Review – Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!

At a bit over twenty-five hours into the game, I’ve reached “The End” for Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! And yet, for the first time in a long time, “The End” doesn’t feel like the true end to the game. I think I’ll still be playing this game–maybe even primarily playing this game–for a while yet.

That level of continued engagement virtually never happens for me, and it should be a clear testament to just how much I enjoyed this game. Sure, I might pursue some end-game content, or tool around in an open-world environment, or eventually restart a new quest in a game with a narrative I adored. But most of the time, I reach the end and very quickly burn out. Right now, I’m eager to keep playing, to battle Master Trainers and defeat the remaining legendary Pokémon and maybe even complete my Pokédex. The fact that a Pokémon game in particular has captured my attention so fully is even more surprising.

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One reason to keep playing: beat this jerk. She destroyed me in my first attempt. What sort of Pikachu uses a move set of Reflect, Toxic, Slam, and Substitute? Not MY sort of Pikachu!

I’ve always been at best a casual Pokémon fan. I was the right age to collect the trading cards, to watch the anime, and to play first the Red and Blue generation and then the Gold and Silver follow-up, but I’ve never fully completed a Pokémon game before. I get bored with them. The franchise nonetheless thoroughly burrowed its way into my childhood such that I like the concept more than the execution, and I can never quite shake my attachment. I am most easily susceptible to nostalgic marketing tools for this franchise over any other. (Star Fox comes close, but I actually like most Star Fox games rather a lot!) So while I lost interest in the Pokémon games after Gen II, I dutifully hopped back into HeartGold and SoulSilver with my wife, walked miles with the Pokémon Go mobile game, and watched Pokémon Origins and Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! I keep getting sucked back in, never more than a casual fan at most, and I’d suspect that my interest waxes and wans in alignment with the broader millennial demographic group.

Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eeveeare targeted directly at that mass of casual millennials who fondly remember the games and anime from childhood, but who couldn’t tell you more than a handful (if any) of the Pokémon past the first 151, and who maybe haven’t played a Pokémon game in any form since the first or second generation. The titular exclamation of Let’s Go! is clearly signaling a connection to Pokémon Go, which obviously ignited a resurgence of interest (that declaration might also serve as a plaintive appeal to the potential consumer). It’s like Nintendo, and Game Freak in particular, realized that there was an untapped mainstream audience who could be brought into the Pokémon fold once more, if only the experience could be…more nostalgic, less difficult or alien.

So here we have a two-title lineup, echoing the main series of games, that plays like one-half Pokémon Go tie-in, one-half Pokémon Yellow remake. I should be frustrated by the blatant attempt to exploit my nostalgia to part me from my disposable income. Yet the game perfectly nails a balance of fresh and familiar, easy and deep, casual and involving, and it does seem to be made with genuine love and care. I jumped right in, misgivings aside, and found that I loved the game deeply.

The familiar is obvious. Pikachu, or Eevee, becomes your constant traveling companion as you journey across the land, collecting the original Kanto Pokémon, earning gym badges in an attempt to become the Pokémon Champion, and breaking up Team Rocket operations that often involve anime carry-overs Jessie and James. That description should sound pretty familiar if you have even a passing knowledge of Pokémon Yellow, the Generation 1.5 title that combined elements of Red and Blue with the popular anime. Yet we have a lot of modern advancements–and not just in terms of graphics and gameplay.

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Yes, the graphics are in fact gorgeous, popping with color and contrast. Kanto environments have more flair and characterization than ever before. Pokémon battles have anime-style action betwixt the turn-based strategizing. Pokémon roam the world, true to scale. There’s more than enough nostalgia-bait here, too; not only is the game world that of the original games, and not only do we have the same gym leaders and same Pocket Monsters as the originals, but in-menu monsters and items look like the pixelated sprites of yore, and the monsters have cries that typically sound like the original jagged yowls.

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But the improvements to story, characterization, and pacing were most surprising. For one thing, you develop a lot closer bond with your partner Pokémon, as this Pokémon is always with you, often interacts with you and the world (including in some heartwarming cutscenes), is available to play with in first-person and to dress in cute outfits complete with dozens of accessories, and is the only one to learn (in a separate move list outside of what it uses in battle) the Special Moves that allow you to progress further and interact more with the world around you. You not only spend a lot of time with Pikachu (or Eevee) and get plenty of feedback to show that it cares about you, but you also experience the world through your partner Pokémon. The game design itself forges a close bond between trainer and partner.

