Saturday, December 8, 2012

#10: Dear Esther - Walking Simulator 2012

Dear Esther is essentially a British walking simulator. The primary gameplay mechanic is walking. Excited yet? The fun is only beginning! Wait until I get to the advanced mechanics, such as zooming in your vision slightly. 

[I'm pretty sure I picked this up for $2.50 during a sale at some point, but the truth is that I have no idea.]

I do not claim ownership of this image, but I'm using it as the box art because the "A deserted island, a lost man, memories of a fatal crash, a book written by a dying explorer" bit basically tells you everything you need to know about the "plot".
If it wasn't clear to you already, I'm being somewhat harsh on Dear Esther. That is only because this "game" is essentially a trap to anyone who buys it uninformed. In reality, there is no game.

Dear Esther is not a game. But it is a relatively successful experiment in interactive art.

It is lovingly rendered in detail in the Source engine, and has environments that vary from average to jaw-dropping gorgeous. Because all you can really do in the game is walk, look around, and listen, enjoying the environment is essential to finding any value in your purchase. Even the path you actually take is largely linear, with few ways to go the wrong direction. If you can't stop and enjoy the scenery, there is nothing left here for you.

Man, I wonder if I need to end up at the blinking aerial tower. They only mentioned it, like, right away.
Throughout the game, your character narrates snippets of letters, descriptions of life experiences, and reflections on the past in a British accent (I couldn't shake the feeling that I was playing as the protagonist from Amnesia: The Dark Descent). Generally these have something to do with your location. These can sometimes be cryptic or unhelpful, particularly toward the beginning, but they begin to come together to form a more cohesive story by the end. There are essentially four major plot items as noted by the first image: a deserted island, a lost man (you), memories of a fatal crash, and a book written by a dying explorer (that your character appears to be citing sometimes). There's more depth to it than that, more shades and hues of flavor and suggestion behind the story, but that's up to your individual interpretation. I switched out of being an English Literature major for a reason; I'm not going to be doing any deep symbolic postmodern feminist deconstructionist analysis here for you, thank you very much.

This guy speaks in thick prose because he's British, and all British people speak in thick prose.

Here's the honest truth: I didn't enjoy Dear Esther. Normally, I really dig indie games like this. You know, ones that push the envelope and try something drastically different from the norm. I find myself attracted to that kind of innovation instead of the regurgitated mechanics we tend to find in mainstream titles. But Dear Esther had no mechanic whatsoever. I've seen beautiful environments in games before, and I've held down W to move forward for an hour in games before. Without any way to meaningfully interact with the world around me besides walking through it at a painfully slow and plodding pace (it is irritatingly slow, trust me), I felt like some kind of empty floating camera, devoid of heft or humanity.

Dear Esther also committed one of the cardinal sins of salesmanship: failure to inform the buyer of what exactly they were buying. It's not a game in any traditional sense of the word, yet its only hope of making a profit centered on marketing Dear Esther to gamers. The mismatch left a sour taste in my mouth.

So what happens when you put me in a game where the only aspect appealing to me is the gorgeous environment, offer me a hotkey to take a screenshot within Steam, and provide no gameplay to speak of?

I play Pokemon Snap.

What follows is a galley of photographs I took while playing. The cave pictures are particularly gorgeous. The truth is that if they had not done such a phenomenal job with the caves, I would have been much more dissatisfied with the game. However, these stalactite-laden zones justified my time playing the game, which was only a little over an hour.

The caves are gorgeous. There's no doubt about it.

You'll find things painted on walls throughout the game.

You require more minerals. . .

This image was a lot more impressive in motion. Those smears of green are waterfalls, not moss.

Just thought this was cool.

So the big question is, did I consider Dear Esther worth my money and time, even if I didn't enjoy it very much?

Yes. It was a novel experience. Even if there was no game, the eye candy within the caves made it worth the hour or so I spent playing through it. While I would have probably been annoyed if I knew that I paid the full $10 for it, I know that in reality I probably paid about $2.49 for it, so I can accept that.

Dear Esther therefore gets the nod from me, but only on the basis of the lowered price. Perhaps there are people out there to whom this is worth $10, but this "game" is just not my thing.

As a reminder: future entries will not be coming on a weekly basis, but on a basis of "whenever I find the time  between my class workload", thus the change from "Week #" to "Entry #". Aside from that, nothing is different, so don't fret.

I have several partially-completed games at the moment, so once I've completed one and feel there's anything to write, I'll put up another entry. See you next time!

