Aka Review

Aka could have used a little more structure. It’s never very clear what you’re supposed to do. You start the game on a new island with an urn of your war friend’s ashes and the mission to spread these ashes on the highest mountain peak. It doesn’t take long to find this mountain and complete the quest, though, at which point, you might think, “Okay, now what…” I get that Aka is a casual game, so you could theoretically spend the rest of your time doing whatever you want. And by whatever, I mean farming. But the farming aspect has very little payoff. It’s not like you can sell the produce, so the main goal of farming is to make dragon food to fulfill an optional quest about baby dragons. Unfortunately, you have to make a lot of dragon food to get anywhere with this quest. You will most likely have exhausted everything else there is to do long before then.

So the real objective in Aka is actually to help several ghosts who are byproducts of the war. I do like how such a seemingly cute game on the outside has a fairly dark story about war and death. Many of the ghosts you meet are people you failed to protect in said war, after all. Once you realize the ghosts should be your focus, it’s not a terrible gameplay loop to track them down and meet their demands. It’s just a little annoying that the ghosts only come out at night, leaving you with nothing to do during the daylight hours. I mean, yeah, there’s always the garden, but gardening sucks. And most other quests boil down to repetitive busywork, like cleaning up the same three types of garbage on all four islands. Again, the game gives you the tools to play indefinitely, but it fails to also give you any reason why you would want to.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review

Kena has a bit of an identity crisis. The art style and overall presentation make it seem like this is going to be a chill, accessible adventure game. The actual gameplay, on the other hand, is surprisingly combat-focused with intense arena battles that can’t be fled. In the first hour, I was already dying a lot and eventually had to bump the difficulty down. It doesn’t help that the parry, a skill the game requires you to know, is simply too hard to time correctly. Combat takes some getting used to, but you can unlock new skills and upgrades that make it easier to get by. You receive a bow pretty early on, for instance, and that alone helps significantly. I totally get how someone would abandon this game within the first few hours, as I was tempted to do, but powering through eventually paid off. Sure, I never fully enjoyed the combat, but I found a rhythm that worked, and the non-combat sections kept me hooked.

The adventure side of things comes with its own asterisk, though, because the world is not as open as you might think. I’ve never seen so many invisible walls before. But even within its limitations, there are plenty of secrets to find. While many of these secrets only reward you with hats (or money to spend on… hats), just as many rewards level up your combat skills. Given how difficult the combat is, there’s definitely incentive to spend time exploring your surroundings. I also quite liked the premise, that you are this spirit guide who has to clean up a destroyed village and help the deceased residents move on. The game expends its best emotional arc too soon, though, with your first quest being to help a spirit come to terms with failing to protect his younger siblings. The second quest falls flat in comparison. Still, I enjoyed the game overall, but you do have to temper your expectations and accept that this is not your typical adventure game.

Kamikaze Veggies Review

My opinion of this game changes drastically depending on if you ask me about the first half of the game versus the latter half. Kamikaze Veggies starts out as a quirky, serviceable stealth/action game where you’re often forced to sacrifice one of your bomb-strapped soldiers to clear an enemy obstacle. You can even blow up your last remaining soldier to take down the main objective and still win the level, which is a really nice touch. I also like that you have limited funds and can only hire so many soldiers per level. Do you splurge on the better soldiers or fill up your team with short-fused expendables? Tough decisions. Oh, and the whole campaign can be played co-op, which adds some great strategic moments where one player can act as a decoy to distract a group of enemies. The game is a lot of fun in the beginning. And then it suddenly isn’t anymore.

The second half of Kamikaze Veggies really outstays its welcome. The last few levels in particular drag on for way too long. There is one level where you have to make your way across a moving train, and it feels like the train cars are never going to end. And then, of course, the level concludes with a boss fight… The concept of bosses feels so out of place given how the first half of the game was structured. Worse yet, many of the later levels have puzzles in them. Not cutesy environmental puzzles, either, but table top, Lights Out style puzzles where you have to figure out the order in which to turn switches on or off. These kinds of puzzles are infuriating on their own, so to have them disrupt the middle of a stealth/action game, in a level that feels like it should already be over, does not work. It is truly baffling that a developer would sabotage their own game like this. They had such a great thing going for them, and then they went… kamikaze.

