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.

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