Mento's May Madness More: #27 - Don't Starve

May the Thirtieth

The game: Klei Entertainment's Don't Starve

The source: GB user Murtaug via the Steamgifts.com group (Thank you!)

The pre-amble: Don't Starve is a procedurally generated survival game where the player character must survive as long as possible without their hunger, sanity or health gauges running fatally low. The player can collect various objects from their surroundings and use them to craft useful items, cook filling meals or spend towards developing new technology. Crucially, the player character must keep eating food and resting near fires when nighttime rolls around.

The playthrough: I was a little surprised when the fine users of this site gave Don't Starve the second highest total amount of votes in a poll I held to confirm the final three games of this year's May Madness. I kind of figured they'd all be familiar enough with the game given the amount of time Giant Bomb itself has dedicated towards explaining what the game is and how to play it. I suppose it's still a little too enigmatic for its own good. So here goes:

The early game is simple enough. All you really need to do is gather the plentiful resources (and a bit of gold, which isn't as rare as one might think) and craft a few of the science machines while ensuring your character stays fed and sane and safe at night. It is at this point where Don't Starve becomes a much more focused challenge and where the whole "procedural generation" factor comes into play. As the world is randomly generated, you'll naturally find an abundance of certain materials and a dearth of others. With a sufficient amount of exploration, you'll get a sense of what's in plentiful supply and where best to expend your constructive efforts accordingly: if you have a lot of forests, there's plenty that can be done with wood (and later boards, once you've built the machine that allows you to refine certain resources). Likewise, there are a lot of uses for stones and plantlife. Some objects seem worthless in a crafting sense (though rest assured they probably have some use somewhere) but can often be thrown onto the campfire as fuel.

Though closer to a complete game than it once was, Don't Starve is still a beta in many ways. For instance, the underground sections are incomplete, which is why you'll simply get assaulted by every spider in Christendom until you leave the way you came.

However, the way the game progresses with its Roguelike-in-all-but-name "death is an inevitability" philosophy means that you'll grow hungrier faster and common food items (seeds and carrots) become less and less satiating. Likewise, sanity will continue to drop at a constant rate and it takes a sparse number of items to boost it back up (I've found flower garlands do the job, but as a piece of equipment it leaves you without much defense). All your grand machinations come to nothing when you're half-starved and seeing shadows dart about from the corner of your eye. In my first playthrough I found myself killed by a figment of my imagination, which was partly my own dumb fault for digging up graves and getting the heebie-jeebies too often (as well as a lot of valuable items I never got to use). It's discouraging, but given the game's macabre presentation it also appears to be an indelible part of the experience.

My corpse, surrounded by all my junk and the opaque non-entity that murdered me.

Don't Starve is a game that requires a lot of experience before you can start to really succeed at it - not unlike, say, NetHack or Dwarf Fortress - though functionally the game reminded me a lot more of Dungeons of Dredmor; specifically how easy it is to imagine so many grand notions for where one's crafting efforts are headed that fate will invariably step in to snatch away from you. I also really like the game's look: we have a plethora of gory games, should the news media be believed, but very few Gorey ones. However, Don't Starve just becomes more of a drag the longer you play it, as your dreams go unfulfilled and you're hurriedly searching for an iota to eat or a few more flowers to stave off the crazies. It's stressful, it's grim and it requires a lot of patience and dedication before you can begin to feel like you understand what needs to be done. It's the kind of game I don't doubt one could easily fall in love with, but for someone like myself who prefers a little of everything it's a bit too hardcore.

The verdict: Possibly. I have Dungeons of Dredmor more or less permanently installed, so I could see myself coming back to this every so often as well.

Don't Starve, everyone!

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Mento's May Madness More: #26 - Cargo! The Quest for Gravity

May the Twenty-Ninth

The game: Ice-Pick Lodge's Cargo! The Quest for Gravity

The source: Indie Gala 6

The pre-amble: Cargo! is a third-person action game with construction elements (think Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts) in which the planet's sudden lack of gravity has caused almost all of humanity to float off. The only terrestrial beings left are the "Buddies" - impish humanoid creatures who create a nebulous force called "fun" that can be used to bring everything back down to Earth. This task is left in the capable hands of Flawkes: an airship engineer and one of the few humans still around. The game was developed by Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge which also developed Pathologic and The Void (I'll take a look at those two eventually, don't worry. They provide a few clues to where this game's sanity-bending mentality came from.)

