Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (Switch): COMPLETED!

No sooner had I completed Circle of the Moon I made a start on Harmony of Dissonance. Two things are immediately apparent: 1) the background and enemy graphics are much, much more impressive than the previous game, and 2) your main character, Juste Belmont, looks incredibly garish with a clashing outline. The reason for the latter is probably because Circle of the Moon got a lot of stick for being too dark to see on the original GBA. Back then, handheld consoles didn’t have lit screens and relied on you sitting in the sun (but not too much sun as that made it worse) or under a reading light in order to actually see what was going on, so making Juste stick out like a clown at a funeral was the solution.

Anyway. The DSS card system is gone, but Juste has become much nippier with forward- and back-dashes and actually, I didn’t miss the cards at all. Certainly not grinding for them, anyway.

The game also has some pretty impressive bosses, but I discovered it was much easier than I recall from my last playthrough. I had the same thing with Circle of the Moon too, and it’s not really a problem, just in my mind these games were hard as nails and it seems I’ve been remembering wrong all these years,

I liked the dual castle system, where the map was the same but the items, graphics and enemies differed between the two. I even hunted round everywhere to get the 200% complete stat, and also saw all three endings. Well, actually four but two are almost identical so probably don’t count?

Aria of Sorrow next!

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (Switch): COMPLETED!

More than 14 years after last completing this, it was re-released on modern consoles as part of the Castlevania Advance Collection along with some of the other GBA Castlevania games (it’s missing the NES Classic original on there) and Castlevania X for some reason. Since it really needs to be played on a handheld, I bought the Switch version and then played it almost entirely on the TV. Tch.

The general consensus is that of the three GBA IGA-vania games, Circle of the Moon is the weakest. I’ve seen a lot of people say so over the years and it’s my recollection from playing through them all that time ago, but I found this playthrough fantastic so even if it is weakest, it’s still a top tier Castlevania.

Reading back over my previous diary posts on the game, I’m surprised how many of the boss fights I struggled with. This time through, I was marvelling at how easy they were, and it can’t be because I remember how to defeat them because I didn’t remember any of the game at all. Maybe I’m just awesome now? I still struggled with a few “normal” baddies in various areas, especially when you have a few gang up on you, but nothing insanely tricky like my memory suggested. I also used hardly any of the magic card powers, tending to stick to just the “flames that swirl round you” one.

Really good, and great to play through again. Harmony of Dissonance awaits!

Metroid Dread (Switch): COMPLETED!

It’s been a long time coming, but I have filled this last year or two with many, many Metroidvania games in preparation. Even though I didn’t know it was coming. Of course I ordered it instantly.

And, it was really good. I didn’t expect otherwise, but people were very down on Metroid: Other M and I never really got into that myself either. It was lacking the Metroid lonely atmosphere, I think. Too many other people. Lots of chat. Not quite 2D. It was just a bit off in so many ways. But not here.

There’s a story which attempts to tie into the lore of previous games and references events in them, but ultimately it doesn’t matter as the outcome is the same as it ever was – Samus lands on a planet, some reason for her losing all her powers is concocted, and you then spend the rest of the game reacquiring them, which each opening up new areas of the map. It’s a good job they were all hidden in the exact order and locations they were otherwise you’d have no chance!

Samus is very quick, and has many different moves. These combine to form a slight issue in that the controls are a bit complicated, with often having to use the triggers as kind of shift modifiers, and this results in some moves and combos requiring use of the stick and three or even four buttons at the same time. My old brain can’t cope with that so often I’d be pressing the wrong things, thankfully rarely causing major problems or death. Still frustrating, though!

While I’m mentioning problems with the game, I should mention how easy it was. Previous Metroid games have been (for me) really difficult, especially the bosses, but Dread was was very, very easy. Only the end boss caused me headaches and even then, after a few attempts, I’d managed to see the attacks coming and knew how to best deal with them, so beat him virtually unscathed – eventually.

