Sunday, June 26, 2016

1001 Spikes - Thoughts

The PC version of 1001 Spikes is not my first rodeo with the title. While the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace was rotten with a whole lotta junk, there were a handful of great gems if you dug deep enough: They BreatheAstroman, Cthulu Saves the World, VolChaosSoulcaster, and Radiangames' numerous arcade titles were among the best. A less-than-stellar entry was the aforementioned (minus one spike) 1000 Spikes, a retro-styled game that takes a page from Prinny's book and hands the player 1000 lives to finish it with. Some parts were clunky while others were overtly cruel, but at the end of the day it was a kinda fun experience. Lo and behold... my opinion has not changed.

"Mean-spirited" is the best way to describe 1001 Spikes. It looks like a simple pixelated platformer but has a lot more DNA in common with I Wanna Be the Guy than Mario, keen on killing the player in indefensibly cheap ways. Of course not every death you'll suffer is cheap, but foreknowledge is your greatest weapon here, and the only way to acquire it is to die, die, and die again. It's not a crushingly difficult game—there's only five or six levels in the campaign that'll truly test your resolve—but it's definitely an experience that prioritizes memorization and repetition over reflexes. Because of that, it's a hard game to recommend unless you have a stomach for punishment or penchant for masochism (or, like me, both).

Having been reared on NES games, I'm beyond pleased with the presentation in 1001 Spikes. Both the music and graphical fidelity are fantastic, respectfully borrowing from the 8-bit era while keeping the controls buttery smooth and responsive. The antiquated style feels like it works in service of the gameplay, but I have to confess that the "oldschool" design could use some improvements. Trap inconsistency really grinds my gears: for instance, the spikes that pop out under your feet can have a range of timings before they recede yet all share the same sprite, and dart traps are a few pixels too thin while the flame traps are a few pixels too long. Crumbling platforms sometimes look the same as regular platforms, and there's no rhyme or reason to the location of hidden spikes. These grievances are central to the "gotcha" style gameplay, which isn't too egregious during the main campaign (where the levels are two screens long) but is constantly vexing during the larger levels post game. That, and some sections are frustratingly obsessed with unevenly-timed patterns (dart traps above hopping statues, penguins running into spike switches), further obscuring the path to the finish line.

The most surprising thing for me was that the PC edition of 1001 Spikes is far and away superior to the XBLIG version. There's a ton more content, new modes, goodies to buy, characters to unlock, and multiplayer! All of these features don't allay the misgivings I have with the game's design, but they are a nice inclusion that help to beef up the title, easily tripling its length. The one addition that feels completely unnecessary is the new narrative; the story told here is absolutely asinine and longwinded, taking up minutes of your time to say something that a single splash screen could handle. It can be thankfully skipped, so it's not quite as detrimental to the game as the nefarious trap placement is.

1001 Spikes provides a pretty decent package if you're up for the challenge. I think the game's greatest strength is its sheer simplicity—there's no mechanics to master or upgrades to choose between. The only thing stopping you from getting to the exit are the innumerable deaths you must suffer to learn the lay of the land, which... admittedly doesn't sound that appealing. For that reason alone I certainly wouldn't classify it as an excellent/must-play experience, but it does what it sets out to do, and I kinda admire it for that. Well, also maaaybe because I have a soft spot for good-looking 8-bit art too.

Friday, June 17, 2016

DOOM (2016) - Thoughts

A palpable shock must have blanketed my face during my first hour with id Software's new Doom. "Wait, this doesn't suck?" is what I was most likely thinking, mouth agape at the spectacle of gore before me. But it wasn't the blood that had me nonplussed—no, it was how good the game felt to play. A bizarre realization unraveled before me in Lovecraftian fashion, a maddening truth sprouting from this newly formed coil—"I'm playing a Doom game in 2016 that doesn't suck!" Better yet, not only did it "not suck" for the entire campaign, but it was actually a hell of a lot of fun.

The catch, of course, is that it contains some of the most baffling design decisions I've seen all year.

For those that don't know, I grew up with the classic 1993 Doom as a kid. I played it and its sequel on my parents' IBM work laptop, and in my spare time nowadays I occasionally make maps for it. Having such a close attachment to a 20+ year old program means that I'm extremely critical of anything that sprouts from the brand's name, skeptical of whether it actually has any relevance nowadays. The crux of my concern for the new Doom was that the series hadn't been relevant for a long time. Sure, Doom 3 was a fun game in its own right, but it took the franchise in a questionable direction, structuring the game largely around its untenable "horror" roots. For myself and many like me, there just didn't seem to be a good way to revive Doom, especially considering how many leaps and strides the FPS genre had taken beyond it. The series felt almost Shakespearian in its relevance, heartily revered for its accomplishments but likely to be laughed at by the common-folk if it was placed on the silver screen today (which ironically happened in '05).

