Game Review: Yoku’s Island Express

Yoku’s Island Express is a pleasant surprise. Its charming visuals and simple yet engaging playstyle outweigh its shortcomings and provide players of all ages with a game worth exploring. I was initially turned off by the title, which seemed to imply that the game would be a ripoff of Yoshi’s Island, one of my old SNES favorites. Many indie games use knockoff titles and artwork to trick foolish consumers into purchasing inferior products. I’d seen Yoku on various game stores for a while, and assumed it was one of those phoned-in pieces of vaporware. Not so! Yoku’s Island Express might as well be called Sonic Spinball but Good, as it shares more in common with that ancient Genesis game than anything Yoshi related. It’s an adventure/exploration game with pinball mechanics starring a lovable dung beetle. If someone had led with those details rather than the lame title, I might have bought it sooner.

Yoku the dung beetle is the new mail carrier for a small island community. Yoku is tied to a stone ball that serves as both a Sisyphus-ian albatross and means of conveyance. Using the triggers on your controller you can flip Yoku’s ball this way and that, like you would with the flippers on a standard pinball machine. These flippers, catapults and trampolines occur naturally all over the island, and you use them constantly to gain altitude, reach collectibles, and complete missions for the island’s inhabitants. The main plot revolves around Yoku needing to gather together the island’s three chiefs in order to save the island god, a big toady-looking beast who has been recently savaged by something called the “god killer.” The god killer aspect of the story feels decidedly inappropriate for a game that looks like a storybook, and in terms of execution, it is probably the game’s biggest misstep. Without spoiling the ending, a third-act twist feels more like a slap-in-the-face than logical storytelling. It’s another example of the modern obsession with surprising the audience rather than aiming for consistency. In general, I will always argue that a twist’s impact is momentary, whereas a good story’s consistency can make it a classic forever.

That being said, no one would dare play this type of game for the story. You’ll be playing to bounce your bug along the map, collecting fruit and unlocking items that help you scale higher and higher. The characters are well-designed and have pleasant dialogue. Everything is piping with personality. The main quest is fairly easy to complete, but there are a bunch of additional tasks to try if you’re the obsessive type. There’s no real incentive to go above and beyond, but if you truly like the gameplay you might be begging for more. I felt that the game’s main story was the perfect length to spend with the title, as things wound down at the exact point when I was getting a bit tired of the pinball-esque looparounds and precision shots.

Yoku’s Island Express is an easy recommendation for children and adults who want something sweet and sunny to distract themselves from the world’s woes. The music is endearing and nothing ever feels frustrating. I had a bit of an issue getting my slug vacuum, yes you read that right, to function properly, but I think it was a problem with my PlayStation controller interacting with my Windows machine and not a fault of the game itself. (For those suffering from the same issue, try releasing the trigger before tapping it again to suck up a slug. Good life advice in general.) As a Game Pass title, this is a must-have. Without Game Pass, I’d wait for a sale and snatch it up for a fun weekend fling. Just don’t go in expecting Yoshi, or you might be begging for a refund.  

Game Review: Slay the Spire

It’s difficult to gauge the full shape of Slay the Spire, because the game intentionally makes itself such a mess of RNG. Ostensibly the game’s challenge comes from its randomness. The player’s advantage comes from the chance to build a deck of complementary cards that stack together to form a barrage of death to mow down enemies. This is especially evident in the first of three decks the game hands the player, wherein strength and direct combat are the keys to victory. When playing as the Ironclad warrior class, the game’s mix of random chance and strategy hit a sweet spot. It’s only when you move on to the next class that things become a bit hairy and a bit more problematic.

Roguelike games require the developers to craft a replayable loop. Each time the player fails they are forced to begin again, perhaps with a few added advantages such as foreknowledge of the challenges ahead or a few items or abilities they clung onto from the previous run. Slay the Spire, with its dozens of card combinations, allows the player to feel powerful and clever as you stack together card powers that feel overpowered when used in unison. In fact, the game plays best during those rare instances where the RNG works in your favor and you accrue the perfect assortment of cards and relics to make it feel like you’re cheating. In every other instance, you’ll wonder why you aren’t allowed some advantage from previous runs, a single card of your choice, a relic or something else. It becomes quickly clear that the game has been designed with the Wizard of Oz-like stratagem that the player must never see behind the curtain, where the truth of the carnival game lies. In order for Slay the Spire’s loop to be replayable and not easy as pie, the developers needed to make the player’s odds of success so slim they have no choice but to play over and over hoping for that one sweet run.

