Monday, June 24, 2013

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams (Black Forest Games, 2012)

History lesson time! (Hold your excitement please) Way back in the late 80s, people for the most part didn't play "video games", people played Nintendo. "What are you doing tonight?" "I'm playing Nintendo." The NES was so incredibly popular that it was common to forget that other home gaming platforms even existed. Most people like to remember the Atari 2600 as being the predecessor to the NES, but just before the launch of Nintendo's iconic grey box, most home video games were played on the Commodore 64.

To compete with (or rather to cash in on) the unbelievable success of Super Mario Bros., a C64 game called The Great Giana Sisters was released that was as incredibly obvious clone of the first SMB, with an almost identical opening level. Despite being a clone, many felt it was actually a superior game, and after Nintendo's unsurprising threat of legal action led to it being pulled from store shelves, it still became a cult hit and a sought after collector's item. At some point in the following two decades Nintendo must have made peace with the idea, because an unexpected sequel, Giana Sisters DS, was released as a Nintendo DS exclusive, continuing the adventures of Giana and her sister Maria. Now that we've established a pedigree, let's discuss the latest escapade of these sisters.

In my review of Wake I mentioned what a great time it is now for indie games. In my last review on Polarity, I talked about KickStarter and how it was helping new games get made. Late last summer, I started backing a lot of indie games on KickStarter that I thought looked like they would be fun. Out of all of them, the one that I was most looking forward to was a game called Project Giana, featuring the familiar sisters. This project eventually evolved into Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a sides scrolling 2.5D platformer that brings back fond memories of not only the classic Mario series, but also the early Sonic the Hedgehog games. The team at Black Forest must have spent hours replaying classic platformers to capture that magic. It also has a distinctly modern feel to it, thanks in no small part to being part of a growing trend of dual reality platformer games such as Guacamelee or Fractured Soul (expect reviews from me on both of those at some point in the future) where the player must switch quickly back and forth between two separate worlds that are almost the same, but slightly different in order to proceed through the game's various levels.

The duality in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams comes from Giana's two forms. There's "Cute Giana", the little blonde girl in the blue dress with the strong Alice in Wonderland vibe who exists in the nightmarish world filled with demons and desolate landscapes. And then there is "Punk Giana", the rebellious mix of teen angst and nonconformity who exists in a friendly yet equally dangerous fairy-tale world of singing birds and mushroom houses. Giana must take advantage of the strengths of both sides of her personality in order to rescue her sister Maria who has been swallowed by a dragon.

I have to admit, that most of the information in that previous paragraph I didn't know until I looked it up while researching for this review. As in the classic platformers of the 2D era, the story telling is kept to a minimum, but unlike those classic games, there's no booklet describing what's going on for you. While I saw a dragon swallow somebody in the first level, and that same dragon turned out to be the final boss who spit the girl out at the end of the game, I never actually understood that the girl was Giana's sister, and instead assumed that these two different looking and acting girls where the sisters, and not two versions of the same person. Either way, it doesn't effect the gameplay, or make it any less fun.

The key to success in this game is in understanding and utilizing the differences between the two Gianas, and the worlds they inhabit. The first major difference is in their special moves. Cute Giana has a twirl that acts both as a double jump and a glide, allowing her to travel long distances and safely navigate down dangerous spike filled pits of doom. Punk Giana can launch herself short distances to take out some enemies, and bust through certain barriers. Various contraptions throughout the game also exist that only react to one Giana or the other, or need a certain special move to activate. Some platforms or enemies also reverse direction when switching from one to the other, and gates and bridges will open or close depending on which one you are currently using. Some platforms are only solid for one or the other, and you often have to switch mid-jump to navigate an area.

Speaking of the areas, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams has some impressive level design. As would be expected, the early levels are simple, and new elements are introduced one at a time so the later levels can be incredibly difficult, but what makes it so impressive is the pacing. Each time an item or idea is reused, it's slightly more complex than the last time. It happens so smoothly that by the end of the game you are pulling off meticulous twitch control combos and navigating within pixels of death more often than not, but the levels never feel repetitive or unfair.

