Thursday, 27 August 2015

Limbo - Retrospective Review

Platform: Various
Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Microsoft Studios/Playdead

Limbo received overwhelming critical praise upon its initial release back in 2010, being lauded for its minimalist approach to the platforming genre. Its high difficulty curve and physics-based puzzles garnered it plenty of awards as a quirky indie darling and marked a return to the style of older cinematic platforming games of the mid to late '90s, such as Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Heart of Darkness.

It’s a shame that the game is a complete disappointment, then.

Ok, so perhaps I should explain my position a little more. Limbo is a game built on smoke and mirrors; it sets up a unique, film noir atmosphere and a creeping unsettling sense of foreboding, and then ruins it all with clunky platforming and very little sense of direction.

The opening section of Limbo is actually fairly effective. Playing as some nameless boy, you wander through an ominous-looking forest, avoid a giant carnivorous spider and attempt not to get shot at by some other kids. The lack of information and context is initially interesting and exciting, the game playing out like a gloomy fairy tale.

There’s some stand out moments too. Evading the aforementioned spider makes for an exciting set piece, and traversing a lake by climbing on the corpses of drowned children is particularly grim, but fits with the twisted, morbid world that’s been created. 

Sadly…it goes nowhere. The mysterious setting is never fully explored, and Playdead, the game’s developers, give up having the world make sense. Before long, your character ends up thrust in a giant factory with anti-gravity switches and thousands of giant buzzing saws. There’s the impression that the developers had a few key ideas that they wanted to explore and then couldn’t think how to stitch them all together into a cohesive whole.

The way the game uses difficulty is worth discussing too, because it’s a flawed, silly approach to creating challenge. Apparently, Playdead called their gameplay “trial and death”, which is a not so clever way of disguising the fact that your game is built entirely on tedious trial and error. Criticise a game for clunky difficulty though and you’ll get called a “filthy casual” or shouted at to “get good” alongside various other disparaging remarks. There’s an unspoken assumption here; “hard game = good game”.

I find many players’ understanding of difficulty in games to be one of the most frustrating conversations to be had. No doubt you’ll always find that guy on a forum or YouTube video, lamenting the days when games used to be harder, tougher and faster. They made you work for your victories, which made them all that more satisfying. He’ll talk as if he’s in his forties and will throw out a few NES titles to show he knows his stuff. He may also mumble about Dark Souls since hardcore people play Dark Souls, and he’ll say various patronising remarks about “the youth of today”. In reality, this guy will probably be about twelve.

Let’s make one thing clear, being difficult does not necessarily make something good. There’s a puzzle in Limbo that involves pressure plates, stepping on the plate causes the machine to come smashing down and squash the player character. You understand this, the machine is in clear view: you put two and two together and make four. Simple right? Well, just after you come to another pad that’s identical, except, with this one you have to jump on the pad to avoid being squished, the area around it triggering the machine.

There’s no real way of working this out without having died at least once. To me, this is a tedious and clunky way of injecting your game with challenge and difficulty.

The counter argument to this, of course, is that Limbo wants to be unfair. It’s trying to craft this murky, frightening atmosphere, no wonder it’s going to play nasty.

So, let’s compare Limbo to Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee; both are in the same genre and both aim to create a cinematic experience through platforming and puzzle-solving gameplay. They both also try to create a very distinct, dark atmosphere when it comes to their world-building. If you’ve never played Abe’s Oddysee I recommend you go and play it now, it’s one of the best games ever made. Play the original too, not the HD remake.

It’s incredibly rare in Abe… to be killed unfairly. Each level is set up in a way that ensures you’re given an understanding of what will kill you and what you have to do. Abe’s Oddysee achieves all this whilst also being incredibly challenging and not holding your hand. One shot from a Slig, the game’s primary enemies, and you’re dead, one miss-timed jump and it's back to the loading screen.

Dark Souls and Shin Megami Tensei games work in a similar fashion. There’s a set of clearly established rules that the game lets you understand, and then it tests you. Slip up, and you die. Rarely however, do the games deliberately pull the rug out from under your feet.

In contrast, Limbo frequently catches you out with its level design, forcing you to die multiple times before having perfect information so that you can progress. Comparing how Limbo handles difficulty to Oddworld highlights just how differently they approach it. Both games set out to create a world where you’re under threat from everything and anything, and one achieves that, the other just results in crushing tedium.

