Sunday, January 25, 2015

Nanostray - Thoughts


With the release of the Nintendo DS in 2004 came a new STG out of Shin'en's workshop to accompany it in 2005. Rather than reuse the Iridion license, we received Nanostray instead, a very similar shmup with a significant graphical overhaul. Gone are the rendered backgrounds and awkward sprite stretching; sleek polygonal ships strafing at high speeds now rule the battlefield. The action is faster and the enemies hit harder in Nanostray, making it a pretty irresistible package for shmup fans thirsting for a portable shooter, as long as you can get over some the eccentricities.


Out of its predecessors, Nanostray stays the closest to Iridion II (unsurprisingly). The camera angle, bombs, multiple power-ups and general difficulty adheres to the guidelines already printed out, though in some ways Nanostray is a bit more intense. More bullets are present on the screen at once, and your own arsenal has been heavily upgraded; each of the weapons & their respective energized shots are well balanced and have noticeable uses, whether it be the boss-crushing side shot or the handy undulating lightning emission. You'll find yourself switching up shot-types a lot more often, though the process of doing so has been made unfortunately complicated.

Since the Nintendo DS's primary feature is the duplicate touch screen, some awkward touch controls are thrown in for good measure. To view your remaining power or to change your weapons, you have to consult the bottom screen, which tends to split your focus in pivotal moments—the power-ups suffer the most from this, as their individual windows of opportunity can be very brief. I would've preferred L&R to be designated for this purpose (they serve no actual function in the game), though it's not entirely too terrible once you get nimble enough at tapping the colored icons between safe spots.


The new hardware makes itself known not only in the controls and crisp visuals, but also the speed of the game. Slowdown aside, the game moves quick and plays quick, being closer to an arcade-style shmup than the Iridion games ever felt. I'm a bit sad to see the rendered backgrounds gone, but the game is obviously better for ditching its wonky handling of sprites, and still looks quite nice even today. With that said about the graphics, I'm not entirely sure about how I feel on the music—despite Manfred Linzner's continued work on Shin'en's titles, the tracks here are less distinctive and catchy than the GBA games. Even sadder is that the option is missing to fiddle with audio levels, as the current mixing allows enemy explosions to tower over the tunes.

Nevertheless, the entire package still glitters at the end of the day. The levels and waves of enemies are varied, the challenges can be a thrill to tackle, the bosses provide a delightful (and dreadful) spectacle, and the game only has a few other kinks outside of what I've mentioned (like how the playing field is more limited than the player thinks it is). The energized shots are a great addition to the series, and the leniency of infinite continues in the Normal mode ensure that even the greenest of amateurs can see this journey through to its end. It's just fun stuff overall.


Nanostray feels very akin to Iridion II, but it's a lot less graceful—more wild and uncaring—than its predecessor. This makes the game personally more engaging, and even with its short length it provides a satiating experience. The Advanced difficulty hits the sweet spot between being punishing and too lenient, and the challenge mode adds a teensy bit of variation in case you ever get bored of the campaign. Nanostray won't find itself among the ranks of other elite STGs like Gradius or Mushihimesama, but it does a damn fine job at what it sets out to do.
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Images obtained from:  jeuxvideo.com, journaldugamer.com, archaic.fr

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Neverending Nightmares - Thoughts


[contains spoilers]

Neverending Nightmares is a neat game. It's not a very complex game, or thematically deep one for that matter, but it's an interesting ride while it lasts. It occupies the same "atmospheric walker" genre as Gone Home and Kairo, although it obviously differs from those by being a 2D title obsessed with doors. There are some things I think it does well, some things I think it does poorly, but overall I'm really glad it was made (and that I played it).


The very first thing (and the very best thing) about Neverending Nightmares is the grisly, unforgettable art style. The hand-drawn backgrounds mesh well with the elastic characters, and any time the color red is applied onscreen, it immediately grabs your attention. The most notable uses of blood are in the handful of zoomed portraits the game has, whether it be pieces of glass in a sink, an eviscerated animal, or unknown meat ground-up on a table. These are often shown at off-centered angles and it's a shame the game doesn't have more of them, as they were what I was looking forward to the most (the meat grinder remains the most disturbing part of the game to me). The deterioration of Thomas' house slowly over time is also a sinister implementation—the numerous arrangements of minor details makes every room feel uniquely crafted, despite how often the setting repeats.

And the game repeats plenty. Insanity isn't something that's high on my phobia list in games, and Neverending Nightmares leans into that particular fear pretty hard. There is a certain appeal in wandering similar hallways over and over (and over [and over]), although some sequences can go on for so long without an interruption that you'll forget you're playing a horror game. After the first hour or so into the game, a lot of my dread had dissipated and I was mainly marching on just to see what else was in store for me. And some of it was fantastic (like Gabby's corpse falling out of the sky), while other sections (the dolls) did nothing for me.


