Archive for October, 2010

Blood, Blood, Blood: Space Funeral

Posted in Uncategorized on October 22, 2010 by lintspeed

I know I have not had enough time to process freeware indie RPG Space Funeral.  I’m not sure I could ever have had enough time to process Space Funeral.

It’s a brief (took me maybe an hour and a half to play) turn-based RPG made in RPGMaker, with a bizarre cast of characters, a macabre setting and sense of humor, and some of the most hideous MS Paint art ever. It wears its influences proudly, juxtaposing Charles Baudelaire with Charles Schultz. And to say much more would be to spoil it.

You play as Philip, a perpetually crying boy in his pajamas, who may or may not be dead. When you rest to recover some (but not all) of your health, you sleep in a coffin. The message you receive after resting reads, “You feel better, but not much.” And like that message, and like that character, the world around you is miserable, and turned on its head.

Your lone companion on your travels is Leghorse, a headless horse who is on a mission of his own. Like so many of the enemies you battle, Leghorse is a grotesque, a hideous perversion of something… else. When you sell something to the shopkeepers they reply with, “I hope you die.” You reach a town called Malice and are greeted with “Welcome to MALICE! We have MANY GOODS and CRIMINALS!”

At its best, it’s inspired absurdism. Black, yes, but genuinely hilarious in its morbidity, turning cheerful JRPG tropes into twisted versions of themselves.

Unfortunately, like Breath of Death VII, it’s terribly easy. I did not use the vast majority of skills when playing, or need to, although health and mana both remained depleted at the end of battles. The one saving grace of Space Funeral‘s battle system (which otherwise works on an Active-Time system like early Final Fantasy games) was its “Mystery” feature. You can choose “Mystery” from your list of options once per fight, and what it does is entirely random. Early on, I frequently won whole fights by choosing “Mystery.” Later “Mystery” provided mixed results, sometimes buffing the enemy, and sometimes buffing me. It’s disappointing that the battles weren’t tougher, as that would have raised the stakes on choosing this wondrously random option. On the other hand, choosing it was always entertaining, no matter the outcome.

I have to recommend you play Space Funeral, if you can stomach the grotesque. I’m not entirely sure it works. Certainly as a set of mechanics it has its shortcomings. As a story, it tackles some very difficult themes, supported by an excellent soundtrack. Like I said, I’m not sure if it succeeds entirely. At very least, it seems like the story could have used more time to develop. But the world is certainly vibrant and unique, and Space Funeral made me laugh out loud more than any game I’ve played this year. Oh, and the hideous art? I have to admit, as off-putting as it was when I started, it became part of the appeal by the end.

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Breath of Death VII and the Problem with RPGs

Posted in Uncategorized on October 19, 2010 by lintspeed

So I’ve written on this blog before that I’m on an all-indie purchasing diet. Indie RPGs, it turns out, aren’t very common. RPGs are games that require an immense amount of time to make, due to the amount of content they usually contain. For a first-person shooter to be only ten hours long is nothing; for an RPG to be that long is considered a rip-off, criminal, sacrilege (I actually disagree with this gamer prejudice, but that’s a subject for another post.) So I was intrigued when I heard Breath of Death VII on the Xbox Live Indie Games Channel getting a positive buzz on popular and indie-devoted games sites alike. It’s 80 Microsoft Points, which amounts to $1 in real money.

It’s also terrible.

Let’s be clear up front. I like RPGs. I love RPGs. They may even be my favorite type of game, period. At their best (heck, even on average), they pack more depth into their systems and more emotion into their stories than any other type of game. The kind commonly made in the Western hemisphere are known best for how deeply they involve the player in the storyline, offering different outcomes for situations based on player choices. They take an ordinary narrative and do what no other medium can do; they make it personal. But even the variety of RPG most commonly found in Japan has its attraction. While the JRPG tends toward more linear storytelling, they scratch the exploration itch grandly, and tend to offer elegantly strategic battle systems accompanied by epic stories and gorgeous art. They are the sorts of games and worlds you get lost in, in the best way possible; they become a part of your life.

