Super Mario Maker Musings

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Super Mario Maker: A race to upload the most obnoxious Mario levels in existence.

Mario is my gaming alpha. He is the man who got me interested in video games back when I was 4 years old. I can’t say what it was about watching my cousins die repeatedly on the first level that caught my interest, but I was so obsessed my parents broke down and got me a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas that year. So I think it’s safe to blame my parents and Mario for my lifelong obsession with video games.

That being said, I’ve never dreamed up original Mario levels inside of my head. Guess I’m not very creative when it comes to design and the technicalities of it all. This certainly didn’t do anything to smother my excitement for Super Mario Maker. In fact, I was always excited to go online and experience levels created by people with more creativity and spare time on their hands. Unfortunately, when it comes to the (literally) millions of levels uploaded online, the amount of quality levels is really a drop in a bucket by comparison.

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This isn’t the random clusterf**k you think it is.

In fact, my favorite levels are the levels I don’t have to play at all! “Don’t Move” levels permeate the popular online courses. Yes, that’s right… the “player” doesn’t have to do a thing! I know, it sound cheap, but many of these stages are absolutely amazing to behold. They really demonstrate the impressive mechanics and the overwhelming number of options on the table when creating levels. Plus, they’re a nice break from a sad majority of stages that only seem to exist to cause me stress. It seems like every other level is nothing but an annoying, gimmicky attempt at a “gotcha” stage that I have little to no patience for.

This is only mainly a problem due to one of my few complaints about this game. As many of you know, Super Mario Maker allows for amiibo skins while playing 8-bit Mario Bros. levels. If you don’t happen to own 100 amiibos, you can unlock skins by playing “100 Mario Challenge.” 100 is a lot of lives… right?

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Also, get used to level names that LIE, have spelling and grammar errors, and are in other languages.

100 Mario Maker has an Easy, Normal, and Expert mode, which are determined by each stages completion percentage. Easy is brain-numbingly easy. Normal usually has decent stages. But Expert? Ugh… Most Expert mode stages make me want to write death notes for the users who created this painful garbage. I would just, you know, stay away from Expert mode… if I had a choice. Sadly, the game caps how much you can unlock on Easy and Normal modes. So unless I want to go out and buy more amiibos (Someday, but not today) I have to suffer through Expert mode or just not bother. As it stands, I haven’t completed it once. Even with the feature to skip a level (I’d be livid if this didn’t exist) if I still have 8 stages to go and more than half of my lives are gone… I always quit.

I still have a lot of unlocking to do. Time is all that is needed to unlock all the building tools. 10 Mario Challenge will get you some starter levels to tinker with and completing them all gets you Nintendo World Championship Levels. Completing all of those gets you… Wait for it…

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Is that… Walauigi?

Skinny, weird jumping Mario. I have an irrational fear of it. Seriously, it creeps me out.

I still have a lot to unlock and some stage designs to play around with. There is a lot to this game, and with the potential of it being a never ending Mario game with (hopefully) more DLC down the line for level creation tools and layouts (Seriously… No Super Mario 2???? It hurts). Aside from these gripes, I’m so glad Nintendo finally made this a thing. This is the best thing to happen to my Wii U since Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows DLC

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He’s just so… cute!

I’m back to sing Shovel Knight’s praises again! Except this time… it’s Plague Knight I’m rooting for?!

While Plague Knight didn’t especially stand out to me while playing Shovel Knight for the first time, I was immensely excited when I read about this free DLC for owners of the original game. In Plague of Shadows, the player assumes the role of Plague Knight, who is on a quest to become the most powerful alchemist out there. With the help of a few friends, of course.

I’m happy to report that we’re not talking about a mere palette swap here. I could tell a lot of time and care went into this DLC. Though it’s true that you will replay the same basic stages, they’ve been remodeled and subtle changes have been made to accompany Plague Knight’s style. And man, it is hella different. If you’ve played the normal campaign recently, it will take some getting used to.

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Just look at all these options!