Somehow—somehow!—I was wrong. Doom not only successfully exists as a modern game, but it actively puts other FPS campaigns to shame. The best (and most integral) part about the game is that it is fast. While it's easy to overlook such a simple adjective when you're reading a review, Doom's speed absolutely dominates the gameplay from the moment you take control. No longer must you wait behind cover and gradually lick your wounds; the key to surviving is to blow the face off of any enemy that gets within sniffing distance. Initially the glory kills seem like a gratuitous and pace-breaking inclusion, but they're a brief and satisfying way to pick up health during the first half of the game, perfectly fitting in with the "dumb metal" theme of the game (speaking of, the soundtrack is pretty kick ass too). Before long, you'll get a good handle on zipping around imp fireballs and snapping their jaw clean off their skull—and it'll feel great too.

Complementing the breakneck speed of the game are the bone-shattering weapons. Doom disregards modern FPS conventions by tossing out maximum weapon capacity and reloading, urging the player to constantly switch up their armaments in the midst of battle. Toss in some weapon mods that vastly change how you'll use each of the guns and you have a veritable amusement park of death right at your fingertips. To accompany the variety of firearms are a parade of some of Hell's finest, most requiring a different approach from one another. Hell Knight getting too close? Machine gun rockets or plasma stasis will give you some room. A mancubus blocking the path? Blow that sucker up with some rockets or get up close and personal with the super shotgun. Too many low tier enemies warping in? Rev up the chaingun or line 'em up with a gauss siege shot. The bread and butter of Doom is playing around with its weapon and enemy combinations to see what works, what doesn't, and which are your favorites.

The levels are the cherry on top of the creamy gameplay sundae, wonderfully accentuating the brisk pace of combat. Since staying mobile means staying alive, each of the arenas you'll duke it out in give you plenty of clambering avenues, ensuring that it'll be difficult for your enemies to overwhelm you. Outside of combat you can scour the environment to find some tricky secrets or hidden weapons... until the game starts gating you from backtracking for some reason. And here is where Doom really starts to miss its mark.

The levels work in perfect tandem with the game's battles, but past the Argent Facility (level 4) the design shifts towards unidirectional linear progression, tossing interconnectivity by the wayside. This pushes the game to focus only on combat, even when you're eager to explore its hallways for stray goodies. And for some reason the designers become insistent on stopping you from backtracking to find secrets, even when there is no reason for them to do so. One moment you'll be wandering around and the next a door will slam behind you, lock, and trigger a checkpoint. By the time you get to the end of the campaign, Doom doesn't feel like the full game it promised it would be at its start.

There are copious other issues that unfortunately mar the title too. The starting weapons are blatantly outclassed by the late game armaments, especially once you unlock the final upgrades on the weapon mods. Doom presents its ludicrous story with a straight face (which I commend it for) but feels insistent on forcing the player to sit there and listen to dialogue, even after it's established that the Doom Slayer doesn't care one iota for Hell's sympathizers. The multiplayer is serviceable but lacks an identity (if anything, it made me miss playing Halo), and Snapmap is plagued by the worst of Zdoom-isms: text-laden gameplay that tries it's best to emulate something other than Doom.

In spite of these failings, I continue to want to play Doom. Akin to Hyper Light Drifter, the flaws on display do not outshine the title's greatness; Doom contains one of the most satisfying gameplay systems of 2016. The snappy response of battle, the ease at which you can traverse the environment, tackling the challenge, weapon, & rune tasks in combat, and the excitement that comes from facing the higher difficulties meld together to form a non-stop adrenaline rush that sticks to your mind long after the credits have rolled. Doom joins Wolfenstein: The New Order in not only successfully revitalized a series from perpetually obscurity, but also making its contemporaries look tame and meek in comparison. Do I wish it was a tad better? Yeah. Did I nevertheless enjoy my time with it? Hell yeah.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Valdis Story: Abyssal City - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