Worst of all, Limbo doesn’t end up doing anything with its world. The final cut scene is the laziest cop-out. There’s something hilarious about a game being aloof and pretentious during its final scene when literally seconds before you were flinging your character through a nonsensical anti-gravity contraption, in order to dodge giant saws that seem to be serving no practical purpose whatsoever.

There’s plenty of ways to do surreal storytelling in video games but Limbo sure as hell ain’t it.

I can understand why people like Limbo and, like I’ve tried to stress, the game isn’t devoid of merit, it’s just incredibly flawed. People mistake minimalism for interesting art design, harsh difficulty for good gameplay and vague, nonsensical imagery for surreal storytelling.

In fact I’d argue you can learn a lot about game design playing Limbo, just not necessarily the good kind.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Skulls of the Shogun - Review

Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4 (version played), PS3, Ouya, iOS, 360
Developer: 17-Bit Studios
Publisher: Microsoft/17-Bit Studios

For me, the best strategy games are those that build up their elements slowly. It’s all well and good having complex strategy and tactics, but if all of that goes over new players’ heads then you’re likely to lose half your audience out of frustration.

Skulls of the Shogun understands that. I might be somewhat late to the party (the game came out over two years ago), but this is easily one of the most fun, accessible strategy games to come out that also plays well on console.

The premise is simple: kill your opponent’s shogun. Skulls of the Shogun is cartoony chess played over a backdrop of quirky undead soldiers and haunted rice paddies. Troops come in three different flavours: standard infantry, cavalry and archers and each works in a rock-paper-scissors fashion where players are encouraged to react in some way to what their opponent is fielding.

For example, infantry are tough, with a high armour value, meaning they can soak up damage, but they’re slow as molasses. Archers meanwhile, can hit like a ton of bricks but have terrible defence and can’t counter-attack melee units. Cavalry are the most finesse of the games core units, capable of moving great distances across the board but otherwise being generally mediocre.

This core gameplay is then rounded out with the addition of several magic-wielding classes. Shrines can be haunted by your soldiers, effectively capturing that location and providing you with a unique unit. Mages come in different forms, be it healing fox monks or flame-spitting lizard wizards. It’s a solid addition to the gameplay that builds upon the foundation that the main units set up.

Rice paddies and soldier shrines can also be haunted by your units and play a pivotal role in battle. Rice paddies provide you with rice (unsurprisingly), the resource used to buy new troops from any soldier shrines you currently have under your control.

All this makes for a game that rewards aggressors. Rarely will a match reward a player for tanking, holding back and playing the long game. Most of the time the game will be fought over the maps meagre resources, with the bolder player trying to snowball an early lead into an overwhelming victory. 

That being said developers 17-Bit wisely avoid having each match descend into a mindless zerg-rush. Each unit that dies drops a skull that can be consumed by an enemy unit, healing them, or increasing their maximum health. Should a unit consume three skulls they’ll transform into a demon, granting them two actions a turn. To continue with the chess comparison it’s like getting a pawn across the board and getting back your queen.

This mechanic keeps the otherwise aggressive-oriented gameplay in check. Skulls of the Shogun might not have time for turtles but neither does have time for the foolish. Give up too many early game units to easy deaths and you risk giving your opponent the advantage going into the mid to late game.

All of this is handled well in a surprisingly funny single player campaign that slowly adds in each a new element stage by stage. The A.I. does a fairly decent job of holding its own, and the robust strategy that underlies the game makes up for any questionable moments that the computer has.

One minor niggle is that many of the game’s single player levels end up being resolved in the same way. With the computer no doubt outnumbering you, your strategy will almost always be to whittle away at them before they can become a threat. It means some of the later levels devolve into a repetitive standstill, with you waiting to grind your opponent out in a war of attrition before closing in to kill their shogun.

It’s frustrating because it goes against what makes the core game, and the multiplayer, so damn fun, and it’s a shame that the single player campaign ends up being relegated to a workmanlike tutorial.

The movement system also can feel a little vague when starting out. Skulls of the Shogun avoids the grid system used by similar turn-based games and instead opts for a “bubble” of movement that each unit can move around here. It’s not a bad system, but it does lead to some frustrating moments when you’re still learning the ropes. Sometimes enemies can attack further than you think, and just because you’ve set up a defensive “spirit wall” by placing units together doesn’t always mean that your opponent can’t find a way around it.

