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.

Game Ramblings #149 – Metroid Dread

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action/Platformer, Metroidvania
  • Platform: Switch

This is very much an iteration on the work that was started with Metroid: Samus Returns, and that’s a great thing. Quite frankly, you could read my notes on that one and it would be a 1:1 retread of what worked for Metroid Dread. However, this feels like a clear iteration on the formula and even more importantly a clear end point to the series’ story – whether or not that’s ultimately what will happen. This is just a fantastically good game that took far too long for someone to convince Nintendo to spend money on, and I’m glad it finally happened.

The thing that really stood out to me in this one was its difficulty, and that seems to be a common theme across the feedback I’ve seen about the game. A lot of people are calling it simply hard, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. What it really feels like to me is that it’s precise, and that’s really the difference to me in why I had the patience to enter death loops. I’ve shelved a lot of games in the last decade or so within the sort of rise of the indie games. A lot of games feel like they do hard for the sake of hard. Something precise and mechanically tight will come out like Celeste and be incredibly difficult but fair, then a bunch of games will follow that are simply…..difficult. It’s not fun. Dread very much feels like it falls within the difficult but fair.

Bosses in this game are no joke. A missed mechanic will take a full health tank or more. If you aren’t being precise with your movement, you will die. However, once you learn the mechanics and once you get your movement down, you’re just as likely to take no damage in these fights. In that respect it’s incredibly fair. You take damage, you learn mechanics, you avoid damage, you win. Sure you may die a couple times, but you aren’t getting screwed by RNG and you aren’t getting screwed by the fight.

You’re given a lot of tools to avoid damage that aren’t typical of the Metroid series – things like a slide that can transition into the morph ball or an instant dodge that gives some amount of i-frames – that really lean into damage avoidance as a key mechanic. You’re also given some really good new offensive tools to make damage a little more passive and a little less precise in those big moments – things like the return of the melee counter from Samus Returns or a lock-on multi-hit charge missile – that allow you to build up damage without having to be right up in the enemy’s face or having to pause and engage in the slower free aim. The end result of all of this is that while the game is still distinctly Metroid in style and mechanical knowledge, it feels substantially like a modern game where you have full control of damage mitigation and aren’t just being slammed with unavoidable nonsense.

There’s also just a ton of little things that the game does very right that make it feel both Metroid and modern. You’ve still got pickups that drop when you kill things, but they get sucked in at any range. Combined with melee counters dropping more items, this both increases the general pace of the game AND allows the game to have higher difficulty, since you’re always pulling in resources. One of the early upgrades is the return of the pulse radar that reveals hidden breakable blocks. This is again probably controversial, but this feeds into increased exploration and increased pace since you aren’t just playing a game of shoot every block to find the hidden trinket. Free aim is back to give much more freedom of hitting things from any angle, making a lot of the trash encounters much quicker to deal with. The new slide move both replaces a lot of the slower morph ball stuff, but also acts as a fast transition into morph ball tunnels when unlocked AND a way to actively dodge attacks in a lot of the boss fights.

However, the real important change compared to Fusion or the Prime games is that the game really doesn’t give you any direction. You’re chucked into the world and told to get to the surface. You’re given some lore as things go, but more often than not it’s up to you to find your way. This is very much an old Metroid thing that started to go away over the years, so it’s interesting to see it return to very little direction. For me, this is precisely what I’m looking for in a Metroidvania. I love to scan the map to find doors that I haven’t entered or mysterious holes in the map that I haven’t explored, then going back to find new things. Where things really work for the better is that the map itself is far more readable than past 2D entries, although that is entirely down to just having more modern hardware and higher resolution to display the map. It’s just far easier to find things when you can pump more obvious information on the screen and it really benefits the loose structure of the classic Metroid formula. It’s even better with a bunch of fast travel teleportation spots that open up as you find more upgrades, allowing you to quickly scoot around the world at will.

This just ended up being such a good game. It’s been so long since a 2D entry came out in this series that there was probably some amount of valid concern about whether or not this could be done and still be fun. Samus Returns proved that the formula still worked and Dread proved that the series can move forward. This hits just the right mix of classic Metroid and modern gaming, and in a couple key ways goes backwards compared to Fusion and Prime, but it comes out as such a great mix. The difficulty of the game will probably turn some people away, but for me it again hits the perfect mix – it’s perhaps unforgiving, but it’s precise and fair and not based in RNG. You’ll learn where things go wrong, then make it right. It may take a few tries, but you’ll learn and get through it.

