Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes: Early Impressions

Image from Digital Trends.

Did we necessarily need more Fire Emblem: Three Houses content? Probably not. Am I glad we got it anyway? Well, I’ll answer that the only way I know how.

Indeed, it is.

Granted, one could either see Fire Emblem: Three Hopes as just that – an extension to the base tactical RPG game. Or they might see it as the next entry in Omega Force’s hack-and-slash-focused Warriors series. Either way, you start by controlling a mercenary that has the ability communicate with a spiritual entity and somehow runs into three house lords … and OK, this is starting to sound familiar.

So, then, what the heck is Three Hopes? In a nutshell, it’s an alternative retelling of Three Houses, where instead of the stoic Byleth character running into Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude, we’re introduced to Shez, who, thanks to … well, reasons, encounters the three house lords first. And the events that unfold afterward are emblematic of the butterfly effect (Byleth is still involved, however). As far as the story is concerned, it’s the same kind of different – the three houses go from being classmates to fighting each other in a big ol’ war – but there have been plenty of interesting twists along the way thus far to keep things exciting and fresh, too, speaking as someone who’s played every Three Houses route twice and probably needs to get out more.

Granted, this is, at the end of the day, a Warriors game, meaning that instead of fighting your battles on a grid-based battlefield and being methodical with your choices, you’re thrown into the same hack-and-slash frenzy that’s characterized every Warriors game thus far (and, in truth, probably depicts the actual Fire Emblem battles better than the slower-paced affairs of the base game). It’s crazy, it’s frantic … it’s just plain fun. Like the base game, you pick a house to ally yourself with (I picked the Black Eagle house in honor of Billy Kametz’s recent passing, who voiced “I am Ferdinand von Aegir”), and pick your fighting roster from the students you get (Indeed, Bernadetta, it is so your time to shine).

And despite a slow start with the onslaught of tutorials thrown at you, if you’re familiar with typical Fire Emblem conventions, it’s an easy game to process. On one hand, this gives this particular Warriors title a more distinctive feel compared to past games, especially when, speaking as someone who’s only other experience with the franchise is Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, everything feels streamlined to make things more efficient as far as battle preparations and planning are concerned. On the other hand, this also feels like a game to pick up only if you’re either A.) familiar with typical Fire Emblem conventions (if you know to use your archers against flying units, for example, you’ll likely be fine), or, and perhaps more importantly, B.) acquainted with the base game this draws inspiration from, because I wouldn’t call it a beginner-friendly entry from a plot standpoint.

The Black Eagle house features Linhardt, Bernadetta, and Ferdinand, so it’s impossible to be disappointed.

For those familiar with that game, however, this is an absolute treat of a time, blending that aforementioned frenzied gameplay with the same team-building aspects that characterized Three Houses. You won’t spend much time at Garreg Mach Monastery this time around, but you will bond with your team over the course of the game the same way you did before, and it’s that little feeling of every activity contributing to some sort of in-game progress that keeps this game easy to return to and meaningful when that hard work pays off on the battlefield. Unlike the base game, you won’t send every unit into battle – even recruitment of other units this time around works much differently and is more difficult to pull off – so it’s important to strengthen the units you feel are best … but also important not to let your other fighters fall behind either. Like Fire Emblem proper, the key to success is balance, ensuring that you’ve got a well-rounded team able to overcome basically any opponent, especially if you’re playing with permadeath on – a tried-and-true component of Fire Emblem games that carries over here and one I’m too chicken to actually use.

The combat isn’t too complex compared to other Warriors entries – you have to mash those Y and X buttons to pull off various combinations just like before and press the B button at just the right time to dodge an opponent’s onslaught. And chances are your one fighter is somehow going to blow away 100 opponents in front of them and send them flying (chances are Petra is just going to destroy everything in her path). But like with the base game, the treat here is the ability to customize your units. I absolutely love the quick optimization system that automatically outfits your units in a way the game feels is best for them (I don’t know why my game thinks Bernadetta would do better with Iron Gauntlets over her usual Bow, but hey). And because it’s Fire Emblem, there’s a wide variety of classes to fit your units into and weapons to use that will determine your various advantages and disadvantages on the battlefield. It’s a great streamlined system that I think would even benefit the base games moving forward.

Basically, it’s a big game with a ton of variety thrown in to ensure that there’s way to play for everyone. With each chapter, you’ll encounter a pretty familiar formula reminiscent of Three Houses. You’ll have your big mission to tackle to complete the chapter that will inevitably ask a lot of you and your team, but in between you’ll take place in smaller battles that will allow you to properly gauge your team’s progress, with a rewards system in place designed to offer more depending on how you fare and how far you want to go (for example, every battle will have its main objectives, but if you come across a side objective, chances are it’s worth your while to take a detour and complete it). I’m glad that, thus far, this isn’t as grind-heavy of an experience as Hyrule Warriors tended to get after some time, as it encourages players to push further in a way that feels fair and rewarding, rather than repetitive.

At the end of the day, though, Fire Emblem: Three Hopes may not be the Fire Emblem title players should jump into for their first time, but if this is your first experience with a Warriors game, you really can’t pick a better starting point than this. It’s an adrenaline rush of an experience that will nevertheless bring you back down to Earth by reminding you of the actual stakes behind your choices made and why you’re fighting in the first place. Like Kyle said when he reviewed Three Houses, the biggest compliment I can give this game is that it was hard to pull myself away from the action long enough to write this short impressions post. Again, it’s a big game with a lot to take in, but it’s worth the effort and time to really sink your teeth into – if you’re even remotely a fan of either franchise, you likely won’t be disappointed.

Celebrating 5 Years Of The Switch: What Are Our Favorite Games?

Image from Nintendo

As someone whose childhood gaming experiences started with the Game Boy Advance and proceeded to include the Nintendo DS, Wii, and 3DS, I can safely say that magic somehow left my system when the Wii U arrived in 2012. And despite the notorious failure of that console, I don’t blame it for putting me in something of a gaming blackout period for most of the 2010s. I grew older, and other priorities started taking hold. I suddenly just didn’t have time to explore new games at length. When I did sit down to play something, it was usually just an old favorite.

And then, it happened. I finally got a Switch in late 2019, and the thrill was back. I caught up with the latest entries of my favorite series I had, admittedly, neglected for far too long, and now, much like Nintendo, I feel I’m back on top of the world, creating new, magical, and purely unforgettable experiences I thought I couldn’t do at an older age.

And now, it’s time to celebrate its first five years of life with Kyle, my fellow Switch enthusiast and friend. One caveat I’d like to make with this list is that, because I arrived to the system slightly late to the party, I’m still playing catch-up with some of the most beloved entries in the console’s library thus far. And yes, there are two games on my list that are not Switch exclusives – I’d like to think of this more as a list of favorite experiences we’ve had with the Switch, more than anything else. With that in mind, let’s start the countdown! – Zack

Zack’s #5: Pokémon Legends: Arceus

Image from NME

The opening slot on any list is the most contentious one, and for my money, this slot could have easily gone to Metroid Dread, or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, or Luigi’s Mansion 3 or … well, you get it. And even despite my initial glowing review of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, I will admit it’s probably the toughest Pokémon game to jump back into once everything is completed, which is a weird criticism for a franchise traditionally known for its otherwise addictive and easily replayable gameplay loop.

