Odin Sphere Leifthrasir


Somehow, Odin Sphere, a cult classic from the PS2 era, was lovingly remastered.  I didn’t even know people bought this game back then. And it’s not just a remaster in the commonly used sense of new HD graphics, but a total rebalancing and update of the game that should make other remasters curl their toes in shame.

The narrative, with its Princess Bride-esque framing setup of a girl and her cat reading old books in the attic, follows the interweaving paths of several archetypical characters: the valkyrie, the cursed prince, the brooding warrior, the elf queen, the witch. You play out each of their campaigns one by one. Each character swap means you view events through their eyes from the beginning, which means that the end of the first character’s plot coincides with the end of the last character’s plot.

Sometimes it’s charming — most of characters are likeable, effecting earnest solemnity in the face of goofy plot. Other times it’s tedious as the characters, especially Oswald the shadow knight, prattle on about their feelings and o woe is me my soul is misery take me death. Occasionally it’s bizarre and hilarious, like when prince-turned-cursed-rabbit-man Cornelius declares I have a magic sword in the middle of a conversation without context or reason. Other times it’s troubling, like when you just want Valkyrie Gwendolyn to realize her dad, Odin, is kind an asshole, but she never does. Later, she’ll trade patriarchal controlling figure Dad for husband Oswald, whose totally okay with bargaining with Odin for her life&love. Maybe you can guess my feelings on Oswald.

This game displays the beauty of hand drawn and animated 2d graphics (and how technically taxing they can be — this game was notorious for slowing down the framerate of the PS2 and I even got it to slow down the PS4 once, when fighting a full screen full of enemies and throwing magical potions in a frantic effort to clear them all out). You guide your character from one battle arena to the next, juggling various elves and goblins and dragons, and then planting fruits and vegetables fed and watered by the essence of their souls. After harvesting this grim bounty, your character eats it to gain experience, stats, and health.

Leifthrasir greatly improves the combat over the original by making it far more fluid, easy to combo, and giving you much greater customization options. It makes the game easier, so playing on hard mode felt right to me. Though you’re never punished for lowering the difficulty and if you’re fighting an annoying boss on a less ideal character (like, say, Oswald, who is basically a slow, low-damage joke until you build up enough damage to go into ‘berserk’ mode), you can swap it back down to normal without penalty.

Playing it felt like a sort of blast to the past* of the PS2 glory days, but there was also a feeling of newness to it, because despite being a decade old, there’s never been much else like it.


*I even busted out the pen and paper to record every meal my character ate (for a trophy). Check it out:


Salt and Sanctuary


While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 


Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows


Shovel Knight was a joyous nostalgia trip, but more than a mere trip down memory lane, it was backed up by engaging and rewarding gameplay.

And now it has an expansion.

As part of the Kickstarter that funded the game in the first place, backers got to vote on which of the secondary knights became playable characters. Plague Knight was one of the winners. In the base game, he’s a berobed, masked alchemist with a handful of lines, mostly giggles. Hehe. Plague of Shadows makes him the hero, characterizes him charmingly, gives him an adorable love story. Makes learning to dance a major plot motivation.

Operating from a secret lab below the main town you traverse as Shovel Knight, Plague Knight is out to defeat all the knights of the Order of No Quarter, nab their essences, and alchemize The Ultimate Potion. The game largely follows the same flow as the original. Just in places where Plague Knight, being a villain, shouldn’t be, he gets different sequences than Shovel Knight. Guards attack him instead of inviting him in. The game amusingly takes place concurrently to Shovel Knight’s adventure, which is played for laughs and helps explain why PK would visit his own level.

Plague Knight controls completely differently than Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight was solid — he had tightly responsive controls and his equipment all worked reliably & predictably. Plague Knight, by comparison, is slippery, unpredictable and awkward to control. He can throw bombs, of which you collect a wide assortment with different properties (customizing the arc of the throw, the type of powder in the bomb, and the type of explosion that is released). But the major crux of playing Plague Knight is his jumping scheme. He has a short, stubby jump (shorter than Shovel Knight), a second even stubbier double jump, but so long as you were holding down the bomb button, he has a third jump that blasts him across the screen.

