Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Star Fox Adventures

Note: This review contains spoilers for Star Fox Adventures.

I admit I don’t have that much experience with the Star Fox series, and even then my only real exposure to it was the Switch version of Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which contained exclusive Star Fox content. However, I felt motivated to play Rare’s take on the series, Star Fox Adventures, in particular because the only thing I had heard about from it was the original character Krystal, and so wanted to see what else there was to this game and understand the character in that context. After finally getting the chance to play it, I found it overall decent, though flawed.

Eight years after the events of Star Fox 64, a Cerinian named Krystal is in pursuit of the evil General Scales. After obtaining and releasing a Krazoa Spirit, Krystal is attacked and trapped inside a crystal prison. Meanwhile, Star Fox receives a message from General Pepper about distress signal from Dinosaur Planet, which has literally fallen apart. As the team is in desperate need of funds, Fox McCloud takes the mission for the money, requiring him to set foot on the planet without any form of firearms.

The story is fairly straight-forward, though detailed enough to allow for a proper sense of world-building. However, from what I can tell, the Star Fox elements seem pretty tacked on, with Fox McCloud as the player character not feeling as though it matters that much to the larger narrative. This also has a pretty negative effect on the story at the end, which I will get into later.

The primary cast of characters.
From left: Krystal, Fox McCloud, Tricky

In a departure from the traditional Star Fox style, as I understand it, there is a bit more of an RPG style to go along with its setting on Dinosaur Planet. Much of the gameplay involves Fox using Krystal’s magic staff for various things, from casting different spells such as fire and ice blasts and ground quakes to opening doors and pulling levers. The abilities of the staff tie in very closely to much of the game’s puzzle elements, which can require you to use fire blasts to hit switches in time and/or in a certain order, or matching the right color of flame, among other things. For all that it can do, the staff also requires energy for many of its moves, requiring you to replenish it by gathering gems from plants every so often.

While the staff can prove very versatile, there are some issues I have with it. For instance, the aiming can be a bit messy, since the y-axis is inverted while the x-axis is not, leading to situations where it seems as though the camera is working against me rather than with me. This can be especially frustrating when dealing with flying enemies and is only exacerbated by the fact that foreground objects can also block your aim, with no adjustment to compensate. There’s also a section around the midpoint of the game where you obtain a SharpClaw disguise, however the game does not tell you that it’s a staff ability, which led to some confusion on my end at first.

The staff can also be used for combat and one-on-one fights cause the screen to adopt a more cinematic letterbox style. I like this more cinematic style of combat, especially with how it’s incorporated seamlessly with the rest of the action, though combat can get repetitive at times, as the letterbox view gets you to fight each enemy individually, unless you know how and when to use certain staff abilities to make things easier. When battling SharpClaw, you usually have to get the timing right in order to be able to land uninterrupted hits, though you may often end up taking a hit anyway until you figure this out.

Early in the game, you have to rescue a prince named Tricky, who then on becomes your partner with his own abilities, such as fire breathing or digging, that become useful for environmental puzzles and various sidequests. Similarly to how the staff requires energy to work, Tricky has to consume mushrooms to use any of his abilities, which you can feed him up to five at a time. You can also hunt for mushrooms in some areas, though you can only carry up to 15 at once. Tricky will also tell you when certain things are nearby, including spots where he can use his abilities, which can usually give you a hint as to what you’re supposed to do next.

Tricky runs alongside Fox to provide assistance in various tasks. Those icons
in the lower right corner only scratch the surface of the number of collectibles
this game has.

Among the various dozens of other collectibles in the game, one of the most important to keep on hand is scarabs, which act as the main form of currency and are usually found hidden under rocks or inside other containers. You start off by only being able to carry 10 at a time, however, completing certain story tasks grants you the ability to carry increasingly larger amounts of scarabs to purchase more expensive items in the shop or pay off various tolls. Among other things, scarabs can be used to purchase maps for all the different areas in the game, which can be viewed in your PDA in the bottom left corner of the screen. Despite only being able to carry 10 scarabs at the start of the game, upon learning that maps don’t cost anything above 10 scarabs at most, I went through the effort to farm scarabs so that I could purchase every map before proceeding with the actual game, which saved me a lot of trouble in the long run.

