The difference between clever and cunning.

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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Saints Row 4 Review

Open world games need to deliver two things: Power and Freedom. Saints Row 4 delivers both, along with generous helpings of style and humor.

Top of the World

As the opening remind us the Third Street Saints have gone from thuggish street gang to something more akin to an international multimedia empire. The series has followed a similar trajectory, starting as an off-brand Grand Theft Auto and evolving to embrace an ever escalating level of absurdity. Anyone who played the third game might ask, not unreasonably, where the series can possibly go next.

The answer is straight to the top and over. The opening mission concludes with the Boss (the player character) disarming a nuclear missile in mid-air to the tune of Aerosmith’s "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing". Events then jump five years into the future where the Boss has (improbably) parlayed their heroism into a successful run for the office of US president.

Choices, choices.
There’s a brief pause here to allow for SR4’s ridiculously detailed character customization. If you enjoyed spending hours tweaking brow and chin sliders in Mass Effect you’ll find plenty to keep you busy here. Appearance and even voice and gender can be changed later for a token fee so don’t spend too long sweating over it. Scores of unlockable clothing items also allow you to dress your custom Boss in whatever fashion you see fit, from business casual to biker gimp and beyond. 

Commander in Chief

We rejoin the story in the middle of an average presidential day of signing bills to cure cancer, discussing policy with Vice President and talented actor Keith David, and punching obnoxious senators in the groin. Sadly before we can finish out the term in the shoes of the POTUS an alien invasion arrives. Despite a brief, valiant battle through the White House the Boss and the rest of the Saints find themselves captured and imprisoned in a series of virtual reality simulations. 

The Zin empire bought their vehicles straight from the TRON surplus sale.

You see where this is going? Every time it appears events have hit the level of maximum absurdity the game boldly states: “That’s nothing. Watch this!” Even if whatever is going on doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense the energy is infectious. Like a hyperactive friend rattling off directly from their stream of consciousness SR4 is clearly having so much fun it’s hard not to get carried along by the enthusiasm. 

All this setup is an elaborate excuse to turn you lose in a virtual version of Steelport, now featuring hostile red Tron lines and an alien mothership hovering ominously overhead. Of course any computer program can be hacked and manipulated. After a mission or two of getting your bearings the Boss finds themself armed with what amount to superpowers.

Man of Steel

Once you obtain your first set of powers the Boss can sprint up the side of buildings, glide from rooftop to rooftop, and hurtle vast distances in a single bound. Cars and even helicopters quickly become obsolete. These powers put SR4 more in common with the Prototype and Crackdown series than its crime-themed themed roots.

Melee enemies at super speed to trigger a brutal takedown.
Moving around the city is a kinetic joy. At full speed the Boss can effortlessly plough through fences, pedestrians, and even oncoming cars, giving you a perpetual and destructive right of way. Few enemies approach your level of raw mobility and disengaging from a losing fight is just a charged leap away. Literally hundreds of collectables scattered over the city rooftops encourage exploration and using your powers to the fullest.

SR4 hurls concepts like balance boldly out the window in the name of joyfully broken, chaotic fun. The power to materialize a tank at will (available quite early) is but one of the least of your abilities. Basic enemies serve more as physics props than a combat challenge. Once you’ve secured a few upgrades the difference between a squad of alien warriors and a squad of alien warriors that are exploding, on fire, and hurling through the air all at the same time is less than two seconds.

Why drive when you can glide?
Guns remain useful but superpowers are unquestionably the stars of the show in combat. All are fun and tremendously satisfying to unleash on hapless Zin troopers or random pedestrians. Icy blasts turn foes into frozen statues, shattering at the slightest touch. Telekinesis (one of the better implementations of this kind of ability I’ve seen) turns enemies and vehicles into improvised projectiles or simply lets you send them soaring over the horizon. Even simply ploughing through a pack of infantry with super speed engaged knocks them over like bowling pins.

Dangerous Toys

Outside of the more linear and scripted missions you generally have the freedom to tackle enemies in whatever way you see fit. If you want to faff around on rooftops and pick at guys with the sniper rifle that’s certainly an option. You’ll probably have more fun calling in a squad of backup Saints and wading in with powers and guns blazing. As mentioned powerful vehicles are available quite early on, so summoning the appropriate ride and obliterating the opposition with hovercraft missiles or tank cannon fire does the job nicely.

