I went into this game completely blind, ’cause I’m a Zelda fanboy and knew I’d buy it regardless. So the first few hours really caught me off guard with just how disappointing they were. Then at some point, everything finally clicked, and I got totally sucked in. I’ve now spent over 50 hours with the game and will put in at least another 20 before calling it quits. So, yes, ultimately, Tears of the Kingdom is a great game, and a better game than Breath of the Wild, but the reasons are not so obvious. First, the tutorial area in Tears is a downright slog compared to BotW. It really sets the wrong tone and presents too linear of a structure for a game that likes to tease “freedom.” Even after you touch down on the main world, you still have to follow the story quests for a fair bit to unlock key gameplay elements. I would never want to restart this game from scratch because of it.
The other off-putting thing about Tears was the new Ultrahand ability that lets you build contraptions by gluing objects together. Frankly, Ultrahand is a clunky pain in the butt. I appreciate that many of the shrines are designed to teach you all of the creative ways Ultrahand can be used, but I more often than not just cheesed my way through their intended solutions. If you remove Ultrahand, though, it kinda feels like Tears doesn’t have much more to offer over BotW. They both use the exact same overworld and four-temple narrative, with Tears adding a paltry number of floating islands in the sky. Big whoop. Tears also introduces an underworld, though, that feels both empty and pointless, yet mysterious and full of secrets. It’s hard to explain, but I loved and hated exploring this underworld. It is anxiety-inducing, for sure, but I would purposefully get lost down there for hours just to see what else it might be hiding from me.
The overworld itself adds extra touches in the form of explorable caves and wells, with these often leading to special collectibles that certain characters will trade you for. It’s a better reward system than finding yet another weapon that you either don’t have the inventory space for… or you do, but what’s the point, it’s just gonna break in the next fight, anyway. Unfortunately, Nintendo did little to improve the combat in this game, and I still found it easier to avoid confrontations as much as possible. But there are many other improvements that go a long way to making this a better sequel. There’s a huge amount of actual side quests, a camera that’s used in more interesting ways than just “fill album,” this random dork brain who consistently needs help with basic physics, etc. The amount of content is reminiscent to Fenyx Rising, where there was something to do around every corner. It’s been hell for my short attention span, but in 50+ hours, I haven’t once been bored.
I hate to be “that guy,” but Stray is kinda overrated. The hype surrounding this game was huge. But here’s the thing… what people were raving about—getting to explore a post-human city as a cat—is pretty great. However, all these fans failed to mention that such exploration is only half the game. The other half is dedicated first to running away from flesh-eating aliens, and second to sneaking around security bots. Both of these seem like very weird elements to introduce to a game whose selling feature is “cute cat.” I can’t imagine anybody saw the somewhat misleading trailers for Stray and thought, “I sure hope there are aliens that can eat him!” I understand the aliens are integral to the story the developers wanted to tell, but there’s a way to make their presence known without making them a Game Over-able threat to the player. The alien sections (and, to a lesser extent, the security bot sections) are simply not fun.
Fortunately, the game is saved when it actually delivers on its promises. There are two sections in particular where you get to freely roam through a robot-populated neighborhood and solve environmental puzzles. I loved these moments. Exploring the buildings from the perspective of a cat is definitely fun, but it’s also interesting just to uncover the world’s mysteries and meet the various robotfolk. I only wish the game had double-downed on the cat stuff and not introduced a flying robot sidekick. Once this robot joins you, it no longer matters that you’re a cat. The robot translates and exposits everything for you to the point where the journey is more about him now than you. The developers could have told the same story exclusively through the eyes of the cat, and it would have been amazing. As is, I feel like their insistence on getting you to understand the plot prevents the gameplay from being able to truly shine.
I’m not much of a Smurfs fan. The “smurf talk” alone is reason enough to turn me away from most Smurf properties (and why I had to skip every cutscene in this game). The Mission Vileaf game, however, looked like a competent 3D platformer not unlike Super Mario Sunshine. You use a special backpack to clean the game world? Sign me the smurf up! And that really is the most enjoyable part of the game. The act of spraying weeds is admittedly a repetitive task, but it makes for a fun sub goal to clear an area. Cleaning up also frequently plays into finding secrets and collectibles. The collectibles, in turn, go towards upgrading your skills, so it all serves a purpose. By the end of the game, you can dash and hover to varying degrees, which lends to some fairly challenging platforming sections.
Unfortunately, the last stretch of the game soils a lot of this goodwill. Once you enter Gargamel’s lair, the game turns into a 2.5D platformer where it’s a lot more difficult to judge distances and a lot easier to get stuck behind objects. And if that’s not bad enough, you have Gargamel himself waving a lantern around like a stealth game spotlight. Getting caught in Gargamel’s light spells instant death, so you end up having to speedrun through a lot of sections instead of taking your time to nab the last few collectibles. I wouldn’t say the game was amazing up to this point, but it was at least mindlessly fun in its simplicity and tight controls. The Gargamel level feels like a completely different game, though, making it hard to recommend the game overall. So if you’re still interested, smurf with caution.
