Monday, July 30, 2012

Dustforce (PC)

Time Played: 2-3 hours

NOTE: I started this entry like, 2 months ago and never finished it! I apologize for the neglect! I've played a lot of games in the last couple of months that I'd like to write about, so I'm going to try to get them up here. In a way, the delay might end up being a good thing, since it lets my initial impression settle a little. For example, last year I wrote a glowing entry about Catherine - but pretty soon after I realized that most of my excitement was coming from the game being so unusual, not so much because I was actually enjoying it. Also I've found that almost every entry where I said "yes, I WILL keep playing this" I definitely did not. ;)   


What Happened: 
At the risk of pulling out a typical buzz-adjective, Dustforce can best be described as "slick" - it's an incredibly sleek, stylish game. On the surface it's a pretty simple 2D platformer where you run around removing all of the dust and dirt from the world, occasionally encountering critters and objects that have been possessed by the dirt that attack you until you 'purify' them (by whacking them a bunch of times). You play one level at a time, earning grades and unlocking more levels and more worlds as you go (level select is non-linear - you get to choose which levels you want to unlock).

That said, what the game is actually about (at least as I perceive it) is movement, momentum and style. It's that perfect chain in gaming where you keep doing everything right; one movement blends into the next seamlessly, and you move continuously. The only other game I've played with a similar focus is Mirror's Edge, but I feel that this game was more successful (granted, trying to do something like that in 3D is a lot different than doing it in 2D. I think this game also offers something different because you can see the character (again, Mirror's Edge would have had a bigger challenge showing the character), but there's definitely something magical in seeing your character's continuous movement. You are given a letter grade at the end of each level in completion and style - completion being how much of the dust you cleared/creatures you purified, style being (I can only assume) how well your movements flowed. (There's never an actual breakdown of what style means, but that seemed to correlate.)


What I Liked:

Intro Animation! Clearly for an indie team, making a fully animated intro animation is a lot of extra work, and people generally argue that it is best to get the player playing as quick as possible - but in this case I think it was worth the effort for establishing tone. It's very cool, and it makes you feel cool for playing the game. ;)
You can watch it here!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=KZcpK3OU_bA&NR=1

Animation. Since this game is really all about style & momentum, it's vitally important that the characters look awesome when moving, which they do. Animations are fluid and flow together beautifully. Most important, I think, is the effects animation - there are always swipes, which emphasize fluidity and power in attacks. There's a pretty strong camera shake which accompanies a hit, which helps you feel the contact.

Characters. There are 4 playable characters, because apparently the animators didn't have enough to do - they all have a unique sense of personality in their movements, while still feeling consistent. Usually I don't care a lot about this sort of thing, and pick one character and stick to him/her - but I found a certain amount of fun in switching between the characters often to get a different feeling while playing.

Concept. I will always be a fan of non-violence in games, so I'm pretty down with this idea. Clean up the world. Cool. :) (You still beat the possessed things into submission though...)

Music. I wrote this bullet 2 months ago, and I honestly don't remember a lot about the music. I think it just fit the style of the game really well.


What I Didn't Like:

Controls. When I first downloaded this PC title, I tried to play it on the keyboard and I gave up almost immediately. This actually raised a ton of questions for me personally. I wonder if other people have the same problem with this game, or if it's just because I've never been a PC gamer, and I simply don't have the necessary skillset to play this game. I'm especially curious as to whether or not this game was intended for the PC from the start. If I were making a 2D platformer that was all about flow and momentum, I don't think the keyboard would be my instrument of choice. Did the game simply end up on PC because Steam is an actually realistic platform for indie teams and consoles are not? Also, it's possible that the devs always intended for the user to play with the controller on the PC, so it was never an issue in their minds. How many Steam users have controllers that they can plug into the PC? (My XBox controllers are both wireless - I ended up borrowing one from a friend). Once I switched to the controller, the game was great (although I had to manually set up the controls - which again makes me wonder what was intended). I have this gut belief that a game should be playable on a hardware's default setup - if it's on PC, it should be best with a keyboard and mouse. Am I being too idealistic?

Level Select. I don't really remember why this is in the 'didn't like' list. The level select was very open. You start the game in a 'level select' level - you can get to every other level and world through doors (most of which are locked, and you have to unlock). I think I just thought it was a little too directionless. I felt that an additional burden had been placed on me. ;)

Grades! I actually played this game right after I finished reading the book Punished by Rewards, which is about why grades and other incentives generally do more harm than good in terms of motivating people. In this case, I assume that grades are functioning as a gate, to make sure that you've gained the necessary skills to proceed to the next levels - but I still found them pretty demotivating! The grade for "style" was particularly rough, since I would occasionally feel as though I had done extremely well, and get a crappy grade. I'm not really sure what could have been done differently. "Style" seems like a difficult thing to measure - perhaps the system they built just wasn't quite there.


How Do I Feel About Continuing?:
I think this game was a good way to spend a couple of hours - and I definitely think it's worth checking out. In the end, for me, it was too frustrating. I never achieved that level of grace the game was pushing me towards. I felt like I was holding my characters back. ;)


Friday, May 11, 2012

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC)

Time Played: 30min OnLive Demo


What Happened:
I'm definitely not counting this one as a real game journal entry, since I didn't get far enough to get a real grasp of the game - but I learned some things, and I wanted to capture my notes.

To start, I'm a super-huge chicken when it comes to horror. I've always had a talent for scaring the crap out of myself with my own imagination (I had night terrors when I was 5), so it's been a general policy of mine to avoid adding anything new to my repertoire of Terrifying Things that pop into my brain at 3am when I'm alone in the dark. Really, it doesn't make a lot of sense that I even tried to play this game - but I was just so curious! Particularly as someone who is interested in alternatives to combat, and ways that games can explore emotion, I had to at least try to check it out. (I definitely recommend watching Thomas Grip's GDC Europe 2011 talk about the development of Amnesia here: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014889/Evoking-Emotions-and-Achieving-Success)

Luckily, the demo was short enough (and I moved slowly enough) that I didn't see anything particularly damaging. Simply put, Amnesia is a first person survival horror game. You walk through a dilapidated castle, finding messages from your 'former self' who gives you general hints about where to go, and fills in the story a bit. You are avoiding some sort of mysterious monster that you cannot kill. You find things like tinderboxes and oil to light your path - which is important, since your character's sense of reality breaks down when you stand in the dark for too long, or if you see something particularly disturbing. (I don't actually know what happens if you let it run down... the effect generally panicked me into moving as fast as possible towards a light source to calm Daniel down.)  

