In this day and age with people shouting from every mountain top and soapbox available, it should come as no surprise that a game like Never Alone exists,a game based on and around another culture and its mythology where you play as a young girl on top of everything else. It’s something that we're probably going to be seeing a lot more of and I'm all for it. I just hope those other games don't skimp out on the "game" part of it all.
Never Alone is based on the lore of the Alaskan Iñupiat. In it you play as a young girl named Nuna and a magical arctic fox. After saving her from a polar bear, the fox starts following the girl around through a giant blizzard. The entire game is narrated by a person speaking what I presume to be the Iñupiat native tongue, and it gives the feeling of listening to your grandpa tell you a story around a campfire, which is fitting. In between all the in-engine bits we have cutscenes drawn to look like old paintings you would find in caves and on native art and whatnot. All of this really helps sell the idea that this is another culture's story being told to us by another culture, and not filtered through white people.
When we aren't in the native art style, the game looks kind of weird. The fox and the polar bear look like they don't have enough fur on them, with their coats fading out as it gets further from the body. It gives them this balding effect and I can almost make out the naked model underneath it all. The girl looks fine, but I have a hard time figuring out if the trim on her coat is supposed to be frozen hair, animal bones, or it just glitched out. There are these huge triangles all over the coat and they look like something wasn't coded properly.
The environments don't look that much better. Sure, when you get to the caves and wooden areas, everything looks fine. But when things are covered in snow, it gets bad. The snow never looks or acts like snow. It looks like white dirt that the character models just clip through. And that's a real shame, because it looks like some effort was put into the game in regards to the snow. When you walk on ground level snow there's a slight bit of dust up, and when the snow gets deeper Nuna does a small hop with every step, which is how a small child walks in snow. Believe me, I'm Canadian, I would know. The snow never feels like anything more than a big texture, and it really bugged me.
But snow aside, where the game really falls apart is in the gameplay. You control two separate characters, Nuna and the fox. I think this game was meant to be played in co-op mode, with one person controlling Nuna and one controlling the fox. But I don't have any friends to play games with, so I had to play it solo. You can switch between the two of them at any time, and when you do the other character becomes AI controlled. Unfortunately, the AI is kind of stupid. So many times throughout this game my AI character would die or screw up puzzles because I had no way that I knew of to tell them to stay put or come or not be stupid. There was a level where I was controlling Nuna and had to jump between blocks of ice that were smashing into the ceiling (because video games). So I jumped and ran across the ice block to the safe area. The AI then did one of three things. He either ran into the safe spot with me, caught up to me then ran back into the crushing maw of death behind me, or overshot the safe spot and fell into the gap between the platforms and drowned. This happened so many times I almost gave up and stopped playing the game. But I eventually made it through there and made the jump to the final platform, completing the level. Or, I would have, if the fox hadn't missed the jump and drowned. Pushing us back to part where one of the previous three things would happen.
Speaking of jumping, it doesn’t feel great in this game. Like a lot of polygonal platformers nowadays, turning around takes off a lot points right off the bat. So many times I tried to make jumps but my character wasn't facing the right way, so I went a foot forward (or backwards) into a bottomless pit. When you do get the jumps right, you have to make it a decent way on to the platform or you will fall back on to the ledge and have to sit through the climbing animations. And then you have the wind to deal with, which is always fun. When it's first introduced, you're given the ability to brace yourself so you don't get thrown back. But almost every time you encounter wind after that first time, you're supposed to use the wind to propel yourself forward to make jumps. It's never really clear on when you're supposed to brace or use the wind, and since the place I'm supposed to be jumping to is blocked by the camera which I have no control over, I'm just sitting there cowering from the winds trying to figure out where the hell I'm supposed to go next.
Also there's the bola. Oh boy, is there the bola. You get this from a magical owl man who may or may not be your grandfather and it's absolutely terrible to use. What you do is, pull the right stick back to charge it up, then flick it forward in the direction you want it to go. There is no precision aiming with this thing. You just fling it and hope it's going in the right direction. And it's dependent on which direction you're facing, too.
The fox can scurry up some walls and wall jump, and it works fine enough. He can also somewhat control spirits. This is entirely dependent on his position on top of the spirit, which basically serves as a platform. When you get to a specific on the spirit, it will move. But, since you probably had to control Nuna to get her up on the platform, you will have to switch back to the fox to move him the quarter of an inch forward to get the platform to activate right. It never feels right doing this stuff and it really pulls you out of any kind of experience when you have to move that damn fox into the proper position.
