The difference between clever and cunning.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Short Games Triple Pack

The immersion of an epic length game can be very rewarding. Unfortunately life is deeply unfair and we often find ourselves without the dozens of hours and big blocks of uninterrupted time necessary to properly enjoy a mammoth RPG or other all-encompassing experience. What’s a time pressed gamer to do? 

We could try free-to-play clickfest Facebook games. We could also jam burning coals into our ears. As an alternative I offer three very different games. All three offer real gameplay with the most modest of time demands.

Crypt of the Necrodancer combines a simple rhythm game with a top-down, 2D roguelike. 

An undead wizard has stolen your heart (not romantically, the actual organ). As a result you can only move to the beat of each level’s song. Enemies each have their own movement and attack patterns controlled by the beat as well. The result is literal dance-fighting.  

The game is extremely accessible, controlled with only the directional keys and clearly designed to be played with a dance pad as well. Moving to the beat multiplies gold dropped by enemies, used to buy things from shops and as a high-score. You can simply stop moving, (indeed doing so makes fighting some enemies much simpler) but your gold multiplier drops the moment you miss a beat.

Floor tiles light up to let you know when a beat multiplier is in effect.

Looted diamonds can be spent after each death to buy a few permanent upgrades or unlock new potential loot. As CotN runs are short and prone to ending violently this offers a nice sense of progression. Unspent diamonds are lost on starting a new run, so unlocking the more expensive items requires you to survive at least a few levels. 

Levels are short, consisting of only a few rooms. Each is unlikely to take more than a few minutes, even if you pause to dig around for secret items and clear all enemies. Indeed if you’re still loitering in a level when the song ends you’re unceremoniously dumped into the next. This does much to keep the pace breezy and the game moving forward.

Shopkeepers sing along to the music,.

Survive a modest brace of levels and you’re treated to a boss fight. CotN’s bosses are surprisingly creative and one of the strongest elements. One encounter features conga lines of zombies controlled by a giant angry ape. Another plays out as a real-time game of chess, with you battling an entire team of enemy pieces on your own. 

CotN can be quite challenging. Expect to get trampled by a mob of tough enemies a lot in later zones before you can acquire a toe-hold of useful items and weapons. Even with a good weapon and some armor you’re never more than a few missed steps from death. Since most CotN runs aren’t more than fifteen minutes death isn’t as punishing as it can be in many roguelikes.

Later levels can begin with a brutal rush of enemies.

The soundtrack is excellent, as one would hope for a game based around rhythm and music. The songs for the early zones are a bit more thumping, but all are worth listening to and work for purposes of the game’s core mechanic.  

For a game still technically in alpha Crypt of the Necrodancer plays smoothly and (most importantly) is tremendous fun. The moment to moment gameplay is great and the combining of two relatively simple ideas into a whole works beautifully. The addition of a co-op mode even tentatively pushes CotN into the territory of a viable party game. 

Reasons to play: Clever core mechanic. Accessible gameplay. Thumping soundtrack.

Reasons to pass: High difficulty. If you lack a sense of rhythm. 

The Fall is a dark, 2d adventure/puzzle game with light combat elements. The premise is unique and intriguing. You play as ARID, the onboard AI for a suit of advanced combat armor.  You come online literally falling from orbit towards an unknown planet. Kinetic energy shields narrowly save you from becoming an impact crater, but your human pilot is worryingly unresponsive. With nothing else to go on you set out to locate medical aid and any clue as to what’s going on.

The world you find yourself stranded on is a dark and gloomy place. The largely subterranean environments are stark, with most things viewed only in outline. Something bad clearly went down before you got here, judging by the sheer number of decaying human and robot remains to be found. 

Environments are dank and somber, with spots of color and light standing out all the more.

Puzzles are generally logical, although you can sometimes just resort to trial and error. So long as you remember what abilities you’ve unlocked and what you’re carrying you shouldn’t get stuck for long. Even with your flashlight beam highlighting critical hotspots in the environment some are frustratingly hard to spot, and missing these is what held me up more than anything else. 