But man, what a gameplay loop it is, allowing players to catch Pokémon in real time like they had always dreamed. Despite the simplistic environments, this is a game that’s just oozing with charm in its various survival-oriented mechanics, story, and the town-building aspect that I still think is an underrated part of the experience. It’s the Pokémon game that fans have been begging for for far too long, and thankfully, GameFreak seems to be taking notes from its success ahead of Pokémon Scarlet & Violet.

(Kyle says: I haven’t gotten the chance to try this one out yet, but I applaud The Pokémon Company for finally taking steps to expand on their formula! …But they’re still getting a nasty letter from me for only letting me catch store-brand Caterpies.)

Kyle’s #5: Dragon Quest Builders 2

I didn’t realize how RPG-heavy my Switch library was until I started working on this list. Bravely Default II, Octopath Traveler, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Pokémon Sword, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and the original Dragon Quest Builders were all contenders for my Top 10, but it’s the DQB sequel that earns the prestigious spot here.

Was the DQB series a blatant and obvious attempt by Square Enix to shoehorn an existing IP into a Minecraft-style world to tap into the lucrative market of sandbox games? Absolutely, but the move was executed so perfectly that it didn’t matter. The characters were compelling, the story was unafraid to venture into deeper and darker territory, and even the visuals were a clear upgrade over the games it was copying from. DQB2 perfected the original formula, making NPCs more active and lively, expanding your home base to a massive island ripe for construction, and upping the ante in the story to the point where…okay, I won’t spoil it for you, but those of you who have seen The Matrix might notice some parallels…

RPGs, like plastic water bottles, are generally single-use: You play through them once, you beat the final boss, and you move on to the next game. The building mechanic of DQB, however, invites the player to continue putting together their dream world of the Isle of Awakening, whether by discovering/Googling building recipes or throwing out the script and constructing something unexpected. After the boss was felled, I stuck around for many hours afterwards building farms, resorts, and baseball stadiums, not to mention enough transportation infrastructure to make Joe Biden proud. It was that extended lifespan that elevated DQB2 to #5, and while I haven’t played the game in a while now, there are still a few construction projects I’d like to get to someday…

(Zack says: Ironically enough, I’m actually playing through Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes Of An Elusive Age right now and loving my time with it, but I know plenty got into the series proper with this particular entry and sing its praises as an unsung hero of the franchise. And with an opening statement as long as that aforementioned game’s title now concluded, I will say I want to try this ASAP – as you’ll see from a certain entry of mine below, I like oddly relaxing RPGs that shouldn’t make sense but do.)

Zack’s #4: Stardew Valley

Image from ArrPeeGeez

This game is six years old, the Switch version is five years old, and I just played this game for the first time last month and am hopelessly addicted – understood? Good, because I’ll also say that I sort of stumbled upon this game by accident. I usually gravitate toward games that place a big emphasis on storytelling and world-building – and all with a clear end goal in mind. It’s one reason why I just never picked up games like Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon.

So, I don’t know what compelled me to be in the mood for a game like this, but it’s one of those games where I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. In essence, Stardew Valley is a farming simulator, but it’s really more like a life simulator. You can farm, raise animals, go fishing, fight slime monsters down in the mine, get married, have kids … there’s really not a ton you can’t do in this game. And the beauty is that, if you want that grand, big adventure, it’s right there for you, but you’re also free to really just do whatever you want in the game and enjoy it at your own pace. With a town full of characters that are so memorable and charming, it looks like I got that world-building game I wanted originally anyway; I just got to relax and have fun with it, too. And I can’t say that nearly as much as I’d like to these days.

(Kyle says: This one is on my list of games to try as well! I think Animal Crossing: New Horizons owes a great debt to Stardew Valley; SV went mainstream in a way Harvest Moon never did, and crafting and farming are now key features of AC:NH.)

Kyle’s #4: Among Us

So how can Among Us be so high on my “best Switch games” list when I’m on record saying that the Switch isn’t even the best way to play it?

Well, there’s a reason this game caught fire at the end of 2020: It’s just so darn addictive! As a crewmate, your job is to finish your tasks and figure out who the killers are before they cut down the entire crew; as the imposter, it’s your job to…well, cut down the entire crew. The gameplay is simple and accessible, but it’s the meeting activities that drive the action: You’ve got to decide who to trust, who to vote, and who you can sway to your side before the meeting ends. It’s got that “one more round” factor that the best games always have (especially when you haven’t been imposter for an hour and want one more killer game before you stop).

The human interactions are what make the game so compelling: You’re never quite sure what other people are going to do, you’re constantly thinking about who’s around you and what your alibi should be, and debriefing chat after the match can be quite funny. Of course, the human interactions can be the worst part of the game as well if free text chat is enabled (which it usually is, since trying to communicate with the game’s canned statements is a bit clunky), and you’re constantly reminded that your allies and enemies are a) young, b) stupid, c) bigoted, d) trolls, e) not paying attention, or f) all of the above. If you can find a good group that sticks around for a few matches (or better yet, organize a group beforehand to play), this is the best way to experience the game. Even in “solo queue,” however, I’ve had enough fun (and sabotage victories) to put this game on my list.

(Zack says: This, sadly, is another game I haven’t tried yet but have certainly heard of before. I love the fact that the gameplay completely shifts depending on your perspective, and the strategic element added into its decision-making process means it’s another game I’ll have to try soon. Hopefully before Breath of the Wild 2.)

Zack’s #3: Super Mario Odyssey

I know, shocker that this is here, right? Bet you won’t ever guess that my eventual No. 1 selection is Pokémon Brilliant Dia-justkiddingit’sBreathoftheWild. In all seriousness, I actually didn’t really love Super Mario Odyssey at first. I still maintain that there could have been a few more worlds to pad out the entire experience, and that the ginormous amount of moons to collect isn’t always as satisfying as the more tightly defined missions and hunts for stars of yesteryear in past Mario titles.

Two things happened that changed my perspective completely on this game. For one, I made it to New Donk City, and despite that being the only world where I’ve collected every Power Moon not counting that stupid jump-roping one, I could easily play around in it for hours on end and never get bored. And then the pandemic happened. I played this game properly for a second run … and it just clicked. That childlike sense of wonder and adventure is something I found yet again at a time when I, along with the rest of the world, really needed it most. Mario controls like a dream thanks to Cappy, and the open-world, sandbox style of gameplay that I didn’t explore nearly as well as I should have the first time became a needed escape for me. It’s one of those Switch games you expect to see on lists like these, but I don’t think there’s a game that cemented my return to the thrill of gaming quite like this one did.

(Kyle says: Darn it Zack, did you have to remind me about that jump-roping moon? I had just finally stopped having nightmares about that one…)

Kyle’s #3: Triangle Strategy

I feel like there’s a lot of untapped meme potential in this game. I mean, can Serenoa make any decision without those blasted scales? (McDonalds image from MemeGenerator)

What can I say about this game that I haven’t said already? Its story is deep and detailed, its characters are superb and woven perfectly into the story, and the combat is easy to pick up and feels super rewarding when you pull off a nice move. The Conviction system is an interesting mechanic, although I kind of prefer it in later playthroughs when your stats are built up and you have free rein to make whatever decision you want. The game grabbed me in a way that no other tactical RPG had, and I’m in the middle of my third playthrough (something I haven’t truly done with a game since the late 1990s) exploring the different available paths.

