Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp REVIEW

Mobile games annoy me constantly.  I’ve been burned by them repeatedly, particularly by the way they create a ceiling for their players that can only be broken with constant attention or with real money.  I shouldn’t be so put off by this, because they are generally available for free download.  The consistent problem is that without spending money, progression in most mobile games requires so much time and repetition that they cease to be enjoyable.

Nintendo is particularly fair about its design and business practices, but I was nevertheless worried about Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.  Fire Emblem Heroes was a great game, but it eventually got too big for its britches in by opinion.  The meta game grew so expansive and leveling so time-consuming that I couldn’t stick with it.  That’s the danger of creating a mobile game, and it’s a slippery slope to walk on.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came out in late November, and having spent more than 300 hours in New Leaf I knew I had to try it out.

Nintendo has executed the mobile formula more elegantly than ever with Pocket Camp.  The secret is that they chose the perfect gameplay style in Animal Crossing.   I wrote once before about how the games’ strength is escapism, and somehow they managed to preserve that in mobile.

Pocket Camp is new, and designed for smartphones, so I expected the experience to be streamlined.  Thankfully, it’s streamlined without removing the most pleasant moments.  As a campsite manager, the player’s minute-to-minute tasks include crafting new furniture for the campsite, exploring small areas around the campsite to gather fruit, fish, bugs, and other items, and talk to other campers.  These campers will give you advice and make requests in exchange for giving you resources or Bells.  You can also invite them back to your campsite, and they’ll visit once you decorate with certain items of furniture.

Befriending other villagers will contribute to your overall level.  Level increases let you craft new items of furniture or amenities for your campsite.  You can also increase your friendship level with each villager.  Eventually they will also give you specific rewards like clothing or pictures after you spend a long time interacting with them.  New villagers will show up all the time with new requests.  Meeting up with them and socializing doesn’t just level you up, it also makes room for new regulars around your campsite.  This entire system feels like a huge step forward for the series.  You could argue that having “levels” in Animal Crossing is counter to the point of these games, but having trackable gains in your relationship with each villager is strangely rewarding.

The crafting and material system is also gracefully done.  I like the fact that you don’t have to play the waiting game to get furniture for your house.  There is still a marketplace where you can purchase furniture with Bells alone, but being able to make it yourself is quicker and more enjoyable.  Some of it takes hours or even days to build, but the beauty of Animal Crossing is that you’re probably only going to play it for about an hour each day regardless, so waiting doesn’t feel like a big deal.  It’s completely different from other mobile games like Pokemon Shuffle with point systems that force you to wait a certain amount of time before you can play anymore.  When your items are ready to place, the game also makes it easy to arrange furniture.  It uses a drag-and-drop grid system from Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer that’s quick and easy to use, another great evolution for the series.

In my experience so far, the game is paced in a way that makes it feel just like normal Animal Crossing.  Microtransactions also play a reasonable role.  The player can purchase Leaf Tickets to accelerate crafting, buy crafting spaces, or buy access to Shovelstrike Quarry, where the player can go mining for rare jewelry to sell.  But Leaf Tickets aren’t necessary.  Time, patience, and playing  the game to its fullest can give the player a satisfying experience.  Leaf Tickets are more like a cosmetic plus, an accelerant.  There’s no such thing as “having an edge” in Animal Crossing, so paying to win isn’t an issue.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a great mobile game so far.  I think Nintendo may have found its perfect franchise for mobile.  It may prove too much of a battery hog, or it could create an artificial paywall given the time, but I think it’s a fundamentally good game.  It cuts out a lot of the fluff and restraints that I’ve run into with every other mobile game.  I recommend everybody check it out for now on iOS and Android.

Sonic Forces is 3D Sonic Done Weird

I got my hands on Sonic Forces a couple of days ago, and it was pretty eye-opening.  The excitement for this game had built up for a year before giving way to terror, as the game hadn’t seemed to progress beyond what we’d seen an entire year before release.  It released to average reviews, but I thought it looked pretty fun, and I was determined to keep thinking that until I’d at least played it.

I was desperate for Sonic Forces to be good, but for everything I like, it just can’t let me think of it that way.

Every time I see something in Forces i just enjoy, the game takes at least two steps back with the horrific flaws in its gameplay, its blatant lack of polish, lack of ingenuity in stage design, and abundance of pointless deaths.  So let’s break it down like a fraction.

