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Agatha Knife Review | A Dull Blade

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Agatha Knife

Apparently, the team at Mango Protocol has taken to heart Warren Spector’s advice that developers should always do one new thing with each game. That thing can be as innovative as a new A.I. system or as obvious as a unique art style. The advice is particularly pertinent for titles that slot into well-worn genres, as a unique selling point can help a game to stand out from the crowd, while the lack of one can easily result in a project being lost to the vacuum of digital storefronts. With Agatha Knife, Mango Protocol’s new game, that selling point is the promise of cutting satire, and while the developers make a notable effort on this front, the remaining elements of this 2D point-and-click narrative fail to leave a lasting impression.

Agatha Knife tries to follow in the footsteps of South Park, regarding almost every aspect of culture as ripe pickings for a lampooning, but makes the mistake of confusing offence with irreverence. The star of the show is the eponymous Agatha Knife, a closed-off, insomniac seven-year-old in charge of slaughtering the animals for her mother’s struggling butchery. With the fortunes of the shop having taken a turn for the worse in recent times, Agatha’s mother elects to visit a church and pray for better days, thus introducing the girl to religion. Bored with the proceedings and confused by the preacher’s inane rambling, Agatha goes wandering and comes across a stranger who promises that founding her own religion, Carnivorism, may offer a solution to her problems. The process of doing so, broken down into a formulaic series of increasingly tedious and seemingly irrelevant tasks, becomes the game’s primary questline. The variety of those tasks provide ample opportunity for satirisation of a wide range of topics, and those that fall under the all-encompassing gaze of the game’s commentary include transvestitism, the digitisation of the workplace, and the ever-increasing obsolescence of physical media in a digital world.

This split focus, unfortunately and inevitably, results in a drift away from the central thematic purpose, which should be paramount in a title with gameplay as simplistic and archaic as Agatha Knife. Rather than integrating naturally into the ongoing story, these side tasks appear as little more than busywork included solely to pad the experience. While the forced prolongation could be justified with strong characterisation, Agatha is an unconvincing protagonist, too eloquent for a girl who professes to hate books and too pessimistic for any child of her age. However, her portrayal works within the realm of the game’s bizarre logic, where children are defeatist, adults are naïve, animals talk, and the fourth wall is a flimsy construct. Nevertheless, consistency is only one element of a good story, and, although Agatha Knife initially proves scintillatingly bemusing, if not thoroughly entertaining, the game’s narrative drags, quickly sacrificing edginess to a pervasive sense of mundanity.

Agatha Knife

A large portion of the profound and ever-increasing blandness of Agatha Knife is attributable to the gameplay systems that underpin the title. The game adheres unerringly to the well-worn tenets of the 2D point-and-click genre, leaning, unsuccessfully, on the narrative to keep player engagement high. The mechanics are straightforward, requiring players to click on the items or people in each environment to reveal potential interactions, which may include examination, dialogue, or collection. Players are able to pick up an array of items from the game’s environment for later use, with almost all of them relevant to at least one of the tasks that Agatha must undertake. The inability to combine items or to use them in any situation outside of their specified purpose reinforces this utter lack of player agency. The on-rails nature of problem-solving results in a game that demands little more of players than to undertake every available interaction on the rare occasions when the solution is not blindingly obvious. As such, the processes involved in progression through the story frequently feel like a frustrating chore, as travelling between the various areas (even with the boon of teleportation) and engaging in often pointless dialogue consumes more time than is necessary. These design flaws stand out so glaringly because the fundamental gameplay mechanics work without a hitch, while prompts and other UI elements are all easily readable and blend effortlessly with the game’s webcomic-inspired graphics.

Even in the visuals, however, Agatha Knife feels derivative. Mango Protocol’s previous game, MechaNika, adopted a very similar aesthetic, but repetition of form is no sin, considering the two projects are linked. Rather, dissatisfaction arises from the tired nature of the art style, which has proliferated over the past few years. Despite this, character design is generally strong, effortlessly evoking a sense of person, but also often leaning too heavily on stereotype, particularly in the cases of the aged librarian and hippy mystic. Similarly, the simple environmental backdrops serve to capture the apparent mundanity of Agatha’s neighbourhood through a variety of locales, though some serve little more purpose than to offer visual diversity as the activities that Agatha undertakes therein could easily have been transplanted to an urban setting, if not removed entirely. While the visuals thus serve their purpose of creating atmosphere, the overarching style, with bold lines and flat colours, seems like a throwback to the Adobe Flash animations of a decade ago and now feels tired, worn out, and hollow.

Hollow is also an apt descriptor for Agatha Knife’s audio presentation, which simply fails to add to the game in any meaningful way, with one key exception. During the adventure, Agatha undertakes a kind of spirit journey into her own mind to uncover the god and tenets of Carnivorism. In the pitch darkness, the bland ditties that background the remainder of the narrative give way to a more ethereal theme, supported by the demonic grunting of an enormous pig. The entire sequence is haunting, and such a notable improvement over the rest of the production that one is forced to wonder what Mango Protocol could do with a horror game. Given the general drabness of the audio, the decision not to include voice acting seems wise, allowing players to imagine the voices, rather than foisting undoubtedly melodramatic actors upon the user. In this case, at least, omission seems a better choice than inclusion. Unfortunately, one fortuitous decision on the part of the developers is not enough to save the audio, just as one brilliant spark of imagination is not enough to save Agatha Knife.

Mango Protocol’s latest game is rife with potential, but consistently let down by execution and a startling lack of imagination in every area except the use of satire. A lack of focus sends the storyline into a seemingly endless abyss of tedium that cannot be overcome by the archaic gameplay. Despite this, moments of greatness occasionally threaten to break through and make Agatha Knife an engaging experience. Unfortunately, moments are not enough.

FAIL

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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