It's neat because I've been considering some similar techniques for an arty game I'd like to make! The subject matter is much different, but it deals with the idea of nerves. This game is a great reference point for me to learn from.



Notes:
Focal length. There is a constant, slight movement to the camera that's super unsettling. Even if you are standing perfectly still, the focal length is animating just enough to make you feel perpetually slightly off balance. It also makes the castle feel a little more alive.

Camera moves. There are times that the game takes camera control away from you for a moment, as though you're involuntarily jerking your head towards the source of a scary sound. It makes a surprising sound sound much more startling - and is much more like how you would react in real life.

Speed. Similarly, sometimes your speed is also out of your control. I think I mostly just noticed it in the beginning, when you are waking up and are in some sort of stupor. I believe that I've seen this in other games, but I like the idea of unbalancing the player by removing control that they are used to.

Distortion. The more panicked you get, the more the visuals distort. You can see it a little in the image above - particularly on the bookshelves. You're already scared, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see what is happening around you.

Audio. Sound is always a vital part of horror! It's the stuff you can't see that scares you the most. :) I think sound was used effectively - but since I've never played any other horror games, I can't say too much about it.  

My friend, Daniel. Weirdly, I didn't ever think of Daniel as 'myself.' I don't know if it was because of the amount of control that was taken away from me (I hope not, since I would like to play with those ideas!) . I'm hoping that it had more to do with the noise that Daniel made when he started to get scared. I might have been breathing a little faster than normal, but his panting & whimpering made me feel like it was my job to take care of him and lead him to well-lit areas. I don't know how many times I actually said out loud "it's ok, buddy, let's just go over here..." This separation is probably also due to the fact that I built up a lot of walls in order to have the courage to play this game. Perhaps it caused me to draw a line between myself and Daniel that I wouldn't have if I'd been willing to let myself fully experience fear. I will never know!



How Do I Feel About Continuing: 
After googling for some images to stick on the blog, I realized that there is some pretty messed up stuff in this game that I have no intention of ever seeing in context. I went into it not ever intending to play more than the 30min demo, and my plans have not changed. I am simply too much of a wuss. :)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fez (XBLA)

Time Played: ~5-6 hours


What Happened:
Note: I'm still playing through the, I dunno, 'first part' of the game? I don't know anything about the alphabet yet, or any of the note-taking that seems to be required, or why you can get more than 100% completion of the game - I'm still just naively collecting cubes, taking things at face value. :)

For anyone that hasn't heard of Fez somehow, it's a 2D platformer where you have the unique ability to turn your perspective on the world in increments of 90 degrees. This opens up a whole, crazy world of things you can do with spatial relationships. At its simplest, it works in terms of being able to walk around something to find a path. For example, you're generally trying to move upwards in most levels - if I can't simply jump up to the next platform, I can shift my perspective, and now I see that the back of this building has some platforms that I can reach, or maybe some ivy that I can climb on. More complex: doing things like lining up ladders that aren't actually connected, or hopping onto a moving platform that needs to travel on a path, and lining up the completely separate pieces of the path while I'm in motion so that they connect. It feels hard to explain, which I think is a good sign that something interesting is being explored.

The goal of the game (at least at this point) is to collect cubes and cube fragments - I believe because the world is falling apart? You occasionally get to experience this destruction in levels that are being filled up with space tears, but it's really not a big focus. Gomez can die pretty easily, from falling from too high up, or touching a space tear, but you just start again at whatever platform you were last on with minimal delay -- which I really like because it encourages risk-taking and I'll talk about it below. There's no real sense of urgency about the world breaking down, it's much more an experience of quiet exploration than survival.  




What I Liked:
Sound design! Oh man, I'm putting this up first! I, like many people who make games, often make the mistake of not thinking about sound very much through most of the design process - but this game is a wonderful example of what great sound can do for an experience. The soundtrack is great, (you can listen to it and/or buy here: http://disasterpeace.com/album/fez), but more than that there are a number of small touches that make the world feel so satisfying. When you go behind an object because of the camera view, the music muffles and distorts a little bit. There's a woosh that happens when you've dropped from a high ledge and you're approaching the point that your landing will kill you. When you run along the ground in the more industrial areas, it sounds as though you are walking on metal. Sounds couple with the animation in a way that makes the world feel much more physical, which I think is incredibly important in a 2D game with simple graphics, which could easily feel very flat and unreal. The best, best part is the voice of your little Navi companion who guides you through the world. I can't describe it well - it's like this cross-dimensional, otherworldly, adorable yet low key and matter of fact voice that makes a little floating cube drip with character.

Concept. A huge part of the reason this game is so interesting is because it takes a simple concept - experiencing a 3D space in 2D - and just keeps on exploring it. It would have been easy to make a whole game based on the more simple idea that I described above, like "oh, I just keep rotating it until I find a path" and while that's a large part of it, I have been continually surprised by new devices that take advantage of this concept. Parts that require you to physically turn chunks of the level via cranks, platforms that rotate laterally in space rapidly (super disorienting!), ladders and paths that you have to construct by turning your perspective. I think there is a significant depth to the idea, that could not have come without a serious amount of real thought and exploration - maybe even 5 years worth. ;)

World! Sense of Place. Mystery. Ambiguity! I've said it in other journal entries, and I'll bring it up again - one of my favorite things is when I can think about a game I've played and remember it as a place, as opposed to just a series of actions - and this seems to happen most easily when game worlds have a certain sense of mystery. In high school I printed out pictures of temple ruins and stuck them in my sketchbooks so I could stare at them, and my favorite book was Gormenghast - I love it when you get the sense that this great, extravagant thing has been built and has completely outlasted the people that built it. I think Fez has quite a bit of that. Here are all of these weird, elaborate, empty places that totally invite you to use your imagination to think about how they could have gotten that way, or who might have lived here, or what purpose this thing was used for.