The site's Quick Look is here - I'd recommend it if you've never watched it before.

The playthrough: All right, so there's no escaping the fact that this is an absolutely bizarre little game. However, much of this inscrutability is only skin-deep. As a game, once the rules have been explained in the brief tutorial period, it becomes far less inexplicable. Essentially, you need to mine a resource (fun) from a source (the Buddies, the bald little naked dudes) while also protecting said source from various external dangers so you can continue to collect from them. These dangers unfortunately tend to come from the Buddies themselves, who cannot differentiate between the fun that comes from harmless kicks and pleasant speedboat rides to being horribly killed by various hazards scattered around the island setting.

The Buddies enraptured by song. Music is another method to raise a lot of fun quickly, but it means running around collecting the musical notes scattered around the archipelago.

Fun can be used for purchasing new mechanical parts that can be attached to boats, the game's chief method of transportation. As with a certain aforementioned bear and bird game, the seaworthy vehicle can be modified to suit any need that arises and the game tosses a fair amount of upgradeable parts your way to allow you modify your boat in any way you'd like. Chiefly, you'll want to outfit it to carry as many of the Buddies as possible, as driving them around becomes the easiest and most reliable source of income. While fun can be spent on ship parts, it's also needed to bring larger landmasses back down from the sky. Each one of these landmasses expands the map a little and brings with it various boons and, occasionally, more troubles.

I really don't know what to think about Cargo. In a sense, it's like nothing I've ever played before. It has an unrepentant weirdness and an infectious sense of chaos that greatly enhances its sense of open-world fun. On the other hand, the game is also absurdly linear for what it is, and much of the "open-world"ness just boils down to grinding for that sole currency so you can afford the next landmass and continue with the game. Buddies will also find creative ways to end their own lives, which is often annoying as you're dependent on them for their valuable merriment. It starts becoming something akin to a strategy game where you need to react quickly to anything that might interfere with or diminish your income. The ship-building mechanics are neat but perfunctory, at least so far (I've barely scratched the surface), as are the often squirrelly controls for the vehicles and on-foot movement. I also had problems keeping a framerate that didn't drop so low that it felt like I was watching the game through a View-Master, but the nature of PC games is such that I can never tell if any technical issues are mine alone. Safe to say they probably are but it's worth saying that I was able to run everything else I've covered this month without a hitch, or at least a hitch of this extent.

This three-piece band often comes by to drop cryptic hints about what you should be doing next. Then, often, one of the floating God machine masks immediately shows up and spells it out for you. For a game so obfuscatingly bizarre, it really tries to make itself clear.

But hell, a game like Cargo! The Quest for Gravity doesn't come around every day. Sometimes a game is worth playing in spite of its so-so gameplay just because the presentation around it is so curiously, pleasingly insane. See also: NieR and Psychonauts.

The verdict: Yeah, I'll come back to it at some point. Someone needs to stop those pernicious penguins.

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The TurboMento-12: Bonk's Adventure

Hey all, it's time to delve once again into the TG-16's mostly maligned library for another TurboMento entry. I took time away from reviewing intelligent Indie puzzle-platformers to cover a platformer that... well... I don't know if I'd call it smart, but you definitely have to use your head a lot. As it were.

Bonk's Adventure, known elsewhere as BC Kid and PC Genjin (it's like "PC Engine", get it?), is a platformer with a bit of a brawler angle to it. It's also one of Hudson's best known franchises and certainly the most famous mascot character for the Turbografx-16. Bonk had a couple more adventures on his home turf - Bonk's Revenge and Bonk 3 - as well as a couple of SNES games and a few portable spin-offs and ports. Of course, today we're dealing with his debut.

I call buzz_clik "BC Kid" a lot. I don't think he appreciates it.

