Super Panda Adventures Review
It’s been a rough year for this site. Two of my favorite series self-destructed so badly that I swore one of them off entirely, and I’m hugely skeptical that the other will ever release anything decent enough to draw me back in. Beyond that, the past few months of my game choices have been populated almost exclusively by disappointments from pretty much every gaming decade. That’s why it’s nice to finally find a game that I genuinely enjoy, something simple with a lot of personality to remind me that there are actually some diamonds out there beneath the piles of trashware masquerading as games. That’s not to say that Super Panda Adventures is flawless, because it isn’t, but its problems are either easily circumvented with a little creativity (the difficult boss fights) or unimportant because they’re not the game’s focus (some grammatical errors).
A lighthearted story of pandas and robots
I first noticed Super Panda Adventures on the now-dead Desura store and thought that it looked surprisingly good, but I mostly just used Desura for bundle games that required it, so I didn’t bother looking into it too much. It was only much later when I saw it on sale on Steam that I was tempted enough to actually follow through and buy it, and the tone of the game upon starting made it obvious that buying it was the right decision; the game’s story is incredibly lighthearted, following a Kung Fu Panda-esque main character as he tries to save both his world and the abducted princess he’s been trained to protect from a bunch of evil robots.
The characters have a lot of personality to them, from the village cat ninja to the loony twin rabbit wizards, and this is something they have in common with the enemies; early enemies are fairly unremarkable blobs and wildlife, but by the end of the game, you’re facing groups of western-themed robots spread between slasher-themed robots and Groucho Marx-themed robots. There’s not a huge amount of enemy variety, so you’ll face a lot of the same robots and wildlife throughout the game, but the enemies that are there have so much character to them that I didn’t really mind.
As for the story itself, it’s nothing special on paper, being fairly straightforward despite some minor twists and turns. That said, it’s also incredibly charming, and it nails that difficult balance between seriousness and lightheartedness without either being jarring. For the most part, at least; some of the early jokes were hit-and-miss for me (I loved a random jab at The Happening, but there were Mega Man and Zelda jokes that struck me as being kind of forced), but things evened out later on once Fiona joined main character Fu. Fiona is a person stuck in a stone Fu finds, and she pops up sometimes to comment on things. Personally, I’m a fan of games that you go through with an NPC—Half Life 2, Bioshock Infinite, etcetera—because having an extra perspective tends to make things a bit more dynamic and interesting overall.
There are some points where the writing goes downhill, though. It doesn’t negatively affect the overall tone, but there are some typos (“your” instead of “you’re” and “it’s” instead of “its,” with the latter being a problem in the text that pops up every time you get a key) and instances of awkward, unnatural phrasing that stands out. It’s not anywhere near as bad as a game like, say, Doom & Destiny, and Super Panda Adventure’s jokes land far more often than in that game since the vast majority are natural and fit the world rather than being made up entirely of lazy references, but the phrasing could definitely be cleaned up to be a bit tighter.
The gameplay here is really solid
This game is apparently a metroidvania, but like I mentioned in my Shantae: Risky’s Revenge review, I have too little experience with those types of games to be able to judge it as a metroidvania. As was true for that game, however, I enjoyed Super Panda Adventures more than the Metroids and Castlevanias I’ve played. Rather than being one continuous world, the levels here are broken into small bits and accessed from an overworld map, and this allows you to get around fairly quickly. That’s especially helpful because of how much there is to find in this game; littered throughout the levels are power orbs used upgrade your weapons and armor, chunks of experience points that can be picked up to get closer to leveling up (more on that later), coins that can be spent in shops, items needed for quests, relics split in half that confer passive bonuses once you find both pieces, keys that open up new areas, and even items that grant new abilities. You can’t reach everything the first time you visit an area, however, so gaining new abilities is an excuse to backtrack and discover the things that have been hidden throughout earlier areas.
Let’s start with power orbs. These are shiny orbs you find hidden throughout levels and that are used to upgrade your sword, armor, and shuriken. There are no upgraded versions of any of those that can be found or bought, so power orbs are the sole mechanism through which they’re improved into better versions. Personally, I focused on the sword and armor exclusively until they were both capped out at level 5 before bothering with the shuriken, and I’d recommend going that route since the shuriken only really made a noticeable difference for me in the final boss fight. An upgraded sword and armor are also incredibly helpful (arguably necessary) for the boss fight strategy I’m going to share a bit later.
