Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Strider (Double Helix Games/Capcom, 2014)

Back in middle school, my friends and I used to play a game on the NES called Strider. It was a fairly deep platformer adventure game with some metroidvania elements to it, and dialog that told an interesting sci-fi story of futuristic international espionage. Later, we realized that this was not a port, but a spinoff of an arcade game with a much different play style. A faithful Sega Genesis (or Megadrive if you're outside the US) release of this version gave us an entirely new experience to get lost in. While the arcade title had fewer mazes and backtracking for powerups, it offered a fluid style of acrobatic combat, and a platforming system that let you crawl along any surface, wall, or ceiling to fully explore your environment in a way we'd never seen before. There were a couple of sequels to it, another Genesis release as well as a completely different (and far superior) PS1 game, both simply called Strider 2. After that, the franchise sort of faded into history. Surprisingly, Capcom decided to dust off the series with the help of Double Helix Games to produce an all new adventure, confusingly enough once again called Strider.

With so many earlier games to pull inspiration from, there was some pre-release speculation as to what exactly Strider would be, and how it would feel. Double Helix did a faithful job of drawing inspiration from all of the existing source material, but when it came down to the actual controls it was all about the arcade game. Jumping, climbing, and all around swashbuckling (can you use that term to describe non-pirate related activities?) felt just as smooth and fluid as I remembered from my hours spent with the Genesis port. There's even a nice gravity free area where you really get to fully explore these abilities. The combat also was a faithful reinterpretation with the signature swipe of the Cypher (a futuristic katana) leaving a nice glowing swoosh floating in the air.

The level design on the other hand took a slightly different approach. Most of the games in the Strider series have a more traditional arcade style layout where you simply follow a winding path while killing everything in your way until you get to each stage's boss. The NES game focused more on exploration and backtracking as you collected powerups to get to previously unreachable areas. This game is somewhere in the middle. Each level is fairly large with multiple paths to explore, and upgrades to be found in the deepest reaches. Major powerups are collected as you go allowing you to open previously locked doors or travel in new ways to traverse new areas. There is a bit of backtracking within each area.

The major difference here is that once you've reached the new area, you don't need to return to the previous zone. Instead, the whole process starts up all over again. While playing through Strider, I found myself describing the design as a Metroidvania-lite approach. It makes a good compromise for a game in a series mostly not based on exploration, but needing a bit of modernization to thrive in todays console/PC game market. I'd say fans of the NES release and the arcade ports will both feel satisfied by this approach.

The story of Strider is sort of a reimagining of the original game. Being an arcade cabinet release, the original was pretty light on text and presented the basic premise that in the Russian inspired futuristic dystopia of Kazakh City, a man named Hiryu,a member of an elite organization known as Striders, has to overthrow an oppressive dictator named Grandmaster Melo. The NES port's slower pace managed to fill in the story a bit more, and this new release draws on all of the previous lore and expands upon it.

The characters are as over the top as I remember. This is a futuristic fantasy story more than an attempt at gritty realism. A number of assassins have been sent to stop Hiryu from completing his mission. These provide both entertaining cut scenes and challenging boss battles. Each has a distinctly different form of attack, and sometimes more than one must be faced at a time. Other classic boss encounters also resurface including my personal favorite, the incredible battle against the giant flying mechanical dragon that you both ride and attack at the same time. It was impressive in 2D sprite form decades ago, and it works even better as smoothly animated polygons. But you're not entirely alone in these fights, as in the original, you still collect small helper drones along the way that fight beside you as you go.

One aspect that needs to be mentioned is the overall length of the game. While this is easily the longest game in the Strider series, it's still much shorter than many modern titles. If you're looking forward to digging into a 20 hour adventure, you may be disappointed to reach the end after about five hours. Then again, if you're staring at the bottomless abyss of your sprawling Steam library and looking for something relatively quick to knock out, this might be a perfect choice!

Strider's visual presentation is also a matter of taste. As a longtime fan of the series, I was blown away by the detailed reimagining of the familiar environments. Kazakh City has never looked better! The problem some have with it however is that the entire game takes place in similar futuristic industrial environments, and while they are fairly varied between each other, there's never a really dramatic contrast. Still, it looks and sounds great. The music is just as top notch as ever, and the voice acting brings the characters to life without feeling like a cartoon.

So, what is Strider, and who is it for? That's a difficult question to answer. It's not an arcade brawler or an RPG platformer, it's not a sprawling metroidvania or a speedrunner's playground. Strider really tries to find it's own balance and offer something fresh without trying to invent anything completely new. As far as single sitting games go, I thoroughly enjoyed Strider as it drew inspiration from several genres I'm already a fan of and wrapped it around a nice chunk of nostalgia from my childhood. While your mileage may vary, I'd recommend checking it out if you're a fan of any of these styles of gameplay.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Room Two (Fireproof Games, 2013/2014)

It's sequel time again here at Hammer Down Reviews. Frequent readers may remember that a few months ago I posted a review for an indie mobile game called The Room. It was an extremely polished and creative take on the concept of the Escape-the-Room genre of gaming. As I mentioned in the review, I enjoyed the game a lot, so much so that I had to pick up a copy of the sequel as well. As with many games I'm so eager to download, it ended up just sitting on my phone staring at me for a while, but luckily I eventually found the time to sink into it. So, what exactly did I think of this follow up? Did it live up to the expectations set by it's predecessor? Let's find out, as I share my thoughts on The Room Two.