Cultured but ruthless alien emperor Zinyak fills out the antagonist role with style.
Completing SR4’s missions and activities supplies a constant stream of rewards beyond just XP and cash. Weapons, powers, vehicles, and allies are all doled out at a steady clip, ensuring you’ve always got something new to try. Their actual effectiveness can range from purely cosmetic to ridiculously overpowered, but as is appropriate for an open world game there is no shortage of toys to play with.

City control returns, bringing with it a host of optional activates that let you wrest control of the simulation away from the Zin piece by piece. There are an embarrassment of things to do, though the super-speed racing and telekinetic object hurtling stand out. Success rewards you with an ever increasing regular income, generic Saints backup in areas you control, and the satisfaction of slowly turning the city from hostile red to soothing blue. 

Wardens take a combination of superpowers, concentrated fire, and a QTE to finally take down.
Since much of the game, even within its own context, takes place within a VR simulation there’s little reason not to run amuck whenever the mood takes you. While you can’t demolish buildings the various cars, pedestrians, and smaller environmental props can all be hurtled, ignited, and exploded at whim. Causing enough chaos eventually causes a hulking “Warden” mini-boss to be dispatched to the scene. These creatures provide a much needed combat challenge at first, though the quick-time event required to finish them off eventually becomes a bit monotonous. 


SR4 is unafraid to wear its geek cred on its sleeves. The game is unashamedly crammed with references from stock material like the Matrix and Mass Effect to more eclectic cult favorites like They Live. Fans of the series will enjoy a host of returning characters and nods to previous games. Even amid all the superpowers and general lunacy the game takes a few moments to make peace with its gangland origins and tie off dangling plot and character threads in satisfying fashion. 

A great many characters, gangs, and locations from previous games show up at one point or another.
The often playful back and forth between the Boss and the rest of the Saints is the core of the game’s humor. An open-world game can conceivably get away with minimal cast and characterization but SR4 delivers consistently strong character work and dialog. There is a level of fourth wall breaking meta awareness that may annoy some tastes, but it’s generally used with an appropriate level of restraint. 

Even with a cast of strong characters (including some returning fan favorites) alien emperor Zinyak earns his place as a memorable and worthwhile antagonist. His introduction establishes him as a more than credible threat: intellectually, physically, and technologically superior to the Boss. Excellent voice acting presents him a man who maintains a thin veneer of culture and playful civility over a core of utter ruthlessness. Every time Zinyak and the Boss square off it’s a treat, and he stands bulbous head and spiky shoulders above your average video game villain.

SR4 never misses a chance to lampoon another game.
Past the introductory set of missions the core structure becomes an oddly effective Mass Effect Two parody/homage. Each member of the Saint’s crew needs to be rescued from the simulation and, once secured, bolstered with a loyalty mission. These missions allow some one on one time and character development with each member of the gang, but also let the designers and writers to cut loose and fit in as many loving parodies of other games as possible.  Keep an eye out for the excellent side-scrolling beat-em-up. 

Riding Dirty

While a beautiful example of the open world genre there are a few issues with SR4. The super speed and jump, while ridiculously fun, are frustratingly imprecise at times. They’re fine for traveling vast distances but can be infuriating when trying to pluck a collectable off a narrow surface or perform any sort of other precision maneuver. Some sort of setting between the sluggish normal movement and blisteringly fast and powerful super-movement might have helped.  

All clothing is purely cosmetic, so free and breezy (with built in censoring) is a legitimate way to play.
Late game rampages also become awkwardly paced. As you processed through missions the game shifts from throwing large numbers of basic troops at you in response to open world chaos to deploying smaller numbers of tougher and more specialized enemies. Alert levels also seem to ramp up much more quickly. It starts to feel like you can barely get a good rampage started before you find yourself facing a Warden. All this can make grinding for the many kill related challenges and achievements a pain, if you care about that sort of thing. 

Finally a few of mini-games (particularly the bomb tossing one) are more annoying than fun. None of these things should dissuade you from trying the game if you enjoy open-word style gameplay at all. Saint’s Row 4 consistently delivers over the top fun with a healthy dose of genuine humor and serves as a worthy capstone to the long running series.

Reasons to play: Excellent navigation and combat superpowers. Huge toybox of weapons, powers and vehicles to play with. Hilarious characters and dialog. Infinite cosmetic character customization. 

Reasons to pass: Movement superpowers can be frustratingly imprecise. Grindy challenges and achievements, especially in the late game.

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