NPR staff review the biggest games of March, and more
March really took us places. We got a revivified version of the massively influential Resident Evil 4, a new baseball game that celebrated pioneering Black players, and the season finale of an acclaimed The Last of Us adaptation — evidence of video game stories' growing cultural currency.
In short, it was another busy month on the beat. NPR staff played March's other big releases, and caught up with a few VR titles from earlier this year.
Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon
Platinum Games made some wild choices in designing Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon for the Nintendo Switch. They took a character famous for stylish violence and sensuality, shrunk her down, and made her wander a vast forest as a lost little girl. Gone are the gun heels and the ridiculous combos. Instead, you'll rely on rhythm-based spells, elemental abilities, and simple brawn to conquer impish faeries and environmental puzzles.
But here's what's really audacious: you'll spend much of the game controlling two characters, independently, with one controller. Push the left joystick to move Cereza (AKA, kid Bayonetta). Push the right to move Cheshire, a demon reluctantly possessing Cereza's beloved cat doll.
Naturally, each has their strengths. Cereza can bind enemies and activate magical flowers, mushrooms, and the like. But she can't actually hurt anything. That's up to Cheshire, who can leap into action as a giant cat-monster, ready to tear into enemies and smash through obstacles like thorns and rocks.
The control scheme resembles 2013's Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, only more fluid, even arcade-y. Where Brothers used the dual-character format to deliver a wrenching story, Cereza and the Lost Demon uses it to tickle your brain and vex your fingers. It can feel like the schoolyard challenge to rub your tummy and pat your head at once.
You don't have to go it alone, though. You can always just hand a Joy-Con to a buddy, and suddenly you're playing an (unofficial) co-op game, where the challenge isn't hand-eye coordination, but rather verbal communication. I got through most of the game with my wife, who enjoyed Cheshire's pure destructive force, while I played support as Cereza.
All in all, Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon is a curious beast. It's got the quality animation and aesthetic you'd expect from Platinum Games, but little of its baroque, intense action. It also lacks the mechanical depth of truly cooperative games like It Takes Two. But Cereza and the Lost Demon does succeed at making you feel like you're playing a team slowly learning to work together — whether you're doing that by yourself, or with a friend.
-James Mastromarino, NPR gaming editor and Here & Now producer
Crime Boss: Rockay City
Crime Boss: Rockay City feels like a joke that I'm not in on. Reluctant, flat performances from A-listers like Michael Madsen and Michael Rooker, Danny Glover and Danny Trejo, Chuck Norris, Kim Basinger and Vanilla Ice dress shoddy, sometimes offensive dialogue in an unflattering, low-effort sheen that lacks even the most basic charm that average B-movies could fall back on. Even if it provided a fun gameplay loop in its main mode, this game would be a difficult sell.
Its single-player roguelike mode sees the player assume the role of Michael Madsen's character, Travis Baker, as he seeks to rule the criminal underworld of Rockay City, a fictionalized version of Miami. Players will go on various missions ranging from hits, fighting rival gangs over turf, stealing valuables and contraband from rival gangs, and robbing strip malls. While there are technically more missions available, most of them bleed together, creating a pervasive sameyness that never really let up after my dozen-or-so hours with the game.
Crime Boss' gameplay and general structure aren't inherently bad, they're just lacking the same teeth players can expect from other crime games. It tries to lean on its star-studded cast to deliver it from mediocrity. Instead, they drag it down. With its camera regularly planted on cleavage, and profane writing that would've been in poor taste even a decade ago, its cast is admittedly not given much to work with. Unfortunately, there's no lemonade to be made with these lemons. The most notable offender among multiple phoned-in performances comes from Chuck Norris, whose lines actually sound like they were delivered through a cell phone.
While it's clear that the game was made with some specific constraints, presumably brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it's odd to hear household names disinterestedly rattle off lines that all sound like first takes. It begs the question: if 505 could afford Danny Trejo, couldn't the publisher also afford to revise its script or possibly even get a second take?
-Charlie Wacholz, Contributor
Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania
In its Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania DLC, developer Motion Twin proves yet again that it's in a league of its own when it comes to crossovers. It's especially fitting since Castlevania laid the foundation for Dead Cells' fast-paced action all the way back in 1986. But Konami hasn't released a new game in the series for nearly 10 years.
Imitators and devotees have rushed to fill the void, resulting in some of the most iconic games of the last decade, but in partnering with Konami, Motion Twin went the extra mile by allowing players to revisit Dracula's castle. Foot-tapping remixes of iconic tracks, nostalgic implementations of the series' iconography and weapons, pulse-pounding recreations of memorable boss fights and charming nods to long-running jokes within the fandom meld perfectly into Dead Cells' gripping gameplay loop and cheeky sense of humor.
