Thursday, May 21, 2015

Punch Quest (Madgarden/Rocketcat Games, 2012)

Way back in my review of Jetpack Joyride (my 3rd review ever!) I talked about endless runners. While reviewing Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja I talked about the classic Beat 'em Up genre. While Endless Runners are currently one of the most popular types of mobile games, those of us who grew up in the arcades of the late 80s and early 90s still have fond memories of popping token after token into the vast assortment of more or less identical Beat 'em Ups. These two styles of play seem miles away from each other, but somehow the design wizards over at Madgarden found away to merge the two into something new in the form of Punch Quest.

The first thing that struck me about Punch Quest (no  pun intended) was the amount of thought that must have gone into the controls. Endless Runners tend to have extremely simple controls, often using the entire touchscreen as a single button that is your only input. Arcade Beat 'em Ups were a bit more complex, tending to use a joystick for eight directional movement along with three buttons: Punch/Weapon, Jump, and Kick/Special Move. Punch Quest squeezes all of this into the equivalent of two buttons. The right half of the screen is Jab/Special Move/Forward Dash, and the left half is Uppercut/Jump. Pressing them both at the same time triggers a Block and causes your character to stand still until you let go. This gives you an impressive amount of control to the point where it sometimes reminded me of the classic console platformers I grew up on.

Endless Runners take place in a wide variety of environments from realistic to abstract. Punch Quest lands somewhere in between with a surreal monster infested cave/dungeon setting.Your overall objective is fairly irrelevant as is the norm for the genre, something about helping a gangsta' gnome leave the planet, but the mood it sets is what gives this experience its unique flavor. To make the never-ending random levels a bit more interesting, the path often splits into an upper or lower option with a simple sign hinting at what each choice has to offer. This is a great help when a quest requires a specific action such as using a powerup or defeating a boss.

Wait, boss fights? In an Endless Runner? Surprisingly, yes! While the game is clearly a runner at its core, it borrows the idea of boss fights from its Beat 'em Up roots. You don't actually stop running to fight the bosses. Instead, they fly along with you to stay on the screen, similar to the bosses in classic Beat 'em Up vehicle stages. The variety of attacks and strategies offered actually exceeds what is typically seen in the genre, and reminded me of classic platformer boss battles. The flying giant punching fist machine for example could easily have been in an early Sonic the Hedgehog title. Figuring out the best strategy and powerup combination for each boss was part of the fun, and quickly defeating the ones that previously gave so much trouble was very satisfying.

Speaking of powerups, this game has some that are actually useful! New attack special moves and platforming techniques can be unlocked and equipped in various combinations allowing you to customize the overall feel of the game. Personally, I enjoyed the forward punch that slows your descent after a jump, allowing you to span much larger chasms, and spend more time punching those pesky flying enemies. Some of these powerups are always active, and some only work after your Punch Meter reaches a certain point. There are also a number of cosmetic add-ons including the obligatory expansive hat selection to let you look however you'd like. Race and gender options also go far beyond the standard white dudes only approach similar games take.

As I mentioned in my Jetpack Joyride review, it's the mission system that really makes these types of games click for me. Sure, high scores are fun, but I like to feel I'm accomplishing something. Punch Quest borrows heavily from Jetpack Joyride's quest system, and it works just as well here. I was able to get lost in this strange world for many a lunch break and there was always that little voice in the back of my head urging just one more quick run.

Back in my Wake review I mentioned how retro graphics are becoming so common that they're starting to feel dated again. The art style in Punch Quest is certainly pixel art based, but has more of a modern leaning rather than an obvious attempt at a 16-bit look. It's a matter of opinion. I thought the graphics looked nice, but I probably would have preferred nice rounded edges instead. I did appreciate that it supports both portrait and landscape mode, that's a nice bonus! The sound was oddly mixed. The sound effects seemed to be mixed more mid-range and bass heavy while the background music was more treble heavy, the opposite of what is usually expected. It's not a big deal though since as a mobile game you'll probably be playing it muted the majority of the time anyway.

Punch Quest isn't a perfect game, but it is a fun game. It's full of strange ideas made stranger in a way that surprisingly feels both comfortable and familiar. You can play it in short bursts, or spend an afternoon with it. I don't know if I'd go back and play it again, but I enjoyed playing it when I did and if you are a fan of either Endless Runners or Beat 'em Ups, you might enjoy it too.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (Konami, 2006)

I've mentioned the word "metroidvania" a few times in my reviews as it has become a genre in itself. Games such as Wake, Strider, and DLC Quest have strong metroidvania influences while Guacamelee and Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate offer full blown metroidvania experiences. But what exactly is a metroidvania?

The word actually started as a derogatory term used by old school Castlevania fans complaining about the direction the franchise took starting with Symphony of the Night. Rather than the more straight forward arcade inspired approach that most (but not all) of the previous titles offered, later releases more closely emulated the 2D games of the Metroid franchise. Despite the criticisms of some fans, many players (myself very much included) found this direction to be exactly what the series needed. By the time the hugely influential indie surprise hit Cave Story was released, the term "metroidvania" had become a badge of honor for fans of the genre. Luckily for us, Konami stuck with the style and released a number of handheld Castlevania titles further defining this new genre, including Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.