Scarabs can also be used at certain points in the game to obtain Cheat Tokens, which must be redeemed by using the WarpStone and going to the center of Game Well Maze. Fortunately, Cheat Tokens are not required for 100% completion, though they usually either provide messages to the player or unlock new settings in the options menu. While this is all well and good, I couldn’t help but wonder why the Game Well Maze was even a maze in the first place, other than to drag out the play time.

Two more plot-critical collectibles are Krazoa Spirits and Spell Stones, both of which are necessary to put Dinosaur Planet back together. Krazoa Spirits are obtained by completing various trials, some more difficult than others. One particularly difficult one is the Test of Fear, since the game doesn’t tell you how to perform it (you have to use the stick to keep a line on a bar from going outside a boundary) and it can take multiple tries to get it right. Should you fail a trial, however, you have to start at the beginning and complete a set of puzzles all over again, which gets a bit tedious after several failures.

Aside from this, I had a few other notes about the game as well. One thing to note is that Fox can be damaged by fire, which is understandable, however it gets a little ridiculous when there’s large masses of flame designed for decoration that can still harm you, as well as being able to accidentally make Tricky hurt you with his fire breath. It should also be noted that it’s possible to take fall damage when you fall from a certain height. Eventually, I figured out you can mitigate the damage by dodge rolling as you land, however there is a certain height threshold where you can’t avoid taking damage.

One thing I will give the game credit for is its use of an open world with no visible loading or loading screens, with any changes to the environment remembered across multiple visits to some locations. There are, however, times where you must travel to another location via the Arwing, which requires Fuel Cells. The Arwing sections play out more like what I gather to be standard Star Fox fare, with the main objective of collecting enough Gold Rings to access an area before you reach the end. Though these sections provide a nice change of pace, the inverted y-axis issue is present here as well, which can make the ship a bit awkward to control. There also doesn’t seem to be enough to the Arwing segments, though their implementation reminded me of the Ratchet & Clank series in how its space setting is often used as a clever way to disguise the loading when traveling between planets.

One of the areas required to access with the Arwing is Dragon Rock, which is where a couple other general issues with the game come to a head. First off is the awkward aiming controls, which you are required to wrestle with in order to get past a flying section towards the end of the stage, as well as a sudden boss battle that would’ve been far easier had the aiming not been locked at partially inverted. This also caused some amount of pain in my thumb, since unlike the Arwing portions there is no way to hold down the fire button while using the staff. I also couldn’t help but notice during this level, which is present throughout other parts of the game, is that things that should be relatively simple tasks are performed in an extremely obtuse and roundabout manner. This includes having to move an explosive barrel through three wind tunnels (that all have fire in them) and get it across a bridge just to open a doorway, which is soon followed by said flying section where you have to destroy four towers just to gain entry to a larger one in the center.

On the positive side, I will say that the graphics have aged surprisingly well for a GameCube title. Environments and character models have a great amount of detail to them, such as characters like Fox, Krystal and Peppy having realistic fur textures, without disrupting the framerate in any capacity. I also have praise for the realistic water effects, especially in the Cape Claw and Ocean Force Point Temple levels. Another aspect of the game is a dynamic weather and day/night system, though nighttime actually does affect whether or not you can talk to some NPCs, requiring you to wait until it becomes daytime again.

The game is visually stunning even to this day.

Equally impressive is the facial expressions on Fox McCloud, as he can display a wide range of emotions, made more impressive by the fact that the game renders everything in-engine. Though a very minor nitpick, something that I noticed TY the Tasmanian Tiger, which came out two weeks later, has that this game lacks is an animation where, upon exiting the water, you can see TY shaking himself dry from head to toe. Though TY the Tasmanian Tiger and Star Fox Adventures have different artistic approaches, this might have been an interesting detail to include since Fox McCloud is a mammal on a planet of reptiles.