Charm. The way Gomez moves (particularly the flop and weight of his body when he latches onto a ledge), the generally friendly & usually bright style of the world, the way your cube companion talks, Gomez's drum kit, the way NPCs address you - there is a sense of playfulness that is friendly and inviting. Couple that with the sense of mystery, and I'm totally, head-over-heels about the overall vibe of this game.  

No death. The fact that you do not lose anything significant by dying makes a huge difference by allowing you to take much bigger risks. I don't need to plan my route ahead, or know that I'll be successful before trying a certain unknown path. I can learn by doing without needing to worry about the consequences. I don't think anything is lost by the exclusion of punishment for failure.

Challenge. At least right now, I feel like "I can beat this game." I have a sense that I can solve these puzzles, and I can find things and I'm not totally out of my depth like when I tried to play Mirror's Edge. It seems to be the appropriate amount of challenge and a good pace for me personally.  




What I Didn't Like:
Long. Personal taste! For all that I love about it, and while I do think it's important that the world is large enough to feel like a 'grand adventure,' I'm starting to feel like it's getting a little long for me. I might be close to the, I dunno, 'ending?' in that I'm close to getting all of the cubes - but from what I understand, there is quite a bit more, and I feel a slight sense of anxiety related to this. Will I actually be able to finish? How many more hours will I be putting into this game?

World Map? I have developed a complicated relationship with the world map! Somewhere around my 2nd session playing the game, I declared via Twitter that I thought the map was the reason behind my dropoff in motivation. On one hand, the map is incredibly helpful because it tells you if you've gotten all that you need to get out of a room. It's also just helpful in terms of helping you organize information. There are a LOT of levels, and if I think I missed a door in that room with the owl, I'd never be able to find it again if there wasn't a world map. On the other hand, I feel like I've just been handed a gigantic checklist of things that I need to do, and omg I'll never finish ever because there are a thousand rooms. I also feel bad when I leave a room without the map turning it gold to tell me I've done everything. There are things I don't currently have the means to solve, which means I'll have to go back there again eventually... which feels tedious.

Slow start? As much as I loved the game during the first session that I played it, it took me a full week to go back and pick it up again, which I think is mysterious, and I've been trying to figure out. I think it largely has to do with the world map, as mentioned above - but I think the other part is that I had an expectation that the rest of the game was going to be more of the same, and I would just be gathering cubes forever. Since I don't feel that way at all now, I'm going to take a leap and guess that the game might have just started a little slowly for me. Maybe there weren't enough of those little surprises in the beginning that I've come to expect now?



How Do I Feel About Continuing?
I suspect that this game would have easily become yet another game that I enjoyed, but never finished (simply because of the length of the game) - but I'm trying a thing right now where I make myself play games for an hour a day (I know, revolutionary!), and so I think I'm going to end up sticking with this one for a while yet. Maybe it will even enter the exclusive pantheon of Games I Have Actually Finished.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Super Crate Box (iOS)

Time Played: ~2hrs

What Happened:
I played this game a couple of months ago, but never got around to writing about it!

Super Crate Box is a simple game - you play as a little guy and try to collect crates, which appear at random points in the (single screen) level after the previous crate has been picked up. Enemies appear from the top of the level, a la Super Mario Bros, so you either have to avoid them, or kill them with the various weapons you pick up from the crates. The order of enemies is also randomized, although the longer you play, the greater the diversity of enemies. Each time you get a crate, you get a new, random weapon.

Crate collection gives you 2 different numbers: per life, and cumulative. At least in the first two levels, you need to collect 10 crates in a single life to unlock the next level (I'm going to make the assumption it continues on this way, but I only ever unlocked level 2). Also, all of the crates you collect while playing, regardless of your number of lives builds up as you play, and is used to unlock new weapons (and maybe other things? I only noticed weapons).



What I Liked:
Retro Aesthetic. I think the old school inspired visuals and music were great, and fit really nicely with the concept of a simple, yet brutally difficult game. The music in level one in particular helped to keep the energy high, and I think played a big role in my continuing to play for so long. 

Concept. Totally simple, super smart idea: your weapon changes each time. It works because there is a huge variety of weapons that often completely change the way you need to play - I would say the biggest part of the game is rapidly adjusting your actions to fit the weapon. I think the most fun part of the game was when I was still unlocking new weapons, since it was always surprising to see what each new one would do. Every weapon has its own advantages and disadvantages - the flamethrower covers a wide area, but isn't as strong as other guns, the disc gun and mines kill in one hit... but also hurt. I think the katana is probably really strong, but I've never managed to hit anyone with it without dying, since you need to get in so close.  



What I Didn't Like:
Controls. Sometimes it seems like the buttons aren't quite responsive - I feel like at least 30% of the time that I die, it has more to do with the controls than me. Also in level 2, the buttons actually block a bit of the level. I found myself making incorrect assumptions about if the crate was on the left or right bottom side of the screen since I was in a hurry and couldn't see.

Randomization. Obviously, randomization is part of what makes this game work. You never know what weapon you're going to get, or what enemies are going to come out, or where a crate will be. But it also makes for a lot of lives where you're just really really lucky and do well, and lives where everything just went wrong and there was pretty much no way you could have made it. Maybe it's because I never got to a point that I was really good at the game - but I felt like I had very little control over how well I was actually performing. It was more about if conditions had been favorable or not. For some reason that didn't stop me from playing though... so maybe I'm overstating it after the fact. I must have felt like I had some level of control if I was so willing to keep playing. Or maybe I just felt like I did at the time? :)

Some AI. I'm pretty sure some of the AI are like, impossible to beat. Maybe it's because I'm bad at games... but man, some of those guys. It was like "oh, he showed up. I'm dead."



