A JAZZY INDIE WASTELAND

You enter the valley of May 2019’s game releases. In front of you are an assortment of groups representing the ten games that are on this month’s list. Some of the larger ones set the scene – a vast, colorful wasteland with pink and yellow punks stalking the grounds. Speedy animals in speedier karts zooming around the perimeter. A retrospective exhibit of 8/16-bit Dracula stabbings. Another involving anthropomorphic bugs dressed up like Sheriffs, Deputies, and Strangers taking pot shots at the kart racers. As a jazzy soundtrack emanates from some unseen source, you feel a tap on the shoulder and jump to your defense, but it’s just a Japanese detective, searching for clues about his dead grandfather.

The atmosphere is cozy. Despite the blazing sun, the shade cast from the cliffs above makes the area tolerable. You start to recognize some familiar faces – like the harried team at Avalanche Studios, who’ve returned just months after their Generation Zero exhibit with another for Rage 2. The look on everyone’s faces tells you that you’re more than welcome to visit and make small talk if you like. However, nothing you see is deeply compelling; actually, you think you see the body of a dead cat in a white t-shirt in the far distance, and it makes you uneasy.

It would be so easy to turn back now and wait for the game releases that June has in store, but there’s always the idea that something in this wasteland might intrigue you, if you just gave something new a shot. Do you stay, or do you go? I hope you stay, but I won’t hold it against you if you don’t. These games aren’t made for everyone, and I doubt next month’s batch will be either.

Whatever you decide, I hope to see you soon.

Looking like the best mash-up between GTA 2 and Vice City.

Shakedown Hawaii (PC/PS4/Switch/Vita)
Publisher: Vblank Entertainment Inc.
Developer: Vblank Entertainment Inc.
Release Date: 5/7/19

What is it?
Shakedown Hawaii is a sequel of sorts to Retro City Rampage, and an homage to the drug-soaked aesthetic of movies like Scarface. With 16-bit graphics and a top-down view, these games play a lot like the early GTA games. They’re open sandboxes for players to follow the story as closely as they want, while also finding time to carjack people and blow everything up with rocket launchers. If you’re cool with building a digital criminal empire with a retro fashion sense, this is probably for you. If you liked GTA better when it entered the third dimension, well, I’m sure another one of those will come along at some point.

Why is it important?
Part of what made Retro City Rampage stand out was Vblank Entertainment’s willingness to port the game to whatever system could run it – including an MS-DOS version, and appearances on the Wii and PSP long after they were out of date. My guess is that the release of Shakedown Hawaii will unfold in much the same way. Though no Xbox One version is in sight, the game is launching on the Vita day and date with the console/PC versions (complete with a physical copy). A 3DS version is also still in the works, apparently, but it wasn’t ready just yet. Interestingly, if and when that version does release, it’ll likely be the last major multiplatform game to hit the 3DS and Vita.

Can this game win Game of the Year two years in a row?

Life is Strange 2 Episode 3: Wastelands (PC/PS4/XB1)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Release Date: 5/9/19

What is it?
Not too long ago, Dontnod Entertainment released a schedule for the remaining episodes of Life is Strange 2. In addition to confirming that the game will wrap up in 2019, the schedule makes clear that the long wait between episodes is not going anywhere – Episode 4 launches on August 22, and Episode 5 on December 3. I still like this idea, as it gives each episode more time to get fleshed out than the traditional two month release schedule for episodic games allows. I just hope audiences don’t get angry and lose interest because of these large date gaps.

Why is it important?
This release strategy is an effective way of communicating that Life is Strange 2 is more complex than most episodic titles, and needs that extra time to maintain a high level of quality. It’s also the right move, given how much discussion has bubbled up in recent months about development crunch and unrealistic deadlines in the industry. Life is Strange 2 is currently the only major episodic adventure game in town, which gives Dontnod a real opportunity to shape where this subgenre goes next. Hopefully they continue their evolutionary process, and everything doesn’t fall apart in the end.

It’s worth remembering that Avalanche Studios also did the 2015 Mad Max game.

Rage 2 (PC/PS4/XB1)
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Avalanche Studios/id Software
Release Date: 5/14/19

What is it?
The biggest release of the month, Rage 2 is a sequel to id Software’s Rage, but it’s more than that. It’s a reboot of sorts, and a greater test of the series’ relevancy. The drab and mechanical environments of the first game’s post-apocalyptic setting are replaced by Mad Max-y punk vibes and a stark color scheme that’s also being explored by games like Far Cry: New Dawn and The Outer Worlds. Though Rage follows in a lineage of monosyllabic titles like Doom and Quake, it never quite caught on the same way those games did. I’m not sure if an aesthetic reboot will help, but it can’t hurt right?

