Friday, 30 September 2016

ReCore - Review

Developer: Comcept, Armature Studios 
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Xbox One (version played), PC

It was touch and go for a while whether or not I’d be able to finish ReCore at all. Not because I didn’t want to (although, to be honest, around that point I kind of didn’t), but rather because of a game-breaking glitch during an end-game boss fight. You see, bosses in ReCore need their cores ripped out in order to end them. Only problem here was that this particular boss suffered from a glitch whereby the game would lock up whenever you triggered the animation to pull the core out.

Anything positive I have to say about ReCore is always going to be tainted by the fact that, in most instances, you’re also contending with one of the most buggy, inconsistent games to have been released in recent years. Rooms that don’t load correctly, floors that your character falls through, and companions that sometimes vanish from existence, forcing you to reboot the game in order to get them back. Playing through the game is nothing short of a tedious experience.

It’s a shame because buried beneath a mound of half-baked features and stale mechanics is a pretty darn fun platformer. You play as Joule, a girl who awakens on Far Eden, a desert planet that humanity has fled to following an epidemic on Earth.

And like I said, the platforming is surprisingly good fun. Joule is equipped with a double jump, along with a handy dash, which make dashing to and from platforms and up cliff faces about as enjoyable as it can be. The first few hours of ReCore are a flashback to the late ‘90s platformers; helpful companions, a MacGuffin to collect in the form of prismatic cores, and a charming story about Joule searching for her father.

There’s a remarkable simplicity to ReCore that makes those early moments incredibly satsifying and it’s helped by a smart attention to pacing. New mechanics are doled out slowly. First, there’s the introduction to your robotic canine friend, Mack, who assists in combat as well as sniffing out items. Later segments reveal new gun upgrades, with enemies being colour-coded red, blue and yellow. Hit them with the corresponding colour and they’ll take extra damage, whilst a charged shot will knock out their shields, meaning they’ll go down quickly.

Slowly but surely however, ReCore’s simple mechanics are overcome with dull, generic, copy-paste concepts from other modern games. Enemies go from being simple beats in the pacing to bland bullet sponges; never being all that threatening but insisting that you spend several minutes pounding away at them nevertheless. Enemy variety becomes a bore, with every robot foe essentially being either a small harmless drone, or a dog ninety percent of the time. It also doesn’t help that the health system is woefully inconsistent. Sometimes Joule will hardly take any damage from enemy attacks, other times she’ll nearly be crippled by a single blow.

Meanwhile, the simple fun of platforming is overtaken by an obsession with grinding. Later areas fore you through bland side quests in order to amass the amount of prismatic cores to unlock the next location.

It creeps up on the game slowly, but there’s definitely the sense that ReCore’s focus and priorities were changed halfway through development. A hokey, utterly forgettable customisation mechanic is implemented that allows you to stitch together new parts you found onto your three robot companions, boosting their stats in various different ways. Likewise, cores harvested from enemies can be pumped directly into specific stats to give them a boost. I’d be lying though, if I ever noticed this mechanic do anything. Improving my robots did nothing to change how they behaved or improve their abilities. This entire section of the game was nothing more than window-dressing.

Eventually, you acquire two other robot companions alongside Mack the dog, with each new robot giving you a reason to backtrack in order to unlock new areas or acquire secrets. Seth the spider robot can drag you along rails, whilst Duncan has the brute strength to smash apart rocks and debris blocking your path. It’s simple, humble ‘90’s platforming goodness.

The game however, chooses to limit you to only bringing two robots with you at a time, for no discernible reason. This is until you quickly realize the real reason is to pad out the game length. By limiting you to only taking two robots, you’ll frequently have to backtrack in order to equip the “correct” party for the particular area. This has the effect of rendering Mack the dog useless during the games later segments, given that, unlike Seth and Duncan, he possesses no ability that’s required for traversal.

Unnecessary padding is something that the game seems acutely aware of. ReCore is a short game, taking only a handful of hours to complete if you ignore the tedious endgame, but the unnecessary back-and-forth is used to bulk up the game length to an absurd degree. Some Prismatic Cores are only attainable in cordoned off dungeons; all of which possess the same bland look and atmosphere (read: caves, sand and crystals) and the latter portions of the adventure stretch out the campaign to absurd lengths, by having you traipse across Far Eden hoovering up nearly every major collectible.

