Sunday, July 27, 2014

Shovel Knight - Thoughts


Indie games with a retro look are a dime a dozen nowadays, but retro-designed indie games are fairly uncommon. You may have a slew of Canabalt, Super Meat Boy and Flappy Bird pretenders wrapped up in an 8-bit coating, but there's not many games that explicitly emulate the likes of Mega Man, Ducktails, or Shatterhand. Yacht Club's crowd-funded Shovel Knight attempts to tackle this challenge, harkening back to NES gems in this turquoise knight's journey for redemption. The pixel appearance isn't only for show though—Shovel Knight is a highly competent platformer that joins the pantheon of classics that have birthed its design and mechanics.


Wayforward may be the premier studio in 2D sprite animations but Yacht Club undoubtedly took some of that talent with them; their kickstarter baby is sleek, gorgeous and vibrant, both in style and motion. Each area is bright and ornate without looking needlessly complicated, happily accentuating the energetic feel of the game. Regarding controls, they're tight and precise (once you get used to Shovel Knight's reach) which is perhaps one of the most important aspects the programmers nailed, since platformers live and die by how well their character handles. But taking center stage (besides the near-flawless soundtrack) is the excellent level design and amount of variety present in Shovel Knight.

Besides the towns and quick diversions, you have eight Mega Man-styled bosses to take down that occupy different thematic estates—each knight's keep includes about 2-3 new mechanics along with half a dozen new enemies, all unique to their respective fiefs. Concepts and baddies are introduced in an unthreatening, "get to know them" way, but are quickly used in conjunction with some trickier bits later down the road. Levels are long too, spanning around twice the length of a regular Mega Man stage, yet littered with plenty of checkpoints and side paths to keep the journey engaging. Giving the player unlimited lives is a wise design decision, as it allows the levels to be experimental but doesn't scare off newcomers from trying the game.

There are however a handful of quirks Shovel Knight has that grow more noticeable when you revisit the areas you've already beaten. Most significant is that the stages feel more packed with gems than they do dangers, often utilizing space for excavating rather than challenging the player—this complaint can pertain to the gimmicks as well. For instance the rainbow spewing platform in Polar Knight's level is a fantastic and strange mechanic for the stage, but it's not really used in heavy conjunction with many other enemies to make it more than just an odd traversal option (even when there are hammer-throwing ladder-hogs above you, they can be rammed with the contraption). A lot of the problems in the game can also be brute forced once you acquire enough health and magic, negating some of the more nuanced design put into certain encounters (like the griffin at the Tower Entrance). These are admittedly minor complaints for someone probably running through the game for the first time, and these gripes honestly do little to take away from an already adventurous outing packed with fun and danger.


To those wary of the difficulty, the game is easier in comparison to it's predecessors, though that's largely due to the repertoire you can build for yourself. There's a heap of side arms you can equip, running the gamut from mildly entertaining to absurdly useful (and abusable). Even without those items it's a relatively easygoing quest, though if you actually want to make the game harder there's plenty of ways to do so: you can destroy checkpoints for gold, opt out of using the full healing chalices, refuse to upgrade your equipment and even skip out on expanding your health bar. New Game+ doubles the damage you receive and removes most of the checkpoints if that idea sounds appealing to you, but the main game should likely fit most players; it strikes a healthy balance of being classically trained while never veering into Sunsoft levels of ruthlessness and rigor.

Bosses also deserve a good mention since they're one of the biggest drawing points of the game to me. Each colored knight has a semi-elaborate pattern and arsenal of attacks, making the fights very kinetic, frantic, and tense—on three separate occasions I killed a boss on my final sliver of health! Special commemoration for the best battles go to Spectre Knight and Plague Knight, the former basically being Castlevania's Death pumped up with Quick Man's mobility, and the latter being an absolutely chaotic encounter full of arcing projectiles and disintegrating platforms. King Knight is an unfortunate pushover but every other fight is a sheer joy to partake in. The final boss also deserves a mention for being quite creative, only containing a misstep in conveying the way to damage said boss, but splendidly closing out the game with a struggle and ending that—in some ways—Team Ico would have been likely to make in the 80's.


To design a classic NES platformer but sprinkle in a variety of modern touches is a tricky thing to accomplish, but despite your thoughts on how detrimentally close Shovel Knight plays to its progenitors, it is an unequivocally solid game. I feel that its presentation, design, pace and heartwarming story all come together to form a complete, wholesome package, deserving of its widespread praise. It's unfortunate that the bonus modes weren't included upon its release, but the content here makes it well worth the purchase... and I hope Shovel Knight allows the newer generation to look back and understand what made the 8-bit games so endearing as well.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

ilomilo - Thoughts

For me, the best puzzle games are those that stump you so mercilessly that you're forced to put the controller down and just stare at the screen, thumbing your chin in befuddlement. The answer is usually somewhere within your grasp—so very close to the plane of your comprehension!—yet dancing outside that border, eluding you. With the help of some curious mistakes and acute observations, you can painstakingly piece together the solution, achieving the sweetest sensation of relief. It's a cumulative process that I feel made the 2D games of yore so appealing, except here it's about cognition & perception rather than precision & execution.

