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Jupiter & Mars Review — Just Keep Swimming

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Video games set in the deep-sea depths are nothing new. From the underwater levels of classic Super Mario Bros to the aquatic survival in Subnautica, the mystery and beauty of the ocean keeps inspiring developers. Tigertron has combined this fascination with a strong environmental message to create Jupiter & Mars.

Jupiter & Mars stars the eponymous dolphins living in the far future. Jupiter acts as the player-controlled character, while Mars is AI-controlled (though will respond to direct player commands). The mission of this pair is to explore the oceans of a future Earth that has been abandoned by humanity to return peace to the seas and foster harmonious aquatic life.

The details of what happened to Earth and humankind are left intentionally vague, but, as the player progresses, remnants of humanity linger—from the pollution scattered around, trapping friendly sea creatures, to dangerous technology causing problems for sea life, to entire cities swallowed beneath the rising seas. The environmental message is obvious, and, though it is certainly a relevant and timely one, this underpinning theme can feel brutally unsubtle at times.

The majority of gameplay is spent exploring the expansive ocean environments, using echolocation to find new areas or objects that Mars can be sent to retrieve or destroy. A pulse can also be used to deter dangerous jellyfish, as well as freeing trapped sea creatures.

Each area is large enough to provide a true sense of scale, with various collectables available to find, machines that need to be shut down, or underwater wildlife to be rescued. The environments themselves look very appealing, with the player-characters, along other sea life, sporting a vivid colour palette and neon patterns that diversify the game’s aesthetics. However, despite the beauty of the areas, they still feel quite empty. While the desolation could be indicative of pollution damage to wildlife, the uninhabited ocean feels more like a development oversight than a design choice.

VR considerably enhances the experience of playing Jupiter & Mars. When engaging using a PlayStation VR headset, the world feels less empty, since the world and the inhabitants feel closer, and the immediacy of VR helps.

Several control options are available in VR mode, a snap-turn or smooth-turn using the DualShock controller analogue stick or a smooth-turn controlled by tilting the headset from side to side. The head-tilt control is by far the most immersive, but some users may find it triggers motion sickness symptoms. The snap-turn option is likely better for those who experience simulation sickness from VR and has the added advantage of providing a tighter turning circle.

Where Jupiter & Mars really stands out is the soundtrack. The music is excellent, providing a smooth, calming addition to the aquatic world with some excellent chill-out electronica, which is reminiscent of the soundtrack from Ecco the Dolphin: Tides of Time on the SEGA Mega CD. Considering that developer Tigertron also created Child of Eden, another title praised for the quality of its music, this level of excellence is not surprising.

Comparisons to Ecco the Dolphin are hard to avoid, and, although Jupiter & Mars has captured the vast, mysterious loneliness of the ocean in a similar way to this classic title, the game has failed to recreate how immersive the Ecco the Dolphin games truly were. Perhaps these deficiencies exist because Mars is the one who performs most of the physical actions or stem from the missing sense of significant danger. Something seems to be severely lacking in Jupiter & Mars when compared to its spiritual predecessor.

The themes of Jupiter & Mars lean heavily on environmentalism, adding just a tinge of science fiction in its far-future setting while eschewing the overtly cyberpunk elements of Ecco the Dolphin. These aesthetic choices are, perhaps, to the game’s detriment, as the endless exploration and lack of imminent threat can make the entire journey feel somewhat boring.

Jupiter & Mars is a calming experience overall. In small doses, the title could be a great antidote to a stressful day, particularly if played in VR. However, the game’s short length and lack of threat makes it too dull for long-term or repeat play. The soundtrack is the project’s major stand-out element, and the OST album would be worth buying on its own—if and when it ever becomes available.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PlayStation VR.

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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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