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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
Assassin's Creed IV: Bl... 2.5/5
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
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Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
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Yaga 2.5/5
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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5

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Greak: Memories of Azur   PC (Steam) 

Not the Lost Vikings    3.5/5 stars

“Greak: Memories of Azure” (“Greak”) is the inaugural effort by Mexican Indie developer, Navegante Entertainment, published by Team17 in 2021. I first became aware of this new title by watching an Indie showcase in which “Greak” was compared to one of the SNES-era classics from InterPlay, “The Lost Vikings,” which still ranks among my all-time favorite Puzzle games. Two years after release, I was in the mood for something different, and determined that “Greak” had received a sufficiently hefty discount, so I went ahead and pulled the trigger. I found that, while there is a decent game, here, it’s not particularly comparable to “The Lost Vikings” (or its sequel), and come and goes far too quickly to make a lasting impression.

Presentation
Presentation is really where “Greak” shines the brightest. The entire game features beautiful, hand-drawn assets and hand-animated characters, with the game bookended by some incredibly well-done FMV animation sequences that stimulated fond memories of the PlayStation 1 era. While character designs are rather basic and stylized, they do have a very unique look to them, and I feel like it’s impossible to look at a screenshot or video clip of “Greak” and confuse it for any other title.

The strong visual identity is complemented by an excellent, moody soundtrack that matches the game’s tone and environs perfectly. The game is unvoiced, however, with characters tending to make brief grunts and similar noises instead of full narration. Indeed, only the opening FMV cinematic is narrated, and is well done enough that I would have appreciated the rest of the game receiving a similar treatment.

Technically, “Greak” is also solid. The game not only supports Xinput natively out-of-the-box, but actually encourages PC gamers to plug in a gamepad and play it properly instead of trying to type at it and expect to have a good experience. Performance is good, the game is polished and bug-free, and I never experienced so much as a single hiccup.

Story
“Greak” takes place in a bizarre fantasy world where a race of little, white, glowing, elf-like beings known as Courines is in perpetual conflict with a brutal, warlike race known as Urlags. The Urlags are known to spread a disease simply known as ‘The Plague’ to the lands they invade, resulting in a proliferation of slimy, zombie-like creatures and complete ecological collapse.

“Greak” is not, however, a hopeful experience, with brave and noble Courines pushing back against Urlag incursions and repairing the damage caused by The Plague. Instead, it tells the story of a trio of siblings as they experience the last days of the Courines’ habitation of the lowlands as small groups of refugees prepare to board a handful of airships and take flight to an abstract Promised Land known as ‘Azure.’ Our heroes are a young Courine boy named Greak, his sister Adara, and his (much) older brother, Raydel, who have all been separated by circumstance, but who refuse to leave for Azure until they’re all together again. The action starts with a strange flashback before placing the player in Greak’s perspective, as he hunts far and wide for his sister, who has left a series of mystical sigils to designate where she has been.

Once reunited, Greak and Adara make their base of operations a nearby Courine encampment where an airship is under construction and where a group of Scouts have setup temporary fortifications to protect refugee Courines while they search for a necessary MacGuffin. Once all three siblings are reunited, the Scouts end up relying on them to finish the task that they themselves could not.

“Greak” is a very short game, by all considerations. My first-time non-speed-run took a little over 6 hours, while the game includes an Achievement for completing it in 3 hours or less. While it tries to pack a lot of backstory, worldbuilding, and lore into that short runtime, it often feels rushed and muddled. Yes, the basic structure of a good story is here, but it feels like the execution of that story fell just shy of the mark.

Gameplay
I was initially interested in “Greak” based on comparisons to that classic Puzzle-Platformer, “The Lost Vikings,” in which three characters with unique and disparate abilities must make their way through a variety of cleverly-designed traps and mazes as they attempt to find their way home. While “Greak” does feature three playable characters with unique and disparate abilities, instead of focusing on being a Puzzle-Platformer with a large number of self-contained stages, it tries to mold the concept of Puzzle-Platforming to the 2020s flavor-of-the-day, the Metroidvania.

