At this point, it’s been almost a year since we entered quarantine. And it’s had its ups, times when I’ve been able to live up to my magnificent self, and its had its downs, times when I’ve been reminded that we’re still living in a dystopian future. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel, and we’re still a ways from the end. So you know what? Let’s take that time to play some games. Here’s what I’ve been working through lately.
So, here’s one of those games I never really knew existed, but when one of the various give-you-games services landed it into my library, it really stood out. Chroma Squad is a Tactics-style strategy RPG in which you’re playing out battles for a Power Rangers-esque Super Sentai show. It lets you customize a lot about your show, from team and character names to the colors of your rangers and everything in between, which gives me incredible freedom to amuse myself with the powers of my own mind in ways absolutely nobody else will find funny, probably. From Kickass Blaster Studios, in the prime after school viewing block, hang on to your hats, boys and girls, it’s time for the totally child-appropriate show, Tooty Fruity Kill Squad! When evil is afoot, these five heroes, with a shout of “It’s Murder Time!”, will activate their Moon Prism Magic and transform into Killer Red (because every sentai group has a red leader), Killer Black, Killer Gray, Killer White (because it amused me to have a chunk of the usually colorful sentai squads be completely monochrome), and Killer Purple (because nobody ever has a purple ranger)! They’ll fight their way through hordes of goons, and then, when things get too hot to handle, unleash their team-based special move, the Eat Shit! And when their might alone isn’t enough, they’ll pilot their giant robot, the Killborg 10,000, to victory!
It rather helps that there’s a pretty simple but mechanically solid gameplay system behind it too. It’s a really basic tactics system in all, it’s grid-based and you’ve got your basic movements and attacks, a few weapons and abilities that depend on your characters classes and equipment, and an option to assist that’s really one of the things that adds a surprisingly large amount of depth to the gameplay. By assisting, your heroes will set themselves up for others to leap off of, adding a lot of range to their movement, and will also attack in unison with other rangers targeting enemies in mutual melee range, more than doubling their attack damage. If you pull off having all five members attack one enemy at once, they’ll do the team special move, the Eat Shit! in my case but you can call it something lamer if you’d like to in your game. But that’s supposed to be a finishing move, and if you use it as anything but a coup de grace, the anticlimax will make for a worse episode and you’ll lose fan power for that. Which is a thing. You need to have built up a certain amount of fan power to be able to transform from your lame everyday forms to your Killer selves, or whatever your team is named, in the first place, and beyond that, it plays a part in your overall studio management. That component feels a lot like a management sim, where you’re laying out and dealing with the resources for your own studio, but everything you do has a direct, in-combat effect, so it’s not really that in practice, more like just a really elaborate means of equipping your team in an RPG.
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the character of the game, it does a lot of wink-wink nudge-nudge humor that seems likes it’s just trying too hard, and a lot of the enemy design is a little lackluster. You’ll be tired of fighting the same jobbers over and over again, but the bosses are frequent and varied, which works really well to keep things fresh. And the visuals, in spite of me deliberately toning down over half of my team, are very vibrant and coloful, and the music is pretty nice. Captures the old 90’s vibe really well in a primitive almost-chiptune set. Overall, I enjoyed my time with the game quite a bit. It moves quickly, and although it can be a little cringy or basic in parts, it’s a simple, fun time in all.
From a very vibrant game to one that’s carefully not. Aztez uses the old Madworld color palette of black, white, red, and nothing else. It’s a hard game to describe. Particularly given that I don’t especially understand it myself. It’s half board game, half smackdown? Something like that. So, in a given game, you’re playing in ancient Mexico, trying to do… something. I thought you were trying to take over cities and force out rival tribes, but then I won the game without doing that. Anyways, you start with board game parts, managing your towns and resources and what not. One of your resources are your warriors, and you get to do one major thing per warrior per turn. So more warriors equals more turns. The bulk of the things in this are combat challenges, where you get to the smackdown gameplay. I don’t know why, but that part of the game reminds me a lot of Viewtiful Joe’s post-game challenge levels. It has a similar feel to combat, and a lot of it is based on keeping track of enemies and making appropriate reactions to their telegraphed attack, much like Viewtiful Joe. Except you can absorb your opponent’s blood and use that to summon your god to smack them around. As you do.