I've stated this before in the Lone Survivor summary—the narrative in horror games is of paramount importance, due to the seedy influence the story & lore can have on the player. A game like Silent Hill 2 thrives off of the grotesque symbolism of its monsters, and even without that, the desperate tale it weaves can upset the player tremendously. I struggle to say Neverending Nightmares has a story though, as it's too muddled behind interpretation and red herrings to allow decrypting; despite how hard the player can try to identify the relation of Gabby to Thomas, there's too many distractions and vague statements to know precisely what the author was aiming for. The ending you receive can drastically alter their relationship, and perhaps allowing for interpretation was the point, but I still find some factors to be misleading (for instance, if she is his wife in "Final Descent", why are the first few segments about Gabby being his sister?).

After completing Neverending Nightmares, I looked into its origins a bit more for some explanation. Being a kickstarter-funded title, there were reward tiers promising to incorporate different elements into the game depending on the pledge level. While some stuff like the tombstones and backer sound effects are unique additions that don't impede with the atmosphere, the nightmare creation and backer portraits were things that seemed to clash with the story. Granted, I can't tell which nightmares are specifically backer-made, but having a hodgepodge of ideas added to the lack of cohesion (the portraits could've contributed a lot to the narrative too!). It's a shame too, considering that there's such strong, disturbing imagery in the game that could've had some utterly terrifying explanations behind them.


Neverending Nightmares is worth a playing just for how maniacal it gets at times, but don't expect any kind of unsettling genius that will keep you up at night (outside of the monstrous things Thomas does to his limbs). The handful of brilliant moments become a bit buried by all the monotony, although you could argue that the directionless wandering and trepidation of the next big event are all a subversive part of the horror. The aesthetic is gorgeous and there's nothing really like it—I wish more games aimed to be this distinct. Though I gripe about the backer influence, I'm glad this twisted nightmare got to exist.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Imagine Me - Thoughts


After buying the most recent Humble Weekly Bundle, I decided to check out what games came paired with it. I primarily nabbed the bundle for Ittle Dew, but wasn't quite prepared for how cool and sleek MURI was. Bardbarian was an interesting concept that got too grindy too quick (and fit the phone better than the PC), and so all that was left... was Imagine Me.

Imagine Me looks cute but is one of the worst playing games I've experienced in a long time.


While the pastel look screams "adorable" and the theme that plays over the solemn title screen is pleasing, everything else falls apart once you jump in. There's primarily two different modes in the game—Campaign, which features an infinite number of randomly generated levels with story segments spliced in-between, and the Challenge mode, which is a set of 36 single-room maps. I'll note here that even after obtaining all of the story vignettes, there really isn't much substance you can draw from tangle of random imagery. Unless I missed the relevance of what a car crash, archery class, girl cousin, dead dog and teacher singing have to do with each other, the narrative seems to be wholly untied to the game.

The campaign mode serves as the great illustration for how randomly generated levels can be put together poorly. It has a similar four-floor layout like Spelunky but rather than stitching together distinct sections, it's more or less a hodgepodge of objects and enemies. While traversing the patchwork scenery, you'll soon realize how clunky the game is: the hitboxes on spikes are enormous, enemies and blocks take too long to disappear after getting hit, the single arrow pickups are pointless compared to the equally-distributed five arrow pickups, keys are overabundant, and crates serve no purpose other than to block your way. Outside of the monotone bosses, you will have experienced everything the game has to offer in the first level, so there's almost nothing of value past the first five minutes.


However, the greatest offender comes from the challenge mode. While the randomly generated levels are awkward and shallow, the challenge mode puts your patience to the test. Right off the bad level 1-2 is the hardest of the bunch, featuring an assortment of pointy spike-shooters strewn about the room, each of which fires projectiles independently of one another (so good luck looking for a pattern). Trying to make it to the exit in this one area is a massive battle, as even your arrows fail to kill the single enemy placed into the arena (arrows which use up those you've collected in the campaign for some bizarre reason). After this heinous struggle, you'll ride a roller coaster of difficulty—you can beat 2-12 by just holding right down the whole time, while 3-8...

In 3-8, all of the projectiles are set into the background (and is the only level that does this), only giving you a small window in which you can see them. There's a spike shooter above you at the start so you'll die pretty quickly before you have an idea of what's going on. To make matters worse, there's spike shooters above the exit, and since the fade out to death is quicker than the level-complete fade out, you can touch the exit but the LEVEL FAILED! sign will always pop up first. There's numerous examples of how the game is poorly designed embedded within the game itself: you don't actually pause when you go to the menu (meaning that you can die in the options menu), after quitting a challenge you're taken back to the main menu rather than the challenge menu, your character can move during the game over screen in the campaign, and the tutorial screen always pops up before levels. I can't believe all of these simple issues were overlooked.


I've played games with wonky physics like Defy Gravity before, but at least that game had an interesting mechanic to it. Imagine Me is something that feels like it was designed by an artist that didn't quite know how to make a good game, or didn't care by the time it was finished. Granted, there's much worse out there on Steam, but I was quite surprise to receive this in the same bundle that MURI and Ittle Dew came in; I really should've spent my time playing those instead.