Hey all, welcome to Bonk's Adventure. There's our hero, asleep in the big O. Aw, he's so peaceful. Soon put an end to that.
So Bonk's a guy with one huge asset: his colossal coconut. Most of his offensive capabilities are based around headbutts - he has a standard headbutt attack and a diving headbutt as seen above, but he can also damage enemies just by hitting them from underneath.
This creepy moon can be seen in every level if you jump high enough. This screenshot right here is actually foreshadowing. (I can't believe I had the wherewithal to think this far in advance, honestly.)
So here's where we get most of our items - those little red plant things. Unfortunately, they sometimes turn into the grinning terrors you see on the left, so some caution is necessary.
This is Bonk's other big gimmick: the meat. Eating a small piece of meat transforms Bonk into a considerably more badass version of himself. Not only does he hit harder, but by hitting the ground with his head he can stun all enemies on the screen briefly.
He also has this little determined scowl. There's an even more powerful third form as well, which we'll see a little later. Alas, these transformations are only temporary.
This is how Bonk climbs walls. With his teeth. In fact, he does a lot of things with his teeth. It's damn eerie.
We find this oddly colored ground towards the end of 1-2. Like we just walked into Golden Axe or something.
Yup, belongs to this guy. Whacking him on the head opens his mouth, which is where we need to go next. Marching right into the mouths of carnivores definitely sounds like a plan.
These little uvula guys are the absolute pits. You can't hurt them; you can only walk underneath them when they're dangling to the side like that. Get hit? It's an entire heart gone, and those things don't grow on trees (they grow inside plants FYI).
Case in point. When Bonk dies, he just kind of froths at the mouth then lies perfectly still. In an interesting if slightly unsettling twist, the player can decide to wake him up whenever they feel like continuing.
Anyway, we eventually find the dinosaur's, uh, "exit" and find the first of these skull elevators.
For every world but the last, they lead to the boss chamber for that chapter.
And here's our first boss, Huey. Real mental giant this one. It doesn't play in static screenshots, but every boss wears a flashing helmet and you need to keep bopping them on the head until it eventually breaks and disappears.
Huey's chief weapon are his snot bubbles. Slow and predictable. Future bosses won't be as kind. They will be just as goofy-looking, however.
Anyway, the big guy eventually goes all technicolor and...
He's revealed to be a nice fellow who just got brainwashed. Gee wiz indeed.
No problem big guy. Happy to help. Certainly wasn't self-defense or anything.
Aw shucks, I-
-what?

Plenty more of the game to go. What awaits our mightily-domed hero? Will he keep pulling terrifying faces? And how long can I go on pretending that everyone doesn't already know this game? Like with Neutopia last time, I'll keep on posting new screenshots in the comments below. Thankfully this game is nowhere near the length of Neutopia: in part because there's way fewer badly translated NPCs to talk to. Fewer, not zero.

In the meantime feel free to watch Kacho Arino take on the game here. There's spoilers for the rest of this LP but I don't imagine that'll bother you all too much. Thanks for checking in and stay tuned for more wonky Bonk playing below (and more May Madness later in the week).

The TurboMento-12
January - Ninja SpiritMay - Bonk's AdventureSeptember -
February - Dungeon ExplorerJune -October -
March - The Legendary AxeJuly -November -
April - NeutopiaAugust -December -
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The Comic Commish - May '13

Didn't think I could get this in under the wire. The May Madness has been all-encompassing this year, but I've managed to carve out a few days to get May's Comic Commish (and later, the next TurboMento-12) up during the month for which it is assigned. As always my gratitude goes to @omghisam for buying me a Gold membership and for Giant Bomb itself for its entertaining premium member features, easily worth the cash someone else paid on my behalf. I mean, I would have to guess. (Past Comic Commishes can be found yonder: Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, Mar and Apr.)

Premium Content For Your Premium Contempt

"Smart Bomb"

I get the sense sometimes, from Brad and Patrick especially, that they wish they could be doing something a little more cerebral with their time. I mean, they clearly relish spending time with the dumb excesses of the wide video game medium during GB's less edifying streams, but all the same I think they want to occasionally branch out a little and talk about some nerdier, headier shit regarding (or perhaps outside of) video games. Smart Bomb is a feature that lets them and perhaps some guests (John Carmack? Maybe?) discuss some topics that might go over the heads of most, which can be safely locked behind a premium wall where only the most dedicated autodidacts will search it out. Unprofessional Fridays can always "unclass the joint" after they're done.