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#9: Ticket to Ride Online - Cheap Train Fare

I hope you're ready for some steamy train action, because this time I'll be talking about Ticket to Ride. I picked it up as part of an indie game bundle on Steam during the recent summer sale.

Typically, Ticket to Ride is played as a board game. It's a relatively well known board game to boot, particularly among those who have advanced beyond the occasional game of Settlers of Catan and hunger for even more European-style board game fare. It's no Monopoly or Risk though as far as infamy goes, so if you live in the USA and haven't heard of Ticket to Ride before, I can't really blame you.

If I saw that portly guy with the mutton chops and the purple tux at any point in history, I'd consider my day a success. You have to have serious #trainswag to pull that off.
In two sentences, the game consists of collecting quantities of different color "train cards" so that you can place a train linking two cities on a track of the corresponding color and length with the ultimate goal of completing your "tickets". Tickets are cards that task you with connecting two cities and give bonus points if completed, but subtract the same number of points from your final score if you fail to connect those two cities.

The people throughout the menus (such as the fellow on the left here) are all terribly voice acted, so much so that the first thing I did was go into options and look for a way to shut them up. Aside from that, the interface is basic but effective at getting you into the game quickly.

You can play the game online or against AI, and at least for someone of my competence the AI seems adequately difficult (which is to say, I played two games solo and went 50/50). For online, there's matchmaking or custom game lobbies for 2-5 players, so whatever floats your boat is available to you.

Initially the game can appear overwhelming, but it actually takes all of two or three minutes to learn. Unsurprisingly, the claim "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master!" features prominently on their Steam store page.
Let's take the above screencap of one of my games online. This is basically the entire game, so I'll go clockwise around the screen, starting in the top left, describing what we see. 

We've got a back/leave the game button, mute sound button (which you'll want to do, because the background music is beyond terrible), and a help button that can succinctly explain anything you need to know to play. After using it to check how exactly the game ends and the rules for the two-lane tracks, I pretty much figured out the rest of the game on my first try.

Anyway, next, we've got the little profiles for your opponents. You can see how many train pieces they have left, how many cards are in their hand up to a point (after 8 it just says 8+, which is a big chunk of the time), and how many tickets they've picked so far (I'll address that in a moment).

On the right side, we've got the the different cards you can draw on your turn. You may use your turn to draw 2 train cards total, each from either the top of the deck or one of the five that have been flipped face up in play. If you choose a wild card from in play, it uses both of your draws. When you choose one of the revealed ones, it will be replaced by the top card of the deck immediately. If you draw from the top of the deck, your card is essentially random, but you have a chance of getting a wild card for the price of only one card draw. 

Alternatively, you can draw three tickets from the ticket deck and choose to keep a minimum of one of them. You will probably not do this too many times per game if at all; as I mentioned earlier, each incomplete ticket deducts points from your final score.

The bottom right shows how many tickets you've kept so far, and how many you've completed. The bottom-middle is your hand, showing the various colors and quantities of train cards you currently have. While, for example, four yellow train cards could be used to place a train route that is yellow and containing four or fewer train spaces, it is also important to note that any color train cards can be used to place a route that is grey colored. These are opportunities to screw your opponents over if their intended goal is too obvious by clogging their train routes with your own trains and forcing them to build around.

Bottom left shows how many cards are in your hand and how many train pieces you have left, as well as a large and pointless picture of "you". 

Finally, going back up the left side, we've got a chat log (I almost never saw this used at any time, I guess the online board game crowd is a silent lot) and a chart explaining how many points you earn for placing routes of different sizes. While you don't get many points for placing routes that consist of 1, 2, or 3 train pieces, you get a veritable jackpot for 6 pieces and above.

I am the green kid this time. I didn't end up winning this game, but it was close. My opponents clogged several of my planned routes and left me with a meandering mess of a train system that missed several tickets and made me lose tons of points.
The game ends when any player reaches 2 to 0 remaining train game pieces. All players then have a chance to play one more turn. This can result in a viable strategy being "end the game as soon as possible" because the person who ends the game will logically have the most trains on the board and therefore a point advantage. It also makes sense to just place trains as soon as possible to end the game if you don't think you have enough time to complete another ticket, in order to deprive other players of the chance to earn more points. Plus, if you can put them in a long chain, the person who controls the longest continuous train route gets a bonus 10 points!

The results screen for that previous screenshot's game. It was close primarily because my opponents screwed with eachother's plans as much as my own, but red pulled ahead for the win with the longest train route bonus at the end.

