This Week in Games
Bazooka Blast

by Heidi Kemps,

Hello again! Welcome to This Week in Games, where we are ABSOLUTELY NOT going to talk about Cyberpunk 2077, because you can go literally anywhere else on the internet for takes on it both hot and chilled. Instead, we're going to talk about interesting industry happenings, upcoming game announcements, and do a mini-review of a Switch game.

But first, a word about the next column: as you all might be aware, The Game Awards are happening tonight, and we're bound to see plenty of WORLD PREMIERE trailers and announcements. Rather than wait until next Thursday when all of the news has been discussed to death, I'll be doing a Sunday column going over everything that was showcased. I won't leave you without your Thursday gaming column fix, though, as I'll have a review of Shiren the Wanderer on Switch ready for you all by then.

PERSONA 5 STRIKERS IS CONFIRMED IN ENGLISH FOR SWITCH AND PS4… AND ALSO…

What a shock!

Yeah, this got leaked a couple weeks ago from listings on Southeast Asian storefronts, and there's really been no reason to think that it wouldn't happen. In hindsight, this… is maybe not the best week to announce it, but whatever. It's confirmed, rejoice, Persona fans!

But what's this? There's a Steam version coming too? Oh my, that's interesting! I mean, Persona 4 Golden’s been doing superbly on the Steam storefront, so Atlus is well aware that there's a big potential audience there now. My question – and likely everyone else's – is, will there be a Persona 5 port to Steam? Well, that would certainly be nice, wouldn't it? Hmmhmm.

SURPRISING NOBODY, GAMESTOP IS STILL HAVING PROBLEMS

Hey, remember when GameStop tried to get around pandemic restrictions by declaring that they were an essential service? That was only about half a year ago! Boy, does time fly!

It was a move of clear desperation, as GameStop's been having pretty serious problems for the past few years, as more people turn to digital sales and become disillusioned with GameStop's predatory upselling and trade-in practices. Add in some ill-conceived purchases (RIP ThinkGeek), badly-received efforts to try and get into mobile and collectible markets, and a rotating door of top-level executives, and you have a company that has felt rudderless for about half a decade.

So it's of little surprise that GameStop has recently announced it plans to close hundreds more stores across the country in the next few months. For those keeping track, GameStop closed 321 stores last year and 462 this year – 783 in total. By the end of the fiscal year in April 2021, they'll have shuttered over 1,000 retail locations. No list yet of what's on the chopping block – they don't want to shut down anything before all those sweet, sweet holiday purchases roll in – but we'll likely hear more early next year.

Of course, GameStop CEO George Sherman is still bullish despite all this, because it's probably a bad idea to forecast nothing but doom and gloom to investors. Speaking fluently in the language of Corporate BS, he said: “We anticipate, for the first time in many quarters, that the fourth quarter will include positive year-on-year sales growth and profitability, reflecting the introduction of new gaming consoles, our elevated omni-channel capabilities and continued benefits from our cost and efficiency initiatives, even with the potential further negative impacts on our operations due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, I can't be too excited about store closings and/or a potential GameStop demise, despite all the shitty stuff they've done. For niche publishers whose offerings aren't carried by big box retailers, GameStop is one of the only national brick-and-mortar stores who will reliably stock their products. Sure, it might only be one or two copies, but simply being out there in front of consumers does a lot for visibility. Indie game stores don't always exist in a given area, making GameStop the only place in town to get that stuff. Sure, Amazon has everything, but they're not exactly a paragon of ethical business either. (Also, how many of us have had a big shiny Special Edition's box arrive mangled from Amazon shipping? Probably a fair few!)

KEIICHIRO TOYAMA HAS A NEW STUDIO

Keiichirō Toyama might not be a household name, but odds are that you have played something he's influenced either directly or indirectly. He began his career over at Konami, where he worked on art for the beloved Sega CD port of Snatcher before moving on to direct the original Silent Hill for the PsOne. Early in the century, he moved to Sony, where he continued with horror games through the Siren series.

Most recently, he was the director, designer, and original story writer for the Gravity Rush games -- titles that, despite being critically acclaimed and having a fervent fan base, never really became the top-tier hits Sony hoped for. Apparently, he has decided that it's time to move on from Sony Computer Entertainment, and has formed a new studio alongside fellow former SCE colleagues Kazunobu Sato and Junya Okura.