Being an alchemist, Plague Knight relies on an assortment of potion bombs to blow up enemies. Don’t expect any signature shovel pogo sticking here. Instead, you’ll be double jumping, bursting, and tossing explosive vials. Bursting is an effect that will trigger when releasing the button. Plague Knight can glide, rain a blizzard on enemies below him, break through walls, and more. A common practice for gaining gravity is to double jump then burst, but you can do any combination of burst and jumping that you’d like. His bombs have THREE different features that you can upgrade and swap out whenever you want. It is very important to purchase these and experiment with them, as many effects are situational. Don’t learn the hard way (like me) that having a certain explosion or casing type can make or break a boss fight. Because they most certainly do.

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Treasure Trappings… Troupple King is my kinda Troupple.

Plague Knight utilizes magic as well. So on top of micromanaging your basic attack (which can get frustrating on certain stages… especially after the upteenth “Why do I keep dying here?!” death) you also have magic spells to consider. Some of the magic spells are wildly different than Shovel Knight’s, while others are different animations serving the same purpose. For example: While Shovel Knight gets the Dust Knuckles to soar across gaps, Plague Knight gets a dust cloud that he can walk through.

On top of the great new mechanics and creative equipment and abilities comes a fresh and thoroughly enjoyable story with delightful characters. Yacht Club Games did an impressive job of giving Plague Knight his own fresh story that runs parallel to what we saw the first time around. You’ll see some new faces, but more importantly, you’ll see a different side to characters you thought you knew. Most of the knights haven’t really changed; their ire is just temporarily directed towards Plague Knight. But damn, if it isn’t hilarious watching the pre-boss battle banter.

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Sound logic right there.

In short, the Plague of Shadows DLC is the perfect excuse to delve back into this game again. And this is coming from a person who almost never buys or downloads DLC. Typically when I am done with a game, I’m done. But for Shovel Knight fans, this is an opportunity you won’t want to miss. Plague Knight’s story is charming, fun, and hopefully a showcase of what other tricks Yacht Club Games has up their sleeves!

Until Dawn Review

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Nobody was buried under snow in my playthrough…

I’m gonna go ahead and preemptively declare Until Dawn as my sleeper hit of the year. I mean, sure, I heard a bit about it, and even thought I’d probably like it. But I did not expect to love the game as much as I do. As we played, Steve-O and I had a harder and harder time turning the console off each night when it was time to quit. I was skeptical at first. While Until Dawn meshes two of my favorite genres, Survival Horror and Narrative (Point and Click, I guess they’re called), I was concerned the game wouldn’t give me enough anxiety to be scary, because it’s not really based on player skill, per se. Plus, I figured, it’d rely mainly on jump scares. Meaning not scary at all.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, there are jump scares. And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit how many of them I fell prey to, even when I felt them coming. But we still felt a lot of the anxiety you’d typically get while playing a survival horror game. It just manifests itself a little differently. Instead of thinking “I’m out of healing items and ammo and have to make it to the next save point without dying and having to do everything all over,” your train of thought instead is, “If I do this wrong I’ll get this character PERMANENTLY killed.” No do-overs here, people. Like Heavy Rain, making a wrong decision can get a character dead, and there ain’t nothing you can do to fix it. Save starting a new game file, anyway.

Until Dawn is not very forgiving, either. Very few of your decisions are black and white in terms of outcome. In fact, people are still debating on message boards about what actions, conversation decisions, and collectibles lead to which outcomes. Moreso than Beyond Two Souls and Telltale Games’ selections, Until Dawn relies on the player finding collectibles to further enhance the story. And it appears that, on at least one prominent occasion, neglecting to pick some up can lead to a character death.

Speaking of collectibles, I really like the Totem concept. While exploring, you can pick up color coded totems that will foreshadow possible events in the future. For sadists like us, it means we still get to view a character’s death even if you don’t put the events in motion.

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One of our friends just disappeared? Let’s do it!

In case you’ve missed some of the commentary surrounding this game, it does, indeed, feature a bunch of horny high schoolers trying to get laid. Yes, even that snow-covered picnic table is no match for adolescent libido. What, there’s a killer on the loose? All the more reason to get laid one last time! The game certainly starts off with the typical cheesy 80’s slasher horror movie feel. But a few hours into the game we came to realize it evolves into something more. Let me put it this way: We began our adventure fully intending to get everyone killed. Yet, as the game progressed and we spent more time with these entitled brats, we sort of grew attached to them. We actually didn’t want most of the characters to die. (Not all, but most)

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Apparently Sam is an expert rock climber.