Why is it important?
Aside from being Avalanche Studios’ third game release in less than six months, it is also the first in a line of titles based on id Software IP releasing sometime this year. Following Rage 2, we have MachineGames’ co-op focused Wolfenstein: Youngblood in July, and the id Software developed DOOM Eternal coming later on. It will be interesting to see how these three titles stack up – I’m confident in MachineGames’ abilities to develop another great Wolfenstein, and believe people when they tell me how great the last DOOM was. The real question is if blending the teams at Avalanche and id will produce a remarkably different experience, or if it’ll still be the same first-person shooting we’ve come to expect with a new coat of paint.

The Man Who Would be Thief

Alternate Jake Hunter: Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz (PC/PS4/Switch)
Publisher: Arc System Works
Developer: Neilo Inc.
Release Date: 5/16/19

What is it?
Hot off the heels of last year’s release of Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk, Arc System Works has taken the Tantei Jingūji Saburō series back from Aksys Games and decided to publish it themselves. Daedalus is a prequel that follows the story of a younger Saburō (AKA, Jake Hunter) as he visits New York to, among other things, investigate the death of his grandfather. Using the power of modern consoles, this title is sure to be a step up from the previous iterations Western fans have seen – with environments that can be explored in 3D,  a script that sticks a lot closer to the original text, and references to real life American locations, as opposed to a generic Anywhere, USA setting.

Why is it important?
At this point, ArcSys is just using the Jake Hunter moniker as a way to market the game outside of Japan. They’ve otherwise abandoned the idea of anglicizing the series, and I believe it’s the right choice. I suggested as much in my Ghost of the Dusk reviewDaedalus being a prequel also allows new players to jump into the series easily, and should it prove to be a success, there’s another PS4/Switch title already out in Japan ArcSys can localize, called Prism of Eyes. This would allow them to keep the train rolling in a way Aksys never could. I really hope that happens, because this series is shaping up to be pretty great.

Really looking forward to the Croc and Gex reboots next.

Bubsy: Paws on Fire (PC/PS4/Switch)
Publisher: Accolade
Developer: Choice Provisions
Release Date: 5/16/19

What is it?
Accolade was a video game publisher in the 90’s known for titles like Test Drive, Star Control, and Bubsy. Though the company was subsequently bought by Infogrames, which later became the new Atari, the Accolade name lives on as a brand managed by Hong Kong-based Billion Soft. We have yet to hear about the return of Test Drive or Star Control, but this new Accolade, for some reason, has been busy commissioning more Bubsy games. Including 2017’s much maligned Woolies Strike Back. What actually is Bubsy? An anthropomorphic cat mascot people thought died years ago. What is he the mascot of? Accolade, I guess.

Why is it important?
When Bubsy 3D released in 1996 and nothing came out for years after, people rightly thought it was the end of the series. Its reputation has only soured as time has progressed, and these days is only notable for being developed by Eidetic, the developers who went on to make Syphon Filter and eventually became Sony Bend (makers of Days Gone). If Choice Provisions manages to turn in a great game, that should ultimately be all that matters, but it’s easy to be skeptical. As long as it’s not another big, heaping ball of Bubsy, it’ll probably be a win in somebody’s book.

I really want to play Kid Dracula.

Castlevania Anniversary Collection (PC/PS4/Switch/XB1)
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami/M2
Release Date: 5/16/19

What is it?
This is a collection of several Castlevania games for $19.99. You get: Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, Castlevania: Bloodlines, Kid Dracula, and the Game Boy titles Castlevania: The Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge should you pick it up. This is the first time there’s been a Castlevania collection of this caliber, and also the first chance Western fans have officially had to play the Famicom version of Kid Dracula, which came out years before the 1993 Game Boy version.

Why is it important?
Konami hasn’t made a new Castlevania since Lords of Shadow 2 in 2014. However, between this release, the Netflix Castlevania animated show, and the release of Castlevania Requiem (a port of later series highlights Symphony of the Night and Rondo of Blood) on PS4 last year, it’s clear they’re trying to court fans back into the fold any way they can. The new version of Kid Dracula is a good sign, as is the decision to hire M2 to work on this collection. They were responsible for the now-inaccessible but well-liked Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth on Wiiware back in the day.