I guess I can talk about why this game was released on schedule when a similar game (Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp) was delayed after Russia invaded Ukraine. Both games feature nations at war, but Advance Wars treated the idea much too lightly, with its bright, colorful atmosphere and silly, fun cast of characters clashing badly with the grim images and somber reality we see in Eastern Europe. Triangle Strategy handles the topic of international conflict with the seriousness it demands, and is always reminding you of the weights you bear and the costs your choices may incur. Your success on the battlefield can wind up being a Pyrrhic victory, and as the lord of your house you’re charged with doing whatever it takes to preserve your demense, whether it be war, diplomacy, or making the hard choice to evict a person or an entire population. When meeting with the Wolffort war council, I imagine that world leaders like Joe Biden or Volodymyr Zelensky go through a similar process: Lay out the options, debate the various pros and cons of each one, and then come together and make a decision.

War is hell, and TS acknowledged this truth while AW ignored it. That’s why TS was released, and part of the reason why it’s here on my list.

(Zack says: Kyle has convinced me numerous times before that I need to pick this up and try it yesterday, especially given that I just broke into the strategy-centered RPG genre this year (which you’ll see below). And since Kyle’s description of the game reminds me of a certain entry you’ll see from me, know that I absolutely echo his sentiment regarding the contrast between games that view war as a lighthearted game, and ones that treat it as the cold, uncaring monster it is.)

Zack’s #2: Fire Emblem: Three Houses

This … is another game I only picked up this year; I told you I was busy playing catch-up! Suffice it to say, then, this was my first Fire Emblem game, and while I understand that the series at this point has heavily divided its fan-base and that this particular game is a different beast all in its own right, I loved every minute of my (multiple) experience(s). The game throws you right in the fold immediately with its combat system, which always looked intimidating from afar with its chess-like mechanics, but is surprisingly addicting in action.

And from there, the story unfolds and lets you take action of which road you want to go down, turning you from a mercenary into a professor (it makes a lot more sense in the game … kind of!) and letting you take charge of a class of characters that you bond with and understand on a deep level. Never in my life have I cared this much for people who don’t exist. I’ll admit that it’s not the best-looking title in the console’s library, and if you want the true experience with this game, you’ll have to sink a lot of time into it. But don’t let that distract you from a game brimming with an overall excellent story at its core. I went from finishing one route to wanting to experience the next one immediately, enough to where I’ve completed every route there is to complete and have sank 150 hours into this game … which, apparently, is considered a rushed experience! I may be a Fire Emblem newbie who is not a “true” fan of this series (I like playing with permadeath off – and I’m not sorry), but I’m going to follow along starting now, and you can’t stop me.

(Kyle says: Pound for pound, I think FE:3H actually has better and more-interesting characters than Triangle Strategy, and my recent experience with TS makes me think I need to go back and try a second run through this game. Also, I agree: Permadeath can go jump in a lake.)

Kyle’s #2: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Back when I reviewed this game, I labeled it “downright Seinfeldian” in that the game had no true endgame and consisted of indefinite meandering on a remote island. Yet I still enjoyed the game, and have enjoyed the game so much that it wound up as my runner-up on this list. Why?

  • While there’s no overarching endgame to AC:NH, the game constantly presents you with a list of mini-tasks that you can complete for dopamine hits. For example, when I played today, I made sure to find and talk to all my villagers, dig up any fossils I found, get the fossils appraised, get the recipes from the crafting villager and the washed-up bottle, sell said recipes and fossils for Bells, check the shops for any interesting items (Model kits and new glasses? Take my money!), plant a $10K money tree (300% ROI, baby!), find the day’s special visitor (meh, I don’t feel like fishing for CJ today), sit down for a cup with Brewster…and then run around the museum collecting stamps because International Museum Day was a week ago. Back in my “hardcore” days, I was also hitting all the rocks for iron and gold, hitting all the trees for wood, shaking all the trees for hidden items (and getting stung by bees at least twice in the process), watering flowers, catching fish, swimming around the ocean…there’s always a ton to do, and it’s easy to see how time slips away!
  • New Horizons takes this series to its logical conclusion: You’re essentially a god on your island, and while you don’t quite have the crafting power you do in Dragon Quest Builders 2, you’re not that far away from it either! You can terraform the entire island to bend the rivers and cliffs to your will, you can arrange furniture outside to create intricate scenes, you can create custom designs for surfaces and clothes (I can run around on my basketball court in a Steve Young jersey!), you can create paths that your villagers will actually follow (they’ll interact without outdoor items as well), and of course you can customize your house and choose which of your “dreamy” villagers will share your paradise with you! In turn, this feeds into your list of mini-goals: Now, you can be looking for specific items to complete specific areas, and come up with the best ways to utilize the space you have.

With the way it feels like a) the world is falling apart every time you look out the window, and b) we have almost no control or say in the matter, Animal Crossing: New Horizons provides both the distraction and the control we crave to give our lives some semblance of calm and routine. If only more country singers would give up drinking their problems away and use AC:NH to ignore them instead…

(Zack says: With Stardew Valley now standing as one of those games I go back to every, well, week or so, perhaps it’s time I finally take the deep-dive into Animal Crossing, because a peacefully relaxing game where you play on an island and interest with adorable NPCs … man, why didn’t this sound like a good idea to me before?!? At a time when games are getting bigger – often to the point of being bloated – I appreciate that there are still casual experiences like this out there that can appeal to anyone, so long as they give it, oh, a minute or so of their time to hook them.)

Zack’s #1: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Image from Pocket-Lint

Hey, one of us had to be basic.

In all seriousness, though, I actually get those who say this isn’t their favorite Switch game or even their favorite Zelda game, provided one can even call it that, given how much it breaks traditional conventions of the established formula. But that’s the thing – by pulling influence from the very first game in the series, Breath of the Wild draws a connecting line between it and that game while forming its own blueprint along the way. What else can I say about a huge open world that brims with personality and feels like it’s operating as just that – a world of its own. An escape. A terrifying yet exciting treasure trove of secrets waiting to be unearthed. A place where you can find little green beings scattered across the land that say “yeah, huh, huh” when you find them and are just the cutest things ever. It’s certainly not perfect in everything it goes for, but I think for many it’s perfect enough for them, and as someone who bought his Switch in late 2019, this became another game alongside Super Mario Odyssey I lost myself in during the pandemic. It was one of the first games for the Switch, and technically it’s more of a Wii U game than anything else. But even now, five years later, it’s still my pick for the best of the bunch out there.

(Kyle says: This one didn’t qualify for my list because I played it on the Wii U, but this game’s scope and sense of exploration remained unmatched by any title that’s come along since. The only question now is whether or not we’re going to get the sequel before 2024…)

Kyle’s #1: Splatoon 2

You all knew this was coming. You’ve seen my Twitter feed, you’ve seen my blog posts on using and beating different weapons, and you might have even seen me try to convince people that the Undercover Brella is the best weapon ever. Heck, I’ve used my ‘Octo-sona’ so much that I’m starting to wonder if I qualify as a furry.

