Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Review - Step Inside, The Plumber RPG's Back

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Let's get straight to the (unsurprising) statement: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for Nintendo Switch is an incredible turn-based RPG that is every bit as charming, witty, and joyful today as it was two decades ago. Much like 2023's Super Mario RPG, Nintendo didn't mess with the formula so this is the game you know and love, only it's prettier, sounds better, and includes several meaningful quality-of-life updates. But whereas Super Mario RPG was quite obviously an old game reborn for a new generation, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door stands toe-to-toe with the best turn-based RPGs of the current console generation.

Considering Paper Mario's bizarre history over the past two decades, newcomers would be forgiven for not knowing what the heck to expect in The Thousand-Year Door. To be blunt, Paper Mario's original identity and soul disappeared in the wake of The Thousand-Year Door. Today, Paper Mario is perhaps best-known as the Mario series that can't seem to pick a genre. But The Thousand-Year Door, much like its N64 predecessor, follows the tradition of Super Mario RPG and is more aligned with the Mario & Luigi series--the now-defunct series that pushed Paper Mario out of the genre--than any of the Paper Mario games that came after it, including The Origami King. And The Thousand-Year Door's Switch version further solidifies its spot at the top of the Mario RPG tier list.

The visual upgrade is more of a fresh coat of paint than a total overhaul. Its storybook aesthetic with pop-up characters and environmental trappings had a timeless quality to it already, but the new widescreen presentation, with its vivid colors and crisp textures, brings memorable locations up to modern standards. The lush flowers and white-petaled trees of Boggly Woods are stunning, Twilight Town's and Creepy Steeple's gloominess is heightened (especially on Switch OLED), and better lighting and shadows make the waters around Keelhaul Key really pop. Environments aren't as richly layered as you'd find in The Origami King, but The Thousand-Year Door is still a beautiful game that could pass for a native Switch title.

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Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 Review - Hell And High Water

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When Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was released in 2017 it quickly became one of my favorite games of all time. I beat it in one sitting and remember feeling thankful that I had played it in a room dark enough to conceal how much I wept as the credits rolled. As a young woman who had endured abuse and was desperately wrangling with her own mental health and attachment issues, Senua's journey resonated and comforted me in a way no other game ever had. So it might surprise you then, that when I heard Ninja Theory was working on a sequel, I was extremely hesitant.

My biggest concern--particularly after Microsoft purchased Ninja Theory--was that the next entry in the Hellblade series would aim to be one of the massive, AAA experiences that are taking over the games industry, complete with a cluttered mini-map, crafting, side quests, and more. That's not to say these features are inherently bad of course--they do have their place--but to me, this felt at odds with what Hellblade did so well. I didn't want breadth, I wanted the series to maintain its depth; I wanted emotion, art, storytelling, introspection, mythos, terror, and magic. In fact, I was so concerned that the studio would trade in its depth for breadth, I didn't foresee what actually happened.

Rather than expanding its systems and scope, or weaving a story equal parts intimate and mystical, Senua's Sage: Hellblade 2 focuses on vastly improving what its predecessor already did so well: visuals and sound. Hellblade 2 is a marvel to look at. It's gorgeous, cinematic, and hyper-realistic, yet still eerie and ethereal. Its music remains extraordinary, and its sound design is primed to make your skin crawl. And yet, I cannot help but be disappointed by how pared down and shallow its story and gameplay are. While Hellblade 2 might be a sight to behold, its minimal gameplay and muddled narrative prevent it from being a game that has any meaningful impact on me.

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Lorelei and the Laser Eyes Review - A Mastery of Illusions

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I've never really given much thought to the differences between a labyrinth and a maze. That is, until I played Simogo's Lorelei and the Laser Eyes. A labyrinth, as I know now, is a singular path, twisting and turning, constantly changing in direction. It invokes the illusion of feeling lost, despite the fact that its path always leads to a center. A maze, on the other hand, has multiple paths, filled with dead ends, wrong turns, and requires trial and error to reach its end. The former can be a meditative and reflective journey for some, while the latter is a trying experience that requires patience and perseverance to see it through. Despite these differences, Lorelei and the Laser Eyes brings them together through mechanics, themes, and narrative. The result is a gaming experience that masterfully interlocks storytelling with design, making it one of Simogo's finest achievements, and one of the most impressive narrative puzzle games in recent memory.

