Dragon Quest (Switch)
I’ve never been a fan of JRPG’s. Not out of bad experience, mind, more so the lack of experience as a whole. I was raised on Western RPG’s, The Elder Scrolls and Fable for example. The Series S dropped at the end of 2020 and once I’d received mine and stopped lamenting my choice over the X with its beautiful, backwards compatibility-enabling disc drive, I thought I’d step outside my comfort zone and install Dragon Quest 11 via Game Pass. I played 5 or so hours and surprisingly really enjoyed it. The characters, the humour, the stunning visuals (even as the gimped S version), even the rather simple battle system.
Unfortunately, I always feel…off when I play a game in a series out of order. I’ll probably never play the revered The Witcher 3 because of this, which is sad and annoying, but then again with the vast library I’ve attained spanning several platforms, at least this quirk narrows down potential “next play” candidates a bit. So I bought, playing and also enjoyed Dragon Quest for the Switch, the game that started it all (and I mean that in more ways than just the series) in the form of a refined, slightly hideous looking mobile remake.
Again, that quirk I have with playing games in order usually puts me off to remakes and remasters too, but I’ve come to a point in my life where I’ve resigned to admitting I just do not like the NES. Yes, saved the industry, revolutionary blah blah blah. The games suck. There are highlights, but they are riddled with prehistoric game design that I don’t have the patience for.
Looking into the version differences I noticed the mobile remakes are fairly faithful to the original game. The visuals and audio have been changed, the latter of which is an upbeat yet varied display of character and was utterly pleasing throughout. The visuals are both better and worse than the original somehow, utilising the HD sprites of the latest 3DS and PS4 ports yet also using the standard SNES backdrops which create a jarring picture. The UI also sticks with Squenix’s design used in many mobile ports which is nothing short of visually gross, although more usable than the original implementation. Another major change is how quickly you can grind through the game, tweaking gold and EXP rewards, which from what I understand is a good thing as the original game is a grind fest, which is consequently weird because this version is also a grind fest. Dragon Quest is largely a game of moving around a fairly small world, fighting monsters so you can get stronger through levelling up and buying new weapons to then fight nastier monsters to do the same. It sounds mind-numbingly boring, and I’m sure to many it is, but I never felt irritated by it.
That’s probably Dragon Quest’s best attribute, it’s totally inoffensive. While I can’t tolerate most NES games for their complete lack of direction, Dragon Quest gives you just enough to get by. You explore the world of Alefgard, slay beasts, visit towns, talk to people and repeat. Alefgard, despite its primitive design, is easy to traverse and logically laid out for the player. Certain areas of the map are made for a stronger version of yourself and locals of settlements will guide you through the trials you must pass to evolve to that state. Alefgard is stuffed with “ye old” dialect, supposedly even more so with the mobile versions as it was retranslated to feel more in keeping with later series instalments and it’s charming to say the least. Their attempts at sounding old-fashioned and medieval are comical, and it feels by design. Like many NES games, dialogue is cryptic, but here it only takes a few seconds to decipher what people are saying and it was genuinely fun doing so. It’s exaggerated silliness that works in its favour, adding to the jovial nature Dragon Quest is known for. There are a few instances of complete disorientation which both myself and my girlfriend picked up on immediately, but at least in my case I enjoyed moving through the world, grinding away and eventually finding my way into a cave whose purpose didn’t click with me until a while later.
Choosing a single hurdle someone would have to overcome when playing Dragon Quest however is a simple task. It’s the one thing that inhibits the game from being anything more than a cute progenitor for both a series and a genre, and that’s the gameplay. Dragon Quest is a charming experience, but mostly because it’s largely inoffensive. It’s a game of grinding, which would be a cause of vexation were it not for the raw basic nature to the combat. Fights usually consist of opening with an attack and if the enemy doesn’t die from that attack alone, you either heal or attack again. That’s it. You learn new spells along the way, some are of some use like “Sizz” which is a powerful tool for enhanced grinding in the early-to-mid game, but proves useless in the later game. You learn spells like “Fizzle” which counter magic, but it never feels worth using when an enemy can just whack you physically in response, or “Snooze” which, as you can guess, attempts to put the enemy into slumber, but it fails too often to be of use either.
