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Potion Craft Early Access Review

(Potion Craft is currently available on Windows via early access.)

I think many of us are familiar with the concept of alchemy. It’s been used in the media time and time again. From the totally not-sad-at-all-at-any-point manga/anime Fullmetal Alchemist to some weird guy doing chemistry (that’s kinda like alchemy, right?) on television in the 90’s. It’s safe to say alchemy is often used to, ahem, stir up reactions in people…

Potion Craft is a modern example of this aforementioned concept. Thankfully, it does a decent job laying the groundwork for what could one day be the best alchemy simulator out there. Here are my two cents on Potion Craft’s Early Access release.

Image provided by Niceplay Games

Your time in Potion Craft opens with a short tutorial outlining the day-to-day tasks of the local potion brewer (that’s you). Pick ingredients in the morning, open up shop for the day, listen to and fulfill customers’ needs, repeat. 

There’s an almost criminal level of simplicity to the core gameplay loop, which is carefully counterbalanced by the tedious and tactful task of brewing bubbles. When a customer comes to you with an order, you’re given all the time in the world to fulfill it. So it’s off to the brewing board (not sure if that’s what it’s called but that’s what I’m calling it), a massive map of various potion effects eagerly waiting to be brewed. 

The actual art of creating potions is, as with most other things in Potion Craft, amazingly simple to get the hang of. Your goal here is to guide your potion icon to your desired effect’s icon on the board. Depending on which ingredients you throw into the cauldron, your potion could end up going one of many ways. Once you reach a spot you’re satisfied with, you pick a bottle for the concoction and finalize the brew. 

It’s a surprisingly basic system that looks more complicated than it really is.

Image provided by Niceplay Games

Which leads me to my biggest gripe with the current state of the game. That being, once you’ve crafted a few potions, you’ve…kinda crafted them all. Meaning that the flow of potion crafting hardly changes throughout the game. Sure, more specific effects are required for customer requests later in the Potion Craft, but they hardly mix up the core gameplay beyond adding artificial length to the whole thing. 

There is hope for depth to extend beyond the game’s namesake though. While the game’s current reputation system (which goes up when you do good deeds and down when you do bad) seems to have next to no effect on the gameplay, there’s certainly room for change. It would be awesome to see more consequences come from actions made in the game. 

Right now, entire quest chains begin and progress whether or not you actively pursue them. For example, one customer may ask you to brew a poison so they can kill their neighbors’ livestock. Even if you choose not to fulfill the customer’s order, they’ll still make subsequent returns asking for more game over juice. Seeing more dynamic quest chains in response to your choices to help specific customers would go a long way in helping diversify gameplay.

Again this is only one example of how Potion Craft could build upon its current systems. However I believe this growth philosophy could be applied to a variety of aspects within the game.

Image provided by Niceplay Games

Outside of the major aspect of not enough depth currently here for players to enjoy, Potion Craft gets nearly everything else correct. The medieval storybook artstyle helps the game stand out as something unique and distinctly deserved of a pre-bedtime play session. The music, while currently lacking in variety, is calm and tranquil enough to get you into a relaxing, near meditative state. 

Potion Craft may be a hard sell at full price in its current state, but give it some time for updates to roll out and I’m sure this sentiment will change. I picked up my copy during Steam’s Winter sale in 2021, which brought it into my library at around 20% off. While not a major discount, it did adjust the price enough to warrant picking it up. That said, Potion Craft is a welcome addition to an ever growing list of simulator games, and one that is bound to grow greater with each subsequent update.

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Sun Haven Early Access Review

(Sun Haven is available on Microsoft Windows and macOS via early access.)

-REVIEW KEY PROVIDED BY DEVS-

Games with a heavy focus on lifestyle simulation have become a mainstay in the market. From Animal Crossing to Stardew Valley, My Time in Portia to Forager, these titles have all but flooded this once niche genre. It’s left many of us who grew up on these types of games longing for something new, with a fresh and unique take on the life-sim formula.

Thankfully, Sun Haven comes pretty close to hitting that mark.

If I were to get all “AAA Game Journalist” on ya, I’d throw the obligatory elevator pitch your way. “Sun Haven is what you get if you mix Stardew Valley with the visual style of Maplestory”. Thankfully, I’m not working at any major gaming firm that may still rely on corporate greed payouts or an arbitrary rating system to tell you what games you should spend your money on. That’s right, I’m freelance, baby!

Instead, I’d like to provide a more in-depth look at what separates Sun Haven from its contemporaries and why I think it’s worth your time.

For starters, let’s talk about what differentiates Sun Haven from any other life sim out there on the market: it’s emphasis on story. Sure, the story is nothing ground-breaking, and most of the narrative content can be completed in roughly 5-6 hours, but it helps give the game identity nonetheless. From the start of your journey, the story beats act as a guide to familiarize yourself with this enchanted world full of angels, demons, and furries. Eventually things do give way to being more open and reliant on choices the player makes as well, which was a pleasant change of pace. If you ever wanted to play a game with roughly 1.26% of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s DNA within it, Sun Haven has you covered.

