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!

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.

Axiom Verge Review!

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Believe it or not, that lab coat is the best part of his arsenal.

Next in our lineup here at Hardly Hobbies was yet another high profile indie game. You may have heard of it (or maybe not since it was Wii U exclusive up until last week), as it received some Best at E3 awards and a lot of interest due to being developed entirely by one man, Thomas Happ. Axiom Verge was hyped as the “Metroidvania” game that retro gamers like us have been waiting for. Like Shovel Knight, it is a throwback to games people in their late 20’s and 30’s grew up playing. Except Axiom Verge, while still a 2D side-scroller, pays homage to a totally different style of gaming.

First things first: Do we believe Axiom Verge lives up to its hype? Did it deserve all of the rewards it received, even before it was released?

Definitely.

Here’s the thing. While Axiom Verge may appear, especially to gamers who’ve never touched anything more graphically degraded than a Wii game, juvenile and simple. It is not. Like Shovel Knight, it manages to capture the essence of the games it nods to (Metroid and Castlevania, with some Contra vibes thrown in) excellently, while still being its own game. I’d rate Axiom Verge as having slightly less independence than Shovel Knight, it’s still worth playing if you haven’t played the old Metroids or Castlevanias. Provided you have patience for backtracking and exploration, that is.

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You can’t tell me this doesn’t scream METROID!!

Axiom Verge tells the story of Trace, a scientist whose lab explodes during an experiment during the opening cinematic. When he awakens, he is in this strange, alien(?) world, with only a few beings to interact with. The loneliness of Trace’s experience is compiled with moody atmospheres and ambient music, bellied by the shortsightedness of the bosses you’ll uncover who aren’t interested in talking things out. The soundtrack to this game really is superb and sets the mood as it should.

Oh, and those bosses that I mentioned? Aside from the Hornet boss, they certainly make up for how drab some of the typical enemy designs are.

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Where’s Trace?

Axiom Verge’s sense of progression is what will keep you coming back. Every play session of ours went something like this: Explore until finding a power up that changes the way you interact with the map, backtrack and find health/power upgrades, kill boss, rinse and repeat. And you know what? It works. Every power up we found got us excited to backtrack and uncover the areas of the map we couldn’t get to before. This does mean every play session involves “Hey, remember that room…?” Or, “Where was that spot again?”

And that’s okay. After all, it’s pretty much the point of these games. My one small gripe is that there’s no fast travel in this game. It’d be great if the save points acted as fast travel locations, but unfortunately they don’t. One feature that I think helps balance this development decision is how AV handles death. When you die, you pop back up at the last save point you hit. No progression lost!

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These save pods are more than what they seem…

Which is a damn good thing. Because if it weren’t for full healing and progression auto saves at death, I would have lost my patience. Mostly because I died a lot in the beginning. But, thanks to the plethora of upgrades and weapons found throughout the game, by the end of it we were near-gods. There are literally dozens of collectibles in this game. We had so many guns, I was overwhelmed when it was time to experiment. Same goes for backtracking. Just got an upgrade that allows you to teleport through thin walls? Expect to spend half an hour to an hour going back through the unexplored parts of the map.

One of the best weapons in the game is the “Glitch Gun”… this allows you to purposely glitch enemies or remove glitched walls to reveal new passages. It was a clever homage to glitches in those NES cartridges we grew up with. You can also glitch enemies, and every enemy type responds differently to being glitched. Some will spit out health for you. Others will slow down. There’s an annoying crawler enemy that spits lasers, and if you glitch it the lasers hurt other monsters instead of Trace! Loved that glitch, by the way.

Axiom Verge also hides a fascinating existential plot, but unfortunately it is buried beneath poor pacing. You’re really only treated with about 3 cut scenes, and they’re much longer than they should be. Without reading the extra notes, some of which require ALSO finding passwords to translate them, you won’t really get much of the bigger picture. I find this to be a shame, because when I went online after beating the game and read some of the notes we didn’t find or translate, I started putting the pieces together and found a deeper, more interesting plot than the cut scenes in the game led on.

AV has a unique feature that I wish more games included: Speed Run! Yes, there is a mode specifically designed for speed runners, which skips cutscenes and dialogue. While I don’t do speed runs myself, I enjoy watching them for some of my favorite games. And I can’t wait to see what players will have posted on YouTube soon!