The music is good in how it contributes to the dinosaur-themed setting without being too serious. Some tracks stuck with me when I wasn’t playing, such as the music used for the Thorntail Hollow hub world, combat and the Arwing segments, though one thing that really got stuck in my head was the music that plays when you grab an item for the first time. Due to its frequency, I grew to expect it when I picked up an item and when searching for screencaps for this review, I found some of Fox and Krystal at the end of the animation and could instinctively hear the music.

If you've played this game before, you can hear this image.

The voice acting is also generally good, with Steve Malpass effectively portraying a more nuanced Fox McCloud due to having the most screen time. Estelle Ellis voices Krystal’s debut to the Star Fox series, however she doesn’t get too much screen time, let alone where she actually speaks English (more on that in a bit). John Silke does a good job in portraying General Scales as a villainous character, coming off as a legitimate threat to Dinosaur Planet’s existence.

General Scales’ potential as a villain, however, has no real payoff, since what seems like the setup for an epic boss battle at the endgame turns out to be a giant bait-and-switch. General Scales’ arc is hastily resolved within a cutscene, only to be suddenly replaced by the sudden appearance of Andross, the villain of Star Fox 64, whom you would not know about unless you played that game or read the manual. His appearance comes with absolutely no explanation and makes one only wonder why the game bothered to build up General Scales as the villain in the first place.

The game also presents a unique language for the game called Dinosaur Language, complete with a guide in the manual on how the language works. This does add to the world-building of Dinosaur Planet, however one odd rule is that proper names are spoken in perfect English, which ends up defeating the purpose of it being an imaginary language. The language isn’t used that much anyway since Fox obtains a translator from Slippy early on, though one oddity is that Krystal can be heard speaking said language even after Fox obtains the translator.

The development history of Star Fox Adventures is pretty well-documented by this point, though I thought it worth mentioning once I gave my full thoughts on the final game. Many of the Star Fox elements that felt tacked on can be explained by the fact that it wasn’t originally envisioned as a Star Fox game in the first place. Rather, Rare was developing a new IP called Dinosaur Planet, which featured Krystal and another original character named Sabre as playable characters and General Scales as the main antagonist. When the game was first unveiled at E3 2000, Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Star Fox IP, took a look at it and noted the similarity in the designs of Krystal and Sabre to the cast of Star Fox. This led to the game having to be reworked to include Star Fox characters and concepts such as the Arwing segments and the antagonist Andross, the latter of which is arguably more mishandled than the former. As evidenced by the finished product, Fox McCloud replaced Sabre while Krystal survived the transition, albeit in a more reduced role and only playable in the tutorial level.

A look at what was originally called Dinosaur Planet. Krystal sits in the center
alongside her intended dinosaur companion, Kyte.

It is also noted, as I learned from this video by Matt McMuscles, that Dinosaur Planet was originally conceived for the Nintendo 64 platform, however the push to make it a Star Fox game was made late enough into the system’s life cycle that Star Fox Adventures was instead developed for the Nintendo GameCube. The development team under the Dinosaur Planet banner also took heavy inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, more specifically Ocarina of Time, when looking at how to design a 3D game, which also explains the RPG nature of Star Fox Adventures and certain elements like the “item get” animation. Rather notably, this game was also Rare’s final game developed for a Nintendo platform, since they were in the process of being bought out by Microsoft at the time, though Krystal would go on to appear in subsequent Star Fox titles, even being depicted as a love interest for Fox McCloud, in line with his infatuation with her in this game.

Aside from some story and technical issues with the game, I found Star Fox Adventures to be an overall decent game. While I didn’t really encounter any glitches from my experience, the Star Fox bits felt generally slapped on, and knowing the full behind-the-scenes history explains why. Either way, though the visual presentation is solid, this is definitely not a game for everyone, especially existing Star Fox fans, mainly from a gameplay standpoint. That said, this game is still worth a look for those curious about its place in Rare’s history or the origins of the Krystal character.

No comments:

Post a Comment