As a result, Dragon Quest looks like it has a veneer of strategy laid on top of it but it doesn’t even rise to that, it really is nothing more than attack and heal when necessary. There is no party system found in later entries, the equipment system is barebones at best, requiring you to simply buy the better item whenever you can afford it. Calling it “shallow” would be kind.
But even with that said, I still enjoyed it. It is shallow, and I perhaps liked it because of that. It let me get to the good stuff easier, the fancy, funny dialogue. It’s a short experience, no more than 10 hours, and overall it felt like a nice introduction to a series which continues to chug along with games that, due to my short affair with 11, seem to uphold a high standard.
We spend a third of our lives asleep. Motionless, inactive, unproductive. That’s no way to live! What if we could benefit from the regenerative effects of sleep, but remain busy and lively, conversing with others, creating things and learning 24/7? Hypnospace Outlaw explores that concept through the eyes of a bygone era, one saturated in gaudy pinks and purples, one where boy bands terrorise the planet, one where the technologically inept occupy the vast majority. I can only be talking about the 90’s, a time I slightly missed on the account of being born at the tail end of its lifespan, but I still recognise it as a distinct and attractive era. Slick indie rock, 1v1s on Rust and trouser-equipped, porous kitchen utensils for me no longer, Hypnospace Outlaw deeply roots itself in the culture that formed what we know today as the internet. It’s AOL, MSN and early-day forums at their best and worst.
“Hypnospace”, as the game calls it, is a means of staying lucid during sleep. Through the use of special headbands, sleeping enables people to explore the game’s 90’s pastiche of a world, crammed with the aforementioned elements of the era that make it feel like a genuine product of its time. The world of Hypnospace is a glorified large-scale forum. Different zones house different topics and audiences, like the 2-kool-4-skool “Teentopia”, the mental moratorium “The Cafe”, the diligently patriotic “Goodtime Valley” and the enlightened – if perhaps a little disturbed – “Open Eyed” zone. Possibly Hypnospace Outlaw’s best attribute is just how authentic these areas feel. They’re genuine message boards covering believable topic matters by defined and recognisable characters. All the neon lights and shoddy 3D graphics in the world can only do so much to cement the game’s place as a period piece, it’s the actual subject matter which really solidifies itself in that world.
The characters themselves vary from stereotypical mockeries to fleshed out, multifaceted people. Zane for example embodies teenage angst perfectly. He likes edgy punk music, bullies dorks and gets bare chicks, he’s the king of the playground we all know and “love”, and despite exhibiting such elementary and insufferable tropes, his presence in Hypnospace is apt and welcome. He, alongside other characters like Corey and Zane’s totally real girlfriend, Jessica, make the “Teentopia” zone feel lived in, so much so it’s a joy to explore each of their pages and how they interact with each other.
I should probably mention the gameplay. I’ve come to really appreciate “investigative simulators”. Orwell, despite it’s narrative shortcomings, is a fast and fluid example of one of these games. Prod around this made up, technological interface and unravel a mystery. Hypnospace Outlaw fits into this niche too, and it’s perhaps one of the most involved ones I’ve played and enjoyed. Hypnospace Outlaw manages to walk the line between being too neat that it’s easy and too complex that it’s difficult really well, offering plenty to play around with like virtual pets and soundboards, but most importantly the browser interface you will chiefly work with is a simple, refined tool to aid you in your exploration. Each zone is easily accessible as hyperlinks and banners, and each (well, almost every) page in Hypnospace is tagged. So as you acquire more tasks, getting to the bottom of them is as simple as identifying a lead and searching away. Tags are broad enough that finding the next step in the case never feels like you fighting the search engine, and in many cases there are more than one way to approach a scenario, some harder than others to find but they never feel frustrating to find.