Bone-A-Fide Edition

Given that I was playing the PS4 version it also came packaged with some additional content, namely an extra campaign. Overall, it’s not up to much. The main campaign was fun but this felt more like a chore. Unlike the core game’s campaign, the new levels have you carry over your units and resources over from the previous level, forcing you to be even more careful about how you utilize your force.

The problem is, the game places you at such overwhelming odds, you have to resort back to the ol’ attrition plan in order to win, and it doesn’t make for all that much of an exciting time. Still, it does add in a new magic-wielding unit for the multiplayer, along with some new maps, so it’s not a total lost cause.

Skulls of the Shogun nails that sweet spot between satisfying depth and casual appeal. It doesn’t bog itself down with too many confusing elements to keep track of, and offers enough smarts that the multiplayer remains engaging long after you’ve finished the main campaign. 

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Tormentum - Dark Sorrow - Review

Platform: PC
Developer: OhNoo Studio
Publisher: OhNoo Studio 

World of Warcraft is the primary modern influence for fantasy art design. Blizzard’s brightly coloured behemoth has turned many a fantasy series into similar imitations, with impossible-to-wear armour and cartoony designs being the norm. If there’s one thing to thank Dark Souls for (and I can thank it for plenty), it’s that its more mature, surreal approach to fantasy will be used as inspiration for future games.

That’s definitely the case with OhNoo Studio’s Tormentum – Dark Sorrow, a morose, point-and-click fantasy/horror game. Playing as a mysterious hooded figure dressed in what looks like the Pyromancer armour from Dark Souls, you’re left to try and escape from an ominous torture-filled castle and attempt to find out clues about your life.

As a typical point-and-click adventure game, Tormentum tries to make the most of its slim budget. Puzzles and challenges are fairly simple affairs, requiring some minor working of the old grey matter in order to solve. If you’re here for a challenge, Tormentum is likely to disappoint. No, this is a game that clearly wants you to get to the end and experience what it has to offer.

It’s all thanks to the wonderful doom-laden atmosphere that the developers have managed to soak the game in. This is a land scarred by fiery meteors and dominated by hulking skeletal statues, making each screen of the game look like it belongs on a death metal album cover. The artwork borrows equal parts from Dark Souls' Lovecraftian-inspired fantasy alongside some of H.R. Giger’s work, with every screen having something new and interesting to look at.

Rather than simply resign itself to being a fancy interactive art gallery, Tormentum attempts to craft an interesting story around its surreal world. Whilst the plot itself remains much of a mystery for most of the game, you’re frequently tasked with making moral choices, usually deciding whether someone lives or dies.

Initially, it sounds like the usual childish “good side/bad side” moral systems that have been in similar games for years now, but Tormentum keeps it interesting by not making the choices so obvious. Sometimes the “good” choice isn’t so blatantly clear, or, in many cases, you’re left with trying to pick the lesser of two evils, which again ends up being more difficult than it sounds.

It makes for some interesting decisions and the simple puzzles ensure that the game skips along at a decent pace. In many respects it’s more reminiscent of Telltale’s recent efforts than it is classic adventure games of the past, with a focus on the ebb and flow of the story and gameplay, rather than to challenge the player too much.

It’s something of a shame then that the ending feels like a complete cop-out, and threatens to undermine what the rest of the game set out to do. After spending time considering the morality of your decisions throughout the game, the ending effectively tells you what you should have done in order to be a good person. It’s a childish, rather silly way of ending a game that, up until that point, had seemed to stress that the world is made up of shades of grey.

It doesn’t help that many of the rather easy puzzles end up being little more than sliding tile games or matching pairs of symbols. Nothing pulls you out of a nightmarish hellscape like having to put together a damned jigsaw.

With a fairly short runtime and some breezy gameplay, Tormentum is very much one of those titles you play for the experience rather than for any trying challenge. It stumbles at the final hurdle, and it never really knows what to do to create interesting puzzles/challenges, but its focus on atmosphere somewhat makes up for that.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Splatoon - Review

Platform: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo 
Publisher: Nintendo

Splatoon is a breath of fresh air. It’s easy to point to Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo and so on and argue that their multiplayer is essentially the same tired, played out experience. At the very least, you can’t say the same about Splatoon. It tries to be something new.