Thus, “Greak” takes place in a world that consists of one, big, interconnected map… but it executes this concept rather poorly. The map screen itself is only marginally more useful than the map in the original “Metroid” (that is, the static and unchanging image printed in the game’s instruction manual), with vague outlines of the game’s various regions, but no finer, more-granular ability to zoom in or keep track of side objectives. Likewise, there is surprisingly little backtracking involved in “Greak,” with most of it coming in the form of re-traversing previously explored areas from the early game toward the end of the game in order to reach blocked-off areas on the other side. Sadly, these are not organic retreads where the player sees something out of reach on the first visit and returns with a new power to make it accessible, but simple story-based things where an area is inaccessible until the story suddenly says it is.

Another big ding against “Greak” compared to “The Lost Vikings” is the fact that Greak, Adara, and Raydel are separate for so much of the game’s runtime, and even when they DO reunite for the final sections, their abilities don’t really ‘complement’ each other. Instead, puzzles are designed around each character’s limitations, and navigating areas largely revolves around shuffling the whole group past cumbersome obstacles.

Combat is likewise poorly thought-out and executed, though, thankfully, the developers added some toggle-able options to make things better. “Greak” features randomly-spawning enemies that can quite literally pop out of the ground at any time. If the player is attending to a puzzle with one character, and another gets assaulted by an enemy, there’s not a whole lot the player can to do avoid damage besides hastily swapping to the character being attacked and fighting off the enemy. Fortunately, there is a toggle that makes unselected characters invincible… and this toggle also makes the game’s handful of boss battles much more tolerable. As it was originally envisioned, “Greak” wants the player to have all available characters stand side-by-side, then link the characters’ movements together with a simple button press. However, in practice, having multiple characters moving in tandem NEVER works right, with one of them getting hung up grabbing a ledge or falling into a pit, in spite of the fact that, when linked, they’re supposed to move identically, instead of using their individual jump physics/mechanics. Likewise, each character also has a different attack, with Greak wielding a short, weak dagger; Adara wielding mid-range homing magic; and Raydel wielding a reasonably-powerful longsword… but trying to coordinate these attacks while controlling everyone simultaneously during a boss battle, where typical things like reading telegraphed attacks, dodging, and aiming for weakpoints are in-play, feels incredibly cumbersome and not fun. With the invincibility for non-controlled characters toggled-on, though, boss battles feel more strategic, where placing a character and letting them auto-battle by swinging away at the boss when it comes within range is almost reminiscent of chess-like Strategy rather than twitchy, reactionary Action.

Unfortunately, even with concessions made via post-launch updates, combat in “Greak” never feels quite right. Enemies don’t damage the characters simply by touching them, but must hit with a telegraphed attack. On the other hand, there’s no knock-back or hitstun from player attacks. The result of these two mechanical decisions interacting is that the player is encouraged to run back-and-forth through enemies, swinging Greak’s dagger, in order to avoid taking damage from an enemy before Greak can land the third blow needed to destroy it – and this is the combat for common enemies!

Greak and his siblings can’t really take much damage, and each character can only gain one max health-boosting item from thorough exploration. Each character does have an inventory (which can be expanded by purchasing/finding upgrades), which is typically filled with healing items. Healing items are essential, since healing energy drops from slain enemies or environmental objects are incredibly inconsistent and never appear when they’re most needed. Healing items typically take the form of food, which typically must be cooked by throwing three raw ingredients (found inconsistently throughout the world) into a campfire cookpot. Other that healing food, about the only things the characters carry around are temporary damage boosters (which don’t last long enough to be worth the inventory space) and quest items… that don’t take-up basic inventory slots.

In general, none of “Greak’s” gameplay elements feel particularly well-thought-out or well-designed. The environmental puzzles, when they’re at their best, are adequate, but the character movement, inventory system, combat, and boss battles all feel like the developers where trying to shoehorn ‘popular’ gameplay memes into a genre where they have no place.

Overall
Like the titular protagonist, “Greak: Memories of Azure” is incredibly short and eminently forgettable. It’s a far cry from the ‘Lost Vikings’ spiritual successor I was expecting, but still manages to be a decent way to kill a weekend, in spite of its flaws.

Presentation: 5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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