How Do I Feel About Continuing?:
This game is definitely a 'time waster' - so while I found the experience enjoyable (...and incredibly frustrating) and I may pick it up again every once in awhile, I think for the most part my time with it is over. It was definitely worth what I paid for it! :)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mirror's Edge (360)

Time Played: ~30min


What Happened: 
Honestly, I could only bear to play Mirror's Edge for about 30min before I stopped - half in tears for how disappointed and frustrated I felt (I know, it's suuuper melodramatic). It didn't help that I was sick at the time, and not feeling particularly inclined to challenge myself - but this game was not at all what I was expected it to be. Look at the art! I naively expected to experience this wonderful sense of freedom! Think about parkour - the whole point is to see the world with the sense that you can get anywhere if you can just figure out how. Instead, the game opens to an incredibly tedious tutorial that asks you to remember sooo many buttons (most of which I immediately forgot), which contrasts terribly with the sleek, clean aesthetic. Then of course comes the combat section of the tutorial, which is mostly just silly. When I finally started playing, only a few moments into trying to get the hang of it, the annoyed radio commentary of my dispatcher began, telling me that I was "taking too long" - oh, and now I was being shot at.

Maybe the problem is my own? It's no secret that I simply don't possess the same first-person game literacy as most people that play games often - but I was really shocked at how much of a difference it made in this particular game. I needed to be quickly making decisions about how to get where I needed to go (or really, there was no time limit at first - just someone yelling at me), and suddenly I really felt how limiting first person actually feels. I think it was Andy Schatz during the Takedown Tribunal panel at PAX last weekend that said that first person felt "like looking through a porthole" and that's really what I was noticing for the first time in this game (particularly since most first person games make me motion sick, so I don't have a lot of experience playing them). I felt like I just couldn't see anything.

Anyway, I stopped playing somewhere after the second confrontation with armed guards, where I couldn't simply run away from them. :)


What I Liked:
The aesthetic. Really this is the reason this game has been on my 'to play' list for so long. It just looks really awesome, and inviting - like "you will feel free and wonderful in this environment."

Parkour. Since I'm someone that worked as an animator for almost 5 years, it shouldn't be too surprising to hear that I'm generally pretty fascinated by what the human body is capable of. I think dance is fascinating, I could watch breakdancing clips on youtube for hours, and I have definitely watched my fair share of parkour videos. I think it's amazing and inspiring to see what people can do - and realize that if I put in the time and effort, maybe I could do those amazing things too. I was excited to see a game that tried to do something with that - but because the game is first person anyway, you completely lose all sense of excitement about what your character is physically doing, which is really disappointing. That being said, it's still on my positive list that they were at least also inspired by something interesting like parkour... maybe it shouldn't be on my positive list. :)

Non-violence? The way people talk about this game, they make it sound totally revolutionary that you can get an achievement for never using a weapon.... I like the idea of non-violence, and I guess you can say that this games succeeds at being less violent than a lot of other games.... But I was surprised at how fast I was thrust into situations where the optimal path was punching a guy in the face. 

I guess it's sort of cool that Faith is a girl... but also I never see her and I don't really care. It's not like she's this well-written, strong character (maybe she develops more of a personality later, and I just didn't get that far?)


What I Didn't Like:
I think I covered it all already. It's hard to see, there are too many buttons to remember, you feel pressured all of the time (despite the beautiful, open aesthetic), you get shot at before you get a chance to learn anything, you're still encouraged to beat people up, etc... 

How Do I Feel About Continuing:
I don't think I will, thanks.





Mirror's Edge iOS
I also checked out the iOS game. It's not bad, and considerably less frustrating than the main game, but overall it's nothing special and got boring pretty quick. Your primary control is swiping, which is handled pretty well in most cases and works well. It's very similar to most endless runners (even though it's not endless) - you start Faith running, and then jump over and slide under obstacles, as well as knocking out guards and running laterally across some billboards. It's an ok way to spend a little bit of time. I put about 30min into it and haven't picked it up since.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Limbo (PC - OnLive)

Time Played: 30min (OnLive Demo)



What Happened:
Hahaha, I don't even know WHAT just happened. I've known about Limbo for the last year or so, and was always sort of vaguely on my "I'll play this at some point" list. Today I went to OnLive to see if I could play any of the IGF games still, and I saw that I could play this for free and thought it was as good a time as any. So yeah, Limbo is clearly known for its macabre, creepy imagery - so I was expecting something creepy. In fact, I had put it off largely because I wasn't really sure what to expect and I thought it might even be a little scary (note: I'm the biggest wuss on the planet).

So, here I am in this quiet, creepy world that exists just to kill me. At the very beginning, I was trying really hard not to die, since I didn't know what would happen and it seemed scary - but then I walked into my first bear trap (I was trying to move it and I'm very clumsy with a keyboard). The death definitely made me jump (because it's startling when a bear trap slams shut on you), but I also didn't care because I found out there is no real consequence to death in Limbo.

Soon, eveything about Limbo just seemed really weird. I was just watching brutal death after brutal death. It wasn't scary or tense, it was just sort of gross. Is that what this game is about? I managed to die every single time there was an obstacle because I'm so terrible at games (also in my defense, I think most of the deaths are supposed to be unavoidable the first time?), but at some point because I wasn't feeling particularly emotionally engaged, I started to find my own incompetence pretty amusing. I was already moving in this direction (amusement) when OnLive dramatically altered my experience and I got my first spectator (in the end I had 3). Now people could see how often I was dying, which was pretty embarrassing - and consequently made the experience a lot funnier. (I even got a cheer for my 3rd or 4th death on the same obstacle).

In short, what the heck is this game? Is it supposed to feel serious, tense, or hilarious? Or just.. gross? Also I learned that OnLive's spectator system can dramatically alter how a player experiences a game.  


What I Liked: 

Puzzles. Some of the puzzles were neat, and required a bit of thinking. I wish I hadn't seen someone already solve the first spider - it might have taken me longer to figure it out. I particularly liked it when I was required to climb up into the trees, since it was a change of pace.

Art. Yes, everyone talks about this game for the art, and it's because it's cool. :) Now as for the mood...



What I Didn't Like: 

Build Up. I think the build up at the very start of the game seemed a little too slow. The first puzzle could have happened a bit sooner. The main actions are familiar to all platformers, so I didn't really need a lot of time to get accustomed to them, or figure out what I could do.

Deaths. The animations themselves were so over the top that they just seemed comical. Again, perhaps this was the intention - and if it was, I'm not really into that sort of thing. 