This isn’t to say I didn’t get lost. I got lost plenty often, but that was mostly my own fault, because the game is just so detailed that I wanted to get lost. Each page is a memento, a well of information about a certain person, place or thing. They’re simply a joy to read, filled with witty and fitting dialogue that builds upon the world of Hypnospace as a whole. Characters interact with each other through their archaic mode of conversation, and as time passes their relationships and opinions change too. It’s a rabbit hole. You go to check out the latest “Chowder Man” track and you end up in the rebellious “Freelands”. It’s all interconnected and pure fun to explore.
That said, I did have a few gripes. I’m extremely fortunate to very rarely suffer problems when it comes to visual effects, but Hypnospace Outlaw’s garish themes and jolting animations are clearly a problem. The game, fittingly, implements viruses into the headbands which you sometimes get infected by which can lead to some severely jarring motion effects. The game also uses some sort of audio filter which causes music and the like to “pop” occasionally, fitting but highly annoying. An unrelated but quite disappointing issue I had was with the game’s ending, which, as you can guess, was disappointing, in this case for its brevity.
None of it really matters however, as none of it damaged the game’s core appeal. Hypnospace Outlaw, despite it’s clear homages, feels like a game for anyone. Whether you have fondness or embarrassment for the time period, or maybe no emotions towards it at all, exploring the complex and wonderful world of Hypnospace was something I definitely don’t regret.
I’m going to be brief here, because Art Sqool neither requires a lengthy discussion nor deserves it. When I put games on my wishlist, half the time I do so haphazardly or without much thought behind them. I use platform wishlists more as a catalogue of games that look interesting, rather than something I’ve researched and direly want to own.
Art Sqool falls into this camp. I saw the screenshots and I had the same thought I’m sure everyone else does, “this looks fucking weird”. It’s aesthetic reminded me somewhat of vaporwave with its bright pink and purple colour pallet and hazy, static filters, but it mostly looks like a nauseating “ironically bad” style a lot of kids seem to like. It’s stylish, don’t get me wrong, but just because it’s intentionally bad doesn’t mean it’s shielded from criticism, especially so when you consider the entire game is designed around creation and art.
The game has you draw small pictures based on a prompt given to you by your incorporeal professor, ranging from “what does the outside look like” and “draw the buildings on campus”. You roam around – very slowly I might add – in third-person through the surreal, play dough-esque campus for… I don’t know. I was going to say new tool bits, as the game starts you with nothing more than a blank page and a black pen and you find new colours and utensils through the world, but the game never hints at this being the task, you just figure it out. Perhaps you wander around for inspiration, but regardless you end up having to draw the damn picture, and with my first few prompts I gave it a proper shot, taking aim at a bizarre, church-like structure and copying it down on my pad. To submit your art you either find a door or commit seppuku by diving off the floating land you aimlessly wander. Your professor then grades it and sends you onto your next task, all the while saving the picture to your hard drive for you to admire later.
I presumed the “catch” of the game would be something like an actual AI grading your performance. A rudimentary one, for sure, perhaps one that could identify correct colour usage or geometrical logic, but nope. It’s completely random. The game is utterly pointless. I then got a prompt which stated “Find an area on campus and claim it as your own” and it clicked with me. “Ah! Everything I’ve been drawing will show up on campus! Maybe my creations are uploading to other campuses online for other people to see, and vice versa!”
Ha! Art Sqool is pretentious indie nonsense, the exact pretentious indie nonsense that gives indie games as a whole a bad name. There is nothing creative or smart about Art Sqool, it does nothing intelligent or even remotely enjoyable, hampered further by terrible controls which make viewing the world excruciating due to the lack of mouse look.
Thankfully the developer pulled the game from Steam in the shallow political statement, so I won’t even have to tell you to avoid it. But just in case…