I believe games being developed by and about people of other cultures is a good thing. I don't really go out of my way to learn about this stuff, but a game could get me interested and teach me something I didn't know before. Hell, this game even has a documentary series in it about the Iñupiat. But the game around all the learning stuff needs to be good. And I don’t think Never Alone is particularly good. The graphics and platforming aren't great, and the computer controlling the other part of your twosome is terrible. Maybe I would have had a different experience with the game if I had played this with a friend or, failing that, the fox that hangs out outside my house howling at me all night. But I didn't. I was alone in this, and I did not enjoy it.
I have no idea what to think of this game. It's really weird, but not in any quantifiable way. Or at least not one that I can easily verbalize. It is so janky with everything it is trying to do that it is infuriating to play, but at the same time I can't just dismiss it as some crap game that no one should play. I'm so confused right now.
Abyss Odyssey is about a wizard. This wizard is so powerful that he fell asleep and created the eponymous Abyss, this huge network of connected rooms filled with monsters, treasures, and weird black and white levels that come right the fuck out of nowhere. He also created Katrien, as well as the Ghost Monk and the Pincoya, who you will play as. You must journey through the Abyss to wake up the wizard and put an end to his nightmare. Along the way you'll find pages from the wizard's journal which will tell more of the story and maybe explain some of things that happen because of the wizard's dream.
This game is very stingy with information on how to play it. One of the biggest aspects of the game is its fighting system. If you've ever played a fighting game then you know that a good training mode can really help you enjoy the game more. At least for me it can. In this game we get a single page with the buttons you use for attacks that you have to navigate to inside of a menu that's in another menu. You're never told that holding the stick forward, up, down, or not at all will change the type of basic attack you do. In a way, this can be very good. Having tutorials out the ass on a game can be really irritating, especially if it's a style of game that you basically know the controls for, and it's something new then it's rewarding to be able to figure out the controls on your own. But this is a fighting game style system, where knowing what the buttons do is crucial to being able to play it.
Even when it does tell you information it can sometimes be misleading. When you die in the game, you're given a chance to come back. You immediately respawn as a soldier, which is a different soldier depending on who you're playing as, and if you can make it back to an altar you will be revived at full health and can continue on. The text box that told me this appeared when I approached what I thought was the first altar. It had a floating stone mask that broke when I got near it, I could set a check point there, and configure my skills. Going through this area I died. I came back as a soldier and made a mad dash for the altar. When I got there, nothing happened. I spent five minutes trying to figure out how to get it to come back but I couldn't. So I moved on. Turns out there's a second kind of altar, and it's this one that lets you respawn. Why the hell would the note about respawning at altars appear at an altar you can't respawn at? With this other altar I also found a merchant who sold me weapons and potions and the like. He also had camp tokens. Camp tokens are what you use to set checkpoints at altars so when you die for realsies you start from there and not the starting town. I had no idea how to get my hands on one of these things and I didn't come across the merchant until my fourth or fifth attempt because I didn't know there even were merchants in this game. It didn't help that he blended into the background, though.
This is a problem that does carry to later in the game. As you go deeper into the Abyss the levels start to change. You start out in standard dark caves, but then you get ice levels and lava levels and plant levels. In the plant levels, stationary enemies that shoot poisonous barbs at you or launch vines out blend in with the environment. I cannot tell you how many times I'd be running down a path to all of a sudden realize one of these things was in front of me. And the poison barb plant thing keeps shooting at you so you could easily get to point where he gets to juggle you a bit by having you getting damaged by the poison, making you unable to dodge the next barb he shoots, which poisons you again.
Speaking of juggling, the combat system in this game is not great. It feels incredibly stiff and slow, to the point where it almost feels unplayable. I mentioned earlier that the direction you're holding the stick affects what kind of attack you do. With Katrien, holding the stick forward makes you do a two hit combo, while not holding the stick in any direction is a three hit combo. But you have to come to a complete stop before it registers that you've let go of the stick. I would be running along and stumble into a random encounter with a group of enemies, which normally I hate because fuck random encounters but here I don't mind it because it doesn't interupt the flow of gameplay, and I would let go of the stick to do the three hit but if my character was still finishing the stop running animation she would do the two hit.
But even when you get the hang of that part of the combat it still feels weird. Any time I've gotten a combo higher than three was total luck and I could never recreate it. Cancelling, which is kind of a core part of fighting games in this day and age, is a special skill that you can deplete and have to wait for it to recharge. And you start out only being able to cancel once, so if you end using your cancel to dodge out of the way of an attack and you get hit anyway because the dodging in this game only works sometimes, you have wasted that cancel and now have to wait for it to recharge before you can cancel out of an attack again. It all feels so clunky and awkward, but at the same time weirdly engaging. Around my ninth tenth attempt I started to get into a rhythm and was actually doing pretty well. It was so bizarre, but I felt like I was starting to understand it. That eventually fell through and it went right back to being bad, but that feeling kept coming back.