Anyways, in my game, I spent most of my time campaigning against my rival tribes, pushing them back and stealing their territory, aiming to eradicate them as is usually the win condition in those types of strategy games. I almost got to that point, but then the Spanish arrived, with their armor and their guns and their better equipment than me, and they started completely crushing my guys. With clever use of items, I managed to push them back to the borders of the map, then devoted all my remaining warriors to taking them down so I could smash my rivals in peace. They killed all but the last of my warriors, but that last one brought down the guy with the biggest feather in his helmet, and that apparently meant that I won the game, even though my rivals now were in a perfect position to retake my land after I spent all I had in fighting the Spanish. So, I guess there’s a moral to the story. And that moral is that the true path to victory runs through beating up the Spanish.
What a strange route I’ve had through this game. It starts out a lot of fun, shooting alien beasties and crazy looking raiders in a big ol’ semi-populated wasteland. But then it doesn’t really change or improve from there. You get levels, more passive bonuses, and better guns, and so do your enemies, so the end result is that, unless you’re really power-leveling instead of progressing normally through areas, you’ll be fighting in pretty much the same way with pretty much the same results throughout. There is some decent enemy variety, at least, which helps mix up the encounters, but unfortunately, it’s not set up for enough strategic depth to get them actually feeling different. Which, to be fair, it’s intended to be a multiplayer game, and I’m giving it a run through single player. I could see the balance adjustments and the complexities inherent in multiplayer adding a lot to it. In any case, I found the game an absolute blast to play at first, but then, when the gameplay didn’t materially add anything or advance from there, it was kind of a slog when I hit the end about twenty hours later. I was planning on going through the DLC campaigns, which I’ve heard adds a lot of much needed character and variety to the game, but one of the biggest energy drains in the game for me was the seemingly arbitrary positioning and respawning of enemies, and I played a half hour of the first DLC, and saw the same lack of intention or real feeling of progression through combat, and decided I wasn’t up for sticking around. I beat the base game. That was good enough for me.
Man, playing this is a really weird experience. It feels like such a labor of love. And I’m sure, at one point, it was. If I hadn’t heard all the stories of the development behind it, I’d assume that this was a game that everyone was all in for. It is so intricately detailed, with so many aspects having such obvious care behind them, well, it might have been a terror to work on, but their sacrifices bore great fruit.
Anyways, I beat the game before and my max level carried through to this game, which makes all the side content in the game irrelevant, so I’ve been sticking to the main plot and just playing straight from point to point, which honestly, is a much better way to do it. The pacing’s much better at that, and you get a pretty clear sense of progression and escalation through each case. And I really like detective/ace attorney style games, and this is a really good example of the style. The facial acting technology they had on full display here has its flaws, some major ones, but it’s still really impressive, and hasn’t been replicated in games ever since. And the act of pressing witnesses and suspects and breaking down their lies is really satisfying in this game.
That said, although the plot in each individual case is decent, for the most part, the overarching plot is really, really not. Like, to the level where I end up wondering if they had anyone on staff who’d ever strung story ideas together before. The various twists and turns end up failing in their execution and making the whole exercise seem hollow, and the ending is really something else. I’ve seen a lot of people argue that “Of course it’s like this, it’s film noir inspired and that’s how noir is.” For one thing, no, that’s not how noir is. Noir would tell a complete story with a coherent throughline and would build up to its twists and actually have a conclusive ending. And for another, the game may be noir-inspired, but it really doesn’t do enough to feel like noir. The frequent shoot-outs and the omnipresent swearing really see to that. And besides, even if the horribly executed twists and the worthless ending was how they handled things in noir, the whole overarching plot is an absolute mess, and being noir-like doesn’t excuse that. The whole World War II marines backstory and climax relies on everybody involved making absolutely moronic decisions for no reason at all, most everyone you run across is at least mostly unlikeable, and there’s no payoff to most any of the actions in the major plot. It’s really fun at the micro scale, focusing on the individual cases and working through those. But it falls apart at the macro. I feel like I’m complaining a bit too much, because this is a really great game, in all, but hey, that’s what’s been bothering me, so it goes here.
I was going to put this to the full Visual Novel Theatre treatment, but it ended up feeling really unfair to do that. I really ended up not liking this visual novel. But that’s because nearly all of its content falls into topics that I personally dislike in general, not so much because it’s just a low quality example of its work. Although it could be, and I just can’t see it because I’m predisposed to dislike it already. It seems to have its fans, though, so I’m inclined to think the dislike is just from me personally, rather than because it has problems. Although it certainly does.
