Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Machinarium (Amanita Design/Deadalic Entertainment, 2009)

I've been mentioning the Humble Bundle a lot lately. As I said in my review of Contre Jour, it's a great way to discover lesser known games that I might miss otherwise. Way back in the first Humble Bundle I purchased, there was an interesting point and click adventure included by the name of Samorost 2. The original Samorost was a free online Flash game, and the sequel expanded on it in every way.

After finishing my playthrough of The Room, I was still in a point and click puzzler mood, so I started digging through my backlog to see what fit the bill. That's when I remembered that during a sale on I'd picked up another game by the makers of the Samorost series that shared its unique play style. That game was Machinarium.

As with the Samorost series, Machinarium is a point and click puzzle adventure that doesn't quite play by the normal rules of the genre. Point and click adventures evolved out of the graphic adventure genre, which itself evolved from classic text adventures. Amanita Design has managed to sever that last bit of evolutionary hold over by producing their game almost entirely without words. There's no dialog, no descriptions, and after the very beginning there are no instructions. Instead, everything is presented visually. If a character wants an oil can, rather than having him say what he needs there will be a dialog bubble with an image of an oil can.

Why does he need an oil can? As the cover art implies, Machinarium takes place in a world of robots. While there is the occasional bit of plant life here or there, pretty much every one and every thing in this game is a machine of some sorts. While a point and click adventure full of robots who don't talk may seem like a dull idea, the characters manage to have a surprising amount of charm and personality that makes each of them unique. Well, not counting the identical uniformed guards you meet from time to time, but then again, isn't the whole point of a uniform to prevent being unique anyway?

The story of Machinarium tells the tale of a young robot separated from his girlfriend and trying to get back to her. Along the way he unwittingly stumbles upon a dastardly plot by some local ne'er-do-wells and must find a way to save the day. Mostly, this saving the day is accomplished through a series of environmental puzzles, some item collecting, the occasional fetch quest, and a fairly unique variation of tic-tac-toe that would probably do well as a stand alone Flash or mobile game.

While a balanced combination of exploration, inventory management, and random experimentation will get you past most of Machinarium's challenges, some of the puzzles are a bit more obtuse in nature. This is not a game that goes with the obvious solution. Sometimes situations in the game present themselves in a way that hints strongly at a particular solution that's just out of reach, only to be solved in some seemingly arbitrary way that's only attempted because at a certain point it's the only course of action left to try. Yes, it gets frustrating at times, and the difficulty is occasionally far from balanced, but not to the point of ruining the experience. In fact, the satisfaction you get from finally figuring out how to accomplish a task you've been at for hours is part of what makes this genre work.

In order to alleviate some of the inevitable frustration, and prevent players from rage quitting or simply looking up a walkthrough, the developers thoughtfully included an in-game hint system. Unfortunately, the included hint system tries to be a little too clever for its own good. You are permitted a limited number of hints throughout the game that can only be accessed by playing through a mini-game that as far as I can tell involves flying a key into a spider and then not getting a hint. This could have been done better, or even left out entirely, but luckily if you click on everything enough times and follow the clues both subtle and obvious, then you'll be just fine without it.

To me, the most striking and memorable feature of Machinarium would have to be its visual style. The game utilizes hand drawn 2D artwork in a style reminiscent of a graphic novel mixed with a watercolor landscape. The drawings are detailed enough to make the world feel alive, yet uncluttered enough to not obscure the clickable objects, a problem that still manages to plague some games of this genre. The mechanical city is filled with whimsy, and I kept thinking that it could have inspired an amazing theme park if the game had ever reached that level of popularity. If anything, a cartoon spinoff of the game would be entertaining.

Even though I it wasn't a perfect point and click puzzle experience, I thoroughly enjoyed playing Machinarium, and if a sequel ever surfaces, I will definitely pick it up. If you're a long time fan of point and click games and don't mind a less verbose narrative then this is a game I'd recommend giving a try, especially considering how many platforms it's available for at this point. It also might be worth a try to anybody who's traditionally been curious about the point and click genre, yet turned off by the traditionally long winded plots. As a bonus teaser, here's a link to the original Samorost Flash game to let you taste an earlier example of Amanita Design's unique style. Have fun!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Room (Fireproof Games, 2012/2013)

Over the years I've had a variety of day jobs. For a while I did technical support for a company that made home theater equipment. Those calls usually involved a lot of time spent waiting while the customers on the other end crawled behind their entertainment centers to let me know which wire went where so I could tell them how to fix it.