I only ever felt that with Katrien, though. The Ghost Monk and the Pincoya I never understood. The characters, while the control the same, have different weapons and attack styles. Katrien uses one-handed swords and is quick than the others (I think). The Ghost Monk uses two-handed swords and is slower but stronger than the others. The Pincoya uses staff weapons which gives her more range than the others. I never felt like I was finally getting the Monk or the Pincoya. I would've needed to play hours and hours of them and I just didn't have the time or the interest.
All the characters also have a magic attack. It's the exact same for each of them and does the exact same thing. Once the mana meter is full they send out a ball of light that deals a lot of damage to anyone caught in it, and when they die their soul falls out. You can then collect one of these souls and turn into that enemy. Aside from bringing you back up to full health when you turn into them, I have no idea why you would want to do this. It's just another new move set you have to figure out.
This game was also sold on the platforming, and it feels as bad as the fighting without the benefit of the clarity I sometimes got. The turning is what really kills it for me. When you change the direction your character is moving or facing, it takes a bizarrely long time. Not that long, but long enough that you can notice it and really feel it. And you can only change direction while you're on foot. Once you're in the air, you have a decent amount of air control but you're always facing the same direction. So if you try to jump up a wall that's behind you, you have to wait for your character to turn around and then jump it. It's a small thing, but it's also a very important part of platforming to have a fluidity of movement. This doesn't feel fluid. It feels like a rusty system of gears.
Finally there are RPG elements. You earn XP to level up your character which unlocks new special attacks and skill points to unlock more cancels and level up your special attacks. It's pretty basic and doesn't add much for me. But with the RPG elements comes random weapon drops or finds, which don't make a whole lot of sense in game. Each of the three characters can only use one type of weapon, and they can't pick up other types. So it doesn't make a lot of sense when I'm playing as Katrien and every weapon I find is a two-handed weapon. If you were able to pick up these weapons and sell them to the merchant for gold that'd be one thing, but since I can't pick them up at all, let alone sell anything to the merchant, it makes no sense as to why they would be there.
Even with all of that bitching I just did, I find the game oddly okay. Yes, the fighting and platforming are very awkward, it's an awkward that you eventually accept. Yes, the game doesn't explain shit to you, but if you keep bashing your head into it over and over you'll figure out what most of it means. Add to that a premise I think is interesting and graphics that look fine, this is a game that I can't say is good but I just barely enjoyed it, too. Take that for what you will.
Before this year, I was never really a fan of the Rayman games. I couldn't really tell you why, but there was just something about them that didn't feel right to me. But then Rayman Origins came out and I was completely turned around. The game had a fantastic art style, amazing atmosphere, and really tight gameplay. So when I heard that a sequel was being made in the same style as Origins, I was fucking excited, and the game did not disappoint, carrying over most of the things that made the first game great but still changing it up enough that it wasn't just Origins again.
Continuing on from the "story" of Origins, the game starts with a fully voiced (in proper English, no less) narration, explaining how a group of evil Teensies are kidnapping the rest of the Teensies. Rayman and his friends, who are still hip-hop sleeping in that tree, are summoned to stop them. Much like Origins the story is barely there and serves as an excuse for you to be doing all the things you do in the game. It's like the platformers from the gaming days of yore where a single cutscene or a block of text is all the story you get then you just have to jump on things until the game says stop.
The basic gameplay of Legends is largely unchanged from Origins. Your movement speed, the way you punch, the way you jump, it all works like it did in Origins, which is a very good thing. The gameplay was great and didn't need any major changes to it. Running, jumping, and punching dudes and things still feel incredible and pulling off some of the more complicated sections of the game is extremely satisfying. The game does start off a little on the easy side, though. In the first few worlds I was breezing through levels, collecting everything there was to find and getting the highest rating possible. But as the game progressed, the challenge really ramped up to the point where I was pulling my hair out and screaming in frustration, and I was loving every second of it. On these levels the relief after beating it was even more satisfying, especially with the really upbeat music that plays on the scoring screen. There was confetti and people cheering and it all felt fantastic.
The one thing that wasn't so great about the gameplay, and this was also in Origins, is the punching. Not the regular punch, though. I'm talking about the running punch and the air punch. With the running punch, no matter how fast you're moving you always punch at the same speed which is a bit faster than your full speed sprint. Because of this (and my own boundless stupidity), I would keep launching myself off the edge of a platform or straight into a wall, completely fucking up any kind of flow I had going for me. The air punch is the exact opposite, sucking away all of your momentum. You could be going at top speed when you jump into the air but one punch cuts that speed in half. Neither of these things are particularly awful, they can just be very annoying.
