SpiritSphere DX

SpiritSphere DX is the Clamato of gaming. For those of you lucky enough to have never heard of Clamato, it’s a “beverage” we have in the US (and I use that term purely ironically) which combines tomato juice (which I love) with the steamed bodily fluids of what some people insist on calling “clams”, when really what they are is bottom-feeding, armor-plated sea-vaginas (oddly enough, that’s also what my detractors say I am). People pay money for this. Many add it to cocktails, which makes sense to me since I would need to be properly blitzed before I would ever consider letting that disgusting swill drain into my digestive track.

SpiritSphere DX for the Nintendo Switch isn’t really disgusting, but the combination is every bit as baffling from a “what kind of madness saw potential in THIS combination?” point of view. And what’s that combination?

How about crossing Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX for the Game Boy Color with Tennis. Any Tennis basically. Or Pong since that’s more gamey.

Bonkers.

The girl I’m playing as is named “Lin.” K.

Now I’ll be honest: I played Link’s Awakening DX once. I finished it, but of all the 2D Zelda games, it was the weakest and left the least impression on me. I vaguely remembered having some sort of “use the sword to knock an attack back at the enemy” section where it basically turned into an extended tennis-with-swords part of the game, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember if it was a boss or a minigame. It was a boss. The shadowy version of Agahnim from Link to the Past, and there was no “volley” part of it. Just knock the attack back at the enemy and that was that. Still, someone clearly liked the idea of turning that into a full-fledged Zelda-meets-Tennis game because that’s what SpiritSphere DX is.

And it’s sooooooo boring. The problem is the pace of the matches is too slow to be exciting, and without excitement, what’s the point? Wacky “can only be done in video games” sports are one of my favorite unsung genres, and a tennis game with swords and items sounds like maybe it can be fun. But the ball glides back and forth at such a casual pace that it’s just a snoozer, and even during extended volleys it doesn’t gain enough speed. You can eventually unlock a “fast sphere” for matches (through an overly-convoluted and apparently random coin-grindy shop thingy) but even that feels off. Games of SpiritSphere DX feel like watching two old people pass a wadded up piece of paper back and forth.

Probably the best ball to use is the “item ball” which, like the name suggests, drops items. Some of those are inspired, like a shield that you can place anywhere on your side of the court for added defense. Others, like the bow & arrow, are used to temporarily stun your opponent. That sounds nifty, but it comes with two problems. First, you still have to be paying attention to the ball, which makes getting clean and accurate shots off a bit of a chore. Of course, the ball is erosion-slow, so it’s not too hard to keep up with. But, if you become skilled at using the bow and play against anyone who isn’t, SpiritSphere DX suddenly becomes a game of the Golden State Warriors versus your local high school girl’s JV team. The bomb item does that too. Unless you play the single-player mode, you won’t grind up coins fast enough to add variety to the multiplayer matches (which, again, you unlock randomly, horrible choice), but if you grind up coins to add variety to the multiplayer matches, you won’t find an opponent equal to the challenge of the skills you’ve picked up. And since SpiritSphere DX is local-multiplayer-only, you might struggle to find someone able to keep pace with you. The single-player campaign can only stimulate you for so long. In my case, it was a single play-through that took me about fifteen minutes. Not a lot of value there.

This is the tabletop mode. It’s neat and it works, but the problem is you’re still playing a dull game with it.

The one and only curio that held anyone in my circle of family and/or friends attention was the tabletop mode, where two players hold opposite ends of the fully-assembled Switch and use the screen like one of those old Ms. Pac-Man cocktail machines. It works, but it’s still the same, boring game and the novelty of the layout gets old quickly. I feel horrible because developer Eendhoorn did nothing wrong here, mechanically speaking. SpiritSphere DX has accurate, responsive controls and a nice, simple visual style that invokes nostalgia successfully. The game isn’t broken, and he did his best to break up the monotony with a variety of maps and characters, each with their own special moves or quirks. I *wanted* to like it, because it looks like it should be fun. But it’s not. It’s boring, and there is nothing worse a game can be than boring. You know what? You can’t know it won’t work until you try, and so all credit to him for trying. I hope Eendhoorn keeps this indie development thing up though, since actual talent is on display here, even if the concept was DOA. I mean, it didn’t work. Dead on Arrival, not Dead or Alive. It wasn’t anything like DOA the game series. Not enough boobies, among other things.

SpiritSphere DX was developed by Eendhoorn
Point of Sale: Switch (non-DX version on Steam)

$10 said everything is better with boobies in the making of this review.

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FOX n FORESTS

Hi there, Fox n Forests. Take a seat please. We need to have a talk.

First thing’s first: the name. Do you know how many times I accidentally called you Fox & Friends? The name is basically begging for mockery or to be botched when spoken by sloppy wordsmiths such as myself. Also, the name is technically FOX n FORESTS, as if it were being screamed by a narcoleptic that briefly nodded off after the first syllable. What is with that “n” anyway? It’s so clumsy and distracting. You have a gorgeous sixteen-bit era game with magic spells and upgradable weapons and treasure chests that sometimes have traps designed to unfairly screw the player and..