Combat is sparse and largely trivial. There are basic cover and even stealth mechanics, but don’t come into The Fall expecting a true Metroid-like experience. The brief action sequences still make a nice pallet cleanser between the more dialog and puzzle heavy sections of the game. 

Opportunities to stealth-kill enemy bots are rare, but do exist.

One of the core themes of the game is that ARID is locked out of most of the combat suit’s functions. As a work around she can over-ride these locks if she needs a particular function to preserve the life of her pilot. Perversely you quickly discover that, to unlock new abilities, progress through the game, and ultimately save your pilot, you must constantly, deliberately put ARID and her pilot in mortal danger. 

The logical gymnastics this puts ARID though contributes heavily to her character development. To fulfill her programming, she’s forced to blatantly violate it. This occasionally taps into a streak of subtle but potent dark humor as ARID takes the most direct and destructive route through the arbitrary and absurd tasks other characters throw in her way. 

ARID may be military hardware, but she is more than a mere machine.

While the game’s puzzles are functional it is the characters and dialog that make up The Fall’s strongest element. With no living humans about (aside from ARID’s uncommunicative pilot) the cast consists entirely of robots and other Artificial Intelligences. Far from being written as just metallic people their actions are often inhuman and un-nerving from the point of view of a more meat-based sentience. 

A critically damaged fellow combat suit mildly agrees ARID should cannibalize it for parts, since she has a greater chance of surviving. This isn’t presented as an act of noble self-sacrifice by either party, but just the logic thing to do. Even something as basic as gender identity is difficult to apply. While the combat suit has a clearly male physique it’s impossible to think of ARID as anything other than female after hearing her speak. 

In keeping with our theme The Fall is a short game. Unless you get seriously stuck it’s unlikely to run you more than 3-4 hours. The story concludes with a somewhat unsatisfying ending that leaves a lot of questions unresolved, but The Fall is only part one of an intended trilogy. 

Reasons to Play: Foreboding atmosphere. Satisfying, logical puzzles. Intriguing set up and characters.

Reasons to Pass: Short play time. As act One of Three, raises more questions than it answers. Awkward but trivial combat.

Luftrausers is a 2-D side-scrolling shooter with an old-school arcade vibe. There’s no real campaign, story, or linear missions. Just endless waves of enemies over a featureless ocean, a high score to chase, and a few progression systems. 

Death is merely an excuse to try again. When inevitably shot down by the bullet-hell like spread of enemy fire you can be back in the air with a new plane configuration in seconds. The only true penalty for destruction is losing your combo multiplier and shot at a new high score. 

Battleships require concentrated fire to sink and fill the sky with projectiles.

A constant stream of kills is necessary to build the combo multiplier and get a worthwhile score. Basic strategy encourages building the multiplier on swarming small planes before trying to tackle a high value target. Conversely you only repair damage when not firing, which is not conducive to racking up kills. Walking the razors edge between keeping your combo going and staying in the air makes for frantic second to second gameplay.

Each launch challenges you further with a brace of quantifiable mini-objectives that do much to keep gameplay from growing monotonous. These missions provide a sense of accomplishment and progression and often encourage new styles of play. An easy mission might task you with simply downing a certain number of enemy planes in a single life. A more challenging one might require sinking a battleship while on fire or while in free-fall. 

Short term missions add additional challenge to the arcade action.

Accomplishing these mini-missions and racking up sizable combos contributes towards unlocking new engines, hulls, and weapons. These parts can be freely mixed and matched, allowing for some fascinating combinations with truly unique kinds of play. One configuration might boost your armor and render you immune to collision damage, making it more practical to ram enemies than to shoot them. Another might let you dart out of the ocean to sweep the skies with a laser beam before sinking back safely below the waves.

No one weapon or configuration excels at fighting every enemy type. Much of Luftrauser’s appeal comes from experimenting with different parts and learning how to exploit each combination’s strengths and weaknesses. Some might lend themselves to a particular playstyle more than others, but all are fun to try. 

As you unlock new parts dozens of configurations become available.