In my review of The Room, I mentioned that despite the name, the game isn't actually about the room itself, rather it's about a strange mechanical box inside the room. This time around, the game is actually about the room, or rather the rooms. Each level plants you in a different room of the mysterious old mansion of an eccentric scientist. Solving each room's puzzles grants you access to the next room, and its even more challenging brain teasers.

Gameplay in The Room Two retains the same tactile intuitiveness of the original, but expanded to incorporate the larger play areas. Dragging around the screen moves your viewpoint around a room, while pinch zooming focuses the camera on a single object or area, that can then be orbited as in the first game. These objects will in turn have parts that can be further zoomed into in order to interact with it. This gives you a lot more freedom of movement, and also increases the complexity of the puzzles. An item found hidden in one object might need to be used in another object across the room.

More thought is put into the story this time. The narrative is still pieced together from old letters found hidden in the various contraptions, but they come across slightly less as simply the ramblings of a mad man, and paint more of a picture around this mysterious new element known as Null, and all of the amazing potential and danger it possesses. These notes are also much more likely to contain necessary clues to the game's puzzles, so don't be surprised if you end up re-reading some of them a few times looking for subtle hints at hidden double meanings.

Visually, The Room Two continues the trend of having some of the most beautiful graphics I've seen in a mobile game. I can't say that it's a noticeable step up from the first title, but it's definitely the type of game you'd want to use to show off what your phone is capable of. While I'm generally glad that mobile games tend to reverse the trend of many current console franchises by placing more focus on gameplay and less on looks, it's still an unexpected treat when somebody puts this amount of detail into a game that you'll primarily be playing on the tiny screen in your pocket.

Once again, the designers managed to create an entire game worth of mind bending puzzles without ever repeating themselves. I don't know where they get all the inspiration, but hopefully they are able to keep this well of creativity flowing as the Fireproof Games website is already promising a 3rd installment of the series soon.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix, 2013)

If you're a regular visitor to this site, and you've been by lately, then you may have noticed that there have been some problems. I accidentally erased all of the images on the blog. As you can imagine, videogame reviews without screenshots aren't nearly as much fun. Needless to say, I was pretty upset, and even considered just pulling all of the reviews down and starting over from scratch. Luckily, I was able to restore most of them from a web cache, so the amount of time spent painstakingly rebuilding the review pics wasn't nearly as overwhelming as it could have been.

Starting over from scratch is never fun, but sometimes it's what must be done. Sometimes something wears out or breaks, sometimes something loses compatibility with current technology, or sometimes something simply goes out of style. In the case of videogames, sometimes a game series simply loses relevance as sequels and storylines stray too far from the original theme, and the characters can no longer be related to by new players. In these cases, trying to steer the series back on course might not be enough, and it's simply time to start over. This is exactly what Crystal Dynamics did when they rebooted Tomb Raider.

Way back in my Uncharted review, I mentioned how the original 1996 Tomb Raider came out in a time when 3rd party 3D platform adventures simply weren't really a thing. Tomb Raider set the groundwork for later games such as Super Mario 64 and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that would eventually lead to 3D platforming becoming a common sight. As the years went by, the franchise flourished, even leading to a couple of big screen adaptations, but as the sequels kept coming, the stories had to keep outdoing earlier releases, until it eventually got a little too out there for new players to relate to. It was time to take a different approach.

Despite the naming confusion, Tomb Raider is not a remake of the original game, 2007's Tomb Raider: Anniversary took care of that. No, this is a prequel. This is the story of how Lara became the globetrotting adventure seeker we all know. This means that the game starts off with a much different Lara Croft than I expected. She's not confident, she's not bold, she's not out to save the world and defeat her enemies in the pursuit of ancient treasures. She's simply scared. She's a weak fragile creature thrust into an unfortunate situation and she's doing her best to survive, and save her friends if she can.

As would be expected, this creates a much darker story than the franchise had seen in the past. Even 2008's Tomb Raider: Underworld, my personal favorite of the series, with it's intentionally darker feel still feels like a light hearted romp compared to this game. Because Lara is presented as weak and inexperienced, the danger is more emotional, and this emotional fear is much more infectious than the more comic book style threats of earlier releases.

Another effect of Lara's novice status is her lack of starter items. I'm used to a well equipped and always prepared Lara Croft starting her mission with at least her twin pistols and a few electronic gizmos. This time you're forced to piece together whatever you can find as you make your way to safety. One of the early weapons is a primitive bow and arrow that is actually a lot of fun to use. Throughout the game, better weapons are acquired and upgraded, but archery remains a strong part of your combat technique throughout. Hopefully this trend will continue in the series.

I've spent most of this review explaining what makes this game so different from previous Tomb Raider titles, but I don't want to scare off fans of the earlier games. It's true that at the beginning of the game, it truly feels like a different franchise, but a funny thing happens the longer you play it. As with most modern action games, new skills and powerups are unlocked throughout your adventure, and the play style starts to shift as new techniques are utilized to deal with more challenging situations. There was a steady subtle shift in the gameplay style during this game. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but I distinctly remember somewhere towards the end of the game realizing how much it felt like a Tomb Raider game. They managed to pull it off so brilliantly that it simply snuck up on me. I was climbing walls, jumping, flipping, and solving mind boggling puzzles in a way that by then felt so much more real than similar puzzles ever did in previous games.

Now that they've managed to turn this scared fragile girl into the powerful and capable Lara Croft we all know, where will they go next? Will the stories start to merge into the styles of the existing world? Will they forge this into an entirely new spin-off timeline as happened with the new Star Trek movies? It's still anybody's guess right now, but hopefully the series will continue to be successful for years to come and we'll get to know this new world Crystal Dynamics has created even more.