Bad Apple Wars (PlayStation Vita) Review

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Aksys Games are a publisher I have recently become more and more aware of. Originally in my mind for such gems as the Zero Escape trilogy, they have published hit after hit in the visual novel world; making accessible games I never expected to see come to the west. After reviewing Collar X Malice, I have to say I was suitably excited to take a look at Bad Apple Wars (BAW), but have I bitten into a rotten apple?

It’s a perfectly normal day, as it oft is at the beginning of any grand adventure or grim tale. A hollow soul, our protagonist feeling familiarly empty at the prospect of attending a new school. Everything changes, and yet nothing changes. Aware of her own emptiness, she does nothing to move forwards, and yet has no reason to rebel. Unwillingly thrust into the world of the dead, she stands as a perfectly pure canvas—an apple neither good nor bad.


When I first turned on the game, I left it idle, as I usually do. Sorting out my miscellaneous errands, I was caught somewhat off-guard by what I was hearing. Glancing back at my monitor (as I had decided to play on my Vita TV), my mind started to put the pieces together. It was the game’s opening theme. It’s not unusual for a visual novel to have a solid opening sequence; it’s actually something I’ve come to expect. You want it to introduce the characters in a way that makes you want to play the game, to see what lies beyond their devilishly good looks. You want it to intrigue, to entice. You want it to be backed by something to stimulate excitement. It’s not a difficult formula to get right, but to get it right to this degree brings a smile to my face. This opening theme ticks every box: it shows off the style of character art, it shows off the game’s stylish nature, and most of all, it is backed by a phenomenal song by a recognisable artist. I was excited to begin; more so than any advertising or research had made me previously.

​And then, peace. Calm. As if to drain the excitement, the eagerness built, the game plays a mellow theme more befitting a Professor Layton game. At first this seemed an odd choice. It derailed the tension with such intent, it’s almost unsettling—brilliantly so. In just two minutes, the first two minutes of the game, before any actual gameplay had been presented, here we have the tone, the essence of the game laid out before us. The unsettling calm of the Good Apples, the unhindered chaos and excitement of the Bad Apples; the confusion of you, the protagonist, at their distinct intertwined and contrasting nature. For a simple menu to give such insight into a game’s tone is truly staggering to me. Of course, this is something plenty more appreciated on reflection, however the implications for first-time players shouldn’t be overlooked. The contrast and confusion created by these themes lead into the introductory chapter well, and allow for another level of empathy with the protagonist as she is cast into an unknown world both similar and different to what she has known.

Angelic Inspiration, Demonic Presentation

Just beyond the introduction, a school waits for you. As you might expect, this is no ordinary school. It sits in a world of its own, the students trapped within its grounds. The conditions to graduate? Follow the rules and be a Good Apple. With graduation, so comes a renewed chance at life. Ring any familiar bells? Throughout my time playing BAW, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the 2010 series Angel Beats. That too finds its setting in a school afterlife, with similar conditions to graduation and, again, have another chance at life. It’s difficult to avoid the parallels if you’ve seen Angel Beats. It is however equally difficult to avoid the sheer contrast. From my perspective, BAW almost parodies the ideals of Angel Beats, presenting what felt like a dystopian spin on the popular series. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, given the comparison to an entirely different medium, but I did find it interesting how I was constantly being led astray by my knowledge of it. The off-beat familiarity of the situation paired with the masterfully chilling soundtrack built up a surreal experience. It enhanced the game in a way I struggle to believe was intended; and yet it fell together so well.

The sinister vibe extends far beyond the contrast of angels and apples; it is woven into the very fabric of the game. Prominent in the soundtrack, the dialogue, the very nature of graduation, it’s always with you. An unsettling uncertainty. BAW’s way of portraying generic characters ties well into this. It’s often interesting to look away from the main cast, and see how visual novels handle the unnamed masses. Often undrawn, faint figures; to an extent, ghosts. BAW goes above and beyond what I expected. Instead of viewing the generic masses as a nuisance, it toys with their very concept. The lifeless horde is a lifeless horde, the faceless figures donning unnerving masks. They’re used as background noise, an echo chamber ominously repeating the hope-deprived words of their teachers—and they fill this role better than any unique character ever could.

