Mini-Review Collection – ‘Wholesome’ Edition

Today I’m doing something a little bit different, and posting a group of mini-reviews rather than one more detailed review.

These games are linked by a common theme; they are all indie games with an accessible nature and a generally light-hearted and innocent tone. They are all what the internet generally calls ‘wholesome’.

So if you’re interested in skateboarding birds, fashionable dogs, or a bouncy Peggle-styled dungeon-crawler, please read on.

SkateBIRD

When I first played SkateBIRD, a couple of days after it was released, I had to metaphorically shelve it because the excessively strong depth-of-field blur and the glitchy controls made the game very hard for me to navigate. However, now that a patch has enabled turning the blur effect off, I’ve been enjoying my time with SkateBIRD‘s cast of eccentric but well-meaning birds.

In terms of gameplay, SkateBIRD uses the Tony Hawk style of skating controls, where the left analogue stick controls movement and speed while the face buttons and directional inputs are used to perform tricks. There are also some concessions to the fact that you’re a round bird rather than a long-legged human; the front of the skateboard leaves an orange trail and the back of the board leaves a blue trail to help you know which way your character is facing in the air.

SkateBIRD contains most of the mission types you would expect from an arcade skateboarding game, such as collecting items, achieving high scores, finding S-K-A-T-E letters, and changing or moving parts of the environment by skating on them. But unlike most extreme sports games, rather than “going pro” or winning contests, your goal here is for you and your friends to lift your Big Friend (human) out of a rut: when you’re picking up items, you’re stealthily cleaning their room to make them happier, and when you go to a workplace to cause chaos, you’re actually making Big Friend’s depressing startup office a nicer place for them to be so that they can spend more time with you.

This focus on a small-scale and caring goal gives SkateBIRD a friendly and comfortable atmosphere that makes it relaxing to play despite the undercurrent of Big Friend’s struggles. This is amplified by the dialogue, which is packed with peak 2020s “lets joke about how broken the world is” humour.

The game has 4 different environments, which each hold between 10-20 small missions. While each level is a decent size and its clear what real-life environments they’re replicating, their design is merely ok: none of the levels are particularly memorable and none contain any impressive set pieces. On the other hand, a lot of thought has gone into the available settings and difficulty-adjusting options for a game that can so often have questionable physics. Players can adjust different aspects of the controls such as the boosts they recieve during different parts of their push. Players can also adjust the game speed and remove the grind and manual balance meters if they need to. There are also some novelty options, such as a setting that ensures the birds won’t make any unhappy noises and one which turns all of the “birb-speak” into “surfer-dude-speak” (with 11 levels of “dude”).

Overall, SkateBIRD goes into my Cool tier, as it definitely delivers on the “bird” despite a few lingering issues with the “skate”. There’s even a Pet the Bird mode, where you control a hand that gives pets and scritches to the bird. Its camera is a bit odd and the controls are nowhere near as fluid and responsive as the major league skateboarding games, but it works decently enough. If a Tony Hawk game had these issues, it would be very disappointing, but SkateBIRD just about gets away with its wonkiness because its atmosphere and style is the USP rather than its mechanics.

Pupperazzi

While all of the games in this post are cute and casual, Pupperazzi is the most ‘aww’-inducing of the bunch. On the surface, it can be easily compared to Pokemon Snap, as both games are first-person-snapshooters which involve using items to affect the behaviour of the creatures you are photographing. However, Pupperazzi has free-roaming levels rather than on-rails ones, which allows for more exploration and for direct interactions such as petting the dogs and even changing their outfits.

Pupperazzi leans heavily into its cute factor. Its low-poly pastel-toned art style isn’t technically complex but it is coherent and appropriate; the levels feel carefully built rather than thrown together. Everything has been created to be as friendly and calm as possible: there’s even a setting to prevent cars from moving near dogs, as extra reassurance that nothing bad can happen to the dogs in this world.