I have sunk nearly 2,900 hours into this game, and have done nearly everything you can do in it. I’ve completed all the levels in the original single-player mode and Octo Expansion DLC, I’ve reached X rank in all three ranked multiplayer modes (I’ve got the X in Clam Blitz as well, I just refuse to acknowledge it as a game mode), I’ve reached the Profreshional rank in Salmon Run, and I’ve been working on a long-term project to amass 100 wins with every weapon in the game (I’m up to 98 out of 139 as of this writing). This isn’t just my favorite Switch game, it’s right up there with Super Mario RPG and Pokémon Pearl as one of my favorite games of all-time.

Shooters are not a genre I consider myself a fan of (back in the day it was mostly platformers, RPGs, and sports titles), so why did Splatoon (another 800+ hours there) and Splatoon 2 resonate the way they did? Part of it was the timing (every grad student goes through a midlife mid-thesis crisis when they feel like they’ll never escape and/or accomplish anything), part of it was the Nintendo factor (you couldn’t really play Call of Duty on a Wii U), part of it was the “one more game” magic (matches are really short compared to other games, so the sting of defeat washes away fairly quick), and part of it was something I keep harping on country artists to do: Find a way to make your work distinct! Splatoon brought a cartoonish and colorful aesthetic to a genre normally steeped in gritty realism (its quirky and unrealistic presentation allowed it to succeed where Advance Wars didn’t), Turf War changed both the typical objectives and mechanics of the game (you don’t kill to win, you paint the floor! And swimming through ink makes movement as important as aim!), and the use of motion controls (and they were used well for a change) enabled a whole new way to experience and play the game.

It’s been a long time since a game captured my attention like this one, and that’s what puts Splatoon 2 at the top of my list. However, it begs the obvious question: What about a certain “three-quel” coming this fall?

Image from Nintendo Life

It’s hard to say where Splatoon 3 will eventually wind up. The circumstances are very different now, and the older I get, the more all this adult responsibility stuff I’ve been running from catches up with me. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’m going to find another 2,900 hours lying around to devote to more squidkid shenanigans.

Still, I found that time once before, and I regret nothing. Splatoon 2 is a fantastic game, and I consider all those hours I put into it, as Brad Paisley might put it, to be time well wasted.

(Zack says: First of all, I’d like to say that I actually did play Call of Duty, though on the DS. And I don’t recommend it. Second of all, Kyle’s love for this series has been an infectious joy to read about for years now, and it’s part of why I’m a bit sad I missed out on the initial hype with Splatoon as a whole. With the third entry on the way soon, I just may join my friend from the ground up this time around, and I can’t wait for that.)

Tormented Souls: Is It Worth Buying?

Image from Amazon

Well … yes, I think … or maybe no, depending on who you are, dear reader. But hey, let’s table that for  now and dive into the time machine.

As a Switch owner, I can only say I’ve played certain Resident Evil titles, and only up to 6, at that. What this means is that, until I finally have the means to experience 7 and 8, I’m stuck deciding between 4 and the remake of the first game for my favorite title in the series. The chronicles of Leon Kennedy in the former title have certainly provided the roadmap between adventure and horror that’s guided the series ever since its release, but there’s the part of me that’s a bit sad that we’ll never get games like the latter title again, when the controls were clunky, the camera angles were fixed, and we loved them just the same anyway.

Truth be told, though, that style of gameplay is something every horror series has moved on from, and to be fair, it’s probably for the better – especially when series like the aforementioned Resident Evil have found ways to modernize the horror experience without relying on past gimmicks. But for those missing that classic experience, the recent Switch release Tormented Souls should certainly satisfy that hunger, even if outright recommending it is trickier. Those familiar with the basic formula will probably jump right in even despite some beginning frustrations; others may view it as a clunky, outdated ripoff that’s hard to enjoy. And despite my disagreement with that assessment, I can’t say it’s completely unfair.

The basic gist is that you play as Caroline Walker, who receives an anonymous letter with only an address for the Wildberger Hospital/mansion/dungeon of doom, as well as a picture of two little girls that, for reasons unknown at first, give Walker headaches and nightmares. Because of this, she travels to the hospital, gets clunked on the head mere moments after entering the establishment, and wakes up in a bathtub somewhere else in the establishment hooked up to a ventilator. Oh, and she’s missing an eye … and then the game begins!

My initial thoughts when playing the game were that it felt like I was playing something from around 2002 or so, and while that statement could be used as a fair criticism, I saw it as an honest homage to the various series that inspired it, which goes beyond just the aforementioned Resident Evil to include Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill, as well. For as much as the developers wanted to bill this as a modernization of the formula, though, that’s not really accurate. The camera angles are fixed, the save points and mechanics to actually use them are limited, the voice acting is wonderfully cheesy as hell, and the controls … could be better. Again, mileage will vary on how well that classic formula will click with some, but even despite liking it myself, I do have some slight issues with it. For one, there are plenty of times where I’d have Walker walk somewhere, only for the angle to completely change and the controls fail to follow suit, prompting my control of Walker to wack out a bit and have her return to the same direction she just came from, which did not help when running from enemies.

Although, speaking of enemies, your main ones aren’t zombies; they’re mutated hospital patients that have transformed into monsters – your first one being a knife-wielding creature in a wheelchair that’s a comin’ for ya. And therein lies the appeal to this game – the atmosphere, layout, and enemy design. The character designs are definitely on the rougher side of quality, but Tormented Souls is all about building its plot through subtlety, just like those survival horror games from yesteryear. You’ll find documents scattered throughout the mansion that piece together the story, which gets better and more starkly depressing as it goes on, gradually revealing Walker’s own role in the overall plot.

Of course, there’s always that question when going through a survival horror game of just how cautious one should be. In my experience, while the game is never one to hold your hand, there are subtle clues and hints to guide the player along the way and never make it feel too unfair. Right at the beginning of the game you’ll get a warning to not enter the shadows, meaning that if you enter a darkened area without your trusty lighter and hang around for too long … well, something will get you (I found out the hard way). And as far as healing items and ammo are concerned, while resources are very scarce at first, the game eventually opens up and gives you more than enough to properly escape the nightmare.

The tricky part, then, comes through in its puzzle design, which is another homage to what came before it that feels brilliantly crafted … and also just downright frustrating at points (did anyone solve those combination door puzzles without a guide?!?). Unlike what came before it, Tormented Souls creatively allows and encourages players to solve the puzzles in real time and properly examine every object they come across, which leads to some really well-crafted puzzles and solutions (heck, I got stuck on the first room), the kind that feel challenging, but also make sense when actually solved and completed. The more frustrating elements come in the backtracking, where even if you’ve opened up a new room and received a new item, you might have to backtrack all the way to the other side of the mansion in some random little room you don’t really remember too well to use it. Granted, if the map system was a little more intuitive and less clunky, that would help, but, like with those survival horror games of yesteryear, the difficulty stems from figuring out the next move rather than how to take out the next enemy. And the overall game, while surprisingly short, will feel like a much more padded-out experience due to the player’s initial lack of understanding.

Despite my criticisms, though, is Tormented Souls worth your time? Well, yeah, I think so, but I would recommend playing it on another system if you can, mostly due to how rough the cutscenes look on it (everything else seemed to run fine for me, however), and I would reiterate that it’s a very niche experience that might not attract players who didn’t grow up with that classic survival horror experience. If you’re like me and did, then Tormented Souls provides an absolutely worthy and great addition to the genre’s library. The gameplay is dated but still fun, the story progresses at a great pace, the enemies and overall atmosphere provide that perfect sense of dread, and the puzzles, while challenging, are mostly always fair and definitely interesting and creative. Classic survival horror might not have received an update to its style here, but sometimes you don’t need to mess with what already works.