The Drawn and the Undrawn

It’s a shame such thought couldn’t be carried into every character. While BAW handles the generic character wonderfully, it struggles with those who have a place neither here nor there. Those who find themselves not quite in the spotlight of being a main character, but not quite irrelevant enough to be one of the faceless. BAW’s approach? Simply to not draw them. At all. This is a design choice I cannot find reason in. Perhaps a limited budget? I truly find it a shame how any potential these not-quite-main-but-named characters had is thrown away by a lack of visualisation. Even something as small as a portrait window would elevate them. They may not be worthy nor significant enough for a full-body design, but seeing nothing puts them at a level below the masked Good Apples in my eyes, despite their named status.

​Of course, where the characters are drawn, they are spectacular. As with many modern visual novels, your love interests are clearly marked by their colour. These colours are not only used to create a unique and bright identity to these rebels of a bland world, they also provide clear choice when it comes to route diversification. Many of the games’ choices come in the form of a school map, asking you which location you would like to visit. These colours allow for simple association, and tell the player “if you head here, you’ll meet Mr White”. It’s simple, but subtle enough as not to disrupt the flow of the game in choosing a route.

A Soul Untouched

BAW uses one more method of route diversification, albeit sparsely throughout the game. Soul Touch stands as the game’s contribution to the standard visual novel formula, and takes advantage of the PS Vita’s touch screen to interact with characters to better understand them. It’s an interesting idea, I’ll give it that much, however I found its implementation questionable with often arbitrary execution. To break it down, you touch the person in the right place, and you learn a bit about their past. Touch them in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’ll put yourself on the path of a bad ending. It serves as a means of interaction with the main cast, but no part of it ever feels particularly rewarding nor, for the lack of a better word, intimate. This system is supposed to put you closer to understanding a character, it’s supposed to put you in the position of the protagonist, but ultimately it comes down to tapping random parts of their body with no reason nor rhyme. I appreciate the idea of this, but I feel it flawed by design.

​The system itself leaves me a little disappointed, but I struggle to deny the impact of the scenes that follow. Bit by bit, feeding me sad tales of unfulfilled lives, I shared the pain just as the protagonist would. Despite its minor faults, BAW stands out to me. It encourages me to look beyond the mask. It pushes me to understand that which is hidden. It reminds me forbidden fruit should be savoured.

SteamWorld Dig 2 (Nintendo Switch) Review

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Welcome to an alternate Earth—an alternate world where humans are all but wiped out, destroyed by the very weapons they created. In their steed, a civilisation of steam and steel has risen. The inhabitants of this alternate land? Industrious robots, powered by steam—Steambots. Stuck on the dawn of the 20th century, these bots live as sheriffs, miners, or as simple citizens. This is the wild west, but not quite how you remember it.

First Impressions

From the very first menu, SteamWorld Dig 2 sets an ironically human tone. Before so much as starting the game, I found myself eager to explore what was available to me, quickly finding an image of the team who had spent so much time, and had put so much passion into this project. It was refreshing, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it. I understand this is an incredibly miner addition, but it’s the kind of thing I rarely see attention drawn to; and I feel that’s a shame. Putting this aside, I started the game.

This being my first SteamWorld game, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; aside from digging and a bit of steam. The introductory segment presents itself well; albeit somewhat slow paced. It ticks every box, introducing the movement, the general feel of the level design, as well as the core aspect of the game: digging. Everything feels fluid, yet lacking. It comes across as though there is a fantastic movement system buried in the game, but just out of reach—stuck behind a rock your pickaxe simply cannot crack.

Obviously, you don’t go into a game expecting it to play all its cards right from the start. A game should tease, tempt, allure you into playing more; show you a string to the heavens and make you want to climb it. While I wouldn’t say SteamWorld Dig 2 necessarily fails in this respect, I struggled to find myself excited to continue. Nothing particularly stands out as a holding it back, yet it has no real driving factor. I would describe the game’s opening as a strange limbo. The end of the opening section is the only part that really strikes me as interesting.

This interest comes in the form of a boss—a strange totem content with zapping deranged cultists. It caught me off guard. A rather out of place, slightly humorous piece of plot; followed by a fun and engaging battle. It gave me hope. The boss battle does everything I look for in an introduction wrap up. It puts to test each of the mechanics and movement techniques the game had previously shown you; adding an air of danger without being overly difficult nor complicated. Despite being a relatively short fight, it provides a satisfying payoff, and acts reasonably well as a check the player knows how to play the game. With this out of the way, players can go into more complex areas, confident of the basics.