Then there’s experience. Doing a lot of damage really quickly without too long of a break between attacks will build up your combo meter, earning you extra experience, and there are also chunks of yellow experience spread throughout levels that you can collect. Enemies occasionally drop small bits of experience, as well. Once you gain a level from all of this, you get two points to put into any of 16 perks that do everything from increasing sword damage to giving you a chance of invulnerability after getting hit. Those are both important, as are investing in critical hits, and most importantly of all, there’s a perk that gives you a chance to have a little health restored each time you hit an enemy with your sword. Upgrading your maximum health and armor are also incredibly helpful, and there are obviously many other perks to choose from. All of these can be upgraded to a maximum level of 10, and you gain levels quickly enough that it feels like you’re always improving. The same goes for the various abilities you get throughout the game. There’s a double jump, the ability to swim, various magic spells (including one that can be used as a third jump), the ability to switch the tangibility of red and blue blocks to create platforms and open new paths, and that’s still only scratching the surface. My completionist playthrough took me 7 and a half hours, and even at that slower pace, it felt like I was constantly gaining new abilities to play with, which is what made the gameplay interesting enough for me to want to collect everything in the first place.
Coins are pretty self-explanatory, being the game’s currency. There are a few shops in the game, and you can spend them to restore your health, shields, or magic (which is kind of pointless since magic regenerates over time). You can also buy large chunks of experience, which can be incredibly helpful. Then there are keys, which are also self-explanatory; some parts of areas are blocked off by doors, and finding a key (or being given one by an NPC as part of their quest) opens up more of the area. There’s a lot of key-finding involved if you want to find all the power orbs and relic pieces, but the constant rewards keep it from being as tedious as it probably sounds.
Using experience to cheapen boss fights
I played Super Panda Adventure on the “normal” difficulty, but there are two harder difficulties available when starting a game. Those scare me; normal enemies in my chosen difficulty weren’t too much of a bother (though I admittedly died once or twice after repeatedly jumping into spikes like a total idiot), but the boss fights after the easy first one are huge difficulty spikes. These bosses tend to be a bit damage sponge-y in addition to having attacks that are a pain to avoid, and since you can’t carry around health potions or anything in this game, it’s easy to hit a brick wall of difficulty and feel like you’ve painted yourself into a corner.
That was definitely me for awhile, at least until I noticed that I gained a level while fighting a boss. Not only do level-ups give you perks to choose from, but they also fully restore your health and magic, and since you can gain levels from smacking enemies around a lot and racking up huge combos, I figured out a way to overcome the difficulty spikes using bosses’ damage sponge-y natures against them.
It’s important to have upgraded armor to soak up damage and an upgraded sword to do more damage (hence why I didn’t upgrade my shurikens until the very end), though they don’t have to be at any specific level. Just whatever feels appropriate given how far you are in the game. Personally, I got into the habit of keeping my armor one level above my sword, but otherwise raised them about equally. Even more important are the perks that give you invincibility frames after getting hit and a chance to recover health when you attack with your sword (max them out ASAP). It’s also important to go into the boss fight close to a level-up, but not too close. Basically, the point is to tank the enemy and attack it as fast as possible while soaking up its hits. All the while, you’re having small pieces of your health restored, and while you’re still losing health overall, you’re also racking up a huge combo that’ll level you up and restore your health and magic when you disengage for a few seconds.
This works for all boss fights except for the robot gorilla (the perk to increase your max health is most helpful there, I found) and final boss. Technically, this does work on the final boss, but it has so much health that you can’t realistically tank all of its hits. It has so much health, in fact, that I discovered that the combo counter maxes out at 9,999 and the fight revolves mostly around waiting for it to shoot a yellow bubble that you can hit back. Instead of tanking, then, I leveled up my shuriken after finding all of the power orbs, leveled up all the shuriken-related perks (including one for damage and another that gives you up to 5 damage-dealing green things that circle around you whenever you throw and catch it—best done before the fight starts) and the perk that increases knockback, and attacked it from the side as fast as possible while trying to avoid its hits. The green things were around me all the while, and I also used the magic hammer attack after throwing the shuriken (which creates a bunch of little ones that fly around for a short time and let you focus on attacking with the sword). That did some serious damage, and once it had its yellow bubble attack instantly shot back by my barrage of sword attacks, the fight was all but over. Using that strategy, I was able to go back and defeat it consistently, so I recommend it to anyone having trouble.
I really liked the graphics and music
As you can probably tell, the graphics are colorful and vibrant with an almost cartoon-y vibe to them. The best way to describe them would probably be “Earthbound and Shantae in a blender.” The late-game areas have more of a grey, soulless-corporate feel to them (on purpose), but even they eventually get a splash of color, and I really came to appreciate how much personality the visuals have. The music is equally great, being upbeat and memorable in the best of ways. It’s rare that I stop playing a game in order to sit around and listen to its music, but this is definitely one of those games, and it contributes a lot to the game’s atmosphere.