Most Played – September 2021

September was a busy month for Team Games Asylum, with numerous games getting the review treatment. We still managed to fit in some other bits and bobs though.

Steven Universe: Save the Light – Matt

Another month, another licensed game. Like so many others, Steven Universe: Save The Light – available in a double pack with OK K.O.! Let’s Play Heroes – was one I pounced on the moment it fell to under a tenner, which is more or less my sweet spot for something of this ilk.

Save The Light plays like a homage to Nintendo’s Paper Mario, featuring flat 2D characters on 3D backdrops, and a turn-based battle system requiring well-timed button presses to block attacks or deliver extra damage. The opening hour or so makes a good impression, introducing the characters – of which I know by name only, having seen only clips of the show – and letting you explore a quaint seaside town, picking up a few ongoing quests in the process. The flat-shaded visuals are pleasing, and there’s a rousting battle theme – one that becomes more raucous when Steven’s balding father heals the team by jamming along.

Turning a licensed game into a Paper Mario clone may sound pretty great, but it isn’t long until I realised the developers may have bitten off more than they could chew. The platforming section often lose direction, the platforming jumping itself is twitchy, and there’s some heavy padding towards the end.

A few glitches crept in too, including a crash bug requiring a reboot, while one late section felt sloppily designed. Without spoiling anything, access to the inventory is temporarily lost, meaning you can only heal yourself during combat via healing abilities. If you take too much damage outside of combat, you’re screwed. I had to repeat this section a few times over.

Indeed, I was surprised by how little Save The Light pandered to its audience – I can imagine some younger gamers struggling to make headway as some of its boss battles are reasonably challenging. The bosses themselves are quite creative, incidentally, and the means of defeating the final boss took a while to figure out. When the credits rolled, I had just over 12 hours on the clock.

It was a bit of a mixed bag, then, but I’m glad it exists. It was only around ten years ago that a game based on a cartoon series would either be typecast as a 3D platformer or a lame kart racer.

Townscaper – Jake

Apparently, I’ve been in a bit of an unusual-settlement-building-game mood. I reviewed the excellent Islanders early in the month, but couldn’t resist Townscaper when I noticed that the Switch version had sneaked out at the end of August.

Whereas Islanders is essentially a puzzle game, Townscaper is unashamedly a toy. As a player you’re limited to placing or removing chunks of building, and other than colour, which you can choose, the game decides how to render that chunk. Townhouses become towers, roofs become raised courtyards, pavements become gardens, all seamlessly popping into place as you tap away.

And you can’t break it. Remove too much brickwork, and steel supports appear in place to keep your structures sound. A little steelwork adds variety to a town, but I like to avoid too much, which I think can look messy. But that’s my judgement, not the game’s – there’s no objective, just space to build on as you see fit.

That space is on a pleasingly irregular grid, which adds to the visual appeal, and also to the feeling of collaboration with the game – there are rules to everything the game does, but they’re not explicitly stated, so there’s a curious sense that you’re as much discovering a town as building it. The result is enjoyable, satisfying, and beautiful. No further objective required.

Fantasian (Part 2) – James

Fantasian, or Hironobu Sakaguchi’s final challenge, as I like to call it, has continued to enthral me. While the first part of the Japanese RPG, released in April, showed potential with memorable level designs, a delightfully varied musical score and some tactical combat, it’s the open-ended second part that sees Sakaguchi and his team of Squaresoft alumni delivers on all fronts.

Picking up straight after some tumultuous events at the end of part 1, there are party members to reunite with, discoveries to be made, stories to unfold and dozens of bosses to slay. But it’s how the team at Mistwalker have structured this which is most impressive.

Take the side quests – Fantasian never devolves into a tick-box exercise in rote gathering or monster-slaying tasks that are all too common in today’s role-playing games. Instead, these so-called quests offer a chance to get to know a character better, re-explore old locations with a twist, or tackle a new boss battle. These events are all naturally integrated into the game’s world, and because you can rarely predict what you’ll find next, add a wonderful element of unpredictability to the game.

Boss battles are another highlight. If part 1 let you play around with training wheels on, part 2 removes them entirely and feels like a true test of your understanding of the game’s battle system. A newly unlocked growth map allows you to re-spec characters around certain strategies, and you can now swap party members in and out of battle whenever you please.

Bosses are expertly designed, posing multiple phases, strategies, and almost merciless artificial intelligence, and you really need to understand each character’s abilities to stand a chance at beating many of them. Simply dealing damage and healing is never close to good enough. These firm-but-fair encounters stand as some of the best and most memorable that I’ve encountered in the genre.

Playing Fantasian’s always leaves me astonished that this game exists as it does and was able to deliver on its own uncompromising vision without outside interference. This is, after all, a period where pandering to players’ pre-conceived expectations has become increasingly commonplace. On top of this, we must remember that Fantasian was bankrolled by Apple as a marquee title for Apple Arcade, and as a result, could very well have fallen afoul of publisher meddling.

And yet here we have some of the hardest boss fights in RPG history – with no adjustable difficulty settings! – accompanied by a pleasing lack of handholding and a staunch refusal to adopt modern trends for the sake of it. And that’s on top of some of the most finely crafted mechanics from many masters of the genre. Fantasian is the real deal, and I’m savouring every moment I spend with it.

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