Cozy Grove

I’ve never been able to get into Animal Crossing, despite normally loving these kinds of casual, slice-of-life collectathons. However, I do think Cozy Grove is better for people like me who, for whatever reason, don’t care for Animal Crossing. The art style is great, movement and dialogue are fast-paced, and the concept of helping ghosts is pretty engaging. But it’s still not quite there. The game’s insistence that it is like Animal Crossing is actually its biggest detriment, because the real-time clock adds nothing of value. I can max out everything there is to do in a day in 30 minutes, and then I have to wait (in real life) until tomorrow for new quests to become available. And when I do boot the game up the next day, my character will abruptly fall asleep to signal the passing of time. It’s such a little thing, but this blatant “you started a new day” animation totally breaks any immersion I was supposed to get from a real-time clock. At the very least, my character should already be asleep!

I think Cozy Grove would have worked better if it behaved more like another game called Farm Together. In that game, your crops still grew in real time, but you were not beholden to any day-to-day schedule. So you could play the game in the morning, water all your crops, and then check back in the evening to harvest everything. Yes, Cozy Grove has things that can supposedly be harvested ’round the clock, too, but any actual missions are timeboxed to the day, not the hour. It also doesn’t help that the majority of the missions are simply “I lost something; go find it.” This feels like a glorified hidden object game at times, though I do like being given clues (e.g., it’s near a tarp) that guide me towards where to look. Unfortunately, as your island starts to fill out more, these hidden objects become harder to spot amid all the clutter.

There is simply too much junk in this game. Yes, I praised the art style earlier, but that doesn’t absolve the fact that trees, houses, statues, etc. frequently block your view. It’s also not easy to interact with the object you’re intending, at least with a controller. My character would constantly go into her tent instead of petting the nearby bird or run over to a tree to shake instead of mining the ore deposit sitting next to it. And, of course, all of this leads into having a bunch of stuff fill up your inventory. Why do these games always give you such a small backpack? So, yeah, there are some annoyances, but when played in 30-minute chunks, I guess it’s okay. I’m still enjoying logging in every day to see what’s going on. But considering it takes roughly 100 real days to complete everything, I will probably tap out long before then.

Mail Mole

Mail Mole isn’t a bad game, but its biggest design decision, its whole gimmick, is just really baffling. This is a 3D platformer where you play as a mole who spends 90% of the game underground. You only pop out of the ground when you jump. This feels so backwards to me, though. Part of the charm of any 3D platformer is to see your character running about, so why hide him underground like this? In fact, why bother “rewarding” the player with different costumes if you rarely get to see those costumes in action? And yeah, I get that this is a mole, and moles like to be underground, but any other 3D platformer would have made “going underground” a usable skill to help you solve puzzles or avoid obstacles. In any other 3D platformer, going underground would be like “ducking,” but in Mail Mole, things can still hit you when you’re in this underground state. The only way to avoid spikes, etc. is to jump out and over them.

Jumping is another odd choice that Mail Mole makes. You can tap to jump, but this default jump is so weak and small that you’ll rarely find it useful. To really jump, you have to hold the jump button for half a second first to power up. Again, any other 3D platformer would base the height of your jump on how long you’re actively holding the button down. I realize it sounds like I’m penalizing Mail Mole for trying to be different, but it’s breaking conventions without providing a good reason to do so. These backwards mechanics only work in the levels that are more speed-driven, where you’re either fleeing a rolling obstacle or being propelled forward by zip pads. Had the game been purely this style of gameplay, it would have been fine. But the slower-paced, find-the-secrets type levels just don’t feel right when your character keeps trying to reinvent the 3D platformer for the worse.

Jumanji: The Next Level

I watched both of these newer Jumanji movies back-to-back, and for the first half of the second movie, I was thinking, “You know what? This is a pretty good sequel.” The humor was a lot better this time around, because the body-swapping dynamics were more interesting. I liked that the teenagers didn’t end up in the Jumanji avatars they wanted, and having two new people—some old farts who don’t understand video games—get sucked into the game with them helped liven things up. The main thing I disliked about the first movie was that Kevin Hart was basically just being Kevin Hart, so it was refreshing to see him dial it down and play against type for once. Jack Black “playing black” was a little cringey at times, but I thought everyone (mostly) felt like their real world counterparts. The addition of Awkwafina as an avatar they hadn’t seen before was also a nice touch.

But then there’s the horse. I have so many issues with this friggin’ horse. First, why would a HORSE be a playable avatar? Oh, and Alex riding in on the horse (who was Bethany, by the way) had somewhat gross connotations. It was also really stupid to swap everyone’s avatars at this point in the movie and put Milo in the horse’s body. Whoever is in the horse is basically a non-character, so it ruined the emotional impact at the end that he was supposed to have with Grandpa Eddie. Also, he chose to stay in the game as a horse?! So dumb… Seriously, the second half of this movie ruins all the goodwill it had by essentially resetting the teenage characters and shoving the older characters out of the way. Every potential lesson these people were supposed to learn is thrown out the window as the movie devolves into an uninteresting, unfunny, generic action flick. And I blame the horse.

