Various Game Reviews 2023

Blasphemous II (Switch, 2023)

The unique blend of Metroidvania and classic NES action platformer is what made Blasphemous stand out so much back in 2019. Its sequel leans more heavily towards the former experience now. The game is much easier to play with much less danger of suffering instant deaths. This leads to a mixed reception similar to the situation with The Evil Within and its sequel, where every fan seems to have a different opinion on whether they like the first or second game more. Personally I enjoyed that the lower difficulty made exploring the map much less cumbersome. On the other hand I found myself missing the hardcore challenge the original provided. A less controversial improvement is the addition of several weapons and unlockable abilities which helped since the first game was feeling increasingly stale as it kept going.
The sequel's presentation stays true to its roots — Blasphemous II delivers fantastic visuals and music. Although the writing took a bit of a hit as this game's story limits itself to a generic framework to make the game work ("Here's your bad guys, beat them"). Not a big deal of course because this one is all about gameplay anyways.
Apparently a patch was released that slightly changes the game's mechanics to make it even easier sometime after I was done playing it. As time of writing this I can not comment any further in certainty on that because the developer's website with the game's patch notes is offline, but I was having a great time with this game and am not happy to hear it will likely not be the same when I play it again in the future.

Grim Guardians (Switch, 2023)

A.k.a. Gal Guardians in the west because of a naming rights dispute.

This game is Castlevania meets Mega Man meets... Gal Gun? Grim Guardians looked a lot like it was shaping up to be Inti Creates' first attempt at a complete Metroidvania title. Turns out it is more of a modern Castlevania game. And thus this one felt a bit odd to play at first. Stage layouts are heavily inspired by Konami's classic Castlevania series, but player characters control smoothly with little knockback when hit. Even though Grim Guardians did not turn out to be the game I was expecting I had a good time with it for a week. Its simultaneous two-player mode is where this game really shines and outdoes even big productions like Mario and Sonic. A big recommendation for action platformer fans with friends to play with.

Signalis (PS4, 2022)

The first game in almost two decades that does survival horror right. Although I thought the monster screams in this game were a bit too much. As great as it is overall, this is possibly the most stressful game I have ever played. The storytelling seemed really pretentious for a long time, but completely clicked with me after beating the game and reflecting back on it.
Signalis is an impressive feat considering it was developed by two persons with the help of audio artists and composers. But frankly its fixed top-down perspective on mostly flat 2D backgrounds gets in the way of achieving true atmospheric greatness. Still a must play. Signalis would be contending with Blasphemous II for my game of the year had it not been released last year.

Sonic Superstars (PS4, 2023)

A real shame classic Sonic has to continue like this right after Sonic Mania. Superstars is probably worse than Sonic 4. It starts off decent with Bridge Island Zone which has at least a touch of creativity in its visuals (that the developers ripped straight out of Green Hill Zone). Every subsequent zone is best described as generic and bland when it comes to the visuals. The music running in the background ranges from average to a little less mediocre. Sonic and his friends are equipped with neat little animations, but unfortunately that same care and attention to detail was not directed towards enemy models and animations. Almost every asset could be a Unity stock asset and you could not tell the difference. Sonic Superstars' gameplay is all over the place. Bridge Island Zone plays as you would expect from a 2D Sonic game, but almost every other stage is obstinate about abusing some badly implemented gimmick. Zone 2's rail grinding for example is the worst the series has ever seen. The difficulty is random. In some, with no life gauge and infinite retries, Sonic Superstars is not afraid to display the worst kind of trial and error gameplay. Some 80% of the game is dead easy and a good chuck of what is left can be very frustrating. With nothing to lose as there is no way to face a game over Superstars completely lacks the tension of the classics and Mania. Playing this felt like a waste of time like not much else I have played.
It does not get better in multiplayer mode. With three people playing the game is about unplayable as it keeps switching the lead character, pushing the others out of the game frequently. While being unable to hold a steady framerate on PS4 it often devolvs into a stutter that may skip up to several frames at once every now and then. In short, this game's multiplayer is pretty much broken.

Trials of Mana (SNES, 1995)

Kind of a disappointment. Secret of Mana's combat always felt a bit odd to me. Not anymore after playing this one. Most dungeons are just lazy mazes of rooms that appear to have been strung together without much thought or design, combat requires even less strategy than it did in Secret of Mana — Trials of Mana is a grindy button masher that gets old quick and had me missing Secret of Mana's slow charge attacks. The predecessor's iconic ring menus were largely replaced by the slowest RPG menu on the SNES. The game is somewhat alright but lacks a lot of the magic that made Secret of Mana an all-time classic in spite of its many quirks.

Xenoblade 3 (Switch, 2022)

To be honest I have not finished playing this one yet. I like the characters and their designs a lot, but the main plot and setting do not speak to me. While side quests are well written and serve well to flesh out the cast — and there is a whole lot of them as one might expect of a Xenoblade title — they still feel like busywork to plough through. The game would be better off having 90% of its side content cut to provide a stronger main narrative. This title's background music is a step up from Xenoblade2. Tracks are original works that do not rehash the first Xenoblade's soundtrack. Gameplaywise Xenoblade 3 feels even more like a skinner box than 2 did already. Maps are crowded with enemies and almost every square meter is packed with collectables. The new class change system may sound neat on paper, but ends up introducing insane amounts of grind to the game.
All in all Xenoblade 3 appeals even less to me than its predecessor did. The first game and Xenoblade X at least had fantastic maps to explore and were accompanied by amazing soundtracks. Their sequels unfortunately fail to make up for their issues.

Pokemon Legends: Arceus (Switch, 2022)

I enjoyed the visual direction and atmosphere, but the gameplay did not appeal to me. What is the deal with wild Pokemon running away even when they are ambushed? Why is there a hard requirement to work off a checklist of awful grinds to progress in the game? I caught all 151 Pokemons once in gen 1, and ever since never wasted my time again on catching Pokemons I did not need for whatever reason. Now Arceus Legends comes around and expects players to catch every Pokemon many times over. What even is the point?

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner M∀RS

The last time I played the original on PS2 has been forever ago. But if my memory serves this seems to follow its originator very closely. The camera was a bit quirky from time to time and manually choosing targets can be difficult, but I was having a blast regardless. One of the best games I played this year. High speed robot action at its finest from a time when AAA videogames were still honest.