"Bomb Omen"

One of the more fun things before the XONE reveal was trying to guess what Microsoft was going to bring to the table regarding new generation technology and features. Turns out that sort of conjecture was a lot more fun than actually watching the thing. So for E3 and many of the other press events to come, I thought it might be interesting if the crew got together and tried to prognosticate on what may or may not be revealed, what they hope to see and what they had better not see. It's true that making wild predictions that will probably more often than not prove to be patently fallacious is perhaps not the most productive use of their time, but then that doesn't seem to stop Michael Pachter.

"Bo Bomb"

You ever have one of those days where you feel you've not only not contributed to the world and the betterment of people's lives, but have instead actively made everything worse? That's pretty much every day for me. Yeeep.

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Mento's May Madness More: #25 - Analogue: A Hate Story

May the Twenty-Fifth

The game: Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story

The source: The Indie Royale Getaway Bundle

The pre-amble: Analogue: A Hate Story is a dramatic visual novel from Canadian developer and writer Christine Love. The player is an unnamed hacker who is tasked with recovering all the data files of a centuries-old Korean spacecraft for a historical society. To this end, they must interact with the two female AI personalities in the ship's system in order to unlock and download all the necessary files: The gossipy security program *Mute and the demure librarian program *Hyun-ae.

The playthrough: I really enjoyed Analogue. I don't play a lot of visual novels in general, but I recognize how atypical a set-up Love has created with A:HS's entirely data-log driven narrative. Though it initially seems as if you're simply going through a list of files in a systematic order of your own choosing, additional logs are unlocked in a deliberate non-chronological order so as to gradually fill the player in on who all these people were and develop the personalities of the two NPCs you spend the entire game interacting with before the big reveals start coming and the game builds towards its climax. It's a beautifully told tale of vengeance, affection, coercion, propriety and loneliness and one that respects the player's intelligence to pick up on subtext and hints along the way.

Whole lotta reading. Hitting this button here gets the currently activated AI to chime in on the topic/author of the log, which is usually how new logs are unlocked.

Unfortunately (for me writing this article, at least) it's also one of those video game stories where the core appeal is in its gradual unraveling of a mystery. I've played a few games with that type of narrative agency for this feature already and I never really resolved where best to draw the line between synopsizing just enough to help people understand the game and going too far and depriving any curious potential players of a first-hand clever twist or jaw-dropping reveal. As such, I'll just skirt around the main plot as best as I'm able: The ship is (or was) full of Korean citizens out to colonize distant planets who had, for whatever reason, digressed to a pre-industrial civilization after the ship ceased to move but still maintained all the necessary systems to feed and shelter an unknown population size. Much of the story feels bizarrely anachronistic as a result: Medieval Korean nobility talking about ships and computers and AI programs without knowing anything about how they worked or why they were built. The AIs, naturally, feature heavily in this history and will often share their opinions about the long-dead humans that wrote the logs. Though there's a core story thread concerning "the Pale Bride", there are also plenty of incidental biographies from less vital characters that help to establish the type of world these characters inhabited.

Oh I just love sarcasm. No, really.

I suppose it goes without saying that the game also has alternate endings. What visual novel doesn't? I bring it up because it was an unfortunate downside to the game: there's a few decisions that go towards deciding the ending around the halfway point of the game, and I made the mistake of saving over the file after that decision had been made. If I wanted to see the other endings, therefore, I would have to restart and skip through a hell of a lot of text as a result. It's not such a huge problem, since you can fly right past a lot of the game's content if you aren't taking the time to read it, and I was content enough with the one ending I did get that I feel I can walk away from the game satisfied. I suppose this issue's largely endemic with visual novels. Or possibly even part of their appeal; I guess I don't play enough of them to say with any certainty. What I can say is that Analogue: A Hate Story ought to be played by everyone. It's not like we have an abundance of well-written video games, after all.

The verdict: Yes, I'm all done. It's enough to convince me to try Christine Love's other works. I'd also recommend her blog too; I particularly enjoyed her detailed feature on the Super Game Boy and how its special features failed to live up to their potential.