While the movement and everything stayed the same, three of the main elements of the game were changed, the first being the enemies and the combat (shut up, I count them as one). In Origins, every basic enemy took two hits. The first hit made them expand into a bubble and the second one finished them off. They would eventually die with just the one hit, but you wanted both hits to get all the Lums (the Mario coin equivalent). In Legends, the enemies get taken out in one hit and they give you a bunch of Lums. I much prefer this method of dealing with enemies. Before, if you were running at a good clip through a level but wanted to collect all of the Lums to get the highest rating at the end you would have to stop and jump on every twice and it could really kill your momentum. Now you can keep going at the pace you want (assuming you have the skill) and deal with enemies without losing your momentum.
The second element is the collectibles and the rating system around them. Each level has six trophies you can collect; three for collecting Lums and three for collecting Teensies. But with the Teensies it is really weird. In most levels there are 10 Teensies to collect. Eight of them are your run of the mill Teensies, but two of them are King and Queen Teensies. If you grab the King or Queen, you get the bronze. If you get the King and Queen, you get the silver. If you get the King, Queen, and all eight other Teensies, you get the gold. But if you get all eight Teensies and the King or Queen, you get bronze. I don't know what happens if you only collect the eight regular Teensies, but I'm guessing you would either get bronze or nothing. I know Kings and Queens are important, but why rate it like this? Why not make collecting the eight worth a trophy, the King worth a trophy, and the Queen worth a trophy? This isn't a complaint, I just find it a bit weird.
As for the Lums' trophies, they work the same as they did in Origins. Just collect the right number and win the trophies. But now there's a trophy type thing in between silver and gold, and that's the Lucky Ticket. If you pass the halfway mark between the silver medal amount of Lums and the gold medal amount of Lums, you get a scratch card. This gets you more Lums to unlock character skins (which is what Lums are used for now), creatures for your gallery (which are an entirely different set of collectibles), Teensies, or "Back to Origins" levels (levels based on Origins levels with the new art style and gameplay).
Speaking of art style, the final element changed was the atmosphere of the game in regards to the art style and music. The music still has the same catchy and light-hearted sound to it, but some of the pieces go for a bit more grandiose feel to them, especially in boss fights. It keeps enough the same for it to recognizable in style and changes enough with the new pieces to not feel like it's the just the same music again.
The art style this time around went for a more painted look to it as opposed to Origins' more hand-drawn style. All the characters look like they have more detail to them and almost look polygonal. It's a nice progression of the art style that I really like. The only things I didn't like very much were the characters and enemies that actually were polygonal. These models were mostly bosses and with what they had the bosses doing I can definitely see why they chose to make these guys polygonal, but I didn't think they looked as good as the rest of the game. They looked too disconnected from the rest of the world and the look of the world didn't translate particularly well to 3D. Fortunately for me they didn't show up that often, but when they did they weren't as gorgeous as the rest of the game.
On top of all of the stuff that was changed, new things were added. And by things I mean level types. The first one introduced are the levels with Murfy, a character from an older Rayman game. He was brought back when the game was a Wii U exclusive and was supposed to controlled with the touchscreen on the gamepad. On 360 you just push a button and he moves a platform or cuts a rope or something. Murphy doesn't really add much to the levels he's in. He's just something else you have to think about while platforming.
The second new level type takes out all the enemies and just has you run. There's no hunting for hidden doorways or collectibles, everything is in your path. You just have to avoid obstacles and time your jumps and punches right and you can get everything in the level. But if you die, you'll have to go right back to the beginning of the level. This type of level is where the challenge really starts to ramp up. Playing these levels were the second most infuriating and enjoyable moments in the entire game for me.
After that we have Invasion levels. These levels replace the time trial medal from Origins. At a certain point in the game, stages you've beaten will randomly invaded, creating a sub-level. You have 60 seconds to run through the level and save three Teensies, who are set to explode on fireworks if you don't beat the level in a certain amount of time. 60 seconds is your lowest bronze medal score. Any lower than that is DNQ.
Finally there are the end levels in each world. Here, the rhythmic platforming that this series is built on just goes fucking nuts and you are platforming to a song. These are my absolute favorite levels in the entire game. The music helps make the platforming feel incredibly fluid and rhythmic, and when you're pulling these jumps and such off it almost feels like you're playing Guitar Hero and that your actions are making the song. They are so fun and so awesome, these levels would've sold me on the game alone.
I was originally going to mark this game down for the polygonal models and weird punches, but having spent some time thinking about it those two blemishes barely even register for me anymore. Rayman Legends is an outstanding game. The platforming feels amazing, the music has the same great sound but still amps things up, the art still looks fantastic, and the new levels are fun and add something kind of new to the formula. Legends is a great follow-up to Origins, and one of the best platformers in this generation. Get this goddamn game.