Oh, I get it.

You were trying to dress up like Ghouls ‘N Ghosts huh?

It’s okay, you can tell me.

As far as I can tell, the dialog with the checkpoint critter has no payoff and is just supposed to be an “LOL, this character collects games, just like the majority of Kickstarter backers did judging by the end credits” joke. Also, whoever is the person shown in this picture, I want to thank you oh so much for the nightmares I’ve been having these last few weeks, you fucking monster, you.

Well, that makes things awkward. You see, I’m a child of the 2000s. I’m not nostalgic for the type of game you aspire to be. Oh, I don’t really care if a game is neo-retro or not. Take a look at the two games I hold up as the best two indie games ever developed: Axiom Verge and Shovel Knight. Both of them aspire to invoke the era you dress yourself in. So when people will inevitably say I had it out for you from the start, obviously that’s not the case. Truth be told, I haven’t followed your story at all. I had no idea you raised over $125K USD on Kickstarter. I had never heard of the studio that birthed you. I just said “hey, neat looking game.”

And you are neat looking. Authentic SNES look and feel. Of course, that’s where the issues start. Like having melee and projectile attacks mapped to the same button. Why? Because “back in the day” games had fewer buttons? Well, you see, I don’t really buy that. The SNES had four face buttons, just like the PS4 and Xbox One controllers I used playing you, plus two shoulder buttons, select, and start. Why do you have the same attack mapped to two different face buttons, when ranged attacks and melee cause different damage and are upgraded separately? So, in order to do a melee attack, you must either be in the act of jumping (when you can’t fire your projectiles) or you must be ducking.

Now, I’m not an anthropomorphic fox. Hell, I’m not even foxy. I’m sultry at best. But if I were an anthropomorphic fox, I would think that I would be able to comprehend that if my melee ability caused more damage than my ranged attack and an enemy was within close proximity, it would make more sense to just bonk them with my magical club thing without going through the effort of ducking or jumping to do it. It is so unbelievable that you can’t just swing your weapon while standing still that I kept checking the control screen to make sure I wasn’t missing it. I did this the entire length of the game, because it is that unfathomable.

It’s not even an exaggeration to say, as I uploaded this screenshot, I gave it one final glance over to make extra, extra, EXTRA sure I wasn’t missing something. I’m not.

That was pretty much how I felt about the entire Fox n Hannity experience. For every step forward, you stepped backwards into a cow patty. You have eight levels and five boss fights, one of which isn’t even really a boss fight. Of the eight levels, six of them are platformers and two of them are shmups. I’ve never understood why platform games do that. Oh, don’t worry Fox. I mean, even Nintendo did it with Super Mario Land, a game that came out in the United States exactly three weeks after I was born. Incredibly, in the nearly twenty-nine years since then, nobody has realized mixing these two completely incompatible genres is a combination surpassed in stupidity only by teriyaki-flavored soda.

Anyway, your shmup levels are bad. Like, bad-bad. Like, seriously, go put your nose in the corner for the next ten minutes. What were you thinking? No matter how much effort I put into building my health bar up, everything in those levels is a one-hit death. Even touching floor or ceiling. It’s a jarring, cringey gameplay shift, going from a very slightly above-average platform experience into a very mediocre Gradius-type of one. Cuphead did this too, and while I hated Cuphead, at least those shmup sections felt inspired and not out-of-place. YOUR shooting stages feel so lifeless and generic that they come across more like filler. And given how much you were already dipping your toes in the lake of blandness, that type of filler is like adding sawdust to bread and then chowing down on it. Not good for you, Fox n Forests. Your poop will be all pulpy, now.

See that itty-bitty little orange plant in the bottom right corner? Yea, the tip of my bird’s feet brushed up against it and I died. These stages are brought to you by Valium because you’ll need it to get all the rage you’ll feel playing them under control.

But let’s talk about the platform levels since that’s your bread and butter here. They’re not bad at all. Mostly nice design. Cool variety. The difficulty-scaling is a bit off since I had more issues beating stage 1-2 than I did stage 4-2. That could be because I had upgraded my offense significantly by that point. But otherwise they’re fine. They’re the best part of you. And while you’re not the first game to use the “change the level on the fly” mechanic (represented here by changing the seasons), what’s here mostly works. I mean, it was kind of annoying that there’s a pause every single time the main character raised his weapon up and was frozen while he was doing the “THUNDERCATS, HOOOO” pose every time you change the season but NOT when you change it back. But even then, while it’s not exactly original, it keeps things interesting.

Or, at least, it does the first time you play through a stage. Unfortunately, you relied heavily on forced-replays of levels to pad-out your length. I’ve tried padding myself to make up for my own inadequacies, so I get it. But nobody bought that my boobs had grown four sizes overnight, and nobody is going to believe you’re actually longer than your eight stages no matter how much gauze you stuff into your shorts.