Beyond those few hours of story content are plenty of side activities for you to waste your day away with. Fishing, farming, mining, crafting, smithing, cooking, combat and more await you in easily one of the densest early access games I’ve ever played. Many of these activities are accompanied by a skill tree as well, which lends a healthy dose of role-playing and character building to the game. It helps make many of the more tedious, repetitive tasks feel more rewarding than they would be otherwise.

Is Maplestory chibi art making a comeback?!

There’s also an entire magic system. Did I mention that?

That’s right, you can live out your fantastical, uh, fantasies in Sun Haven by becoming the magic-wielding farmer you always wished you could be! There’s a plethora of spells for you to experiment with here, many of which are useful in various situations. For example, one spell allows you to push out a blast of energy like a forcefield, knocking back enemies who may be getting just a bit too up in your personal space. This is obviously useful in combat scenarios when you’re looking for a moment to catch your breath or assess a situation. It also serves a more practical use as well. You can actually use this same move to help clear large groups of minerals when in the mines, searching for copper or iron. This variety in the way some spells could be used was a definite highlight in the sea of Sun Haven’s many systems, and I’d love to see this design philosophy expanded upon moving forward.

There’s loads of customization as well. So much so that Sun Haven teeters on having almost too much customization at times. It’s not quite over that line (since it’s nearly impossible to have too much customization), but a few additions beyond what’s already there may well send it over the edge. Clothing, housing, farm layout, pets, mounts and more await you in the realm of self-representation in Sun Haven, which is an apprehensively welcome design choice in my opinion. Just… try not to get too lost in the style sauce. You may not ever surface again.

Sun Haven also features a large amount of quality-of-life features that I’d love to see in other games within the genre. For example, there is no stamina system to contend with in Sun Haven. This means that, aside from a small time constraint that plagues you around midnight every night, there’s no need to worry about how to go about your day. This was a more than welcome addition, as this sole point of contention was enough to dissuade me from ever trying Stardew again.

Snaccoons: This Realm’s Snorlax

There are few aspects of Sun Haven that could use some love and attention too, mainly in regards to the early portion of the game. While Sun Haven eventually opens up and becomes this sprawling, lived-in world, the opening hours of your journey do little to excite you for that payoff. Movement speed is especially slow, with no proper sprint or way to fast travel. These nuisances are eventually rectified, but in ways that felt more like a bandage than a treatment. Movement speed can be improved via specific skills on a skill tree, while the fast travel dilemma gets resolved with the power of purchasable mounts.

These solutions both feel out of place, with a substantial focus on grind in order to achieve any worthwhile results. Providing a sprint or increased movement speed option from the start would greatly help mitigate this issue. A proper fast travel system would also do wonders to help cut out the absurd back-tracking currently in Sun Haven.

Maybe consider adjusting the movement controls. As it currently stands, platforming in Sun Haven feels more like a chore than anything. Movement, especially while airborne, feels floaty and slippery, like a cloud of butter slipping through the sky. Hardly any platforming section feels enjoyable at this moment, though I’m hopeful future updates will address this issue as well.

Did I mention there’s dragons?!

Other core game designs could also use a revisit also, such as the side quest system. Nearly every side quest in this game amounts to nothing more than a “fetch this, deliver that” formula, which felt outdated nearly 10 years ago now. Some deeper variety in the quests could go a long way in helping to provide hours of enjoyment for the player. Instead of only providing quests such as “grow these crops” or “return this object”, maybe add some flair and depth. Things such as “build this” or “cook that” could do wonders when it comes to adding gameplay variety versus your standard fetch quest exclusive mission structure.

Sun Haven may still be in development, with a variety of growing pains to contend with, but what’s currently there is still more than enough to warrant keeping an eye on this project. There are a massive amount of characters to meet, locations to explore, secrets to uncover, and activities to participate in beyond what I mentioned in this first impression. Even after spending hours with the game for the sake of sharing my views on as many facets as possible, I’m still discovering new systems to dive into. It’s a mash-up of many things that make this once tiny genre so great, and I’m here for it.

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Luna’s Fishing Garden Review

(Luna’s Fishing Garden is available on Android, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Nintendo Switch, and Mac.)

-REVIEW KEY PROVIDED BY DEVS-

If there’s anything in this world more addictive than the euphoric feeling of stretching out on a bed after a long day of working, it’s the incremental growth found in idle games.

Something about the very nature of an idle game is insanely tantalizing. It drips and oozes passive progress in a way that no other genre really does. Granted, this could either go the way of a stock that outpaces the rate of inflation or the way of a joke that refers to the pace a stock grows at.

Either way, idle gaming as a (admittedly redundant sounding) template to build upon is generally a good idea in my book. That’s why Luna’s Fishing Garden held such appeal in my little goofball gamer goblin brain.

You see, Luna’s Fishing Garden goes beyond being yet another simple idle game, where you upgrade items to watch numbers grow only for you to repeat this process ad infinitum. While it certainly contains it’s fair share of accruing passive gains, it also houses a fairly challenging fishing game.