The EMMI sections, where you had to run and hide from evil robots, were also a problem. They were not fun, and often it would be random if you managed to make it through their designated area as they seemed to spawn in different places. They were like an unwanted gear-change, and didn’t really fit into the game.

Thankfully, none of these negatives really stopped me really enjoying Metroid Dread. Samus slowly becoming an unstoppable beast is, like most games in the genre, the big draw, and the exploration and puzzles are both great. It’s not a perfect game, but it is a fantastic one.

Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition (Switch): COMPLETED!

I used to play Echo Bazaar, an online web-based story RPG thing from Failbetter games, ages ago. Before it was renamed as Fallen London, which is also the setting of the game. It was good, although you really needed to pay for extra moves and features to get the most out of it. I’m against IAPs as a rule so kind of fell off it. I did love the Lovecraft/Pratchett crossover vibe of the world though, and so Sunless Sea – a fleshed out, naval focussed spinoff with no IAPs – piqued my interested. And then, when it was about £4 bundled in with Slain and Snakeybus on the Switch, of course I was going to buy it.

Sunless Sea takes the same story-RPG base of Echo Bazaar, but adds to it an action boating game, where you sail the seas of the Neath – the world below the world – exploring strange islands and trying not to 1) run out of fuel, 2) run out of food, 3) get smashed to pieces, or 4) go utterly insane with terror. It’s also a roguelike in that you, as captain of a barely sea-worthy vessel, are prone to becoming A Bit Dead (due to the reasons above, and more) and when you die, it’s game over. Well, except your heir takes over but can’t carry much of your skills, belongings, money, or even sea charts over.

Much of the game is sailing as far away from London as you dare, interacting with the strange characters and creatures found on outposts and far-away cities, and carting items and dodgy passengers around the map for varying amounts of reward and bonuses. Generally, the further you go, the riskier your trip, as enemy ships and giant sea creatures attempt to kill you but also because your supplies and fuel may not last the trip – and you can’t always restock en-route.

One of the problems of the game therefore is glaringly apparent. Sailing, which is 90% of the game, is slow. Sure, you can upgrade your engines and later, if you have enough money, buy better ships, but even then it takes ages to get from A to B and back. Even the non-boaty bits are also slow, in that there’s a lot to read and digest, and even (I found, anyway) planning to do. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, but it does make the game a bizarre dichotomy of laidback ocean trundling and heavy stress panic as your fuel counts down your impending death.

After my first “run” ended abruptly after less than an hour, and the next two or three were little longer, I managed to get around 5 hours into a game only to make a stupid mistake (I bought something which left me without enough money for food, so had to eat my crew, and then I died). Five hours is a long time for a roguelike game, so I was a little deterred. However, I gave it another go and this time managed more than 60 hours before I realised I was close to my goal (“become the greatest explorer” or something was my chosen win condition) and from then on the stress was almost unbearable. Sixty hours of “work”, when I was so close to a win, which could all just vanish at any moment through idiocy or randomness. The trip back to London was torture. But finally, I did it. A win! The end! Phew, eh?

Overcooked 2 (PS5): COMPLETED!

Although I enjoyed the original Overcooked, it was much too hard. Sure, I could get one star on each level, but that wasn’t enough to progress. With the “All You Can Eat” pack a free rental on PS+, my daughter and I gave the sequel a go and it’s much, much easier. To the point where we got 3 stars on most levels first time.

The main change seems to be that you have much more time to complete dishes. Previously it was all too easy to get a meal almost ready before the customer complained (which also wasted the meal, in most cases), but I don’t recall there even being a time limit in Overcooked 2. That does sort of remove any challenge from the game, but then, that made it more enjoyable for us and we managed to reach the end without ever having to return to earlier levels to try and scrape an extra star or two to unlock the next level.

Zookeeper World (iPad): COMPLETED!

The original Zookeeper was the subject of one of my very first posts on this here gaming diary over 16 years ago. Well, not quite the original game as that was a Japan-only GBA release called Zooo or something, but the DS version I played was pretty much the same game. Anyway, forward time on a bit and the world of match-3 puzzlers has changed a bit so you can’t just re-release Zookeeper and expect it to fit in.