Breath of Death VII is in the JRPG vein, but it’s not that sort of game. It attempts to be a videogame parody, but aside from a few feeble, overdone jokes (seriously–how many times are we going to laugh when someone makes a “Master of Unlocking” reference? Stop setting the bar so low, gamers!) Its premise has potential: a great war killed everyone off, and so all the principle characters and NPCs are undead. This could be great parody material–you are essentially playing as the monsters in a typical RPG–but it’s wasted. The monsters you face are nonsensical and sometimes funny, but they aren’t united by any theme, and ridiculous monsters are too much the reality in regular JRPGs for them to register as funny. It might have been neat if you were fighting off nice living things, since you’re undead; but the creators of Breath of Death VII didn’t think beyond a few throwaway gags.

I could live with all of that, however, if the battle system wasn’t so poorly designed. Perhaps “Normal” difficulty isn’t the difficulty it’s meant to be played on, but on “Normal” difficulty, it is never, ever necessary to use any special abilities, basic spells, or potions. Just hit the regular ‘attack’ power and repeat. This is because your party members recover all of their health at the end of each battle.

Typically, in a JRPG (or any RPG), each combat encounter requires a delicate strategic balance: do you use up your mana on high-damage specials, buffs, or healing abilities that allow your party to claim victory depleted but relatively unscathed, or do you try to soak up the damage in hopes of saving the mana for when you really need it. Restoring all of the party’s health at the end of every battle eliminates this choice. Why use your mana to kill the enemy faster, if you can survive the battle without using your specials, and recover all of the health you’ve lost? And I don’t just mean the health of your still-standing party members; party members at zero health also are revived and receive their full health back at the end of every battle.

And it’s a shame, because the special abilities and the combo system that rewards using them in a particular order are immensely creative and I could see them as part of a very well-designed RPG. Well-designed enough, in fact, to redeem the lackluster story elements, if they were at all integral to playing the game. Certainly, you can choose to play the game as if strategy were necessary, and use the special abilities and appreciate it more (in fact, I suspect this is how most people who’ve praised the game played it–perhaps not even realizing it was unnecessary, simply because it’s a reasonable assumption of most RPG players that when special abilities are given, special abilities are necessary.) But if there is no strategy to it, then you are just pressing buttons, and it makes no difference whether you are pressing “A” for “Attack” or “Rain of Fire.”

You wonder: why eviscerate a game that’s just a dollar? Certainly even with its flaws, the game provides enough enjoyment for a dollar? You have a point. The art is well-done, and the game works, and you can probably derive some fun from it if you entertain the illusion that strategy is needed, or you enjoy seeing game references. My problem with it, and why I feel it necessary to point out that it’s just not very good, is that it’s not an ambitious “not very good.” It’s completely uninspired. It’s banking on an idea that I feel is becoming a dangerously common idea in RPG design, thanks to MMOs and Diablo and the like: that the act of pressing the same buttons, over and over, just to see some numbers go up and get some new shiny items is enough. The idea that a game doesn’t need interesting mechanics or story–it just needs to balance the the ratio of reward to challenge so that the player can get the most visceral satisfaction from the least effort, and then do that over and over again. It’s the same cynical sort of game design that drives games like Farmville, whose entire business model is built on the idea that people will pay for a few more clicks.

Now, I’m not sure that the designers of Breath of Death VII are that cynical: I more suspect they grasped the form of the JRPG without grasping its substance. But at the end of the day, I feel the need to critique the game not because I feel it’s not worth your dollar, but because I feel it’s not worth your time. Download Progress Quest instead: it’s free, it’s funnier, it requires much less effort, and it’s actually a satire.

Tidalis: Bejeweled with Brains

Posted in Uncategorized on October 5, 2010 by lintspeed

So I promised a post on Tidalis a few weeks ago. Here it is, a bit late.

But first, the Tidalis trailer:

So Tidalis is a puzzle game from Arcen Games.