There’s a lot to take away from Axiom Verge, whether you’re playing it to relive those glory days of gaming or not. People are putting Axiom Verge off as a Metroid clone, and it is a disservice. From start to finish, I could tell the developer poured 110% of his energy into his creation. There aren’t many games created entirely by one person, for obvious reasons, but based on the production value I never would’ve guessed. I had absolutely zero technical issues as well. Nope, I’d have never known only ONE person made this fantastic indie game. Yes, Axiom Verge deserved all of the hype it received, and I thought it was worth every dollar.

Shovel Knight Review

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I wish I could insert the sound effect that goes along with this pose.

Shovel Knight is, simply put, an entertaining breath of nostalgic air. Imagine, if you can, an 8-bit retro game inspired by the likes of some of our favorite NES platformers; Megaman and Super Mario Bros. 3 were two titles from my gaming past that I kept experiencing deja vu moments for while playing Shovel Knight. I never played Duck Tales, but the Shovel pogo-ing is unmistakable.

I’m happy to report that Shovel Knight is more than just a sum of its parts. On its own merit, it is a wonderfully crafted adventure, in which you can feel the dedication and love pouring out of its development. Yacht Club Games didn’t stop at just creating an 8-bit platformer to get NES gamers like myself to buy it. They went above and beyond to create a genuinely great game that stands on its own two feet. They could have just settled on 8-bit  graphics and music. Yet every screen has amazing color contrast and texture work, and every song is a catchy beat you’ll be humming long after you’ve turned the game off.

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Hard to believe he sleeps with that helmet on.

Shovel Knight truly is a game that would challenge anyone who doesn’t think 8-bit graphics can be aesthetically pleasing.

The world map is presented as a near clone to Super Mario Bros. 3, with progression locked until you defeat certain bosses. There are two villages you can visit to speak with NPCs and purchase upgrades, and the side-scrolling is reminiscent of LoZ 2. Health upgrades can be obtained by turning in meal tickets, while your magic capacity, weapon and armor upgrades are purchased with good old fashioned gold. I wasn’t entirely crazy about having to return to town to change armor (each armor has different features and changes Shovel Knight’s appearance). Magic in Shovel Knight is really using secondary items called relics. Each relic will use a certain amount of magic, and when your magic is out you’re stuck  unless you pick up an item to fill it. The more you upgrade your magic, the more you can use without needing to refill it. And there are a lot of different relics to collect for how short this game is.

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Yeah, this guy is a dick.

The stages themselves take the Megaman approach; 8  bosses to defeat and all! Clear a certain Knight’s stage and defeat the Knight. Unlike Megaman, defeating a Knight does not grant you with an “I Win” button to use against the next boss. In this game, you don’t get crazy weaknesses to exploit, giving more trial and error to boss fights that surpasses Megaman’s “Okay, time to find the boss weak to fire! Gee, can’t imagine who it could be!”

Instead, we get checkpoints! Checkpoints abound! One great aspect about Shovel Knight is that you can decide to make the game more difficult, therefore more faithful to some of your favorite NES games if you so choose. Checkpoints are splattered throughout each stage. If you die, you lose a handful of gold that you can retrieve by picking it up again. If you’re feeling ballsy, you can DESTROY your checkpoints for a decent wad of gold, meaning you must start even further back (or at the beginning) of the stage. I’m not the sort of person to partake in difficulty challenges nowadays, but I give the developers a nod for coming up with a clever compromise between old school difficulty and the current gaming trends of abundant checkpoints.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed that here at Hardly Hobbies, we love it when a game pokes fun at itself. Shovel Knight’s dialogue is filled with humorous puns and pokes at the cheesy, poorly-translated games of yore. SK takes it’s medieval theme and runs with it, creating hilarious dialogue that will help you unwind after getting worked up over the boss that killed you five times in a row.

And you will die. Shovel Knight isn’t insanely difficult, but it does have a handful of stages that rely on practice and memorization, particularly with shovel pogo-ing. Thanks to not having a set amount of lives, and (usually) generous checkpoints, I didn’t experience any of the rage I get when playing old school games.

Now that Shovel  Knight is being ported to systems outside of the 3DS and Wii U, I’m hoping it will receive a lot more support. It’s a fantastic game, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys 2D platformers. And shovels.