Luckily, this was around the time that online Flash game portals were skyrocketing in popularity. Slower puzzle based games worked best in that environment, and I soon stumbled upon a renaissance of a quirky genre known as Escape the Room games. Most of these were crudely drawn short distractions, but years later (in the same Humble Bundle that provided me with Contre Jour) I discovered a mobile game that showed me what the genre could do, given enough talent and attention. I found The Room.

Even though The Room is technically part of the Escape the Room genre, it's not actually about escaping from a room. In fact, even through The Room is called The Room, it's not specifically about the room it takes place in, focussing instead on a strange mechanical box inside the room. There's a secret hidden inside this box, or more specifically, inside a smaller box hidden somewhere deep within this one. In nesting doll fashion, each level of The Room concludes with the opening of one box to discover the next level's contraption inside.

While the narrative of most Escape the Room games is generally no more established than a statement that you've somehow become locked in a room and need to escape, The Room manages to contextually build up a story by hiding notes from the device's builder throughout the device. This method of plot development through collected missives, along with the dark visuals and eerie atmosphere of isolation, evoked an experience that often reminded me of the first Metroid Prime game. The story itself isn't incredibly deep, but it's not really the focus of this sort of game.

As with most games of the genre, The Room builds upon the foundation of a point and click (or more point and tap) interface, but expands the standard tap and drag commands to provide an extremely tactile touch screen experience. For the most part, dragging on the screen controls the angle of your view as you smoothly swoop around the 3D environment. Pinch zoom commands move your perspective closer to objects, and movable items can be manipulated as if you're actually touching them. Sliding hidden panels, winding gears, pulling levers, and unscrewing hidden compartments all feels natural, and past the first couple of interactions, no on-screen tutorial is needed.

It's fortunate that such a wide variety of interactions is able to work so intuitively, because The Room isn't the type of game that likes to repeat itself. Every new puzzle feels just as fresh and mind wrenchingly frustrating as those that came before it. The puzzle designers did an outstanding job of providing in-game clues that are just vague enough to drive you mad until the answer finally clicks into place and you wonder why you didn't see the solution in the first place.

In general, mobile games have never been known for cutting edge graphics. Most mobile games stick to 2D sprites, often cartoon styled, and the few that do venture into the third dimension often more closely resemble the N64/PS1 era of gaming more than they do anything modern. Somehow The Room manages to pull off a surprising amount of detail with just the right amount of moodiness and style to be one of the best looking mobile games I've ever seen. I'm sure it helps that it takes place in a single environment with a limited number of items, most of which don't move, but a remarkable accomplishment even so. This visual experience does come at a price of battery life though. Don't expect to pass the hours of a long road trip playing this unless you've got a travel charger handy.

There's not much to dislike about The Room, but if I had to find a complaint it would be that like most games of the genre, once you've found the solutions to all of the puzzles, you can never go back and get the same experience on a replay. Admittedly, it is fun to try to speed run the game the second time through and see how many solutions you really remember while rushing through contraptions you spent hours contemplating the first time. It does give a brief sense of "Gee, look how clever I am", but it's not the same. Luckily for us, Fireproof Games made a sequel that I'll be discussing in a future review.

Friday, August 15, 2014

[TRAILER] World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

For the most part, my posts have all been reviews of my personal opinions on whatever game I happen to play through. I figure it's time to expand things a bit, so I'm trying something new with this post. As a way to look to the future of gaming, I'm going to start posting trailers as well, and offer my thoughts on those.

I'll start things off with the newly announced Warlords of Draenor expansion for World of Warcraft.

