Game Ramblings #166 – Sonic Frontiers

More Info from Sega

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, Steam

This is such a strange game. It’s undeniably Sonic, but at the same time it’s not. It’s got little pieces of things like Sonic Adventure or Generations, but those are just hints. They trigger a bit of nostalgia but don’t lean into it. It’s got the speed of the series, but uses it in new ways. It’s still maybe not the best example of a 3D platformer, but it does a lot interesting, and importantly it stays fun.

A lot of the early discourse I saw on this one was that it was a Sonic game through the lens of Breath of the Wild. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. Ya it’s open world, and ya it has the overworld red moon reset mechanic, but I don’t really get the Breath vibe from it. What I do get is entirely Mario Odyssey. It has the same feeling that there’s something to do around every corner, and you’ll always be rewarded. It also has the same pace. Where Breath tolled out rewards infrequently through the shrines, Odyssey set moons down everywhere, to the point where you were getting moons sometimes at the pace of a few per minute. That is the feeling that I hit here.

The individual little actions are never that complex. It’s always some jump pad that gets you onto a rail, but they’re always fun. It’s almost always some little 15 second quick hit platforming segment, but it hits the manic Sonic pace and ends with some reward. Usually it’s something to collect to eventually push the story forward, but you end up hitting so many of these little things that you’re hardly ever prevented from moving the story forward if you want to. What generally ends up happening instead is that you start going towards the next story beat, find about 40 things to accidentally do along the way, forget where you were trying to go, and end up completely in the wrong direction while having fun the entire time. That’s the Odyssey feel to me, and it’s what made both games work so well for me.

How it all ends up tied together also works inexplicably well. The overworld has a bunch of little combat segments against minibosses that end up working well to show some combat variety. Some of them end up being dash target-focused, and feel more like traditional action bosses fights. Some of them are more focused on taking advantage of the more typical fixed Sonic camera and feel like more traditional gameplay for the series. There’s also a whole bunch of Generations-style Sonic levels that offer more of what the series was used to offer. I suppose in hindsight, these are a pretty good analogue for the Breath shrines, but they serve a different purpose. Rather than being puzzle segments, these feel like pace breakers. The rest of the game is short segments of fairly specific platforming elements. These end up being longer sections that are typically speed and spectacle with a reward at the end, allowing the player to have a high excitement break in the middle of smaller actions.

All of this is bookended by some extreme boss fights. These are all spectacle and basically involve you turning into a super saiyan and beating the hell out of a kaiju. Does it make sense? No. Is it challenging? No. Is it hilariously fun? Absolutely. There is nothing to these fights that actually ends up expanding the mechanics of the game. You’ve got a bunch of auto targeted weakpoints to hit while you have effectively close to infinite health, so long as you beat a soft timer in place. It’s all button spam and visual chaos and it’s incredible.

That said, the entire game is of a B-movie jank level that makes it simultaneously hilarious. The pinball minigame? Absolutely unplayable. The physics in less restricted movement sections? Shooting off in the wrong direction on a jump is not unusual. The story and voice acting and overall presentation? It’s there, but only to serve some minimum needed for the game to ship. Targeting reliability during large combat segments? As reliable as my internet was when I still used Comcast. The game often succeeds despite itself, which is something pretty normal for the series over the past couple of decades.

It’s frustrating that they continue to be unable to tie together a full package, but when the game ends up being so fun anyway I guess I’m not really too annoyed to care. The Sonic series has had so many ups and downs that when I get an entry that ends up being fun, I just roll with it. This is up there with Mania or Generations for me as games that prove the series still has some life in it. I also fully expect that for the next entry everything learned here will be thrown out and ignored, but I sure hope I’m wrong and we see more iteration on this idea. It’s got a lot of potential that has only started to show.

Game Ramblings #164 – Psychonauts 2

More Info from Double Fine Productions

  • Genre: 3D Platformer
  • Platform: Xbox Series X
  • Also Available On: Xbox One, PS4, Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s not necessarily that this is a new benchmark for 3D platformers, but this is a pretty special game. It’s in the way that the game gets into the minds (literally) of its characters that makes it work so well. It’s great storytelling and great set pieces and great handling of character motivations that all combine into something that takes what the series did well in the past and elevates it in a fantastic way. It’s the type of game that was worth the wait, which isn’t something that happens often.

The gameplay itself is pretty standard platformer fare. You’re basically doing variants of running and jumping, with a little bit of combat. Ya, they mix in psychic power flavor in that glides are levitation or throwing things is telekinesis or your gun replacement is a PSI blast. However, it’s mostly set dressing around standard mechanics. It all works well and it’s easy to fall into because it’s all sort of expected, and that’s a nice thing. It’s a much more positive thing that I probably made it sound, but don’t expect this to be treading new ground from a mechanics standpoint. Where this game is actually special is where it handles the personality and history of each of the people’s minds that you’re diving into.

To skip a bunch of back story, the bulk of the game takes place within the brains of a set of Psychonauts that within the in-game universe are historic and famous. In the picture above, you’re inside the mind of one of those members who to some extent was seen as the glue of the group and is now hurt by the fact that they’ve largely gone their separate ways. The way this manifests within the game is the person envisioning the group as a band, and your path through their story is to find the rest of the members and reunite the group.

