Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Always the Same Blue Sky... - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

The worst part about Always the Same Blue Sky... is that it offers not but a taste of brilliance. There's a lot about it to like: approachability, colorful visuals, fantastic music, expressive writing... which makes it all the more tragic that the entire story wraps up in forty minutes. It's less of a visual novel and more like a visual short story, offering you a momentary glimpse into its cozy island setting before reaching one of its two endings. While I don't inherently dislike experiences that seek to be brief yet impactful, the amount of work and polish on display here practically beg for a longer runtime, especially in regard to the game's ulterior message.

This is not to say that I was disappointed by the experience; what I ultimately feel about the game is somewhat hard to describe. I think Always the Same Blue Sky... is good!—I definitely enjoyed my time with it. But narrative-centric visual novels can be finicky creatures to develop properly, since their emotional payoff depends on your fondness for their characters. There's nothing wrong with Kira (the sole heroine of the story) either, but familiarity forms the strongest of all bonds, and being able to say "hello" and "goodbye" to her in a single sitting doesn't provide the player with the emotional resonance the story seeks. Considering that the tale ends on a bittersweet note makes this issue all the more lamentable.

Always the Same Blue Sky... does try its best however, and the heartfelt effort is commendable on its authenticity alone. Though there are a handful of sections where the dialogue feels a bit forced (usually before a branching path centered around philosophical argument [e.g. "I have firm beliefs and I know what I'm doing is right. It may feel difficult superficially but I have a job to do for the greater good..."), the writing overall is splendid, featuring a wondrous amount of expressive phrases. There's a nostalgic, nearly saccharine feel to the game thanks to the portrait and description of the antique town ("The school is situated on the end of a peninsula and no matter where you are, you can hear the constant lapping of the docile waves on the beach not far below") and the ways in which the player character describes Kira's ethereal beauty ("Although untanned, the colours in her hair gave the impression she had spent a lifetime bathing in the sun. Full of depth, it appeared radiant in the bright light that flooded through the window behind her."). I suspect the writer Grant Wilde is somewhat of a hopeless romantic, as he naturally excels at filling the player's heart with an anxious whimsy that longs for love's sweet release. Granted, it's a naive, star-struck type of teenage love, but that doesn't detract from how soothing the relationship with Kira can be if you're able to transport yourself to those distant summer shoes.

Lastly, I need to congratulate the musician Jon Hayward for writing some absolutely amazing music. While I'm by and large a visually-oriented person, I find that the aspect of visual novels that hooks me the most is actually their soundtrack, as even titles that I deem not particularly good (*coughKanoncough*) can at least tug at my heartstrings with a melancholy tune or two. The short journey you find yourself on in Always the Same Blue Sky... is filled with breathy flutes and gentle marimbas, as evidenced by its phenomenal "Main Theme" or the curiously winding "Alleys and Side Roads". The work Hayward puts in to fit the music so perfectly to the style and setting of the game cannot be understated; where simple themes could've sufficed, Hayward truly brought out the beauty in this fleeting relationship.

My concluding thought on Always the Same Blue Sky... is that it serves as an amazing proof of concept for Wilde. I think it's strong enough to be played and enjoyed on its own, but it undoubtedly feels like a diamond caught in mid-transformation. The twist at the end is something I wish had more care delivered to it (as it's a bit jarring as is) but I really like the tone and outcome of both endings, finding them interesting concepts that would probably flourish better had the story spent more time building up to them. Always the Same Blue Sky... is like a precious sapling that only needed space to sprout into a mighty tale, yet in spite of that detriment there's still plenty to admire about it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Odallus: The Dark Call - Thoughts

I was greatly looking forward to JoyMasher's sophomore effort, Odallus: The Dark Call. Oniken proved that the developers knew what made the classic games of the 8-bit era tick, and though I didn't hop on the Indiegogo campaign when Odallus was announced, I was eager to play it somewhere down the road. Thanks to the recent Humble Bundle I came upon that road sooner rather than later, and man, is Odallus a really great game. It can be a bit tricky at times, wedging the player between a difficulty spike or a confusing progression path, but the game adheres to a philosophy that respects the player and fully expects them to use their arsenal in order to make it to the end of this dark, monster-slaying journey... and after wiping the blood off of your sword, you're likely to think back on it all and conclude (with a grin), "yeah, this was a lot of fun!"

Before I begin, the description on Odallus' steam page lists Ghosts 'n Goblins, Demon's Crest, and Castlevania as direct inspirations, but Odallus actually plays like none of those games. Sure it shares the same kind of oppressive atmosphere (in spite of its versatile color palette), but all three of those games play considerably slower than Odallus does—hell, JoyMasher's game doesn't even have a quirky jump mechanic like those do! Odallus is less about planning your next move and more about executing swift barbarian justice on your foes... kinda like Oniken! In fact, that's probably the best analog to the game: picture Oniken, enlarge the sprites, add in some backtracking and cool powerups, and there ya go!

The backtracking aspect plays a bigger role than the above sentence might imply, but it's important to note that the majority of Odallus is played as consecutive stages from an NES game (with a few branching paths to spice things up). Rarely will you have more than one viable stage to select from, keeping things feeling less Metroidvania-y and more classic, despite the fact that you'll still have to head into earlier levels to pick up goodies or find a secret exit. Thankfully the levels are shorter than you remember upon replay and offer plenty of permanent shortcuts to unlock (like activating a skull-face teleporter), never burdening the player with prolonged periods of boredom. The overarching design is a successful mix of "old meets new", playing like an retro platformer but having enough modern design sensibilities to never become overbearing or groan-inducing.