Older Titles – Are They Worth Seeking Out?

[Editor’s Note: Zack Kephart from The Musical Divide has returned, and he’s got some thoughts about playing past games in the present day! If you’d like to read more from Zack, check out TMD, where he and Andy post their thoughts about country songs and albums from the past and present. Take it away, Zack!]

With the recent(ish) announcement of Nintendo closing its 3DS and Wii U eShops, many players – myself included – have scrambled these past few weeks to complete their collections before it’s too late.

Now, my overall opinion on Nintendo’s decision to do so has left me somewhere in the middle. On one hand, this was inevitable, and while I’d argue it’s coming a little too soon for the 3DS compared to the Wii U, I get why they’re putting decade-old consoles to bed. On the other hand, without any plans to preserve these classic titles, it leaves an entire library of stellar games out in the wasteland. Sure, the Wii U has mostly had its best games ported over to or remade for the Switch (though what it offers through its own eShop and Virtual Console is honestly better than what the Switch offers, in my opinion), but the 3DS is an altogether different animal. It’s the only current way to play its own library of games as well as DS ones, and while I can understand why it might be difficult to rework games from unique systems like them, it certainly can’t be impossible.

Now, the two counterpoints to this thus far are that, for one, players have until March 2023 to continue using the eShops to buy and download games, but that’s also kind of misleading; the window of opportunity is much smaller than some people realize. And then, the other one: “You knew this was coming, so why didn’t you just get them before when you could?”

Beyond a possible (and valid) explanation of “because they cost money,” this argument also kind of misses the point. For one, with the ways things stand right now, this leaves the next generation of gamers without ways to experience an entire console’s library. Today we have ways to experience NES, SNES, and N64 titles, among select others, but speaking as someone who didn’t grow up with a GameCube, I’ve always felt I’ve been missing out on those games; Nintendo wants you to remember those older titles, but they don’t really care much if you have a way to play them, it seems. Also, given the hassle of Nintendo’s entire online system for its retro library on the Switch (coming from someone who lives in a remote location with spotty-to-no Internet, at best), I have to say I much prefer the “grab what you want and go” download model of the Virtual Console far more, but also know that that’s an unpopular opinion (I’ll still miss it). But there’s also another reason why I think it’s important to keep legacies alive for future generations, and while it’s a more complex discussion, I think it’s worth having.

In the past few weeks and months alone I’ve picked up 3DS titles like Metroid: Samus Returns, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, among others, and am happy to say I’ve been having a blast with them … and that I’m also sad I missed out on them all those years ago. Why didn’t I pick them up or play them before? Well, in short, I had never experienced these series prior to just a few short months ago, and only bought them all because I tried out their successors on the Switch over the holiday season (Metroid Dread, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, and Luigi’s Mansion 3, respectively, of course).

Completing these games had me wondering about what I had been missing before, so I started hunting down old 3DS games even before the panic set in. But as that window of opportunity shrinks a little more every day and prices for physical games skyrocket (because physical is just how I roll, baby), it’s left me wondering if that search is worth it anymore. I’ve recently been looking to expand my tastes by experiencing series beyond the typical Zelda, Mario, and Pokémon ones (hence why the old mainstreamer in me bought those games above), but am still on the fence about other ones, like Fire Emblem and Monster Hunter. I knew I’d probably like those aforementioned 3DS titles I had picked up because I had experienced their successors on the Switch and didn’t quite have that time crunch to worry about. But now that I do, it’s left me in a weird predicament of whether I should keep expanding the ol’ 3DS library or just focus on the latest gems for the Switch.

Now, the obvious fact with the Switch is that, at the very least, you’re going to get a more powerful game. Maybe not an outright better game, but certainly a better looking and more powerful one. And yet, I see those fans who say that Fire Emblem: Awakening is better than Three Houses, or that Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate is definitely worth seeking out. And I also remember that, while I love the latest Metroid, Donkey Kong, and green Mario titles for the Switch, I also love the experiences I’ve had with their 3DS predecessors. No, they certainly aren’t quite as smooth in the graphics department or in their playability factor, but they’re still, you know, fun – and unique experiences, at that. I can’t use the Spider Ball upgrade in Dread like I can in Samus: Returns, and that makes me kind of sad. I like that Donkey Kong Country Returns has more worlds to explore, even if I prefer Tropical Freeze more as an overall experience. And I like the multiple locales of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon just as well as the multi-layered hotel seen in its successor title, even if said successor title is utterly gorgeous.

Now, recommending these titles is no problem; the problem is whether or not it’s worth it to fork over the price to download them from the eShop – or, for the more adventurous, find them physically on places like Amazon or eBay – or just try out the latest titles on the Switch that have likely ironed out the kinks and growing pains of past entries. And in truth, I can’t answer that for you; I can barely answer it for myself. All I can say is that, if you’re on the fence about expanding your library, I would say to do it while you still can, if you’re even remotely curious. Those older games might not have the slick polish of today’s entries, but they’re valid experiences still worth having that you’ll undoubtedly enjoy.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus: Is It Worth Buying?

Image from WCCF Tech

[Editor’s Note: We’ve got a surprise for folks today: Zack Kephart from The Musical Divide is here with a special guest review of the latest entry in the Pokémon series! If you like the review, be sure to check out TMD, where Zack and Andy post album reviews, discuss the latest country single releases, and examine the history of the genre through their ‘Fine Fifteen’ and ‘The Unbroken Circle’ series. Without further ado, let’s get to the review!]

Author’s note: While I have tried to keep this as spoiler free as possible, I am writing this from the perspective of someone who assumes the reader at least understands what this game is like on a foundational level, so as to save time and spend more time reviewing the actual game, rather than explaining it. Thank you for your understanding.

You’ll want to ready your pitchforks for this statement: I still like the classic Pokémon formula.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just the ease and accessibility of returning to something familiar time and time again, but I can go back to basically any of the past games and have a relatively fun time, at least. At its core, Pokémon is fun – simple as that.

In past years, however, my interest has waned. It’s still basically the same game, but why do I get so much more enjoyment out of returning to, say, Crystal or Black and White than I do X and Y or Sword and Shield? In a way, a lot of it comes down to us, the fans. Anyone who’s loved Pokémon from its earliest days is most certainly an adult now; we’ve grown up and changed. But, has Game Freak? In a lot of ways, no. We’ve had some changes made to the battle system here and there (though not to the same degree as Paper Mario, thankfully), but for the most part, you go through a region, form a team, beat some gym leaders, catch a legendary, and make your way to becoming the champion. And again, this is still obviously fine for an overwhelmingly large audience; again, even for me.

If anything, it’s that first-time feeling being replicated so many times over that I think has soured some of the newer games for certain fans. Still fun, but not necessarily amazing or potent beyond that initial playthrough. So when I booted up my copy of Legends: Arceus (finally, the review!), it’s like it all came back to me again. The short version of this review is that I had a blast playing through this game, and it’s likely the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game since over a decade ago. Unpacking the “why” or what’s really changed, however, is the tricky part. In some ways, this echoes a lot of the callbacks of that classic Pokémon formula. But it’s the way it’s all presented that finally makes it seem like Pokémon has entered the modern age.