This fundamentally undermines any sense of wonder or atmosphere that Far Eden would otherwise have. There’s hints of something much better here. With Joule scurrying across the sand, Mack tailing along behind her, there’s a sense of scope and power to ReCore’s game space. Some locations have hulking contraptions that have slowly begun to be buried by the sand, hinting at humanities attempts to colonize Far Eden. All of this is sacrificed however, to bloat the game’s runtime and turn whatever was here into a featureless collectathon.

Do you want to know the real killer is here? Load times. On Xbox One at least. The load times are utterly abysmal, sometimes taking several minutes to boot back up to where you died. Oh, make no mistake, you’ll have to suffer these loading screens all over again. Every. Single. Time. ReCore is a flashback to the ‘90s in more ways than one.

There’s some real potential in ReCore. There’s brief moments where the game shows some real warmth and humanity. The voice acting, what little there is, is surprisingly above average, and the script in general, had more effort been put into it, would have told a decent yarn. Far Eden could have potentially been a fantastic place to explore, too, and it’s refreshing to see a game place cooperation and friendship above mindless slaughter. It’s a game that genuinely has real hints of character and charm.

Sadly, all that potential is lost beneath a mountain of technical issues and a schizophrenic core design that sees the game shift from fun action-platformer to bland open-world scrounger. The game’s glitches alone desperately need a patch to make the experience even remotely playable, and the fact that the game was released in such a pitiful state is insulting. Even without those issues to get in the way however, the run-of-the-mill mechanics and padded out campaign are hardly enough justification to see the game through to the end.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Mother Russia Bleeds - Review

Developer: Le Cartel
Publisher: Devolver Digital 
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Linux, PS4 

It’s surprising that we’ve not seen a resurgence in side-scrolling beat ‘em ups in recent years. With the growth of independent game development, and plenty of developers raised on a heady diet of 16-bit classics, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen the genre return sooner in some form or another.

Mother Russia Bleeds attempts to set that record straight. Much like Charlie Murder, it attempts to reinvigorate and update the gameplay template laid down by the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage in the early ‘90s.

When it comes to emulating that style, Mother Russia Bleeds is a roaring success. Enemies creep in from either side of the screen, circling your character, as you manoeuvre around and pick out your first target. Despite their differences, classic beat ‘em ups share a lot in common with fighting games; both genres fundamentally are about controlling space in the optimum manner possible. Mother Russia Bleeds understands this perfectly.

Even the move sets feel similar. You choose from a roster of four different characters, each with their own individual stats to separate them out slightly. Sergei is the baseline character for instance, whilst Ivan is the slow, lumbering heavyweight. Attacks meanwhile, are mapped to two buttons, along with a grab that can lead to various follow ups.

Drugs are the final strategic twist in the game’s mini-arsenal of options. Each “charge” of Nekro your character possesses can be used to heal or to supercharge your attacks and speed for a short while. It adds a solid decision-making wrinkle to a gameplay loop that is incredibly basic at first glance. Sometimes, it’s not always clear whether burning one of your resources on a heal will gain you more life than simply going on the offensive. Likewise, your stock of Nekro can only be replenished by sucking it up from the bad guys you knock out, resulting in interesting back and forth lulls mid-fight, as you create some space to stock up on resources.

Drug-taking also justifies the bright, acid-fried colour scheme that Mother Russia Bleeds utilizes throughout its eight levels. Again, developers Le Cartel don’t hide their inspirations, the retro-inspired pixel art and neon colours owe a lot to Hotline Miami.

Even the violence and subject matter seems drawn primarily from Dennaton’s game, even if it isn’t handled with as much nuance or subversive wit. Mother Russia Bleeds takes place in mid-80s Russia, with the cast of playable characters involved in some form of drugs trial, resulting in increased violent behaviour and an addiction to Nekro. The game runs headlong with its setting and every level is gorgeous to look at. gorgeous as a filth-ridden sewer covered in entrails can be.