Dead Cells is flow-state gaming at its finest; with options to suit nearly every playstyle. It's easy to sink into gaming nirvana as you careen through its procedurally-generated levels, decimating everything on your way to the next objective. With Castlevania's iconic aesthetic to back it up, Dead Cells' gameplay climbs to an even higher bar of quality and fun. Adding two additional levels, a couple of new boss fights, and a smattering of additional features, this DLC melds seamlessly into a typical run at the game.
Those new enemies, secrets and boss fights make for some surprises that are sure to delight. Dead Cells: Return to Castlevania offers more than just a cheap nostalgia trip. At $10, players will get more than their money's worth in this expansion that's a must-play for Castlevania fans and anyone looking for an enthralling challenge.
-Charlie Wacholz, Contributor
Destiny 2: Lightfall
When I preordered Lightfall last year and got access to the exotic auto rifle Quicksilver Storm, I don't think I swapped to another weapon the entire Season of Plunder. It was a fun gun with an exciting perk that made your next shot a homing missile after landing multiple hits. I was sure that Lightfall would follow suit, bringing in tow a dope subclass and plenty of fun to-do's.
Unfortunately, exploring the new human city of Neomuna on Neptune was a stark reminder of how short Destiny 2's latest DLC has fallen. Leading up to the release of Lightfall, Bungie shared plenty of updates about the new Strand subclass, what to expect from Neomuna, and the big baddies lurking in the Black Fleet.
In the DLC's trailer, the Pyramid-shaped ships flanking the cosmos gave the impression that Bungie would be following up the success of past DLC The Witch Queen with even more panache. Instead, we get introduced to a flat villain, "The Witness", whose mysterious backstory does little to bolster the weak narrative arc of the campaign.
Throughout the main story, we encounter new and familiar faces, including a rendition of Osiris that relies too heavily on bravado and constant pointing to "The Veil" (a phenomenon we learn little about throughout the DLC but somehow poses a significant threat).
We also meet the chrome-clad Cloud Striders of Neomuna who teach us how to effectively wield Strand, the green threads that you can wield like Spider-Man to swing your way through Neptunian city. Only, the traversal is lackluster and pales in comparison to what was promised in previous cinematics. The cinematic trailers for Lightfall gave the impression that Strand would be limitless, but it actually triggers a cooldown that drastically slows the experience.
Lightfall is a reminder that Destiny 2 is a live service game — there's a roadmap the game must follow, regardless of whether or not DLC is necessary. And sadly, Lightfall doesn't feel essential in the way that predecessors like Forsaken and The Witch Queen did.
-Jamal Michel, Life Kit/It's Been a Minute Intern
Editor's Note: Technically Lightfall came out the last day of February, but we're including it on this list since the community's reception and critical discourse really emerged in March. -JM
Diablo IV Beta
On November 2nd, 2018, excitable fans crowded into a convention auditorium at BlizzCon, awaiting a rumored announcement of Diablo IV, the next installment in Blizzard's hugely successful PC and console video game franchise. Instead, the day's presenters took the stage to proudly unveil a Diablo-themed game that was mobile-only (and that would later debut in 2022 as the controversial Diablo Immortal). They were subsequently booed.
Nearly five years later, this month's beta preview of Diablo IV feels like a long apology letter to previously-disappointed fans.
The game immediately transports you to the world of Sanctuary, where the demon Lilith and other evil creatures have escaped their underworld kingdom and are wreaking havoc on the land. Gone are the colorful, fairy-tale graphics of Diablo 3: Instead, Blizzard has crafted a brutal land of ice and misery. Combat remains much the same, but a vast amount of content hides in each area, making the game feel even bigger than previous installments. Even after over ten hours of solo gameplay during the first beta weekend, I felt I had barely scratched the surface of Sanctuary.
Cooperative gameplay in Diablo IV turned out to be just as rewarding as playing alone. I enlisted two of my siblings to create a merry party of misfits the second weekend of the beta, plundering dungeons and solving side-quests both hard and easy. Enemy difficulty is scaled by player experience and multiplies when players attack as a group, so our last battle took over twenty minutes of slashing, casting, smashing, and reviving to defeat the boss. When the dust settled and we had collected our loot, we had only one question: What's next?
-Alex Curley, Associate Producer, Programming
Hot Wheels Rift Rally
Rift Rally promised to transform my living room into a giant playground for classic Hot Wheels, and I was sold. As the Chameleon RC car charged, I excitedly outlined daring courses around my apartment to show off to my friends. That excitement slowly faded as, one by one, each of my course ideas were proven too ambitious.
Velan Studios built on a title they produced for Nintendo, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, for this new augmented reality (AR) racing game. Rift Rally uses AR to create a virtual track you can see through a connected app as you physically steer through four "Rift Gates" placed throughout your home. During a race, the RC car moves throughout your course while a screen on an app displays a digital overlay of your vehicle, other racers, and obstacles.