Highway Blossoms is a visual novel that has two main plots, one in which there’s a big ol’ treasure hunt around the national and state parks and monuments of the American Southwest, and the second being the budding romance between the grouchy, grieving main character and the manic pixie dream girl that constantly needs rescuing that she meets in her journey. And that’s about where it loses me. I’m fairly familiar with many of the parks and whatnot they were highlighting here, and frankly, the writing doesn’t really evoke them well enough to satisfy me, and the ones I wasn’t familiar with, it wasn’t super inspiring. And I have a hard time with a lot of romance focused stories in general. Because I’m awesome at romance, personally. The amount of people I get trying to connect with me leading up to this Valentines day is proving that. So I already have a good idea of how to handle nearly every source of conflict popping up in most romance stories, and watching through them is pretty similar to going through a detective story when you’ve already figured out the mystery as soon as its present, but you still have to watch everyone stumble through paths you absolutely know are wrong. The treasure hunt story might have grabbed me, but it played an obvious second fiddle to the romance plot, so that didn’t have time to flourish, personally. So yeah, this was really just a bad fit for me. I’m sure it does have its good points, but I wasn’t really able to catch them nearly as much as I was able to see its flaws.
Oh, man, this was a disappointment. Superhot, the original, was a fantastic time for me. I had a great experience with it, overall. Most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. Sorry, obligatory. But man, the VR version is rough. There is some satisfaction there, VR plus motion control gunplay is pretty innately a good time, and this does carry that. But the whole time only moves when you move concept doesn’t work quite as well when your feet are rooted to the ground, and it ends up being a lot slower paced and clunky feeling than the original. The interquel story it has as well, although it’s the same in concept as the base game, isn’t executed nearly as well in this revision. But, most frustrating to me of all, are both how the game handles check points and the constant requirement of throwing weapons. I never figured out how to throw something accurately with motion controls, and every time it came up was a big pain point to me where I lost the stage several times over. And losing can push you back quite some distance. In the VR version, levels are split up into a series of challenges, given you can’t move with motion controls and thus can’t exactly roam around and hunt people down. So you’re put in one place, and have to take down a bunch of enemies that are rushing you, then you warp to another spot in the level, and do it again, and again, and again until the level’s over. Thing is, if you screw up any part of that, you have to do every challenge all over again. Start from the beginning of the level. And man, that felt punitive. One of the things I hate most in games is when they waste my time, and making me repeatedly go through stuff I can and have easily handled and provides no new content before you let me take on the thing I really want to go after burns me. And when that happens so often because the game requires me to throw something at somebody and I just can’t get the motion controls to match what I’m trying to do, that’s a recipe for a bad time. And you know what? The fun SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. victory moments don’t really have the same impact here as they did in the original. And that’s a shame.
Also, I despise when games make you act out a suicide. Puts you in control of some or all of the process. That’s another personal hang up, but man, that’s a thing that always bothers me a lot. And knowing Superhot, I really should have expected it going into Superhot VR, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. And it’s so, so much worse in VR+motion controls.
I do like the idea of Chroma Squad in how it contextualizes its gameplay, though I think I can see where you’re coming from in how its humor can get pretty tiring. That on-the-nose humor is what made a majority of the Uncharted series so tedious to get through; at some point relying on that type of humor just reeks of laziness.
And Superhot VR makes you act out a suicide? That just seems shockingly behind the times. If the game was (somehow) made in the 1950s or earlier, I could sort of understand that given that Western society didn’t really take suicide seriously back then, but in 2019? Not a chance.
Yeah, Chroma Squad is really simple and direct in its concept, but it really ends up working well in execution. It’s the kind of thing that ends up really capitalizing on how small scale a game it is. If you tried to make it super in-depth, I feel like the whole “You’re a bunch of actors/producers making a Power Rangers-type show” really wouldn’t have lasted the game, but with it largely skimming the surface, they’re able to make that concept interesting and entertaining the whole way through.
And yeah, Superhot VR makes you act out a suicide. Superhot in both forms I’ve played has a meta plot where the game is taking over you and making you act in ways that aren’t in your self interest, and Superhot VR has three or so instances of simulated suicide. There’s been a couple of games I’ve run into that have had that in there. Spec Ops: The Line had it as a potential ending choice, and horror game Distraint had you press the buttons through it in the ending. It always feels disgusting to me.
I’m still laughing for Killer Purple, why is this so funny?
Well, it is a rather ironic color. Purple is possibly the least likely color you’d expect a murder ranger to be garbed in. Red and Black? Traditional colors of violence. White?
The color of death in many cultures. Pink? Well that’s like watered down blood when you think about it. Yellow? That’s what you call people when they get scared. But purple? So innocent. Totally unexpected here.
Just don’t get into dark purple. That’s totally an evil color.