The game revels in its brutality with gleeful abandon. Characters mash into snotty pulp with each successive punch to the face whilst pipe blows to the head result in gouts of blood splashing across the floor. Mother Russia Bleeds is viciously excessive, and it damn well knows it, dunking the player head first into the lurid atmosphere that each level contains. The only problem with this is when the game takes the time to slow down and attempt to question its obsession with violence.

Hotline Miami did something similar, and indeed, brilliantly. This game however, lacks the intelligence to do the same. The clunky dialogue that bookends each chapter comes off as an attempt to have its cake and eat it. Mother Russia Bleeds is fun to play, and indeed its disgusting aesthetic is in part what makes it entertaining, but to say that it has anything particularly interesting to say about video game violence is perhaps giving it too much credit.

Mother Russia Bleeds does attempt to improve on some aspects of its genre however, and it’s when it does that it’s at its best. Weapons include the typical gamut of pipes, swords and batons but it’s the addition of guns that could have potentially unbalanced the combat system. Fortunately, they’re handled almost perfectly, with gun wielding enemies being a huge threat that must be prioritised (two or three shots will end your character) but come with the reward of nabbing their weapon.

Likewise, bosses show a sharp degree of forward thinking on Le Cartel’s part, with each possessing a gimmick that makes each of them unique, whilst expanding the game’s simple combat system. One early boss can’t be hit without being counter-attacked, so you instead have to throw other enemies at her so she falls into a huge grinder. Another involves battering away at a huge flame-throwing tank whilst also swatting away other enemies. They emphasize the strengths of the combat system rather than throwing it out of the window, and, despite the odd slip up (the final boss is sadly a bit of a damp squib) they’re one of the best aspects of the game and one of the few times Mother Russia Bleeds elevates the games it’s inspired by rather than simply slavishly aping them.

There are a few times it takes a step back from previous beat ‘em ups, however. For all its focus on the visuals and overall style, its soundtrack is oddly forgettable, lacking the sublime beats of, say, Streets of Rage 2. Likewise, later levels stack wave after wave of enemies with less thought and reason into how the fights are going to play out. They’re still satisfying, but the overall pacing and moment to moment scraps aren’t as entertaining or carefully orchestrated in the campaign’s second half.

It would have been nice if the characters had been given a bit more diversity, too. Despite some basic stat differences (some hit harder, some move faster) there’s no special moves or unique attacks to separate one character from another. In fact, I have a hard time wondering why you’d ever pick one of the nimble characters like Natasha, over a slow lumbering juggernaut like Ivan. Damage output and range just seem much more potent than a higher jump and faster movement, especially in single player.

The addition of multiplayer and some bonus drugs to unlock definitely pad out Mother Russia Bleeds’ svelte lifespan. Along with the arena challenges and the ability to have a good knock about with your friends, there’s enough here to keep fans entertained.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mother Russia Bleeds goes out of its way to flatter. It doesn’t necessarily improve upon the games that it attempts to emulate, and its vague attempts at self-reflexive commentary on absurd levels of violence comes across as dumb rather than poignant. It’s still a tightly designed game nevertheless, even if it never quite emerges from the shadow of those 16-bit classics.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided - Review

Developer: Eidos Montreal 
Publisher: Square Enix 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PC, Xbox One 

Deus Ex: Human Revolution showed that you could update an historical classic and still keep the fundamental core of the series in tact. Whilst it was by no means flawless, the combination of non-linear game spaces, a robust level up system and a solid, well paced story, ensured that the crappy boss battles and iffy shooter controls didn’t get in the way of what made the game good.

Mankind Divided attempts to continue in much the same way. It’s a careful, and in some cases, predictable evolution of the previous game; improving or altering only what absolutely needs to be changed and keeping the rest pretty much the same.

In some ways it makes the opening few hours of Mankind Divided rather disappointing. Three years since Human Revolution released and this is the same game, albeit it slightly prettier and with a few bells and whistles attached. Even the opening is paced in a similar way to the previous game, with a cordoned off tutorial mission allowing you to choose from multiple different weapon choices and to toy around with the various augments.

