Oh boy have I ever been avoiding playing this game.
It’s not because I dislike reviewing popular games or ones that have had a relentless hype cycle (I’ve played recent examples of both). No the reason I’ve been dreading playing Cuphead is because it’s part of a genre that I’m not a huge fan of: bullet hells. Whilst I long ago learnt the lesson of “focus on yourself, not the entire screen” I still don’t find them to be terribly enjoyable experiences. Coupling that with the fervour surrounding the title, both from a general hype perspective and the “git gud” crowd that popped up around it, meant that anything but a glowing review is likely to be met with criticism that I simply don’t get what Cuphead is about.
The thing is though, I do get it and, unfortunately, it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be.
Cuphead and his pal Mugman go against their elder’s best wishes and cross over the wrong side of the tracks, going to the Devil’s casino. There they proceed to embark on a wondrous winning spree, racking up stacks of dollars. It’s then that the Devil himself appears and proposes them a wager: why don’t you bet your souls on the next hand! Predictably they lose and the Devil comes to collect although the duo manages to convince him to not take their souls. Instead they’ll become the Devil’s own debt collectors, beating up those who’ve made similar wagers with the Devil but have yet to pay up. So begins your quest to beat the living daylights out of Inkwell Isle’s denizens in the hopes of saving your own soul.
Nearly all the hype surrounding Cuphead comes from the fact that it’s entirely hand animated in the styles of yesteryear. All of the animations are first done by hand using the traditional techniques and they’re then transferred to digital for colour and integration. The results are honestly quite stunning, especially given the amount of things that can be on screen at any one time. For those of us who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons the art style does bring with it a great feeling of nostalgia, even if it fades rather quickly as you dive into the game proper. Of course I couldn’t mention the art style without also mentioning the music and foley work, both of which have received as much love and attention as the visuals have. Suffice to say the vast majority of the work put into Cuphead has gone into these two aspects which means that something else had to suffer.
The chosen victim for a game built off the backs of 2 people is, as it is with many visuals-first indie games, the game mechanics. The core is a simplistic, run and gun platformer/bullet hell where you move from the left to the right of the screen, battling enemies and bosses alike. Your arsenal comprises of two weapons, a super move and a charm which provides you with a single benefit such as 1 extra HP or becoming invulnerable when you dash. About 2/3rds of the game is spent directly in boss fights without the need to make your way through a level beforehand. The remaining levels are “run and gun” ones which are closer to your traditional 2D platformer. There are different guns, upgrades and super moves for you to collect which gives you a bit of control over how Cuphead plays out for you. All in all it’s a pretty simple game which should make the decision as to whether or not it’s worth your purchase a pretty simple one.
Combat is functional although there seems to be a couple quirks about its particular implementation. For starters the hit detection doesn’t feel like it’s 100%, sometimes being either too generous or too strict (with no discernible way to tell how its going to swing). For example there’s one level, Treetop Trouble, where there’s holes in a ramp in the first section. You can actually get more than half of your character into the hole before you fall into it, something which you need to do if you want to be able to jump over them properly. The shooting, both yours and the enemies, seems largely unaffected by this thankfully but it does mean that the platforming aspects are more irritating than they’d otherwise be.
Cuphead’s combat does suffer from an informational problem though. Whilst it tells you that certain weapons are “above average” damage and so forth it’s really quite hard to tell just how relatively powerful weapons are to each other. This also applies to the supers which can sometimes help you skip a boss stage entirely or seemingly do nothing at all. Indeed some bosses almost feel like the damage you do is irrelevant, you just have to live through the section in order to progress to the next phase. Indeed every time I switched up my build I always ended up going back to the default weapon as everything either seemed to provide no benefit at all or was just straight up worse by comparison.