In case you have trouble keeping up with the bullet points flashing across the screen in the trailer, they include:
  • New world: Draenor
  • Build and upgrade your garrison
  • New character models
  • Level cap raised to 100
  • New dungeons and raids
  • New monsters
  • New world PVP zone
  • New items and rewards
  • Hundreds of new quests
  • Boost to 90 and play immediately

The number of World of Warcraft subscribers have been steadily declining over the past few years due to ever-increasing competition from newer MMOs, many free to play, and it looks as if Blizzard is making a big push to try and reverse that trend. If anything, this should help modernize the look and feel of the decade old game. Will this new release get their cash cow back in the running, or will they become known as just the Hearthstone company? Personally, I'd like a reboot of The Lost Vikings, but maybe that's just me.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Krull (D. Gottlieb & Co.,1983)

With all of the Episode VII rumors floating around these days, it's safe to say that Star Wars mania is back, or at least warming up. Given how influential these cinematic adventures in a galaxy far far away have become, it's almost forgotten that before 1977, epic sci-fi fantasy adventures were seen as a novelty leftover of the serialized shorts of the past that were thought best forgotten. The first (or 4th, depending on how you count such things) Star Wars film not only changed the expectations of film audiences, it also inspired a decade of film executives with dollar signs in their eyes to try to create the next big fantasy sci-fi epic!

Battle Beyond the Stars, Space Raiders, The Ice pirates, the list of forgotten attempts to cash in on this wave flowed out of the gates with seemingly little thought for quality control. One of my favorite from this scene was a movie called Krull. At the time, it was a box office flop. It's not that it did all that poorly, it just cost way too much to make and thus didn't come close to turning a profit. Over the years it's built up a following on video and on-demand streaming, but not so well remembered was one of its most unique bits of film promotion at the time, the Krull Arcade game.

These days just about every big budget action movie is accompanied by a cross platform game release, usually something slapped together with a short deadline by developers who have only a vague idea what the movie is about, and with mixed results as to quality. Back then, the practice was much less common, yet with results that were just as unpredictable. At the time, the Atari 2600 was pretty much the only real choice for home console releases (the rival Odyssey 2 got fewer licensed games than the Sega Master System), but the big goal was to get an arcade cabinet into movie theater lobbies to catch the eye of potential moviegoers.

As with the Tron arcade game, Krull is divided into multiple screens, each depicting a different scene from the movie (more or less). Unlike Tron's selectable mini-game approach, Krull's 5 screens are presented sequentially in more of a Donkey Kong inspired style. If you manage to complete the last screen, the game loops around and starts you at the beginning again. This has to be accomplished on a single credit though, as this was before the days of continues.

In this game you play as Prince Colwyn trying to rescue Princess Lyssa who has been kidnapped by The Beast and his army of Slayers. That might not sound like the most original plot for a game these days, but remember that this was two years before the release of Super Mario Bros. Krull's controls follow a Robotron: 2084 inspired twin stick shooter approach with the left joystick controlling movement, and the right joystick used to throw the Glaive (a 5 pointed switchblade boomerang-like weapon) in 8 directions. Most of the game is spent in some combination of rescuing your allies, killing slayers, and dodging obstacles. There's no actual background music, but many events trigger short musical cues along with the sound effects.

Krull doesn't follow the movie's story flow exactly, with having to assemble the pieces of the Glaive while dodging boulders on a mountain side, and the towering mountain of the Black Fortress represented as a color shifting hexagon. You won't be scaling the web of the Crystal Spider or riding through the air on Fire Mares, but for the era, it actually managed to represent the actions of the film better than most of its contemporaries. Remember that this was the same era as the E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari games. Krull is a short fun game that has a unique feel to it. If you're the type to enjoy the simple games of the industries early years and you ever happen upon a Krull machine at a retro arcade, pop in a quarter, you might find it worth your time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Double Dragon II: The Revenge (Technōs Japan, 1988)

Once upon a time in a magical era known as 1987 my friend Scott and I were dropped off at our local skating rink. After getting our skates, we noticed a new arcade machine called Double Dragon. The game was mesmerizing to our eager young minds as it presented all of the action packed adventure of a ninja movie (those were big at the time) squeezed into arcade form. The two of us continued popping quarters into this machine until we'd finished the entire game multiple times. The next thing we knew, it was time to go home and we'd never even made it onto the floor to skate.