But you feel that to some degree with the other Pokémon, too. You can have those currently in your party trail behind you (your partner stays propped on your shoulder). These other Pokémon will react to the environment, seek attention, and discover items–never in an annoying way, and usually triggered by your direct initiation of contact. They follow closely behind, but if their rudimentary path-finding (or simple size) causes them to get stuck, they automatically return to their Poké Ball and reemerge closer to you. So the other team members also feel useful and alive, never annoying, even outside of battle. And over time, with feedback indicating that they care about you, whether by recovering from poison in-battle because they don’t want you to worry (as the flavor text says) or simply reacting to you with a cheery expression and call, you become attached to them too. I became locked into a core team very early on. The first three slots became immutable, and the back end filled with reliable stalwarts I wouldn’t give up for anything by the middle of the game. I could have gone occasionally for more powerful or interesting or varied monsters, but I was simply too invested in my team by that point.

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The human characters are more interesting than before, as well. Instead of a snobbish, short-tempered jerk, your rival is your close childhood friend, someone who challenges you but also supports you. They want to be the best, but they want you to succeed too. I was rather fond of my rival by the end. Blue, the rival from the original games, appears in the first third of the game as an experienced older trainer who takes interest in the two new kids from his hometown. This new take on Blue is wiser and more experienced, but also obviously a good person. Oak is a goofy doof. Gym leaders and others are introduced recurrently throughout the game, so that you view them as unique individuals instead of mere goalposts. The boundaries between “ally” and “enemy” often shift and typically reflect friendly, sporting rivalries. Even Giovanni, leader of the Team Rocket criminal organization, has a clear redemption arc that seems more pronounced than I recall it.

Furthermore, the world just feels more like a lived-in setting. We’ve had a couple decades of Pokémon games that have gradually expanded the universe at this point, and that really pays off with this return to Kanto. There are references to other regions, Pokémon, cultures, and characters outside of the Kanto region, and some Alolan forms of Kanto Pokémon and at least one Alolan character appear in the game. I suppose that achieving this effect isn’t so difficult when the source material’s already there, but the additions do make the world seem larger than what we see in the game, and that’s a nice touch.

It’s the gameplay that is the most modernized and divergent from other Pokémon titles. I loved the changes here, but I suspect that hardcore fans might face these changes with ire. Pokémon battles still play out more or less the same against rivals, but catching Pokémon has been completely revitalized thanks to the influence of Pokémon Go. Now, instead of battling a Pokémon and attempting to capture it when it’s weakened, you simply cast Poké Balls at wild monsters that you encounter. Form matters; at least when playing in console mode with a Joy Con, you swing the controller like you’re tossing an actual Poké Ball, and speed, direction, and timing directly translate to the game actions. While the actual catch chance is somewhat randomized, you can improve those chances by timing your toss to hit a Pokémon in an ever-shrinking ring (if the ball is in a smaller-sized ring, you have more likelihood of success and a better experience bonus on capture) and by using items to calm the Pokémon. Very powerful and rare Pokémon require you to fight them like a normal battle, but rather than having to get them into a sweet spot of weakened-but-not-fainted, you just have to defeat the Pokémon, switching the mode over to the standard catching mini-game after that. While Pokémon appear in the world randomly, they still physically appear, and so you can try to navigate around them if you’d prefer to avoid an encounter. Additionally, it’s always very easy to run from a wild Pokémon encounter. On top of this, your whole party gains at least some experience from every battle and catch, regardless of whether they entered the fray, so long as they’ve not fainted (and it’s easy to transfer Pokémon from team to storage box and back–the box is always available from the main menu). All of these changes combine to virtually eliminate grinding. Not once did I have to churn through wild Pokémon encounters to gain the experience needed to finally take on a gym or the Elite Four. Battles with trainers can often be avoided, but I sought them out–they were fun, and they could be anticipated! No more worrying about random encounters wearing you down in between fights with the NPC trainers. Plus, with Pokémon-catching operating under its own mechanics, the catching and battling systems were sufficiently distinct that they felt like complementing halves to a whole; they never felt like competing areas of interest, and they never wore me down with tediousness and repetition.

I still had Pokémon faint, but I never had a full-team wipe-out. There were some sections that felt like hard slogs–challenges, though not overly challenging. Occasional battles against gym leaders, Team Rocket higher-ups, and the Elite Four were genuine struggles requiring careful strategy and resource management to prevail. Still, while Pokémon has never been the most challenging game, this was in many ways the easiest (and simply most fun) version of Pokémon I’ve ever encountered. And yet it wasn’t so easy as to be uninteresting or unrewarding. I never lost interest, and I had (and have) a constant drive to keep playing and discovering.