A lot of the difficulty in Cuphead comes from the randomisation in the experience, making it hard to simply spam a single strategy in order to progress. Indeed once you’ve managed to master one stage of a boss fight it’s likely you’ll die very quickly to the next one, necessitating another replay in order to master the next section. This means that for a typical boss fight in Cuphead, which has 3 phases, you’ll have to play it at least 3 times over. This repetition isn’t something I find particularly fun and unlike other games like Dark Souls I don’t feel like I’m getting that much better by playing it over and over again. I doesn’t help that most of the boss fights repeat many of the same mechanics over and over again, just with different visuals and/or more of the same things to make it harder. Perhaps this is my disdain for bullet hell games coming through as I couldn’t really spend more than 30 mins at a time playing the game.
Indeed it seems the data reflects my experience being similar to that of many. Most people do actually play the game, 86.5% of them defeating a boss, but after there people start to drop off rapidly. 60% will finish the first island, as I did, but only 30% will go on to finish the second one. My play time is below the median at 4.9 hours though so it seems more people stick around longer than I did. Regardless it seems that the hype may have just been that and, once people got it in their hot little hands, it wasn’t the game of the year material that many originally thought it to be.
The story is pretty run of the mill although credit where credits due for avoiding the stereotypical damsel in distress trope. It’s not like they attempt for some grand narrative or anything like that, far from it. Instead there’s only small tidbits here and there, dolled out sparingly as you pass major game milestones. There’s a missed opportunity there for each of the enemies that you battle to give a pre/post battle interview to flesh out the world a bit but with the game’s heavy focus on the visuals I doubt there was much time left over for world building. Suffice to say for those who bought this game I doubt they’ll be writing home about the story.
Cuphead is most certainly a visual and aural masterpiece, sure to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for us gamers who lived through a time where that animation style was popular. The fact that it came out of a studio that consists of just 2 people is quite incredible, even if it took them a good 7 years to make it happen. However the core game play is nothing to write home about with its repetitive mechanics, so-so hit detection and overall lack of clear progression mechanics to keep the player engaged for long stretches of time. To be sure I’m not a fan of this particular genre and that’s tainting my view somewhat but if you, like me, aren’t a fan of this genre then you’re not going to miss much by not purchasing it. For those who bought into the hype though I’m sure they’ve got their money’s worth, especially considering Cuphead’s exceedingly modest asking price.
Cuphead is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.2 hours played and 14% of the achievements unlocked.
Whilst I spent quite a lot of my childhood playing games like Raptor: Call of the Shadows I never really got into the whole bullet hell/twin stick shooter scene. Indeed my recent experience with bullet hell sections in Nier: Automata reinforced that as I didn’t find much to like in them there. However when scrolling through the popular new releases section on Steam Nex Machina caught my eye, both for it’s outrageously neon visuals and synthwave sound track. Whilst I may have once again affirmed my aversion for the genre it’s hard not to appreciate what Nex Machina brings to the table, especially for the fact that it heavily rewards those with skill.
If there’s a story in Nex Machina I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. As far as I can tell Earth is being invaded by an alien force and it’s up to you to push them back. You’ll do this by slaughtering untold numbers of aliens whilst rescuing what humans you can, progressing through each self contained level until you reach the final boss. The challenge comes from not dying, finding all the secrets and, of course, beating each section in as fast a time as possible. At its heart Nex Machina is a mechanically simple game but it does a great job of ensuring that you’re never left without another challenge, especially if leader boards are a motivator for you.
Initially I thought Nex Machina was just another indie game based on the Unity engine but, as it turns out, it’s from Housemarque, a veteran indie developer of over 20 years. Nex Machina is based on a reworked version of the Resogun engine which itself was based on the Super Stardust Delta engine. The visuals themselves are pretty simplistic with the environments utilising voxels for some interesting destruction physics. Where the game shines is in its lavish use of neon lighting effects often to the point of utter visual domination where it’s hard to figure out just where the hell you are. The aesthetic is well matched with its backing sound track however, giving the whole game this great retro-future vibe.
