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.

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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"

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