It's often easy to overlook subtle design decisions when you begin playing a game, finding yourself easily rapt by the more prominent features (story, gameplay structure, co-op inclusion, etc.) Yet at the end of the day—as long as the framework holds up—it's the nuance that you'll engage with most upon repeated visits to a title. Small aspects like attack sound effects, length of invulnerability frames, character walk speed, menu simplicity, and UI readability all contribute to a player's overall impressions of a game, sometimes to a significant degree. It's why some people hate the character movement in Dark Souls II, or criticize the muddy combat of Uncharted 3, or even disparage the greats like Ocarina of Time for its incessant menu pausing to switch out a single item. On the flip side these small and overlooked details can also add to a game's longevity in a profound fashion, like the satisfying sound of the gunfire in Battlefield 3, the speedy respawn rate of Super Meat Boy, and the ease of comparing equipment in Diablo 3. These aren't often make-or-break features of a game, but they can subversively influence if you want to continue playing or not.

My time with Valdis Story: Abyssal City can be summarized with a seemingly innocuous design choice that spoiled a lot of the fun: juggling. Well, that and a couple other issues too.

For what it's worth, the game starts off promising. It has a distinctive artstyle, intriguing setting (city at the bottom of the sea), multiple playable characters, and an extensive skill tree. There's loads of items and gear to find/upgrade, a variety spells that blend with the combo system, and plenty of unique bosses that will test your mettle. What piqued my interest in the game was hearing it described as "if Platinum made a Metroidvania"—if that's not an enticing proposition, I'm not sure what is. And the first hour with it appeared to deliver on that premise.

Ah, but the devil is in the detail! Struggling against Jahzracht as Reina on Hard is what caused me to reach the end of my rope; too many times I found myself getting caught in his fire tornado or bouncing off flame geysers. I'm not leery of difficult games—far from it—but there was just no feasible way to beat this boss. I was dying too quickly, had no equipment or items that could help me, and couldn't even retreat out of the level to hunt down more upgrades. Ultimately I had to restart on Normal, and proceeded to blow my way through the rest of the game, S-ranking almost every boss after Jahzracht. I went from occasionally struggling with the game to outright crushing all of my opponents, especially after I began to upgrade my critical hit chance. The key difference?

I could juggle my foes to death before they could do the same to me.

There are almost no invulnerability frames in Valdis Story, and any time your character suffers a hit they go into a stunned animation. Coupling these things together means you'll easily find yourself helplessly bouncing across a spiked floor until you're dead. It also means that any time a boss uses an attack that does 40 damage instead of 10, there's a high chance the attack will hit you multiple times in a row unless you're a safe distance away. This makes the game feel less a tactical fighter and more like an unfair brawler, where your highest priority is to strike first and keep the enemy dazed. It turns fighting multiple low level enemies into a greater pain than the bosses, and traversing the environments a chore while under fire. The combo system can be fun when you get a grip on dodging attacks right in the nick of time, but it doesn't negate the fact that a single combo loop and spell set carried me through the entire game.

And when it's not the juggling that's driving me up a wall, it's a myriad of other issues. There's no indicator over the player character that the dodge cancel has been refreshed, so you always have to keep an eye on the corner of the HUD (plus it pauses at random times so you can't intuitively memorize how long between dashes you have). The method of teleporting throughout the world in this game—the tram—doesn't go to the library headquarters and all the shopkeeps sell different items, which makes remembering which upgrades require what materials and where they're located a mess. The door timers don't change between difficulties which means that they all require tight timing, and there's almost no reason to collect other equipment once you start upgrading one armor set. Focus finishers are more flashy than they are practical, and delegating the double jump to a missable NPC is a travesty.

Lastly, the final boss is a slap in the face. Valdis Story's strength is in its combo system, so guess how you tackle its final foe? By striking orbs back at it for infinitesimal damage. Whereas I could shred most bosses down in under a minute, this fight took over five, which was only made worse by the fact that I was constantly taking damage thanks to the severe cold of the area. Eventually I had to backtrack and pick up a warmth elixir since the fight is essentially impossible to survive without it, something I wouldn't need if I could've just hit the boss. I was outright flabbergasted that the game's best asset—the combat—was cast aside for its biggest and longest fight, and upon completion I promptly uninstalled the title.

At certain points, I really did enjoy Valdis Story. Since the game was basically created by a single person (Kyron Ramsey), I don't feel too comfortable with ranting about it at length—if anything, I'm just greatly disappointed I didn't enjoy it more. Ramsey clearly knows how to design a video game, it's just that this particular title begins to fall apart once you apply a critical lens to its mechanics. I suppose it's a niche game that will resonate strongly with some, but all I felt when I watched my character bounce endlessly between two enemy attacks was sheer frustration.