In terms of actual game play though there’s really not too much to talk about. It’s a twin stick shooter, meaning you’ll be surrounded on all sides by enemies which you’ll have to do your best at avoiding whilst you gun them down. As you kill enemies random power ups will drop, making the game ever so easier. If you die however you’ll drop one power up and if you don’t pick it up before you die or complete a section you’ll lose it forever. In this sense the game rewards those who are able to skillfully complete sections without dying, making it easier to do so in future sections. Indeed your first playthrough is likely to be a frustration ridden affair as you figure out what the environmental hazards are, how the different enemies behave and how you can use certain mechanics to your advantage.
However what Nex Machina is quite lacking in is variety. Whilst each different world has its own theme with accompanying enemies they really aren’t that all different when you sit down and compare them. The environmental mechanics are also pretty much all the same, even if they have slightly different triggers or look visually different. Thus, for someone like me, there’s really not a whole lot of replayability as it all starts to feel very samey quite quickly. If, however, mastering a game’s challenge completely is the kind of thing that appeals to you then I’m sure there’s endless hours of enjoyment in Nex Machina. It’s just not there for me.
Nex Machina is a solid twin stick shooter with an excellent retro-future vibe. Whilst this is a genre I’d typically not even bother foraying into the visuals and driving sound track were enough for me to want to give it a go. It might not have swayed me on the genre, indeed it reaffirmed it more than anything else, but I do feel like Nex Machina is a great example from a veteran developer in the genre. If you lust for the old days of twin stick arcade shooters then Nex Machina is right up your alley.
Nex Machina is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 1 hour of total play time and 21% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some games which, if not for consistent prodding from my gaming friends, I’d never give any attention to. JRPGs/hack and slash titles are a good example of this as, whilst I don’t mind them at a mechanical level, I’ve never really found anything about the genre that makes me want to come back. Indeed my last foray into this arena was with Bayonetta and, contrary to popular opinion of that particular title, I found the experience so unappealing that I decided it wasn’t worth reviewing. So whilst Nier: Automata took my eye due to its popularity and Souls-like combat I had put it to one side; to be played if I had nothing else. That was until a certain friend of mine wouldn’t stop pestering me about it every time I played a game that wasn’t Nier: Automata. You know who you are.
Set in the distant future Nier: Automata takes place on an Earth that’s been ravaged by a war between mankind and an unknown alien species. The world lays in ruins and the last of humanity has escaped to a base on the moon. The war still rages on however it is now fought between the alien machine race and a highly specialised force of androids. You are model 2B, a combat unit sent in to take out a large hostile force that has been detected. However things aren’t like they used to be, with many of the machines being neutral to your presence and only attacking you if you attack first. This, as you’ll soon find out, is symptomatic of larger changes happening on Earth.
For a game that’s supposedly only been in development since 2014 Nier: Automata’s visuals are decidedly dated. Sure there’s a grand scale about most things with towering enemies and environments that stretch into the horizon, but I’ve seen many current gen games accomplish the same with much better graphical fidelity. I’d hazard a guess that this is most likely an aesthetic choice, fitting in with the current styling of other games in the genre. There were also some weird scaling quirks which seemed reminiscent of previous gen ports with the on-screen text being blurry at certain resolutions. This was fixed by setting it to run in windowed mode and then using Borderless Gaming to upscale it to full screen windowed. Overall Automata’s visuals are average to say the least and the underlying engine could do with some love before Platinum Games’ next release.
Nier: Automata is a smattering of different mechanics all glued around a hack and slash, action RPG core. For the most part you’ll spend your time doing what you’d do in any other action RPG: walking around places, killing enemies, doing quests for people, getting loot and upgrading your character. Slapped onto this are a variety of other mini-games, most of which are variants on the bullet hell theme. The larger than life boss battles debut frequently throughout the game, pitting you against enemies several orders of magnitude larger than yourself. I’d stop short of calling Automata a true open world game as it’s fairly linear in terms of progression but there are certainly elements of the genre to be found here. Finally whilst the game can be played through and “finished” within a relatively modest time frame the game demands multiple play throughs in order to see all the endings, up to 5 at my count if you’re after the “true” finale. Truly it is a game that fits the stereotypes of the JRPG genre to a T.