It’s in the story, however, that Mankind Divided attempts to push things forward. This is a direct sequel to Human Revolution, so much so it’s one of those rare modern games that almost requires that you go back and play the first instalment if you haven’t already. The developers are aware of this fact, too. Before booting up a new game you’ll be asked if you want to watch a recap of the events of the first instalment. It’s worth doing so, even if you played through Human Revolution.

This is because everything that happens in Mankind Divided is almost all a result of the climax of Human Revolution. Augmented people are now treated with mistrust and fear following the “Aug incident” caused by Hugh Darrow. Security checkpoints are now divided between those with enhancements and those without. Meanwhile, as augmented people are pushed further and further from society, some turn to acts of terror in order to get some semblance of justice.

It’s a potentially powerful setting, and it’s nice to a see a game actually deal with the ramifications of the previous instalment rather than carve out the sequel’s narrative in an episodic fashion. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is in it for the long haul, and its attention to world-building and immersion is one of its biggest strengths.

Granted the obvious political metaphors that run throughout the story do have the whiff of PR shock about them. Whilst the more games that deal with real, tangible issues and use gameplay as commentary should be commended, Mankind Divided regularly hits you over the head with its analogies, as if its writers are frightened you won’t get the point were it to go for something more subtle.

It’s a shame, too because the game frequently hands control over to the player., trusting them to be smart enough to make their own decisions. I’ve hung off until now to mention to the gameplay system because, fundamentally, it remains the exact same as the one in Human Revolution. Not similar, but outright identical, a literal copy and paste.

On the one hand, this can smack of playing it too safe, yet, Human Revolution had enough experimentation baked into its core gameplay loop that rehashing it here still gives players enough to play around with. It’s rare for a particular level to not feature multiple ways through it. There’s the obvious, up front violent approach, and a sprinkling of new gun modifications help to maintain the variety, whilst several different ammo types (regular, EMP and armour piercing), ensure that violent encounters don’t simply feel like the dumb option.

Stealth meanwhile, typically means looking for a vent and finding how far the rabbit hole will take you to your destination. Some areas fare better than others when it comes to their stealth design, with various levels being as basic as “find the crawlspace, problem solved”. Crawling through countless vents hardly feels all that much more intelligent than simply gunning down a room full of enemies

Hacking makes a return however and is what makes the stealthy route are more satisfying with its sneaky espionage. Cracking into a security hub’s computer system is always rewarding, shutting down all their cameras and security bots, or better yet, turning the security bots against their allies in order to create a distraction.

A handful of new augmentations are up for grabs, too, following an event early on in the game. Remote hacking, an in-built energy-powered shotgun and a new titan-powered defence enhancement are just a few of the new improvements on offer depending on your play style. Given the power level of some of these perks, there’s a clever little mini-game whereby for each you activate, you have to shut off one of your other unused modifications in order to prevent Jensen’s system from overloading. It’s an interesting feature, and one that ensures that each player’s experience differs slightly as Jensen’s powers are moulded over time to the player’s preference. It’s actually a shame when the game takes the element away later on, should you complete a particular side quest, allowing you to upgrade whatever you want with no repercussions.

Meanwhile, the lack of improvements in other areas does begin to grate. The energy system still results in a game that regularly dishes you out cool looking toys and bio-mechanical wonders to upgrade, only to take them away because you power level is too low that you can’t use them. It’s an understandable way to balance the game, ensuring that levels don’t become too easy despite Jensen’s abilities, but it creates the impression that, for all his skill, he’s a guy that’s powered by the worst collection of triple A batteries. Duracell lasts longer, much longer.

Still, this is a game that’s also played for its story and world, as much as it is for its moment to moment gameplay. The setting is a nice change. Prague’s police-ridden streets are a nice visual change from the sepia-coated skyscrapers of Detroit and Shanghai, even if Mankind Divided lacks the same tangible, almost hypnotic atmosphere that made many parts of Human Revolution so engaging. Other areas though, are sadly underused. Golem City, one of the last refuges for augmented people, is billed as a major element of the plot, only to be used for one mission and then never visited again.

