Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Sonic Mania was one of my favorite games of 2017. Sega finally handed off the reins of its most famous series to people who understand it better than anyone else: the developers of many high-profile fan mods, remakes, and spiritual successors. Unsurprisingly, they turned out a game that reached back to Sonic’s golden age, plucked out the things that worked, and polished them into an imaginative, modernized hit. The game’s not even a year old, but Sega is already updating it with a re-released Plus version. Its bits of extra content—two new playable characters, expanded multiplayer, and a new mode that remixes the entire game—are available to Mania owners as a $5 download, or you can grab the full game for the first time as a physical release, whose box also includes a neat little art book. (The highlight of that is easily the two-page spread breaking down Sonic’s start-screen animation into a frame-by-frame sprite sheet. It’s a thing of beauty.)
Sega and Mania’s developers were strangely tight-lipped about what Plus would actually be adding. If you were judging from the information they’d shared in the run-up to the game’s release, you’d think the new characters are the bulk of it. Ray The Squirrel and Mighty The Armadillo are fine additions, two new compatriots with unique abilities—Mighty is impervious to spikes and slams into the ground to break stuff or attack enemies; Ray can glide sort of like Mario in Super Mario World—that fit the game’s aesthetic to a T and give seasoned Mania players a chance to approach its levels in new ways. But the real meat of this update is the “Encore” mode. There’s a lot more to it than Sega had let on. Aside from changing every level’s color palette, it changes enemy and item placement into tricky new configurations, redesigns certain elements to accommodate for the new characters, and even changes up some boss fights. It’s significantly different from the base game and significantly harder, requiring an even more careful, exploratory pace—you know, between moments of uncontrollable high-speed bliss.
Part of that difficulty comes from Encore mode’s most experimental change: a complete rethinking of the way Sonic handles lives and game overs. Instead of picking a character (or a pair of characters) at the beginning of the game and sticking with them throughout, Encore mode gives you access to all five characters. If you cross a checkpoint with 50 rings, you’ll open up a bland pinball bonus game where you can add one of each character to your bank. (You can also get them from special power-up boxes, but they’re rare.) You can only have two on screen at any given time and can press a button to swap between them, say, if you want to change tactics and scale a wall with Knuckles or casually float through a dangerous stretch with Tails. The rest of your team waits in the wings, only appearing if you bust open certain power-ups or if one of your current characters dies. Once you’re all out of super-fast anthropomorphic critters, it’s game over and back to the beginning of the level (or worse, if you’re out of continues, which the game hoards greedily).
With the increased difficulty and lack of lives giving you even more reason to play carefully, you can end up spending a surprising, frustrating amount of time just trying to clear one level. That said, the Mania team deserves credit for continuing to rethink Sonic’s purest form. It was tremendously successful in its last outing, and Encore mode feels like a promising but flawed rough draft for the direction an actual sequel might take. Having all five characters available to you and adapting to their strengths and limitations as they swap in and out is tremendous fun and completely changes the series’ dynamic. If the developers were able to design levels from the ground up with this new system in mind, the finished game likely wouldn’t feel quite like the awkward Frankenstein’s monster that Encore mode is. Hopefully, they get that chance. [Matt Gerardi]
The deck-building genre got its start in card games thanks to a bit of economic practicality. Designers—most notably Dominion’s Donald X. Vaccarino—sought to give players the same sense of deck-tuning strategy provided by collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, but without all the blind purchases and additional costs that make that genre such a notorious cash sink. Outside of dedicated adaptations like Star Realms (or Dominion itself), those same mechanics—i.e., start with a deck of cards featuring basic verbs, then steadily acquire more over the course of a particular run of the game—have been much slower to make their way into video games, but damn if Slay The Spire doesn’t argue that the idea’s day has come.
Released through Steam’s Early Access and still in development, MegaCrit’s best-seller combines basic deck-building with involved RPG combat, tasking you with climbing the titular tower as one of three troubled heroes. Each builds their deck from a much larger library of individually tailored cards, and therein lies half of the game’s appeal: Will you build your infernal Ironclad around brute strength or fill their deck with cards that allow them to harm themselves to gain a boost? Will your Silent emphasize inflicting poison on her foes or turn herself into a knife-hurling, card-discarding machine? The deck variety (and the collection of game-altering treasures and curses you acquire along the way) ensures that no run will ever have the same feel, but it’s also only part of what makes STS so time-drainingly compulsive.
The other half is the combat itself, which shares a trick with recent favorite Into The Breach, providing players with all sorts of information about how the next turn of battle will play out. When you know that your opponent is about to strike you for a massive 17 damage—while his compatriot prepares a crippling debuff—every choice you make during a turn becomes a lot more compelling (and the failures of your deck when you just can’t fend something off, even when you know its coming, all the more apparent). That’s how Slay The Spire gets its hooks into you, by blending its meta game with battles that are half fantasy smackdown, half elaborate card-based puzzle. Because when you lose, it’s easy to figure out exactly why… and to toss yourself back into the fray in an attempt to correct the mistake and climb again. [William Hughes]