Archive for the 'Platformer' Category


Not Insanely TwistedNightSky is the latest from Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren, author of Knytt, and as with Knytt, most of the point of playing is to observe the stylish, elaborate-yet-minimalist visuals. This is a quiet game made out of silhouettes in various themes, levels with silhouettes of gears and levels with silhouettes of distant trees and so forth. A glowing glass orb navigates this environment under the player’s control.

I suppose the spherical avatar begs comparison to Within a Deep Forest, Nifflas’ previous game with a ball for a protagonist, but the gameplay reminded me a lot more of Gumboy: it’s a heavily physics-oriented game where your main activity consists of just rolling left and right and trying to get enough speed to go flying off ramps to where you want to go. It doesn’t push this as hard as Gumboy did, though. NightSky is more about variations on the theme. The default controls include a button to speed up and a button to stay put (the latter being useful for clinging to moving objects), but some levels don’t allow them, or replace them with other things: the stay-put button activates a machine, or the go-faster button reverses gravity. Some levels even disable the move-left/move-right buttons and make you navigate entirely by manipulating the environment — say, releasing a hammer to smack a sled with the orb in it, or using a pair of pinball flippers. There are orb-driven vehicles, including ornithopters. It’s just one shadow of a thing after another.

The irrelevant frame tale involves dreams, and that’s a good way to think of this game: as in a dream, you just find yourself in situations without preamble or explanation. These situations last three screens, no more and no less. If there’s a navigation puzzle that only uses two screens, you get a third one that’s pure scenery. I rather like this pointless symmetry, although I’m not sure I can explain why.

The game offers both an easy and a hard mode, the difference affecting the content of the levels but keeping them roughly the same, like the light-world/dark-world thing in Super Meat Boy. It suggests reserving hard mode for your second play-through, and I agree that this is the correct approach for this game, as the hard versions of the levels are sometimes quite frustrating, and there’s a good deal of satisfaction in just breezing through the easy versions. After the epilogue, you can unlock a final set of “slightly nonsense” levels that break the game’s carefully-crafted ambiance entirely, with brightly-colored checkerboard levels and levels made of ASCII art and suchlike. It’s a good way to end it. I can’t really say that the game takes itself seriously, considering the orb-driven ornithopters, but it’s arty enough that the silly bonus content helps to strike a kind of balance. Braid could have used an ending like this one.

Edge: What I Learned

As expected, I finished Edge last night, even to the point of picking up all the crumbs in the game. (They’re actually called “prisms” by the game, which I suppose is accurate: geometrically speaking, cubes are prisms. But I’ll continue to call them crumbs.)

If this game has one really memorable gimmick, it’s the way it exploits the ambiguity of isometric perspective. Without the depth cues provided by perspective, two objects that look like they’re next to each other could be separated by any distance in the direction perpendicular to the screen. If those two objects are floor tiles, it can look like a continuous navigable surface when it’s not. There’s one fairly advanced level that appears identical to the simple tutorial-like level 1, but is actually completely different. Fortunately, the game provides a mini-map in one corner that shows a schematic of the actual level geometry around you. Without this, some bits would be absolutely hopeless, particularly the occasional level containing secret crumbs in places that are completely occluded from view. But it’s not something you’re looking at all the time. I had to keep reminding myself to look at the mini-map occasionally, in case there was some revelation to be found there.

Also significant: unintuitive limitations on movement. Your avatar is a cube that moves by rolling without slipping from one face to another. The usual way to climb is simply to roll up onto an adjacent block; this is why you can only climb walls that are one cube-unit in height. The thing is, it actually enforces the physical consequences: if you’re in a trench, for example, with walls directly to your left and right, it’s impossible to climb out, and you have no option to roll along the trench lengthwise. I found it was easy to overestimate what was impossible, and thereby miss ways to get places. There’s generally an obvious approach, but you can miss out on crumbs or simpler approaches this way, possibly things that would shave seconds off your level-completion time if you care about that.

Now, I mentioned that there was a particularly difficult move, apparently called “edging”, where you start to roll up a vertical surface, but arrest your motion by supplying just enough force to keep from falling. (Usually this is done as a way to hitch a ride on a moving object, but it’s also a way to stay put on a precipice while you wait for a moving floor tile to position itself under you.) I’ve discovered the secret to executing this, by the way: switch the controls to virtual-gamepad mode, and all it takes is a particular rhythmic tapping on the virtual button. But the reason I bring it up is because of one particular level that illustrates everything I’ve said so far: level 18, “edge time”. (The game only uses lower-case letters.) This is a level based mostly around increasingly-difficult acts of edging — or so it seems at first. But if you explore, and look at the mini-map, and think about how the grooved areas can really be navigated, you can get through it without any edging at all. When you first encounter this level, it functions as a tutorial on a difficult technique that you’ll need later. But to a sharper inspection, it’s an exercise in doing things the non-obvious way. Now, there are definitely crumbs in the game that can only be reached by feats of edging, but this level makes me wonder if there are other places where there are alternative routes that I missed. I’ve mastered the game enough to eat every crumb, but not enough to get high speed ratings, and this sort of inquiry might be crucial to that sort of achievement.