Puzzles that lack the aforementioned "aha!" moment (termed as such by Jonathan Blow) can leave a very weak impact. I can appreciate an intriguing story or sidesplitting script tied to puzzle mechanics, like with Thomas Was Alone and Portal 2 respectively, but neither of these games felt as fulfilling as I had hoped they'd be, the answer always somewhere nearby, laid within reach. So when I was perusing through my Xbox Arcade backlog, Southend Interactive's ilomilo stuck out like a tastefully sore thumb; I had half-finished it due to the stumper that was "blank paper", and I wanted to try the game once more, from scratch. Diving back in to its charming, block-based world and vowing to complete every level was a journey I was excited to undertake, as well as one full of some of the best challenges I've had in a while.


Aesthetics in the puzzle games are far from the main draw of the experience, but can work as a very subtle boon (or hinderance), as they're often the first thing that you'll notice about any entry. Being a grid based, axis-shifting mini-adventure, ilomilo could've gone for a look similar to something like English Country Tune but instead developed a warm, hand-crafted art style, filled with airy sound effects, plush character models and some of the most wholesome music composed for a puzzle game (it could easily be listened to by people that detest video game soundtracks). The quirky amalgam that emerges from the garbled voices, chipper tunes, and sock-puppet puppies give the world more flair, adding richness to the already potent Scandinavian flavor.

Yet the sublime visual style is only a part of what makes ilomilo so amusing. The brief backstory fills out why you'd want to get the titular ilo and milo back together again and it's a lot of fun thinking about how you're going to achieve that... as well as quite confusing. You'll have to think in three dimensions as the two buddies traverse multiple faces of a cube, using helpful blocks to bridge gaps or flip to the underside of a structure. It's one of those games that's hard to describe what exactly the mechanics are until you see it in person, but as long as you can wrap your brain around 3D space and objects, it's really thrilling to maneuver the lost friends about their imaginative world.


The only bummer to come out of my time with the game was playing the expansion, Autumn Tale, after the exceptionally strong finish of the primary story, First Adventure (especially after figuring out the mind-bending bonus level that was "space flight"). That's not to say that the Autumn Tale didn't have some of it's own confounding moments, but the difficulty curve was a very gentle slope in comparison. For example, the final three Autumn Tale levels were more or less of the same "toughness", which meant that by the end I didn't reach a satisfying climax of brilliance as I had done with the final bonus section of the First Adventure (though this may also be due in part to the lack of additional mechanics to learn).

But seeing as the worst aspect to gripe over is that the First Adventure was better than the already-enjoyable DLC, ilomilo has a lot going for it. It introduces you to it's mechanics slowly and carefully, handing the player new objects to interact with in multiple ways over four chapters until you're using each of them tandem without even thinking about it. So much of the game feels very thought-out and heartfelt, extending past the puzzles and seeping into the very design of the world—the parable of the Hunter and the Fox (something snuck into the bonus levels) has a strangely haunting conclusion, one that stands in strong juxtaposition to the childlike wonder the rest of the game exhibits (though the collectable polaroids do bridge the tonal nature of these two). It's a small cord that resonated with me, and I'm very glad the developers chose to include this.


The game is both entertaining and endearing, carving out a very unique niche for itself on the Xbox Arcade. I had a fantastic time collecting every trinket in ilomilo, and for fans of games like BraidAntichamber and The Swapper, I cannot recommend this delightful entry enough. It's cute, curious, pleasant, and above else, constantly engaging with its world and design, asking for the player to truly grasp its mechanics in order to succeed... which is pretty much the best you can ask for.

And my goodness, that music!
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Images obtained from: ilimilo.wikia.com, gamingtruth.com wegotthiscovered.com, canardpc.com

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon - Thoughts


Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon was the first Far Cry game I played, as strange as that may sound. During the Steam Summer Sale I saw it priced low and was hungry for a light-hearted FPS that I could finish in a handful of hours. The prospect of running around an open island to do primarily whatever I wanted was perhaps the biggest selling point of the series to me, and I reasoned that this little chunk of stylized DLC could handle that fix. Though the opening hour was somewhat underwhelming, once I got into the groove of the game I was thoroughly impressed—rare few shooters can compare to the sense of satisfaction you get when everything goes right during a mission.