Some observations from my 12-to-15 games of Ticket to Ride:

  • Grabbing lots of tickets in an attempt to tie together a bunch of east coast cities seems high-risk, low reward. Simply grabbing lots of train cards and building the long routes on the west coast seems to generate the same amount of points before even adding in ticket bonuses, yet that plan also seems safer.
  • Always grab from the top of the train deck unless you urgently need a specific color and it's available in play at that moment. By grabbing from the top of the deck, you can accumulate wild cards to fill in any holes in your train color assortment anyway.
  • Don't underestimate how badly you can screw someone over by simply placing a 2 or 3 train piece route in the way of their goal. You might waste a turn and a few trains, but they will waste several turns and several more trains than you did trying to go around it.
  • Sometimes, you just get lucky or unlucky. It's a board game. There's a strong element of luck on purpose. The bright side is that the game does a fairly good job of not letting you feel like your fate is being controlled by anything random.
  • As someone who has played a decent number of board games, playing it online with automated shuffling, hand sorting, illuminated route goals, and other small conveniences probably cuts the playtime of this game in half, if not more. I rarely take longer than 15-20 minutes to complete a game of Ticket to Ride online, with no setup or putting it back away into the box.
The bad news of course is that in order to play with friends, they will need to fork over $10 each to buy it at full price. It doesn't stop there; in order to play any map aside from the USA, you'll need to fork over a few more bucks. There are four additional maps listed on the Steam Store, with a cumulative cost of $15. 

There are numerous pros and cons to investing in a board game's online version instead of the physical version, but I think I will save the subject of video game adaptations of board games and card games for another blog entry entirely. Hopefully you'll see it go up soon.

As always, thank you for reading, and may your trains always run on time without a fascist dictator taking control of your country.

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

#8: Crysis - Hands Like Gravity Guns

Please keep your bodily appendages inside the blog while in motion, because this week's game is Crysis, and there are going to be a lot of screenshots this time.

Here's some box art, you moochers.

Extra big picture for extra big cool.
A quick rundown of what I knew about Crysis when I hit the launch button:

1. Crysis has a reputation for being one of the most gorgeous games available if your computer is powerful enough to run it on max settings (mine is).

2. You have a power-suit thing vaguely reminiscent of Master Chief (oh, so this game has regenerating shields and HP. Check.)

3. There's some kind of jungle. (It turned out that there was, in fact, some kind of jungle.)

So the first thing I do, of course, is max out my settings. Then I start a new game. 

My nano-suited super marine special ops guy code named Nomad parachutes onto an island with a few fellow nano-suit troopers to recover some archaeologists being held hostage by those darn evil Koreans. Of course, on the way down something that looks an awful lot like an alien goofs up your descent, and you land on a beach. 

And then this happens.

But. . . But he's probably a protected species! 
Why would I want to pick up a tortoise?

Go! Be free! Fly with your fellow tortoises!
Oh, because this is a wildlife hurling simulator. Got it.

I follow the map a bit more and encounter some bad guys, who I shoot with my gun in a radical divergence from FPS norms. The game has introduced the basic concept of my suit having "modes" at this point, those modes being Armor, Speed, Strength, and Stealth. Strength in particular lets you jump higher, punch harder, throw harder, and hold weapons steadier (lame).

Knowing this, I save a special kind of death for the last enemy Korean.

Time for a crabs epidemic.
They don't need to be half-life headcrabs to be just as deadly. At least when thrown at high speeds.
I call this one "The Deadliest Catch".
So here's where I need to come clean: a large chunk of my screenshots are just me presenting new and exciting ways to kill people by throwing things at them. I did not realize the extent to which I was doing this until I looked through my files after the fact.

What does that mean to you, the reader? It means you're about to get a photo album of all of the ridiculous thrown projectiles that I murdered Koreans with.



Look at the shell-shocked expression on that chicken's face. He's seen some seriously messed up stuff. And he's about to see more.

That blurry frog-shaped object is a frog. Sadly, the frog was not fatal to anyone I threw it at, and resulted in several deaths while trying.

I'm actually not positive what this is, but I think it's a locker. And I'm pretty sure that I killed a few guys around the corner with it.

To my surprise, I could carry and throw an entire dumpster as long as I tilted the screen upward so that I wasn't dragging it along the ground.

I went deep sea diving for more exotic items to throw at people. Sadly, I could not pick up fish or brain coral.

They seem tired.

Alright, enough of that. I suppose I owe some serious analysis and explanation of the "actual game" of Crysis.