Mood? As I said above, the mood was unclear to me. The art says one thing to me: this is serious and creepy - but I didn't feel any of that while I was playing (aside for maybe the first 1-2min). For me, it all comes down to the fact that your death means nothing (and the death animations being a little goofy). I just couldn't care about dying. Oh yeah, also there's a whole section where you hop around after being bound up by a spider... how is that anything besides hilarious? 

How Do I Feel About Continuing?: 
I think I'm done, thanks. :) It didn't really feel like anything 'special' to me - just a puzzle platformer with neat art. Maybe if I could see it later in the game when the puzzles are more challenging, I might be interested... but the weird mood makes me inclined to think that the direction on this game was a little wishy washy, and that it really wouldn't be worth my money or time to see what else was in store. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Rhythm Heaven Fever (Wii)

Time Played: 20min




What Happened:


I love the original Rhythm Heaven on DS so I was pretty excited when I found out they were making a new one for the Wii. In particular, my friends were passing around a link to "The Wrestler" which was hilarious so I couldn't wait to see what other cool mini games were in the new version. (Note: there are a surprising number of fan versions of the wrestler on YouTube.)

The Wii version is pretty much the same as the DS version as far as I can tell so far. You start the game and get a brief introduction by some characters who give you a rhythm test (maybe later I'm supposed to take it again to see if I've improved?) and then you go straight to a menu which leads to the mini games. You unlock games one at a time in columns - four unique games, and then a "remix" which is a sequence made up of clips of each of the 4 games. The mini games themselves are, as implied by the title, all rhythm based. Each takes you through a (skippable) tutorial, and then you tap your way through a 2-3 min "song." There are four possible outcomes for each game: it will either tell you to retry, give you an embarrassing "ok..." (with sweat drops and everything), give you a medal, or give you a "perfect." You always at least need to get an ok before unlocking the next game.


What I Liked:

Simple Yet Challenging. I know, right? It even says that on the box... It's true though. I struggle quite a bit in trying to figure out exactly why I find these games fun, but I think it comes down to the fact that they're super simple to understand, but I still take quite a bit of practice to get a perfect. It's never "too easy" or "too hard," at least for me. (Also they are hilarious, see next.)

Humor & Charm. I love crazy over the top stuff (example: Beyblade). These mini games are ridiculous in the best possible way. Kick soccer balls away to not ruin the weasels date? Catch tiny peas on a fork which are being flicked at you at a high velocity from so far away you can't even see the person? Be a monkey that lives inside of a wrist watch and tells the time by high-fiving other monkeys? I <3 this sort of stuff.

The Little Things. I think a lot of lessons can be learned from this game in terms of great, clear, fun ways to give positive and negative feedback to the player. Positive feedback is wonderful, and negative feedback, while still making you feel your miss, is usually hilarious - so I'm usually laughing instead of getting frustrated. For example, in "Monkey Tambourine," (side note, out of the 8 games so far, there have been monkeys in 3 of them) there is a small monkey who plays a rhythm and you repeat it. If you're slightly off, he grits his teeth as though he's totally embarrassed for you. If you miss completely, a frog lands on his head for an empty beat. If you succeed, his eyes get wide, and a spray of flowers appears above his head. Goofy, simple things that make this game feel good.



What I Didn't Like:

Platform! So clearly it's a Nintendo game, but I can't think of any particular reason besides that that this is only on the Wii. (Yes, yes, I know how it works - I just mean conceptually.) For the majority of the game you only press the "A" button, and in a couple of games it's a combination of A and B. It's super simple and the graphics are all 2D, so I can't imagine it would be expensive to port. In particular, an iOS version could work really well.

Wiimote. Since it does only require A and B button pressing and it is on the Wii, I did notice that "A" really isn't that great for fast tapping. In the one game I've played so far the required speed, I found that I actually needed to turn the Wiimote sideways to succeed. I needed that pressure on the bottom of the controller that you can't really get from holding a Wiimote the standard way. It's a big, deep, chunky button, so I had some issues there.

Hand-Holding? It couldn't very well be a modern Japanese game without a bit of over-explanation, right? For the most part, the constant explanation hasn't bothered me. In general, things are cutely written so I don't mind - but every once In awhile, they 'reassure' me just a little too much, which rubs me the wrong way.



How Do I Feel About Continuing?:

I'm totally there. I fully intend to play through to see the rest of the mini-games. That's the fun in this game: seeing what wacky ideas they've come up with, so clearly I have to play to the end.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ico (PS3)


Time Played: 80min
What Happened:

So I really didn't play very many games before getting into the games industry - but Shadow of the Colossus was one that I played through during my 3 month span of joblessness before VV. Overall, I found the experience incredibly frustrating: I felt terrible for killing creatures that weren't doing anything other than minding their own business, it was hard to figure out how to kill them anyway, swimming in that game is the worst thing ever (falling off of the flying colossus into the water for the 8th time was the first time I ever said the "F-word" in front of my mom), and I know from experience that 'bringing someone back from the dead' is never a good goal. 

But! I stuck with it - because everyone told me to, and I wanted to know what was going to happen. Also, the world was really interesting. I remember it in much the same way that I remember Ocarina of Time, as a series of places - and when I found out about Ico, I thought I might be able to experience another interesting place. Oh yeah also I kept hearing everyone talk about how revolutionary it was, etc. :) I'd had it in mind to give it a try for the last 5 years or so, but finally it fell into my lap with the HD re-release. Suddenly I had no excuse not to try it!

I played it for 80min or so a couple of weeks ago (I've been slow about writing again...). In case anyone doesn't know for some reason (maybe you're games-ignorant like me), in Ico, you play as a young boy who has been locked in a castle (you find out at some point it's because he has horns) - you break out of your chains after some mysterious earth-rumbling and find this girl who doesn't speak your language, who is constantly under threat of being pulled into the ground by shadow-creatures. If she gets pulled in, it's game over. You need to figure out how to escape while keeping her at your side. There's stuff she can't do that you can: climbing ropes, fighting shadow creatures; and stuff she can do that you can't: opening magic doors. You can call her to you, grab her hand to guide her (<--- important bit), and pull her up onto ledges. 