A suitably martial soundtrack enhances the action. The music actually changes slightly depending on your plane configuration, which provides another convenient excuse to experiment with all the combinations.
Luftrausers makes for an ideal five-minute break game. The frantic core action combines well with the parts and missions systems to add welcome variety and a sense of progression.

Reasons to play: Well tuned arcade action. Swappable plane configurations offer depth and variety. 

Reasons to pass: High difficulty. Short, repetitive core gameplay. 

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Costume Quest / Our Darker Purpose Reviews

It’s the very dog days of summer as I write this, but slowly, mercifully, we creep towards Fall.  With Fall comes Halloween, the modern incarnation of the old pagan rite of disguising your kids as monsters and sending them out to rob the neighbors. We’re going to review a couple of seasonably appropriate games featuring child protagonists. 

Tim Schafer and his company, Double Fine Productions, have made a number of my favorite games over the years. The art direction and writing for games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend is memorable and endearing. While developed under a much more modest time and resource budget than other Double Fine projects Costume Quest loses none of the charm.

Costume Quest is set on Halloween night, casting you as one of a pair of twins setting out on the annual candy harvest. Unfortunately monsters bent on pilfering Earth’s candy supply mistake your twin’s goofy candy corn costume for the real thing and kidnap them. Your mission is to recover your abducted sibling, along with as much candy as humanly possible.

The sibling interaction is just combative enough to ring true.
The exaggerated, cartoony art style and atmosphere really captures the spirit of Halloween. Not the spirit of fear or the supernatural, but the sense of being a kid on Halloween night. The night is about the costumes and the candy, and any monsters that get in the way of that are going to get wrecked. 

Transform and Roll Out

Normally combating a monster invasion without weapons, training, or adult support would be a tall order, but the cast of Costume Quest has an unusual advantage. When confronted by monsters the children transform into giant combat-ready versions of their costumes. A boxy, cardboard robot suit becomes a towering mech, complete with rocket-punch. An adorable French-fry costume becomes an altogether more alarming tuber-based crab creature, showering unlucky monsters with white hot grease and salt.

The various costume transformations are a treat.
Gameplay is that of a very lite RPG. Refreshingly there are no random encounters, with monsters visible in the environment before combat begins. With patience you can even exploit patrol patterns and gain the first strike by whacking them from behind with your candy pail.

The turn based combat is enhanced by various quick-time events that reward attention and reflexes with additional offense and defense. Every few turns a special meter fills up and allows you to unleash some extra powerful attack or support ability. Combat is simple but never dull. If you do get whomped you’re allowed to try the fight again at no penalty. 

Combat is surprisingly cinematic
While you eventually acquire two allied children to fill out your party costumes can be swapped between them interchangeably. Choice of costume defines a character’s role and abilities in combat. The armored medieval knight excels at taking damage and protecting allies, while the Statue of Liberty can provide patriotism induced healing. “Battle Stamps”, lootable and purchasable with candy, offer a welcome extra bit of customization in the form of additional stat boosts or powers.

Samhain Shuffle

Environments visited include a suburban neighborhood, a mall, and fall carnival, all thematically decorated and populated with background characters amusingly oblivious to the monster invasion. You can’t advance till you hit up every trick-or-treating location on the map, and the trick-or-treat mechanic has a nice bit of tension as you wait to find out if there’s free candy or a monster fight behind the door. Simple puzzles based around using your costume’s special abilities and exploration based quests round out the game.

There are a few side-quests and mini-games between whomping monsters.
Costume Quest is a compact, digestible experience that knows not to overstay its welcome. Even if you take your time to nab every stray piece of candy and finish every side-quest completion is unlikely to take you more than 4-6 hours. This all makes for a charming, accessible game that fans of Double Fine and anyone looking for a seasonably appropriate diversion will enjoy.

Publishers should be less afraid of modest projects. Not every game need be a budget breaking behemoth that must to sell a million copies to turn a profit. There is an elegance to be found in keeping a tightly contained scope.

Reasons to play: Cute art style. Sincere humor. Accessible and appropriate for all ages.