A strange and imprecise control scheme. At first. You learn to always charge PK’s bomb jump, but if it’s charged, you have to release it at some point, which could be tricky when navigating spikes/lava/bottomless pits. I spun off into unintended directions often, slipped down holes, ran out of jumps mid spike pit. Fast forward to now, having beat the game a few times: I soar majestically through each level, barely touching the ground and skipping swathes of obstacles. While the game is partially remixed, and each level has a new Plague Knight specific section that better tests his skills, the majority of the game is still designed for Shovel Knight and his limited mobility. This is still somewhat challenging for the first run as Plague Knight (though being able to stay in the air so long does make the bosses super easy), but once you ‘get’ Plague Knight, it breaks the game wide open and you can beat levels in record time.

There’s two more playable knights coming some time in the future. Can’t get enough of this!

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

ac china

Sometimes you don’t realize you miss something until it’s gone.

The Assassin’s Creed series has a notoriously goofy sci-fi framing story. It bends history to allow its protagonists to be the guiding hand/blade beyond all major events. From Ezio Auditore thwarting the Borgias and murdering their patriarch to Conner-Ratonhnhaké:ton sparking virtually all of the events in the American Revolution. It’s silly. I make fun of it. But it’s somehow charming and absorbing. Chronicles dispenses with the sci fi portion and barely interacts with the history, instead opting for the most phoned in revenge story of all time. Meet Shao-Jun, our nearly entirely character-less main character, as she mumblemumble  loses a magic box and mumblemumble must avenge her brothers and mumblemumblemumble-walking away from the TV now…

Assassin’s Creed’s most valuable and absorbing element is its ability to take you back to another time period, to gorgeously render the Holy Land of the crusades era, the rooftops of Renaissance Italy, or the cerulean waters of the Caribbean’s golden age of piracy. This is more or less impossible to achieve in 2d. Chronicles is pretty and nicely stylized, but it doesn’t feel much like China in the way the 3d games feel like their respective places. It’s an extra shame that the main series has devolved into Things White People Did, so more interesting and varying locales — Chronicles is set to be three games: China, India, and Russia — are shunted to 2d sidestories.

So all and all, this game does not feel like Assassin’s Creed. It’s a fun little timewaster though.

Shao-Jun moves across a 2d plane, with depth. She can run (or swing, with a blade attached to an elastic rope that would be swell to use in 3 dimensions…) into the background or foreground, occasionally several levels deep. Enemies patrol these areas; they have a field of vision displayed on the screen (seen in my screenshot above). If Shao wanders into these fields, the enemies spot her, call reinforcements and charge. Unlike the whirling dervish protagonists of the main series, this hero is extremely vulnerable and easy to kill. Open combat is always a last resort.

The game grades you on how you manage each segment of a level. It splits it up into Shadow (don’t get seen), Assassin (kill everyone without being seen), and Brawler (kill everyone in open combat and don’t get hit). Then there is Gold-Silver-Bronze for each of those types. Unfortunately, not all play styles are treated equally. Shadow means more points than Assassin which means more points than Brawler. It’s strange because Brawler is actually the most difficult and Assassin is the most fun. So if you’re chasing a high score, which you ought to be in this type of game, you have to ignore a large swathe of Shao-Jun’s abilities and learn how to navigate the entire game without ever being seen. It’s satisfying when you nail it, especially with enemy-dense later levels that require some real thought, but I do wish all styles were equally valued.

The game has the good sense to mix it up a bit — some levels dispense with the stealth and turn into a mad dash where you must outrun snaking tendrils of flames, and explosions, and in the most memorable and history-evoking, a Mongol attack on The Great Wall. They’re reminiscent-but-not-quite-as-good as the runner levels in Rayman Legends/Origins. In addition, Chronicles is short and does not overstay its welcome, with repetition or its somewhat shoddy controls. Just enough to get me to pick up Chronicles: India when it arrives.