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes is a psychological horror puzzle game that sent me on a winding journey through a black and white, neon-red-accented hotel, to untangle a mystery that blurred the line between fact and fiction. It is dense with puzzles, heavy on story, but both are interwoven, and that is key to the way it unravels. I was consistently thrown off the path to the truth, led astray in what I perceived as a maze, when in actuality, I was being armed with knowledge that led me through a labyrinth to the game's heart-wrenching conclusion.

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes
Lorelei and the Laser Eyes

With no setup or direction, the game simply begins. You take control of a suave, sunglasses-wearing, 1960s mod-style dressed woman, standing alone in the woods at night, just outside the historic-looking Hotel Letztes Jahr. Like its main character, you are thrown into this world with no knowledge of who or where you are, or why you're there. The goal of the game is to find the truth, as said verbatim in the game's manual, which is found within the world itself as opposed to being accessible by default. This obtuse direction set the tone for the game--foreshadowing that I was going to have to work to understand anything and everything on the journey before me. It pulled me right in, feeding into my natural curiosity and love for mysteries. The discovery of its hidden truths is tracked via a Truth Recovery percentage in the game's menu. It isn't long, though, until you find a letter with a vague and mysterious message signed by Renzo Nero explaining that you were invited to be at this hotel, on this date, in the year 1963.

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Crow Country Review - Old School Horror

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Crow Country is coated in a murky green veneer that gives the impression you're playing it on a grainy CRT TV in one of your friend's bedrooms back in 1996. The polygonal figure of its protagonist, Special Agent Mara Forest, with her visible joints and single block of purple hair, harks back to any number of PlayStation-era character designs. Similarly, Crow Country's environments look wonderfully pre-rendered, lavished in extra detail that sits in stark contrast to its simple, blocky characters. These aren't the static backgrounds of yesteryear, however, but fully interactive playgrounds that add a modern tinge to Crow Country's distinctly retro sensibilities.

This affectionate nostalgia is in service of a game that pays loving homage to landmark titles of the survival horror genre while also boldly standing on its own two feet. Resident Evil is Crow Country's most obvious influence, but traces of Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark also stalk the darkest corners of its '90s-inspired horror. It can be a tad too authentic at times, featuring unwieldy combat that's tempting to ignore completely, but this is still a true advert for the joys of retro-modern survival horror when executed well.

Set in 1990, your first taste of the titular Crow Country occurs when Mara pulls into its parking lot in a white facsimile of a Volkswagen Polo. Crow Country is a decrepit, abandoned theme park that's both dense and labyrinthine despite its small scale--as if designed by the same architect who worked on The Spencer Mansion and Racoon City Police Station. Mara is here following up on a missing person's report for the park's owner, Edward Crow, but it doesn't take long before she's unraveling the park's deepest secrets and most intriguing mysteries.

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Animal Well Review - Going Deeper

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It's usually pretty easy to predict how a 2D Metroidvania is going to play out. At some point, you'll probably unlock a double or even triple jump to reach previously inaccessible areas, obtain an air dash that helps you traverse large gaps and pass through specific blockades, and acquire a weapon upgrade that functions as both a killing tool and a way to progress past certain obstacles. Animal Well contains most of these things, but never in ways that are expected. Created by solo developer Billy Basso and published by Bigmode, Animal Well is a surrealist puzzle platformer that's delightfully surprising. Even if its pixelated art style and genre trappings make it seem familiar on the surface, it is a game that often eschews conventional wisdom and stands out because of it.

You play as a nondescript blob who emerges from a blossoming flower into a strange vibrant world filled with creatures big and small. You can move and jump, but that's about the extent of your physical prowess. Upon awakening, you're free to explore in any direction you choose. Animal Well doesn't hold your hand and is exceedingly non-linear, letting you unlock items and abilities in whichever order you find them. There is an end goal that's revealed once you discover a map and get a lay of the land, as each corner of the map contains a flame you need to fetch in order to light the four beacons at its center. Why, you might ask? There isn't an explicit explanation for anything you do, but that sense of mystery is part of what drives the adventure forward.

The other part is the world of Animal Well itself. At first glance, its pixelated art style looks simple, yet each screen holds a deceptive layer of detail beyond its neon-drenched exterior. Whether it's the cascading background elements, reflections on the water's surface, the sway of bushes and vines as you move past them, or the realistic smoke that billows into the air after igniting a firecracker, there's more to the visuals that it may seem on first blush. There are also physics, lighting, and particle systems at play that modernize the game's Commodore 64-inspired visuals, creating a world that feels very much alive, and that's without mentioning the abundance of wildlife.

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