Cuphead Review

Cuphead (announced sometime during the Reagen administration) appeared to be (and indeed has been described as) a Metal Slug/Contra-style sidescrolling run and gun game, which combined with a visual style inspired by Max Fleischer cartoons and elaborate, exuberant character design made it look like one to watch. As it turns out, however, it is not a Metal Slug/Contra-style sidescrolling run and gun game. There are levels of that nature, but they act as snacky interludes between Cuphead’s actual bread and butter: boss fights. Much has been made of the game’s high difficulty and gorgeous, hand-drawn animation style, as well as some depressingly inevitable comparisons to Dark Souls, but is the game any good?

The story, as it is, is summed up in song upon reaching the title screen: Cuphead and his brother Mugman like gambling, see? They like to roll the dice, but they rolled the wrong dice in the wrong joint, and now they owe their very souls to the Devil! Happens to us all. In exchange for the Devil sparing their lives they must play the role of lethal debt collectors; murdering a variety of colourful boss characters in exchange for “soul contracts”, because it’s a 30s cartoon, and they were entirely unconcerned about potentially scarring people for life. The story’s just here to frame the action, but I like the whole “Don’t gamble, kids!” angle and how it immediately moves on to homicide, which is apparently all good. The Boss design is, for the most part, solid both aesthetically and practically. Despite mostly being a series of boss rooms, it does play like the genre it claims to take inspiration from; shooting, platforming, dodging and the like, all of which you’ll have to combine with an acute sense of timing and multitasking, because as publicised this game is bastard hard. I can only assume that’s where the Dark Souls comparison comes from, but it’s not an accurate one at all, bar the fact that both games are difficult. Scoring hits is so easy you’ll mostly be doing it on auto-pilot; the hard part is avoiding all the bullet hell projectile attacks, assist enemies and stage hazards to the point where actually focusing on the actual boss is a luxury you often can’t afford. Bosses have no health bar, nor is there any indication of how much damage you’re doing besides a rough chart shown when you die, which again means you’ll be focusing almost entirely on Cuphead and the many projectiles all trying to ruin his day. Helping you out in all this is a parry mechanic, in which pink objects can be double-jumped into (again with the proper timing) to gain super meter, as well as a series of useful upgrades and different shot types of which, although there are clear best choices, all have a use. It’s really tense, but usually in a good way: it’ll often come down to you madly dodging projectiles from about fifty different sources, when during a gap in the action just big enough to allow any cognitive process more involved than dodging and shooting, you think that surely whatever you’re fighting must be close to death by now. Then the words “A KNOCKOUT” fill the screen and you breathe a sigh of relief, feeling sufficiently rewarded by the defeat of a real pain in the arse with your amassed skill and patience. This isn’t to say that the game doesn’t feel cheap at times, it’s just that it doesn’t pretend otherwise, and lets you know early on that it intends to do everything in its power to slaughter you at any and every opportunity. The run and gun levels are a whole different beast; resembling a sort of hardcore “Rayman Origins” with no checkpoints; the same dodge-shoot-parry tactics as the boss fights apply here, but spread out over a much larger area, and with a vastly different sense of timing and context. These missions feature collectable coins necessary to buy new gear, and completing them all without killing any of the enemies contained within nets you the option to play the game in black and white, and with the audio altered to sound like it’s being delivered through a 30s speaker. This isn’t particularly noteworthy but it is a nice inclusion, and I feel compelled to mention it mainly because I actually managed to unlock it, which at one point in the game felt like a pipe dream.

Faring far worse than the entirety of Cuphead and Mugman’s on-foot adventures, however, are the plane sections. Here any weapon upgrades you’ve bought are useless, and the game seems to go the extra mile in how much stuff it pelts you with, which combined with the different method of traversal makes most of the plane fights quickly become irritating. On the flip side, design wise most of these bosses are excellent, and on the whole the game’s art style and sheer level of imagination is fantastic. Bosses all have multiple stages, which often result in vast changes in design and attack patterns, a stand-out being Hilda Berg; a woman-blimp hybrid who attacks using cloud formations of various star signs that then take corporeal form, and her final form is a massive crescent moon with her face in the middle that fires out space ships. The penultimate boss; a little boss run dictated by multiple dice rolls, is stopped from being a nuisance due to each opponent being a lovingly crafted reference to casinos, the best one being a stack of poker chips called “Chips Bettigan”. Chips. Bettigan. I rest my case.

Cuphead is, for the most part, a good time. The level of invention, imagination and effort put into designing and hand-drawing each enemy, boss and location pays dividends for the experience, and no matter how hard bosses get fighting them is almost universally engaging, and the quick restarts fuel a “One more go” mindset. Not everything hits the mark, but most things do; enough to warrant a recommendation if you’ve any interest in the game at all. Yes it’s hard, but it’s a rewarding experience, one that never made me consider leaving it unfinished.