With the JRPG random encounters retooled and the grinding eliminated, Let’s Go! became, to me at least, the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the games: a lengthy ode to the joys of childhood exploration. Shigeru Miyamoto famously said that The Legend of Zelda was inspired by his childhood adventures in the outdoors, but Pokémon has always been the game most clearly connected to childhood freedom and imagination for me. The mundane, walking through a grassy field in an abandoned lot, or riding your bike down the street, or taking a trip to the beach, is filled with the pure wonder and spirit of imaginative adventure that I think most of us lose, or find dampened, as adults. Those feelings were rekindled in me in playing this game, and that meant a lot to me–especially coming out of a long winter while dealing with a variety of workplace changes and personal life stressors. It was re-energizing, and I don’t want to leave that behind just yet.

You may or may not have noticed that I have included fewer pictures than usual, and that what pictures are included are not much varied in location or effect. This despite my great affection for the game. The truth is that I just snapped a few pictures at the very end. The game isn’t played using both Joy-Cons. You can activate a second Joy-Con, which acts as the controller for a “support” trainer in encounters, but I didn’t touch it. As I’m right-handed, I relied on the right Joy-Con. My experience with the controller largely felt great; it was pretty responsive and accurate. I just didn’t think to keep the second Joy-Con with me, except for in any given moment when I thought, “Oh, that’d make a nice picture,” but at that point I’d be too absorbed to collect the other Joy-Con. And the capture function, even if playing in single Joy-Con mode, is only available on the left controller (just as the home function is only available on the right). I think the single-controller setup (outside of portable mode, which I haven’t actually played yet) mostly felt good, but the lack of a capture button was a small annoyance–especially since this game fully supports pictures and videos.

On the subject of controllers, I did get the Poké Ball Plus accessory. The ball includes access to release a Mew into your game, but the roughly $50 price point does not justify buying it for that reason alone. As a controller in the game, it feels right for a Poké Ball, but it also felt a little small and unwieldy to use as an actual controller, and its control scheme–with the cancel button on top and the accept button triggered by clicking down on the analogue stick–was a messy nightmare. I didn’t really put much effort into getting comfortable with the toy, especially when the Joy-Con controller worked so well with the game. Unless you for some reason really, really want Mew, this Poké Ball should be passed over. That said, its functionality with Pokémon Go could be redeeming, and the ability to continue interacting with the mobile game even while keeping phone in pocket could make for an immersive and fun experience once we get back to walking weather. If I actually find that I use the Poké Ball for this purpose, then it’ll be a lot closer to worth it.

All in all, I loved this game. I recognize its role as a regurgitated remake in a massive franchise preying on my nostalgia. I can’t get around that fact. But it wasn’t a soulless cash grab. It was a game targeted at my type and made with attention and care. It rewarded my time. Poké Ball accessory aside, this was a meaty and valuable adventure that I’m glad I took. While I can’t speak for hardcore fans, I can fervently recommend this to fellow lapsed millennial Pokémon fans, and I suspect that this could be the game that launches another generation of youthful Pocket Monster loyalists.

DST & Pokémon

I’m not necessarily opposed to daylight saving time. But I am opposed to the back-and-forth tug of the time changes. If we were always in standard time or always in daylight saving time, I’d be happy.

It’s tough enough to get through the looooong winters without having the day snapped back to suddenly return your mornings to darkness once more. At this point, I’ve lived in Indiana long enough that I should be better able to cope. Still, that sudden shift crushes my budding optimism every year. At least in Florida, I’d either be in central time or not quite so far to the west when in the eastern time zone.

I suppose I’m just tired and grumpy this week. I’ll get over it.

But in the meantime, I’m playing Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! It’s really delightful. It’s not exactly a current-gen remake of Yellow–it takes ideas from more recent games, but it mostly still plays like the original. But it certainly is a remake with improvements large and small. The graphics are lovely, the story and characters are improved in a variety of ways, and there are lots of fun changes like actually seeing true-to-scale Pokémon everywhere in the world (random monsters appear in the game world instead of automatically generating a battle). The most radical changes make catching Pokémon quite similar to Pokémon Go, and I rather enjoy this. Trainer battles play more or less like the classic games, and with the switch to a catching minigame with its own separate system, battling trainers and catching Pokémon become two wholly unique processes that keep things feeling fresh while also basically eliminating the need for grinding.