Crysis tries really hard to be realistic when you aren't using your suit powers to launch fatal crab-missiles at people. This is actually one of the coolest things about Crysis. You actually feel like a normal human in a world full of other normal humans, except you have a super cool nano-suit that lets you occasionally break the rules. Where you shoot people matters, objects seem to have the proper amount of "heft", the physics on driving vehicles makes sense and your tires can be blown out, and considering we're in a world with nano-suits the guns are surprisingly similar to modern ones aside from a few late-game additions to the arsenal. 

While the game is futuristic, you still do the pretty standard "aim down the sights with the submachine gun in cover" style stuff. They even got the focus right. The guys who made this graphics engine are pretty talented.

Adding to this realism is the fact that the game rarely funnels you down the "proper route" to defeating a group of enemies. The environments are some of the most plausibly laid out that I've seen yet in a first person shooter. There's tons of open space, you can approach from a multitude of directions with a multitude of methods in most cases (with varying effectiveness), and if you so choose you can even avoid the enemies entirely with many of the objectives. I will say, however, that you will probably have to do it by juking from point to point at breakneck speed with Speed mode, because the Stealth/Cloaking mode is pretty weak and never seemed to fool enemies when I used it even with cover.

As an aside, I don't think Stealth mode counts as "working really well" just because it's dark.

Essentially, you're a futuristic ninja marine who fights off hordes of Koreans. And later, aliens. I don't consider that a spoiler because it should be obvious to anyone within the first couple minutes of the game.

Don't worry, it's really not much like Halo at all.

This realism occasionally has its downsides, however. There were several times where I could have done without it, such as the time I shot down a helicopter and it landed on the building I was in resulting in my death, or when I was driving a Humvee, hit a big bump pretty fast, and dealt about 30% damage to my own vehicle and blew up. Crysis also does a remarkably poor job of communicating your cause of death, which depending on your perspective is either cool or terrible. I know at one spot I walked into mines a few times before realizing the reason I kept spontaneously exploding and dying, and there are many spots throughout the game that I will never actually know why I died.

The first half of Crysis plays almost like an entry in the Call of Duty series, whereas the second half takes a decidedly sci-fi turn with the aforementioned aliens. I have to admit that the first half was a bit bland for my tastes, but it got much more interesting over time. Driving a tank and a helicopter can help in that department as well.

Game design lesson learned: tanks are fun.
Overall, I enjoyed Crysis precisely because it was so realistic in so many ways, yet it tried to make you feel like a superhuman in the same setting. It takes you through a decent amount of different environments (though you spend too much time in the jungle at the start in my opinion), and has a relatively satisfying plot arc. Of course, it had a cliffhanger non-ending that practically screamed "we were already starting the sequel when we made this". That's fine though, because I own Crysis: Warhead and Crysis 2 as well. I'll get to them.


Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#7: The Binding of Isaac - Does Anyone Noah Good Bible Joke?

Bust out your bibles and prepare to revel in politically incorrect humor, because this time the game is The Binding of Isaac.

It's made by the same team that brought you Super Meat Boy, so I had high expectations coming in considering I enjoyed that game. They were tempered, of course, by the roughly $2 price tag when I bought it during a sale. It even included the DLC. This is budget indie gaming at its best.

You initially play as Isaac, whose mother was commanded by God to sacrifice him as proof of her obedience or what have you.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with major biblical tales of the Old Testament, the term "The Binding of Isaac" is a reference to an actual story in the Bible. When put in the context of this game, it obviously appears a bit more insane than usual. There's certainly some lighthearted jabs at the Bible throughout the game, from items you can pick up (Book of Revelations? Demon horns and goat hooves? A power-up called Whore of Babylon? A halo?) to the characters you can unlock (Cain, Judas, Samson, Eve, Magdalene).

He ends up "escaping" to the basement, where numerous horrors await him. The makers of this game are pretty twisted, but it adds to the charm.

This game mixes aspects of twin stick shooters and classic RPG "rogue-likes" together into a sacrilegiously-delicious slurry of satirical upgrade-collecting goodness. I believe I defined "twin stick shooter" in a past entry, so I will assume you have been a loyal and avid reader of my blog and are up to date on my entries. Skipping the history lesson, a "rogue-like" is a game with randomly generated levels, items, enemies, and so forth. Dying typically carries a stiff penalty, such as deletion of the character (see: Diablo's hardcore mode). These factors combine to create a harrowing experience that builds ever-mounting tension as you grow more invested in your increasingly powerful character. All of the above is true for The Binding of Isaac.