(Sort of) Retro Review: Lone Survivor

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Okay, so this review will be a retro review in the same vein that a review for Megaman 10 would have been a retro review a few years back; new game made in old format. Lone Survivor is a game we recently plowed through, available on the PSN. For Playstation Plus users it was free at the time, although for a game its length, the pricetag it otherwise totes would be modest at best. My co-blogger caught this one in an issue of Game Informer, and it had me sold from the ground up. Survival horror? Check. Retro style gameplay? Check. Ambient and atmospheric? Check.

Lone Survivor makes a bit of a hypocrite out of me, I’ll admit. While I would call other games that borrow heavily from another series a “rip-off,” it’s tough to throw this game in the same ring. It’s more a tribute than a rip-off, and maybe the relatively short investment period helps make that differentiation. From the enemy designs, the environment, and right down to the music, I found myself thinking, “Yep. This is what Silent Hill would be like on the SNES.” The soundtrack sounds like it’s torn directly from Yamaoka’s early mixer, and the creature designs would be right at home in a low-res Silent Hill. The bulk of your plot is told through conversations with people you aren’t entirely convinced are actually there.

Lone Survivor also engages in minimalist storytelling, which leaves quite a bit open to interpretation. I don’t want to spoil anything that is revealed, but suffice it to say we scratched our heads a few times throughout the course of the game. On the one hand, you get to draw your own conclusions and interpretations on scenes and the endings. On the other hand, we found that certain elements of the endings seemed bizarre and out-of-place, due to missing the breadcrumbs that gave them context. However, it’s difficult to be critical of this fact because Lone Survivor is designed to be a multi-playthrough experience. With a firmer grasp on the sanity mechanic and knowledge of the game layout, you can take better care of your character, get through the game quicker and get the better ending. I’ve no doubt that if our character were in optimal mental health, his conversations would reveal “a-ha!” moments, and aspects of the game would be clearer. Some things would be still be open to interpretation, sure, but in the day where the gaming industry tells stories with the subtlety of a cinder block I have difficulty faulting the game for that.

The game takes a spin on survival horror that you don’t see terribly often; you have to eat and sleep. While our adventure never left us starved to death or collapsed from exhaustion, we did have to scramble to salvage food and go back to the main characters’ apartment to sleep (and save). What it did take a toll on, however, is the main characters’ mental health. The mental health system isn’t unknown to survival horror, but this game tackled it in a sort of interesting manner. It isn’t a simple stat that affects your ability to survive. Varying degrees of mental health open dialogue options that shed light on what may be going on. Our mental health was largely middle-of-the-road, so our dialogue options were minimal, if available at all. Watching a video of the good ending had the character pouring his soul out to his adopted cat, Sunny (yeah, this was the “not-crazy” health path. Suuuure). Eating and sleeping on time promote good health, starving and being overtired negatively effect mental health. Furthermore, your mental health improves when you water and talk to a fern outside your building, you talk to a stuffed cat that you carry around with you, and talk to your adopted cat.

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Your mental health deteriorates if you opt for free supplies while sleeping, although the dream sequences are pretty bizarre and should be experienced at least a few times.  While taking care of food and weariness adds a splash of realism to the game, the rate at which he gets tired and hungry quickly becomes tedious, and nothing yanks you out of the mindset to explore a foreboding basement faster than your main character whining about being hungry, even though he just ate literally five minutes ago. On the subject of food, I’d be remiss if I didn’t criticize how ridiculously picky  your character was about what he cooked his food in. “Yeah, I’m starving to death and half-insane but I’ll be DAMNED if cut and cook this ham in a saucepan!” Really, game? With an apparent monstrous outbreak, you’d think he’d be a little less finicky.

The gameplay is, like the plot, fairly minimal. The game takes place shifting between backround and foreground of a side-scroller. You are most often given chances to shift into the backround and sneak by enemies undetected. You are fairly fragile, and can’t withstand more than a handful of attacks. Early in the game, you are given a single pistol and, spoiler alert, that’s it. Your character even outright refuses to upgrade his arsenal at a gun shop, because his gun is “cooler.” I can’t imagine this was put in as anything other than snark. Pistol ammo is limited, and you face a few unpleasant decisions to supply yourself with more, or simply do without.  Thankfully, the game is designed to be able to be completed without firing a single shot (seriously, there’s even a trophy for it), so you can manage. You get a handful of disposable diversions in the way of rotting meat and flares, so if you’re certain you won’t be backtracking they’ll clear the way nicely.