The studio's name is Bokeh, which refers to the camera-blur technique that's become all the rage in the HD generations. According to Gematsu, the term “bo-ke” is used worldwide to refer to this now, though that is the first time I've ever heard about it.(Personally, when I hear “boke” I think of manzai, but that's just me and I'm a weirdo.)

Anyhow, no news yet on what their first project will be, but the little snippets of concept art in the intro video above certainly give off a horror-game vibe. I'm definitely eager to see what these folks can produce together on their own. Good luck, fellas!

UMIHARA KAWASE BAZOOKA! MINI-REVIEW

I'm a big champion for obscure and niche Japanese games, but I must confess: the Umihara Kawase series just isn't for me. The fan-favorite series of surrealistic platform games involves a young fisherwoman, the titular Umihara, as she navigates a series of 2D mazes using only her wits and her fishing rod to swing and run around, occasionally dealing with a weird mutant sea or freshwater creature among the way. Think Bionic Commando, but with less emphasis on combat and more on pure mobility thanks to a very robust physics engine. I certainly respect the series and what it does, but it's never quite clicked with me personally.

That being said, the most recent game in the series, the recently released Umihara Kawase BaZooKa! – currently available on Switch, PS4, and PC via Steam – is much more in my wheelhouse. Rather than big 2D mazes you have to cling and sling around to clear, BaZooKa is an arcade-style, single-screen platformer where the series’ usual emphasis on physics takes a side role to a new mechanic: BIG-ASS CANNONBALLS.

BaZooKa offers 40 single-screen stages, each densely packed with enemies and hazards. In order to clear a stage, you need to collect a set number of coins, which drop upon defeating enemies. And how do you defeat enemies? Why, by blasting them in their ugly fish-faces, of course! Taking a cue from the old Data East classic Tumblepop, when Umihara (or one of the other myriad characters) latches onto a foe or object with her fishing line, she can drag them in and, through a feat of videogame magic, transform them into a bazooka shot she can launch to do some serious damage. Hitting multiple enemies with a single shot increases a score multiplier, and picking up a launched object after it's smashed through a bunch of enemies to use again keeps that multiplier increasing, adding another layer of gameplay for old-school arcade heads who love chasing high scores.

Being a fan of the single-screen platformer format, this change in format and gameplay was quite welcome, and I very quickly found myself sucked in. BaZooKa is a bit more merciful than many games of this type: you have a lifebar rather than the traditional one-hit deaths (though the knockback and lengthy stun time after taking a hit is very frustrating at times), and every character also has access to unique subskills, like a limited-use peashooter for extra enemy damage and self-healing techniques. Using these in tandem with the rod-swinging and cannon-blasting gameplay can help you through many of the tougher challenges, since difficulty ramps up pretty quickly – but if you just don't have enough firepower, you can always invite some friends over to play on or offline, as the game supports up to four players at once.

From an audiovisual standpoint, BaZooKa isn't going to turn heads: the simple but colorful graphics are functional enough to make it easy to discern what's going on at a glance – something very important for an arcade-y game like this – and the music is pleasantly catchy, though not particularly memorable. In terms of level design, it has its ups and downs: some stages put a bit more emphasis on using the traditional Umihara Kawase physics-based gameplay to get to certain spots, which doesn't always work that well. Boss fights will likely take a few tries before you figure out a strategy that works, as they're as much about avoidance as they are about dealing damage.

Unfortunately, unless you plan on frequent multiplayer sessions or working to dominate the leaderboards, there isn't a whole lot of meat to BaZooKa. Having only 40 stages might be okay in an arcade setting where you want to get people off the machine as fast as possible, but it makes a console/PC release feel anemic. While I do appreciate short games that encourage replay, it feels like Umihara Kawase BaZooKa! never quite explores its mechanics to the fullest, and that's a shame.

If you're willing to overlook the short length and want a charming, breezy little arcade experience, then BaZooKa is certainly worth checking out, particularly if you've got a group of like-minded friends. Otherwise, you may want to check out one of the series’ other installments instead – a lot of folks really like physics platforming, and who knows, you might just find it to be right up your alley.

That wraps things up for now! Again, I'll be doing a special weekend column, so look forward to that. Are you glad Persona 5 Strikers is confirmed? Worried/excited at the prospect of your local GameStop closing? Chat about this week's news and more in the forums! We'll meet again very soon, so thanks for reading as always!


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