In a nutshell, Legends: Arceus is something like Pokémon’s version of Breath of the Wild, though let’s really unpack what that means. First of all, this is the first open world Pokémon game, but there’s also some caveats. You start the game in Jubilife Village some hundreds of years before the region of Hisui became the Sinnoh we explored in Diamond, Pearl and Platinum, which acts as your main home for the duration of the game. And you’re not a Pokemon trainer – you’re a researcher tasked with exploring areas of the world (which open up to you little by little). So no, you can’t just catch a Lv. 85 creature and expect to breeze through the game (though there are some shortcuts you can take elsewhere that are gloriously fun, like catching a Togekiss while your party will likely still be in its teens), but the areas you explore are so wide open and diverse that it hardly matters. Even with a smaller cast of characters, I still found that there was often a ton to do at any point.

Of course, on the note of areas, let’s get the issue of the graphics out of the way now. No, they’re not terribly impressive, and there’s really no excuse for this to look like a Wii game in 2022. Whether or not that really bothers you is your call. For me … well, I’m willing to forgive it, but there are exceptions. First of all, you’ll be collecting stuff out in the wild just like you do in past games, only these items aren’t tucked away in neat little Poké Balls waiting to be found. And on that note, you (mostly) won’t be finding Poké Balls or Potions out in the wild, either. You make them yourself, kid.

That’s right – using items found in the wild, you craft your own supplies to survive (though you are free to buy what you want, too). And I have to say, I love this system. Money still matters, but it feels like it’s scarcer to come by, and oftentimes I found it more intuitive and rewarding to craft my own supplies. Though circling back to the graphics, while certain crafting items will stick out to players like a sore thumb, others can be hard to discern unless you’re really paying attention, and the game doesn’t ever really guide you on what’s what (spoilers: one of the crafting items for potions is called a medicinal leek, which basically just looks like a taller piece of grass and doesn’t stick out well, which I didn’t really know until, you know, a few hours in or so). And don’t even get me started on how the textures tend to glitch out whenever you engage in a battle from time to time, or how trying to find – let alone catch – Pokémon in the water is not nearly as much fun as it’s set up to be.

Outside of that, however, while I could wish for a cleaner-looking experience (though I will say the skybox is absolutely gorgeous), at the end of the day, it’s the gameplay that matters, and the element that’s changed the most. Even compared to Sword and Shield, you no longer have to run smack-dab into a creature to initiate a battle. You can either stealthily hide in the grass and wait for an opening to catch the Pokémon, or you can throw out a Poké Ball and send out your own creature to battle. And I love this system of giving players a choice of how they want to play the game.

Your main goal is literally just to complete the Pokedex, which really reverts the focus back to “catch ‘em all,” just as intended 25 years ago. You don’t go into menus to select items – you always have your team and your Poké Balls at the ready. And it even goes beyond that. Players can use berries to bait certain Pokemon to a certain position to get a better shot, or they can use other items like balls of mud (no, really), to stun them and get a better opening in battle. After all, each Pokémon is different. Some are calm, like Bidoof or Aipom, and will engage you in a friendly manner (heck, you can even play with them without claiming them as yours!). Others, meanwhile, are skittish and will try to run away as quick as possible, meaning that you have to be careful in your approach.

And others … well, there are a surprising amount of Pokémon that want to kill you in this game. Like, a lot. And while it can get annoyingly intense at points when you just want to explore at your own leisure, it’s all used to create a sense of atmosphere and adventure that’s been missing from the series for so long. You have to carefully plan an approach rather than just rely on old muscle memory tricks. Your Pokedex isn’t complete when you just catch a Pokémon – it’s completed when you actually study it. In some ways, I get the frustrations with the research tasks embedded into the main goal of this game. You may have to battle a Pokémon a certain amount of times to properly understand it, or you may have to catch a certain amount, or watch it use a certain move, or defeat it using a certain type of move. It sounds like a lot, but the fun part is that you can pick and choose which tasks you want to complete (you only need to do a certain amount), meaning that you can turn this entire game into a stealth catching mission, or you can turn it into an aggressive battling one. Or both. Or incorporate elements of both. Pokémon has needed to give players the freedom of choice for a long time now, and though it’s subtle and not quite delivered in the way we expected, it’s welcome nonetheless.

On that note, trying to untangle the strong style / agile style battle system is a bit messy without diverting this review too far off course, but I will say that I think it’s intuitive and interesting while still lacking the fine-tuning in the execution (I don’t really understand it even after two playthroughs, but I oddly like it?). To the best of my understanding, between it and the (spoilers) grit candies that buff effort levels and the return of experience candies, this appears to be a game geared toward players who want to truly use any team they want without feeling like they have to use the “best of the bunch,” so to say. To me, it appeared that they closed something of a gap with the stats, too. My early Pokémon were much stronger than they would have been in past games, but everything seemed to even itself out later on, making me think that the developers didn’t want players to worry about grinding levels too much, either. Even then, it’s much more strategy-based than before, and I like that you can turn the odds in your favor with just a little bit of planning. It’s fair yet still very challenging.

Which, really, considering how easy it is to get addicted to the catching mechanics of this game, shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’ll be overleveled for certain parts of the game and still be underleveled for others. There aren’t many trainer battles in this game, but there are some, and though they work a bit differently, this is probably the one element to feel closest to home for the series. It should also be noted that basically every battle you partake in is linked to the story in some fashion, and while I’ve seen critics note how slow-rolling this game is in its earliest stages and that the plot doesn’t really matter with a Pokémon game, this is another area that impressed me. My main critique with mainline Pokémon games of late is that they feel so linear and empty. Sword and Shield had the wild area … but it was bland, and it balanced it out with routes and towns that had no character or personality to them (it’s actually why I’ll defend Sun and Moon for bringing in some of that mystique and atmosphere back – Pokémon, to me, is better when it’s kept simple and not overblown, but that doesn’t mean it has to sacrifice that sense of adventure to achieve that).

The hand-holding is, admittedly, still there in the early parts of Legends, but it feels a bit more needed this time around. You’re a new kid in a strange land who can’t initially be trusted. Through your own actions, you help build a small town into a home full of people trying their best to understand and co-exist peacefully with strange creatures. Subtlety is, again, the key here. I loved progressing further and further through the game, knowing that a little more was being added by showing me, rather than outright telling me. The cast this time around is much smaller, and there are plenty of compelling characters within the bunch. If anything, for as many comparisons as one could throw around to Breath of the Wild, I was reminded more of Majora’s Mask. There’s a general sense of unease and dread, and like with that game, it is, surprisingly enough, the sidequests and extra tidbits that give this game its true heart and soul, rewarding players with material items but offering so much more beyond that.

Which is to say that, when it comes to the actual story, I’m a bit torn on it as a whole. On one hand, I like that this feels more lived-in and mature for a Pokémon mainline title, and there are plenty of twists and turns that keep things interesting – especially in the postgame – and actually make sense this time around. At the same time, it’s fairly easy to breeze through this game at a quick pace, and it’s really not until the end that it starts getting really good in this department. If you just want to play the game, Legends; Arceus is actually fairly short. It’s what you put into it that determines what you get out of it.