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Mento's May Madness More: #24 - Anodyne

May the Twenty-Fourth

The game: Analgesic Productions's Anodyne

The source: The Retro Groupee Bundle (and I also owe a thank you to user @starfoxa for the heads-up)

The pre-amble: Anodyne is a 16-bit action adventure game that very much takes its cues from the Legend of Zelda series and Link to the Past in particular. The goal is to explore an increasingly surreal series of worlds and conquer dungeons for key items. The protagonist Young's chief (and only) weapon is his trusty broom: not only does it defeat enemies like a sword, but it can also pick up and deposit piles of dust which have various effects on obstacles in the environment. With the exception of a major mid-game event that unlocks the second half of the game's content, Anodyne is almost entirely non-linear and strongly emphasizes exploration and puzzle-solving just like its inspiration.

The playthrough: Anodyne is fantastic. I played Neutopia a while back for another blog feature which was similarly a "Zelda clone" and I wondered what the point was of making a game just like Zelda and not only not trying to improve on the mold but not even giving the game a unique makeover to give it its own sense of character and personality. (Of course, it was just to give Turbografx-16 owners their own version of Zelda. Apparently making cross-platform clones of exclusives was often a lucrative market.) Anodyne avoids this situation by making a game as playable as its inspirational source and paints a veneer of bizarre surrealism over it.

This game can get oddly personal.

The best analogy I can think of for what this game is about is Mitsuo's dungeon "Void Quest" in Persona 4, a reference I assume most people reading this will get given how popular the P4 Endurance Run was. While ostensibly a chance for the game to honor its famous forebear (that would be the original MDigital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, released in 1987) with a dungeon crawl crammed full of nostalgia-rich 8-bit pixel art texturing the 3D environments and a lot of dopey, deliberately badly translated messages. What it really represented was Mitsuo's fractured psyche and the revelation that he was basically empty inside: the dungeon trappings and RPG clichés were simply him trying to make sense of the world and the people in it through a filter of video games. In a similar fashion that's what Anodyne appears to be doing. Much of the game is open to interpretation (it is, ultimately, that kind of game) but that was my impression from the often cryptic messages left behind by its odder denizens about Young and his interpersonal relationships. Young (or maybe Ying?) is clearly not a straightforward heroic protagonist, and for that matter Anodyne is not simply a quest to find some great treasure and save the world.

How delightful. This particular dungeon is kind of gooey, by the by.

But I've railed against psychobabble plots and deliberately obtuse narratives before now. It's something that can grate quite easily, especially if its not handled well or the actual game around it isn't all that compelling. Fortunately, Anodyne avoids both of these issues by putting forward a really well-crafted game filled with secrets and thoughtful puzzles in an intriguing and quite expansive universe. That I spent a significant portion of today playing it all the way through to its conclusion ought to speak volumes.

The verdict: I've completed it so that's all for me. I could easily recommend it though.

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Mento's May Madness More: #23 - Basement Collection

May the Twenty-Third

The game: Edmund McMillen's The Basement Collection

The source: The Humble Indie Bundle 7

The pre-amble: The Basement Collection is a group of games that Edmund McMillen and his frequent partners - such as Florian Himsl (The Binding of Isaac), Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy) and Danny Baranowsky - worked on before he hit it big with Super Meat Boy. A batch of mostly experimental Flash games that are only linked by McMillen's whimsical and doodle-like art style and dark scatological humor, most of which come with additional multimedia materials.

The playthrough: OK everyone, strap yourselves in because this is going to be a long one. I didn't get far enough to unlock any of the bonuses so I'll be discussing the seven core games that are included in this package. As critical as I might sound with some of these, I have nothing but respect for McMillen and his collaborators - Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac are two incredible games and some of my favorites in the increasingly big Indie market. I'm getting the sappy hero-worship out the way now because oh man did I not think much of the other games in this collection. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with something familiar.

Meat Boy is the Newsground prototype for what would eventually be Super Meat Boy. Its runaway success, especially in comparison with McMillen's other projects, is what ultimately convinced him to work towards a bigger and better version. I was one of the many people to originally play Meat Boy back in its heyday, but it's hard to play Meat Boy again after SMB. The controls are stiff and the framerate is oddly low considering its a simple Flash game (this is actually a recurring problem with the games in this collection for whatever reason). As impressive as it is (and was!) for a browser game it really pales in comparison with the amount of sterling work that went into its remake's nonpareil controls and graphical fidelity. It does compensate for this by being a mite bit easier however and it's a definite curio for Super Meat Boy fans if they've never encountered it before.