I’m only a casual Pokémon fan, though the franchise has been present in my life since childhood. As such, I’m probably the target audience: nostalgic millenials who didn’t keep up with later generations of the games. But there’s enough, I think, to appeal to hardcore fans and those who have never played anything Pokémon-related before.

The game is fun, colorful, nostalgic yet fresh. It’s as close to pure-spirited as a colossal franchise product like this can be. I’ve only been playing for a couple days, amounting to a few hours and three gyms. But this was exactly the game I needed to help me get through the drag of post-DST March…

Review: Starlink

My initial impressions of Starlink: Battle for Atlas proved to be a pretty accurate indicator of how I’d feel about the game as a whole. It remained fun and colorful, and the act of exploring the star system remained a delight throughout, but it was not a perfect game.

As I mentioned in that first post, I opted to play through the game on easy mode, and this meant that combat was a low-risk, low-stress activity. Despite that, some sub-bosses (typically those guarding special relics hidden on each world) proved to be truly challenging, and those fights were the most interesting, largely because I was often encountering higher-level enemies earlier than I otherwise would, and because those fights were often in interesting environments that rewarded navigation-as-evasion in somewhat cramped spaces. But combat as a whole began to feel repetitive. There were certain strategies and weapons to keep in mind with certain types of enemies. The legions of ground troops (pun intended: the enemy robots are in an army known as the Legion) largely fell into only a few different types: fire, ice, and gravity-warping. Figure them out, and it’s a simple matter to address most fights.

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Big bosses were similarly limited in variety, although there was at least an interesting cycle to addressing them. Dreadnought starships are colossal vessels placed around the star system, which release Primes, huge arachnoid mechs, that attempt to corrupt worlds by activating and spreading Extractors, towers that extract valuable resources from the planet’s core. Extractors remotely transmit energy generated from the harvested materials to the roving Primes, making them bigger and more powerful; Primes pass on some of that energy to the Dreadnought stationed within their sector of the star system, thus improving its power in turn. The best route to take to free a sector is thus to clear out each planet in that sector one by one, shutting down Extractors to locate a Prime before moving on to the next world, eventually leaving the Dreadnought weakened. This balance of powers is interesting in concept but boring in execution, since you once more reach a point where you are just dealing with the same three recycled enemy types again and again: surface towers guarded by beam-emitting nodes and occasionally mid-to-high-level Legion forces, mobile spider-mechs (which do at least offer variety through their evolving forms as they grow in power, although this is a linear and repetitive trajectory too), and space battles against fighters and turrets followed by on-rails races to take out the power cores on the capital ships.

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Dreadnoughts will redeploy Primes as time passes, and (in the endgame at least) new Dreadnoughts will eventually enter the system to replace their defeated comrades. Apparently the spread of the Legion is determined by difficulty level, so a higher-difficulty play-through could make things more interesting (or maybe just more tedious). Each world can gain Alliance power, providing you more resources and better resisting the Legion, if you clear out Legion emplacements and build and upgrade structures. These structures are limited and serve specific purposes, like showing more of the planet map, generating revenue, producing mods for your ships, or increasing the defensive capabilities of the planet. The back-and-forth tension between Alliance and Legion provides one of the clearest sources of comparison to Mass Effect 3–though this system at least feels simpler and obviously involves a lot less territory.

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(Actually, Mass Effect feels like a heavy reference point for the game–see the lore entries below for further examples.)

Still, while the game does not offer an extraordinary strategic element, and while its combat and side missions are repetitive, it remained consistently fun. I really liked flying around as Fox. I liked the chatter between the characters on the Starlink and Star Fox teams over the comms. I liked scanning new creatures and discovering new artifacts. I enjoyed simply zipping through the skies of any given planet and observing the unusual terrain and towering biological, artificial, and geological structures rising from the surface.

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All the above fits in with my earlier conception of the game. There’s plenty of good with the bad, and the game itself does not get boring despite the repetition and simplistic elements. But the biggest letdown for me was in the development (or lack thereof) of the characters and story.

The game immediately introduces us to the core cast of the Starlink Initiative. They’re unique, distinctive, and likable. They all bring something to the table, and they all have a lot of flair and personality. When their leader, St. Grand, is captured by the cult that has taken command of the Legion, the team’s heartbreak is real, and I was totally behind their drive to recover this obvious father figure. Similarly, the Star Fox team is characterized such that each member of the team has a clear and unique personality and role: Fox is the pure-hearted leader who will always fight for good, Falco is the cocky ace pilot, Peppy is the overly cautious mentor who’s past ready to retire, and Slippy is the goofy tech genius and support character. They’re written and voiced such that they feel like they’ve actually known each other a long time and are a sort of family of their own; the silly back-and-forth between Slippy and Peppy was exceptionally delightful for me.