Double Dragon was an amazing and extremely influential game that forged an entirely new genre which continues even to this day, but this review isn't about Double Dragon. This is a review of its sequel, Double Dragon II: The Revenge.

Much like its predecessor, Double Dragon II: The Revenge sticks to the traditional Beat 'em Up game formula, mostly because at the time it wasn't a formula yet, it was just how the first game was made. In my review of Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja I mentioned how much The Double Dragon series influenced some of the most fondly remembered arcade games of the following decade. Being the second game in the series, the developers wanted to expand the game in new directions, so looking back it's interesting to see which choices were innovations that continued through the years, and which were annoyances quickly abandoned by the genre.

The worst choice made during the development of Double Dragon II struck me right away as I started playing it. The first game had punch, kick, and jump buttons that could be combined for additional moves. These moves all attacked in the direction your character was facing, so attacking the guy behind you meant turning around first. This is pretty standard in the world of videogames, but for the sequel somebody decided to get creative. The three buttons in Double Dragon II are jump, attack left, and attack right. Attack the direction you face to punch, and attack behind you to kick. This means that to alternate punches and kicks on the enemy in front of you, you'll need to spin back and forth. I thought I might get used to it after a while, but even by the end of playing through the entire game this control scheme never really felt comfortable.

The original Double Dragon was a rescue mission, starting with the kidnapping of the main character's girlfriend. The sequel begins with the same girlfriend being shot to death, giving Double Dragon II: The Revenge a much darker story. Being an 80's arcade game however, the story is represented only by the opening animation, and then briefly hinted at after completing the final level. The levels are similar to the first game as well: A city, a factory with a conveyor belt fight, a natural rural environment (a wheat field this time rather than a forest), and finally the enemy gang's palatial mountain hideout filled with familiar traps.

These levels have more defined boss battles at the end of them than Double Dragon II's predecessor did. While the first game would throw some harder enemy waves at you at the end of each map, this one has specific boss characters, which by then had become the norm for the genre. Moving from one level to the next was a continuous flow this time around as the game map simply kept scrolling into the next area rather than cutting to a new location. This gave the player the feel of a single large continuous world, an innovation that was still being applauded as a fresh idea ten years later when Half Life did it. Some games still struggled with this decades later. In fact, the only time the view actually cuts is when entering the door to the hideout.

While the pressure to not only duplicate the runaway success of the first Double Dragon, but also get it into arcades by the following year must have stifled some of the potential originality of this title, it still managed to have some memorable moments of its own. The fight in front of the wheat harvester, the supernatural enemies who disappear from their collapsing armor upon death, and sometimes reappear unexpectedly, and the moment when your own shadow comes to life and attacks you all stand out in my mind as things Double Dragon II simply got right.

If you've only played the NES port of Double Dragon II: The Revenge, you might be surprised by how much isn't in the arcade release. The home version not only has about twice the number of levels, it added cut-scenes between these levels to advance the story. Given that this game wasn't nearly as popular in arcades as the first one, there was less motivation to keep the home release faithful. The NES port also changed the ending to make it happier, if less realistic.

The graphics are a small step up this time around. No giant leaps on a technical level, but it seems like building on the experience of making the first one lead to a nicer looking sprite set. Some specific details stood out as really nice touches such as the helicopter's shadow on the ground, the reflections in the hideout's floor, and the chain link fence you can walk behind. Other graphics looked like they were changed simply for the sake of being different. The cartoony hand pointing your way forward after a wave of thugs has been defeated was replaced with a lady's hand wearing bright nail polish. Maybe this is supposed to represent being guided by the spirit of your dead girlfriend?

The first Double Dragon had some of my favorite game music of all time. Even on the primitive FM synthesized instruments available at the time, those songs managed to evoke crushing hard rock grooves and sweeping orchestral lines at the same time. I can still hum the title music on cue. How does the music of The Revenge measure up? Well, the title screen music is a reimagining of the original, which in itself doesn't seem like a terrible idea, except that in 1988 somebody decided that remaking the original tune into a disco track would be a popular thing to do. That pretty much sets the stage for the new wave synth pop dance tracks you're fed as you fight your way through hordes of street toughs. It isn't until the final level that the music starts to sound appropriate.