Very familiar stuff. This is also a vertically scrolling level, but I think you already guessed as much.

Aether is a bit more of a slow-paced exploration game where a young boy riding an enormous octopus takes off into the sky to the stars beyond. So pretty straightforward, then. Unfortunately I got so agitated by its annoying swinging mechanics - the early part of the game involves you latching onto clouds and swinging oneself higher - that I basically quit before the game could begin proper.

Time Fcuk is one of those very commonly seen puzzle-platformer browser games with an idiosyncratic presentation. The chief gimmick of Time Fcuk is the ability to switch between dimensions - depicted as different color palettes - while an enigmatic narrator talks to the player in a series of cryptic messages. I got a ways into it before deciding to move onto the other games. McMillen clearly dabbled in Indie platformers with pretentious aspirations before he managed to break away from that unfortunate tendency with a regular platformer that was just insanely good instead. I'm really finding it hard to care about these games, for serious.

Coil appears to be a short story interspersed with interactive "instances" which the player needs to solve before they move onto the next piece of plot. It seems to play around with McMillen's frequent themes of childbirth and really messed up psychological problems. As with Time Fcuk I found it mostly unbearable and quickly quit once I reached the second puzzle and had no idea how to continue. These "voyage of discovery" "interactive experiences" quickly wear out my patience these days. Like Indiana Jones (especially post-Crusade), they really only belong in a museum.

Time Fcuk. At least this one isn't obsessed with vomit like Spe... oh wait, no.

Spewer is an interesting if, once again, rather gimmicky 2D platformer. It doesn't reach for the artistic, focusing as it does on a small blobbish lifeform that uses its own vomit to project itself higher and further and can subsequently re-devour their emesis for future use. It's a very gross central device and one worthy of McMillen's inimitable fascination with the grotesque. I didn't really get used to how the projection worked and quit once the tutorials had run their course. It didn't seem as if you could get much lift without requiring some "peak of the jump" precise timing. And I believe I've mentioned before now how much I enjoy precise timing in a puzzle game.

Triachnid puts you in the multiple clawed feet of its eponymous three-legged creature as you attempt to make your way through a series of terrains by using the mouse to launch each foot forward to clasp the ground before moving the next foot forward, and so forth. It's an incredibly slow and tedious way to get around and being instantly killed by a hidden time limit (via an earthquake) and having to restart didn't really endear the game to me either. It's almost self-deprecating to put a game as broken and unfun like this on your big portfolio project thing.

Finally, we have Grey Matter. Unlike the others in this collection, Grey Matter is a more of a shooter than a platformer. Well, it's really more of an anti-shooter. The goal of Grey Matter is to get around the enemies bullets and ram into their weak point to kill them. The player has no other offensive capabilities, but you do have a few defensive options which can be acquired by sacrificing a portion of your score. The enemies all have exposed brains, but it's sometimes tricky to actually reach them without colliding with a lethal part of that enemy such as its tail or mouth. The weak points are a light brainy pink while the lethal zones (and bullets) flash, which makes them easy to spot in the midst of all the chaos. It's a curious take on the usual dual-stick shooters, if not amazingly fun to play for extended periods.

Grey Matter. The flashing bullets obviously don't work in a static screenshot, but you can see the pink weak spots easy enough. Yeah, they do kind of look like butts.

Overall, I can't say I enjoy too many of these. Without being too crass, it's kind of explicable why it took so long for McMillen to get to where he is today. But there's no denying he finally hit it out of the park with Super Meat Boy (and again with Isaac). Sometimes all it takes is a great idea, a bit of cash and some time spent experimenting with some outlandish ideas. I guess? I don't actually know. Hell, if I did, I might still be in game design. (I feel like some "there's the big twist and the source of that negativity!" music should play here.)

The verdict: I... maybe? I feel I owe Coil and Aether another chance and Time Fcuk and Spewer might be worth sticking with a bit longer. I could also finish off the last few levels in Meat Boy too. I am kind of curious about those locked bonus features...

Guess the cameo? It's not too difficult (and no, it's not JC Denton).