A challenge which comes in one of two varieties: basic or advanced fishing.

Choose the former, and the game is a breeze to get through. It becomes a relaxing time to end your day with, where you can tend to a few crops, catch a fish or two, and end the night with a hefty sum of gold weighing your pockets down. This was certainly the way to play Luna’s Fishing Garden, in my personal opinion.

Choose the latter, however, and get ready to white-knuckle the ever living heck out of your controller of choice. There is a substantial increase in challenge once you bump up to the higher difficulty of the two, but it’s still a fair challenge all the same.

Regardless of which way Luna’s Fishing Garden is played, it lends itself as an enjoyable time to kill a few hours with over the course of a day or two. That’s my only gripe with the game, honestly. The fact that it was so short bummed me out quite a bit, as I was really enjoying the groove of things once it was all moving.

At 100% completion within 2 1/2 hours of playtime, it’d normally be a challenge for me to recommend something like Luna’s Fishing Garden, but this one’s an exception. For the price of a dang pizza (or two), you can get yourself a ticket to a serene slice of digital space to fish and farm till your heart’s content.

If you ask me, that’s one delicious deal!

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Dodgeball Academia Review

(Dodgeball Academia is available for Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.)

Growing up, school constantly felt like a battleground. Many mornings were spent in preparation for the numerous attacks that were certain to catch me off-guard during my day. From the bathrooms with their soldiers of swirlies, to the walks home full of twists and turns in a labyrinthine neighborhood, nowhere was safe. On the flipside, there also wasn’t really any place that felt more dangerous either. Unless you found yourself on the dodgeball court.

That wasn’t a battleground, it was a fucking warzone. 

Now imagine how I reacted upon learning that there was a game all about the warm and fuzzy feeling that only a rubber ball to the face could provide. Enter: Dodgeball Academia!

Dodgeball Academia is what you get when you blend a sports game with the look of Gravity Falls, the “trainer” systems from Pokemon, the upgrades and customization of role-playing games, and the story-telling of a Saturday morning cartoon. Visually, it has an easily identifiable style, which is something that modern games are sorely lacking. The character designs especially pop against the 3D rendered background, while the vibrant and complimenting colors help to further bring everything together. These are characters and settings that I could easily see finding a home on a children’s cartoon network like…Cartoon Network.

So all is well and good in the land of initial appearances, but I think a lot of people know that first impressions aren’t always telling of what’s going on on a deeper level. Oftentimes it takes a moment or two for us to begin to understand a motive before we really get down to judgement. This reigns true, even in the world of video games. Case in point: once I began to actually play Dodgeball Academia, I realized that looks truly aren’t everything. The core content wasn’t something I could see myself staying with in the future.

The biggest reason for this was due to Dodgeball Academia’s story. I don’t personally think the plot of the game is bad, but I do think it was a story that didn’t quite mesh with me. The length of the story would wear on me from time to time, which led to many speed reads through the numerous lines of dialogue. The writing isn’t poorly done, but it is juvenile. You can tell that this story catered more toward fans of the shows that it pulled visual inspiration from, which admittedly let me down.

I did enjoy how Dodgeball Academia presented it’s story though. The narrative is portrayed in an episodic manner, with each chapter having its own plot while also carrying along the game’s main story. Each episode is only a couple of hours in length too, so being able to indulge in the dodgebally goodness in bite sized chunks was a breeze. There’s plenty of variety and creativity within these stories, which helps to prevent Dodgeball Academia from feeling too samey in it’s formula. I will say though that I do wish there was more time to breathe and explore between story beats. The game is fairly linear and doesn’t offer a huge variety of activities outside of some side quests and the occasional spot to grind some levels.

Speaking of levels, let’s take a moment to discuss the core gameplay here. I think Dodgeball Academia’s gameplay systems were my favorite thing about this experience (outside of taking in the visuals, of course). Once you spend a moment with the game, it’s easy to tell that Dodgeball Academia was built around the idea of being an homage to not just a PE class pastime, but to role-playing games as well. There are a plethora of systems here that are pulled from many classic RPGs which all come together to work in beautiful harmony. There’s your standard experience based leveling systems, items and gear to purchase, use and equip, enemies to run into if you’re looking to grind the day away, and more. To be honest, the core gameplay is a large reason why I nearly 100% completed Dodgeball Academia.

The game is also party based, with a large cast of characters that you can control through your journey. This helps with gameplay variety, by allowing you to access a plethora of differing playstyles. Granted they don’t differ in the way something like builds in Diablo do, but they still vary enough to offer the player a semblance of choice.

Everyone has super cool anime powers given to them by the power of a magical dodgeball as well, which further helps diversify the roster. For example, one character may harness the power of electricity which allows them to stun more opponents, while another may harness the power of fire, leading to many a crispy kiddo. I thoroughly enjoyed uncovering every character’s special power, from those that I played as, to those who you merely fight against on the court. It helped bring another level of personality to a game already bursting at the seams with charisma and allure.