The twin-stick shooter part comes in with the combat system. While rogue-likes are often turn-based affairs (or even entirely text-based), in this case combat uses a simplified system of launching projectiles in the four cardinal directions at enemies to deal damage.

Those projectiles happen to be Isaac's never ending stream of tears.

Let's be honest, I think we've all looked at a shambling headless body before and thought to ourselves, "Man, if I could just bombard that thing with my own tears, that'd be a terrific defense mechanism. Sigh."

Players pick up various power-ups and permanent items throughout the game that improve Isaac's combat ability. The suspense created by anticipation of your next upgrade combined with the danger in every new room is the backbone of the game, and it keeps you coming back for multiple playthroughs when the gameplay would have otherwise long gone stale.

Unlike some rogue-likes, where historically the random items element can sometimes be too big of a determining factor for success, The Binding of Isaac relies on the player to actually move the character around to aim at and dodge the enemies. Getting dealt a "bad hand" of power-ups isn't completely unmanageable if you are skilled. However, possibly to prevent it from rewarding skill too much instead of emphasizing the RPG elements, the tears veer off to the left and right on a regular basis and do not travel a standardized distance. You have been warned.

Personally, it reminded me a lot of the Bomberman series. You run around in a world build entirely at right angles gathering boosts to your attack range/attack speed/movement speed/etc., and the fear of imminent death increases tension. Binding of Isaac does it better because of the absolutely massive variety of potential power-ups (I believe over 100). They even come with cosmetic changes to your character! Observing these unique changes every new round is part of the fun.

Bottom left. At one point I had a fetus floating around behind me, a fetus growing on my face (yes really), a wad of meat circling me, demon horns and skin, blonde hair, a miner's hat, a nun's habit, and a ghostly torso all at once. 

So you run around with your increasingly powered up character exploring a dungeon made entirely of rectangular rooms with one to four doors clearing out enemies and gathering coins, bombs, and keys (which do exactly what you'd expect them to do) on your way to the floor's final boss. Then you go to the next floor. And repeat.

While the game does stop you at the end of the 5th floor the first time, the game boosts the difficulty and adds more floors as you continually prove your mettle in subsequent playthroughs.

I beat through the 5th floor on my fourth attempt via some phenomenal luck in power pickups. My attacks looked something like this:

Giant red laser, anyone?
The furthest I've gotten since then is halfway through the 7th floor. The game picks up in difficulty a bit after your first victory, so don't get too proud of yourself after your initial Mom-smiting.

One thing I'd like to comment on is the trademark cute-yet-horrifying art. Something about it is endearing to me while simultaneously being repulsive.

I will give this 9.5 out of 10 "ewwwww"s.
They took the thick-outlined curve-heavy style usually reserved for cutesy things that I associate with Japan and applied it to fleshy monsters, maggots, putrescent corpses on the verge of bursting, and just about everything else unpleasant under the sun. The mismatch is bizarre, but without a doubt entertaining to see in action.

If there's one complaint I have about this game, it's the total denial of any need to provide players with information about what items do. If a power-up provides you with one of the basic stat changes (attack power, range, tear travel speed, movement speed, tears) then it will notify you of this in the bottom right of the screen. However, if the power-up does something unique in any way, you have to figure out what that is yourself.

Not all power-ups are as obvious as "more crying = faster tear launching".

This can be extremely difficult with the passive trinket item bonuses, since sometimes they are obtuse and seem unrelated to the item in question; I don't think that I would guess that a tick reduces bosses' HP by 15% and heals me for 1 heart when I enter a boss room. In fact, I don't think I'd figure out the first part of that on my own no matter how many times I had a tick.

While this sounds like a minor gripe, I'm clearly not alone on this one. I played it for a few hours while in a Skype call with several other people who were playing it, and the conversation basically consisted of "What does this item do?" and various cross-checks with the Binding of Isaac wiki. For some people, I have no doubt that part of the fun is deducing what the items do. For me (and clearly many others), not knowing what an item does even after using it can be frustrating when determining how to best prepare for the rooms ahead.

I don't want to sound like I dislike the game. Keeping the Binding of Isaac wiki page open while I play isn't that big of a hassle, and you do learn the various items over time.

Overall, I think that depending on what kinds of games you like it can be surprisingly addictive, especially after you're lucky enough to get your first bonkers arrangement of power-ups and plow through the dungeon rooms. You will spend many rounds attempting to achieve that nirvana again, and that's the best that any game that deletes your character upon death could wish for.