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But the characters don’t really evolve! Brilliant scientist Mason Rana, who designed the swappable Starlink tech, has the most presence on screen and is given the clearest arc, which makes sense; he’s the default pilot for the player. That arc is somewhat mundane, ultimately: he gains in confidence and steps out of his mentor St. Grand’s shadow to become a capable leader in his own right. Everyone else is largely in the background of this surrogate family, just glad to be along for the ride. But that surrogate family keeps growing, with more and more alien pilots, some of them having brief introductory interactions to explain their appearances, some of them apparently just showing up in the background of cinematic cutscenes. I didn’t know who everyone was by the end, but long before that I stopped understanding why so many of the new characters bothered to join. The game’s moving too fast and loose to bother nailing down these points.

The pacing of the plot doesn’t really lead anywhere, either. Here’s a very spoiler-heavy summary of the plot: the team recovers St. Grand, who was used by the Legion cult to make the rare refined fuel Nova (since he had rediscovered how and the secret was lost to most of the galaxy); St. Grand dies, apparently as a result of the side effects of the mind control he’d been briefly placed under; the team seeks to avenge St. Grand and liberate the star system; and at the end, the cult leader becomes part of some mech or something and a lone fighter shoots him a lot to save the day. I’m leaving out very little, mostly some side quests meant to dole out character background information, which for some reason is presented in cutscenes that are in a motion-comic style, instead of the cinematic scenes used for the main plot.

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Sadly, the Star Fox storyline is also abruptly rushed to a conclusion. Spoilers again: Wolf intends to build an army of Primes to take over Corneria, but Fox and friends figure it out and blow up his interstellar ship before he can escape, leaving him to flee in a damaged fighter with his tail between his legs. The team then decides to stay on with the Starlink group to clear the system of the Legion threat.

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The game ends all too quickly, and you’re allowed to keep wandering the star system, exploring more and clearing out remaining Legion encampments. Surviving Legion captains will continue to launch Dreadnaughts into the system to create a perpetual loop of combat scenarios. There’s stuff to do, but it all feels rather empty and pointless.

The thing is, these weaknesses are so predictable, at least in retrospect. It’s a toys-to-life, open-world game. The goal of the game is to provide a playground for kids to zoom around with their toy collection. It’s going to provide a variety of pilots and ships and weapons to encourage players to buy more and more of the toys, even if you don’t need to buy more to beat the core story. (Some of the elemental puzzles you’d have to unlock to 100% the game would require other elemental weapons or at least a lot of tedious transportation of canisters between sites). And because the game company wants you to buy lots of pilots and ships, they’re going to give you glimpses of those pilots and ships–really unique ship and alien designs can provide those glimpses without requiring a lot of time spent on characterizing these additional pilots in the story. This also means that there can’t ever be any real narrative stakes for the characters: killing a character or blowing up a ship can only happen if that character or ship won’t be available in the player’s toy box, to swap in at any time.

The open-world endgame feels empty because it’s there to let the player throw in different pilot and ship combinations without having to start the game from scratch. You can build on the RPG-lite leveling of pilots and ships, the modifications of fuselages and wings and weapons. And the ever-present potential for the recurrence of an external threat always presents the possibility of additional content to purchase in the future.

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This does not make the game bad. But it is unappealing to me. And it should have been obvious to me because that’s what the game’s basic design model would require.

So at this point, I don’t think I’ll play through the game on a higher difficulty. And I don’t think I’d increase the difficulty in my current save just to see what the higher Legion threat looks like in the endgame. I could see myself returning to Starlink at some point in the future, just to cruise about the system. For now, the 20-ish hours I’ve put in seem sufficient, and I’m not particularly hungry for more.

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That said, what I really want is to see an open-world Star Fox game that scraps the toys-to-life model and focuses on a meatier narrative set in the Lylat System. Starlink shows that this should work, and I think it also shows that good characters and good gameplay can only take a game like this so far; there still have to be engaging narratives (in and out of the main story) that make player actions feel worthwhile.