A new, fresh exclusive is also something to be happy about from Nintendo. This is a company that for years now has arguably sat on the same recognisable faces in order to bolster its appeal. 

At its core Splatoon takes the basic gameplay of a multiplayer team deathmatch, lathers it in psychedelic paint, and then attempts to add some new mechanics on top. The primary focus of Splatoon is that it’s not about the killing. Taking out another player will help your team, but it won’t bring in those all-important points that painting the environment will. Splat your paint gun across the level though and watch those points begin to raise. Whichever team covers the most area in their colour by the end of the match wins. 

For such a simple mechanic it becomes surprisingly addictive. There’s something incredibly moreish about slapping paint down everywhere, and it’s helped tremendously by the kooky, slightly manga art style that the game adopts.

What this change in focus does for Splatoon though is allow it to inject more strategy into its overall design. Each player has the ability to transform into a squid, allowing them to speed across the map or up walls. The catch being they can only swim in paint that’s their team’s colour. Therefore, defence becomes just as important as attack. Splatting streams of paint across certain locations can help provide faster support for your team. Gunging up choke points with your colour meanwhile, can deny angles of attack for the opposition.

For something that starts so daft, and is clearly aimed at younger players in particular, there’s a surprising amount of depth to the overall gameplay. Loadout options help improve this too, with a bevy of different guns and side arms being available as you level up. Each comes with different main weapon: ranging from typical paint guns to gigantic rollers, perfect for slapping down swathes of paint.  

There’s also sub-weapons and special weapons on offer, too. Sub-weapons are rather unimaginative. Since I’ve begun playing, I think every one of them has been some version of a grenade. Special weapons are a bit more interesting though, accumulate enough points and you get to use the piece of equipment for a brief amount of time; be it a paint bazooka, portable shield or giant paint…fan. It’s a shame you can’t mix and match different main weapons with various other equipment, but the variety on offer from the various loadouts keeps things fresh enough.

There’s a bit more creativity thrown in with the bevy of clothes on offer. Nintendo have kept this part simple, rather than weigh it down with too much complexity. Each piece of clothing grants a variety of buffs to your character, such as slower ink consumption on your weapons, or fast run speed. They’re just minor enough that most players will probably pick the clothing that looks the best over any improvements that they may offer. But there’s some strategy going on here for the min-maxers.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that’s the line that Nintendo tries to walk throughout the game. This is undoubtedly a game meant to appeal to casual fans, not to mention whole families, but there’s an effort to create enough tactical gameplay here that it doesn’t alienate anyone searching for something deeper.

Ranked play is locked off until you reach a certain level, ensuring players have cut their teeth on the regular game before looking for anything more challenging. It’s here where Splatoon arguably falters somewhat. Levelling up still suffers from the boring repetition that infects most multiplayer games, with players higher up the level ranking being those with more time to grind than necessarily displaying more skill.

It doesn't help that the game suffers from a shockingly low amount of maps to play on. After only a few days of playing I was beginning to see the sane locations over and over. And, in an effort to hide the small amount of playable areas, Splatoon locks games down to two different levels each day. It’s clear that Nintendo wanted to get Splatoon out sooner rather than later, and, provided they keep the additional levels/equipment free (so far that’s what they've done), then this won’t be too much of problem going into the future.

It’d be an offence not to mention the single player either because, for a mode that’s literally hiding in the corner of the game hub, it’s an absolute blast to play. It’s divided up over four different areas, each with a number of levels to complete and a boss to take down, the typical platforming formula. Think budget Super Mario Galaxy and you’ll not be far off.

The weirdness of the visuals, and the genuine attempt to make the most of the game’s mechanics, makes the single player a really fun part of the game, rather than some lazy tacked on afterthought. Early levels have you performing some basic platforming, but later challenges have you painting invisible paths to find your way forward, or painting floating platforms so you can swim up walls. The whole campaign doesn't last long, maybe four or five hours in total, but, at the very least, it makes for a satisfying tutorial when it comes to preparing for the multiplayer.

Splatoon goes to show you don’t need to lather your online shooter in ultra-violence in order to be compelling. It expands the gameplay of typical multiplayer shooter in many ways, and, whilst it lazily falls in line when it comes to the equipment side of things, it’s hard to knock the game too much given it’s so much fun.