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

#6: Journey - A Detour

This week's game is Journey, a downloadable title for the PS3.

"But wait a minute", you might say. "That game isn't on Steam! It's a PSN exclusive!" And you'd be correct. So it looks like you'll be getting a detour from your regularly scheduled Steam games in the form of Journey.

Ahahaha. Travel puns. 

The thing is, Journey intrigued me from the moment I laid eyes on this art right here:

I wasn't going to wait to play it any longer. So I forked over the full price $14.99 for it on the Playstation Network on my PS3 and played through it in one sitting (the game is only a few hours long).

I don't think there's too much I can say about this game without actually ruining some of the experience for others. I would feel dirty if I knew I reduced another player's enjoyment of such a wonderful experiment in gaming.

So I'm going to tread very carefully here and cover some of the reasons this game is awesome and hopefully spoil as little as possible.

Journey tries as hard as it can to let you forget you're playing a game. There is no user interface. There's just you, the traveler in the reddened-copper colored cloak, on a journey through a world that boggles my mind with how gorgeously rendered it is. I am a sucker for cel-shading, and while I'm not sure if this game is technically cel-shaded, it doesn't matter because it still won me over immediately and only got better from there. If you're not a fan of deserts, don't worry. You visit several different (and equally extreme) locales, but none of them feel like video game tropes in any way. A good thing.

Welcome to 10 minutes into the game. This isn't even in my top 10 coolest parts of the game, honestly.
This, however, is probably one of my favorite parts of any game ever made. Only more gorgeous in motion.

The primary game play mechanic (in the sense that you need it to get through the game) is gaining "charge" for your ability to fly gradually upward / float. You gain it by charging up and emitting a kind of pulse that will gather it from any nearby objects that have a certain kind of tapestry pattern on them. The amount of oomph you have stored up is shown by how much of your scarf/cloak is illuminated. Sound weird? It's actually excellent. It creates some really amazing sequences . . . At one point, you soar around with some flying living tapestries as they share their charge with you. Incredible stuff like this happens all the time.

Few things are as satisfying and freeing as the surreal flying sequences in Journey.

During your journey, you will occasionally run into another traveler. You have no means of direct communication, yet somehow that only seems to strengthen the bond. There's some strange automatic desire to travel with them. . . because otherwise, you are utterly alone. And besides, with a bit of teamwork, you can travel faster and further together than alone.

They are there, traveling with you toward the same goal. You'll find yourself strangely saddened if you ever lose track of your partner. Somehow, you build a wordless connection together with this other player.
It is fitting that in the end, this is a game about the journey, not the destination. Where you're going isn't really that important. What is important is where you go on your way there, and who is by your side . . . I'm tempted to say this is a heavy-handed metaphor for life, but it's really too wonderful of an experience to use a description with such a negative connotation. It blurs the line between art and game.

If you play games so that you can beat games, don't bother playing Journey. This game isn't made for you.

If you play games so that you can have novel experiences that put you in memorable situations, so that you can find yourself transported hours into the future carrying the spark of your journey with you when you're done . . . Then you should play Journey.

Happy travels, everyone. I'll see you soon with a return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

#5: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light - You Got Your Twin Stick Shooter In My Tomb Raider!

I believe I picked up Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light during one of the major Steam sales (Summer Sale or Christmas Sale) for $3.74, but I can't be positive. The base price is $14.99, so that sounds about right.

That's some pretty cool box art even if you have no idea who the guy behind Lara is.

I began the game with zero prior knowledge and no idea of what to expect.

Okay, well, not entirely true. When I was much, much younger, I remember playing a training level for a Tomb Raider game on PS1. If it tells you anything, I do not recall finishing the training level. I do recall having a great deal of difficulty with the concept of character movement in water, and watching my brother struggle to get past a spike trap puzzle. The game seemed like a snore fest.

This is Tomb Raider 1 for the PS1, don't worry. It can be easy to forget how far graphics have come until you go back and look at "classics" sometimes.

I'll cut young me some slack because that was probably one of my first games with three axis of movement. My early gaming years were defined by a Super Nintendo, after all.

Since Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (a title in desperate need of an acronym) was so distant from the original Tomb Raider in time and development, I expected something different and hopefully better now that game developers have had time to figure out how to make decent 3D games. What I did not expect, however, was a complete game genre shift.

