Over the holiday period, a few games caught our eye – we’re taking a look at three of them today as we check out Aeterna Noctis, Wukong and Squingle.
Aeterna Noctis (PS5)
We had been looking forward to Aeterna Noctis from Aeternum Game Studios for quite a while, and when it finally released just before the holiday break it was an easy choice in terms of “what to play during the holidays”. A beautiful hand-drawn 2D metroidvania, it’s out for most major systems, with a Switch version coming soon as well.
Visually, Aeterna Noctis bears a resemblance to some of the 2D Castlevania titles, but its lush use of colors and hand-drawn art definitely have a Hollow Knight vibe to them as well. That use of color and light also ties into the game’s premise, which casts you as the King of Darkness – always embroiled in a struggle with the Queen of Light. The intro sequence is beautiful, but most of the narrative unfolds through small story nuggets you uncover while playing. And while it’s thematically familiar stuff, it’s a well told story and stays interesting – no small feat when you consider that it takes over two dozen hours to complete the game.
What also helps is that the gameplay is a solid mix of platforming and combat, with a steady sense of progression as you unlock new abilities and boosts over time. Exploration is a major part of the experience too, and new abilities will gradually open up the game world more and more – as you’d expect from a Metroidvania title. Some abilities will make traversal easier, but the key to opening up new avenues of exploration lies with beating the game’s challenging bosses – which are spread apart just enough to make sure you don’t run from one frustration to the next, but instead have plenty of changes to upgrade your character before taking on the boss.
Loot is lost when you fall in combat, but isn’t permanently gone – it can be picked up on your next run, which should be a top priority as leveling up enough to progress can take a while otherwise. There’s also a wide range of upgrades to choose from, so you can mix up your playstyle a bit by spending loot at well – or experiment during a second playthrough by choosing different perks.
There’s more of a challenge and far more content here than in many big AAA releases, so metroidvania fans don’t have to look very far and should pick this one up as soon as possible. It might follow a familiar recipe, but it’s one of the best metroidvania games in a while.
Sony’s PlayStation Talents concept has been one of the most prolific outlets for PlayStation-exclusive indies in recent years. The program would benefit from a bit more curation and/or polish here and there, but we’ve seen a few surprising releases already – the latest of which is Wukong, a nice little 3D platformer that feels like it was inspired by the classics of the PS1/PS2 era.
As such, it ticks a lot of familiar boxes – largely linear levels to explore, coins to collect for extra lives, hidden collectibles and a control scheme that’s so familiar that the developers didn’t even bother putting in a tutorial (or even a picture of the layout). There’s an intro sequence that introduces us to protagonist Wukong, but it doesn’t go very far beyond showing him dropping all of his valuables while flying – a setup for why you’re heading out there to reclaim them.
You probably have guessed at this point that Wukong is a bit short on content. Besides the lack of narrative while playing and the obligatory tutorial being MIA this is a game that – even when exploring off the beaten path – will wrap up well inside the scope of two hours with little reason to go back in and do it again, especially if you already picked up the collectibles. It’s perfectly fine that not every platformer looks like the new Ratchet & Clank (Wukong looks a bit like the PS2-era games it was inspired by), but the lack of content here is hard to ignore.
Luckily, the gameplay itself is solid, and Wukong’s eight levels are home to a diverse roster of enemies and traversal includes things like traps and switches to mix things up as well. The audiovisual delivery could have used more polish and feels a bit too much like a prototype, but platforming fans will get one to two hours of enjoyment out of it. The problem there, however, is that there’s bound to be a far meatier platform game out there in any given sale for roughly the same price – something to consider unless you already feel like a collector of games in the genre.
The winter break is a great time for VR gaming – partly because it’s just not that hot in your headset during that time. And even though consumer VR has been a thing for a few years now, the medium still manages to surprise and delight – Squingle from developer Ben Outram is a clear example of that. It came out on Steam and the Oculus AppLab this past summer (on July 15th), and we’re hoping it makes the jump to the main storefront on Oculus soon as well.
Squingle looks and feels so unique that’s hard to pin it down in terms of a subgenre, but casual puzzler is a broad definition that fits. In other terms, it’s a psychedelic maze that you must navigate with a pair of orbs – which’ll make sense when you see the game in action. In more familiar words, it’s somewhat akin to those old metal “mazes” that you had to navigate with a little ring without touching the edges – only you’re navigating an orb through what looks like a collection of tubes that is seen through what I imagine an acid trip is like.
While Squingle sounds like it could be a bit too much on the surface level of things, it more than makes up for that with easy and intuitive gameplay – that casual bit we mentioned earlier. Over the course of 100 levels there aren’t any crazy mechanics to wrap your head around or get frustrated with – just move your orbs through the tubing towards the end, and enjoy the journey. It’s especially trippy when enjoyed in roomscale mode, for which the Quest is of course perfect.
Over time, you’ll start to appreciate the work that went into Squingle’s levels more and more. What starts out very straightforward soon begins to rely on momentum, timing and having the right perspective. It’s a game that’s hard to put down, and the biggest reason for taking a break for us was that the game is an assault on the senses – in a good way. With all the trippy visuals and the twisting and turning mazes, it’s intense – and something that only VR can really deliver in this way.
Squingle even features a narrative that revolves around the origins of the fabric of the universe, but it’s quite abstract and somewhat philosophical in nature. A nice touch for those who enjoy something a bit more thought-provoking, but if you want to switch off and just go with the flow of the actual gameplay you can do that without thinking too much about the story as well. And if you feel competitive, then you can try for high scores on the online leaderboards as well. We didn’t at first, but Squingly is so much fun that we eventually ended up diving back in to see if we could tackle its levels a bit more efficiently as well. For its budget price, this one’s a must have for VR enthusiasts.