After all of that, what exactly did I think of this game? If you're a fan of the original and have a rom handy, Double Dragon II: The Revenge is a fun game that's worth playing through at least once. If you happen to find yourself in a classic arcade and see an actual machine in person? Skip it and play the first one instead. You can't go wrong with a classic.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Contre Jour (Mokus/Chillingo, 2011)

I've been a fan of the Humble Bundle for years now. Not just because it lets me pick up games dirt cheep and help out a charity at the same time, but also because it often exposes me to lesser known titles that I otherwise might not have heard of. Most of the Humble Game Bundles are for PC, but every so often they mix things up with an Android bundle. When it comes to mobile games, one of my favorite genres is puzzle games, and a few bundles back there was an interesting little puzzler included by the name of Contre Jour.

Contre Jour is a French phrase meaning "against daylight". As would be expected by this title, the games art style is presented in Limbo style silhouettes. The game itself is a physics based puzzler that combine aspects of other physics puzzlers and present them together with an original feel. There are familiar aspects influenced by games such as Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and World of Goo.

The general gameplay of Contre Jour follows the Cut the Rope model the most closely by having you make use of the physics of the level to move a thing to a spot, with the option of collecting up to 3 more bonus things along the way. In this case, you're trying to get a little black eyeball creature named Petit to a glowing blue orb. Along the way, there are some sparkly blue particles that can be collected, similar to the stars of other games. It's not groundbreaking in its originality, but it does offer a more classy artistic presentation than the usual cartoony graphics of most games of the genre.

The basic method of moving Petit around the environment is by dragging the ground to raise and lower it, creating slopes, dips, ramps, and barriers. Along the way there are also a number of objects that can be interacted with including ropes, canons, trampolines, teleporters, and my personal favorite, the elastic bands. Manipulating the environment using the touch screen is intuitive and responsive. Even the more complicated levels requiring multiple objects used in combination just seem to feel right.

It's good that Contre Jour's interface works so well, because the puzzles themselves tend to get frustrating at times. As is the case with many physics puzzlers, you often have to rely as much on timing, aim, and reflexes as you do on figuring out the trick to the level. I think I spent an equal amount of time scratching my head as I did cursing my fingers trying to collect all of the blue sparkles, some of which are placed so far out of the way it almost doesn't seem possible to collect them and still complete the level.

When you launch Contre Jour, there is a message saying "Use headphones for the best audio experience" before the game starts. Now in general, that could apply to any game that has audio, so why the special mention on this one? Having a pair of earbuds handy, I plugged them in and checked it out. The audio of Contre Jour is subtle and atmospheric. There's no catchy jingles or screaming pigs. For the most part, your phone's built in speaker won't really do the audio justice. On the other hand, most people who play the game won't even have the audio turned on. Let's be brutally honest here, most people who play the game will probably be sitting on the toilet, probably while at work. Contre Jour plays just fine with the audio off, so you won't be at a disadvantage playing it that way. But, if you get the chance, plug in some headphones at some point and at least check out what it sounds like for a little while, if only so you'll know what to imagine the rest of the time.

So, if you also happened to have picked up that Humble Bundle but haven't bothered checking out Contre Jour yet, give it a try and see what you think. If you didn't, but you're a fan of physics puzzlers and have a couple bucks burning a hole in your pocket, this wouldn't be the worst way to spend it. If you've tried physics puzzle games in the past but you've never really been able to get into them, then maybe you should take a pass on this one, as it's probably not for you.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software/2K Games, 2012)

Back in my review of The Witcher: Enhanced Edition I mentioned how games come in different lengths. Some are designed to be completed in a single sitting, and then replayed multiple times, while others take a bit longer. Then, there are the games that simply take a really long time to play. I'm a fan of the site which gives averages of how long it took players to complete games. It usually gives me a pretty good estimate of how long I can expect to spend on a single title. On one particular game lately, the average fell roughly at about 40 hours, a long game, but not unusually long. So, I dove in, and after completing the entire main story, every side mission, and almost every challenge and collectible, Steam told me I'd spent roughly 70 hours on it. This game was Borderlands 2.