Which I wish was the same for the music in Dodgeball Academia. Sadly, that’s not really the case based on my experience. While the game doesn’t have a particularly bad soundtrack, I can’t deny that it can get a bit grating on the ears after some time. In my opinion, the problem stems from a lack of variety in the music. Individually, these tracks almost all fit well with the overall look and feel of Dodgeball Academia. The issue lies within how often these tracks are used, and how rarely I was given a reprieve from them. The main hub of the game is accompanied by this tune where you have a guitar just going absolutely crazy in the background with it’s “wah-wahs” and “wee-woos”. I swear that song single-handedly led to me speeding through the game at a faster rate, which kinda saddened me. I was really looking forward to more variety in this one.

Look, Dodgeball Academia isn’t a perfect game. That’s completely fine, seeing as perfect video games don’t exist. But it is a well put together gaming experience that knows it’s influences and wears them proudly on it’s sleeve. There may not have been as much here to enjoy as initial impressions initially led me to believe, but not every game will fit every person. And again, I’ll reiterate this for the upteenth time: Dodgeball Academia isn’t a bad game. In fact, it’s a really good game. A really good game for a select few: younger gamers and sports fans mostly. 

Regardless of which demographic Dodgeball Academia best suits, I don’t at all regret my time with the game. It was a nice throwback to the days of old, where every day meant putting my life on the painted white line in gym class. Where my classmates and I became not only friends, but comrades in a war against enemies that threatened the composition of all of our faces. It was a time I will forever be nostalgic for, and at the end of the day, I think I actually owe it to Dodgeball Academia for reigniting my appreciation for those times. For that reason alone, I’d say that the game is well worth your time, even if it doesn’t end up being your next favorite game. 

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Road 96 Review

(Road 96 is available now for Nintendo Switch and Windows)

Let’s face it: video games often pull from real life in order to fuel their narrative economy. Not only that, it’s also something that’s become increasingly common in newer releases. Maybe it’s because of my age, what with being in my mid-20’s now and constantly feeling like every action is one that could be judged politically. Maybe it’s thanks to our more-than-ever-before connected world where we’re able to share differing life experiences like never before.

Regardless of the underlying reason, I can freely admit that I find art imitating life in this scenario to be massively appealing. To see other’s interpretation of life events through the lens of an interactive work of art is something unique to gaming. There’s a sort of beauty to it all, and I think that’s why Road 96 appealed to me so much.

Get used to looking at that mountain. You’ll be seeing it often.

The premise in Road 96 is simple and to the point. You take on the role of a series of teens as they travel to the border of the oppressive, totalitarian country of Petria in an attempt to escape and find a better life elsewhere. What helps in diversifying this straightforward premise is an interesting cast of characters who you meet during your various attempts to flee the country. Building upon that further, Road 96 pushes forward an overarching narrative of an upcoming election waiting for the citizens of this oppressive regime. At first, the overall climactic event (or events) at the end of this roughly 8 hour adventure may not immediately seem apparent. However, it’s through the numerous encounters with the aforementioned cast of supporting characters that makes the entire story (and their roles in it) come together.

Now, there’s quite a noticeable (how should I say this) blemish on the entire story and how it’s given to the player to enjoy: that’s the visuals. This game has some of the most wildly inconsistent presentation I’ve been witness to in a while. I should mention that this game was made on a smaller budget and by an even smaller team of indie developers. It’s often not priority #1 of developers to make the highest quality looking game ever, which I understand.

I mean this in a purely critical sense and in an attempt to share my experience with you when I say this: this game often goes from great to not so great at a moment’s notice. So much so that I found it to be distracting at best and cringe inducing at worst. It’s unfortunate that so many emotional moments in Road 96 fall flat for this exact reason. On the flipside, if this is what a team can accomplish on a tight budget and as a first project, then my hope for future releases will remain bright.

At times, Road 96 looks great. Other times, not so much.

Unfortunately, the presentation’s inconsistency doesn’t stop at it’s visuals. Beyond hit or miss lip sync, stiff animation, and some goofy texture action, Road 96 is also guilty of sporting the occasional bout of poor voice acting. Thankfully, this isn’t something that stands out as much as the problems with the visuals do, but it was still distracting nonetheless.

Outside of the moments here or there with the visuals being less than stellar and voice lines being delivered in less than convincing ways, there is a tremendous amount of beauty to be found in Road 96. The environments and the variety of places you visit along your journey are beautiful mosaics of cell-shaded goopy oil painting goodness. The lighting used often helps these locations pop even further, and the fantastic use of Road 96’s soundtrack being weaved in and out at key moments helped bring it all together.

Speaking of the original soundtrack, it’s with great pleasure that I can tell you Road 96 has some fantastic music to help you feel all of the feels while trekking thousands of miles across the country. You’ve got all of the basics covered, from Jack Johnson-type acoustic upbeat jams to synthwave pop goodness that wouldn’t be out of place in the glove compartment of The Weeknd’s car. There is a great mix of music, with some of the songs quickly ending up on one of my playlists over on Spotify. If there’s anything that you explore more of before purchasing a ticket explore Road 96, it should be the music. It’s some genuinely good shit.

