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Degrees of Separation Review — Opposites Attract

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Degrees of Separation is, in the simplest of terms, a lighthearted game with stunning visuals and a cute story. In this challenging yet lovingly crafted game, the player takes control of Ember and Rime, two contrasting characters on the search for answers in the ruins of a former kingdom.

The first and most beautifully blatant thing to note is the game’s outstanding background art. The sharp contrast of Ember’s warmth to Rime’s frosty landscape is extremely appealing; not only does it affect the world and how each character interacts with it, but it also creates a visual narrative for the two characters, truly demonstrating the separation between them.

The narrative follows the deuteragonists on their quest to collect black scarves throughout a fantasy land. Each level expands on a different aspect of the pair’s relationship and adds a new mechanic that is only used in that level. Each mechanic is unique and intuitive, focusing on a different narrative point. Most of these mechanics work well, but a few can get especially irritating if the player is playing alone.

For example, in the third level, a spark is created between Ember and Rime, and it explodes whenever they get too close, sending them firing off to opposite sides of the screen. This forced separation can get frustrating quite quickly, especially if the player commands the partner to follow them. Usually, the second character will remain close to the player, often causing an explosion.

Aside from the explosive side effects within this level, most of the puzzles are well thought out. However, a few can be easily cheesed or are too hard. One specific puzzle requires the use of an object from a puzzle two levels ahead, leaving the experience feeling unrewarding. In some ways, certain puzzles in the game lack a nuanced approach to problem-solving, with completion being met feelings of unsatisfaction.

Another problem emerges in the third level, when a character is supposed to jump on the other’s head, creating an explosion that is supposed to send them up to a platform. The issue is that Degrees of Separation is not a precision platformer and getting the characters to intersect at the right angle can be frustrating—not to mention recreating the setup is a tedious process.

The game drops the player in the deep end, with only a brief tutorial level in which the player learns to jump, climb, and roll objects. Degrees of Separation does not hold hands, but that is not really a problem since the mechanics are relatively simple to understand. Some of the more difficult puzzles can leave the player wondering if they missed something or if there was a mechanic that they did not quite understand. That is probably the biggest issue the game faces: that and the fluctuating difficulty of puzzles throughout. However, these faults do not stop the game from being an engaging experience, especially with a partner.

Ideally, Degrees of Separation is designed to be played with another person—specifically a significant other. Doing so takes away a few of the aforementioned issues with some of the levels.

Indeed, given that the narrative focuses on a couple, the game, therefore, seems better experienced by one. The story provides insight into the struggles and pleasures of a relationship, with each level describing a different obstacle that couples may face. All the while, the game buries its themes within an easily digestible fantasy context and an overarching plot about a fallen kingdom and mysterious black scarves.

The fact that the narrative and gameplay is based around two people does not mean that the game is not fun and satisfying for single players. The entirety of Degrees of Separation can be played alone, and it is still enjoyable, with only a few gripes concerning the AI. The NPC protagonist works mostly fine aside from the few times it forgets how to climb a rope or runs into the other character, sending them both hurtling across the screen, skipping several puzzles and jumpstarting a new voice line.

The narration seems to be recorded on a low-quality microphone, which can be jarring at first, especially in comparison to the clear sounding music. The audio quality is certainly not a deal breaker, but rather a noticeable flaw in the execution. Similarly, climbing and running cycles of the character models look stiff and out of place in comparison to the otherwise stunning visuals.

Aside from the small gripes and varyingly difficult puzzles, each level is beautiful and brings in novel mechanics and an interesting outlook on relationships. Degrees of Separation is a fresh and challenging game designed to be played with a significant other but remains a worthwhile experience alone.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

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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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