The first couple Castlevanias were about a vampire hunter named Simon Belmont. Later titles expanded to the entire Belmont family, and eventually branched out into a larger variety of lead characters. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin introduces two new slayers of the undead, Jonathan and Charlotte. Each has their own unique advantages and the player can not only switch between them at any time, but can have the other character play along via AI. There are simple commands to have your companion stay put or follow along, and some special attacks that require teaming up.

Having an ally is obviously an advantage in battle, but it also plays a large part in solving the castle's many puzzles. There are objects that require the strength of two to move, or the weight of two to activate, as well as situations where one character needs to wait in position while the other moves an object into place. The 2nd character can also help out with giving your jumps a bit of a boost which is a big deal early in the game before you've had a chance to load up on powerups.

As is the core of the metroidvania genre, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is full of roadblocks and dead ends which open up to you later in the game once a new ability or piece of gear has been acquired. This style acts as a sort of tutorial allowing the player to master each new technique before gaining access to the next, yet it also allows for an overall game design that feels very open world while still providing a polished linear experience. Powerups here include the standards such as the abilities to double jump, slide through small spaces, and break barriers, and while none of the powerups are really ground breaking, they do still manage to put their own Castlevania twist on them.

One of the most defining characteristics of Castlevania titles is the setting. Most of the 2D games in the series center around a single large castle that must be explored fully. While some of the earlier games experimented with having multiple smaller castles connected by outdoor areas and even towns to give more of an RPG feel, those releases tended not to be as well regarded. For Portrait of Ruin, Konami took a cue from Mario 64 and placed several magical paintings throughout the castle. These paintings can be entered, allowing for much more variety of location without ever technically leaving the castle. This is sort of the opposite of the classic Zelda formula as the interior of the castle becomes the overworld, and areas such as a sprawling desert or Victorian city are treated as the games dungeon zones.

Another aspect of Portrait of Ruin that sets it apart from other Castlevania titles is the central plot. with most of the series there is a simple formula: Dracula woke up and somebody has to get through his castle and hit him with a whip, all wrapped up in a unique combination of classic horror movies and Catholic mythology. This time there's a new vampire named Brauner who is trying to resurrect Dracula in order to stir up trouble. Along the way are some memorable characters such as the vampire sisters and the helpful ghost, each with thoughtfully written back stories. And as always, there's the usual money grubbing priest/merchant who is always happy to help you defeat evil, for the right price that is.

Pushing the narrative boundaries a bit more, Portrait of Ruin features multiple endings depending on what choices you make and how you go about accomplishing your task. As usual, there's a happier ending if you make the right choices, the "good ending", and several more that can be considered "bad endings". Luckily, the less desirable outcomes always involve actions taken after your last game save, so you can always keep trying for a more complete victory without fear.

While Castlevania started out with a more arcade action style, it has slowly been incorporating more RPG mechanics through the years. As with the other DS and GBA releases of the series, Portrait of Ruin features random loot drops to buff up the weapons and armor for both of your characters, as well as stock up on the usual items such as health potions, which are handy since unlike the Metroid series, Castlevania enemies generally don't drop health refills. Defeating enemies also raises your XP allowing you to level up your character. I generally find that this makes the constant backtracking seem like less of a chore, since it means I can grind XP along the way while keeping an eye out for missed secrets so the additional time doesn't feel wasted.

Castlevania games have long featured some of my favorite gaming soundtracks, and this one maintains the tradition of gothic and baroque themes interspersed with jazz, latin. and hard rock influences to create the magic blend we've come to expect. The general sound effects are pretty standard, but I was surprised by the amount of spoken dialog included in the game. Neither 2D metroidvania titles or DS games usually feature voice acting, so this little bonus gave the game an extra level of polish.

Graphically, Portrait of Ruin didn't immediately strike me as being too different from the GBA offerings, but over time I started to notice a few things.The additional storage available in the DS cartridges allowed for more detailed sprites and greater variety with smoother animations. The DS's graphics processor also lets some pretty cool effects happen against the sprites. Finally, a number of 3D polygonal objects and creatures show up from time to time to add a bit of depth to the visual style. So, while the overall art direction deviates little from what was available on the previous generation, what can be done with that style has certainly improved to offer a pleasing, if not wowing, graphical style that suits the game well.

For the multiplayer fans out there, I should probably also mention the Boss Rush mode. This two player cooperative mode allows one player to control Jonathan and the other Charlotte. As the name suggests, this mode allows you to take on all of the game's bosses one after another. I have to admit that I didn't personally try this mode out, but it could be a selling point for some, so it's worth bringing up.

So, if you're a fan of later 2D Castlevania games, or just the metroidvania genre overall, this is a solid game that delivers a quality adventure with a high degree of polish. It changes up the formula enough to feel fresh, while not enough to lose the feel of the genre. On the other hand, if the thought of backtracking and wondering aimlessly on a quest for yet another powerup makes you cringe, you should probably pass on this one. For me, I had a great time with Castlevania Portrait of Ruin, and I'll be keeping an eye out for some of the other Castlevania titles that I haven't had a chance to play through yet.