But the AR is easily displaced. Frequently, my tracks would lead me to ram directly into a bookshelf, instead of cruising by. This was especially frustrating when the game directed me to destroy drones that I couldn't reach because AR had placed them inside my couch.
Rift Rally is at its best when you're not racing and can laugh off course instability. My favorite challenges involved using my Mach Speeder to pick up and deliver dumplings to a dragon, or trying to find matching snowman 'suspects' in a lineup on the track.
The AR also adds visual flair to simple driving. In Stunt Mode, you can range freely about your home, doing donuts and kickflips. These stunts are sure to make anyone looking at the physical car on your floor laugh, as it calmly cruises forward while the on-screen car gracefully pirouettes.
The Chameleon (virtually) transforms into 22 classic Hot Wheels cars, and unlocking them is the main motivation to progress. Each Hot Wheel has different power-ups and stats, which you're able to boost by spending in-game credits. The Chameleon even noticeably handles differently depending on which virtual car you've set it to.
I loved the novelty of seeing my living room through the eyes of the game's more creative challenges, but the unstable courses tried my patience and I can't recommend Rift Rally to anyone with young children, even though it looks like the ideal toy.
-Vanessa McGinnis, Digital Campaign Associate
Storyteller is brief, cute, and elegant. You could easily finish it in under two hours. But I couldn't get it out of my head.
Perhaps that's because I have fond memories of playing its pixelated prototype years ago. The game looks much, much nicer now, but the format is much the same: Storyteller presents you with empty comic panels, a cast (clearly inspired by literary figures), and a range of situations (a wedding, a death, a resurrection, etc). By arranging characters and scenes, you'll build stories to match little prompts. You might be charged with putting a Duke behind bars, for example, so you'll have to stage a crime and summon an detective to point the finger.
While these narrative puzzles get increasingly complex, Storyteller can feel more like a toy than a deeply-featured game. It swerves from affairs to poisonings to abductions with cartoons so cheery they somehow keep things light-hearted. It can even feel a little classy, with parodies of literature and fairy tales that'll make you chuckle — but, like, the intellectual kind of chuckle.
It's almost more interesting to play the game wrong. To see what bizarre outcomes emerge when you combine characters and situations together with wild abandon. Part of me wanted a more complex simulation that could really prioritize player freedom over narrow solutions. But at the end of a stressful day, I enjoyed what Storyteller had to give: something clever and surprisingly soothing, despite all the murder.
-James Mastromarino, NPR gaming editor and Here & Now producer
Tchia offers a beautiful, cartoony vision of New Caledonia, from developers who call the archipelago home. Clearly influenced by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, Tchia provides a vast set of islands to explore.
Tchia really shines in just how many ways it gives you to move around. As Tchia, the titular character, you can climb almost every surface, use your glider to sail across valleys, slide down mountainsides, and most notably, "soul-jump" — a mechanic reminiscent of Cappy's ability from Super Mario Odyssey — to control any animal or small object you come across.
I particularly enjoyed the ability to sway back and forth on a palm tree before using the momentum to launch Tchia forward in the air. On their own they're simple mechanics, but together they make traversing the colorful and vibrant world a true joy.
Don't let Tchia's bright visuals and bouncy island aesthetic fool you though; the game takes you through a surprisingly dark story following Tchia's journey to free her father from captivity. There's a fair amount of violence along the way (complete with a villain who eats babies!).
I could feel a bit overwhelmed with everything there was to see and do in Tchia. At the start of the game, you're introduced to a host of minigames, but keeping track of all of the abilities and activities at my disposal felt burdensome at times.
Despite these small challenges, Tchia's climbing, gliding, and soul-jumping kept me hooked all the way through the end — and even had me coming back to find a few more hidden treasure chests after the credits rolled. If you're looking for a quick adventure with a unique and detailed setting, Tchia is worth exploring.
-Graham Rebhun, Software Engineer, Publishing
Let's face it: times are tough. There's a war happening in Europe, layoffs have hit close to home, and climate change looms over our daily lives. With so many destructive forces dominating the news recently, I've found myself wishing for more constructive video games, where I could leave something behind that wasn't fought over or created through conflict. Enter Terra Nil, the new environmental strategy game from developer Free Lives.
Granted, Terra Nil starts in a bleak place. A terrible disaster has left the planet barren, and it's your job to restore the flora and fauna of four different regions, then depart. Unlike other city-builders, your goal is not to make life better for humans, but to leave the world behind after making it thrive on its own.