So they’ve aped the likes of Simon’s Cat and Puppy Blast and added loads of gimmicks to the formula. Now instead of (or as well as) removing a number of each animal, you also have to deal with revealing panels behind them to remove, or have them in bottles that you have to match two or three times before they disappear. Or there are flowers you can’t directly match to remove, crates you have to break, or beehives where removing animals next to them releases bees. There are fruit bombs that blow animals away, conveyor belts that move things round, and crowns you can only get rid of by dropping them off the bottom of the screen, as well as power-ups to employ.

On top of that, progress through the levels unlocks money and items for your real actual zoo which you can fill, Theme Park style, with attractions and animal displays. This is not the same Zookeeper I remember.

But, it is at least as addictive and it’s a lot of fun. Some of the levels are incredibly tricky, and a few may only be clearable with luck, but I loved working through all 200 of them and it’s one of the more polished and solid games of its genre around. Plus, as it’s Apple Arcade, there’s no in-app purchases like all the other games have, and no adverts.

The Magnificent Trufflepigs (Switch): COMPLETED!

At first glance, and indeed, at several subsequent glances, The Magnificent Trufflepigs looks and feels very much like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture if it was a series of The Detectorists. It has the same slow, pondering walk through realistic British countryside aesthetic, no combat, and a story which just gets more interesting as you progress. Plus, you have a metal detector and have to dig stuff up.

But the detectoring is just a delivery mechanism for the story, which has you called up by an old friend to help search a local farm for an earring to match one found years earlier. You set off, separately to cover more ground, to discover buried nails, scraps of machinery and bottle caps while discussing how your friend’s life is starting to unravel a bit.

That’s all there is to it – about two hours of digging and chatting in a relaxed, stressless way – until the story reaches the end and there’s a revelation which I have to say I did see coming so wasn’t really surprised. It didn’t matter because it was the journey, the chat and the low-impact gameplay which was excellent and a nice diversion from most other games. And it’s oh so pretty and atmospheric.

The Room Two (iPad): COMPLETED!

I quite enjoyed the first game when I picked it up on the Switch cheap a while back, but never saw this sequel (or rather, second half of the story) appear on there. I noticed it was on Apple Arcade and so thought I’d play it there instead what with it being essentially free.

Controlling it on a touch screen was actually more complex than perhaps it should have been, especially the zooming in and out which felt in inverse of pinch-to-zoom controls every other app ever has. Very little of the game is actually speed dependant though, so it wasn’t really a problem – I just preferred the joycon pointer waggle controls on the Switch.

The story continues on exactly from the end of the previous game, so it seems like one game cleaved in two rather than a separate instalment. It’s also more of the same thing – escape room style puzzles, with lots of key-finding and hidden drawers and arranging thing in a particular way. It did seem a bit easier than the first part, but a few parts of that were a little obtuse so maybe that’s intentional.

Axiom Verge 2 (Switch): COMPLETED!

I do love a good metroidvania, and I’ve played a fair few in the last year or so, and the original Axiom Verge was a great metroidvania. It’ll come a no surprise, then, that I pounced on Axiom Verge 2 the second I was able to get it from the eShop, and here I am telling you I’ve completed it.

And not just completed, but 100%ed – all items, all the map, everything. Which is a sign of a fantastic game in this genre, as far as I’m concerned.

Axiom Verge 2 isn’t really a sequel to the first game, as it’s more of a tangental story that is linked but separate for the most part. It does away with the “glitch” mechanics of the original, but replaces them with a sort of subspace, low res, corruption of the main world that you can slip in and out of in a similar way to how the two worlds work in Link to the Past. This lets you reach areas which would otherwise be blocked, by sort of skipping round them via a fourth dimension.