Eidos Montreal know how to handle side quests, though. Far too many modern titles are feeling the need to fill their playtime with bloat and padding, even perfectly decent games fall prey to the Witcher 3 syndrome, as each new title is obsessed with bigger and bigger worlds at the expense of meaningful writing. By contrast Mankind Divided knows where to stop, its side missions feel like actual expansions to the core story, exploring its themes while spinning off into their own mini-tales and tangents, such as investigating the murder of an aug, or helping an underground newspaper get dirt on mega-corporations.

It’s the game’s core storyline however, that, by the game’s climax, ends rather suddenly just as things start to get interesting. An assassination attempt by a rogue element of an augmented rights group is the game’s big finale, and, whilst the “boss” encounters are handled better than Human Revolution (non-violent solutions, and even social encounters are practical alternatives), the game’s final cut-scene is little more than a drab bit of exposition via a news broadcast.

It’s a poor, clunky way for the game to end, and there’s a prevailing sense that Mankind Divided is holding out for future instalment. The game frequently comes across as more of the first act to a larger story than a complete, beginning, middle and end in its own right like Human Revolution was. That’s possibly intended since Square Enix has already planned for future games in the series. However, with story-based DLC already being talked about, there’s the impression that Mankind Divided might have held off on its true ending just to deliver it as paid-for DLC…

Other aspects raise a few warning signs, such as the shop that’s available on the game’s main menu, advertising bonus praxis kits and credits for use in a single player experience. This nickle-and-diming is already prevalent in multi-player games, so to see it encroaching in solo-based games should be cause for concern.

On its own terms however, Mankind Divided is a perfectly playable sequel, even if it does at times feel more like an expansion pack with prettier visuals. Provided you’re up for more of the same there’s enough here to warrant playing through the experience for those invested in the series, if only to become immersed in its cyberpunk world.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Director's Cut - Review

Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PS3, 360, Wii U (version played), PC, Mac

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

You've got to admire a developer's confidence when they choose to reboot a decade old classic that's widely regarded as one of the greatest PC games of all time. That's what Eidos Montreal had to prepare for when they worked on a successor to the original Deus Ex game. Not only that, but the last time a follow-up game had been developed for the series (Deus Ex: Invisible War), it had been criticised for watering down the original's core mechanics. 

In steps Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to the original game. It follows Adam Jensen, a security chief working at Sarif Industries, a company that develops robotic augmentations designed to improve humans. As with a lot of cyberpunk, bad things happen, and it's up to Sarif's security chief to discover the perpetrator. What starts as a simple murder investigation soon balloons into something much more complex as Adam discovers just how deep the rabbit hole goes. 

It's classic noir, and while it might not be anything new, as a video game plot, it was mighty entertaining, not least because the game gave you plenty of freedom, not only on how you tackled various challenges, but also how you reacted to individual characters. Take the first mission, which involved securing some priceless technology after a group of anti-augmentation-activists stormed a manufacturing plant. Not only could you choose to save/ignore hostages but you could also decide how to deal with the chief activist, either by choosing to reason with him or take him down by force. 

Sure, games have used choice before but Human Revolution ensured that (most of) your choices, even the minor ones, had some kind of consequence. It was a game that presented a, surprisingly complex, world and decided to leave you to deal with it however you wanted. Added to this was a story willing to tackle political issues, or at the very least, explore themes and ideas that other games wouldn't go near. 

Luckily, all of this freedom also applied to the actual gameplay. While play styles could roughly be divided into aggressive or stealthy, there's enough choices that two different stealth approaches could look entirely different. For example, taking the cloak augmentation, which granted you several seconds of invisibility, also forced you pay greater attention to your energy reserves, which would drain incredibly fast whenever the cloak was activated. In contrast, taking hacking upgrades didn't require energy but pressured you to keep your hacking software updated in order to keep up with the game's later challenges. 

What's most important though, is that Human Revolution never forced you into a play style. Spend the first half of the game sneaking around and then switch to blowing people up the with grenade launchers if you wanted, the game didn't chastise you or punish your gameplay decisions. Story choices worked in a similar way. Rather than forcing a good/evil morality on the player, you were, in reality, exploring different political philosophies. Whether that meant agreeing with David Sarif's ultra-capitalist, social-Darwinian approach to society, or taking control of things yourself as a kind of benevolent dictator, Human Revolution provided plenty of endings, but no perfect answers. 