 

What I Liked: 

Place: Like Shadow of the Colossus (which I played first), I really liked the world itself. In general, I've always loved that sense of 'forgotten places' - gigantic, grandiose, crumbling structures that were clearly intended for greatness. Couple that with the sheer size and complexity of this deserted structure, and your imagination can't help but run wild.  

Animation: Something else that was carried over to SOC later, every animation oozes character. Thinking about it, maybe it's only remarkable because these characters are 'unusual' leads for games, and it's rare to have a protagonist trudge around like a little boy... but whichever way, I really enjoy it. I think a good deal of emotion comes across in their gestures.

Show, Don't Tell. Along the same line of thought, this is a game that succeeds in conveying your major goals and basic controls without any real explanation or dialogue. I guess maybe there's some... but I don't really recall much of it from when I played 2 weeks ago. You get an idea of who you are, what you need to do, and you learn how to do it through trial and error. Your goals are simple and clear because you don't really have any other choices. You need to go forward because there is no where else to go. You need to keep Yorda safe, because it's game over without her (although I guess conceptually, I don't really get 'why' - but it's not important). 

Hand-Holding. Not in the way most game-writing means it! :) Yes, as every person who has ever talked about this game will tell you, something pretty magical happens when you grab Yorda's hand for the first time. In animation, they talk about the idea that if you can have characters physically interact with each other, they will instantly become more real to the viewer. To some extent, it's the idea of grounding them in physical reality; they have give when they touch something else, they are made of a solid material. But more than that, I think it's because physical interaction between 2 people is always emotionally charged - we don't generally touch without it meaning something in terms of relationships (showing trust, love, anger, etc).

 

What I Didn't Like: 

Some little things. In the 80min that I played, I definitely experienced a lot of little frustrations when trying to learn some of the smaller details of gameplay. There is some information that I simply wasn't picking up through trial and error.. and given my general lack of patience, they might have stopped me from playing had I not already been predisposed to give this game a fighting chance. For example, I knew that I could pull Yorda onto a ledge from when the bridge collapsed - but in the instance where I needed to do it to progress, the distance was so great I never thought to try it. The first time Yorda uses her magic to open a door, I tried to lead her towards it to do some magic, but nothing happened - so I spent the next 10min trying alternate solutions until consulting a walkthrough (my reaction: I TRIED THAT.) In short, it was just a lot of small details that weren't 'perfect,' so I got stuck a bunch.  


How Do I Feel About Continuing?: 

I intend to go back and play some more, but I'm not feeling particularly compelled to finish the game. I want to see more of the world, but I don't expect very much of an explanation about what's going on, or why Yorda's getting sucked into black holes, or why I was locked up for having horns. Maybe those things will get explained, but based on previous experiences with Japanese media, I assume they won't be. I guess so far my I've felt just a little too much frustration, as opposed to a sense of wonder or sense of satisfaction for figuring things out... but as I said before, I'm predisposed to give this game a little more of a fighting chance, so I will really try to give it more time.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Beat Sneak Bandit (iOS)

Time Played: 80min

What Happened:

I saw the teaser trailer for this game awhile back, and it caught my interest! I love music/rhythm games, and the art and presentation for this game are really fantastic. This game is $2.99 - but since it's up for an IGF, you can generally assume it's worth it. ...Also since when was $3 expensive for a cool game?! 

Gameplay is really fun! You can only move the bandit by tapping in time to the music. Tapping moves him forward only (so a true "single button input" game), although you do turn around when you contact a wall or guard. There are objects to avoid, such as searchlights, and guards will catch you if you are in their line of sight, and later a vacuum that moves towards you when you are on their level. Everything in the level moves to the beat, guards walking, horizontal and vertical doors opening and closing, searchlights turning on and off, etc. 

To beat a level, you only have to collect the clock with the flag on it, but you can also try to collect the 3 additional clocks that are in each level (as soon as I got the hang of the game, I found myself repeating every level until I had collected them all). If you collect the one with the flag, the level ends, so save it for last! The whole game is about figuring out what order to do things in, which for me meant tons of trial and error (which is cool since the game doesn't punish you in any way for making mistakes - you just start the level over). 

I played through the whole first section of levels, a couple of the bonus levels, and started the second section recently.


What I Liked: 

Gameplay! This game is very simple and quick to learn, but each level is still interesting and fun. Really it's all about the level design - each level still felt fresh to me, even though they are all constructed from a small number of pieces. 

Concept! The backstory is cute (all of the clocks have been stolen), you have a best friend that's a frog, and both your friend and the main baddie call you up with tips when you're in the level. Because everything is moving to the beat, and the house was constructed by a clock-obsessed man, the fact that you can only move to the beat makes sense for the world. 

Music! Since you require the beat to move, it's very helpful that the music is something that you want to listen to. Although it's very simple, it is upbeat and engaging. Also, since the music correlates with what's happening in the level, no 2 levels sound the same. 

Presentation! Everything is just presented so nicely. The title screen is simple, but catches your interest. The level select screen is visually cool, and even the Game Center icon has been stylized to fit with the game. It is a cohesive whole, and no detail has been overlooked.  

Art! You can see it for yourself! :) The art is fun, and different from mainstream game visuals. There's a surprising amount of detail in the art and animation of the backgrounds, which is great to look at, but also helps you play by reinforcing the beat. 


What I Didn't Like:

Sometimes I accidentally hit the button for playing the level again instead of moving to the next level. The 'next' button should be bigger and more to the right. 

Oh, also, when you get called on the phone, there's a sort of disc-scratch sound effect that plays while the dialogue appears. This can get a little annoying - it's just a bit too fast, so it's a little grating.

That's all! 2 tiny complaints. :) 

How Do I Feel About Continuing?: 

It's really fun and I'll probably pick it back up again. That being said, I feel like I've pretty much gotten the gist of what is has to offer, so when faced with the choice of playing it more, or trying something new, I've usually been playing something new. I totally feel as though I've gotten the value for my money, and this is a really cool game. Probably if I play a string of bad games, I will come back to this one to cheer me back up. :) 

Spy Mouse (iOS)

Time Played: 20min

What Happened:

I actually started this writeup back on Feb 15, so hopefully I can remember everything I was going to say. I didn't play it for very long, but I have my initial impressions to report. I picked up Spy Mouse since I've seen the name floating around for awhile, and it seems to have been doing very well in the app store. At the moment I can't remember if it was free or 99 cents... 

