bad, but do nothing new, while not really offering interesting options. The game is $30 for Nintendo Switch, which honestly, seems about fair. If you want something small and comfy to play around with, and don’t mind dealing with a few aggravating moments, it might be worth picking up.