Pupperazzi’s gameplay involves travelling between different levels to fulfil different photo quests, such as capturing photos of dogs doing specific activities, or dogs who are wearing certain outfits. Posting the photos to dogNET (essentially a much less toxic Instagram) will build up different categories of followers. For example, the “Fashionable” audience loves photos of dogs wearing outfits, while the “Party” audience wants to see photos of multiple dogs together. Gaining followers requires balancing your posted photos so they you appeal to all of those audiences without spamming your page with too many photos per in-game day. As your follower count increases, you unlock new camera lenses, new varieties of novelty film, and new levels to explore.

I played about 45 minutes of Pupperazzi, and really enjoyed it. However, my initial great experience was undermined by the game refusing to load past the start screen when I tried to come back to it! It currently hasn’t worked for a week, and that’s after clearing the reserved space, reinstalling, and moving the install to my internal storage instead of my external hard drive.

As these issues happened after I had already become smitten with Pupperazzi‘s charm, it didn’t completely ruin my liking for the game. However, the reviews on the Xbox store suggest that many new players were entirely unable to enjoy the game, as it either repeatedly crashed or never launched at all. So Pupperazzi must unfortunately go into the Failure tier for now, because it barely runs on Xboxes at the moment. As soon as it works consistently, it will move up into at least the Cool tier.

Roundguard

Roundguard is an unexpected fusion of accessible dungeon crawler and Peggle mechanics. Yes, Peggle. Dungeon-crawlers aren’t a genre I enjoy often, but as soon as I heard about Roundguard‘s existence, I rushed to try it out of sheer curiosity.

Roundguard is the most polished of the games on this list, and I’ve had no issues with launching or playing it. Its plot is straightforward: Castle Springbottom has been overrun by enemies and the titular band of heroes must attempt to defeat those enemies and rescue the King. After picking a hero – Warrior, Rogue, Wizard or Druid – you must battle through 3 different sections of the castle that are each made of multiple rooms and at least one mini-boss. Each run is procedurally-generated, so the order of environments is always the same while the layout of each room, the number and position of enemies, and the available routes on your dungeon map, are always different.

Completing a run requires using a trebuchet to throw your character across the room, so that they can bounce between enemies, gold pots (these earn currency, which is your score), traps, and health- and mana-restoring potions. During each turn, your character will lose health when they are attacked by enemies or hit by projectiles and they will also lose health if they land on the spikes laid along the floor. Landing on a bouncy cushion, however, returns them unharmed, in the same way that landing a ball in the bucket in Peggle lets you use it again.

At the start, when playing as the Warrior, your HP is high enough that you can brute-force early levels by hurling the Warrior into enemies multiple times to hurt them. However, each subsequent character has less HP and more MP, while later enemies can do more damage to you, which teaches you to defeat enemies using your two equippable skills rather than taking them out with your face. These skills range from direct attack bonuses, to abilities like poisoning or shocking enemies, to movement mechanics like defying gravity or heat-seeking towards the nearest enemy. You receive skills by landing on them at the end of a room, and you can choose whether to equip each skill or to sell it for gold. Skills are where you gain control over your run by picking options that work well together or reward your playstyle. 

During each run, you’ll also receive a trinket halfway through each environment of the castle. Trinkets can be very helpful, barely-noticeable, or entirely unhelpful for your current playstyle. However, you have no control over trinkets: you can’t refuse them. Similarly, you receive a random Relic at the end of each run which applies to your entire next run – the higher your score is, the more likely you are to receive a really helpful or powerful Relic. For me, this is a good blend of random and controlled variables, because it leads to varied runs but not to absolute confusion.

The main mode is supported by Daily and Weekly challenges. These challenge modes add more punishing modifiers to a run, such as making any poison affect you for the entire run rather than wearing away after a couple of turns, or add more interesting modifiers such as disabling gravity entirely. Completing 4 of these challenges unlocks a new, more powerful Relic for your next run. 

Overall, Roundguard is in the Cool tier for me. It feels well-judged, and the core idea is easy to understand for people who don’t normally play dungeon-crawler games. While its not a particularly long game, its small but considered selection of modes, its clean cartoon style, and its well-thought-out mechanics give the impression that Roundguard was made by a team who chose quality over quantity.

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