No, wait, let’s start again. Tidalis isn’t a puzzle game from Arcen Games. It’s a strategy game, gussied up and divided into nifty puzzle-y chunks like a puzzle game. Sure it’s all about matching three do-hickeys of the same color to get them to disappear. Sure most games take place in a Tetris-like box with the ever-present threat of falling blocks to add tension to the proceedings. Don’t let that fool you.

In Tidalis, each of the main colored blocks has a direction associated with it, indicated by a little arrow. Lining up like-colored blocks so that they disappear is not simply a matter of ensuring that they rest side by side, but of directing Tidalis’s “streams.” Watch the video. Those little glowing lights shooting out from the blocks? Those are the streams. For those whose set-ups are video-impaired, I will try to explain.

You click on a block and it shoots out a beam of light in the direction the block’s arrow is pointing. That beam of light (in standard modes of play) goes as far as the third block over. If it hits a like-colored block on the way, it then adopts the direction of that block, and continues (again) as far as the third block in that direction. If the stream hits at least three blocks, they disappear, but the stream will continue in this fashion for as many like-colored blocks as it’s able to hit.

Once the first set of blocks has disappeared, the blocks immediately above fall down to take their place, just as in Tetris or Bejeweled, or any other puzzle game of this sort. Those blocks in turn release streams, which go as far as the third block in whatever direction the block that released them was facing. If they hit at least three like-colored blocks, those blocks disappear, and so on. So far, so puzzle game. Lots of luck, a little bit of quick observation and you’re good.

Except in Tidalis, you can change the direction of the arrows on the blocks, even while they’re falling. Like in the best strategy games, you can find yourself thinking whole moves ahead, carefully arranging your blocks so that as one set disappears, the next fall into place and release their streams in the right directions. Like in the best strategy games, you plan, moves and moves ahead, until you can’t keep track of them anymore. Then you click, and watch your plan fall into place.

Or at least, that’s how it goes in the game’s timer-free zen mode, a mode designed around careful contemplation of the board. In its many, many other modes, you’re up against the clock, or at least, the steady falling of new blocks (which don’t release streams, and won’t disappear unless you incorporate them into a stream), and you must balance strategic thinking ahead with on-your-feet puzzle-gamer thinking. It’s teeth-clenching, knuckle-whitening, heart-pounding action. Play Tidalis like a regular puzzle game, going for the quickest points and just trying to stay ahead, and you’ll lose. Play it slowly like a turn-based strategy game and the board will quickly spiral out of control, and you’ll lose. It’s elegantly designed. It’s a thrill.

And it’s endlessly surprising and creative. While the story and characters of the game’s primary Adventure Mode are, frankly, a little silly, you simply must play Adventure Mode. The sheer variety of twists on the core mechanics ensure that the game never, ever gets dull. From wooden blocks that disappear only when lit on fire by adjacent disappearing red blocks, to modes that challenge you to get rid of fifty blocks without eliminating more than fifteen blue blocks. Or modes that challenge you to eliminate ten of each of three different colors of blocks without getting rid of more than sixty blocks total. Or Gravitron modes where gravity is altered so that streams don’t fly as far up or to the side, but fall much further down than they ordinarily would. Or zen modes that challenge you to eliminate twenty blocks with one stream. Tidalis is not only an incredibly deep game, but it has lateral strength too, reinventing itself in newer, more devious ways. And at the heart is always that perfectly balanced tension between fast puzzling play and methodical strategy play. Score over 7,500 points in under two minutes? Better keep moving, but make sure to set up as many chains as possible for the point bonuses associated with them.

Think it sounds too tense? Try Zen Mode. Want a challenge? Try any of the many other modes, or adventure mode. It starts off slow, but picks up quickly. And you really, really learn to play well playing through each of the Adventure mode variations.

I cannot praise this game enough. It is everything one expects from an indie game: ingenious and made with huge amounts of passion and care. But it is a deceptively small package, packing more hours worth of content into a “simple” puzzler than many fully-fledged AAA titles.  There’s a demo at www.arcengames.com, and the full game is only ten dollars.