Luckily, creation is an absolute pleasure: you begin by generating power for soil-cleansing machines. Next, you sow vegetation, but you'll have to obey some rules as you do so. Grass can be placed directly on cleansed soil, for example, but forests can only be placed in areas where the player has triggered a wildfire. Once you've fulfilled the vegetation requirements (as well as a few other small tasks), the last step is to recycle all the buildings you've created and load them into your ship, leaving behind a beautiful, lush paradise.
Players new to city-building strategy games will be most at home in Terra Nil, but the currency-based building will offer more experienced players a moderate challenge. The recycling system at the end of each level is also no joke: guiding the drones to the buildings to be broken down and recycled often means you will have to place more buildings to completely clear the region. With only four maps to play on, beating the main campaign only took me about five hours. I was also disappointed to discover that I sometimes had to bore into my beautiful creation in order to finish recycling the buildings I'd placed.
With its vibrant graphics and constructive gameplay, Terra Nil is a breath of fresh air. Regenerating badlands ravaged by nuclear fallout is a unique pleasure, and the puzzle-solving required offers a unique challenge. The main campaign is quite short, but maybe that's the secret charm of Terra Nil: wiping clean the work of the past to play again, and hopefully create something even more beautiful.
-Alex Curley, Associate Producer, Programming
Resident Evil Village VR
Resident Evil Village sold me with a flashlight.
Plopped (well, thrown out of a wrecked police van) onto the snow-covered outskirts of some unnamed Euro-slum, I reached for the light. Normally in a game like RE Village, that light would emit from my first-person perspective, as if the flashlight was super glued to my head; A good way to narrow my field of view and raise my already escalating heart rate but hardly innovative.
However, thanks to a recent patch, I played Village on Playstation's new VR headset and using its motion controls, I "held" the flashlight in my hand, sweeping it across creepy empty alleyways as naturally as I would an actual torch. I raised it up over my head to peer into some disgusting goop-filled cauldron. I crouched down by a bed, arching the light left and right in search of supplies.
"Immersion" is a buzzword developers love to toss out to describe their vast, complicated video game worlds, but I'm telling you, using a flashlight in the opening moment's of Village was one of the most immersive experiences I've had in a video game.
So how's the rest of it? If you've played RE Village before, you'll know and love this amusement park-like shooter featuring monster-of-the-week scares that take you from a Baroque-styled castle to a swamp-submerged windmill.
Village is hardly Resident Evil's scariest entry but its shooter-heavy gameplay lends itself well to VR. Pulling a pistol from your jacket or a rifle from behind your back is smooth and responsive even in the most tense of fights. Ratcheting the shotgun feels supremely cool every single time (even though it probably looks very silly to anyone else sitting in your living room).
While there's some VR jank that rears its head in cutscenes, my only complaint with this VR patch is the lack of physical objects to interact with. Why can't I flush that creepy doll down the toilet? Why can't I throw rotting fruit at the ghoul lurching at me? I understand why Capcom didn't spend the time adding physics to everything, but RE Village would be an even better game if I could slap a vampire in the face with the arm of one of their buddies that I just shot off a moment earlier.
-James Delahoussaye, TED Radio Hour Producer
The Light Brigade
The Light Brigade is a challenging roguelike shooter set in a moody fantasy realm that's deeply informed by the grim aesthetic of World War 2. As a soldier of The Light Brigade you must fight your way through procedurally generated levels using your WW2-era guns and holy magic. You'll recover the souls of your enemies and fallen comrades as you sneak, loot, and shoot while trying not to alert too many enemies at once.
While the VR gunplay is the real standout, you can also use your magic to locate enemies on the map, attack multiple foes at once, or shield yourself. At the end of most levels you can "purify" the souls which will unlock permanent upgrades. And along the way, you'll find temporary improvements for your character and weapons for the duration of your run by looting or purchasing tarot cards, gun charms, and gun attachments.
My favorite moments of the game were finding cover in intense gun battles, then strategizing my next move. Your character does not run very fast so you'll learn to rely on teleporting to get from cover to cover as quickly as possible. The enemy AI can be really challenging: you will die a lot in this game, but, mercifully, you have one extra life for each run, which gives you the chance to return to your body and retrieve the souls you had collected.
The premise is simple - the gameplay is compelling, and the detail in the world, items, and lore show a level of care that is somewhat rare in stand-alone VR titles. I loved the character design and the 3D depth of the tarot cards - minor touches that really made the game feel special.
However, the Quest version I played did lack some polish. The loading screens in between each room and level killed the flow for me. But the overall presentation of the game and the core gameplay loop kept me engaged while I tried to unlock each class variety to try different tactics. With some minor quality of life improvements, The Light Brigade could be one of my favorite VR titles so far in 2023.
-Will Mitchell, Streaming Media Manager
Correction March 31, 2023
An earlier version of this review misspelled Kim Basinger's last name as Bassinger.