That said, Odallus can still be a prickly at times, especially once you reach the final boss (which is an astoundingly awesome fight, by the way). It's no easy task to reach the credits but I'd hesitate to call Odallus a difficult game, or at least difficult in the same way its alleged inspirations are. The only thing that conflates its perceived challenge is that the game sticks to a limited lives system despite not really needing to, given how prevalent the shortcuts are. I was also confused for a long time whether or not the unlocking a shortcut would persist after using a continue, but fortunately they do, which I wish the game had indicated to me beforehand somehow. For the most part Odallus is very gentle and rewarding at just the right times (like stumbling upon a full health chest after a section filled with fierce enemies), which is a testament to how tightly designed the game is; as long as you proceed cautiously and keep your side-arms ready, there's no reason you can't reach the final stage in a few hours (good luck beating that level though!)

Besides the limited lives, I suppose I don't have too many qualms with Odallus overall. The controls felt a little sloppy and slidey at times—Oniken suffered the same problem if I recall correctly—but they're easy to get used to by the third level, especially once you eventually obtain the double jump and command more control over your trajectory. I'm a little sad that the sub-weapons don't have an upgrade to enhance their use in the endgame, but whapping guys with just your sword remains fun for the entire duration of the game. The story can be somewhat confusing but the Berserk-inspired theme of the game in conjunction with the revolting Gigeresque pixel art is a super awesome combination that never feels trite or dull. Almost every time I think of something that might make me feel a little lukewarm on the game, there's always some other aspect that I really dig and enjoy.

Odallus is not a gigantic leap beyond their blade-swinging debut, but that's because since their inception JoyMasher has understood what made 8-bit platforming so much fun. Whereas Oniken made me a believer in their work, it was Odallus that cemented them as masters of their craft, doing far more than simply invoking nostalgia with their punchy visuals. It's somewhat hard to recommend the game to anyone that doesn't enjoy the era of gaming that inspired it, but for those of us who yearn for an oldschool challenge aided by some clever design, nifty bosses, and catchy pulse wave tunes, Odallus is right down our alley.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Gone in November - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Gone in November is a severely undercooked game. Developed by Florastamine, its a walking sim that centers around struggling with three separate but related problems: loss of a friend/lover, depression, and leukemia—a powerful combination on paper. The visuals and price tag make it pretty clear that Gone in November an amateur piece of art, but I went into it with an optimistic outlook, especially since I know topics like these are probably really close to the developer's heart. Reaching the end of the tale less than twenty minutes later, I walked away feeling that it was in dire need of some serious feedback during development.

Perhaps the most glaring issue is that the author of the game is (most likely) not a native english speaker, given the multitude of errors in the text and the Vietnamese on some of the billboards outside of the main house. In a game such as this that's highly dependent on its prose to convey emotion and evoke pathos, any broken sentences or irregular dialogue will fail to properly resonate with the player, only serving to distance them from the story. While there are a handful of times that what's written does work ("Time. Please don't take her away." and "I hate you for not being right here, right now."), there's a multitude of examples where I couldn't tell what was happening, who was speaking, or what the author was even trying to communicate to me ("She said they didn't allow her to go out. That if she was released, she would never come back. But that was everything." and "Isn't people were born to pay their debts?")

For the most part I could understand what the game was trying to tell me; Gone in November unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve, yet its dauntless attitude doesn't necessarily amount to anything special while you play it. You'll understand that the player character loved a girl, lost a girl, and feels isolated and cut off from everyone else... but there's really not much to it beyond that. A good chunk of the game is spent reading dialogue about how apathetic and cold the world (read: society) treats its inhabitants, but these generalizations are similar to those you're bound to make in highschool, during the time when you become disillusioned with both yourself and everyone around you ("Look at these people. They are all clueless about you and your problems. Like they care. It's not their business anyway." and "And here you are. Standing between a mess created by people's ignorance and your negativism.") Had I played this over a decade ago perhaps I would've been floored by the experience—likely finding the author to be a kindred spirit—but now it's too easy to recognize the raw, aimless angst that poisons early adulthood, each cynical remark made far from being unique, biting, or poignant.

The one aspect that Gone in November handles pretty well is its trippy visuals, but due to the simplicity of the textures there's not really anything that's worth more than a passing gander. There were a couple of instances that actually surprised me (the cactuses, the car), however the overall experience kinda just wanders around with its ideas until it reaches a screeching halt. As there aren't a lot of strong recurring motifs or optional goodies to find there's almost no reason to replay the game, especially since both of its endings only result in a mere difference of closing audio. I did remain entertained as I was playing through it, but this is far from being a sterling example of how beautiful and enthralling a walking sim can be.

I admire Gone in November's heart—any piece of art that attempts to communicate how utterly consuming depression can be is welcome in my book... it's just unfortunate that I feel it's not worth a recommendation. I mean sure, it's worth a look if you wanna see someone's personal take on the subject, flaws and all, but it essentially offers a perspective that you can stumble upon yourself in a random DeviantArt journal post. It's great that the game is both short and cheap, though I think its brevity conversely contributes to it feeling half-baked in the end. More than anything, I'm interested in seeing what Florastamine takes away from this experience, and if we see another effort from the developer—I want to encourage these kinds of products to keep being made, even if there's some ugly bumps along the way.