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At first, your mission straightforward; to escape and survive. As you explore your building and the surrounding areas, you’re introduced to the occasional repeat sidequest, building quasi-relationships as you continue your search. Wall mirrors serve a unique two-part purpose in Lone Survivor; your window to your apartment to sleep/save, and as an indicator of how your mental health is doing. As the events of the game take their toll on your psyche, your character comments on his reflection differently. I think this is an underused method of outlining the characters mental weariness, and would like to see larger franchises take something similar into consideration.

All in all, this game was a fun and interesting diversion, especially for the (nonexistent) price. The retro look and control scheme really created a “what if” scenario when the content and delivery was so dripping of Silent Hill it borders on copyright infringement. I would feel content up to a price of $10.00, considering the potential for multiple playthroughs and speed-runs. If you’re a fan of the survival horror genre and catch it on the Playstation Network, it was definitely worth the ~5 hours we threw into it.

thomas was alone

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As you can see, Thomas was NOT alone for long.

March was a great month for Playstation Network Indie freebies. Both thomas was alone AND The Lone Survivor were free last month. Two totally different types of games. Both totally worth playing.

I downloaded thomas was alone to my Vita and played it over the course of a couple of weeks. It is a puzzle-platformer with 100 levels. 100 levels sounds like a lot, but many of them are short and sweet. Rest assured, the time passes quickly.

thomas was alone has a unique premise. The “characters” in the game are AI personalities breaking free of a program that went haywire, essentially giving the AIs self-awareness. Each “character” has a different color, shape, and “ability.” To traverse the 2D levels, the AIs mostly jump over chasms and a water-like substance that most of them “drown” in. Each AI jumps different lengths and heights. One of them acts as a trampoline, allowing the others to jump on it and reach higher. One of my favorite characters, named Claire, has delusions of being a super hero. She does feel like a super hero at first because she can float in the water and help other AIs across the gap. Another favorite is a green AI (I don’t remember his name) who “has a unique disregard for Newtonian laws” because he defies gravity and is upside down the whole game.

To keep things fresh, new characters are introduced throughout the game. I believe Grey wasn’t introduced until around level 80. Then there was Team Jump, which was cute and quirky. Most of the cute and quirky comes from the narration. Danny Wallace (Shaun in the Assassin’s Creed series!) gives great voice and character to the AIs in a cheeky British tone. I looked forward to his narration at the start of every level.

The music is fittingly ambient as well. A soothing, fitting BGM that isn’t distracting. When I play games on the Vita it’s typically in the car or another setting where I can’t have the music too loud so it worked out. I didn’t play The Lone Survivor on my Vita for that very reason.

thomas was alone is still free, I believe, so hurry and download it before it’s too late. It is the perfect platformer to have available on the go when you’ve got 15-20 minutes of downtime.

Flower

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Pretty. And… yeah, pretty.

 

Flower is another Playstation Network game developed by thatgamecompany on the wonderful compilation disc I am working my way through. Much of the praise I bestowed upon Journey can be repeated here. The art style, music, and gameplay is soothing and enjoyable. The two hours or so I spent with this game felt richer than many of my 10+ hour gaming experiences.

In Flower, you traverse different stages as a petal soaring in the wind. On each separate level you’ll collect petals along the way and become a force to be reckoned with. In the later stages, you’re granted some sort of super powers by mother nature and gain the ability to destroy evil human constructs! The evil human constructs can hurt you (damn electricity!) but like in Journey, the accrued damage is more conceptual than anything.

I must warn you that Flower integrates the six-axis motion controls. Instead of navigating the way you ride the wind with the analog stick, you have to tilt the controller left, right, forward and back. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it took me like, five minutes at the main menu to figure out how to start the game. Turns out you have to tilt the controller at the perfect angle; toddler crawling all over your nap or not! After the first level riding the wind became second nature, but I was somewhat annoyed at the game’s onset.

Flower obtains a subtle bond-with-nature vibe. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Journey, but I think that’s because Journey has that epic voyage feel to it and I was able to relate more to the cloak with legs than a bunch of flower petals. But it is still a good zen game and I liked the two hours I spent with it.