The camera in this game is so zoomed out all the time that sometimes I couldn’t see where I was on-screen.  This is opposite to the problem I had with the original trilogy of Sonic games, but it’s still really rough not knowing where I am spatially.  The modern stages are the closest I’ve seen any Sonic game come to “hold boost to win.” In fact, you could beat the demo with one button, and the rest of the game is not as far off from that as you might hope.  Enemy placements are useless about 70% of the time because most of them are put there to be boosted through.  Even the best modern Sonic levels in the game consisted mostly of timing a series of 5-10 homing attacks or a few rail jumps precisely in 3D.  It also had 2.5D precise platforming sections, which I didn’t mind in other games, but they’re a nightmare in Forces because of its awful momentum.

The player’s momentum causes them to continually speed up when they don’t expect to.  You might be going for a running start for a jump, but then go 0 to 60 and lose all mid-air control.  This will usually result in death, frustration, or being stuck on a worse path through the level that somehow manages to be more boring than the stage already was.

Sonic Forces is a walking identity crisis.  It blends a bunch of Sonic’s mechanics from the past 10 years or so, without giving them much of a proper home in terms of level design.  Modern Sonic himself is meant to be somewhere between Colors and Unleashed in terms of control, but his boost feels less satisfying.  His double jump, which was great for air control in Colors, fails in Forces because of its unrefined momentum.  Boosting is now also tied to Wisp capsules from Colors, which return once again for no reason in greater numbers than ever before.  This hampered my sense of urgency, since most of the time these capsules were placed specifically where I needed to boost.  I always feel the need to go forward as fast as possible in modern stages, but the placement of red rings requires you to explore levels like in Colors, and so the game gives mixed messages.

The Avatar stages are similar, but I do enjoy those for the way they’re laid out.  Using different weapons unlocked through the game gives you access to different Wisps.  These Wisps give you access to different areas or shortcuts in each level, encouraging you to go back and experiment with different routes.  This could be a great feature, although sometimes these different paths overlapped in confusing ways, and it’s not always easy to tell which Wisps you’re allowed to use.  The Avatar’s weapons are often jittery, unsatisfying, and sometimes downright confusing (like the drill), and the inclusion of Wisps sometimes annoys me because the Wisps used to be very situational, but now work in such short bursts that I find myself having to constantly re-grab capsules to get the necessary items.  Avatars also have different abilities depending on speed.  For example, birds can double jump to get more height or distance.  But the same problems arise because Sonic Forces doesn’t give you adequate mid-air control or momentum.  Things like the double jump end up getting you killed or damaged about half the time.  Not to mention the fact that Avatar stages feel so linear and scripted that the game practically plays itself in places.

Speaking of the game playing itself, the classic Sonic levels in this game are some of the most unnecessary and poorly implemented stages I’ve seen since Big the Cat.  Forces ties in explicitly with Mania because they have the same maguffin, so Sonic Team decided to bring the little guy back for a second outing.  Despite being teased from day one, these levels feel like an afterthought.  Whenever classic stages try to be inventive, something about the physics or control hamper them once again to make them feel like a chore.  In the level Iron Fortress, I took over 10 minutes and a number of deaths because of a screen-scrolling segment that required defeating enemies on very small platforms using half-baked platforming physics, as well as hopping between giant spinning wheels that will literally drop you off the stage to your death if the invisible wall catches up.  This pattern of unnecessary frustration due to broken mechanics is common in the few classic Sonic stages, and I didn’t enjoy a single one, with the possible exception of Chemical Plant.

The sound design in Sonic Forces is odd and somewhat disappointing.  In some places the music is catchy and great, but in others like Classic Sonic’s, the music feels generic and low-effort, which doesn’t do much to cover up the gameplay.  And it’s sad, because soundtrack is something Sonic has always done well.  Sound effects don’t feel as punchy either.  I found myself really missing the satisfying thunderclap of Sonic’s boost.

I don’t really even want to mention the game’s story because it’s so blatantly stupid and the dialogue so insultingly bad that it clearly took no priority.  The only thing I will really criticize is the fact that with all these old characters brought back, and with all of the mission-oriented narratives behind the stages, and with all the cinematic QTEs (which totally need to be there), it would’ve been cool if the characters interacted with the stages.  For example, I would’ve liked a Sonic level where Silver was defeating enemies in the background the whole time, and then helped me get through a normally impassable part of the level.  This would’ve been a creative move.

All this being said, I actually didn’t hate playing Forces that much.

The better stages feel fun to go back and earn S-ranks on, and the game’s mission system gives you tons of new gear to customize your avatar.  While I admit most of it is really ridiculous, some of the equipment is pretty cool and I genuinely had fun decking out my “OC” with the new stuff I got.  The game gets a little better with replays, and some alternate paths make the levels feel deeper and more variable.  A few bosses also stood out as having decent design.  For example, I like some of the fights against Infinite because getting hit by his illusions puts you in a more dangerous situation temporarily, creating a nice push-and-pull.

