Mento's May Mastery: Day 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through

I have a confession to make. I spent most of today playing Magrunner after I said I wouldn't. Actually, I said I wouldn't be talking about it any more, which I'm guess is what I'm doing right this moment. So now I have a new confession: I'm talking about Magrunner again after I said I wouldn't.

Like how things suddenly took a turn for the eerie immediately after I booted it up yesterday, it got even more surreal today. It's also super long, to my surprise: I'd say it's far closer to Portal 2's length than Portal 1's. Of course, given that one of the common criticisms of Portal 2 was its drawn out runtime, it's entirely debatable whether or not this is a plus. I'm not saying more content is a bad thing, but there's a balancing trick in producing a number of puzzle rooms that feel fresh and different that don't involve going through the same motions over and over. There's also the deleterious effect such padding does to the story which, due to the nature of this kind of game, must be doled out in small chunks between puzzle rooms. The continuous, interconnected plot snippets can't hope to maintain a sense of dread or suspense with the potentially huge gaps of time that the player may spend solving the puzzles in the interim, and thus generally stick to checking in with the various NPCs and other status updates.

But I've already talked too much about this darn game already. I really don't want to spoil anything about the final act, because it gets as insane as one might expect from fiction inspired by Lovecraft. I'll say it pulls something similar to Half-Life's Xen and leave it at that. (And yes, you do get to meet you-know-who. Sort of.)

The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through

I'm still powering through a few of the small weird games I have lying around before we hit the last week of May Mastery guns akimbo with three particular games I've been anticipating playing for some time. I don't suspect I'll be completing them, so sticking them at the end of this month affords me the opportunity to keep playing them without skipping a beat once we hit June (though I'll have plenty else to do and see that month, as I suspect we all will with E3 looming). Today we look at two games that, individually, might be a bit too sparse to make for a full update. That's not to denigrate them as uninteresting, of course, but simply that they're built on simple mechanics that don't need a lot of delineation.

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The Nightmare Cooperative is the most interesting of the many vaguely "roguelite" dungeon crawlers I've got stashed away in the bowels of my Steam library, mostly in part because it's one of the few that went for a vector graphics (that's Adobe Flash/Illustrator vector graphics, not Vectrex/Lunar Lander/Star Wars Arcade vector graphics, though I guess they're technically more or less the same thing) art style rather than the Indie industry-standard pixels. It's also more of a strategic puzzle game than most roguelikes/roguelites, treating its heroes more as chess pieces than characters you develop and grow attached to. Hey, a bit like Fire Emblem then. People rave about the characterization in those games but those units sure do stay permanently dead a lot, don't they? Gimme Vandal Hear- you know what? I'm getting off-track.

The Nightmare Cooperative, then, is not so much a convenience store that is filled with noisy people and never has any fresh baguettes left for some reason (okay, no-one outside the UK is going to get that one) and more of a dungeon crawl where the player has to make every move count. Enemies move when you do, as is the roguelike fashion, but most enemies simply repeat a pattern on loop rather than seek the heroes out. The trick is to find a way to gracefully pass through these patterns without incurring damage; such as not being there when a fireball-machine turns to look your way, or sneaking past enemies that walk back and forth in patrols. Enemies can be killed by heroes, but each melee scuffle does a point of damage to both parties: as heroes never have more than four or five hit points total, and it's not easy to heal lost HP, it's integral to minimize enemy encounters. There are also blue potions, which allow for special attacks/abilities (different for each character class) that can make removing enemies easier but are also best saved for emergencies.

Sure, it looks straightforward enough now, but wait until there's four of them. It's like trying to manage a birthday party full of five year olds, but with acid pits.
Sure, it looks straightforward enough now, but wait until there's four of them. It's like trying to manage a birthday party full of five year olds, but with acid pits.

Trouble is, if you wanted to pick up loot or explore the stage a little, almost everything you touch will summon more enemies. Chests summon them, items summon them - even waiting too long summons them. "Enemy" in this case isn't just reserved for hostile creatures either; they can include traps such as lava floor tiles (which can sometimes helpfully block the exit) and the aforementioned fireball shooters. I've not discovered a reason to collect money yet, which is what you're raiding all these monster-spawning chests to find, but I'm sure there's not much to be gained by ignoring it. This is a dungeon crawler, after all. The other challenging aspect occurs when the player acquires a party of three or four adventurers: you'd think it'd make the game easier to have so many extra heroes to fall back on, but having to simultaneously move all four can become a perplexing juggling act very quickly. I sometimes made it a habit to get the speedy ninja to the exit immediately, and work on collecting loot with the other characters. That way if I majorly screw up, well, at least I still have that ninja.

