Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee is a wonderful tribute to the 3D platformers of the N64 era. In fact, if you didn’t know that Yooka-Laylee was made by former Rare developers, it would be easy to call it a shameless rip-off. The characters and music aren’t quite as endearing as the original Banjo-Kazooie games, so it does feel more like a clone rather than a spiritual successor. But they pretty much nailed the same tone and design otherwise, warts and all. Yes, warts. I seriously forgot how frustrating and tedious Banjo-Kazooie could be. I kept wavering between splashes of gleeful nostalgia and moments of “are we still doing that?” annoyances.

I loved exploring the worlds and looking for secrets, but so many of the Jiggies… I mean, Pagies… are only obtained by completing a mini-challenge, be it a puzzle, boss battle, or time trial. I do remember Banjo-Kazooie following the same template, but was it really this prevalent? After a while, I felt like the joy of exploration had been taken away in favor of these one-off challenges. Near the end, I just started saying, “Nope, not gonna do that one,” and sought out a different Pagie. Years ago, I would have accepted the challenge, but as an older, jaded gamer, these gimmicks are just that… gimmicks.

It was weird to stumble into one of the game’s mini-challenges, though, and realize that this whole room and puzzle were created for just one Pagie. The developers really outdid themselves in making sure Yooka-Laylee was brimming with stuff to do, even though you may only ever see half of it. After collecting my 100th Pagie to unlock the end boss, I was ready to call it quits. But it took me 12 hours to get even that far, and I had fun maybe 85% of the time. Sure, there were your typical camera/control issues that plague most 3D platformers, but this is such a well-crafted love letter to an older generation that I can’t stay mad at it for long.

Grow Up

Grow Up

I really liked the first Grow Home game. It was such an oddly charming experience. But it’s also the kind of experience that would be hard to “sequelize.” I don’t know where you could logically take the game since the original already had you climb into space. That was the fun of Grow Home, though: slowly and meticulously growing this gigantic plant and then free-falling from extreme heights as you looked for more secrets. While Grow Up still has some of that in play, the game is much broader horizontally rather than vertically. You can fly around an entire planet, landing on floating islands and tinkering with various flora. While that’s definitely fun, it’s also not as endearing.

Part of the problem is that this sequel wanted to build off of Grow Home, so it wouldn’t make sense to strip Bud of his powers. You much more quickly gain access to the jetpack and glider and can plant helpful flora at will. This occasionally makes for some very entertaining “how should I get there” moments, but I also feel like it takes a lot of the reward away that the original had. Climbing to the top of the world isn’t as impressive when you can plant a flower that will propel you halfway up, then use your jetpack to get the rest of the way there. That said, I still had fun with Grow Up and would recommend it to fans of Grow Home. The original was a better experience, sure, but I’m glad this has become an actual franchise now instead of a one-off pet project.

X-Morph: Defense

X-Morph Defense

I love tower defense games that also bring in some other gameplay type, and X-Morph: Defense does this incredibly well. It’s as much a twin-stick shooter as it is a tower defense game. Similar to Sanctum (another favorite of mine), each wave starts with maze-like tower placement, but once the enemies enter, it becomes an action-packed shoot ’em up. That doesn’t mean rearranging towers is then off limits, though. In particularly difficult levels, it became necessary to build, upgrade, and move towers on the fly as the enemy clusters grew/shrank. It’s nice that moving/selling towers doesn’t incur a penalty, giving you plenty of freedom to experiment and re-plan your strategy when things don’t go your way.

And, oh, how things don’t go your way. X-Morph: Defense can be very difficult. The difficulty is pretty up and down, though. Some levels start out feeling impossible, but once you earn more money and can place more towers, they become too easy. Other levels start out easy and then beat you to a pulp in the final wave. I found myself constantly needing to scrap my entire layout and reorganize everything. But, again, I appreciated that I was allowed and encouraged to do so. The enemy patterns frequently change, anyway, so you can never truly be married to your original ideas. Plus, the entire campaign is co-op compatible, meaning you and a friend can fuss over the perfect tower placement together, just like friends are meant to do.

Skylar & Plux: Adventure On Clover Island

Skyler & Plux

Steam has really needed some 3D platformers to fill that Nintendo void. Plenty of indie developers have attempted 3D platformers before, but I know the genre is hard to pull off correctly, and most of the ones I’ve played haven’t been that great. Skylar & Plux, however, is pretty good, though it’s probably only safe to say that simply because the game is so short and bows out before things get hairy. The three worlds/levels that make up the entirety of the game feel more like Act I in something bigger. I guess I should give the developers credit for keeping the scope of the game within reason. This could have easily ballooned out of control otherwise.

What we’re left with is a well-made homage to the platformers of the Gamecube/PS2 era that, for genre veterans, can be beaten in about 2-3 hours. Sure, there are still collectibles and secrets to find, but the variety is fairly limited, so there really isn’t much replay value here. I did enjoy my two hours with the game, though. The environments are fun, the controls are surprisingly tight, and the new powers you learn provide some clever moments. There just needed to be more… more of everything. More powers, more collectibles, more levels/goals, and more for Plux to do besides be an annoying, expository sidekick. Maybe in the sequel, right, guys?

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved

I was mostly interested in Enslaved because of its loose correlation to the Chinese fable, Journey to the West, but the similarities are very loose. Other than the idea of one character forcing another character to help her via a “headband of pain,” the game is its own, separate thing. Various renditions of the original Journey to the West story really play up the contentious relationship that Monkey has with his “master,” but the Monkey character in Enslaved is too quick to accept his fate and too quick to develop feelings for Trip. Their dynamic—and the story overall—just feels kind of rushed, particularly in the second half of the game. That’s also when we meet Pigsy. I love that Pigsy is a character here, but he brings a little too much comic relief to the table.

Since the story starts to fall apart near the end, that makes it harder to ignore how repetitive the gameplay is. Chapters are broken up into two types of gameplay: climbing stuff and fighting mechs. The climbing sections are neat, but you have very limited control over where Monkey can go. Mashing the A button is usually enough to get him to jump to the next highlighted point. Combat is a little more involved and can be somewhat rewarding. It’s just a shame that there are only, like, three different robots you ever fight for the entirety of the game. I get the sense that Enslaved was intended to be so much more, but then the studio ran out of money. What we’re left with is a great-looking game that starts with a bang and ends with a whimper.

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley

I’ve put so much time into past Harvest Moon games and even Harvest Moon clones that you’d think I wouldn’t need to raise a digital cow ever again. But here we are, 30 hours into yet another farming simulator. The thing is, Stardew Valley is pretty much the Harvest Moon that PC gamers have been wanting for years. It nails the same sense of accomplishment, the same sense of progression, the same sense of wonder and exploration perfectly. If anything, Stardew Valley does it all better. Maybe the only thing that is lacking are the festivals. In Harvest Moon, festivals were always a chance to curry favor with the locals, but most of the festivals in Stardew Valley can be skipped without much consequence.

I really like how alive the world feels otherwise, though. The characters actually have personalities, and if you catch them at the right time, various sub-stories will unfold. It makes the act of befriending them all the more important. It’s also a nice touch that “quests” will occasionally pop up, asking you to run errands for the townspeople in exchange for a little extra money and friend points. Alas, some of these quests involve catching a particular fish, and it can be a pain to not only know where that fish is but to perform the fishing mini-game correctly. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to complete all of the fishing tasks, but I’m definitely motivated to find, grow, buy, and sell everything else this beautifully charming and relaxing game has to offer.