However the Wii U ends up going down, we can at least look back at games like Splatoon and argue that it had some real gems within its catalogue. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush - Review

Platform: Wii U
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo 

It's a slight disappointment that the first Kirby game to hit the Wii U comes as a sort of budget title. This is a stripped down Kirby, one that's on a diet. And, perhaps more contentiously, one that seeks to emphasize the uses of the Wii U gamepad.

There's no jumping in this game. None. And don't expect Kirby to eat things either, he's not capable this time around. No, the main mechanic is the titular rainbow paintbrush, a device which has you plastering Technicolor strokes across the gamepad for Kirby to roll and bounce along, expanding on the gameplay laid out in 2005’s Kirby and the Canvas Curse for the DS. Initially, it seems like something of a wonky mechanic. There's little it seems to do, and where's the challenge when you can simple draw a ledge right over the spot where you'd die?

Granted, Kirby games have never been the hardest platformers ever released, and that's arguably intentional, but when the game's main mechanic seems to strip the game of any difficulty, not to mention rob the cute little fella of his classic move set, you do start to worry.

But, with a little patience, things do start to improve. For such a basic mechanic HAL Laboratory get the most out of the paintbrush, forcing you to use it more ingenious ways as the game progresses. Later on, you'll be using it to have Kirby perform loop-da-loops and carefully angling your strokes to spring him up to higher points that you couldn't reach otherwise. Then, when you think the game might have run out of ideas, it sticks you in a gondola and has you acting as an additional cable-creator, drawing paths to switch Kirby from track to track. Or, as is the case in the final level, it'll split Kirby in two, having you divide up the brush strokes between both Kirby whilst you manage your ink levels (there's a limit to the paintbrush, and Kirby has to touch solid ground for a second or two for it to recharge).

To break up the general brushstroke gameplay, there's the addition of vehicle sections. Kirby has no transformational powers this time around, at least in the classic sense. Instead, some stages will have the pink bubble-gum transform into a rocket, tank, or submarine, each with their own twist on the basic gameplay. The tank is pretty much as you'd expect, with the stylus being used to shoot enemies down. The submarine and rocket however, manage to tie the vehicle elements in with the paintbrush gameplay. The submarine shoots rockets straight forward, but their trajectory can be altered by painting a path on the screen, guiding the rockets towards their intended target. The rocket meanwhile, will continuously jet forward unless you steer it around.

Like with the core controls, these moments can take some getting used to, and the rocket in particular doesn't feel especially precise when your only ability to control it comes from the stylus. Still, for an otherwise svelte game, Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush makes sure to put some variety into its smaller runtime.

It's the bosses unfortunately, that take the brunt of the cuts. There's only three in total, not including the final stage, with each boss being remixed slightly for the second round for the latter half of the game. They're not especially interesting either. Most of them have you furiously jabbing on the gamepad as you whittle away their health. Other than that, you'll be playing stall tactics whilst you rush around collecting stars in order to power up your super attack. It's not that the bosses are especially bad in any way, they just begin to show the limits of the games mechanics, as each encounter struggles to do anything new with the paintbrush.

Of course, I can't finish this review without mentioning the gorgeous art design. Everything comes to life in a wonderful attempt at mimicking Claymation. Kirby bobs around the screen with a real weight and texture to him. Fire him out of a cannon and he'll splat against the wall, before floating to the ground like a limp piece of Play-Doh. It adds a fun tactile charm, and it'd be a shame if this is the only game Nintendo decides to give the Claymation treatment.

The biggest problem with Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush is that's there's not many places it can go, and you can't help but wonder why this wasn't released on the 3DS. Granted, I doubt the 3DS could muster up a visual style similar to this, but this is a game where you spend all of your time staring at the gamepad, to the point where you forget this wasn't actually released as a portable title. Its bite-sized levels and slim runtime lend themselves to gaming on the go.

I feel somewhat guilty saying that however, since the Wii U needs all the games it can get, and, despite my overall issues with it, Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush is a decent game, if somewhat underwhelming. Provided you can overlook the limited mechanics, and the disappointing copy-and-paste of some of the later bosses, this is a fun, charming platformer for those looking for something a little less demanding.