It’s also funny looking back at my notes about Samus Returns. That one ended with a new little cutscene showing the rise of the X parasites on SR388. I mentioned in passing that maybe they were hinting at something else. Boy was it ever. I don’t know if they were still hoping to do a Fusion remake or Dread at that point, but seeing the end of the post-Prime Metroid and X saga finally arrive is both great to see and something that I never really expected to happen.

Seriously, go play this.

Game Ramblings #146 – Spiritfarer

More Info from Thunder Lotus Games

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Windows, macOS, Linux, Switch, Xbox One, Stadia

I put platformer there, but this game is really a lot more than that. It’s sort of a platformer. It’s sort of a management sim. It’s sort of an adventure game. It’s sort of a visual novel. It takes a lot of pieces to scratch a lot of itches all at once. But beyond that it’s just a spectacularly beautiful game, both visually and narratively. It’s one of the few games in recent memory I’d recommend just for experiencing the story itself.

Everyone will probably be initially caught by the visuals of this game, and that’s a pretty obvious positive. This is the same team that did Jotun and Sundered, and it shows. Visually speaking, the game is astoundingly beautiful. However, it’s not the only thing that really hits well on the presentation side. The game’s soundtrack and overall audio are all really good as well. It’s nothing in your face loud, but it really fits the game well. There’s a lot of subtle sort of ambient music in the background – enough to fit the theme of the areas you’re in or the events that are being started, and it all leads you to pretty easily know what’s going on at all times.

The gameplay side is probably the weaker section, but it’s still solid. Ultimately I think the weakness comes from it trying to blend too many genres at once. You’ve got a bit of a management sim at play here. You’ll be constantly growing vegetables and tending your fields and manufacturing linens and ore and metal plates and etc etc etc. You’re also putting all these resources into building the boat and upgrading buildings on it, both for you and the spirits on the boat. There’s a bit of an adventure RPG here. You’ll be going through lists of collection quests to help move your spirits to the afterlife. There’s a bit of a platformer here. Each individual island you sale to has its own platforming challenges, and you’ll pick up some powerups along the way (ex: double jump, ziplines, etc) to help you through those.

In being so many genres, none of them can truly stand out. The collection aspect is a bit of a grind, and you’re constantly spending time while you’re sailing growing or manufacturing or fishing to get resources and money. The quests are repetitive and mostly involve sailing back and forth to new locations. The platforming is fine, but the individual islands are so small that it never truly becomes a large scale platformer. Ultimately it’s a bunch of systems that are in place to support the narrative, and not necessarily systems that feel like they were fully fleshed out into a good set of gameplay mechanics.

I’m putting this next section in spoilers because I specifically want to talk about the story and don’t want to ruin it for those that still want to play the game for themselves.

Spoiler

However, the story made this worth the effort for me. The game is ostensibly the story of a person ferrying the souls of the dead on their final trip to the afterlife, however it becomes much more than that. As you meat and transport individual souls, you start to recognize the signs that the souls you’re transporting know the main character Stella. You start to recognize that who you’re transporting are souls of people that you know that are already dead. It then dawns on you that the reason you are transporting them is because Stella herself is dying, and you’re revisiting her life. The details surrounding Stella being a nurse for terminally ill patients slowly trickles to the front in a wonderful way.

Turning the idea of a life flashing before one’s eyes at their end of their life into something like this was an absolute triumph. You live Stella’s life through the eyes of those she helped at the end of their own life. The impact of helping these spirits and then bringing them to their final trip to the afterlife is emotionally affecting in a way that very few games manage. For some characters you end up incredibly sad that their life potentially ended on a bad note. For some, you’re glad to be rid of an asshole that did nothing but bring negativity to those around them. For some, you’re given the pain of seeing a good friend leave. Each spirit’s end is unique to a point where I was constantly fighting the pain of seeing them leave from the wish to help them get there. The culmination of all of this – seeing the story of Stella herself and how the various spirits intersected with her in life – was a great way to bring everything full circle, and ended the game’s narrative in a perfect fashion for me. All the questions were answered and I was left in a place where, despite knowing that Stella’s life was ending, I was happy for her having lived such a life of great purpose, and one that she clearly believed in.

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It’s pretty rare that I recommend playing a game just because of story, but this is definitely one of those. The gameplay itself is fine, the presentation aspects are wonderful, but the story itself is why I kept playing. It’s definitely not a feel-good narrative, but the emotional impact of it is at a level that is rarely seen in videogames, and within recent memory can’t be duplicated for me. It ends up being an incredibly unique look at death and how it affects those around it that I cannot recommend it enough. If the gameplay doesn’t really feel like your thing, at least do yourself a favor and watch a narrative pass on Youtube, but I think it’d be a disservice to not experience it yourself.