Another member comes from the opposite end of this story, and sees themselves as having been abandoned. As you work through their story you end up seeing that it isn’t just the case of the group splitting up causing this sense of abandonment, but other situations in the past that lead to this. In working your way through the story, you’re helping them see that the personal traumas that came from it may be somewhat validated, but that they are only seeing things from one side and that with more information things may not be as they see for themselves.

Dealing with personal traumas is always a subject that is interesting for me to see within games. Games that do it poorly can often feel over the top where the traumas inflicted on characters are so extreme that it feels malicious, where it leads to me just reacting negatively to the story. Games that do it well instead lead to me feeling sympathetic to the characters while also leading me to want to help them through their trauma. Psychonauts 2 luckily falls into the latter.

The characters all have back stories that at least feel relatable. Even if it’s not something that has happened directly to me, the things that have happened all feel grounded in reality. Given the psychic powers twist to this universe, they’re all things that feel like they could happen to a group that is trying to harness powers beyond the imagination of normal people. These are all people that were dealt great power and didn’t necessarily deal with it in a positive manner and are now to some extent left broken by the experience, but they all feel redeemable in that they never felt like they were maliciously trying to harm others, main villain aside. Even in that case it feels like you’re seeing someone who was pushed beyond their limits and lost to their own inner demons, rather than being someone who is just inherently evil.

I think that is all why this game works so well to me as a sequel. The first game and the VR experience proved out the core idea that you could make a platformer that exists within the minds of various people, but those two games didn’t feel as fleshed out to me from the perspective of seeing sympathetic characters and wanting to help them. This game just goes the extra mile to really provide that story backing. The mechanics in place are good enough to not get in the way of the rest of the experience, and it lets the story shine and be what is pulling you through the game in a way that I never wanted to put it down.

Although I am a bit miffed that they wouldn’t let me be immature…

Game Ramblings #157 – Kirby and the Forgotten Land

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch

This isn’t quite the open world revelation that we all hoped it would be after the first trailer. It also isn’t at all a challenging game like Elden Ring. It doesn’t really do anything all that ambitious, even for the Kirby series. However, what it is is fun. It’s fun in that weird unexplainable way that so many Nintendo games just are and so many developers wish they could capture. It’s that fun that makes this worth playing.

Within the opening sequence of the game you become the car above and that really just sets the stage for the game. Kirby is taking his hoovering mechanic to a new level here and more often than not it serves as an outlandish way for the game to get you through a specific mechanic. Need to cover long distances fast? There’s a convenient car. Need to shoot at enemies or break through a wall from range? Why not becoming a soda shooting vending machine. Need to pierce through a weak point in the ground? Well, a traffic cone is the right shape.

The thing about all these instances isn’t necessarily that they are new mechanics. What they are wrapped in is a layer of magic. There’s something entirely unknown to me about why the simple mechanics are so memorable here, but a lot of it ultimately comes down to the attention to detail in the buildup of the world itself. It’s little things, like the way Kirby’s animations show squish and stretch when there’s changes in velocity. It’s things like the subtle freeze frames that occur when you smash through something as car Kirby. It’s things like seeing the same damn tree boss that every Kirby games has, but now with a tropical flair and a change to the camera angle to hit both nostalgia and mechanical interest. That attention to detail is so utterly hard to grasp as a developer, but is something that Nintendo has routinely done so well that allows its otherwise simple games to nearly universally be regarded as great.

Luckily, the game doesn’t just skate by on polish. Despite being easy, it’s got a surprising amount to do, which gives a lot of interesting content for players of all skill levels. Each level has your normal end point, but within that there’s also a bunch of hidden objectives. Each level has a collection of hidden waddle dees, but the rest of the objectives run the gamut from beating enemies with specific powers to finishing encounters without taking damage to beating bosses quickly to simply just finding cool hidden shit. It provides enough of a distraction for completionists to be chasing a bit of a carrot that’s beyond just simply finishing the levels. That’s not to say that it doesn’t start to wear a bit thin by the end, but it was nice to have something to strive for and even replay levels for

However, my favorite thing were the treasure road levels. These are effectively single-power time trials, and they’re a speed runner’s dream. Each one drops you into a level with a specific power and a handful of encounters to finish between you and the goal. Everything between that point is entirely up to your skill level. In doing these, you very quickly learn how to efficiently use your powers, allowing you quicker and quicker times through the specific level. That then leads to more efficient and more clever use of the powers in regular levels and boss fights, giving a positive reinforcement loop to the player’s skill in the game.

That kind of a loop is also a classic Nintendo thing. If you think about something like level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros – you run the right, see a Goomba, maybe you die, but if you jump and land on it you now know a core mechanic. As you keep running to the right, you see a few more as well as some pipes. You know how to jump, so now you’re learning how to jump well. Each little step along that way reinforces what you learned in previous things to become better at the game. Kirby treats the treasure road levels the same way. They’re run on their own, but the skill improvements you get in them just serve to improve how you play through the rest of the game.

All that said, if you want something ambitious or innovative, this isn’t it. This game should be played because it’s purely fun. It’s not fun in a new way, and it’s not often fun in an explainable way, but it just is. If you’re wanting something more forgiving after Elden Ring, give this a try. If you want something fun to just fill a gap, give this a try. End of the day it’s just a mindless title, but it didn’t stop being fun for me the entire time.