If I had to sum up the main difference with Legends: Arceus, it’s that it’s centered much more about resource management and survival than that general sense of comfort and familiarity we’ve come to expect from mainline titles. I don’t think I’ve felt this close to my team since the Gold and Silver days. But it all circles back to “why,” because on some level, every change made here does feel like it should have been implemented some time ago, or at least piece-by-piece to get here. And those who don’t want to give the game a pass for just now getting to it are free to do so, of course.

But … I don’t know. I said before that on a base level, Pokémon is, in any context, fun. And this game certainly isn’t without its many flaws. The areas are huge but can feel surprisingly empty at points. I’m actually thankful for the smaller cast of Pokémon this time around (the bulk of creatures from the fourth generation are, naturally, here … plus Paras and Spheal for some reason, even if I’m grateful to have the latter), if only to make completing the Pokedex a much more manageable goal. But there was also a sameness to the environments at points that made it feel like this was less about the Pokémon living naturally and more just showing at the exact same places every time for the player’s own convenience.

At the same time, every time I boot it back up I’m just inspired to go out into the world and watch these creatures really live and interact with one another. I’m inspired to complete the Pokedex because it’s actually very fairly doable in this game, even by yourself. I want to see everything this game has to offer because that sense of excitement and adventure is back. There’s a guaranteed way to catch a certain shiny Pokémon just like there was in Gold, Silver and Crystal. There’s a main quest that calls to mind the familial bond we saw between Marowak and Cubone in Red, Blue and Yellow. The totem Pokémon system from Sun and Moon feels like it’s been refined and better than ever before (though again, I won’t spoil anything further). And what can I say about the love and respect given to the fourth generation in scope and concept? Legends: Arceus is far from perfect, but it goes beyond that base level of fun to deliver something truly special and unique for the franchise that has plenty of room to grow, and that’s an exciting future I’m thrilled to watch unfold. 

Rating: 9/10. It feels like Pokemon has finally grown up with its audience and simultaneously recaptured that old-time magic. Give it a chance – you might be surprised.

The Ride Of A Dark Horse: Whatever Happened To Gary Allan?

(Editor’s Note: So, I heard you like deep dives…how about two in one week? Today’s suggestion comes from Taylor, who wanted to hear more about a West Coast artist known for his darker material:

For this one, I decided to call in an expert: Zackary Kephart, the founder and author of The Musical Divide and a longtime Gary Allan fan. Zack graciously agreed to write a guest post examining Allan’s career and analyzing where things went wrong with his career, and we’re excited to share it with everyone!

If you like what you see, go check out Zack’s other pieces at TMD—he writes song/album reviews and some other great features, including his “Pop Goes The Country” series breaking down classic country hits. Without further ado, let’s go to the deep dive!)

Gary Allan
Photo credit: Eric Adkins

When Gary Allan released his debut single in 1996, country music was changing rapidly. For one, while Allan was beginning to make a name for himself, several performers, including Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith, were already fully-developed artists; let’s not forget, too, that the “class of ‘89” was starting to grow up. Allan didn’t just face competition from fellow newcomers – he faced it from artists in their prime.

Perhaps that’s why his early success was scattershot and inconsistent, or perhaps it was because of some approaching stylistic changes. Just one year later, in 1997, program directors requested a remixed version of Patty Loveless’s “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me,” featuring harmonies from George Jones, declaring Jones as out of step with the current format. In other words, and to recap the events outlined thus far, veteran artists exited the format, artists in their prime dominated the format, and newcomers faced their own challenges. Country album sales declined approximately 20 percent in 1996, a dip that some in the industry saw as evidence that the Garth Brooks boom was over.

Yet it’s hard to completely judge whether or not Allan was affected by any of this. His debut single, after all, was a cover of Waylon Jennings’s “Her Man,” and even while country radio cast aside legends like Jones, that single managed to give Allan his first top 10 hit. His follow-up singles, however, for both his debut and sophomore albums would fail to reach the top 40, for unknown reasons; one of the singles, “From Where I’m Sitting,” even featured a co-write from the aforementioned Brooks.

It wasn’t until his third album, 1999’s Smoke Rings In The Dark, that Allan would find consistent success. Whereas his previous two projects fell heavy on the popular neotraditional sounds of the time period, his third album saw him embrace his California country roots. The difference was notable: Smoke Rings In The Dark sold more units than Allan’s previous two projects combined, eventually achieved platinum distinction, and gave Allan his first top 5 hit with “Right Where I Need To Be.”

Again, it was on that project where Allan embraced his roots. He grew up in a musical family, playing honky tonks at night with his father by the time he was 13, and turning down the opportunity for a record deal two years later. He quickly became a big draw on the local concert scene, but refused to move up to bigger venues that wouldn’t allow him to play the traditional country covers that made up a big chunk of his set. He cut some demos in a small California studio in the early ‘90s, and the tape caught the interest of BNA Records in Nashville. But restructuring at the label prevented him from being signed.

Allan continued to sell cars for a living, at least until, in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he left a demo tape in a car that was then sold to a wealthy couple. They enjoyed it so much that they gave Allan $12,000, which he then used to make professional demos in Nashville. Several labels were then interested in Allan, but Decca Records offered him a contract first.

Again, Allan seemed isolated from the events happening in country music at the time, embracing a sound that was familiar, but unlike anything else on the radio at the time. His hit streak continued with 2001’s Alright Guy and 2003’s See If I Care, both of which, in total, gave Allan three No. 1 hits. The timeline of Allan’s run at radio includes events like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the rise and fall of the Dixie Chicks (and subsequent feud with Toby Keith), and the rise of the Muzik Mafia – yet even if the winds of country music changed, Allan seemed to only focus on his personal artistic growth. Like fellow contemporaries Dierks Bentley, Shelly Fairchild or Joe Nichols, Allan stood as a performer who, while not in the same league as the aforementioned Chesney or Keith Urban of the time, still carried a solid streak of hits that combined a solid sense of tradition with a contemporary flair. Allan even said the title of his See If I Care album reflected his attitude toward the music business.

But while Allan stood isolated from other events in country music happening at the time, he would not escape personal tragedy. On Oct. 25, 2004, Allan’s wife, Angela Herzberg, committed suicide. Allan initially put his career on hold, but soon returned to music as a coping mechanism. His 2005 Tough All Over album explored the tragic situation, and, in the wake of the tragedy, gave Allan his first No. 1 album.

Allan remained a consistent presence at country radio for the remainder of the decade, but his chart success slowly grew more inconsistent. 2007’s Living Hard brought Allan the top five, platinum-selling “Watching Airplanes,” but it also brought him “She’s So California,” his first song to miss the top 20 since “Lovin’ You Against My Will” in 2000. Still, Allan pressed on. While touring with Rascal Flatts in 2006 (yes, the same tour where Eric Church was fired and Taylor Swift was brought in as his replacement), the New York Times praised him as “the anti-Rascal Flatts: one of country music’s most stoic figures.”

Stoicism, however, implies a sort of nihilistic approach to dealing with the pain, and one listen to any of Allan’s work in the latter half of the decade would refute that statement. Truthfully, it’s hard not to hear how Allan spent years processing his wife’s suicide through his work, and whether country radio was growing tired of the somber nature of Allan’s work is all up to speculation. But with 2010’s Get Off The Pain, both “Today” and the title track only made it to No. 18, and those were the biggest hits from that album.