Until Dawn relies on timed QTEs and conversation options for the bulk of the gameplay. There are a handful of events requiring the player to aim and shoot guns, but they’re few and far between. During chase sequences, you often have to make timed, off-the-cuff decisions about how the character should progress. Fast or cautious? Left or right? Hide or try the door knob? Each decision potentially changes the future framework of your experience with this game whether you realize it or not. Don’t enter Until Dawn thinking that your decisions won’t change anything more than some dialogue subtleties like Telltale Games’ series. No. Until Dawn is, I daresay, the first game of this genre I’ve played to fully realize the butterfly effect. Everything else I’ve played before now barely scratched the surface.

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People still toy with these things?

Excellent butterfly effects and 80’s horror flick homages aside, Until Dawn is also well crafted on the aesthetic side of things. The graphics are excellent. The character models and facial recognition are top-notch. Remember Heavy Rain showcasing character facial expressions during the pause menu? Same goes here. Character’s profile pics change depending on their condition in-game as well. Someone take a little tumble or get in an altercation? Their pretty face now has bruises or cuts. Also, and I really appreciated this, the menu actually displays the character’s current relationship status with the rest of the cast! What a novel concept! You’re also shown how you’ve royally f***ed up their personality, to boot. Each character begins with 3 prominent personality features. They certainly don’t have to STAY brave, or loyal, or smart. Player actions and conversations will change all that, and the game will always keep you updated on how your choices are changing the framework.

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That’s one messy hickey.

Until Dawn breaks up the suspense by interjecting sessions with a psychologist. While I didn’t dislike these portions, and I did appreciate how the scenery eventually morphed into some messed up Silent Hill imagery, they did feel like Shattered Memories rip offs. Every session you had to answer his questions. In turn, these made small changes to the game. If you say you’re scared of spiders, they will crawl across the screen at one point. It’s small, superficial things like that. Miniscule in comparison to the rest of the butterfly effects this game offers. However, I did like how they helped unravel one of the game’s major mysteries.

There isn’t much else I can say without spoiling all the fun. Your first game will probably hit or fall just shy of the 10 hour mark. Despite being a short game, due to its high replay and production values, I think its totally worth paying full price. Until Dawn has set a new precedent for “Choose your adventure” games. I can only hope other companies are taking notes.

Retro Review: Suikoden 2

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Still not enough room for all of the characters.

Recently, Steve-O and I had the urge to scratch a “retro JRPG” itch. Remembering that Suikoden 2 was added to the Playstation Store for only $10, a much more affordable option than the rare disc which, until then, sold for over $100 used, I went ahead and downloaded it. A game that had been on our bucket list for a long time, but disregarded because of the old price point, we were excited to finally play it. Steve-O especially, as he’s played every main entry title.

We’d played Suikoden 1 and 3 together in past years. While I don’t exactly dislike Suikoden games, they do have two defining features that also happen to be on my RPG pet peeves list: silent protagonists and recruiting a bajillion characters. Recruiting all 108 stars of destiny characters is mandatory if you want to see the best ending, to boot! Suikoden 2 doesn’t stop there when it comes to arbitrary requirements to get the better ending after investing 50 hours in the game. All I have to say is I’m grateful we played the game during Age of Google.

RPG pet peeves aside, Suikoden 2 is a pretty solid JRPG. It takes the groundwork framed by the first Suikoden and improves upon it. You’ll create your own silent (generic and boring) young protagonist, and through a strange series of circumstances, become the leader of a rebel army. You’ll get to name the main character and army, so choose the most inappropriate names you can come up with. Personally, I’m still gravely wounded over not having enough character spaces to name my army the “Fuzzy Beaver” or “Bearded Clam” army. So many missed opportunities…

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Having six characters in battle at one time is helpful when experimenting with new allies.

