Dean Cleans Off His Steam List - No Time To Explain
Good reader, I am told you like games with a challenge! Therefore, I shall issue one to you! I suggest to you that you shall play... Super Mario Bros.! Wait, this be not a true challenge. The stakes need be raised. I must also demand that you shall play the game while your youngest daughter is grabbing the controller out of your hands, the dog is kicking the television over, and your spouse is leaned up against your ear saying "buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz squirrel buzz" repeatedly as you play. Truly, a challenge!
…No? Why not?
A lot of us deliberately seek out harder games - there's a special satisfaction about working hard at something, failing it repeatedly, and eventually overcoming it. But we usually define a challenge as something that's difficult to complete, not something that's difficult to play. For example, in that last space shooter game I reviewed, the game had no mini-map telling me where my main targets were. This made the game "harder" in that I couldn't finish a mission until I'd spent effort hunting the things down. That game was also hard when I was flying down the edge of a humongous space cruiser with several laser turrets aiming on me and I needed to figure out the tactics for hitting my targets without getting killed. One of these things was fun, while the other just felt like a nuisance. I can't come up with the exact words I want here - something about how we want to beat the level, not beat the game.
The sad part for No Time To Explain is that it didn't even mean to be a challenging game. Its intentions start with the title - you load the game and a guy crashes into your home, shouting, "Come with me! No time to explain!" He is then dragged off by a crab monster, and you pick up his gun and run after him. The game's thesis statement is its humor, which is a good joke for a while as you navigate jumping puzzles to reach the futuristic guy being devoured just offscreen by a slow-chewing shark. The game goes on to throw an array of goofy monsters and absurd dialogue at you. It's a cute joke for the most part.
But as for the game surrounding that joke? Right after I leave the house, I find that my little guy doesn't jump very high. In order to clear most barriers and gaps, I have to fire my laser in the opposite direction, using the recoil to push me past things. The game takes this One Neat Idea and applies it to nearly every jump in the game, requiring the laser boost for every moment you leave the ground. This starts a litany of issues.
Problem one, you fire the gun with the mouse, moving your cursor in a direction you want to aim and pressing the mouse button to shoot. This means that moving your mouse "up" doesn't always mean your character will be shooting "up" unless the cursor is over his head. Let's say I'm jumping across a gap, so I point my mouse somewhere to the 8 o'clock angle of my character and fire, giving me a recoil boost in the opposite vector at 2 o'clock. However, as my guy jumps, he goes higher along the y-axis of the screen. If I do not also move my mouse in the exact same vertical motion, then the angle with the cursor changes, so the angle of the boost vector also becomes more vertical. This gets even worse when you reach the edge of a map, and your guy who was in the center of the screen as it scrolled is now on the far side of the screen, changing the boost vector even more.
I think I just lost seven of my thirteen regular readers with that mathy explanation. Basically, it is very difficult to make precise jumps with your laser boost because you can't steady the direction of propulsion.
Problem two, the laser is a heavy weapon with enough power to shove you in the opposite direction. The game provides a subtle hint of the weapon's power by making the screen shake as you fire it. This is a common game mechanic - when you're playing Call of Duty and a rocket explodes right next to you, the screen shakes, right? Same idea - heavy weapon equals shaky screen. Did I just say that nearly every jump requires use of the gun? Yes, and that means that you have to make every precise jump onto a tiny platform while the screen is shaking.
By the way, the gun isn't the only thing shaking the screen. Fight a mini-boss that tunnels through the ground, he shakes the world with him. On the final level, a factory with chemistry machines bubbling in the background, you get regular intervals of screen shake to add that level of, uh, chemistry atmosphere. Playing this game was starting to hurt - there's got to be some horrible abuse done to your attention span when everything you look at is having a seizure.
Also, the game engine. I fear the game may have been designed in Flash or something equally noncomprehensive, because I suffered with a lot of chugging framerates. I don't have the most up-to-date PC setup here, but I don't expect a game to start dropping frames just because there are blocks falling from the top of the screen during a boss fight. On a racing stage where my guy is running from an evil man in a robot sphere, he falls through solid platforms. A mole boss with lasers occasionally gets stuck in the ground if I'm not standing in front of him (the animation waits for a map change that never comes). A bit more QA time might have been reasonable.
As with other modern indie platformers, beating each level requires a certain amount of precision. Guess how precise you can be while your weapon is shaking the screen, the environment is shaking the screen more, your mouse position is changing as you move, and the framerate is crawling? Trick question, obviously. The reason I was able to progress at all is that none of the levels posed too much challenge. With under four hours to clear the main playthrough, the game didn't last long enough to get into anything harder. Though it did last long enough for me to hate gigantic laser-drill mole monsters.
There is humor in No Time To Explain, and it's all right, but after a few hours of staring at shaky, stop-motion pixels, I had a hard time focusing on the funny parts. This game feels less like a full Steam release and more like a student project rushed to meet the professor's deadline.