That's not to say that the game is easy. Far from it, you will die in this game, and you will die a lot. Luckily, the game gives you infinite lives. Using the now standard Super Mario World/Sonic the Hedgehog style checkpoints, the levels challenge you to make sometimes painstakingly slow progress. The later levels offer many more opportunities to die in between checkpoints, and require sections of the level to be memorized and traversed flawlessly in order to reach the next checkpoint. An unlockable hardcore mode removes all of the checkpoints and starts you back at the beginning of the level after each death. An unlockable super hardcore mode starts you back at the beginning of the first level after each death. I don't know who is playing on this mode, but it must be somebody with better reflexes and more free time than I have!

Indie games are generally known to have sub-par presentation, but Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams has the opposite. The graphics are beautiful, and rather than cutting or fading between worlds, every single element in the game smoothly morphs between forms when switching from Punk Giana to Cute Giana and back. Demons become birds, spikes become flowers, oversized skeleton limbs become hollowed out logs. Watching the entire world transform in front of your eyes so smoothly it seems natural is a sight to behold. There's no skimping on the audio side either. Even back when I was watching the early gameplay footage on the KickStarter preview video, I was amazed by the creativity offered by the game's music. For the Cute Giana world, gothic choirs blend with pop synths to make an impressive blend of ambient yet dancable soundscapes with melodies you can hum along to, yet never seem to get old. On the Punk Giana side, all of the same compositions are performed by a live metal band! Hearing that chiming synth melody transform into a squealing guitar solo and back as the pulsing synth bass transforms into pounding drum fills gives the game's music a level of explorability rarely seen outside of the rhythm game genre!

As much as I enjoyed this game, and as much as I've been gushing over it so far, I can't let it completely off the hook. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams has a problem. It has a design flaw that prevents many who play it from ever even attempting the final level. I've mentioned already that levels late in the game are hard, but that's not the issue. I've played plenty of hard games, and most platform game fans that I know actually look forward to extreme challenge towards the end of games. No, this problem is a poor choice that was made on purpose. The last level of each of the game's three zones is locked by default. These levels need to be unlocked by earning stars in earlier levels of the region. The first part of the problem is than it's never made clear that this is how you unlock the level. Sure, the padlock icon on the level is shaped like a star, so it can be assumed that earning stars is how to unlock it, but it's never specifically stated that the stars must be from the same region. Even if you manage to piece that together after wasting time replaying levels from earlier regions, it is never made clear how you actually earn the stars in the first place! Even after digging through online forums and seeing exactly how stars are earned, earning enough region three stars to unlock level 3-10, the game's final level, is still incredibly difficult. It's to the point where many members of various Giana Sisters forums simply consider the game beaten if you are able to complete level 3-9. The vast majority of people who play this game, even those that invest the hours into it, will never see the final level outside of a Youtube video.

Is this design flaw enough to deter somebody from playing Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams? I would say no. The flaw isn't even something that is noticed until you're almost at the end of the game anyway, and by then you will have more than gotten you time and money's worth of enjoyment out of this amazing game. If you grew up on 2D platformers, or just got into them later, this is a game worth playing. Despite its history, it's not nostalgia, it's not retro, it is every bit a modern side scrolling gaming masterpiece that you more than likely will never finish, but probably won't mind.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Polarity (BlueButton Games, 2013)

It's always exciting when a new gaming console comes out. I don't mean an update to an existing console such as the new XBox, PlayStation, or Wii (even though those are generally exciting too), I'm talking about when a whole new console line that never existed before suddenly does. Back in the 90s it happened all the time. Most of them faded quickly out of the public eye. There was the 3DO, the CDi, the NeoGeo, even the mighty PlayStation was once in this category. The original XBox over a decade ago was the last time we really had any new console excitement. That is, until a little underdog KickStarter project produced the Ouya.