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Mento's May Madness More: #22 - Closure

May the Twenty-Second

The game: Eyebrow Interactive's Closure

The source: The Humble Indie Bundle 7

The pre-amble: Closure is a puzzle game that chiefly concerns light sources. Any area not lit up is entirely formless, regardless of whether or not there is actual solid ground hidden by the darkness, and if the player character or any items are left in the darkness they'll fall off the screen. Compounding on the complexity are all the mechanical devices that are powered by light orbs, lamps that only emit in cones of limited width, square and circular containers that can be moved and rolled and various other world-unique obstacles and features.

The playthrough: Closure's a fantastic puzzle game. For the most part, its puzzles are imaginative and devious, its presentation is bleak and tense in a way that is just as compelling to explore as it is stressful to inhabit (like, say, Limbo) and it seems to have a decent length to it, with the initial 24 puzzle rooms taking something in the region of an hour or so to complete, which is about a quarter of the entire game's content. In addition, there are optional objectives in the form of the moths which often present a far more difficult variation on the puzzle in order to reach the goal with the moth in tow.

Well this seems simple enough. Just push this box right, right? (Nope.)

If I had to gripe, and I kind of do unfortunately, it means going back to an issue I raised back when I talked about Obulis a week back. The bit about precision. Closure requires a lot of precision, especially as the puzzles get harder, and that means solving several steps in a puzzle just so in order to successfully reach the end of the stage and move onto the next. This serves to distract from the puzzle-solving aspects in order to focus on one particular sequence that requires a difficult chain of jumps or being in the right place at the right moment or modifying the speed of a rolling ball so that it doesn't speed away from you and cause a restart-necessitating mishap. In addition, the light sources have a nebulous area of effect which can often cause problems - the stylized graphics will only give you a sense of where the light radius ends as it blurs out, but it's hard to tell from a glance where the emanation is effectively curtailed without the trial and error needed to get a sense of that cut-off point. I'm semi-tempted to think of these as "action-puzzle" games, since you need a decent set of reflexes on top of a keen mind in order to succeed, and they're not always two faculties that everyone has in abundance. I mean, I do (sort of), but I'd prefer to use those reflexes for a twitchy shooter or something equally rambunctious rather than in a chilled out puzzle game.

Closure's definitely an excellent game, don't get me wrong. When you present 100 rooms to a guy like me who's played way too many of these types of game, there's an immediate pessimistic feeling that so much of those 100 will be padding: for instance, a new element is introduced, with the next ten rooms simply iterating on that complication with increasingly difficult puzzles. Closure does a better job of constantly shaking things up and its assorted worlds allow it to play with more ideas and features as the game goes on. Like Obulis it's a well-crafted puzzle game that could feasibly hold your interest, but unlike Obulis it has the added benefit of a curious and creepy visual style to pull you in even further.

The verdict: Sure, I'll stick with it. I've stacked up a few puzzle games now thanks to this feature so I don't think I need to worry about finding new ways to sharpen the ol' synapses for a while.

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Mento's May Madness More: #21 - Dead Pixels

May the Twenty-First

The game: CSR-Studios's Dead Pixels

The source: The Retro Groupees Bundle

The pre-amble: Dead Pixels is a highly referential side-scrolling zombie shooter presented in a deliberately low-tech pixel style with VHS noise effects over the top. The player chooses the length of the game and attempts to get through several long screens filled with zombies, using the items and weapons purloined from abandoned buildings and traded with opportunistic survivors in order to make it to the end alive. It purports to homage zombie movies first and foremost, but plenty more of the references are in service to other zombie video games like Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead.

The playthrough: Dead Pixels is quite meh. It's very much a "what you see is what you get" scenario, which in this case is a zombie game with pixel art. Functional enough without being terribly exciting or novel. I guess I must have unconsciously chosen to cover it as a response to this new Xbox One announcement, which didn't simply underwhelm with a lack of innovation as manage to adhere to every pessimistic prediction anyone had about the new Xbox, save for a new variant on the occasional catastrophic red ring failures, though I guess even that remains to be seen. When it happens maybe they can spin it as, "Oh, you didn't leave it connected to the internet for the one hour per day required? Then you're entirely culpable for your own console melting into your living room carpet."

"Max Books". It's clever. It's a clever zombie-related thing someone wrote into their zombie game.

