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**

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: 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 ( 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....