Suikoden 2’s battle system is a bit different than many turn based games. I love that you’re able to bring six party members along with you, especially since the game FORCES certain characters on you ALL THE TIME! Add that to my RPG pet peeve list. In a game with over 108 recruitable/playable characters, being forced to bring certain characters with me so they can have one line of dialogue during a scene is beyond frustrating. Especially when you have a lot of equipment and Runes to swap around. Armor is relatively standard fare, but character weapons are unique to each character and can’t be removed. These add some individuality to a game where interchangeable Runes can make them blend together.

Certain characters have weapons with Runes embedded in them. This gives their weapons special effects, adding some flare. Some will have extra damage, some will have elemental effects. Each character can also have up to three Rune slots unlocked as they level. This means that you could potentially equip someone with 3 Runes to boost their physical attack prowess, 3 Runes full of magic spells, or whichever combination you desire. You can make some pretty sick physical attackers and mages with the right Rune combinations.This system helps make nearly any characters you select a viable option, but it does mean you’ll spend a lot of time micro-managing when swapping characters. And you will be changing your party up a lot because the game doesn’t really give you a choice not to.

One good feature that does help to offset all the character swapping and leveling you’ll potentially be doing is the experience distribution. The game doesn’t give those sitting out experience, but low level characters will catch up in a matter of a few fights, tops. This is the only hint I got that maybe, just maybe, they DID want us to experiment with different characters.

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Favorite boss design in the game.

I won’t say that Suikoden 2 is difficult, because it isn’t and if I did I’d be harassed with “N00B!” comments. But with that being said, the first boss fight was definitely a wake up call. Everything went from smooth sailing to “Okay maybe this game is serious!” Bosses in this game get multiple turns in a row, counters, and do crazy AoE damage. Sometimes, just for fun, they counter with an AoE attack then do it again on their turn before your characters get a chance to heal. Moral of the story: Never go into a boss fight without resting and getting spells back. You won’t make it long without high damaging runes and heal spells. Aside from the boss fights that actually require some thought and strategy, much of the battle system is a breeze.

The battle simulator fights, however, aren’t all that  great. Truthfully, it’s never been my thing to begin with. So I am a bit biased against them. I find the entire process cumbersome and boring. Half the time we wanted to let Apple do her own thing (This prompts the AI to handle the fighting for you) but she typically got units killed so we’d have to take matters into our own hands. Unlike other games of this nature, the player isn’t given a very clear picture of what their goal is. There were way, way too many hidden agendas and forced “Get your ass kicked by the enemies” for my liking.

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There is no HP meter either, you have to guess based on how many soldiers are left standing.

Don’t let fanboys with nostalgia vision try telling you about how unique the story in this game is, either. Sure, the over-arching plot doesn’t turn into “saving the world from an ultimate evil” like virtually every other JRPG in existence, but there’s plenty more JRPG tropes to go around: Silent protagonist? Check. Annoying characters that you just wanna kill tagging along for the entire journey? Check. Childhood best friend becoming your misled, angsty nemesis? Check. Traumatized child who refuses to speak until the dickbag she worships has his redeeming moment? Check. And that’s not even getting into all the watered down caricatures the characters are. There’s 108 of them, so it’s not like the writers really had any other choice.

As with most other old school JRPGs, the terrible translations make the entire experience more humorous than it probably should be. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Though I have no doubt she really said this!

All in all, Suikoden 2 is a worthy JRPG to take the time to play if you’re a fan of that genre like we are. Steve-O, the Suikoden veteran, gives it a two thumbs up. Suikoden 2 wasn’t masochistic and grind-y enough for our tastes, though…. So maybe we’ll do Earthbound Beginnings next to further torture ourselves!

Styx: Master of Shadows

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This may be the first time I’ve played as a goblin instead of killing them.

Styx: Master of Shadows was free to download on Playstation Network last month. Since then, I’ve sat down and played it for a handful of hours. I had no prior knowledge or experience with Of Orcs and Men, so I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into. Styx is a game for hardcore stealth fans. Not wannabes like me who play the Assassin’s Creed series and think that suffices.

I started off liking the game well enough. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t absolutely love it either. I made respectable progress, getting through the first couple of areas while the game slowly unravels the multitude of tricks and skills Styx has up his sleeves. I appreciate, and find a bit funny, a few of his human-killing methods. For example: Styx can puke in a bowl of fruit to poison and kill people. The animation is complete with green goop and sound effects to boot. Can’t say I’ve seen that before. The vomiting also lends credence to the game’s darker tones. Styx is vulgar, often proudly swearing between bouts of puking. As someone who never tires of gratuitous vulgarity, I was quite pleased.