Reasons to Pass: Short. Forgiving difficulty.

Our Darker Purpose is a top-down action roguelike with light RPG elements and a deliciously dark, gothic set of sensibilities. The game has bits of “The Binding of Isaac” and “Don’t Starve” in its family tree. The humor and art owe a bit to Tim Burton and a great deal to Edward Gory. 

Movement and combat is in the classic twin-stick style. You comb a floor of randomly laid out rooms for useful items and the chamber of the boss guarding the way forward. Each time you enter a room you’re locked in until you’ve cleared all enemies or overcome some other hazard, so you can’t just rush through.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

ODP is set in a towering, Victorian, half boarding school, half orphanage called Edgewood. The school is a nightmare Hogwarts, teaming with darkly comic fates for poorly behaved or unwary students and ruled by an unseen but amusingly malevolent administrator. The bits of lore and narrative slowly unlocked through play are gothic black-humor at their finest.

At least they're feeding the children at Edgewood.
Possibly to each-other.
You play as Cordy, an adorably pale waif with a permanent expression of bemused worry. When the faculty and staff of Edgewood abruptly vanish Cordy barely survives the purge of the small, weak, awkward, and unpopular children that immediately follows. With nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up she sets out for the top floor of the building, searching for answers and a way out. Provided she can survive the savage gangs of fellow children that have formed in the absence of adult supervision and the stranger things scuttling in the shadows and crawling across the chalkboards of the darkened school.  

Fortunately Cordy has inexplicably developed the ability to hurl small darts of flame to defend herself. While Cordy can only hurl flame in the four cardinal directions she can move and shoot independently. An extremely limited number of chalk-bombs and an evasive roll (crucial to avoiding damage) round out her modest set of starting abilities.

On occasion ODP dips into Bullet-Hell territory.
Early attempts to ascend Edgewood invariably end in failure and death, a fact the game itself is quick to tell you to expect. Indeed it’s not mechanically possible to clear ODP on your first playthrough. Overcoming a major boss for the first time advances the narrative and adds a new set of variables to the game, but also ends that particular run. Like all true roguelikes ODP is intended to be played many, many times before completion. 

Learning by Rote

Edgewood is a stark, relentlessly hostile environment. Healing juice-boxes, money, and other useful items are in short supply and invariably guarded. Attrition as much as anything else usually ends a run. Learning the attack patterns of the various inhabitants and hazards is critical to long term progress. Finishing a floor without taking damage is an accomplishment to be lauded.

ODP is highly challenging and carless play will end a run in short order. Each attempt does help you slowly unlock new items to be found and build up a modest set of permanent bonuses. This helps create a sense of progression and that your efforts are being rewarded, even as you die time and time again.

Level-up bonuses are awarded in the form of a choice of books.
While primarily an action game ODP does manage to offer meaningful character development choices and interesting items. Each level-up offers two randomly selected but sizable stat upgrades. Some options include penalties still worth considering, like a permanently slower move speed in exchange for a large chunk of cash.

Many of the items that can be scavenged from Edgewood’s chambers change Cordy in fundamental ways, like giving a massive boost to attack rate while making her formerly accurate shots spray out in a random arc. Some of the most powerful bits of gear break after you absorb a certain amount of damage (as if you needed another reason to dodge), while others require completing difficult challenges to unlock their power. 

Even the most minor of treasures have alarming guardians.
Of course there’s no guarantee you’ll be offered useful items or upgrades, and everything is lost when you die anyway. This is normal for Roguelikes, but it can still be frustrating when bad luck dooms an otherwise promising run. The game’s other chief sin (significantly harder to forgive) is that creature hit-boxes don’t always match up with their models. While the game is two dimensional the “camera” is implied to be at a slight angle, meaning shots often pass behind an enemy’s head. 

Reasons to play: Deliciously dark, gothic humor and art. Challenging twin-stick style gameplay. Meaningful progression from run to run.

Reasons to pass: Very high difficulty level. Slightly miss-leading hit-boxes.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.