I was a backer of the Ouya since the first day of the KickStarter campaign. The idea of a new console for less than $100 that focused mainly on obscure and experimental indie titles just sounded like it would be whole lot of fun. I finally got mine shipped to me last month, and I've been enjoying playing through the game demos. So far, there aren't many games on it, and most of them are Android ports, but there was one Ouya exclusive title that caught my eye almost immediately. A game called Polarity.

Polarity is a first person platformer puzzle game, very much in the same sub-genre as Portal. In this game, you play as a futuristic hacker, with each level representing a computer system you are hacking. This allows the gameplay to exist for fun rather than realism, and allows for a more Tron-like visual style.

The name Polarity refers to the player's ability to switch back and forth between two different polarities, represented by the colors red and blue. This determines how you interact with several of the color coded game elements that make up many of the puzzles throughout the game. Early on, the chosen polarity is quite important, but towards the middle it is less so, as new puzzle mechanics are introduced that are polarity independent. Towards the end of the game it comes back as a major part as all of the tricks are combined.

As in Portal, each level of Polarity consists of a handful of rooms that you must navigate through to get to the end. The main point though isn't simply to get to the end, but to also collect the three data points in each level. These data points are floating green mists that you must walk (or jump, or fall) to and collect. Sometimes these are right out in the open, sometimes they are tucked off in out of the way corridors you might not think to look down right away, and sometimes they are easy to find, but require a lot of cleverness to get to. Some of the more challenging levels had me stumped bad enough that I had to come back to them later. Prepare to think in this game!

I do have to complain a bit about the controls. For the most part, they worked great, adopting the now standard console FPS gamepad layout. From time to time though, there was bad lag for a minute or so at a time. Not cloud streaming lag, or low on memory lag, but a two second delay between when you touch a control and when the game responds. I don't know if this is a fault of the game itself, or a general issue with my pre-release Ouya console, but I'm hoping it gets cleared up before the official launch, as I imagine I'll probably play through this game again at some point. It's short enough to invite replay. Maybe I'll try a speed run?

Overall, I found the presentation to be top notch, from the music to the UI, to the atmosphere in general. While most of the early Ouya games so far are full tongue-in-cheek self-aware satire or retro nostalgia, Polarity is one of the few that actually takes itself seriously, and one of the few so far to really make the Ouya feel like an actual console. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come, both for the Ouya, and for BlueButton Games.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory, 2007)

Wake and Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers were both fun indie titles, but after playing through both of them I was in the mood for something a bit grander. I was ready for some epic adventuring AAA style. I started looking through my unplayed games and remembering the various TV ads I'd seen. Until recently I didn't own a Playstation 3, and there are still plenty of PS3 exclusives that I haven't had a chance to play yet. One game that I remember seeing ads for all the time was Heavenly Sword. Oddly enough, I don't remember anybody mentioning it lately. So, I popped it in to see what this game was all about.

Heavenly Sword started off by wowing me with its amazing production value. Once I got past the loading screens (they tend to feel a bit long) I saw the first cutscene. Whoever it was that worked on these cutscenes, they all did an amazing job. It felt like watching a movie.

Then the game started with a tutorial level where I learned the basic controls while fighting off enemies in a contained location. Then, another tutorial level about sniping with a bow and arrow. It was frustrating at first because it had you control the arrows mid flight by tilting the entire controller, trying to compete with the Wii's 2007 popularity. Luckily, you can turn off the motion control and use the left stick instead which is much easier.

Then, it was back to another combat tutorial? And then another? This is when I caught on to Heavenly Sword's dirty little secret. While it tries its best to present itself off as God of War with a chick, Heavenly Sword is actually a series of mini-games, chained together with elaborate cutscenes and disguised as an adventure. Each mission has you in a contained area, sometimes getting from one side of the area to the other, but often just staying in one spot while enemies come at you. After each mission is a cutscene, and then you are in a different area for the next mission. There is no flow, and I never felt as if I was actually exploring this world. I was simply reacting to it.