The basic gameplay is simple enough and should be familiar for fans of Magic, Pokemon: TCG, or Hearthstone. You won’t be buying new card packs here, but you’ll be gaining cards each time you defeat a foe. This works simply and perfectly in the Ironclad run, where the deck consists of basic shields and sword attacks. When you try The Silent, aka the rogue deck, things start to fall apart. You’re supposed to be using sneaky tactics, poison and shivs, but your base card set doesn’t provide you with any of those skills, so you’re forced to grind for them. Of course your chance of picking up any cards that you might need for a successful run are random, even as you select from a few options after each fight or buy cards at the merchant’s shop with your accrued gold. That means you’re already starting at a deficit with your basic deck, unlike in the warrior’s deck where the basic skills you needed to succeed were handed to you. Even a successful-seeming-run can be ended suddenly by a chance encounter with a particular enemy type, and then it’s back to the beginning with your progress undone.

The game tries to seem fair and more roguelike by allowing you to accrue “unlock EXP” which takes forever to do anything, and when it does finally unlock something it merely adds the chance of a few new cards or relics being added to the pool in each run. A magic whale-thing will give you a few seemingly helpful options at the beginning of each loop, but the benefits of each choice are minimal, and when playing as the rogue would be easily outweighed by the addition of a few shiv or poison cards from the offset. The reason for this lack of generosity appears to be because the overall game is incredibly shallow, and if the devs made the odds in the player’s favor you’d be done with Slay the Spire in an hour. To make the game feign depth, the devs decided to screw you over at every turn, giving you more time to ponder why the artwork looks like construction paper.

As a ‘free’ game via Game Pass, this was a fine find, as the initial character’s path through the spire was a fun and engaging one. The parts are definitely there for a fun and addictive game, but the overall experience is more like a slot machine or carnival game, where the fun comes specifically from the player’s ability to ignore how easily they’ve been sold down the river on a boat with a hole in it. If you’re the kind of player living in denial, unable to understand the way the mechanics function, capable of convincing yourself that despite your repeated failures and lack of chances to succeed the developers really do have your best interests at heart, then sure, Slay the Spire will captivate you for hours to come, in the same way a bright light dancing on the wall might captivate a kitten. For anyone with a more thorough understanding of strategy, this game feels broken or half-finished at best.

Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

Sadie is Bae-die

“Hold on, Arthur. Them’s a lot of words comin’ at us!”

There are some who will not be able to surmount the tedium of riding a horse through scenic landscape. For those people, Red Dead Redemption 2, the latest opus from Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar Games, may be a tad on the boring side. However, if you’re interested in a deep, beautiful, and rewarding slice of interactive literature, look no further.
The story is as follows. You play as Arthur Morgan, a member of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang of outlaws. You steal carriages, rob trains, and murder countless people (whether or not they deserve it). That ‘whether’ bit is the center of the moral quandary. When the walls are closing in, should you live life amorally? Or should you try for REDEMPTION? It’s up to you to decide, and that’s the fun part.

The not-so-fun part is how slowly it all unfolds, according to some naysayers. You really are locked into playing Arthur’s story, making this narrative more along the lines of Geralt’s in The Witcher than say the free-wheeling randomness of Skyrim. There are some random bits, strangers lurching out at you from the side of the road with advice or peril. You can be a white hat or a black hat and dress yourself in the skin of whatever you catch. The open world is picturesque. So much care was given to every blade of grass, the placement of every hillside, that it is stunningly awful when something glitches, and a man goes flying hundreds of feet in the air.

The glitches, thankfully, make up a small percentage of the overall experience, and they remain one of the few reminders that you are not in-fact inhabiting this world yourself, but playing a simulacrum. Upon finally completing the somewhat bloated and hilariously overlong story- (fans of Persona 5 will likely find that game neat and tidy by comparison) there is a palpable loss of something magical. Not that the game has faltered, just that the dream has ended. It does indeed have an ending. And the paltry offerings of the online mode will never live up to the beauty and wondrously drawn characters of the main story.

What makes the writing so wonderful is its restraint. Gone is the madcap insanity of Grand Theft Auto V. It even manages to avoid going comically mundane like that game did. Although most of the missions boil down to a shoot-out, there is a concerted effort to make each story set-up interesting or at the least mildly distinct. Getting to know each character proves to be rewarding as well. Like a good Mass Effect, you really do develop feelings for your crew. (But unlike Mass Effect, you don’t get to bang them. This is of course an oversight.)

The game takes extra care to dovetail into the events of the first game, being a prequel. It really did remind me of Hemingway, specifically For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s imperfect, but no less beautiful for being so. It seems to express both the sublime of nature and the staggering reality of being unable to outrun your past. Since that last bit’s all you really get out of The Great Gatsby, I suggest substituting Red Dead Redemption 2 as it is vastly more fun. There’s romance, tragedy, joy, and so many horses you might grow hooves yourself. This is truly a game that wants you to take your time and appreciate life, because unlike Red Dead Redemption 2, life is fleeting.