Perhaps Human Revolution's greatest achievement however, was that it avoided simply regurgitating cyberpunk clichĂ©s. While it shows off plenty of its influences; namely that Adam Jensen looks a hell of a lot like Keanu Reeves, and there's the obvious nods to Blade Runner in some of the aesthetics, it also manages to feel and look fresh and new. The washed out, slightly hazy, sepia-coloured world is a wonderful visual style as is Johnathan Jacques-BelletĂȘte's, the game's lead artist, approach to creating a futuristic Detroit and Hengsha. Rather than jump in with the "rule of cool", attempting to make everything look so amazing and far-fetched, there's remarkable restraint from the developers. It looks like a advanced vision of what we know, but one that's feels almost potentially plausible. 

If there's one thing that let the game down though it was the boss fights; those old hangovers from days gone by. Rather than develop these themselves, Eidos outsourced these segments to another developer...and it showed. Stripped of the freedom that the rest of the game provides, they play like clunky versions of Metal Gear Solid bosses. Beating them simply meant pummelling them with enough bullets, which was an even bigger pain if you'd taken a stealthy and/or pacifist approach, as you were unlikely to have any decent weapons at your disposal.

Thankfully, one thing that the director's cut does is attempt to improve these encounters slightly. Most bosses now have an alternative (usually stealth/hacker-friendly) way to be taken down. In the case of the first boss, you're now able to hack a pair of turrets to shoot him up, rather than kill him face-to-face. 

The director's cut also inserts The Missing Link, the game's only piece of DLC, into the story. It was always a little odd how this was handled when it was was first released, because you'd most likely have finished the game before hearing, or wanting, to get hold of the DLC, despite it playing a role in the overall story. It's a little bit like Mass Effect's DLC where it adds more story content but once you've finished the game, do you really want to go back to experience it? 

Now though, it's slotted into the game, taking place about three quarters of the way through. For those who never tried it out the first time around, it's actually a rather enjoyable chunk of gameplay set aboard a huge ship en-route to Singapore. The nod to Metal Gear Solid 2's tanker sequence is obvious; much like Kojima's series, the episode has you sneaking back and forth as you attempt to discover what's going on aboard the vessel. 

There's no denying it's an enjoyable addition to an already great game but it does seem oddly divorced from the rest of the story. In a sense, that's probably intentional, considering it's an expansion episode, but it would have been more interesting had it felt more connected to the rest of the story. As it stands,  it kicks in as a kind of bizarre interruption, just as the main game is about to reach its climax. Similarly, it does rely on back-tracking a hell of a lot, which the rest of Human Revolution didn't, making it more noticeable. 

As it stands, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is still one of only a few modern action-RPGs that really acknowledges player choice. Games like Dishonoured may have come close, but this still remains the thinking person's role-playing game. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

Kirby: Planet Robobot - Review

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: 3DS

Kirby has had a slightly underwhelming career in the past few years. Kirby: Triple Deluxe was a decent platformer for the little pink gumball, even if it was a bit predictable. Meanwhile, last year, the Wii U was graced with Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush, one of the best looking games in recent memory, with a wonderfully tactile art style, that was scuppered somewhat by a stubborn control system that insisted you spent most of the time jabbing Kirby along with the stylus.

I’ve made the case before that the best way to think of Kirby is as the “easy mode” of Nintendo’s platforming triumvirate. Mario is the benchmark for difficulty, just as the moustachioed plumber is the trademark standard character in any Mario Kart game. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong is there for the games that need an extra dose of challenge; a hard mode if you will. That leaves it down to Kirby to provide a more mellow experience.

And Kirby: Plant Robobot would definitely fit into this idea. It’s not a ruthlessly challenging game, but neither is it a complete walk in the park. Instead it strikes a remarkable balance; testing the player but always allowing creativity and fresh ideas to be at the forefront of its overall design.