Country road, take me anywhere else but here.

Outside of gawking at the scenery presented to you along the variety of roads you’ll travel, Road 96 presents a unique hybridization of both the ever popular choose your own adventure genre of games (aka Telltale Games, Life is Strange) and the never know what you’re going to get randomness of roguelites (aka Hades, Rogue Legacy).

At the start of each attempt to cross the border, you’re presented with a few choices for a no name teen who you’ll play as. Once you decide on a character template, you’re whisked away on your journey. The trip often opens with you in a car or walking up upon a location where you run into one of the supporting characters. They’re generally dealing with some issue that calls upon you to help them resolve. Resolutions boil down to a minigame most of the time, which there’s thankfully a large variety of. In my time with Road 96, I never ran into a repeat minigame, which was a great thing to experience.

You’re also presented with numerous interactions that take place between you and Road 96’s cast of colorful characters. These conversations aren’t as deep or as impactful as I’d have liked them to be, but they were still great at carrying the story along. Thankfully there’s also a new game plus mode once you complete the story, so the option to go back and redo interactions in a different way while still maintaining all of the information you gained in a previous playthrough is available.

Stan and Mitch, Bank Robbers (in training).

Road 96 also mentions that it’s a procedurally generated adventure. That merit is technically true, but there’s been plenty of confusion surrounding it, so I’ll attempt to clarify. Road 96 is procedural in the way it presents it’s events, not so much when it comes to the game’s overall content. What I mean by this is that almost everyone will experience similar or even the same events during a playthrough of Road 96. The locations (at least from what I’ve seen) don’t generally vary much, either. What does vary however, is the order in which these events play out for each player. One player may start out in a truck with the charismatic John, while another person may start out roadside with the upbeat wizkid, Alex. In the end though, both players will more than likely still experience both events.

Personally, I don’t find much frustration in the fact that Road 96 isn’t as varied or procedurally generated as I initially thought it would be. This is due to the fact that the journey Road 96 asks you to take to reach it’s conclusion is one of intrigue. The characters (voice acting aside) are well written and interesting people, who I found enjoyment in learning more about. The numerous little minigames you play, from simple past times like portable Connect 4 to throwing bags full of money at a police officer in hot pursuit of you, are always fun to play. Then there’s that absolutely awesome soundtrack to help bring all of this together even further.

There are smaller enjoyments to be had here as well. I especially enjoyed seeing the world react to my choices, no matter how tiny the change may be. Finding varying ways to cross the boarder as my options became more and more limited was also a nice touch. Talking to citizens and asking for their opinions on hotly debated topics within the game world helped flesh Petria out as a lived in place. Being able to call the numbers on display on billboards, learning abilities that help you interact with things in ways you couldn’t before, etc etc.

Welcome to Hotel Petria. (Best not to stay too long.)

There is a copious amount of pure, unfiltered storytelling goodness to be had here. Further backing that storytelling is a wonderfully varied mix of gameplay in Road 96 that keep things from feeling stale, even after numerous escape attempts have gone by. These high points are occasionally marred by less than stellar presentation in both the visual and audio departments, but it was never enough to stop me from wanting to see what would happen next. There was always something new just around the corner, waiting to be discovered.

In that way, I think Road 96 is akin to many adventures people have taken where they get to driving and don’t even so much as glance at a map. Who knows? It may be a secret ingredient that all good road trips need. If it is, then I’d argue that Road 96 is a trip well worth taking.

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Editorial

Rocksmith Retrospective

Learning Guitar in 60 Days (feat. Rocksmith Plus)

I’ve attempted to pick up guitar in the past, but could never get over the massive hurdles involved in teaching myself to play. Whether it be a lack of motivation, time, or just an intolerance for the pain when forming calluses, guitar always seemed like it just wasn’t for me. I always loved pretending by playing games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, but I just couldn’t break myself into the hobby.

In 2011 Ubisoft released what seemed like a miracle to me- a game that was just like Guitar Hero, but used a proprietary cable to hook the game up to an actual electric guitar. It came with a simple, yet bold promise- learn to play guitar in just 60 days. Unfortunately, having just graduated high school and working through engineering school in college, I didn’t have the time or money to spend on a guitar and an opportunity that may have been overselling itself. So I mostly forgot about Rocksmith, but always kept it in the back of my mind.

This past Christmas, I was gifted the game and while borrowing my old roommate’s guitar, I set out to accomplish my original goal. I would play the game for 60 to 90 minutes every day for at least 60 days in a row. I limited the playtime to 90 minutes so I wouldn’t go too far beyond the promise of the Rocksmith challenge. I also refused to practice in my free time or get too much help from outside sources.

Every day I made a small journal entry logging my experience playing the game, so let’s take a dive into the rocksmith experience and see the good, the bad, and even a bit of Rocksmith Plus to see if it really is possible to learn guitar in 60 days.

