Xenoblade Chronicles X

Xenoblade Chronicles X

An RPG’s battle system is more important to me than its story. That’s why 2003’s Baten Kaitos was one of my favorite RPGs. Coincidentally, co-developer Monolith Soft is also responsible for Xenoblade Chronicles X, which is quickly becoming another one of my top picks. The real-time battles here are very engaging and surprisingly complex as you dig deeper into them. I love that you can target and destroy a monster’s appendages, thereby eliminating some of its abilities. When you also take into consideration the size of the monsters and the fact that so many of them—hostile and otherwise—freely roam the world, Xenoblade starts to feel more like the game Monster Hunter 3 should have been. Yes, I know, Monster Hunter is different on many levels, but damn… Xenoblade is just so good at what it does.

The scope of the game’s world, for instance, is enormous. This feels like a genuine planet with its own ecosystems. Running around the world of Mira is like exploring a national park. The environments are gorgeous, and there are few limits as to where you can go. You can head straight into the most dangerous parts of the world during the first chapter if you so choose. I also appreciate that you can jump, which means you’re able to scale tall mountains and can sometimes find shortcuts to important areas with some clever ledge hopping. You will have to play with the Wii U gamepad, though, in order to fast-travel between locations. Running on foot may give you a better appreciation for the game’s details, but most missions require a good amount of backtracking, which can get tedious if you forget about the fast travel option.

The only thing I don’t like about the game (aside from the tiny text that forces me to sit closer to the TV) is that, once you’ve accepted a story or “affinity” mission, you can’t cancel it or take on any other missions until you finish it. Some of the affinity missions, however, send you on ridiculous scavenger hunts without giving you much guidance on where those resources are located. Similarly, story chapters can turn out to be much harder than anticipated, and it would be nice to fall back on the affinity missions as a non-grindy way of leveling up. I almost quit while on the final chapter for that reason, which made me terribly sad, because there were still many more affinity quests I wanted to do. Seriously, Xenoblade is the most fun I’ve had charting a digital world since Wind Waker, and I honestly don’t want it to end.

Skylanders: Swap Force

Skylanders Swap Force

I avoided the Skylanders series for a long time. I didn’t want to get sucked into buying a bunch of plastic. But now that I’ve dipped my toes into Swap Force, I finally understand the appeal. Yeah, you can think of the characters as nothing more than expensive DLC, and if you’re not careful, you could wind up spending hundreds of dollars on this thing. For collectors at heart, however, it’s fun to have a tangible version of an in-game character. The tech behind these games—how the toy and game sync up—really is impressive. Swap Force is particularly cool, because you can interchange the top and bottom halves of the characters, which works seamlessly and creates some interesting combos.

You do have to level up the characters a little bit, though, before they’re actually fun to use. And if you’re not willing to spend the money on extra figurines, you’ll be annoyed at just how much of the game is locked away. While you can still play the full story mode and discover a lot of secrets with the three pack-in characters, there are many more doors that only Skylanders with certain attributes can enter. The upsell is obvious, but I’ll admit that it worked on me, and I ended up buying three more characters. I drew the line there, though, because I know all I’m really missing out on are a few more mini-games and treasure chests. Still, Swap Force’s “swappable” nature does make it harder to resist…

As for the game itself, it’s a decent, kid-oriented action game that plays very similarly to the LEGO games. In fact, I think the game itself would be better off without the toy gimmick, if all of the character swapping was digital and instantaneous. But then Skylanders would be a rather forgettable experience. The cutscenes are annoying, the in-game puzzles are way too easy, and the platforming/jumping mechanics are barely functional. It’s mainly the combat that holds it together. Some of the characters’ abilities are a lot of fun to use. Which, again, makes Swap Force stand out from other games in the series, since you have a little more customization at your fingertips. Now if a future Skylanders adds interchangeable arms and legs, then I’m in trouble!

Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 4

Ty 4

I’m really glad Ty the Tasmanian Tiger is still around. Even though the older 3D games were pretty average platformers, Ty is a fun character, and the games have had consistently great music. Calling this “Ty 4,” however, was probably a mistake. It’s not really a sequel and is clearly a big step down in production values. I feel bad for Krome Studios, because I’m sure they would love to do another full 3D game but no longer have the budget for it. While Ty 4 still looks good as a 2D game, the presentation is lacking overall. Much of the soundtrack is recycled, there’s absolutely no voice acting, and the character movement feels very amateurish. It kind of comes across as a fan-made game.

The spirit of Ty the Tasmanian Tiger is still there, though. The levels are refreshingly non-linear and full of secrets and side missions. It’s fun to see what’s traditionally been their 3D platformer setup condensed into a smaller 2D game. After a while, though, I began to question why I was needing to find so many collectibles. There didn’t seem to be any reward involved except for getting 100% and nabbing that final achievement. You can at least buy new boomerangs and costumes with the opals you accumulate, although the boomerangs given to you during the story tend to be the most useful.

The mention of boomerangs, however, brings about the game’s weakest aspect. Combat has never been the Ty franchise’s strong suit, despite the fact that every sequel has relied on it more and more. Ty 4 is no different. Hitting enemies with boomerangs is repetitive and boring. And when you factor in flying enemies and bad guys that throw projectiles back at you, it can veer on the annoying side. But if you were fine with that in the older games, you’ll be fine with it here. Ty 4 is, after all, meant for people who know this character. It’s not going to win over any new fans, unfortunately, but I hope people still give it a chance, because this series deserves better.