More than any other game I’ve played this year, Kirby: Planet Robobot wallows in excess creativity. There’s enough ideas here to fuel three games let alone one. From the opening stage to the game’s final multi-part boss fight it’s an utter joy to play, capturing the central fun of playing as Kirby whilst also evolving and expanding his base gameplay in as many ways as possible. It’s a sleek, well-oiled machine, to use an (appropriate) machine-based metaphor. HAL Laboratory show off just how much they’ve learnt at crafting Kirby games over the years.

The core gameplay of Planet Robobot is, initially, very similar to that of Triple Deluxe. Charming platforming levels are populated with various enemies that all alter Kirby’s core move set if he eats them. Vacuum up a sword-wielding foe, and Kirby will brandish a sword, fire enemy and he’ll spit fire, you get the idea. New forms for Kirby add some great new concepts. The doctor form has the little pink guy start lobbing pills at enemies, bashing them with clipboards, whilst the ESP form (pro-tip this mode is fab against most bosses), has Kirby attack from long range with his mind and even teleport short distances.

The whopping twenty seven forms that Kirby now has are what help bolster the sheer variety of the game. There’s a genuine level of strategy that goes into when to switch to what form, and most levels have various puzzles and challenges that can only be completed by switching into a particular form, such as eating an electric enemy in order to power a nearby battery for example.

Where Kirby: Planet Robobot goes one step further is in the titular Robobot suit that Kirby can pilot. Many of the game’s levels have Kirby hopping into his mech suit and stomping around. What’s better, is the suit has the same morphing abilities as its pilot. Suck up a fire enemy whilst in the mech, and you’ll have two flame-throwers to start blasting away with.

The game also smartly uses the Robobot suit as a change of pace. Some levels will have you turning the robot into a jet or car to mix up the gameplay even further. And each of the changes is handled perfectly. No segment lasts too long that it overstays its welcome, and the sheer difference in gameplay from level to level means that any weaker moments (not that there are that many, mind), are quickly forgotten as you’re shuttled along onto the next challenge.

Whilst the core concepts of Kirby: Planet Robobot might seem overwhelmingly familiar, even with the new robot suit, it’s the games incredible of pacing and level design that takes it even further. For an ostensibly 2D game, HAL Laboratory have a tremendous skill with injecting each level with plenty of depth. Most stages have you bouncing back and forth between the foreground and background. This is the kind of game that doesn’t need the 3D functions of the 3DS switched on to understand what the developers were going for. Levels teem with animation, whether it be running across a giant pool table, dodging traffic that comes hurtling towards the screen, or diving through a Tron-style computer world. The game’s levels are packed with a sense of depth and vibrancy that put many similar games to shame.

Even the story, which is hardly at the forefront of a game like this, is handled with more thought and charm than many games that put far more stock in their stories. Attacked by an organization from outer space, Kirby’s world is assaulted by a giant robot bent on hoovering up every ounce of water on the planet. Kirby spends the majority of his time contending with the organization’s secretary, a confused little robot named Susie, before taking on the moustache-twirling head of the company during the game’s finale, who, in addition to attacking you, blocks up the 3DS screen with hordes of bank notes.

The bosses are the final jewel in Kirby’s crown. Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush struggled with this aspect in particular, recycling the same three or four ideas multiple times over the course of the game. Robobot has no such problems. Whilst its sub-bosses might be rehashed a little too often by the game’s final worlds, the major bosses are a joy to fight, whether it be a robot A.I. or a genetic clone of King Dedede. Visually, and in terms of the gameplay, these challenges are on point providing the player with a suitable challenge, whilst bolstering the strategic significance of Kirby’s various forms.

It’d be churlish to complain about much in Kirby: Planet Robobot because, frankly, it’s a wonderfully crafted game. Better yet, it’s one that does so solely through the strength of gameplay and makes the whole experience look effortless. With a host of extra modes upon completion, including a speed-run challenge where you play as Meta Knight, there’s an abundance of activities to keep players occupied when they’ve wrapped up the main adventure.

Kirby: Planet Robobot isn’t just the best 3DS of the year so far, it’s one of the best games of the year on any platform. Not since Super Mario Galaxy has Nintendo handled one of its platforming mascots with such confidence.