Each of your stages contains five hidden acorns. If you do not find enough of these acorns, you won’t have access to the later stages. And I don’t mean the bonus stages for each game’s world (worlds consisting of two levels and a boss fight) that you unlock by finding all ten acorns in a world. Oh no. I mean actual levels that you need to finish to, you know, beat the game. Well, that fucking sucks.

Even THAT wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been possible to get all the acorns on your first run through each stage. But you had to be a dick and not allow that. Sometimes you won’t be able to access them until you have special arrows that you acquire only from beating bosses. Stages have bullseyes of different colors scattered around them that you must shoot with the matching color arrow to unlock access to different areas of each stage. That sounds fine, but the areas you’re unlocking are teeny-tiny. It might just be an extra platform or two that gives you access to the acorn, and that’s it. So you forced myself and others to fully replay the entire stage to get to these sections, and then finish the stage to keep them. If we were unlocking vast new areas of levels that contained new and innovative gameplay mechanics, maybe this would be justifiable. But we’re not. This is one of the worst instances of forced-level replaying I’ve ever seen. It’s like being forced to sit through a rerun that promises you never-before-seen deleted scenes that are really just 20-seconds long and add fuck-all to the plot. There might be an entire extra section to the game if you get all 40 acorns (it does unlock something), but I would have to care enough to get them all to find out. And I don’t.

Actually, I only enjoyed five of the platforming stages. This vertical level (or was this the vertical non-boss boss-fight?. Meh, both are boring) is hampered by some spotty collision detection and became such a chore that it’s where I declared my status as a wuss and started the game over on easy mode, just to finish it. Which is another issue: no on-the-fly difficulty switching. Fuck that noise. And I REALLY didn’t want to have to replay this one to grab the stuff I missed the first time around. So I didn’t. Because it was boring the first time.

Fox N Forests, you have fine level design, but not so fine that I want to play the exact same fucking levels again and again. There was nothing more agonizing for me than to play a stage for the third time, get to the end of it and STILL have a missing acorn. “WELL FUCK ME” I screamed as I hit the teeter-totter to end the level and then start over AGAIN, this time making sure to push up against every single fucking wall or making blind jumps off every platform, constantly switching between seasons while looking for the hide-and-seek champion of acorns. Yea, this was adding to the game’s run-time, but it long ceased being fun. This was busy work. Fox N Forests, you would have been SO much more enjoyable if finding these things hadn’t been forced upon me and I could just play the levels one time in sequential order and only go back if I wanted to grind up money and resources for better upgrades. An optional grind is always preferable to a forced one. Your parents, Bonus Level Entertainment, apparently never got that memo.

I hated you, Fox N Forests. I really and truly hated you. Mostly because it was frustrating watching you throw away so much potential. There’s a running gag I use about “minimum indie badness” that games must achieve for their indie cred. In your case, it’s like you were worried about not meeting your quota and overcompensated. Your levels are creative (except the shooting stages, which can go fuck themselves), but get boring when you forced me to replay them. Your controls are good, except the nonsensical button-mapping. Your bosses are well designed, except one encounter with a giant spider that is more of a copy of Metroid’s escape-the-shaft finale, only longer and less interesting. Your weapon upgrades are nifty, but I only bought one of the potion-weapons, used it once, never bought another, and was no worse off for it. Plus upgrading the weapons required even more forced replays of stages to find hidden mana-cores and stone wheels, to the point that I never even got all upgrades. Everything you did right is immediately nullified by something you did wrong, to the point that I didn’t like my time with you at all.

And the Children of the Forest approached the First Men and said “on second though, you can cut down SOME of the Weirwood Trees.”

So yea, you’re grounded Fox n Forests. Go to your room. I’m not your parent or anything. But fuck it. Go to your room, think about what you’ve done, and make some DLC that rights all the wrongs you just did. Be the first indie game I’ve ever played where the DLC is better than the main game. Because you have so much potential, and the fact that THIS is what you ended up being? You’re better than this. Way, way better than this.

Even your story was bland and predictable. During the open intro, the framing plot device made the finale so easy to guess that I wrote it down on a piece of paper and sealed it in an envelope. When the final boss battle began, I told Brian he could open the envelope. He shrugged and said “did you expect something better?” Yea, I was completely right, but it wasn’t exactly impressive. Helen Keller could see the big twist coming a mile away, and she’s not even a platforming game fan.

Fox n Forests was developed by Bonus Level Entertainment
Point of Sale: Steam, PlayStation, Xbox (Coming Soon), Switch

$17.99 (normally $19.99) accidentally called the game “Fox & Friends” 8 times for those who were taking bets in the making of this review.

Pre-release review copies were supplied to Cathy by Bonus Level Entertainment. She purchased a copy of Fox n Forests upon the game’s release. All games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are paid for by Cathy out of her own pocket. For more on this policy, read the FAQ.

Developers who receive review copy requests from Indie Gamer Chick: make sure you’re really getting them from me and not someone pretending to be me.

Check out Indie Gamer Team’s Obscure Games and Consoles review for an alternate take.

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