Garden Paws feels like a culmination of Stardew Valley and My Time at Portia, both games I have sunk an unhealthy amount of time into. Garden Paws is essentially a farming sim a la Stardew Valley where you raise animals and grow crops to turn a profit. Like My Time at Portia, though, you also get many requests from the local townsfolk that involve crafting items into other items. But Garden Paws doesn’t just borrow from other games; it improves on them. Watering crops, for instance, is barely even a chore considering how quickly it can be done. This saves you so much time to explore the island and gather flowers or feed the wild animals in hopes of bringing them back home. There is often so much to do in a day that I frequently just let my character pass out at midnight instead of trying to rush home for a good night’s sleep.
The other side of that coin is that the amount of to-dos can be overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever had less than five active quests at any one time. My current quest list is so long that it runs right off the bottom of the screen. I appreciate always having goals to work towards, but some quests are given to you long before you can actually fulfill them. There are quests that require materials which don’t become available until a later in-game year, so the quest just stagnates indefinitely. You can always try your luck in the dungeon to speed up access to rarer gems, though. I like that the dungeon is purely optional, as opposed to My Time at Portia where story progress was often locked behind such combat moments. The “combat” in Garden Paws sucks, not surprisingly, but since it’s not required, I can’t complain.
My only real complaints with the game are pretty minimal. For starters, the UI is rather clunky. Managing items in your inventory is a hassle, particularly when you need to move an item from your backpack to your main task bar and vice versa. There are some glaring bugs in the game, too. When playing online, animals and cooking stations will suddenly become invisible for one player. And speaking of online, the game’s password system is completely broken, because randos can still join your session whether it’s password-protected or not. Any issues can be reasonably dealt with, though. The only thing that might be a legitimate turnoff for people is just how long it can take to progress in the game. You have to sell a lot of junk to be able to afford quest-related upgrades like the tree farm (60,000 coins, to be exact!). I don’t know if I’ll ever get the tree farm, but I’m still having fun with everything else the game has to offer.
I feel obligated to talk about this one, as I’ve reviewed every other game so far. I think this might be my least favorite of the bunch, though. I can’t tell if the game is objectively not as good or that I’m just getting bored with the formula. XC3 doesn’t really “fix” anything, nor does it do anything substantially new. I guess the main selling point is that you’re getting a new story? Unfortunately, I’ve lost all patience with XC’s cutscenes. There is an interesting story buried in here, but each cutscene is sooooo long and takes forever to get to anything of substance. I wish you could fast-forward through the pointless banter, but alas, your only option is to skip the cutscene altogether. And if there were multiple cutscenes back-to-back? Oops, you just skipped all of them. I also hate how the cutscene that follows a battle almost always shows that the enemy you just defeated in real-time did not, in fact, get defeated. Hey, video game designers: stop doing this!
By now, you are probably already angrily typing, “Why do you even play these games, bro?!” For me, Xenoblade Chronicles has always been about fighting monsters and exploring huge territories. And I still got plenty of enjoyment out of both of those aspects. I have mixed feelings about the battle system, though. It’s a little too easy to over-level yourself. The game practically encourages you to do this with its ever-tempting “bonus XP” system. And so I reached a point in the game where battles stopped being a challenge, where I could just steamroll over most story-related bosses. Bumping the game up to Hard made it a little too hard, though, so I was kind of at a loss how to bring back the excitement of those first few chapters where I felt like my team had to be perfectly balanced to win. From Chapter 4 onward, it basically didn’t matter what my team looked like anymore.
To be fair, it’s my own fault for getting over-leveled. By Chapter 4, the game world has opened up enough that there are plenty of side quests to distract you from the main story. And you know me, I am a sucker for side quests. The game has a feature that will show you the fastest route to any given quest marker, but I had a lot more fun trying to navigate the world based on the map alone. So many markers have very roundabout ways to get to them and, like the bonus XP, you have to make a conscious effort not to let the game do the work for you. Side quests are fun to track down, though, because many of them result in getting access to a new hero and character class. I really liked experimenting with the different classes and juggling which character should learn which class next. I could do that for hours—and I totally did—so I still had fun in the end, despite my other complaints.
After playing Clouzy, I was left wanting in terms of a combat-free adventure. Clouzy’s biggest drawback was its vagueness. Time on Frog Island, however, is vagueness done right. It’s a similar type of game, though. You’re plopped on an island with basically no guidance other than the obvious main goal: fix your boat somehow. There are frog folk on the island that you can talk to, but who knows which ones can actually help with the boat. Plus, all dialogue is presented as icons instead of text. So a frog might just shout, “Image of a blue bug!” at you, and then you have to figure out 1) where such a bug is and 2) how to make it blue. Needless to say, there’s a lot of running back and forth across the island, looking for whatever a certain frog wants and then returning it. And, sure, that sounds tedious, but it actually works.
What helps the game is that a lot of quests are optional. Once you learn which frogs can actually help you, you can pretty much ignore the others. And there are sometimes multiple solutions to a problem, as well. But, of course, there’s still incentive to help everyone on the island, if not for the achievements, then for the extra perks you can get in the game. Like, I didn’t realize there was a power-up that would let you swing from certain cliff edges until long after I’d already fixed the boat. And you can build a house, too?! The house doesn’t change much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s little touches like this that make Time on Frog Island a fun, relaxing experience. I’d probably rank it close to A Short Hike and Haven Park, considering the length it takes to complete it and the general vibes it gives off.