The Righteous Gemstones – Season 3 Review

This might be the best season of The Righteous Gemstones yet. It feels like what the show should have been from the start, with the overarching story being the three Gemstones kids trying to run the church in their father’s shadow. Granted, the sibling bickering is cranked up to 11 this season, to the point where they barely act like believable adults. I get that these are supposed to be spoiled brats who never grew up, but it’s especially egregious this time around. (Relevant side note: it is amazing how well the child actors in the flashback episode capture the adults’ mannerisms.) It also feels like past lessons learned have been forgotten, like the beautiful way Season 1 ended. I’ve read that the creators hope the show lasts for many years, but if that comes at the expense of resetting everyone’s personal growth season to season, I don’t know if it’s worth it.

That said, I really like how they treated secondary characters in Season 3. BJ and Keefe are a lot more sympathetic, with the latter finally establishing a real relationship with Kelvin beyond just “jokey gay undertones.” Frankly, it was long overdue. I also liked that the main conflict boiled down to repairing relationships with the estranged Montgomery cousins, where neither the Montgomerys nor the Gemstones are totally in the right. I will say, though, that it’s a bit ridiculous the season finale had not one but two fake-out explosion deaths. For a show that’s not afraid to punch you in the gut, I’m surprised they didn’t commit to at least one of these deaths. On the other hand, I’m kind of glad the Montgomerys survived, as they add an interesting dynamic to the Gemstones saga that will be interesting to watch… if they stick around for Season 4.

PlateUp! Review

In my never-ending pursuit of co-op busywork games (and in particular, co-op cooking games), I totally overlooked that PlateUp! is a roguelike. “Overcooked but roguelike” is a dangerous combination. This genre of games is already rife with yelling at your friends and family. The added stress that one mistake can reset your entire progress makes it so much worse. Each “run” consists of 15 days, and if one customer leaves unhappy—be it that they waited outside too long or waited for their food too long—it’s game over for you. And unlike other roguelikes that reward failed attempts with things that might better help you the next time around, PlateUp! mostly just gives you alternate restaurant layouts and recipes to toy with. Recipes are severely uneven, though. Some recipes require so many steps that taking them into a run with you nearly guarantees you’ll fail.

Even if you take an easy recipe into the run, there are checkpoints in the 15 days where you have to choose to sell an additional dish or accept a negative effect like customers being able to come in after closing time. It’s actually a neat risk/reward system, though the randomness that is roguelikes means sometimes both choices are equally terrible. My wife and I got lucky one run with generous options and power-ups throughout. But after beating that run and not unlocking anything special, I immediately lost any desire to play again. It’s not like the restaurant mechanics are that great, anyway. Plate management is a huge pain in the butt, given that you can only hold one plate at a time, sinks can only hold one plate at a time, and even if you upgrade a sink to hold more, it cannot hold dirty and clean plates at the same time. Honestly, I’d rather just wash dishes in real life…

The White Lotus – Season 2 Review

I don’t know how I got started on this show. It’s not normally something I’d go for. But the first season was about a place I hold near and dear (Hawaii) and began with a “who died” mystery that acted as a great hook. Season 2 has a similar opening, though we know this time around that the “surprise” death is ultimately not important. The White Lotus is more a character study on insufferable, wealthy tourists than it is a murder mystery. However, I think it nailed that aspect better in Season 1, where we got to see just how miserable the resort staff was in the wake of their guests. In Season 2, we only get to know the hotel manager, Valentina, and she isn’t miserable because of the guests but miserable because she’s still in the closet and has feelings for one of her employees. Um, weird that they would reuse the “gay manager lusts over employee” plot from Season 1, but at least it doesn’t get rapey in Season 2.

Speaking of (bad transition, I know), the real theme of Season 2 is sex and power. There’s a lot of transactional sex, the most obvious being the literal sex workers who hang out at the hotel all day. I found it amusing that a father and son both “partook” of the same lady friend, and only the father realizes this, but that conflict really doesn’t go anywhere. The whole Di Grasso family thread has the most disappointing resolution, even though I laughed when all three Di Grasso men turned around to ogle the same woman at the airport. It was a fitting end to their otherwise lackluster story. The character with the best conclusion was actually Tanya. I didn’t like her for most of the season, as she was a bit too air-headed, but damn, that finale was great. Her final moments were hilarious, heartbreaking, and intense. The White Lotus can be such a slow burn at times, but it’s always entertaining to see how everything culminates in the end.