The game is also drop-dead gorgeous, but this might be a potential short-fall itself.  Despite being the same length as GenerationsForces feels like half a game to me.

If I had to suggest some ways to fix Forces, I’d say its biggest downfall was ambition.  Instead of having 30 short, low-effort stages to accommodate Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, AND the player avatar, I would rather have seen a few longer stages with more focus given on one or two playstyles instead of having three.  It was like they introduced multiple playstyles to generate hype, but forgot to deliver on satisfying gameplay in the long run.

Developing ports for Xbox, PS4, Switch, and PC was also a huge ask.  I realize Sonic Team was put between a rock and hard place with the finicky fanbase, but anyone can distinguish between a polished game and an unpolished one, and I think a polished one would’ve fared better.  I think Sonic Team’s method of making modern games has is beginning to fail them.  Its standard of creating huge, detailed 3D backgrounds leads to some really beautiful stages, but gives way to linear gameplay that’s over in 2 minutes.  All that work is wasted on visuals that impress the player for a fleeting moment.

Sega needs to do something, somehow, to make sure that Sonic delivers on the meat of the gameplay.  If you’re going to give the player visual spectacle, it has to be worth it for the gameplay.  This is why Mania is one of the most highly-praised Sonic games of all time.  Granted, it worked with much, much simpler assets, but its simplistic formula gave it room to explore dozens of unusual mechanics.  It also made a smart, tactical use of rings either as a reward for a small mechanical challenge or as a way to indicate secrets or alternate paths.  I think most of us would rather have this than the Forces approach of giant, empty backgrounds and levels overstuffed with hundreds of pointless rings that make the player feel like a speck of dust floating around in a boring vacuum.

I think the Mania is important because despite being a fanmade project, it appealed to a massive audience.  It showed that even with a series as inconsistent as this one, charming visuals, tight level design, consistent gameplay tones, and good pacing win the day.  In a sense, the amount of tropes Mania abandoned gave it room to become something spectacular.  I’ve always admired Sonic as a series because even though it fails constantly, it insists on trying different things.  I still think it should do so, but it needs to be careful about what it invents and what it recycles.  Otherwise it turns out Sonic Forces, a game that tries to please everyone but doesn’t know how.

Super Mario Odyssey: 3D Mario Done Right

I wasn’t excited for Super Mario Odyssey until the day before it came out.  There are a lot of reasons.  Mario oversaturated the market so much in the late 00s that all my enthusiasm for the franchise disappeared.  I wanted a new 3D Mario because everyone else did, but when it actually rolled around, I never kept up with it.  When everyone started calling Odyssey the best in the series, I had to get my hands on it.   Soon, I started to see what everyone was raving about.

3D Mario never spoke to me much.  I grew up playing the All-Stars pack, like the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3, and Mario World.  I also played New Super Mario Bros. Wii a lot.  I never played 64 or Sunshine.  The only one I finished was Galaxy, which is obviously much different but goes by a similar formula.  Up until now, people praised Galaxy as the best one, and…I didn’t see it.

Despite the opinions of my many friends who say Galaxy is one of their favorite games of all time, I don’t remember it very well.  I will admit, the presentation is absolutely gorgeous.  The musical score is fully orchestrated, tailored to each specific environment, and the background music changes depending on the player’s actions.  The cinematic thrill of flying through space between planetoids is magical.  A few actual gameplay moments that stood out are clever Wii pointer challenges, and a few tricky platforming challenges based around gravity.  I have to hand it to Galaxy, it achieved a lot with the limited resources of the Wii.

My problem is, the vast, open experience of Galaxy that everyone else remembers was lost on me.  I just remember a series of tasks in the same galaxies to get stars, and going into each world to do something specific, but never being quite sure what it was.  Power-ups opened up more of the world, but they were also mostly case-specific, and some only lasted a short time.  The result was that the game felt a lot more linear than it looked, and although the individual challenges were well-made, they were more compartmentalized.  I never felt as motivated to  complete the whole game as I thought I could.

But then along came Odyssey.  This game made huge waves, and for good reason.  Every inch shows off its immense polish and innovation.  More importantly, it also had that different structure that I was hoping for.  Instead of having lots of small galaxies with different themes, it has about a dozen “kingdoms” with tons of collectible moons and purple coins in each.  Everything is laid out at once, and most of the fun is finding every challenge in each overworld.  Many are in plain sight, some are extremely well-hidden.  There are so many small tasks that you find naturally, and it feels more like genuine exploration, a theme Nintendo also went for with Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Plus, exploring new worlds and buying new outfits gives you access to content in worlds you’ve already been to, thus adding replayability.