In the game, you draw a path on screen for the mouse to follow. Your goal is simple, collect the cheese and get to the exit, while staying out of the line of sight of cats. As I recall, the cats move in short bursts, so even if you are spotted, it's sometimes possible to outrun them anyway. I made it to the first boss fight (some images are below), where you lead a Robotnik-cat to an oil slick. He also moves in short bursts, so it's mostly a game of timing when you enter/exit mouse holes so that you don't get caught, but also so that he still sees you and continues charging. 



What I Liked:

Presentation. Overall there are a lot of little nice touches that makes this a well put-together game. The title screen looks like some love was put into it, the graphics are fun and good-looking, and the title screen/intro is very cute and adds personality. 

Concept. The idea of a casual stealth game is cool, and cats and mice are something that everyone can relate to. It's also fun that the cats seem to be chasing you out of love (or maybe it's just because I picked this up around Valentine's Day??). They found a good way to give this style of gameplay mass appeal. 

Boss Level. Right before you face Robotnik-cat, you find his 'hideout' (I guess?) by following a cat down a sewer tunnel. You collect things along the way, keeping out of her sight. It's very easy, but I thought this idea was really funny, and I enjoyed it - even though it was so easy, it sort of made me feel like a badass. ;) 


What I Didn't Like:


Boring. I know I only played 20min, and I keep pointing out the mass appeal of this game, so it totally makes sense to me that this game was so easy... but in the end I definitely found it boring, and I'm not particularly interested in giving it a 2nd chance. I think the only point where I really felt like I was having fun was when I was following that cat down the hallway - other than that, I just wasn't feeling it.


How Do I Feel About Continuing:

No thanks. Like I said, despite the visual polish and cute concepts in this game, I just never really felt the fun in any of it. It felt like I was simply completing a task, without being particularly challenged or interested. 


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dear Esther (PC)

Time Played: 70min

**Don't read unless you've played the game! It's currently available on Steam for $9.99**
http://dear-esther.com/


What Happened: 
I'm not even totally sure if it makes sense to do a write up on "Dear Esther" since it's really not a 'game.' It was originally released as a Source Engine mod in 2008, and then made into it's own thing over the course of the last 2 years. It came out yesterday on Steam. It's probably best to think of it as an experience centered around mood and emotion - you wander around a deserted island, exploring and thinking about your life, the island, and your lost love Esther. It's absolutely beautiful. It took me about 70min to complete.


What I Liked:
Everything. I agree with the views expressed in this article: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/02/15/what-i-alternatively-think-dear-esther/ I wasn't really interested in 'figuring it out' as I wandered around experiencing things. Of course I was curious about things, but I feel like I understood pretty early on that I was never going to receive a complete explanation of everything that was going on. Some of the narrative really touched me, some of it gave me real information, and some of it just sort of served as further mood building, and didn't give me anything specific. 

For me, the appeal of "Dear Esther" is in that "wow" moment that comes when you round a corner or enter into a new space and you're met by a spectacularly stunning visual, or even just a really beautiful quiet space. It's hard not to write about without getting too flowery, but it's a game that really transports you into the space. It's really pretty amazing. :)  


What I Didn't Like:  
Losing control at the end? This is sort of the one thing that I've seen come up in reviews so far. The final action of the game is performed by the computer - but I don't think it needs to be, and it would be much more poignant if you did it yourself. I think anyone that plays this understands what needs to happen - although I guess I can understand taking this choice away from the player to guarantee the desired outcome. I dunno, it's tricky. :) I will trust that the designers did it this way for a reason, since I think everything else was handled wonderfully. 


How Do I Feel About Continuing?:
Irrelevant! I finished "Dear Esther" and that's the end of it. It's a one time experience - I don't really think it's made for going back in and experiencing it over and over. ;) The debate about the cost vs. playtime seems pretty silly to me - I think $10 is a great price for an experience like this. I don't feel cheated because it was over so fast, or because I won't be playing it again. It was the perfect length, and a tremendous value for the price. 

I think this is one of those experiments that's happening right outside of the space of mainstream games that will hopefully help push games into a new place. I felt things when I played "Dear Esther" - I'd like to have more experiences like this. 

Oh, also it's proving to be quite profitable as well (http://indie-fund.com/2012/02/dear-esther-has-reached-profitability-it-took-5-hours-30-minutes/) which will help people take bigger risks on this sort of experiment in the future. 

Trine (PC)

Time Played: 15min


What Happened: 
I really only just barely started Trine, so I'll try not to pass too much judgement on it, particularly since I think I'll be getting back to it, but I thought I'd capture my initial impressions. 

Gameplay is sort of a Lost Vikings style of gameplay (or I guess people are now saying "Trine" style - was that because of this game, or is that what it's actually called?). You have 3 characters that you can switch between by hitting numbers 1-3. The Wizard can create blocks when you draw a square with the left mouse button, and lift and move things around with the right mouse button. The thief can shoot arrows with LMB, and use a grappling hook with RMB. Finally, the warrior can hit things with his sword with LMB and use his shield to protect himself with RMB. You can switch between them at any time. All 3 have individual health bars, but I haven't seen any huge fallout from someone dying - they seem to just come right back after a few minutes of using a different character. 

Basically, you are progressing your characters from the left side of the screen to the right side. You are met with several challenges and puzzles in terms of figuring out how to use your characters to open doors, or finding the right way to progress forward. 


What I Liked: 
Core Concept. I really think this style of gameplay is neat - using multiple characters that have exclusive abilities. We tried to do something like this for one of our week long game jams - but really figuring out a concept like this is hard! 

Start. The opening of the game was very engaging. Each character go this or her own 5min section of gameplay, leading up to where they were all joined together by the Trine. It's the perfect amount of time to get a good sense of what each character can do, and the narration & voice overs give you a great sense of the characters' personalities, which are very fun. 