Starting Starlink

I finally started Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I mostly just wanted to make that announcement. It was back in October that I claimed that Starlink would be my next game purchase, and that did not end up being true. But I’m really excited to finally get to the game, and I’m enjoying it so far! It’s like an all-ages Mass Effect 3 limited in scope to a single star system, with a very light version of the exploration and scanning of life forms on colorful planets demonstrated in No Man’s Sky (no, I never played it, but I did enjoy watching game footage for a while), and inhabited by a rich cast of humans, aliens, and anthropomorphic animals such that it feels a little like a teasing glimpse of Beyond Good and Evil 2 (which is, after all, another Ubisoft title).

I started it on normal, then restarted it on easy, I’m embarrassed to admit. Two factors impact the difficulty: (1) it’s actually important to explore and do a little bit of “grinding,” though it doesn’t really feel a grind, on each world to level your pilot and craft; and (2) the weight of the docked toy ship and the tiny analog sticks of the Joy-Cons have combined to finally yield a situation where the Switch’s default docked control scheme doesn’t feel very comfortable for me. Well, okay, there’s a third reason: I’m getting older and suckier at games. Still, if I’d realized the first factor before restarting, I imagine I would have found normal fairly manageable most of the time, and I’m coasting through easy. Which is nice, in a way! I could always start another save slot later to inch up the difficulty, and I can focus for now on exploration, story, and characters. And I enjoy all that!

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It’s also fun to play as Fox McCloud on easy because he just seems that much more of an ace pilot even in my incompetent hands, ever the true hero. Playing as Fox from the beginning, I’m experiencing Starlink more as a Star Fox game than an original property. While having the toy model of an Arwing is fun, and I actually enjoy the swapping out of weaponry, I doubt I’ll ever really buy into the purchase of other pilots, ships, and firepower. So far, besides encountering the occasional gravity-based power-up that I can’t unlock with my current set of weaponry, I haven’t really been prevented from doing anything in the game. The toys-to-life concept remains a gimmick, but at least there’s nothing here requiring it to become an expensive gimmick.

Where the game really shines for me is in its rewarding exploration, distinctive characters and setting, and great use of the Star Fox property. The Star Fox team feels fully integrated into the game, even though playing primarily as Star Fox leads to the sort of funny result that this mercenary band has become involved in actively fixing the core team’s problems even more so than the original protagonists. And while I like the new characters, I really love the Star Fox team’s depiction in the game; Ubisoft nailed the right tone and team dynamic here. It’s hard not to see the game as proof-of-concept for a pure Star Fox open-world game. The free-range starfighter combat works great, a natural extension from the arcade-style flight of the Star Fox series, and I could easily see a lot of the same design applied to exploring the Lylat system.

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Having had the gradually worsening experience of Little Dragons Café in recent memory, I don’t want to get overly excited too early on. I can see some things that could get boring. The local missions you can request are of a limited variety. There are only a few types of megafauna on each planet, and the body types seem moulded around only a half dozen builds. But on easy mode, I’ve yet to have to spend so much time on a planet preparing for the next world to get bored. On a higher difficulty, the game would offer more rewarding combat challenges, which might mean the recycled mission structures wouldn’t grow tired so quickly. It’s hard to say at this point.

I think, unless something really sours me on the game later on, that this probably deserves at least two play-throughs. Yes, my first time is devoted to Fox, but a second experience that gives the core cast time to shine is probably needed. Even scooting everywhere in an Arwing as part of Star Fox, I’m still enjoying the camaraderie shared by the Starlink Initiative team.

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I’m sure I’ll have more to say before long!

Abandoning Vampyr

Having wrapped up Little Dragons Café, I figured I’d finally make an effort to finish Vampyr. I overall liked the story, and I liked the game’s themes, even if I was frustrated with the gameplay and my own technical issues with the game.

Earlier this week, I booted up Vampyr. And the game immediately fell into a chugging pace. Even stepping forward caused substantial stuttering. It was a dreadful mess, a slog of choppy frame-rates just to get up the stairs of the protagonist’s hospital base. And I realized that it just wasn’t worth it for me to finish the game.

Yes, I gave five minutes or less and abandoned the whole project. But I just wasn’t willing to keep pushing through. I played through a substantial portion of the game. I had unlocked 50% of the game’s achievements. I had mostly found my time in the game rewarding. And I would like to see the end of the story. But it just seemed too painful and frustrating to push on through.