Movement in Odyssey is also a major step up — the dynamic movement that 3D Mario is known for gets a whole new upgrade with the addition of Mario’s hat, Cappy, who opens up the possibility for tons of shortcuts and growth in skill.  You can use Cappy to bounce, dive, and give yourself much more reach if you use the right moves.  Imagine something like the F.L.U.D.D in Super Mario Sunshine, but built more around specific timing than precise platforming.  That, and the added possession mechanic adds tons of depth by making you use different creatures to solve different scenarios and reach new areas.  These creatures serve the double purpose of being good obstacles and being fun to control when you need to.  Just about every object and enemy in the game is there for a reason, and I never felt the need to jump through hoops to do everything.

Compared to games like Galaxy and 3D World, I think Super Mario Odyssey achieves what every 3D Mario has been looking to do since the beginning.  It’s a series of uninhibited sandboxes that keep on giving, there for the player to enjoy at any time.  It’s also full of heart, with references to the best of the franchise hidden all over the place.  All of the other games excelled in their time, and were great games in their own right, but the world of wonder presented by Odyssey definitely struck a new chord with me.  As I make the journey to get all the moons and traverse its many challenges, I’m sure that all the quirky goodness Nintendo put in this little cartridge will last a very long time.

Limbo and Its Elegant Pace

For as much as I love a game that challenges and intrigues me, there are a lot of great ones I haven’t played.  One of them was Limbo, which I played in one sitting with a friend late at night.  It was a real shock to the system, because although Limbo is considered an indie smash hit, I’d seen very little about it.  Everything I encountered was essentially new to me.  All the puzzles, environments, and mechanics flowed together into a tight little package with a ribbon on top, waiting for me to open.

I found myself lost in it all very quickly.  And that’s a good thing.

Hanging cages and a crow
A crow and cages. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

As games get more complex, realistic, and creative, we both gain and lose a lot.  One thing we often lose is a sense of pacing.  Sometimes we’re introduced to a new tool in the middle of a game, and it gives us a controller cue to teach us how to use it.  Other times it takes a slow hour or two for a game to get really good.  There are plenty of moments in games where they do something…inconsistent.  And by this I don’t mean they do something different, or fresh, but something that takes us out of the experience.

To be fair, making a game that doesn’t run into these problems at some point is extremely hard.  They don’t necessarily make a game bad.  The reason I mention them is, Limbo is the closest I’ve seen a game come to having a perfect pace.

Limbo's dark landscape
Art of Limbo’s eerie dark landscape. (Photo: Angel Barreiros via Flickr)

There’s a lot of debate surrounding Limbo‘s meaning and message.  It has no dialogue, no clear-cut cast of characters.  Some suggest that it’s the story of a murderer, of the afterlife, of the struggle between light and darkness.  The very name of Limbo suggests the theme of purgatory, a merging of all things into one silent world.  In this world, conflict has no clear meaning; characters have no faces, and death is only temporary (a truth you learn over and over again).  As I wandered through the grayscale landscape solving one brilliant puzzle after another, there was no obvious transition between places.  I remember being in the forest, in a mine, and in a factory, but not the order in which I found them.  It’s as though Limbo doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end, and that feels appropriate.

Hangman
The nameless child stands surrounded by countless dead. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

The endless stream of symbols, solving puzzle after puzzle to reach an unknown goal, almost put me in the mind of the little silhouetted child I was controlling.  The only difference was the immense satisfaction I felt, conquering increasingly tougher, more mind-bending challenges.  When it all finally ended, it took me a while to come back into the real world.  It felt like I’d ended where I’d started, and even in the moments when I was stuck on a puzzle, I never felt fully conscious of everything outside the game.

The rain machine puzzle
The great rain machine. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

Instead, my full attention was on how to get a floating box in exactly the right place for me to reach a high ledge, or how to time my rope swing to get away from a giant saw blade.  Limbo is a master class in doing a whole lot with a clever approach and a creative vision.  It’s so simple, it doesn’t need to follow traditional rules.  It challenges not only the structure of puzzle games, but also our preconceptions of what games can say narratively, using the themes of death, darkness, and the afterlife as its tools.  To whoever reads this, go experience this game for yourself, and make sure it’s late at night.

Its creators, Playdead, repeated their brilliance with their latest game Inside, and I’d say check it out.