Dwarrows

I love a good mash-up of genres, and when Dwarrows clicks, it’s a lot of fun. Dwarrows is a casual adventure game that’s half puzzle platformer, half town building. Admittedly, the town building aspect isn’t that great, but I like how gathering resources for said town plays into the greater adventure. Like, you’ll gain access to a new area that’s not only filled with more puzzles to solve but sturdier trees and rocks that produce more resources per hit. Plus, almost all of the treasure you find exists solely to help build up the town back home, be it spirits that can be turned in for more land rights or artifacts that lead to new blueprints. There’s just so much to uncover in what first appears to be a somewhat small game world.

Unfortunately, Dwarrows has serious pacing issues that are mostly the result of super vague instructions. On one hand, I do appreciate that you have to just… wander around and stumble across things on your own. However, that means it’s possible to miss very important elements that will bring all progress to a screeching halt. The most egregious example of this is when you reach a door that you can’t open until you pay a toll that’s more than the amount of money you can carry. The only way to increase your wallet size is to build a bank in your town, but getting the blueprint for a bank requires jumping through so many other hoops that are never explained in-game.

It feels like the developers had a specific series of events they expected players to follow but gave players too much freedom to do things out of order. They also expected players to spend much more time on town management than I think a lot of us are willing to do. For me, I got very sidetracked by the collectables and exploration, because that was far more interesting and engaging. But then I would continually run up against limits and be forced to gather resources for the next hour or so. The end-game buildings are simply too expensive, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully complete this game. But I at least explored every inch of the game world and got my money’s worth in that regard.

Severance – Season 1

This show gets off to a really slow start, but it’s worth hanging in there. I’ll admit that I dozed off during the first few episodes, though. They’re longer than the others, about an hour each compared to the later episodes’ 45-ish minutes. This is mostly because the show loves to indulge in long takes of people doing monotonous things. I get that there’s thematic reasoning for that, but so early in the show, when you don’t know what’s going on yet or have any connection to the characters, it is a bit of a slog. However, Severance gets better and better with each episode and culminates in a really satisfying season finale. Yeah, it still ends on a cliffhanger with a lot of unanswered questions, but there’s enough payoff otherwise to make you feel like you got your time commitment’s worth.

Without spoiling too much, Severance is about a very weird, future-ish company that’s figured out how to “sever” people’s brains. The employees’ out-of-office personas have no memory of what they’ve been doing at work and vice versa. It opens some intriguing philosophical questions, like are these two separate personalities or individuals? Who ultimately “owns” the body and gets to decide when the other retires? It’s fascinating to watch the in-office personalities slowly realize things aren’t on the up-and-up and try to reach out to their outer selves. We mostly only get to see Mark’s outer self, but Adam Scott does an amazing job of playing the depressed “real” him and the more confident office version of himself. In fact, the whole cast is great, and I cannot wait to see more of them, in and out of the office, going into Season 2.

Outer Wilds

I’m really disappointed in this game, but it’s my own fault for not looking into just what, exactly, the game even was before buying it. Part of the problem is that every positive comment for Outer Wilds says, “Don’t read anything about the game. Just go in blind!” It’s like everyone collectively agreed not to spoil the main gameplay mechanic that basically determines if you’re gonna like the game at all. I don’t even know why it’s a spoiler, because it’s essentially the inciting incident. (Insert spoiler tag, anyway.) So… there’s a time loop. Every 22 minutes, the universe explodes, and you start over. Your goal, then, is to figure out why by looking for clues on various planets. In theory, it’s a cool premise, but the execution makes the game feel more roguelike than I would have preferred. You might not even realize there’s a time loop at first because of how easy it is to die in general.

There’s no combat in Outer Wilds, but you can still run out of oxygen, fall to your death, get killed by ghost matter, etc. Several of my deaths were the result of me getting flung into space by a tornado or something similar, with no hope of getting back to my ship. That can get pretty frustrating when you’ve been trying to wait out the time loop, since key locations can’t be explored until near the end of the cycle. The constant threat of death is exacerbated by the controls. Whether you’re trying to land your ship on a planet’s surface or jetpack through underground caves, you’re always one bump or thrust away from completely messing up your current loop run. I get that these are supposed to be super realistic space physics, though, so maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate them. But I also don’t play video games for realistic physics and don’t have the patience to “git gud” at a game that doesn’t really respect the player’s time.