Thundaga Round

“Thundaga Round!” – Desert Child (Switch) [2018]

This is real mystic and all, but uh, do you have anything to eat here?
-Spike Spiegel

 

cba1 “The following is a contributor post by the Middle-aged Horror Mage.”

With 2018 coming to a close, I’ve been working my way through an atrocious backlog in order to get a “Top 10 Games of 2018” list sorted out. It’s… a lot.

While chipping away at this laundry list of video games, I figured I’d be productive and do some shorter critique along the way.

Short-form reviews aren’t what The Well-Red Mage is about so I won’t be treating these Thundaga Round critiques as such. You won’t be seeing 2,000+ words of well-written wordsmithing — the goal here is to be brief, issue a personal score, and move on to the next game. It’s a lightning round, of sorts. Lightning like… Thundaga.

Get it? Are you with me? Then here we go!

Today we’re taking a look at the Cowboy Bebop-inspired arcade racer/shooter hybrid Desert Child, which just released a little over a week ago across Steam, Xbox One, PS4, and the Nintendo Switch. I played through the latter over the course of about three hours and found myself torn when it came time to render a final verdict.

For starters, Desert Child has a fantastic look. Sole developer Oscar Brittain clearly put a lot of work into the game’s eye-catching pixel art, which spans numerous cityscapes, vendors, menus, and the actual racing bits. Every environment feels meticulously crafted and offers enough variety (by way of different camera angles) that feeds into its artistic flair.

As the story goes, you’re a down-on-your-luck hoverbike racer who dreams of leaving Earth for a better life on Mars. 20 minutes and a small handful of races later, you’re there. Talk about anticlimactic. Once you’ve arrived, your next goal is to earn $10,000 to enter the biggest race on the red planet, and that’s kind of where the game falls apart.

While Desert Child has a narrative, no matter how small, it’s mostly a repetitive arcade racer/shooter. You’ll spend a majority of the game setting up races against the A.I. to earn enough money to keep your hunger meter lower (which affects your booster’s recharge rate), your hoverbike repaired, and storing enough to enter the Grand Prix to finish off the story in an abrupt three-race finale.

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Your bike can be upgraded with parts that are either purchased or stolen through a hacking mini-game, which provided the most interesting part of the game for me. You’re given a grid to apply upgrades, from higher ammo capacity and larger bullets to more money from hacking. Each upgrade takes up a certain number of grid slots and shapes, and can then be powered up by applying “power cells” (earned through racing) into the empty slots. If you’ve ever played Diablo or Resident Evil 4, it’s similar to their inventory systems where size and shape plays a role in how much you can cram in there.

You can tinker with the upgrade system to benefit your current situation, which is nice. I often dumped all of my power cells into larger bullets and more ammo during races, then swapped them out for more profitable returns on the hacking levels.

Now is probably a good time to explain the racing portions so everything makes a bit more sense, yeah?

Standard races have you pitted against an A.I. where the objective is to avoid hazards, shoot objects that reward faster speed, ammo refills, and power cells, and, of course, reach the finish line before your opponent. It feels a bit rubberbandy, which isn’t very fun, and after the first four or five races, you’ve basically seen everything there is to do in them. And trust me, you will race a lot.

Movement within races feels intentionally floaty, which I liked a lot. You’re racing a hoverbike, after all. My biggest gripe with how the racing is handled, though, is that it’s just not very fun. There are a variety of backdrops to race in, but there’s no variety in the races themselves — don’t run into things, collect power-ups, win, repeat — at least, when it comes to racing the A.I.

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To earn money faster (again, money is everything in Desert Child — you need it to eat, repair, and enter the final race) you can partake in shady dealings with the seedy locals. You’ll be handsomely rewarded for throwing races, hacking into the bank, and causing chaos by crashing into targets during races. Participating in these increases your notoriety around town which attracts the attention of the local police, who are more than happy to take ALL of your money should you get caught. Nothing is free or easy in Desert Child.

Even the mini-games aren’t very interesting after their first showings. The aforementioned bank hacking and pizza delivery games are just races without opponents, with the former having you shoot statues to collect money and the latter shooting pizzas at silhouettes standing in the middle of the road. The pizza delivery game does have a great song that plays during the race, though!

Speaking of music, Desert Child’s visual feast is easily rivaled by the game’s stellar soundtrack. Featuring the likes of Mega Ran, Girlfriend Material, People Like Us, and an array of tracks from Oscar Brittain himself, it’s a great mix of chill beats and lo-fi hip-hop. Each race is over when the music stops too, so each race track is literally one musical track. Knowing when a song is about to end is a good time to jam on the boost button in hopes of crossing the finish line first.

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Like the anime that inspired it, Desert Child’s blend of well-crafted animation and thematically perfect music play incredibly well in tandem. The characters, environments, and racing looks awesome, and unlocking additional songs is always rewarding. It’s just a shame the racing isn’t very fun and gets super repetitive almost immediately.

Desert Child isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination — its audio and visuals are more than enough to carry you across the finish line. But within an hour I was more interested in the pixels and music than I was actually playing it.

It’s a brief experience, taking me around 3 hours to finish. The last hour or so was just me trying to push myself into taking another race or hacking job to afford the Grand Prix, which was tough when I just wanted to spend my money on new music and having to repair my hoverbike or feed myself to keep my boost in check. It was a game of two steps forward, one step back.

Overall, Desert Child is mostly worth checking out just to experience how unique it is and how rad the presentation gets. As for the racing bits, though — and there are lots of them — I didn’t leave the game feeling overly positive. The narrative is also wholly forgettable, but this is mostly an arcade racer, not an adventure game.

The wonderful pixel art, animation, and admirable music selection only gets it so far, though, making Desert Child feel just slightly above average.

My Personal Grade: 6/10

 

Trash is the Middle-aged Horror Mage here at TWRM, an irregular co-host on The Unlikely Herocast podcast for CA! Radio, and sole contributor for his own games-related website, Cheap Boss Attack. Follow him on Twitter @Trashlevania!

 

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