Starring Shadow the Hedgehog and friends.

Team Sonic Racing (PC/PS4/Switch/XB1)
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sumo Digital
Release Date: 5/21/19

What is it?
Coming from Sumo Digital, the company that developed Crackdown 3, Team Sonic Racing is a co-op focused racer that’s based in parts on games like Splatoon and Overwatch. Sumo is the same studio that developed the Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing series, so it’s easy to assume this new entry will just be another take on that. It’s possible that they’ll feel similar at the end of the day, but from the name change, and gameplay additions Sega is trying to push, it feels like a new direction. I’m just sad that all of the Sega character cameos are gone. It ends up putting more emphasis on Big the Cat than there ever needs to be.

Why is it important?
People like Mario Kart, and in a world where that already exists on Switch, there are undoubtedly plenty of people looking forward to a new experience in that style. That Sonic the Hedgehog movie is also coming out pretty soon, so it makes sense to release a game at same time, even if the movie doesn’t look great. I’m most excited to see where the story in this game’s campaign will go and if it’ll reach the lofty heights of Sonic Adventure 2‘s ridiculousness. Sonic and the gang go to space in that one. Eggman blows up the moon. It’s wild.

Buggy, but hopefully polished all the same.

Blood Will Be Spilled (PC)
Publisher: Doublequote Studio
Developer: Doublequote Studio
Release Date: 5/23/19

What is it?
Developed by a small studio out of Bratislava, Slovakia, Blood Will Be Spilled is an indie game with a lot of potential. Starring a bunch of bugs dressed up in Western outfits, the gameplay is a mix of side-scrolling action and turn-based combat. The voice work from the trailer sounds pretty cool, and the hand-drawn animation shows a level of quality that’s very impressive coming from such a small studio. With the relative lull in big game releases, and Red Dead Redemption II now months behind us, I can’t imagine a better window for a title like this to come out.

Why is it important?
The studio, Doublequote, was founded in 2014, and it’s taken them five years to put their first game together. That’s a daunting feat when you think about just how much work must have gone into making the game look this good. I hope this game is great, gets the attention it deserves, and allows the team to relax for a bit before moving on to the next project.

Dynasty Warriors, this is not.

Total War: Three Kingdoms (PC)
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Creative Assemmbly
Release Date: 5/23/19

What is it?
Real-time tactics is a genre that is still relatively unexplored. Focused more on actual warfare than resource collection like real-time strategy, games like Total War are at their best when they’re recreating battles and making players feel like they’re mashing plastic Army figures together like they did as kids. There’s plenty of room for other franchises to occupy this space, but with Total War covering everything from the Warhammer franchise to ancient Rome, the real struggle will be coming up with scenarios that haven’t been touched yet.

Why is it important?
Sega’s presence in PC gaming is underappreciated. We hear news more often about games like Yakuza Kiwami 2 coming to the platform, and it seems novel since not all Japanese games are released that way. However the truth is that the company has a large chunk of PC development under its belt, owning not only the creators of Total War, Creative Assembly (who also made Halo Wars 2 and Viking: Battle for Asgard), but also Relic Entertainment, developers of Company of Heroes and the upcoming Age of Empires IV. Sega’s PC presence is quite large, and the annual Total War games are just one aspect of their might.

Another NIS joint.

Lapis x Labyrinth (PS4/Switch)
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Release Date: 5/28/19

What is it?
Hunt for gold. Enter some dungeons. Choose your classes. Stack up your party members to unleash powerful attacks. NIS’ latest game, Lapis X Labyrinth, is another action RPG in their growing library of titles, and bears more than a little resemblance to some of other games they’ve made. I’m all for getting down with some hi-def sprite-based action RPG madness, but I wonder just how many iterations of this formula they can make. This one, like the others, has unique mechanics that will set it apart, no doubt, but it’s definitely part of a style you either like, or you don’t.

Why is it important?
NIS has come a long way since their days of being known just for Disgaea. By now, they’ve developed a staggering amount of new IP that feels partly like an evolution of their work, and also like a complete overhaul of what they want to do as a company. I’m all for that, but I can’t help think that it wouldn’t hurt to diversify even more. But what do I know? These games probably make enough money to keep the company going and that’s what matters to them in the end.

What does this mean? Who knows. It just sounds really cool.

If you’d like to  contact me, you can reach me on Twitter, or contact me via email at dcichocki@tiltingwindmillstudios.com.