From the reviews I’ve seen, it would seem that I’m not alone in encountering technical issues with the game. I’d say that my experience has been in the minority and on the extreme end, though. It’s hard to say where the game’s issues end and where my own computer’s issues pick up. I’d say my computer still runs most things great, but I do spend most of my PC gaming time playing older titles. I built this rig in 2010, so it’s not quite a decade old yet–but that’s a fairly long time for a computer. I’ve upgraded parts occasionally, but the last significant improvement was probably four years ago.

The computer does what I need it to do. And I’m rather fond of it. I’m not going to build another one soon. I’m not going to buy another one soon. So I might finally be reaching the point where my days as a primarily PC-focused gamer are at an end, outside of exploring older titles that I missed or returning to my favorites. That’s fine. Even with my most recent lackluster Switch gaming experience, I’ve still at least somewhat enjoyed everything I’ve played on the console. Some of my favorite games ever have been on that console already. And I like the console itself rather a lot.

Maybe eventually I’ll get a more powerful console or a newer PC. But right now I’ll just allow myself to complete this pivot to Switch-focused gaming. There’s already quite the backlog of games on the console that I want to try out. And it just so happens that Vampyr is making an appearance on the Switch sometime in the second half of the year…Maybe I’ll pick it up for the console and give the game another try with some distance (and the hope that it will be optimized for the platform).

For now, I find that my thoughts after 36 hours in the game remain much the same as they did when I wrote my initial impressions: it’s fun, it’s flawed, and–if you don’t encounter frustrating technical impediments–it’s worth your time.

Closing the Book on Little Dragons Cafe

I did not write a blog post on Sunday because I was on a mission for much of that day. My mission, unfortunately, was to finish Little Dragons Café. While I have a feeling of relief at having finally closed the chapter on this game, I’m mostly disappointed by what could have been and frustrated with the tedious grind of the final third of the story. (If you haven’t already, please check out my initial charmed reaction to the early sections of the game and my reflection on my eventual disillusionment.)

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I was actually engaged for a good portion of the game. Even when I didn’t want to care for some of the characters, either because they start out as such unrepentant jerks or because they seemed like simple anime stereotypes at first glance, I ultimately found almost everyone who came through the cafe doors to be endearing. I loved Billy, Ipanema, and Luccola, and I loved the playful, teasing, sometimes mean yet ultimately loving dynamic between them. Poncho the cowardly child warrior is adorable and incredibly sweet once you get his whole story. Celis has a great arc, moving beyond her witch-supremacist, anti-human bigotry. Huey’s hilarious and energetic; Chou Chou, despite being a pop idol, deals with a lot of guilt and insecurity in the wake of achieving stardom when her other companions did not; Ginji is a badass master thief questioning his life choices. The runaway Rosetta was somewhat annoying to me, but her story had a nice resolution that left her in a better place after forcing her to reconsider past events–in fact, most characters are left in a better place after being forced to reconsider past events, typically through the combination of compassionate prodding by the cafe staff and one really good meal.

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But the final few characters were unappealing to me. Miere is a famed fortune teller whose fortunes are all obviously garbage. She believes the world’s ending. The most amusing and interesting thing about her is that she has supreme confidence in her fortune-telling ability because she predicted when she was young that all her predictions would be true. Miere doesn’t really have a resolution, though; she never really recognizes her flaws. She just decides that maybe she can change fate with enough good luck, and she decides to continue her fortune-telling. Lanche is a child vampire, a trope that’s been done to death and is always a little disturbing to me; rather than focus on how disturbing it is to be stuck as a child forever, her story is about coming to terms with her pre-vampire memories. In this way, Lanche is just like Maurice, a ghost from earlier in the story who must come to terms with the memories of his own departed past life. I didn’t like Maurice (his main character trait is being annoying), so to see the character type return didn’t improve things for me. And it meant that we’d had a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire show up. Finally, Dr. Zeff is a mad scientist who must be convinced of the value of his own humanity, and of humankind in general; in this way, he’s just a freakish and grumpy repeat of Celis’s arc.

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I’ve talked about the characters a lot, and even the weaker, redundant character stories toward the end of the game will probably stick with me for a while. In a way, each character story was like an episode or small arc in an anime, representing side adventures that are only loosely connected to the larger story. That larger story never really built to anything here. For all the talk of draconic bloodlines, the game fizzles out in the end. The final chapter, in which you now have a fully matured dragon that can take you all about the island, is an incredibly boring series of fetch quests.

