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Double Cross Review — A Playful Cross Between Genres

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Double Cross

Puzzle platformers and investigative mystery games have little in common. Platformers bounce the player from screen to screen with little care for the details, whereas investigative games have the player analysing every little detail with reams of text. While seemingly incompatible concepts, Canadian studio 13AM Games has ambitiously combined the two genres in Double Cross—its third game after party hit Runbow and arcade throwback Pirate Pop Plus. OnlySP’s Chris Hepburn was impressed by the preview build when he interviewed 13AM Games last year, and the final result is a colourful romp through space that provides platforming and intrigue in equal measure.

Double Cross‘s protagonist, Zahra Sinclair, is an agent of Regulators of Interdimensional Frontiers and Technology (RIFT), an elite police squad in charge of protecting the multiverse. During a typical day of training, a break-in occurs and a powerful energy weapon is stolen. From the evidence left behind, the ‘Suspect X’ who stole this weapon must be one of Zahra’s fellow agents. Zahra vows to find the traitor and begins her journey travelling between different dimensions to gather evidence on the culprit.

While the game’s bright cartoony aesthetic might bring titles including Mega Man to mind, Double Cross draws inspiration from a wide array of platforming history’s greatest titles; hints of Sonic, Super Meat Boy, and Rayman Legends are all present in the mix. The three worlds all present a different style of puzzle platforming. Gootopia features rising and falling poisonous slime, blobs of goo to swim through, bouncy surface puzzles a la Portal 2, and an epic chase sequence away from a wave of slime. The Funderdome focuses on precision platforming, with flickering neon platforms, an arcade section, and lasers to avoid while sneaking through a mafia boss’s base. Reptarria has a higher concentration of enemies, with waves of dinosaur creatures, conveyor belts, magnetised platforms, spike traps, and leaps across a moving convoy. Some areas of the game can be intimidating thanks to masses of instant-killing spikes or lasers, but generous checkpoints and the lack of a timer allow the player to approach each section at their own pace, leaving the difficulty tough but fair. The three levels that comprise each world can be tackled in any order, and a fourth is unlocked when the former three have been completed. These unlocked levels are where the game shines brightest, combining all the puzzles of the previous three levels in the lead-up to a formidable boss fight.

The worlds of Double Cross have ‘Upgradium’ crystals hidden throughout, which can be used to upgrade Zahra’s abilities. Along with permanent upgrades that give Zahra new combat moves and more health, the game has equippable upgrades that can be changed in and out at any checkpoint. These buffs modify stats such as combat strength, damage taken from spike pits, the reach of certain moves, and the speed of healing abilities. The right combination of upgrades can make all the difference in a tricky section, and players will want to revisit completed levels to find any Upgradium they may have missed.

Zahra’s movement through the worlds feels fast and fluid, with all the expected abilities of a platformer such as wall jumping, grabbing ledges, light and heavy attacks, and dodging. Unique to Double Cross is Zahra’s Proton Slinger, a device that shoots out a laser arm to grab things. The slinger is used in myriad ways throughout the game: flinging Zahra through the air, grabbing and returning enemy projectiles, placing slime coats onto different surfaces, and holding onto a balloon while floating through a spike maze, to name but a few. The mechanic takes a little getting used to, but a robust tutorial and plenty of time to practise ensures players will soon be naturally slinging across the world.

Combat is simple but competent, with most enemies easily dispatched with a few punches. Zahra gains a variety of fighting moves as she levels up, but, outside the boss fights, the more complicated moves feel underutilised. An energy meter allows Zahra to collect energy from enemies and well-timed dodges, which can be used for a burst attack, a laser, or healing. Given the ease of combat and the plethora of spike pits, the energy is primarily used for healing.

Between levels, Zahra returns to RIFT Headquarters, where she can chat to fellow RIFT staff and piece together clues on who Suspect X could be. The characters are all well written and likeable, which adds an interesting tension when any one of them could be the traitor. Case notes are saved on the pause menu, and evidence gathered can be shown to any of the crew members. The right crew member will be able to analyse the item to help with the case, but showing evidence to the wrong person can be worthwhile in its own right.

The graphics of Double Cross could be ripped straight from a Saturday morning cartoon. The characters are bright and colourful, with distinct styles and personalities. RIFT’s agents come from all different parts of the multiverse. Some examples of the diversity on offer are the enormous flower man who is Zahra’s trainer, the merwoman Commissioner Wiseheart in charge of investigations, a cat girl with access to cat videos from all versions of the internet, a scientific Sasquatch, and a tall man with Popeye-style forearms. A lost alien with the unpronounceable name  V”!!k}~X is the cutest tentacle monster to ever exist. Environmental details are similarly varied, from the green goopey swamps of Gootopia to Reptarria’s desert factories and The Funderdome’s futuristic neon Japanese city.

Music is similarly energetic, taking cues from the environments, including bubbly noises in the Gootopia soundtrack and metal clanging for Reptarria’s factories. A beautiful piano medley of the different tracks plays over the end credits, and the music player unlocked after finishing the game is worth a look-in.

The sound effects, on the other hand, are a bit muted. Zahra’s fighting yelps are louder than the sound of a hit connecting, which is partially responsible for the combat lacking impact. Certain aspects of puzzle design would have been aided with more pronounced sound effects, such as a crackling sound on electrified boxes to aid in identifying hazards. The sound mix can be altered in the options menu and dropping the background music back a few degrees can help.

A splash screen at the start of the game recommends using a gamepad, which is clearly the intended way to play. Keyboard and mouse controls function well enough, but the mouse, oddly, cannot be used in menus. Controller support is plug and play, and all buttons can be remapped if desired. Remapping the dodge ability to a face button is recommended over the default shoulder button allocation, which, considering the analogue triggers of modern controllers, feels sluggish.

Double Cross is a short game, with a run time of five to seven hours depending on the collection of optional Upgradium. The focus is definitely on quality over quantity, with each level having unique puzzle elements and style, but some players may be left wanting more. The arcade level in the Funderdome also does not really fit, with a Flappy Bird clone and other mundane minigames taking up a frustrating chunk of the short run time. With how well the rest of the levels are designed, these arcade games grind the pace to a halt and would better serve as optional extras.

Some parts of Double Cross‘s interface feel unfinished or could use extra polish. At the time of review, quitting the game to desktop is impossible; Ctrl-Alt-Delete has to be used every time. Skipping through text is also not possible, the ‘Fun’ section on the options screen does not appear to be implemented, and multiple save slots would be appreciated.  

In the end, though, these gripes are small issues in an otherwise excellent game. Double Cross mixes puzzle platforming with a mysterious story beautifully. Zahra’s journey may be brief, but it is loaded with personality, charm, and a whole lot of brilliant platforming.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

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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