The game controls like a twin-stick shooter from an isometric perspective. For those of you at home who don't know what that means: you control your character's movement in any direction with the left control stick, and you determine what direction they fire their weapon with the right control stick. Thus, twin-stick shooter. Examples include Geometry Wars, Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, Beat Hazard, and roughly half of all Indie games ever made. Just offer an indie developer a place to live and some sandwiches and they'll probably make a new one for you in two weeks.

The isometric perspective simply means the camera is tilted downward somewhat from an overhead perspective, giving depth to your surroundings while still giving you a view of everything. I only mention this because twin stick shooters tend to be directly overhead, not isometric.

So basically, I spent a few minutes wondering when the camera would pan back down to behind Lara's shoulder somewhere, since that's the type of game I thought I was playing.

Me: "Man, did the camera glitch and not zoom in to 3rd person perspective? What the heck. Do I need to restart the game?"

The game itself is basically a well-paced series of fights with enemies that appear out of thin air and simple co-op puzzles. Lara has a spear given to her by the Guardian of Light, Totec. While it's pretty mediocre as a weapon, up to three spears at a time will stick in a wall and allow Lara to jump on them. You'll end up using this trick a lot, so don't forget it. She can also lay a bomb and then detonate it remotely as well as having a grappling hook that can latch onto oddly specific surfaces. Between these three devices and the ability to push things, you have most of the puzzles in the game. Surprisingly, they stay fresh even toward the end.

One strange thing about LCGL is that dodge rolling is actually faster than running at all times. I'm guessing that, because gamers have been dodge rolling in games insisting that "It's faster than running!" since the beginning of time, they decided to just go with it and make it actually true. Who knows.

Up until this point in my description, I would have considered LCGL to be a fun game worthy of $3.74, but not much else. It's the addition of your partner in crime, Totec, that makes it memorable.

2000 year old tribal ripped guy who ends up brandishing chain guns, flamethrowers, and bombs. Sounds good to me.

Remember, this game is co-op. I didn't realize it until after Totec appeared at the very beginning of the game, then promptly handed me his spear and disappeared from relevance. Then I remembered there were two people on the box art, I checked the multiplayer menu, and it went from there. So I played the first stage single-player, then I started over and played through the entire game on co-op with a friend of mine.

I want to emphasize how much better this game is when played with a friend. In co-op mode, Totec maintains possession of his spear, and also has a shield that is entirely unique to him that can be used to block frontal attacks indefinitely. Lara, on the other hand, is the only one with a grappling hook.

Here's where it gets pretty awesome in my opinion: You can grapple hook to Totec and he can hold the line for you, and if you have a surface aside from Totec to shoot your grappling hook to then Totec can walk on  the grappling hook line like the anachronistic circus performer he is. This actually comes into play fairly often during the puzzles, which seem to change based on whether you are in single player or co-op (at least based off of my experience with the first area).

You can see here that Lara shot her grappling hook to the golden ring so that Totec could walk across the line and step on the circular switch. Then Lara is free to take advantage of the platform to her bottom left that will raise as a result. There's a lot of this "You can't progress unless your partner gets the puzzle" stuff a la Portal 2, so get on voice chat.

There are also numerous Indiana Jones style sequences in the game. From what I've understand, Lara Croft has always kind of been the video game equivalent of a female Indiana Jones anyway, so it is to be expected. For example:
Randomly igniting tiles! Tiles that are inexplicably hovering until you walk on them, at which point they fall after a second! Tried and true ways to build tension and sizzle gamers in lava.

Pictured here: us using teamwork to basically trivialize this "endless hail of arrows" puzzle. Instead of pushing the ball in front of us to block them, Totec raises his shield and advances while Lara creeps along behind him admiring his well-formed tush. 

The end of an epic "You're being chased by a rather large fish" level. You jump over rubble, dodge flaming arrows, the usual.

The game's villain is essentially a Disney villain. You'll never catch me I am the evil and world will be mine cliche junk. It's okay, it's not a story game anyway. It's a game about solving cool puzzles with a friend in a well-rendered world and holding your right joystick toward the bad guys and the left joystick away from them.

It's worth the cheap price tag. If it goes on sale again, pick it up with a friend and give it a go together.

In conclusion, here's a picture of a weird grappling hook bug we encountered (to their credit, the only bug we found):

Lara: "Wow Totec, do you know how grappling hooks work"
Totec: "No, I mean look at my score"

Thanks for reading! Comment, subscribe, and come back soon.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

#3: Blocks That Matter and Blueberry Garden - Indie-pendence Day

It's week number three, which means that I've got to choose another game to talk about.

The problem is that I've played several new games in the last week, but completed none of them. So I'm going to choose the two indie games and bundle them together.

