During the last couple of months, I’ve been trying to get out of my “only playing Destiny 2” rut. Exploring the demos section of the Xbox store seemed like a good place to start, as I knew I would be likely to find something that I wouldn’t have thought of searching for.
I tried a mixture of games; these four games are the ones I played and thought about enough to write a fair review for.
- Ghostunner – 3.8 GB
- Klonoa: Phantasy Reverie Series – 3.5 GB
- Button City – 840 MB
- Dead Pets Unleashed – 2.5 GB
During the opening cutscene, your character is betrayed and brutally attacked. Then you awaken, having been repaired by an AI who then tells you that you need to release them from prison. So far, so cyberpunk. However, while the story presented in the first level seems a little generic, the gameplay is the star of this show.
The Ghostrunner demo contains the first two levels of the game, which show off three main gameplay types. One type is pure traversal; using your Ghostrunner abilities of sliding, grappling, jumping, wall-running and air-dashing to fluidly travel across the city. The second type is combat sections, which are closer to being puzzles than typical fights. Enemies die in one hit, but so do you. So the combat sections are about using your parkour skills to zip to each enemy in turn before they can see and lock on to you, deliver the killing blow, then zip over to the next enemy, in as seamless a chain of movement as possible. The best comparison I can make is that it’s like a hybrid of Mirror’s Edge and Superhot, without being a copy of either game.
During the combat sections, you will die a lot. However, the game is designed with that quick trial-and-error loop in mind – checkpoints are frequent, death has no obvious consequences, and you respawn very quickly – so combat doesn’t get too frustrating. (There is also an upgrade system, and an assist mode, in the full game, but neither of these were present in the demo, which I think was a misstep).
The final gameplay type is “Cybervoid” sections. These are simulation-themed areas with much simpler platforming requirements, that seem to be focused on story delivery. In the section available in the demo, Ghostrunner traversal powers were not available – only running and jumping were needed. At the moment I’m not sure how to feel about these segments. On one hand, they provide a way for the game to offer a breather between the more intense sections, and for it to show off visual variety. On the other hand, the (comparative) lack of challenge and the focus on conversations in the area available in the demo meant that I sometimes wondered whether delivering the information by cutscene would have been more effective.
Despite being unsure about the Cybervoid sections, I loved the idea of Ghostrunner. For now, it goes into my Cool tier. For me its excellent movement system was the best part of the game. It’s fast, fluid, and focused on letting you keep your momentum to create a flowing chain of stylish moves. If you’re someone who enjoys the movement systems in games like Mirror’s Edge and especially Titanfall, I’d highly recommend that you try this demo.
Will I buy this game, based on the demo? I already have – it was on sale for just £8 when I was playing the demo.
Klonoa: Phantasy Reverie Series
Phantasy Reverie Series is a compilation of new versions – I’m not sure whether to call them remasters, remakes, or both – of the first two Klonoa games, Door to Phantomile and Lunatea’s Veil. (More details on what makes their status confusing are below).
Door to Phantomile opens with a cutscene of Klonoa finding a mysterious ring before waking up from a nightmare. When he awakes, he finds that the ring is not only in his house, but also that it holds a friendly creature named Huepow. After this, Klonoa and Huepow are distracted by a spaceship crashing into a nearby hill, and decide to investigate, which kicks off the plot. The overall story presented in the demo, of journeying to the Moon Kingdom to rescue the one person with the ability needed to defeat the evil spirit Ghadius, is simple but effective.
The demo gives players access to the first two levels of Door to Phantomile. The first level is a short tutorial-focused zone, while the second level is a little longer and features slightly more challenge. Phantomile itself is apparently a world powered by dreams. It conveys its dreamlike nature well, through a very cute, colourful art style and tone that makes the enemies not even look like enemies. This fits the game mechanically, as the enemies are more like tools than threats; Klonoa needs to bounce on their heads to reach many platforms, and needs to throw the enemies into or away from the screen to reach objects.
The demo for Lunatea’s Veil differs slightly, as it just contains a level to explore, without offering up any story elements. While only one level is available in this demo, its around the same size as the two levels from Door to Phantomile combined. Its greater sense of distance and scale in the background suggests that Lunatea’s Veil will be larger in scope than Door To Phantomile, and this is reinforced by the level featuring both minor puzzles and new movement options for Klonoa such as trampolines, wind springs, and cannons.
Namco Bandai have added new difficulty options for these versions of the games. The Easy mode gives Klonoa infinite lives and 5 hearts per life, while reducing the damage taken from enemies by 66%. Normal mode keeps the 3 lives and 3 hearts per life used in the original games, while apparently a harder mode is available after completing the full game. This version of the games also adds the ability to fast-forward through cutscenes, plus a two-player “support mode”. (From what I can tell, this is not so much co-op as it is a “let a young child help without getting hurt” mode).
Remaster vs Remake?
I looked into the history of these two games to figure out whether they were unaltered remasters or more involved remakes, and found that graphically, the Phantasy Reverie bundle are based on the fully-3D Wii remakes of both games, rather than the PS1/PS2 originals which blended sprites with 3-D backgrounds. However, mechanically, the Phantasy Reverie versions of each game bring features from the PS1/PS2 games, such as the slightly higher base difficulty and the use of gibberish language rather than voice acting, back into the fold. So they are a hybrid remaster/remake that seems to be aiming for the best of both worlds between the original gameplay and newer graphical style.