By James Lambert

Wolfenstein II The New Colossus Review

Who would have thought five years ago that Wolfenstein would be the new gold standard for first person shooters? Sure it’s the granddad of the genre, but the series’ attempts to keep that pedigree going were generally flat, drab and barely worth a mention. Then, out of nowhere 2014’s “The New Order” changed all that; it married the old school’s fast pace, exploration and large, open areas with the new breed’s penchant for story telling, characterisation and a general sense of focus. Gone was the plot focused on Nazis attempting to harness the occult, in its place an alternate history tale in which the Nazi regime is carried to world domination on the back of cyborgs and giant robot dogs. Series hero BJ Blazkowicz is an unstoppable killing machine built like a brick shithouse, but his inner monologue reveals his true feelings as a weary, poetic human being who just wants all this shit to end, but won’t stop fighting until it does. It was an unexpected gem, all told, and I’ve been greatly anticipating its sequel since it was announced at E3 earlier this year. At this point I will say that in order to adequately discuss both the gameplay and (particularly) the story of “The New Colossus”, I will need to spoil a twist that happens partway through the game. Unfortunately both the marketing material and even the game’s cover art (not seen above) have visually spoiled it already, but if you can go into the game blind then I recommend you do so.

It starts the exact moment The New Order ended: with BJ having killed Deathshead and ordered the Kreisau Circle to nuke his position. Fortunately they come back and rescue him, but after waking up from a five month coma and having had most of his intestines removed he can’t walk under his own power and knows that in his current condition his death is fast approaching, facts he discovers just as the U-Boat the Circle commandeered is besieged by Nazi forces led by Frau Engel, out for BJ’s head after he ruined her face and killed her Boytoy back in TNO. This is where things get spoilery: the story is, in my opinion at least, split into two quite distinctive parts: the first two thirds or so act as an extended epilogue to The New Order. Caroline Becker is dead, BJ is using her Da’at Yichud power armour to move around, he’s staying away from Anya so as to acclimate her to the imminent tragedy of his death, and recruiting resistance and destroying important Nazi installations while he still can. Throughout all this BJ is verging on a psychological break in addition to his inevitable physical one; talking to Caroline in his head, the aforementioned treatment of Anya, as well as flashbacks to his upbringing by a kind, loving mother and almost cartoonishly monstrous father. This all ties into gameplay, too; during these missions BJ has his max health capped at fifty, but his max armour is boosted to two hundred. It actually becomes the sequel “The New Colossus” at that two thirds mark, where BJ is publicly decapitated, his head thankfully rescued by the resistance and attached to a super soldier body Set Roth just happened to have lying around, bringing him back up to his full Nazi-killing strength, as well as returning his max health to one hundred. That’s when he starts wearing the yellow leather jacket and has the gold ring around his neck, as seen on the front cover of the game. It’s here that the game has something of a shift in tone: the opening chunk of the game maintains the grim, sombre tone established by The New Order, made even more so by BJ’s situation, and ends in a way that seems tragically quite fitting given the state of the world. Now don’t get me wrong, BJ having his head cut off and put on a super soldier body isn’t at odds with this series’ tone; it does have a sense of humour, and for all the grim and dark stuff there’s a vein of gung-ho adventure serial running through it, so that isn’t the issue. It just leans into that sense of rip-roaring adventure from that point until the end of the game, which does feel a tad jarring after everything that comes before it. As a result that game really feels like the middle part of a trilogy; tying up loose ends and acting as a definitive conclusion to The New Order whilst putting in place the building blocks that will lead into a third instalment I presume is coming. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s still great and I’d welcome a third game, but in terms of story it does feel like it lacks the singular focus of The New Order.

Gameplay wise, it’s very similar to its predecessor, but that’s by no means a bad thing. It maintains the fast pace and immense firepower but adds new features in the form of upgrades to BJ’s supersoldier body that allow you to reach high vantage points, squeeze into tiny gaps and (the one I picked) shoulder charge through walls. Most important though is the most simple: you can now mix and match dual-wielded weapons. Carry a silenced pistol in one hand and the new tri-barrelled rotary shotgun in the other, for if things go wrong, or maybe an SMG for quick run and gun and the one-handed grenade launcher in the other for the multitude of cyborg soldiers you encounter. My personal favourite was an assault rifle in the right hand and the aforementioned shotgun in the left; with upgrades added through the new system in which you choose what to upgrade rather than finding each add-on in the environment, this combination turned ninety percent of enemies into dog food after a few seconds of continued fire. It was, in a word, brilliant. Stealth is still solid, though often falls through due to how quickly the alert phase spreads through the ranks, though it’s always worth attempting due to how quickly you can and will be gunned down on normal difficulty; even with overcharged health and full armour you won’t last if you don’t keep moving or ensure your firepower is as an all-engulfing blanket of death. Level design is more varied and interesting this time around; the focus on liberating Nazi-controlled America leads BJ to the sinister mixture of Nazism and Americana of Roswell, New Mexico, an eerily beautiful post-nuke Manhattan and a run-down, dilapidated ghetto in New Orleans. Finally it’s not a big addition but I do need to point out how much I appreciate the melee weapon changing from a knife to a hatchet: stabbing Nazis is out, hacking their arms and legs off is in, and it feels so good.

Overall, The New Colossus is very good. Story wise it does lack the singular focus of New Order and feels like the middle instalment of a trilogy, but that does not decrease its impact, and it has enough stand-out moments to smooth over the small issues it has. The gameplay hasn’t changed much, but that’s not an issue; it’s still fun to mow down scores of Nazis with dual automatic shotguns. This current run for the Wolfenstein series stands aside DOOM as this generation’s pinnacle of first person shooters; remembering what made the classics so good while embracing the advantages of modern advances in the medium, and placing an emphasis on character and story at the same time. GET PSYCHED!

By James Lambert