But that's a whole generation away from today's game. Several, in fact, if we think of Dead Pixel as an 8-bit game that was magically transported to this decade. This is supported in part by how clearly it is based on River City Ransom's model of large portions of action gameplay interspersed with the occasional bit of shopping and perfunctory stat upgrading. However, the whole 8-bit approach is something of a fallacy, given the many advanced features of the game that the NES couldn't possibly handle, so it's really more a tongue-in-cheek admission that drawing and animating real graphics is hard and drawing from nostalgia for the 1980s (and zombies) is way easier. Dead Pixels is hardly the only tromboner on this irritating bandwagon (which also includes Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, which is almost entirely wagons) but it's still one of those lazy gimmicks that the Indie game industry is going to have to collectively elect to do away with like a pair of training wheels. We had a period when pixel art was all the rage: it was called 1972 to the mid-90s. Hire a darn artist you wusses; there are plenty out there that could use the work.

I'll end this appraisal by talking about the references. I actually don't mind them. References are only really an annoyance when they're front and center and the focus of the humor. In Dead Pixels, there's less of a sense of humor in general and the dumb little shout-outs spraypainted on the background ("RIP Bill") or in the titles of shops ("Savini's") or as the names of the weapons ("Burton Handgun", "Chambers Shotgun") are subsequently just dressing for fans to appreciate and non-fans to obliviously accept as what things are called in this semi-serious apocalyptic world. This is opposed to something like Lollipop Chainsaw, which is absolutely capable of being funny on its own given it has James Gunn penning the script without needing to half-ass it with a quote from a movie accompanied with a wink, which only compounds on the egregiousness the more often they show up. We get it, these are all classic moments in zombie fiction. Would it behoove you to create some classic moments of your own?

The verdict: Nah, though it's a perfectly OK game. I'm just more grousy than usual today after that conference.

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Mento's May Madness More: #20 - Depths of Peril

May the Twentieth

The game: Soldak Entertainment's Depths of Peril

The source: The Indie Royale Spring Bundle

The pre-amble: Depths of Peril is a fantasy third-person action RPG in the Diablo mold but with a twist: The player's adventuring group, named a covenant, is directly competing with several AI-controlled covenants in repelling the forces of evil and becoming the most powerful group of heroes in the land. It isn't sufficient to simply defeat the big bad: you must do so while remaining the strongest covenant either through violence or diplomacy.

The playthrough: Depths of Peril might be the first game this month that I've quit in disgust. That's a promising opening sentence, right? Allow me to elaborate: That bit in the pre-amble where I said you would be competing with other adventurer guilds, lending a unique level of strategy to yet another hack and slash loot-chaser? Doesn't work. All the quests in the game are pulled from the same pool and having up to three competing groups means they'll more than likely run out and complete the quests you aren't pursuing right at that moment. You can hire additional adventurers for your team to help you out, but you're still left wandering around doing one inconsequential fetch quest while others are being solved on your behalf.

Lord Deathdoom of the Deathdoomerinos, fighting bees or pixies or something. Not pictured: An unaffiliated AI Warrior collecting all the quest items before I can.

It's a shame I couldn't hold out, because on the surface it seems like a really intriguing notion. Rival adventurer parties you can trade with, ally with or fight against? It's the sort of story complication that's been in games before now, but in those cases it tends to be one of those gameplay/narrative disconnects where the rival guild has probably done a whole lot of fighting and questing of their own but you never see any of it: it's simply implied by the context that they're as effective at their jobs as you are, otherwise there'd be no sense of conflict or competitiveness. Having those rival groups be a tangible presence while adventuring, in a manner not unlike an MMO, is a cool idea. Or it would be if they didn't run ahead of you, taking all the treasures and scalping all the quest experience. In reality it's a little more infuriating.

It doesn't help that Depths of Peril is a hopelessly generic Diablo hack and slasher at its core: the same kind of experience you've seen a thousand times since the original Diablo (or even before then with the many functionally identical Roguelikes). Its one novel feature turned out to be a knock against it, so what we end up with is something unfortunately less than a Diablo clone. I feel like a real heel for laying it out that way, but it's still quite discouraging no matter which angle you look at it (though I think a 3/4 isometric angle is probably likeliest).

The verdict: Nope. I have half a dozen better games just like it on my Steam list.

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