When the first Borderlands game came out in 2009, people didn't really know what to expect. It was a quirky cel-shaded first person shooter with role playing elements mixed in, all wrapped up in an ultraviolent yet cartoony package with a tongue in cheek attitude balanced in a mix that somehow worked into an incredibly addicting experience that took the industry by surprise. This time around, expectations were high out of the gate.

The first noticeable difference I found was in how much better this game is at telling the story. The original game had an opening cinematic, a couple video clips of the mysterious Angel telling you about your task, and the occasional clip of dialog from a stationary NPC. The only characters in the game that really felt alive (other than the ones you blew up) were the CL4P-TP, or Claptraps. The DLC expanded on this by letting the NPCs finally come alive, move around, and take part in the story. Borderlands 2 takes this even farther by having the NPCs actually interact with each other, have their own conversations, and live their own lives, including the four vault hunters from the previous game. You feel much more like you're part of a living world, not just dumped on an endless desert where everything wants to kill you.

The world of Borderlands 2 is also quite different from in the previous game. It still takes place on the planet Pandora (not the Pandora with the unobtanium, a different Pandora), but in the 5 years that have passed since the events of the first Borderlands, the place has gone through some noticable changes. An unexpected result of the events of the previous game was the release of a rare, valuable, and powerful mineral called Eridium that begins popping up everywhere. This both transforms the landscape and attracts more settlers and industry to Pandora, giving the player a world of frozen tundras, grassy plains, toxic caverns, rocky mountains, and luminous swampland that is much more diverse and interesting than the endless desserts of the first game.

That's all great and all, but how does it play? Well, it plays a lot like the first one, but better in a lot of ways. The enemies are more interesting, and more varied, with better AI. The vehicles are more fun. And most importantly, there is a much larger variety of crazy guns! The elemental enhancements on weapons plays a much larger role this time around, with an almost paper/rock/scissors approach to what types of guns are most effective on different types of enemies. It allows for a more strategic approach to both the combat and the inventory management. The missions both advance the story and immerse you in the game's world without feeling too repetitive. I'll admit, after having played through the original and all of its DLC, this game was a lot of more of the same. Then again, that's not a bad thing at all!

Additionally, the humor has taken a step up. The game is overflowing with subtle and not so subtle homages to other games and a variety of movies. The Top Gun and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inspired levels were some of my favorite moments. The ongoing dialog between various NPCs throughout the action provide an ongoing charm without making you stop and watch a cutscene every time somebody starts talking. There are some dramatic moments as well, but it's the humor that sticks with you long after you've finished the game.

There's not really too much to complain about with this game, but if I had to find a gripe it would be that the in game economy starts to feel pretty useless after a while. In standard RPG style you start the game with the most basic of gear and have to grind to save up enough money to purchase better equipment. That's all well and good, but in standard loot drop style you are constantly finding new gear all the time from downed enemies, hidden in chests and lockers, as rewards for completing missions, or in almost every pile of skag dung. Sure there are vending machines that sell weapons, shields, and other gear, but why bother when you'll find something even better just sitting around for free half an hour later? In the first Borderlands there were always ammunition upgrades to save up for later in the game, but in this one Eridium is used for these upgrades instead. This leaves you with a practically infinite amount of funds for ammo refills when needed. Since losing a portion of your money is the only real death penalty, it also takes away from any sense of actual danger.

Just about everyone I know who has played the first Borderlands has already played this one and is eagerly awaiting the Pre-Sequel. But, what if you've never played the original? The most common question I get from people I recommend this game to is whether or not they should play through the first game before tackling its sequel. I thoroughly enjoyed the original, and highly recommend it, simply because it was an amazing game on its own. Having played through the first one also adds extra meaning to a lot of what you see in the second. But, do you really need to play it first? Well, no. Borderlands 2 is the story of an entirely different set of vault hunters, and the story stands on its own without relying on any previous knowledge of the series. The real question is how much time do you have free to invest in some seriously lengthy action games?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

More reviews are on the way!

It's been quite a while since I've posted anything on here, but don't worry...