The plot is complicated, and references worlds that are linked, different civilisations on at least three of these worlds (one of which is Earth), but it’s interesting if difficult to get your head round. I recall the first game had a similar plot complexity and I’m sure recalling that better would shine more light here, but actually, you can mostly ignore it without detriment.

It’s the gameplay that really shines here, and Axiom Verge 2 eschews the normal combat-filled exploration of the game type with the scales tilted far more in favour of exploring than smacking stuff. In fact, you don’t really have much in the way of ranged weapons like before, and every boss in the game (bar one, I think) can be ignored entirely unless you’re after 100% completion. There are even more pacifistic ways of taking down foes too, as you’re able to hack most of them and turn them off, slow them down, or even turn them against each other.

You have to be this spiderbot thing when you’re in the Breach low-res areas.

Exploration is rewarding, both in terms of eureka moments when a puzzle is solved or an obtuse route is discovered, as well as a new power-up or upgrade is collected. I’m one for colouring in all of the map in these games and there’s a great map to fill in here. In fact, unlike other metroidvania games, the map itself is like a very small set of thumbnails of each location, rather than just a blank box.

And the music! Thomas Happ created some bizarre but incredible tracks for the first game and he’s managed the same here. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and the scratchy chiptunes for the “breach” areas are superb too, matching the low resolution aesthetic perfectly.

Someone broke some stuff then.

One of my favourite games this year, for sure.

Doodle God Universe (iPad): COMPLETED!

I’ve just got myself a new iPad so I’ve been flitting around some Apple Arcade games, and landed on this one. I’m not really sure what to make of it, because it’s a mostly-nothing game, and yet I got a bit sucked in.

The aim is to create everything. Because, you know, you’re God and all. You do this by combining things you’ve already created. Many of these make sense, like fire and sand make glass, but a lot don’t – like life and stone creating egg. Since literally all you do is combine things, it rapidly deteriorates into try-everything-on-everything like one of those terrible illogical point and click adventure games.

It’s very polished, and the voiceover guy who definitely isn’t trying to be Morgan Freeman is great (if a bit repetitive), but there’s not really any game here. You just find (i.e. brute force) all the combinations and then you’re done. So I’m done.

Mega-lo-Mania (Evercade): COMPLETED!

Yes. I played Mega-lo-Mania again, and yes, I completed it again. This time, however, it was the recently released Evercade version! Which is just the Mega Drive version again only on an Evercade cart of course.

I chose to play as Scarlet this time through, and for the second time ever, one of the other players managed to stick some people in suspended animation for the Mother of All Battles. Of course, they only had about 10 of them whereas I had a couple of hundred or something, so they didn’t last long. Still, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Wonder Boy – Asha in Monster World (Switch): COMPLETED!

A long, long time ago, I played about 15 minutes of the original Mega Drive version of this game in a local game shop. It was all in Japanese but I liked the look of it. Not quite as long ago, but still over a decade ago, Sega released the first English translated version of it as part of a Wonder Boy pack on Xbox Live Arcade. I bought it, but never played it.

Then this came along. A remake of Monster World IV, with new graphics and save system, on the Switch. And, if you bought the special edition physical game card you got the original game (translated) included on the card for free. Bargain, right? Sure, it looked a bit like a 2000s Flash game, but after the fantastic remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, and the excellent Monster Boy, it’ll be great anyway, yeah?

Well, not really. It hasn’t aged well.

Firstly, I should say that once you’re actually playing it, the graphics aren’t nearly as bad as they look in screenshots. They’re not quite right, but they’re fine. What is more of a problem is that the levels (it’s not open world like the other related games I mentioned) are just… boring. Each is themed as per every 1990s platformer, but they’re sparse. You walk along, fight one simple enemy, then walk along and fight another. Sometimes you might have to fight two. A couple of times, there were three. But there’s a lot of walking around doing very little.

Some parts of the levels are like mazes that have loads of near-identical areas, loop round themselves if you take a wrong turn (or have to backtrack), and these artificially lengthen the game. Especially the bits you have to retread as the baddies are all gone, so you get long, empty walks.