Combat is equal parts bullet hell and hack and slash, a weird combination that I haven’t come across before myself. Initially the different kinds of combat are divided up neatly: the bullet hell sections taking the form of the old school top down shoot ’em up whilst the hack and slash components taking place when you’re not in a flight suit. After a while though they start to blur together with each of the different sections taking on aspects of the other. As you progress towards the final boss battles you’re essentially taking part in what amounts to a third person, hack and slash bullet hell which is as ludicrous as it sounds. True to the hack and slash genre you’ll quickly become unstoppable when facing anything but the toughest enemies which, honestly, is part of the appeal.
However the combat starts to get stale around the 4 hour mark with the low variety of enemies and lack of compelling weapon choices. Initially I thought this was because I was just missing something as Automata doesn’t hold your hand past the very basics. As it turns out a good chunk of the game’s weapons and other items are locked until future play throughs. This is a theme that’s woven throughout the game, something you’ll quickly become familiar with because the game makes no bars about showing you things that you’re unable to gain access to. For someone like me who does not enjoy being locked out of things which I’ll have to backtrack for (even if it’s within a single play through) I have to say this was probably the most annoying aspect of Nier: Automata.
Whilst I understand that the JRPG genre is famous for putting its players through the wringer with grinds I didn’t envision that having to grind the game itself would be a requirement for seeing everything it has to offer. After my initial completion I made sure to come back to see if the game could hook me back in but, honestly, replaying the exact same game again, down to the same quests and everything, simply failed to appeal to me. I’m sure there are likely parts which differentiate each play through, and maybe that’s enough for fans of the genre, but it wasn’t enough for me. Honestly I felt like the game and its story could have been much better served by collapsing it all into one cohesive arc that spanned 30+ hours, rather than repeating the same dribble 5 times over.
It also doesn’t help that Automata seems to cast aside about a decade’s worth of advancement in game development. Apart from the visuals issues that I mentioned before the game also suffers from horrendous camera controls, hit box detection issues and weird input behaviour when in forced perspective mode. Part of this is due to the fact it’s most certainly developed for the PlayStation first and then a lot of the conventions have then been remapped to the PC. Most notable of this is the lack of a dedicated dodge button on PC, something that will only be available to you if you play the game with a controller. Whilst I’m sure purists will argue that that’s the way Automata is meant to be played the issue is that other similar games, like Dark Souls 3, managed to get these kinds of things right. Perhaps I’m just used to a higher amount of polish these days but Automata definitely felt like it could use a couple more patches before I’d call it a seamless experience.
Now my impression of the story is going to be limited to a single play through but after reading through a plot synopsis I don’t think I’m missing much. There was a lot of potential for investigation into the whole “Machines vs Androids” thing, although the fact that neither 2B nor 9S could see the irony in their position irked me more than it should have. Additionally there is no where near enough development in the various character’s relationships to support the emotional connections they supposedly have, making the game’s climaxes seem hollow and forced. Maybe this is just an artefact of the game’s requirement for multiple play throughs and the story becomes better as more details are revealed to you. I’ll never know as there simply isn’t enough in the core game to keep me coming back 2 times over, let alone 5.
Nier: Automata is a smattering of different ideas, game mechanics and narrative structures that unfortunately doesn’t come together as a cohesive whole. For a game that’s had a relatively short development cycle it seems dated in almost all respects and would not be out of place as a previous generation title. The combination of bullet hell and hack and slash mechanics is novel and, for a time, provides an unique and interesting challenge. However the lack of variety in the combat, enemies and other mechanics starts to wear thin after a time. This then erodes the game’s core intent of getting you to play through it multiple times over to uncover its true nature, something which a better constructed game would have no trouble in accomplishing. My 10 hours or so in it were filled with probably 6 hours of real enjoyment, followed by 4 of tedium. Perhaps I’m missing something here that fans of the genre aren’t but I honestly don’t know what that is.
Nier: Automata is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 34% of the achievements unlocked.