Truth is, I played The Nightmare Cooperative a few times and kinda got my fill of it quickly enough. The game and its mechanics are easy enough to pick up, so what you're left with is something akin to Spelunky in that there's tricks you can learn to make the game easier on yourself, but a lot of what makes each individual run either a success or an abject failure is down to the luck of the draw (and user error). That there's even fewer moving parts in a single run of The Nightmare Cooperative than there is in Spelunky means it's not really compelling enough to play over and over until you finally make it through to the end of the dungeon. More likely you'll make a dumb mistake halfway through the ice caves and have to start over. I'll give the game this much: each game goes by fairly quickly, so there's no big sense of loss when your whole party gets wiped out because you dared to swipe too much gold without ensuring the exit route was clear.

However, there's still that unsatisfying sense of capriciousness that permeates all games of this sub-genre, where you can do everything right and still fail because the stars weren't aligned correctly. It's why I tend to stick to games like Rogue Legacy or Super House of Dead Ninjas, where even a failed run can lead to some progress.

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Lilly Looking Through, conversely, is one of those delightful ephemeral Indie adventure games of the type I tend to bash out in a couple of hours without realizing and then feel immediately melancholy about finishing it too quickly. I've already played one game of its type so far this month from Amanita Design (who are the experts at these types of games) but I'm always happy to squeeze a few more into any May feature. Lilly Looking Through plays similarly to something like Amanita's Machinarium in that a lot of the puzzles require your hero to be standing in the right place, and getting them there can be half the struggle. Oddly, there's also times where the protagonist doesn't need to be anywhere near the item, and the player can simply move it to wherever it is needed with their cursor. Most of the game's puzzles involve clicking on hotspots to interact with them, with the more overtly puzzle-y set-pieces requiring some observation and trial and error before a solution starts to coalesce.

Lilly Looking Through has two major points in its favor: the first is its wonderful art design and animation, putting the expressive eponymous Lilly through her paces as she climbs, drops, trips and runs to the various destinations you send her. These animations clearly had a lot of work put into them, and it's one of those aspects of enhanced verisimilitude in video game design that tends to go unlauded and underutilized outside of an Eric Chahi or Jordan Mechner joint far too frequently. It's expensive and time-consuming to put so much focus on realistic animations, of course, and in Lilly Looking Through's case it has the added malus of making certain actions take longer than they need to as the little heroine struggles to climb the few feet to the next hotspot, but they really can make the game's world feel like a living breathing place, more so than any amount of high definition and chunky framerates are capable.

It's a great looking game, I'll give it that. And, for whatever reason, it reminded me a lot of Zack & Wiki. Maybe because of how most of the puzzles simply involved moving from one place to the next.
It's a great looking game, I'll give it that. And, for whatever reason, it reminded me a lot of Zack & Wiki. Maybe because of how most of the puzzles simply involved moving from one place to the next.

The second point is how Lilly can wear a pair of goggles to be instantly transported to a different, yet similar world. It doesn't take long for the player to realize that the happier world Lilly is seeing through the goggles is that of the distant past, and the majority of the game's puzzles involve switching from one to the other and back to make incremental progress. Were I the type to write thinkpieces, I'd suggest that this whole feature was a metaphor for relying too heavily on rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, which tends to be what most Indie games trade in (just check out the recent Kickstarter success stories for corroboration). Whether Lilly Looking Through makes the case for or against such figurative trips back in time isn't quite so clear, nor is the reason why I decided to get all philosophical about symbolism for the past paragraph instead of getting on with it.

Lilly Looking Through is, as tends to be the case with these little Indie adventure games, regrettably on the short side. Its handful of screens aren't enough to sustain much more than an afternoon of your time, though that's possibly for the best. It also ends on a cliffhanger, suggesting that the developers have more adventures planned for Lilly and her reckless sibling in the future, though I've no idea if the game did well enough to make a sequel happen. I'd hope so. There's something indescribably cute about the game, and it does Amanita's schtick almost as well as they do. I had an issue with a color-based puzzle towards the end, but most of the set-pieces were smart and satisfying enough to solve as long as you're able to identify the various moving parts in play. "Be on the lookout for levers" is the only advice I can proffer.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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