Narration. The narration is engaging and fun, and does a lot to set a light-hearted mood. This game could have gone several directions in terms of mood - but the narration keeps it on the fun side as opposed to being a game that takes itself too seriously. (Which maybe makes you a little more forgiving of things like really high jump heights, or places where the physics don't behave completely as you'd expect.) 

Visuals. Overall, it's a very pretty game! I am interested in seeing more of the world, in addition to facing puzzles and challenges. 


What I Didn't Like: 
Small physics issues. Again, I didn't play enough to pass too much judgement. I did notice some very small physics issues - as in, places where physics didn't behave exactly as I would expect. That being said, it wasn't so bad that I felt frustrated or wanted to stop playing. 


How Do I Feel About Continuing?:
I definitely want to keep playing. It's a cool game concept and I want to see more of where they went with it! I should probably pick up Trine 2 also. :) 

Diggin' Dogs (iOS)

Time Played: 20min

What Happened: 
20 min is a pretty short amount of time to review a game, but it's an iOS game, so maybe it's ok? I picked up a ton of games for my iPod Touch yesterday when I was home sick. This one caught my eye because it was recently release (02/09/12) - and honestly, just look at that adorable icon! I was looking to buy, and I saw something about dogs being intrepid explorers, and the graphics seemed cute and it was $.99 so I picked it up!


Gameplay is as follows: you use your finger to 'dig up the dirt' (or rather, make it disappear), and guide your 3 dogs away from obstacles (hornets, killer mushrooms), and towards gold coins, bones and treasure chests. As the game progresses, you see different hazards, as well as hazards that can kill other hazards (bear traps can kill hornets, for example). You also start to pick up hats - such as a magnet hat that attracts gold, and a mushroom hat that turns killer mushrooms into coins. You can tilt the screen to move things around to an extent (example, you can sort of shake coins down an incline towards your dogs). You can also tap & slide on your dogs to make them jump - but you don't really have very much control over them.





What I Liked:
Dogs. Well they're just cute. They're basically big heads and little tiny bodies, and they make noise all the time so that you never forget that they're dogs. It doesn't take much to try and get me to feel invested in trying to keep adorable puppies alive.

Digging. It's sort of satisfying to just knock out dirt. I know the same thing is in "Where's My Water" - it's just sort of simple and fun to do.

Aesthetics. The design of everything is very appealing. The dogs are cute, the levels are cute. I only got a little confused a couple of times because I thought the ghost dog pirates were good, as opposed to bad... They just didn't look like bad guys to me.






What I Didn't Like:
Death. Oh man! It's awful when a cute little dog dies! I wish they'd like, done something to make it feel a little less brutal. The couple of times I got stuck and had dogs die a couple of times in a row, I almost wanted to quit because I felt as though my negligence was responsible for causing a terrible thing, so I should just stop.

Graphics. By this I mean that even though the art was cute, the images didn't seem to have been created in the size they were going to be displayed in. The dogs felt a bit compressed and muddied, which surprised me.

Controls? I felt like I never totally understood exactly how much control I had tilting things, or making my dogs jump. I felt like I was always struggling when I tried to guide their movement.

Boring. I'm having a hard time really putting my finger on it, but I definitely felt that something was lacking. I played it for 15min, and I really don't have any desire to go back into it. It just wasn't ever really fun. 



How Do I Feel About Continuing?:

Meh. As I said, it just wasn't ever exactly fun. I don't think I'll really come back to it.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)


Time Played: 2 hours

What Happened:


I played this when it came out in November, I've just been slow about writing it up,  and also for some reason I haven't gotten back to it since the first night I played it... But! Overall I had good a positive impression of this game and I still plan on going back to it. :) I played through the whole beginning section, and I was just about to head off on my actual adventure (I had my sword and my green outfit and everything).


What I Liked:


Art. Not a lot to say on this - the art was just very appealing overall. It's that whole graphics vs. aesthetics conversation. The Wii isn't graphically powerful, so they went with a style that worked beautifully with the capability that they actually had. Smart!

Characters. I'm pretty sure I said the same thing when I wrote about Twilight Princess - overall I felt that every character had a clear sense of personality, which made them memorable. I think the way they handled 'talking' also played into this very well. Seems like an awesome exercise for an audio designer - "give us a sense of who this character is in a short sound that he or she might make" :) I also love what they did in terms of making Zelda an actual character in this game with a real personality - which I've seen mentioned in a couple of articles on the game (although I guess I feel like she had some sense of character in Ocarina as well. ;) )

Swordplay. This seems to be the main gameplay selling point for this entry to the series - they wanted to use the Wiimote to make something as close to 1 to 1 action as possible. The first time I did a diagonal swipe in the training area, I was totally satisfied! I think it takes some amount of learning, and when I had trouble I was never 100% sure if it was my fault or the controllers, but overall I thought it was very cool.

World. When I think about Ocarina, I think about experiencing a sense of place. I'm not far enough into this game yet to really have that impression as strongly, but looking back on it from a few months after playing it, I feel like I still have a good sense of where things were in the world. It was also, like Kokori Forest, the sort of place I'd like to go live. :) Very appealing design.


What I Didn't Like:

Flying. I had a LOT of difficulty learning how to fly, and I got super frustrated really fast. This is my most prominent memory of playing the game back in Nov. I just didn't understand exactly what I needed to do to keep my bird from losing energy and flapping his way down into the clouds (which felt super lame!) It took me longer to understand than I expected, and I definitely lost my patience because things weren't going the way I expected them to. I think in the end, it came down to me just not understanding the tutorial.


Possessed Cat. Man! Why did that happen! I hated beating up that cat! I don't care if it was trying to kill me - it felt really really awful to have to fight it. I would like some sort of justification as to why I had to do that. It was messed up!


How Do I Feel About Continuing?:
Like I said, I haven't actually played this since November... so I guess it didn't really grab me the way that I thought it would. I think the main issue is that I didn't use that initial boost of interest to muscle my way through the 'hard part' of actually learning what to do. I stopped right before Link is going to (presumably) leave the floating city and head to the world below, and I'm anticipating quite a bit of learning when I get there - which is what has caused me to feel like I'm 'not in the mood' on the occasions where I've had time to pick it up again.

That being said, I'm still PLANNING on picking it up again. I'm just being super slow....