Pine

This is a game that’s very rough around the edges, but I enjoyed it, anyway. Pine is a bite-sized, open-world adventure that probably drew a lot of inspiration from Breath of the Wild. It feels like a case where an ambitious indie studio bit off just a tad more than they could chew, though, and didn’t have the technical prowess to iron out some of the kinks. This game is a buggy mess at times. Frequently, my character got stuck in a wall, and the only way out was to quicksave and reload. Combat is also pretty clunky and got a little frustrating near the end. Fortunately, there are only a few instances where you are forced to fight. Most of the time, you can easily run away from danger or pay off the other tribes to leave you alone.

That gets into the cool part about Pine: its world building. The world is inhabited by several intelligent species who rarely get along. They especially hate humans, and so you have to win them over by donating to their villages. But as you befriend one species, it’ll cause other species to hate you again. Sadly, you can never make peace with everyone at once, but it’s still a neat mechanic that makes the game more dynamic and interesting. Like, is it worth allying with this particular species so you can safely complete the quest in that area, or are you better off holding onto your resources to craft better armor? I really liked having to weigh these options, though I almost always regretted giving up my resources. Some items are just really hard to find again.

The world is fun to explore, though. Er… when the platforming mechanics behave, that is. But there’s a lot to uncover, and no resource or reward feels pointless, because you can always donate or trade it if it serves no purpose to you. There are also three dungeons/vaults that unlock special abilities, and you can do these in any order. The caveat is that you can only do one per story beat, and the wait time between Vaults 1 and 2 is pretty long. That means a good chunk of the game plays very differently depending on which ability you unlocked first. Being able to tame wild animals is a fun and useful skill, so it would suck if that was the last one you got, and you didn’t get to actually use it much. All that said, Pine gets an A+ for what it tries to do. The execution, however, is disappointing but still mostly enjoyable.

Grow: Song of the Evertree

I absolutely loved the developer’s previous game, Yonder, so I was quick to jump on Grow. It wasn’t quite what I expected, though, but it’s my own fault for thinking they were just gonna make Yonder again. Where that game was pretty open-ended with an emphasis on exploration and side quests, Grow is more linear in how you progress and focuses on farming and town management. Unfortunately, the farming aspect of the game is very repetitive and tedious. You’re presented with mini worlds that need to be “cleaned up,” but you don’t have any creative control over where things are planted or how much work you actually want to do on each world. I did like how creating these worlds was somewhat random, so you never knew what the next one was gonna look like. But taking care of them is still a slog.

I stuck with it, though, because farming provides the resources needed to open up the rest of the game. Large sections of the main world are blocked off until you can raise a town’s happiness level, which requires building houses and shops and assigning people work. The town management is fairly simple but rewarding to see come together. Plus, a lot of the shops you build actually serve a purpose. Pro tip: build a tailor shop as soon as you can, because you can buy new clothes there on a daily basis! It’s fun to check in on the shops before heading off to explore the town’s surroundings. Exploration isn’t as integral to the game as it is in Yonder, but I still enjoyed finding what few secrets I could. Each district also has a nearby temple/dungeon to complete. The challenges inside are… not challenging. But it adds that much more to the variety in gameplay, making this a very unique experience overall.

Paper Mario: The Origami King

Paper Mario is such an odd franchise. This feels like a series of games where Nintendo does whatever the hell it wants. You can’t even say they are consistently turn-based RPGs, because Super Paper Mario on Wii changed that up. And Origami King is only partially turn-based. Smaller enemies and boss battles are still turn-based, but there are several medium-sized enemies that you fight in real-time. I wish they’d just ditch the turn-based battles altogether, because this series has stopped doing them well since the Gamecube. The gimmick this time around is that you have to line up the battle field before you attack. Against smaller enemies, this becomes a tedious chore that I’d rather flee from (if fleeing didn’t have such a high failure rate).

The boss battles are actually pretty fun, though. Instead of lining up the enemies, you need to create a path for Mario to follow that will stop at useful power-ups along the way. Bosses also have different gotchas that make each encounter feel fresh, as opposed to the repetitive minion battles that boil down to “use hammer or jump.” I did appreciate that you could smash and kill an enemy in the overworld to prevent a turn-based battle, but it was never clear which enemies were susceptible to this trick. It’s supposed to be tied to how strong you are, but the only indicator of your strength is how much max HP you have. And since battles reward no experience points—hell, there are no experience points in this game—the only way to increase your health/power is to stumble across explicit upgrades in the overworld.

For me, the best thing about Paper Mario games now is simply exploring the world. Uncovering hidden Toads in Origami King was a fun side goal, and the environments were always fairly clever and visually stunning. I didn’t care for the “flat paper vs origami” storyline, but I will admit that the origami art style is cool. In typical Nintendo fashion, though, they hit you over the head with the story. Yeah, Paper Mario games are always on the wordy side, but didn’t they recently trim down the dialogue in Skyward Sword? Nintendo hasn’t learned its lesson here. Your travel companion will not shut up and has to comment on everything. This is when we need voice acting. It would have been great to listen to Olivia talk while you’re moving about. But being forced to stop and read her dialogue turns this into more of a slog than it needs to be.