Another issue is the “2.5D” layering the levels, and the hub town especially, employ. At various points, you can step into or out of the screen into a different horizontal plane. It’s been used a lot in other games, but here it seems mostly pointless as it’s underused and forced as part of your route rather than a way to find secrets. It makes the mazes needlessly more confusing, especially on the mountain level.

You get a companion who is a flying ball/dragon/bird thing part way into the game which acts as a double-jump and glide replacement, which makes you seem much more nimble and the platforming becomes more fun, only (spoilers) the game then nerfs him before taking him away completely later on.

Good points include the music, which is excellent, and Asha’s animation (especially the ridiculous bum-wiggle she does when opening a chest), which is much better than most of the rest of the characters and baddies. The “Persian” theme, however, just serves to prompt comparison with the Shantae games, and most games don’t have a hope in hell competing with their animation. You can also save your progress wherever you like, rather than at the badly spaced, often missable, and far too infrequent Save Sages of the Mega Drive version. They’re still here, but are now pointless.

In all, I’m pretty disappointed with Asha in Monster World. I did have some fun, and I did enjoy it enough to finish it without it being a slog, but it is a game that despite the new paint and trousers, is still stuck in the past. It was an also-ran compared to the others in the series even back then though, so I can’t complain too much.

Minecraft Dungeons (Switch): COMPLETED!

When you pay for the Switch Online service, every so often they give you the full, complete versions of retail games for free – for a few days. Then they stop working. This week, they let you download and play Minecraft Dungeons, and my daughter and I completed it before our free trial was up.

That’s not to say it’s short, although it’s nowhere near as long as I expected (partly because two large additional areas are walled off behind DLC payments), it’s just we played it a lot in a short amount of time.

Although it looks like Minecraft, and has a lot of the same creatures and sound effects, Minecraft Dungeons is actually more like Diablo. You take on a series of isometric levels, killing loads of baddies, getting better loot, and making Numbers Go Up. It’s much more simplistic than Diablo, and it doesn’t have anywhere near as much content, variety, or items to collect as Diablo III, but it’s also more suitable for kids and there’s literally no learning curve just to figure out the character and weapon upgrade system.

It’s also a lot easier. The only time we had any problems is when we started a level that was waaaaay above our current player level. Sure, when you complete it there’s a much harder New Game+, and yes, for most levels you can pick a higher recommended player level than your current one, but that seems to make it impossible rather than “harder”.

We did enjoy it a lot though, and if I’d have known it was as good as it was beforehand, I’d probably have ended up buying it. However, if you’re going to, I’d recommend the PlayStation or Xbox versions instead of the Switch if jerky, stuttering framerates are likely to offend – the Switch version is full of it. Not enough to put me off, but that’s mainly because I wasn’t paying for it.

Earth Defense Force 5 (PS5): COMPLETED!

I realised for the first time while playing EDF 5, having played all (I think) of the previous titles in the series, that I think the reason I enjoy them so much is that they’re basically musou games only with guns and aliens. Sure, there’s less base defence and area capture, but the gameplay is surprisingly similar.

After I’d played a few levels, my daughter noticed it was two player and so asked to join in, which made it even more like musou games like Pirate Warriors and Hyrule Warriors that we’d played together.

If you’ve played an EDF game you’ll know exactly what to expect from Earth Defense Force 5. Millions of giant insects, cities that get levelled, hundreds of weapons and the best worst voice acting ever. Only this time round, it’s all with a rock solid framerate rather than sometimes dropping to seconds-per-frame, even in split screen. I suspect running this PS4 game on my PS5 counts for some of that though.

The game also adds new enemies to the series. The “Hector” robots are gone, replaced with giant frog soldiers (that your teammates refer to as ”just like us” – are they blind?”) and armoured giant alien soldiers. There are also a few more varieties of ants and spiders and stuff. Otherwise, it’s basically more of the same. Which is no bad thing of course, and exactly why I bought it!