THE BEGINNING

After creating a profile, players are taken to a mandatory tutorial for setting up their equipment, learning the absolute basics of playing guitar and the game’s tablature, and testing out the system. It’s a good way to start off, though I wish it wasn’t mandatory every time a new profile is created. The game gives explanations for the different modes and a couple of suggestions for where to start, but then drops the player right into the main menu.

At first the options were incredibly intimidating. The main modes the player can try include playing through songs one by one in Learn a Song, jamming with a backing band in Session mode, going through a playlist for a certain amount of time in Nonstop Play, learning new skills with Lessons, practicing their technique in the Guitarcade, and a few other modes I’ll touch on later.

My first few days were a bit all over the place. I tried out some lessons and learned some basic picking and finger placement techniques before hopping into learning some songs. The game’s tutorials did a solid job of showcasing nearly everything a beginner needs to learn the basics, but the game has its limitations.

For example, some techniques such as muting the strings and hitting chords with extra notes can be cheated by ignoring the restriction or performing a simplified version. This is fine for a beginner to get the sense of how a song works before improving, but the game doesn’t have any advice for building up to these trickier techniques, which is perfectly exemplified in the bends tutorial.

Here, players are tasked with a simple set of notes to hit while bending the strings to change the pitch. The problem is that the game is very specific in what it wants while the track showing the bend itself only has a few arrows to indicate the degree of the bending required. And if the player fails, the game doesn’t tell them what went wrong. It could be that the note wasn’t sustained, that their timing was off, or that they didn’t bend the string enough or too much; the game doesn’t say.

After attempting this tutorial for over 20 minutes straight I gave up and saved it for later. I felt I was missing something and figured with more practice in other areas, this tutorial might become easier. That was when I noticed that my fingers really started to hurt. As anyone who plays guitar can tell you, building up calluses on your fingertips is a necessary evil of learning the instrument. In fact, this is what caused me to quit trying in the past, but I set this challenge and was determined to finish, deciding that unless I actually started to bleed I wouldn’t stop playing.

On day 3 I realized that playing for real isn’t like guitar hero- rather than pressing the strings down to the neck of the guitar between the frets, the strings just have to touch the metal fret bars themselves to play the notes. This little discovery not only eased the tension on my fingers, but also made hitting notes a lot easier- especially for chords.

This just shows another omission from Rocksmith- troubleshooting. While the game does have just about every technique for playing properly shown in video tutorials and laid out in their tabs, they failed to anticipate the things a true beginner might not understand. I think a section on common mistakes may have been appreciated with each lesson, or at least a menu that answers questions frequently asked by beginners.

Despite that, progress was extremely quick in the first few weeks. Minor improvements such as muscle memorization on frets, hitting the strings with multiple fingers, and adjusting how I held the guitar all contributed to rapid progression. I also bought a bunch of DLC to add some of my favorite songs to the game. That definitely did a lot to keep me motivated, though even with the sale all that DLC was really expensive.

Which brings me to one of the biggest struggles when learning guitar with Rocksmith- the temptation of fun over actual practice. The Learn a Song mode defaults to increasing the difficulty of a song over time by adding in more and more notes as players improve, which is fine for beginners. It’s a good way to build up skills over time, but it also lends a false sense of security. I genuinely thought I was playing these songs at nearly full difficulty, but it turns out that the difference between 70% of the notes and 100% of the notes is a lot of notes, especially when those notes become chords at full mastery.

The game does have a feature to turn the difficulty all the way up and increase speed instead, but there’s no way to make this the default. And this slow progression without actual practice is definitely more fun than the other modes if for no other reason than getting to play your favorite songs. Will a player get better by playing Learn a Song non-stop? Absolutely, but they’re also likely to stagnate and improve at a slower rate than if they continuously practiced the basics.

This is where lessons and the guitarcade come in. The lessons are usually boring as all hell to watch, using simple riffs to showcase techniques before having the player test them out, but it’s a necessary part of learning to play. I think one potential improvement would be to have the skills being shown used in various songs that the player may be familiar with to provide a bit more motivation, especially if the lesson linked directly to those songs in the game, but as is, the tutorials serve their purpose.

The guitarcade is a mixed bag. A selection of simple minigames that attempt to make the player practice their fundamentals. There are games for slides, bends, chords, even strumming volume. The problem is with the accuracy of the game’s pickup. It’s clearly more strict in the guitarcade than when learning a song, which would be fine if the game were perfect at detecting a player’s inputs, but it’s definitely not.

Missed notes, incorrect inputs, delayed responses, games involving accuracy are made incredibly frustrating since I couldn’t tell whether it was me or the game at fault at any given time. The best games were those involving chords, like Castle Chordead. These were much better at detecting player input while also teaching the player the names of different chords as they play. I do wish the game had its zombie slaying performed to a beat in order to make the game into a song, but I also understand the benefit of training players to strum out a certain chord on command.