Let's talk about the combat, because that's something the game did right. The combat in Heavenly Sword had a smooth flowing hack n' slash style that was obviously heavily influenced by God of War. There are three stances to choose between, selectable with the L1 and R1 triggers. The default speed stance has you dual wielding as the sword splits in two and allows you to quickly slice a path through the fodder. The range stance puts these two swords on the ends of chains that can be swung in wide arcs God of War style to pick away at enemies while keeping a safe distance. The power stance combines the weapon back into the large two handed sword seen in the cutscenes.

The stances also effect what incoming attacks you can block. There's no block button, as long as you have the correct stance and you're not in the middle of attacking, you can block. Pressing the triangle button at exactly the right time can result in a counter attack, but it's difficult to do and not much better than just hacking away. It also sometimes leads to another of the game's annoyances, Quick Time Events.

If you're not a QTE fan, you should probably stay away from this game. They aren't optional. When they happen, you get them right, or you fail. Often some of the most exciting action in the game happens over quick time events, which means that instead of watching this exciting action, your eyes are glued to the bottom of the screen waiting for the next unforgiving button prompt to appear. If anybody else is in the room watching you, they can tell you how cool what you just missed was. But the worst QTEs are at the end of each boss battle. After slowly hacking away at the boss's health bars while listening to the same canned voice over repeat itself (and sometimes having to hack through hordes of weaker enemies too), you finally get them down to near defeat. Then, the QTE prompts. They are long and intricate and must be done immediately and perfectly or else not only is the boss not defeated, half of the boss's health is returned. That's usually a good time to let yourself die and start over.

All of that was when using Nariko, the redhead from the cover art. About a third of the time you are playing as her friend Kai, a sprightly young girl with a crossbow that for our purposes functions as a sniper rifle. In the actual sniper missions, this works great as you pick off enemies from a distance while protecting your friends. When it doesn't work so great is when they put you in a room full of enemies that must be shot in the head to be taken down. Kai has no melee attacks at all, and no auto lock, not even a way to shoot while running, only zoom in sniper mode. Meanwhile the guy you're trying to aim at is 3 steps away and has a giant war hammer speeding towards you. Not the best time.

The cutscenes, as I mentioned, look amazing, and are expertly acted and shot. What's so odd about them is that while the faces are some of the most expressive seen in gaming, with every pore and whisker realistically rendered, everybody's hair looks like the sort of low-poly mesh you'd see rendered in real time on a PS2. The cutscenes also tend to be on the long side, and sometimes stray from the needed storytelling. Every character's back story is expanded upon, but often it just feels like a candy coating to distract you from the rigidness of the gameplay.

There's something else odd about Heavenly Sword. There was obviously a lot of thought and effort put into making the main characters that you play very attractive. The box art, the TV commercials, even the loading screens imply that this is meant to be one of the big draws of the game. The cutscenes are often viewed from provocative angles. But when it comes to actually playing the game, the camera is always so far away that you can barely even tell that it's not a dude running around the screen. This doesn't affect gameplay at all, but it just seems odd.

The world of Heavenly Sword mostly consists of one large elaborate palace, much like in Ico. You never get to actually pick which room you're going to be in, so there's no fear of getting lost. The puzzles that pop up from time to time feel as if they were an afterthought. They range from simple tasks such as picking up a shield and throwing it at a switch to more elaborate tasks such as turning a crank to expose a switch and then throwing a shield at it before it goes away. That's about it for puzzles.

All in all, the best way for me to describe my experience with Heavenly Sword is to say it's a game in which everything about it is almost great. If not for writing these reviews, I probably would have set it aside unfinished and added it to the list of games I mean to complete one day but never do. It's still a sight worth seeing, but you might want to save yourself some time and frustration and just watch somebody else play through it on youtube instead.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers (Black Pants Game Studio, 2010)

In my last review on Wake, I mentioned what a great time it is now for indie games. While Wake had a nice retro SNES style going on, it left me in the mood for a more modern feeling indie experience. After a quick skim through my Steam library, my eye kept coming back to one very unusual looking game.

Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers is a tale of love and loss. Not love and loss of a person, but of your grandpa's used underwear. Yes, this is a game about magical tighty whighties. Have I lost you yet? No? Good.

In this game, you play Tiny, a lonely desert dweller who's best friend is a talking radio he built himself. Tiny is apparently quite the inventor and has built a number of ingenious devices which will assist you on your quest. Big, Tiny's cousin (or possibly his brother, if the game ever actually explained it I must have missed it) has stolen the underwear that their grandpa had left to Tiny, and thus begins your epic quest to retrieve them. It's a surreal premise that works perfectly with this surreal game.

Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers is combination platformer and physics puzzle game. Rather than just finding your way to get from point A to point B through the environment, you get to directly manipulate the environment to create your own way. This is done through the use of your three tools.

First there is the laser that cuts through almost anything. Is there a wall in your way? Cut it in half diagonally and use it as a ramp to get up to the next area! Rocks, pillars, walls, even floors. If you can manage to draw a line that cuts through the entire object, you can cut it in half. The geometry system works surprisingly well for this, on par with many 3D modelling packages. Sometimes it's fun to just see what kinds of shapes can be carved out.

Next up is the rope that can connect to objects and pull them towards you or drag them around. It's great for pulling down the top section of blocks that you just cut free and manipulating them into the right spot to get you where you need to go. It's also useful for pulling large rocks onto enemies, since you don't have any direct method of attacking.

The third tool is a rocket launcher. Are your eyes lighting up at this? No, it's not that kind of rocket launcher. No big boom here. This tool launches small dart sized rockets that stick into random objects, and can be remotely controlled to quickly push things around. Sure, if something is on the ground you can just walk up to it and push it, but these rockets push it much faster, and allow you to push around objects that you can't reach on your own. It's good for quickly pushing a large slab over a gap to create a makeshift bridge, or clearing a boulder off a platform so you'll have room to jump to.

The combination of these three tools allows for some extremely creative level design. At the beginning of a new area, it's always made clear where it is that you are trying to get to, but of coarse not how you are supposed to get there. Sometimes solutions are fairly obvious. Sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error to finally figure out how to get to your destination. And sometimes there are actually multiple solutions.

In addition to just chopping up walkways and shoving together bridges, you also occasionally have to search for keys to unlock doors. And yes, the keys are also shaped like underwear. Also, sometimes the doors are shaped like underwear. In fact, a lot of the architecture is made to look like underwear. It's an ongoing theme throughout the game. And somehow, this game is just bizarre enough to make it work.

An interesting aspect of the game is the music system. First off, the songs in the game are actual songs by various indie bands. I don't know why more games don't do this, since I'm convinced that there are twice as many indie bands in the world right now as there are people, and I'm sure any one of them would love to get their songs featured in a game. And these aren't your typical garage bands either. The music is every bit as bizarre and surreal as the rest of the game, and every song fits as if it was made specifically for this world.

But, you don't get all of the songs by default. Throughout the game there are cassette tapes (remember those?) hidden in various nooks, crannies, and other out of the way spaces. Each time you collect one, a new song is added to the background music rotation.

The story of Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers is presented through dialog bubbles that pop up during gameplay, and in the occasional cut scene. There's just enough story to make you care about the characters, and imply the importance of grandpa's underwear that is more than it seems, but it never gets in the way of the game itself. By the end of it, you're left wanting to know what might happen next, and hopefully Black Pants Game Studio will create a sequel someday as the mechanics are all already in place, and it would only require some new level design.

Until then, I'll have to say that this strange game is by far the best rescue-the-stolen-underwear video game that I have ever played. Sure, it's the only one, but it's still the best. If you know of any more, let me know!