I'm normally the type to see a game through to the end before switching. However, I've heard it said more than once by "real game reviewers" that if a game isn't fun within the first few hours, then it's not a fun game. The idea behind it is that a game shouldn't make you do anything that feels like work first in order to have fun. I personally agree with the stance, and not just because it is convenient for me to do so at this particular time.

So first up, we've got Blocks That Matter. I think I got this as part of a Humble Indie Bundle at some point (by the way, is currently running their fifth bundle, and by far their best one yet. Pay what you want, it goes to charity, get a bunch of good games. Be cool like me and do it).

The basic premise is that you're a little robot called a "tetrobot" that looks like a box with a drill for a face. This is a very functional face to have in a game about drilling into blocks and repositioning them around the level, so I guess this robot lucked out.

The gameplay consists of ramming your face into blocks with various properties around the level. When you destroy a block, you keep it to re-use later. You can only place blocks in groups of four, so basically any of the Tetris shapes.

If you screw up, it's all-too-possible to become stuck and required to start the level over. This is the main problem I had with Blocks That Matter: I like puzzles, but I do not like being forced to repeat content in any game.

A simple "Undo" button for placing blocks, or a "rewind" button, would have been far more interesting and less frustrating for when you inevitably place your blocks incorrectly.

Think about it: in real life, if you're doing a jigsaw puzzle and try to fit a piece in that is simply not the correct shape, your jigsaw puzzle does not force you to start over. You will not be locked out from using that piece later in the correct location after you realize your mistake. There is no requirement that you disassemble your entire puzzle and start at step 1 again.

Ow, my grammar.

A simple press of a button opens up a grid overlay to place your reclaimed blocks on the stage (in touching groups of four, of course). You can delete horizontal rows of 8 or more, which is what I'm planning on doing here.

I thought that actually playing the game was fun and relatively rewarding, but I would rather not spend large chunks of my free time running through the same hoops in a level to return to the tricky part.

The obvious solution to my problem and what most people in the gaming community would probably suggest is to "stop sucking". Unfortunately, if a puzzle game were easy enough that the player never got stuck, then it wouldn't really have any purpose to begin with, now would it? Not a puzzling concept.

Moving on to Blueberry Garden . . .

If this image piques your curiosity, I'd look into this game. If you gagged a little bit when you saw the art style, then you should probably not look into this game.

I'm kind of at a loss for words for how to describe Blueberry Garden. It pushes the boundaries of what a game actually is, and what kind of experiences you can create for the player.

It's surreal, in a good way.

But what really struck me is that it's unbelievably relaxing.

Here's how it goes: you start a new game. You're a strange white bird-human-coat hybrid, with the ability to start gliding left or right despite your apparent lack of wings. You quickly realize you can pick up objects, such as fruit, and eat them.

You eventually find random giant real-life objects in the environment (strangely reminiscent of Pikmin), and by standing near them, the screen vibrates a bit and then teleports you and the item back to your door / home base. These items automatically stack on top of eachother, giving you higher and higher vantage points from which to glide around the world.

Over time, you figure out that the various fruits have properties when eaten, such as letting you breathe underwater, or shifting the terrain around. You can bring them back to your "base" and they will automatically become trees that generate more of that fruit.

That die (singular of dice, for those who were unaware) is an example of an object that you stack. As far as this colored-pencil art goes, at first I was a bit off-put, but it grew on me very quickly. It has a coloring-book kind of charm.

Throughout this, wonderfully relaxing piano music plays.

What is truly peculiar about this game is that you are given no instructions and no explanation, which creates a genuine desire to explore and find answers. By the time you figure out what exactly you need to do and why, you forgot that you were even looking for an objective. You might be even more surprised when you realize you were enjoying a game that had no goal aside from eating fruit and stacking random objects. It actually turns out that it is not an easy game to win, and I do not know what happens if you do.

I really enjoyed this game, but I can't put my finger exactly on why. I suppose it gives you a sense of childish wonder that many games never seem to achieve. It's the kind of experience that can't really be found anywhere else, and if you are open to trying a game that could be described as "experimental" then this is a good place to start.

Here is a one minute youtube video that can show what I've struggled to describe (including that piano).

And now, I'm going to plug the Humble Bundle V again real quick: Bastion alone is worth the "beat the average price"; when you throw in incredible titles like Amnesia and Super Meat Boy, you'd be silly not to splurge.

That's it for this week. I'll be back again next Wednesday (hopefully) with another entry.