With all of this in mind, I think the biggest advantage Rocksmith has over other kinds of guitar lessons in the beginning is in motivating the player. While the menu may be a bit overwhelming and its shortcomings can occasionally lead to frustration and confusion, the 60 day challenge is a great way to encourage players to pick up their guitar every day and the litany of modes ensures that players always have something else waiting if they get bored or stuck. Of course, that’s just the beginning. What happens when the game becomes an actual challenge?

THE STRUGGLE

Eventually, the daily play sessions became a routine. Every other day I would swap between lessons and nonstop play, with some guitarcade mixed in every now and again to break things up. It was still enjoyable, especially when nailing a new skill or getting better at a song I really like, but my inability to learn an entire song was frustrating, especially since I was exclusively playing lead guitar without realizing it.

One glaring omission from lessons, guitarcade, and any other mode is strumming patterns. In fact, the game never really acknowledges rhythm guitar at all. Rocksmith wants players to learn guitar and has arrangements for lead, rhythm, and bass on nearly every track, but the game never tells the player about how each role contributes to a song.

As such, I stuck with lead, not even knowing that rhythm guitar would be more in line with what I expected- a way to learn some of the major chords of a song to play outside of the game and annoy my friends with at parties. I know this is partially done to build up base skills before overwhelming the player, but rhythm guitar is extremely important and it’s usually the simplest way to learn entire songs when first starting out. Plus the arrangements occasionally have the lead guitar play the vocal melody of a song, leading to more confusion.

Another difficulty I experienced was muscle and joint pain. My fingers were pretty well calloused at this point, but when the songs began including new, more complex chords I wasn’t sure how exactly to hold the guitar, leading to quite a bit of pain in the wrist and fingers. Just another area that could have been improved with some beginner Q and As.

On top of all that, stagnation set in. The rapid progress I saw when first starting began to plateau and even worse than that was the inconsistency. It seemed like some days I was somewhat competent while others had me back at square one. Rocksmith’s inability to teach me to correct my mistakes made consistent results much more difficult to achieve. There were definitely days where motivation waned, even when progress was being made.

Still, I was determined at this point. I bought myself a cheap Squier guitar so my friend could have his Fender back and while the quality difference is noticeable, for the price it’s a solid beginner guitar. I also set a secondary goal of completing every lesson in the game before the 60 days were up, just to give that little extra push through the less enjoyable part of learning to play.

On the more enjoyable end, I was very fortunate to get Rocksmith on the PC. Unlike the console versions, the PC version of the game allows for mods, including custom DLC. And I dove right in! I went through the forums looking for any and every song I could think of, adding them to the game one by one and playing through to find my favorites. Getting an endless library of songs for free was incredible, plus the site I used refuses to give out DLC for songs that already exist for purchase in the game, which is a fair compromise.

Now obviously not every custom track is going to be a winner, but they did do a lot to teach the difference between a good track and a bad one as well as exemplify how the guitar fits into different genres of music and types of songs due to the variety available. I even tried making my own when the 60 days were up.

The middle of this challenge was both when it became routine to pick up the guitar every day and when the decision to do so was at its most difficult. Despite the custom songs and the new guitar, my interest in the game was fading a bit since I wasn’t reaching the level I wanted to achieve. It was time to change things up.

THE RESULT

In the final days of the challenge, I decided to try something new- learning a song from start to finish. Each day, after completing a few lessons, I would spend the rest of my time playing Life Will Change from Persona 5, Gusty Garden Galaxy from Super Mario Galaxy, and 1985 by Bowling for Soup on repeat. I used the riff repeater to perfect difficult sections, played over and over to improve the songs, and can now confidently say I can play them… for the most part.

But more on that later. First, the lessons and man, these last few days were brutal. Tapping the strings, pinch harmonics, barre chords, so many difficult techniques both to understand and execute made things extremely frustrating. I ended up deciding that I needed to work on the basics more, but did manage to finish every single lesson by the end of the challenge. Now, they’re really useful as a metric for progress when going back and cranking up the difficulty. I’m sure not every fancy trick possible on a guitar was covered, but it’s more than enough to learn to play, excluding the specific issues I mentioned earlier.

I also tried some of the tools I had never touched before- tone designer and session mode. Tone designer allows the player to make synthetic tones using settings on various real-world amplifiers and pedals. It’s the same system the game uses to turn your computer into an amp, meaning these are the real tones that you play while learning a song, which is really cool. And the options available are staggering, with more being unlocked as you play.

The downside is accessibility. There are no lessons or tutorials for what anything does or how it works, which is a major bummer. One of the lesser-discussed aspects of learning guitar is how to properly set up an amp to get that specific sound you’re looking for. Getting an in-game tutorial to experiment with different brands and plugins is a fantastic addition, but without proper explanations it becomes a missed opportunity.

Session mode allows the player to play along a scale while a backing band lays down a simple track to play over. It’s also not very well explained, despite a massive amount of effort clearly put into making this feature. It’s definitely cool to try jamming out on a scale, but I have no clue why it changes when it does, what the scale means, or what causes the band to adjust their playing style. There are even achievements for using this mode, I just wish they told players how it works.