As with many other video games, you can unlock skills to empower your character. Styx has otherwordly powers such as becoming invisible, vomiting up clones, and using Amber *cough* Eagle *cough* Vision to detect enemies and find hidden markers. These abilities are made possible through the use of Amber, the stimulant drug du jour in this world. Leveling up these amber abilities can only be done while at the hideout. This feature was the first turn off for me. I was only able to get to the hideout once the entire time I played. I’m the kind of person who can’t wait to burn points and get more powerful as soon as I can. Waiting until the game allowed me to in a game where you’re slowly trudging from point A to B because you can’t get seen just killed it for me.

Another turn off was the piss-poor battle system. I mean, I thought Assassin’s Creed was lazy with it, but now my eyes have been opened. At least in the AC series I can attack someone if I so choose. Styx is not so fortunate. If you make the mistake of catching a guard’s attention, prepare yourself: he, along with a dozen of  his friends who materialize out of nowhere, will gang up on you simultaneously. There’s no Gentleman’s Syndrome here, folks. They have no qualms with killing you while you’re stuck in a parry or kill animation. That’s all you can do, by the way: parry and kill. Every single fight is nothing more than determining your parry timing, and parrying however many times you have to until parry turns into kill. Then Styx knocks them to the ground, and while stabbing them to death, gets sliced up by their pissed off friend.

Yes, I understand this is a stealth game and combat should be avoided when necessary, but this is just ridiculous. Styx has all these neat tools to his disposal, so why can’t I use them during battle? I’d like the option to turn invisible and try sneaking off again (and seeing the guards crap themselves when I disappear into thin air). Or barfing up a clone to take some beatings while I pick one off. Or even puking up my poisonous vomit in their face while dueling. That’s the kind of dirty fighting Styx seems like he was made for. However, none of these creative devices that could make battles more interesting are even hinted at. Guess I’m just creative like that.

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I never got far enough to unlock the Kill From Above-type skill.

None of these complaints are even what put the fork in the game for me. I was still content with continuing along, (rather slowly I might add, with all the hard saving and reloading I finally resorted to thanks to the not generous auto saves and guard ganking), until a peculiar thing happened. I was in the midst of a “Don’t get seen or you have to start over from the last checkpoint” section. Something I’ve become akin to thanks to Assassin’s Creed. So I figured, “Okay, time to be diligent about not triggering guards.” No biggie. But then I got a peculiar message. Something about a dead body being seen. Okay. Before I have time to react, the game reloads.

Really? A game over for a dead body being detected? Without giving the player time to backtrack and try doing something about said body? Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I had no idea that a dead guard I left behind who knows how long ago would become a death sentence. Obviously if I had known it’d be such a BFD I would’ve tried harder to stealth past him or do away with the body. There’s only so many closets and chests to hide them in. Sure, an NPC gives you vials of acid to destroy corpses with, but you only get a couple to carry you over until God knows when.

And that’s it. I was in the middle of trying to solve a puzzle involving using the clone to pass through metal gates and activate triggers when I kept “dying” due to carelessly leaving a dead guard behind. I tried reloading a previous save, but it didn’t erase my mistake.

Then Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris became available for free, thus putting Styx on the digital shelf to probably not be picked back up again.

If you’re hardcore into stealth games, or played Of Orcs and Men and enjoyed it, then I say go for this game. But for the rest of us, I wouldn’t really recommend it. Aside from Styx’s great voice acting and character, everything else was lackluster.

Telltale’s Game of Thrones, Episode 5: A Nest of Vipers

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Yep, he’s finally setting sail…

While a short episode, Episode 5 of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones spin-off finally begins to move things forward to the grand finale and managed to get me pumped for the series again. Character arcs finally progress onward and the player finally gets to make a decision that seems like it’ll actually make a big splash in the narrative!

And, yeah, some characters die. The video game, like the HBO series and novels, always instigates a haunting “Who is going to die next?” voice repeating in my brain. Some deaths elicit glee and excitement, others sadness and dread. I felt a little bit of both this episode.