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The failings of the plot are really on display by the last section. Your journal tells you how to trigger plot developments, but it’s frustrating that the plot can only be advanced one day at a time, basically by being in the right place at the right time (augmented only by the collection of a recipe and preparation of a special dish for each of the visiting characters). By the end of the game, with my cafe reputation maxed out and all my attention on concluding the story, the plot was still advanced at a slow trickle. The story advice was basically a perpetual recommendation to go to sleep. I quickly gave up on the cafe entirely at the end, choosing to just sleep as soon as the day’s cinematic or island scavenger hunt concluded.

It’s not as though I really cared about the cafe by the end. You never really get much better at what you’re doing. Your staff doesn’t improve. Despite the magical growth of the inn, the cafe itself stays small and cramped. The controls remain frustrating (in all things, the controls remained frustrating, with substantial lag for tasks like flying or jumping). Your success and increased reputation is just marked by more customers, such that if you stay to help the staff, you can devote the entire day to the most tedious of grinding as you hop between taking orders, serving, and cleaning up. There’s very little strategy to it all; there’s no true management. You just hop in and develop a system for yourself and hope that you don’t have to interrupt your coworkers’ slacking all too much. In the final third of the game, my time in the cafe was a mind-numbing repetition of the thought cycle, Take Order – Place Order – Serve. It worked for me, and on days that I was there for the majority of the time, the customer base would often be satisfied or happy. On days I helped a little, customers would often be okay. If I skipped out entirely, to focus on the other mind-crushing reality of ingredient gathering, I’d often get reports that the customers were outright disappointed.

And I should emphasize that ingredient gathering never gets better or more interesting. You remain a perpetual forager. I developed a routine of hitting up spots that most consistently yielded needed ingredients, hoping for a good randomized production. Occasionally disrupting the routine to check for any newly washed-up recipe boxes was hardly all that refreshing.

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By the time my dragon was fully mature, I knew most of the areas with debris that couldn’t be destroyed earlier. I knew the one tall section on the mountain that I still couldn’t fly to. And I knew the one bridge I still couldn’t cross. I tried to do all the things I couldn’t do earlier, and it took me about a day in-game (I still couldn’t cross that final bridge). I had this powerful dragon with this amazing ability to engage in high-soaring flight, and there was very little for me to do with it.

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Closing out the game at the very end was anticlimactic. There was a lot of speechifying about the power of friendship and love–although there was still a lot of dry humor, with Billy in particular really lampshading the campy tropes and ridiculous coincidences used to reach an ending. The credits rolled (with game stills that reemphasized the canonical dragon of the game to be red, in contrast to my adorable blue boy). A handful of lovely storybook images showed the revival of the mother. Then you’re dumped back in the game with the ability to change the dragon at will between its sizes, by way of some new recipes. I tried the final bridge once more, and I still wasn’t allowed to cross it. I was burnt out on the cafe and the ingredient collection. I’d explored everything–well, if not everything, all that I wanted to see. There were presumably lots more recipes to gather (especially by way of combining dragon forms to get to tiny hiding holes in far-out places) and to then practice, but there was no driving reason to engage with any of that. I cannot foresee any reason to return to the game now. And while I mostly liked the story, I know that its final third is simply not worth revisiting again, and the rest is probably best just left as fond memories.

As I prepared to write this review, I tried to look into the mystery of the final bridge. Best theory seems to be that this bridge just symbolizes the mainland where everyone comes from to eat at the cafe. Given that the island across the bridge seems fairly small and the world around the island is mostly covered in water, this purely aesthetic insertion is mostly annoying to me and felt misleading. It’s the promise of more where there is none. That’s the whole game, really: the promise of more, and the failure to deliver.

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It turns out, I discovered, that the game probably feels emptier than it should be precisely because it is: many elements that would have given a fuller experience were cut. Lead designer Yasuhiro Wada told IGN that about seventy percent of what he had originally planned for the game was cut from the final version, adding that “there are parts that were cut out that feel like a waste to cut out from the game.” Those features include much greater customization of your cafe, your protagonist, and your dragon (including, it would seem, features that would have allowed the dragon to specialize in certain activities, which certainly would have made it more useful to me); a fuller experience for the cooking rhythm game; and additional characters and plot points. That last one really sticks with me: the story feels incomplete and rushed toward the end as-is. Wada wants a sequel that incorporates many of the above elements (and presumably even more); as much as I was disappointed by this game, I’d love to see a follow-up that more fully delivered on its potential.

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Hey, if nothing else, the return to the dragon-pal simulator got me in the mood for more dragon-pal fantasy, and The Dragon Prince Season Two is right around the corner!