Overall, this bundle goes into my Cool tier, for its cheerful and cute style and its feeling of being well-built and stable.
Will I buy this game, based on the demo? Yes at some point, but I’ll wait for a sale. (Edit: I ended up receiving the bundle for Christmas).
Button City is described as being a “narrative adventure about cute animals, friendships, and arcades”. I took a look at this game due to its friendly appearance – it felt like I should have played this for the “wholesome” set I wrote before!
The plot of Button City is centred on saving the town’s arcade from a literal corporate “fat cat”. However, the demo is so short that this aspect isn’t really touched on. Instead, during the roughly 10-minute demo, your task is to get a team together to take on the resident arcade champions at a specific minigame, Gobabots, during the arcade’s Kid’s Day celebration. There are many potential teammates in the arcade, but some are more easily persuaded to join you than others; while one person will join you as soon as you ask them, other people will want you to help them with a task first, to answer some questions correctly, or for someone else to be already on your team.
In the full game, the gameplay is a mixture of conversations, errands, and mini-games. Communicating with the other arcade guests is usually done by choosing conversation responses, and sometimes by reading text messages and choosing your style of response. If you’ve played Donut County, the text message side will feel very familiar, and so will the game’s general appearance. Button City, like many other “cosy” games, uses a low-poly style that aims to convey a cheerful and friendly mood. However, for me, it went so far into low-poly that it became off-putting.
While the character models do their job of portraying generally-cute animals, the level backgrounds are so solidly neon, especially inside the arcade, that they unfortunately reminded me of Bubsy 3D levels. Similarly, the game uses the familiar 2020s-indie-game convention of showing each level as an isolated floating box in 3/4 perspective, but also dispenses with any form of map or travelling – you move between levels by choosing them from a scrolling stack. This means that the game felt like a collection of assembled assets, rather than a coherently designed world.
On my first play through the demo, I tried to win the Gobabots arcade minigame, and did so. During my second attempt, I tried to lose the match to see if that changed anything… and still won. Then I thought that I could try playing the game again while setting the Gobabots match to the harder difficulty so I could effectively lose, and instead of feeling eager to try that out, I felt disappointed instead. For me, that was enough to confirm that Button City was not a game that I wanted to spend longer with.
Will I buy this game, based on the demo? No. For me, Button City went beyond cosy and into offputtingly saccharine, and its very young style of dialogue came across as annoying rather than nostalgic. So unfortunately, it does into my “Disappointing” tier. I think now that “cosy” games have become a regular genre rather than a rare surprise, my expectations around them have grown, and being nonviolent and cute is not enough to guarantee that a game will appeal to me.
Dead Pets Unleashed
Dead Pets Unleashed first caught my attention because of its rhythm game elements, but it is better described as a narrative game that includes elements of, and minigames from, other genres.
You control the bassist of struggling punk band Dead Pets, Gordy, and your aim is to navigate through her life (more accurately, her mid-life crisis) while balancing the competing resources of her money, her happiness, her social reputation, and the band’s combined happiness. The demo is surprisingly generous – it contained two five-day episodes, which together lasted just over an hour for me – which lets it show players most aspects of its gameplay.
Many of the game’s scenarios happen during conversations, where you choose Gordy’s responses to events and people. The game shows you the immediate consequences of each choice – such as the loss or gain in points for each resource, and the amount of money Gordy will gain or lose – so you’re always making an informed decision about what elements you want to preserve and which you will be sacrificing.
These sections are supported by minigames that perfectly fit the included themes and places. At work as a server, you need to rush Gordy around the resturant to seat, serve, and collect money from, your customers. At band practice, you play bass to the band’s songs, which are all performed by members of the studio, Triple Topping Games. At gigs, you go beyond playing as Gordy and get moments in the limelight as each of the other band members.
The game promise multiple endings and says that the success of the band is decided by your choices, which sounds interesting. The amount of time available in the demo also suggests that players should be able to experience the consequences of skewing too heavily towards one resource at the expense of others; however, as I managed to keep everything fairly balanced, I can’t confirm that guess.
Overall, I really liked playing through Dead Pets Unleashed, and would put it into my Cool tier. It’s obviously an indie game, for the best possible reason; its character and personality is baked into every part of the game rather than splashed on for marketing purpose. It is a unified whole, made with focus, that feels like you’re playing through a person’s story rather than a business’s project.
Finally, Dead Pets Unleashed contains one of the most well-handled content warnings I’ve seen in a game. The content warning explains the theme of the warning, explains that it will be a notable story point that will continue to affect Gordy, and offers the option to skip the scene. It then clearly explains where you will resume if you skip the scene, and reassures you that no other aspects of the game will be affected by the decision to skip. Further, it also has the option to bring up a second-level warning that explains exactly what happens during the scene, for if you need more information before deciding whether to skip the scene or not. While a content warning can never be perfectly tailored to every level of need, this is as close as I’ve seen a game get.
Will I buy this game, based on the demo? Once the full game is released, yes. At the moment, only two of the 5 planned episodes have been finished and released as the demo, and no part of the game is available to buy on Xbox.
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