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Being in Cersei’s shadow is never a good thing.

Mira’s portions of this game tend to annoy me. I know they’re necessary to reflect the large part of GoT’s universe that is the political power struggle realized through touchy conversations, eye shifting, and layering lies until you can’t remember what the truth is anymore; but truth be damned, because anything is better than getting on Cersei’s bad side! Through her usual style of manipulating and plotting, Cersei now has Mira in the palm of her hand, which I can only take to mean things will end very badly for Mira soon. She annoys me, so I hope she gets a good dose of Cersei revenge.

Mr. Tuttle isn’t having too much fun wandering the frozen expanses of the northern wilderness in pursuit of the mythical North Grove. Without spoiling too much here, I’ll only say there is a battle scene thrown in to spruce things up and he trudge on. Continue on and possibly die from hypothermia or get killed by winter zombies, versus turning back and probably get his head lopped off for desertion. The world is his oyster.

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Pretty boy’s gonna get his arse beat.

As usual, I had the most fun while playing with Asher and Beskha. That pair always find themselves  in hot water and solving differences at sword point. In Episode 5, Asher must prove his worth to the meandering pit fighters, now ex-slaves with no purpose but wanton violence. After reigning supreme in the pit, Asher gets himself an army to take back to Westeros. Yes, Asher FINALLY sails back home.

And it doesn’t take long for Asher to find more trouble. At least this time he is uniting with his Forrester family against the Whitehills. Unfortunately, Asher’s reunion with his family is short-lived before grief strikes yet again and the player is left to a difficult, and I’m hoping profound, choice.

I’m just going to leave it at that. You’re welcome.

Entwined

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So Pretty…

Entwinted was a free Playstation Plus download on the Playstation 3 for the month of July. I recalled the indie game being showcased at E3 last year. The style and colors were mesmerizing, and I told myself I would check the game out one day. About a year later I finally followed through. It was free, after all.

The concept behind Entwined is relatively simple. The player assists two star-crossed lovers; an orange fish and a blue bird, who somehow met and fell and love. Now, as you can imagine, they’re tragically separated for all of eternity and it is up to the player to assist them with uniting into a fancy green dragon every lifetime and liberating the creatures by drawing in the sky.

Don’t think too hard about that.

This translates into a simple, yet immersive, gaming experience to start. Entwinted is easy to pick up and play. The left half of the screen represents the fish’s realm, and the player is assigned the left analog stick to move the fish around it’s domain. Similarly, the right hand side and right analog stick are reserved for moving the bird. The player must navigate both avatars simultaneously to hit or move through their corresponding colors to fill their bars. At times there are green zones the fish and bird must enter together. Missing will cause the corresponding bar to deplete.

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There are orbs to collect as well.

Once the fish and bird both have filled bars, they flash and you’re prompted to press L1 and R1 simultaneously to begin what I call the Unity Phase. Their bars link across the top of the screen, and each successful move will cause the bars to creep together until they are conjoined to create a green dragon. Then they’re free to spend the rest of that lifetime bonded in their love for each other, painting beautiful streams in the sky until the cycle is set to repeat and you get to do it all over again.

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Collect things as dragon. Because reasons.

Entwined clearly takes heavy inspiration from artsy-fartsy games like Journey and Flower created by thatgamecompany. And, to its credit, it does start off as enchanting as those titles, providing sufficient escapism. However, I felt like a lot of the charm with Journey, for example, was that I became so immersed I really forgot I was playing a video game. While playing Entwined, especially in the later Lifetimes, the difficulty is amped so I felt like I was constantly being pulled from the experience.

I know, I know: Get Good. My only problem was I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing wrong half the time. I can’t get better if I can’t identify what I’m doing incorrectly in the first place. Despite my glaring lack of self-reflection, I was able to beat the game in a little over an hour.

Overall, I did enjoy my time with Entwinted. The gorgeous aesthetics, impressive soundtrack, and easy to pick up controls entertained me for about an hour. Whether it is worth the full price tag ($10, I believe) isn’t for me to say. But free is the best price of all, and this is certainly an indie title worth checking out.