As country music transitioned into the 2010s, Allan remained silent after the unfortunate flop of “Kiss Me When I’m Down.” On Sept. 17, 2012, Allan released “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” to radio following his short hiatus, and it ended up being the biggest hit of his career. Again, one can only rely on speculation as to why it became his first No. 1 in a decade, but the song was better for mass radio consumption than some of Allan’s heavier material. Plus, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Allan wanted the song to resonate for those victims, and the music video reflects that.

Unfortunately, while Allan stood independent from country music trends throughout his early career, there’s one trend he wouldn’t be able to escape – yep, I’m referring to bro-country.

“Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” was released just one month after Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and honestly, any later timing might have hurt Allan’s comeback. It’s not that Allan was too old for radio or to compete with the bro-country copycats that emerged from Florida Georgia Line’s success, but it’s not like he and happy (and sleazy) party music ever really went together anyway.

Now, it’s technically not clear if Allan ever criticized bro-country specifically, but in 2013, he joined artists like Kacey Musgraves and Alan Jackson by offering pointed criticisms of country music’s new direction. In an interview with Larry King (linked below), when asked whether or not he considered Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood country, Allan replied, “You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.”

“It’s an amalgam then?” King asks.

“Exactly. Like if you want to get to the young kids, you put it on the alternative station. We’ve sort of ended up in this…we’re nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So it’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”

King then asks, “Do you like it or don’t like it?”

“You know I personally don’t like it because I loved the character of country music and I loved what it is and the lifestyle of it…. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s about what happens on the weekends.”

And, as is the spirit of Allan’s demeanor throughout his career, he didn’t concede to current trends in mainstream country music, though this was starting to take its toll on him. After all, he wasn’t a newcomer anymore, and though he was on the verge of a comeback, the charts said otherwise. Allan’s third single off his Set You Free album, “It Ain’t The Whiskey” stood in stark contrast to what got popular that year – a whiskey-soaked country weeper that begins with creaking organ and sounded as dark and howling as Allan’s best material. That’s not to say “sad songs and waltzes weren’t selling that year,” but the depressing onlook of small town life in Kacey Musgraves’s “Merry ‘Go Round,” the regret of Eli Young Band’s “Drunk Last Night,” the pain of knowing what’s to come in Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Her Eyes” and the fiery, Gothic rage of the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” all were exceptions, rather than the general rule in 2013. It’s no surprise, therefore, that despite stemming from the same album that launched Allan’s big comeback single, “It Ain’t The Whiskey” peaked within the top 40 at radio.

It’s hard to judge, though, whether Allan’s comments about country music’s direction are what hindered his momentum. Sure, the aforementioned Musgraves and Jackson made similar comments, but Musgraves only ever had one single catch on at radio, and ageism was certainly a factor for Jackson (it sadly was for George Strait during this time). But artists like the aforementioned Brown and Jake Owen both made similar comments about the country music climate, and their chart success remained in tact (yes, Owen’s momentum would slightly falter soon, but not because of this) .

“It Ain’t The Whiskey,” however, was the beginning of the end for Allan. Alongside bro-country, one other country music industry trend in the 2010s was the infiltration of EDM and R&B influences into the format. Songs like Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down,” Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down,” Thomas Rhett’s “Crash & Burn” and multiple singles from Sam Hunt, Old Dominion and Brett Eldredge (among others) don’t necessarily fit the bro-country moniker, but they do show those heavier pop influences. Jerrod Niemann went from mixing ragtime horns and trumpets on 2012’s Free The Music to going outright EDM with his comeback single, “Drink To That All Night.” Eli Young Band did the same with their 2015 EP, Turn It On. Instead of double down on any criticisms, Allan, too, fell in line with the trend.

Now, to be fair, Allan claims his 2015 single “Hangover Tonight” was a throwback to something like “Runaway” from his Smoke Rings In The Dark album, but whereas that song represented Allan finding his artistic identity on a breakthrough album, “Hangover Tonight” rang as rather, well … safe. The groove felt clunky and underweight, and the production was oversaturated as anything else in mainstream country at the time. Plus, the song was a sleazy, bar hookup track, which only made it blend in that much worse with other country radio singles of the time. Up until now, Allan really couldn’t be described as “trendy,” but in that instance he was.

Now, any followup single to something like “It Ain’t The Whiskey” would have a tough fight, especially with Allan’s aforementioned comments lingering behind him. But chasing trends proved to be the wrong move, as the single became Allan’s first to miss the top 40 since 1998’s “I’ll Take Today.” “Do You Wish It Was Me?” found Allan adopting his usual darker ambiance, but the murkier production still sounded too slick and dour to come across well, and it, too, failed to make much of an impact, ending with a No. 57 peak position. By the time Allan’s latest single, “Mess Me Up,” arrived, it all felt like too little, too late.

But as for assessing where and when it all went wrong, it leads to more questions than answers. As previously mentioned, Allan’s success never seemed tethered to trends, and while acts like Rascal Flatts or Lonestar made the sort of easy, agreeable pop-country that dominated the era, Allan somehow managed to find success with his own brand of moody, West Coast country music. The nontraditional movement had begun to fade, yes, but it was only after shedding any ties to that straight-laced sound that he found consistent success. His wife’s suicide certainly haunted him, and that shows in his work, but not to the point where it ever jeopardized his radio airplay or sales.  And while it’s easy to see why “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” caught on in hindsight, certainly no one could predicted it would be a double platinum-selling No. 1 hit upon release.

In other words, Allan is an enigma. I already compared Allan to artists like Dierks Bentley and Joe Nichols, and whereas both of them arguably have their trendier singles, it worked for them, if only temporarily. For Allan, moving away from what fans (and critics) had come to expect seemed to backfire for him, though it’s also possible that Allan’s dismissive attitude toward the genre soured him in the eyes of radio programmers, too.

Today, Allan is now on EMI Nashville (from MCA Records), yet there’s still no news on any upcoming music from him. Actually, it’s hard to know what to expect from Allan these days. In an interview last year, Allan both promised that new music was on the way, and offered criticisms for the country music genre (again).

“ ‘Organic’ is a good word,” Allan says. “I feel like somebody needs to stick out and turn this thing back toward something more organic. Country music used to be the most organic stuff out there, and now it’s become super pop-influenced. We used to influence pop. Now I feel like we’re being influenced by pop.”

“I’ve always found myself on the edge of Americana and the mainstream. When I get too far in the Americana side, I put one right down the pike and get back over into the mainstream. Then when you get too far into the mainstream, you try to pull those other guys. That’s been a dance my whole career.”

Allan also says, “I’m super proud of the stuff I just turned in. Hopefully they’ll find a single out of that, and we’ll get a launching point and go. It’s all pretty feel-good; it’s all pretty in-your-face. It’s all just really different. I kind of went the opposite of what everybody else was doing.”

Can Allan pull off another miraculous comeback? It’s tough to say, especially when his competition has shifted from the likes of Hunt and Florida Georgia Line to Luke Combs and Kane Brown. Allan has, however, always found his greatest success from doing the opposite of what everybody else is doing, as he says, whether it’s come from finding his artistic identity, finding solace from grief, or finding personal salvation from the aftermath of a storm. His journey is a mystery, and while he’s never ascended to A-list territory, Allan has managed to forge a successful country music career by following his inner muse, and that’s a success story that’s always easy to root for.