So that’s how I spent my final days before wrapping up. After 60 days, one hour per day of practicing using Rocksmith, the challenge was completed successfully. So, did it work? Did I truly learn to play guitar in a mere two months? Personally, I wouldn’t call myself a guitarist or anything, but if someone asked I’d definitely say that I know how to play guitar, especially with the progress I’ve made since finishing the challenge.

Rocksmith itself does not teach you how to play guitar, it teaches you to play Rocksmith. Meaning that you may learn the basics of guitar playing, but you really have to think about why certain songs and techniques aren’t coming together and work to improve your abilities on your own.

With that said, I still absolutely recommend it for beginners, but also recommend utilizing outside resources as well such as YouTube tutorials, custom DLC, and online forums to answer any questions or concerns you might have as well as playing outside the game on your own. Also, contrary to what many guitarists will tell you, I recommend starting with an electric guitar since it allows you to build up calluses without too much pain.

Rocksmith is a great motivational tool, provides plenty of tablature to learn songs from every genre of music, and does a great job teaching how to learn guitar, but actually learning to play? That’s on you. And hey, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than taking lessons.

THE FUTURE

After finishing the challenge, I wanted to continue to learn guitar, but on a less rigid schedule. In the following months, I’ve continued to play, bought a bass and gave that a try, got more custom and paid DLC for the game, and improved. Without the previous restrictions I allowed myself to look up tips from guitarists on YouTube and had some great conversations with my roommate’s boyfriend where he gave me some solid advice and answered some of my pressing questions. Side note: he’s the rhythm guitarist for an awesome band, The Fool’s Agenda, so be sure to check them out on Spotify and YouTube. Or check out his personal Spotify- Nels.

I definitely play Rocksmith a lot less now than before, but I always keep the guitar nearby and play it nearly every day. I’ve gone through every song in my playlist multiple times in the various arrangements to get a sense of which ones I’d most like to learn as well as setting up a path for getting better in the future.

As far as the recently announced follow-up goes, I was lucky enough to get a beta invite from reddit user goincd3, so shout out to them for the help. Unfortunately, Rocksmith Plus is really disappointing in its current state. For one, it’s missing basic features like lyrics on the play screen, a streaming mode, and guitarcade, with a litany of options absent that were in the previous game but what’s worse is the bugs.

Keep in mind that this is the beta, but my guitar constantly hummed while playing and the songs never seemed to stick to 100% difficulty even after I turned off the adaptive difficulty setting. The track design is also more difficult to see with its minimalist design, which may look sleek but it’s not ideal for playing, something that’s sure to be even more of a problem when playing on the upcoming mobile app. 

Song downloads are also really slow, even on my considerably fast internet connection, meaning players are less encouraged to listen to previews of songs they haven’t heard before since that will take away from their time actually playing the game. Plus I’m not sure if the song list is just limited for the beta, but if not the offering is paltry, which may explain why there’s no options to view all the songs in the game- to prevent players from noticing the lack of content. Another failing of the overly-algorithm-reliant user interface.

I do like some of the new features like the chord progression mode, being able to play with a microphone or on your phone, and community features such as sharing advice and arrangements, plus it should still be an effective way to learn guitar for beginners, but the fact of the matter is that when you plan to charge a monthly fee for something that was originally a flat price, it needs to be infinitely better than the original. Rocksmith Plus has the potential to get to that point, something I emphasized in my feedback survey, but in its current state I’d definitely recommend players go for the existing 2014 Remastered game instead because right now Rocksmith Plus feels a lot more like Rocksmith Minus.

Going forward personally, I’d like to be able to play a few more of my favorite songs, maybe make some music for the game I’m working on, and improve my playing skills until I master the basics. I have no desire to become a rock star or even a great guitarist. This whole experience was about self fulfilment and experimenting with something new- and it was absolutely worth every second. And hey, I’ve come this far, might as well see if I can put all that practice to work…

That was ‘Nice Enough’, a song I wrote, composed, performed, and produced myself. It’s nothing complex and you can definitely tell when a baritone tries to sing pop-punk music, but I’m definitely proud of what I accomplished in a little over half a year. If you liked it, feel free to check it out on Spotify and other streaming apps. It’s also not monetized on YouTube so it’s free to use if you want it in your own video. But hey, if that’s not enough to convince you, I also played all of the background music for this video, mostly to avoid a copyright strike, but if it helps to prove a point that’s a solid bonus. I hope you enjoyed going on this little journey with me and if you have any questions about the game or learning guitar I’d be happy to answer them to the best of my knowledge in the video comments!

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Reviews

Two Cent Video Review: Submerged

(Submerged is available for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, and iOS.)

Here’s a game I was asked to review. It’s a combat-free, open world indie adventure game from 2015 called Submerged. For being a couple of years old now, it surprisingly isn’t a bad game. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s still a nice indie game to play if you enjoy Assassins Creed, Journey, or even Abzu. It’s good, but is it good enough to be worth full price?!