First though, I'll touch upon the most notable aspect of this content—the distinctive 1980's aesthetic.


Boiled down, Blood Dragon contains a superb idea—take an intentionally niche and goofy remembrance of a single decade and mix it with the AAA production of a Ubisoft franchise, baking it until it forms bite-sized DLC. Thankfully the game is a standalone entry so people apathetic towards Far Cry 3's plot and setting can jump right into the neon paradise (though at its core it remains a tropical island entrenched in gorilla warfare). There's a variety of stupidly awesome details added to the game to accentuate the mood: the main character is a cyborg equipped with glowing shurikens, enemy mobs speak in bitcrushed tones and are decked out in futuristic biker gear, and there's wild Tyrannosaurus-like beasts called "dragons" that fire explosive optical lasers. One of my favorite flourishes is the way the the screen shakes and the visuals become chromatically distorted when the shotgun fires, giving the weapon a really satisfying kick (and the reload animation for each armament is hilariously flashy).

Despite the noteworthy effort the designers and animators put into making the game as radical as possible, Blood Dragon doesn't always hit its mark. This problem is exemplified best during the cutscenes—long discourses that slow down the action for lengths at a time, containing only a few good laughs here and there. I think the core issue is that the dialogue aims for a serious satire that comes across as mostly haphazard, rather than a bombastic display that hits you fast and hard with dumb 80's jokes. If you watch the opening cutscene I think it'll give you a good idea of what I mean, and how the writing drains the fun out of the ridiculous premise.

But the greatest offender is the opening tutorials—they're given as splash screens of text accompanied by a robotic voice over, which pokes fun at the hand-holdy nature of modern games but unfortunately succumbs to its own mockery by putting you through an extremely boring process. When I started the game I just wanted to run around a wreak havoc, and the length of the first few tasks alone, combined with the plodding pace, linearity, and constant reminders on "how to do side missions and buy stuff" made me question my purchase... but luckily my fears were alleviated.


When the game gets going, it really hits the spot. Perhaps Blood Dragon's greatest appeal is the variability in the encounters; there were a few times where I would jump into enemy territory and the operation would go terribly wrong, forcing me to camp a doorway and mow through any living creature that takes one wrong step across my shotgun-guarded rubicon. After the carnage settled and I could explore the base freely, I realized how many options I had open to me before they had all been squandered on a noisy approach: perhaps I could've slid in via a cable overhead, or lured the nearby dragon in for a frantic feast, or taken an underground path to slowly chip away at my opponents one by one from the shadows. This is especially prevalent during the main missions, where entire concrete playgrounds can be wasted if you don't proceed patiently.

Of course the mechanics are far from perfect—there's a handful of irksome design choices, like certain hostage rescue assignments where enemies tightly patrol an open area, meaning stealth becomes far less viable than running in guns blazing. This is further compounded by the inability to quietly take out heavy troops until you reach a certain level, meaning you have to use loud, lethal force to subdue them (unless you enjoy plunking arrows playfully against their armor). Other issues are small but remain prevalent, like the pointlessness of the island's non-dragon wildlife and the cost of supplies often outgrossing the reward you get at the end of each mission. All of the main missions are pretty long too, so if your game crashes mid-level (as it happened once in my case), expect to spend another twenty minutes or so trekking over familiar territory just to get to the spot you were previously at.

Luckily the game is so much fun that I didn't mind redoing most missions from scratch; each replay provided an opportunity to make sure I performed flawlessly this time around. One of my favorite memories was during the northwest base infiltration, where I sniped the pilot of a standing helicopter only to draw everyone in the compound over to that position. I snuck around the back and stabbed a guard, which was yet another reckless move on my behalf as it caught the attention of his nearby cohort. I planted a mine beside the corpse as I backed out the door and once it triggered on his curious companion, three more enemies were pulled into the corridor. A quick toss of C-4 and an instant detonation later, the base was all but taken care of—and no one knew where I was the entire time. It's these situations, where your impromptu reactions are put to the test during a sudden kink in the plan, that feel so fulfilling, as your success is entirely due to your crafty thinking and not merely left up to some lame QTE that you passively mashed X through. Essentially, it went well because you played well.


Early on it was quite apparent that I wasn't interested in what the story had to offer; the lively locale was my true calling. I drew much entertainment from the adaptive insanity that ensued as I attempted to save each hostage and dismantle every stronghold. Player creativity in each situation isn't just Blood Dragon's greatest strength from what I gathered, but the Far Cry series itself. In that sense I came to understand the draw of the franchise, and I decided to purchase Far Cry 3 after the credits rolled... but not before the techno resort was free of biker mooks. Boy howdy it was one hell of a vacation while it lasted.
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Logo obtained from: bloody-disgusting.com