Dariusburst: Chronicle Saviours

DARIUSBURST Chronicle Saviours

Good Lord, this shoot ’em up has it all. I don’t think I’ve ever played a shooter that felt this complete. The hefty price tag is pretty much justified here, though I wouldn’t blame you if that’s a sticking point. Dariusburst is an expensive game. Steam has had a deluge of shoot ’em ups recently, which hasn’t helped its case, but when I think of older releases like Deathsmiles, which also sold for a premium, you’re getting a lot more with Dariusburst. Across its two modes—Arcade and CS—you’ll have access to more levels than you could ever hope to beat in one sitting.

As for the gameplay, it is quintessential shoot ’em up material. There are multiple ships to choose from. Collecting power-ups is actually useful. Your secondary attack is satisfying to use and refills quickly. Some enemy bullets can be stopped by your own bullets. And you can even reverse the direction of your ship to take out straggling enemies. That also lends to some interesting and intense boss fights where the boss will switch sides mid-battle. There are perhaps too many boss fights, though, with not enough time spent on the sections leading up to them. While the variety of bosses is quite good, it still causes the game to get a little repetitive and deflates the selling point of having thousands of levels.

I also much prefer CS Mode over Arcade Mode. CS Mode (or, unofficially, Story Mode) feels like a true “console” experience. It supports a more common resolution and doesn’t let you continue indefinitely. But it’s not overly punishing, because points you earn can be used to buy and upgrade custom ships, and there are branching level paths to work down if you get stuck in a particular section. Unfortunately, CS Mode does not support co-op. Only Arcade Mode has this feature. If you don’t have a dual monitor setup, though, Arcade Mode is severely letterboxed. As such, I just don’t see myself going into this part of the game often. But I’m more than happy sticking with CS Mode.

Splatoon

Splatoon

I really wish I liked Splatoon more than I do. It’s such a great idea, like a third-person shooter Battle Painters. And if any other studio had been behind it, I think it would have turned out great. Alas, Nintendo just doesn’t know how to make a good online game. Wait, I take that back. Mario Kart 8 was superb, so I really don’t understand how they messed this up. Oddly, you have to choose your weapon (i.e. character class) before you join an online game. You can’t see what other players are choosing, which makes it impossible to create a balanced team. Then if you decide you don’t like the weapon you chose, you have to exit the lobby and join a new match. So ridiculous…

Oh, but that’s not the last of it. When you join a friend’s game, you won’t always be put on the same team. My brother and I tried to play together several times and were only on the same team maybe 20% of the time. Team assignment seemed to be completely random. It wouldn’t even try to balance out the levels of each player. I’m kind of late to the Splatoon party, though, and most players are already at Level 30+. That means they have access to better weapons, which is frustrating. It takes too long to level up, earn gold, and buy/unlock new stuff. I’m already running out of patience at Level 7. I hate most of the guns, anyway. Because we’re dealing with paint, most weapons have a very short range. Only the paint roller has been fun to use, but, going back to my previous point, it can be annoying if everyone on your team chooses a roller.

I think the only way to really enjoy this game is if you have enough personal friends to play with. That way, you can set up a private match and circumvent the daily arena restrictions (yes, every day, you only have access to two arenas for some dumbass reason). That would also let you lay down some ground rules and allow for better coordination with teammates. For lone gamers, however, I just can’t recommend this, despite how much I want to support the game’s originality. The single-player mode may be a nice consolation prize, but the meat of the game is the online mode, and it is just way too unfriendly for anyone who has ever played a good online multiplayer game before.

Yoshi’s Woolly World

Yoshi's Woolly World

The last time Nintendo tried something like this, we got Kirby’s Epic Yarn, which didn’t work all that well and was basically a Kirby game in name only. Yoshi’s Woolly World, on the other hand, feels like a true Yoshi sequel. In fact, I’d consider it the successor to the N64’s Yoshi’s Story. The mechanics are almost identical, after all. But where I remember Yoshi’s Story being overly simple and easy, Woolly World is actually challenging at times and makes a good effort to introduce new gimmicks in each level. That combined with the wool theme keeps the game interesting and feeling fresh throughout. Granted, Nintendo didn’t learn from all of their mistakes in Epic Yarn and still included sections where Yoshi transforms into a vehicle. These are dumb, obviously, but aren’t as frequent and aren’t nearly as painful.

The most important part of the game, however, is that the whole thing can be played co-op. I’m such a sucker for co-op that the original Yoshi’s Story would have probably been one of my favorite 64 games had it featured a two-player mode. My wife and I had a great time overcoming obstacles the “co-op way,” though Woolly World starts to suffer from New Super Mario Bros. Wii syndrome where players keep accidentally hindering each other. Every time one of us jumped on a bounce pad, it would drag the other player off the screen, thus killing them (where “kill” means they turn into a flying egg). In that regard, co-op may actually be the harder way to play. But if you’re a fan of 2D platformers, you’ll like this one no matter how you approach it.