From here, the game begins to open up. You leave the confines of the western temple and head to a small mining town, populated by a quite frankly irritating array of characters. You meet such thrilling Steambots as lobster robot, builder robot, and who can forget beloved old robot. I feel nothing for these characters and as the story progresses, I feel no desire to interact with them. They populate the town as background noise; some serving utility, others not. The problem I feel with them is how the game almost wants you to empathise with their situation, but why should you care? Looking back at my experience with the NPCs as a whole, I realise this irritation created a strange conflict of motive when playing. I would like to see the story come to a resolution; I would like to see Dot find her lost friend. Beyond that however, a desire had emerged to see the townspeople suffer, to make their confusion and hardship last that little bit longer. This in itself offers potential to prolong the gameplay experience and encourage further exploration below the planet’s surface.

Deep below is where you’ll spend the majority of the game—picking and digging, drilling and mining. It’s repetitive, it’s tedious, it’s been done before. Looking from the outside in, you have to ask exactly what this game can add to the formula to keep it fresh. SteamWorld Dig 2’s answer comes in the form of augmentations and upgrades, and such a system plays well to the hand it has dealt itself. So often I find upgrades being forced on the player for the sake of progression and while this is still to some degree true here, it at least finds reasonable justification. It feels natural within the confines of this world—you are a robot finding ancient upgrades deep underground. The idea of these sits incredibly well with the overall feel of the game. The upgrades themselves however leave me conflicted.

Freed from the shackles of introductory sluggishness, SteamWorld Dig 2 takes several different approaches in livening up the underground experience. The upgrades can be broken down into two basic categories: those that make it easier to mine; and those that make it easier to move. Each upgrade falling into these categories serves a purpose; be it to overcome wonderfully crafted environmental blockades, or just to break through a hunk of rock a hit faster. Each new ability you find, each new upgrade you work for, you feel a sense of progress, a sense of satisfaction. There is no doubt in my mind this is a well-structured and heavily rewarding system. Where the game trips itself up is in combining these fun and varied upgrades with the relatively samey environments.

I can find no fault in the way the game controls progression. Truthfully, such well executed environmental blockades are something I find particular joy in seeing. The abilities and upgrades required to pass them are quite often incredibly fun additions to Dot’s movement pool—but a question must be asked here: how often will you be able to use them in the confines of a narrow cave system? I understand they might still make movement easier, even in the winding passages, but playing with the toolbox of extended movement abilities in the open space the town provides makes for an entirely different experience. It drives me to want more from the game, and it simply doesn’t deliver. This isn’t to say it doesn’t try to fill this ever-deepening hole.

Caves are a hidden wonder of SteamWorld Dig 2. Sporadic in placement, dotted around the underground tunnels they hide. Akin to the shrines of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, they each offer a unique challenge based around a singular theme. Whether it’s a simple movement mechanic, or something not seen anywhere else in the game, you can be certain it will be pushed to the limit to create something fun, creative, and original. Each cave leaves you smiling, sometimes letting out an overdue breath of relief by the end. They leave you eager to find another, eager to enjoy the upgrades the game seems to enjoy giving you. Each of these caves are masterfully crafted; traps lovingly placed, timings meticulously precise. I often had to take a moment to reflect on just how well they come together. I still find sadness in the lack of meaningful open spaces to utilise some of the later upgrades, but to deny Caves their credit for that would be to deny the joy they brought me.

Let’s Talk About Pacing

I’ve mentioned the slow start. It’s a little irritating, but it isn’t unexpected. The natural progression of most games features a degree of escalation often starting as the world begins to widen. This escalation builds ultimately to a climax, where the game peaks. Plenty of games have a number of peaks, and work to rebuild the tension and excitement as you approach the next. Herein lies SteamWorld Dig 2’s failure.

What strikes me as interesting in this case is how one scene ultimately ruined the game’s pacing. Perhaps the more interesting aspect of this is that I view this scene as the most tense, the most interesting and fun part of the game. It put me through dread, joy, it made my heart race. It had everything in place to be a penultimate scene, the climax this game deserved. This climax never happened. The reward? A new ability. A new ability that ties in with none of the previous dread, joy, nothing that made my heart race. I feel an unreserved disappointment the pacing was thrown so heavily off for the sake of something so trivial. The game builds again after that, but what could have been a fun plot twist is exchanged with an “oh, that’s it?” The game sets the bar too high, and simply fails to deliver afterwards. This by no means makes the game unplayable, but it makes me question whether this scene, regardless of how good it might be, would have been better off not being in the game at all.