Blue Fire

This is a game I liked enough to beat, but I’m hesitant to give it a full-blown recommendation. Blue Fire has a lot of issues. It’s been touted as a cross between Hollow Knight (a game I couldn’t get into) and Zelda (a series I obviously love), so it’s no wonder my feelings are mixed. The main problem I have with the game is that the combat is clunky and pits you against unfair enemies. The second area of the game is particularly frustrating, because that’s when you fight floating ice monsters whose stun/freeze attacks do a huge amount of damage. Worse yet, it takes your character a full second to consume a healing item, and if you have to move before he’s finished, it cancels the healing. So you’re pretty much screwed in some boss battles that never leave you an opening to heal.

What takes the edge off is the fact that you can find/earn lots of upgrades. I’m a sucker for platforming and exploration, so I really enjoyed that aspect of the game. There are two towns with NPCs who dole out side quests, as well as several voids scattered throughout the world that feel like Super Mario challenge levels. These voids are the only way to get health upgrades, though, and some of them are pretty devious. I eventually had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to max out my health meter. But you can also get upgrades like a double jump or double dash that allow you to cheese your way through parts of these voids. I appreciated that the platforming became easier over time instead of harder, as is usually tradition.

Unfortunately, it’s really easy to miss out on important upgrades due to the way the world is built. This is one big, interconnected castle a la Metroid, but you’re given no map to help you get your bearings. I walked right past the room with the projectile attack upgrade early on, which would have come in handy against those flying ice monsters in Part 2. I did go back and find it after fast travel was unlocked, but there was another early skill—a spin attack—that I never found. The loading screen hints frequently alluded to this spin attack, and yet I somehow beat the entire game without it. On one hand, I guess it’s nice to have a game that doesn’t force your path so much (ahem, Zelda), but that also really screws with the difficulty if you’re not careful.

Red Faction: Armageddon

The only other Red Faction game I’ve played was Guerrilla, but I really liked the mechanics of that game. Guerrilla’s open world was also pretty fun, though I didn’t necessarily need another open world going into Armageddon. I was totally okay with smaller, more linear levels as long as the same weapons and destruction were there. Unfortunately, they went too small and linear. The majority of the game takes place in dark, cramped, underground caves with not a lot of buildings you can tear down. Worse yet, the main enemies are generic aliens. What I liked about Guerrilla was infiltrating an enemy base and outsmarting the guards as I ripped apart the walls and floors. You don’t get much of that here. It feels like a huge waste of the game engine.

To be fair, there are still some fun moments of destruction. I liked using the plasma thrower to melt obstacles that were in my way or to quickly drop down a level. The new magnet gun is also fun to use; you can tear chunks of a building off with it and slam them into enemies. But, again, you’re rarely presented with larger buildings that require any thought in their demolition. Whenever the levels do open up, it’s because you’re piloting a (clunky) vehicle. There’s just so much more they could have done with this game. I’m sure budget constraints played a part, but even then… why go with generic aliens? Why make 80% of the game take place underground? At face value, this is an okay shooter with a few neat ideas, but knowing those neat ideas were the hallmark of a better game makes it harder to enjoy.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

The other day, I was in the mood for a straightforward first-person shooter that didn’t take itself too seriously. Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty specific itch, and yet Call of Juarez: Gunslinger managed to scratch it. I wouldn’t call this a great game overall, though. While I don’t mind linear levels in a shooter, the levels in Gunslinger are a little too narrow and claustrophobic. Enemies also blend in with the background, making it hard to see who’s shooting at you. It doesn’t help that enemies start shooting from really far away, and most of your weapons are close-range. I know a sniper rifle isn’t realistic for the time period, but damn, I really needed to be able to snipe at times.

Another aspect of the game that drove me nuts were the standoffs that bookended every level. In theory, a standoff is a great idea, but the controls for these sections are terrible. I just started shooting first and taking the “dishonorable kill” penalty so I wouldn’t have to think about them too much. Frankly, I wanted a game with mindless shooting, and you do get plenty of that in the normal stretches of each level. Gunfights are fast-paced and satisfying and (barring the standoffs) don’t bog you down with gimmicky missions. The gameplay couldn’t be any more straightforward: run through town (or a forest) and shoot everything that moves. It’s perfect for what it is.

The best thing about Call of Juarez, though, is the way its narrative is framed. The whole game is narrated by a drunk bounty hunter regaling his adventures in tracking down famous Wild West outlaws. Not only is it funny to hear him constantly say “sumbitch” but his story will periodically change halfway through, thus affecting the level. He might say, “Oh, actually, we came in from the south,” and then the level will restart with you entering town from a different location. Or his audience will challenge him on something like the number of bandits he was up against, and then in the game they’ll suddenly disappear. It’s a neat idea that adds a little more oomph to an otherwise standard arcade-style shooter.