Which, however, doesn’t make speed play more appealing to me. If this game has more secrets, they’ll probably remain unfound by me.


More iOS gaming on the bus today while I contemplate what, if anything, to do about my repeated inability to run PC games without crashing. Today, I try out Edge, a game that I probably wouldn’t have heard of without Tim Langdell‘s attempt to suppress it. Langdell is so loathed in the games industry that I’d like to say that I relished giving money to his competitors, but as Mobigame (the makers of Edge) is an actual game company, they can’t really be said to be in competition with Edge Games, just as First National Bank wasn’t a competitor of John Dillinger.

But about the game! Edge is essentially a simple isometric platformer in a retroesque style: it’s all monochrome cubes, except for the player avatar and the crumbs you’re supposed to eat along the way, both of which are cubes that cycle through pastel hues in a pulsing, Atari 2600 way. Challenge is created mainly by moving elements, either cycling or triggered: cubes that threaten to knock you off platforms, cubes that you have to ride on top of, and, trickiest of all, cubes that you have to cling to by an edge in a diagonal posture without letting your angle decay or resisting the decay too hard and pivoting to the top and slamming into a wall and falling down. The last is something I still find very difficult, regardless of what control scheme I use.

Now, about those control schemes. There are three, and they’re all awkward, but they’re awkward in different ways. By default, you have a touch-and-drag interface where the relative movement of your finger is turned into a directional force. This is awkward mainly because of the mismatch between analog, any-direction finger movements and four-direction, discrete-steps cube-rolling, but also partly due to the limited space available to drag your finger around. Even on an iPad screen, I find myself sometimes running off the edge. Alternately, you can switch on a four-button directional virtual gamepad, which at least links the discrete directions to discrete inputs, but has the problem that it’s easy to lose track of where it is while your eyes are fixed elsewhere. Finally, there’s an accelerometer-based tilt-to-move system, about which the less said the better. Edge has recently been ported to PC, and it seems like pretty much any PC-based control scheme would be easier to use than what we’ve got here on its native platform. (Sort of like Machinarium in the opposite direction.) But then, making it easy may not be the point.

Also possibly missing the point: playing it for an hour at a time, like I’ve been doing. It’s a phone game, hence it is made for quick bursts, not obsessive play. I’ll probably finish it tonight.

Three Failures

Last night, I was tired, and not in the mood for anything stressful or taxing. Going back to Super Meat Boy, or even to the lesser challenge of Heroes Chronicles, was out of the question. So I turned to my largish sub-stack of things bought in recent Steam sales that I haven’t even tried yet.

The first thing I tried was Safecracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure. I suppose it says something about me that a puzzle game — yea, a self-proclaimed ultimate puzzle game — is my idea of something neither stressful nor taxing. But I had every reason to believe that this would be essentially just a gallery of soup cans, where the scope of every puzzle is well-defined and there’s no possibility of negative consequences. After all, that’s what the original Safecracker was. I could be wrong; I realize that it’s not the same game. But I didn’t at first. It was many months after S:TUPA was added to Steam that a discussion in a completely different context (roughly “This is just like that puzzle in Safecracker!” “What? I’ve played Safecracker and I don’t remember any puzzle like this.”) made me aware that it was a sequel. I think understand why the makers decided to obscure this: if it were called Safecracker II, there would be potential customers who would decide not to play it because they hadn’t played the original, or who decided to play the original first and found it so off-putting that they never bought the second. But the title they chose almost kept me from buying it, and I’m their target audience. There must be some better compromise.

At any rate, I couldn’t get S:TUPA going at all on my system. Starting it just locked my machine up with no video output. Possibly it was defaulting to a resolution that my monitor doesn’t support, but even then, you’d think I’d get some background music or something. I have seen this game running on a modern system, though, so it’s probably a solvable problem. But it wasn’t the sort of puzzle I was in the mood for, so I switched games.

Next up, I tried The Ball, a first-person puzzler, which is to say, a game that owes a great deal to Portal, even though the theme here is Aztec ruins (with hints of Ancient Astronaut) rather than sterile white corridors. The main conceit is obstacles that can only be overcome by using a large, unwieldy metal ball, a unique item doesn’t necessarily easily go where it’s needed. Your main control over it is a handheld device that’s something like a ball-specific version of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2: you can use it to attract the ball when it’s in range, and also to smack it like a pinball and send it careening forward. Maybe I was doing things suboptimally, but I found that I used the attract mode to move the ball around most of the time, which means that the ball spent a lot of time right in my face, which is always awkward in a first-person game. The designers understand the problem, and compensate for it by making the ball go transparent when it blocks your view significantly, leaving only some bands solid. I felt that even this cluttered the view uncomfortably.

When I started the game, I noticed that Steam listed some “Last played” data, which struck me as strange, because I had never actually played it before. But then I remembered that I had attempted to play it back when I first bought it, only to have it crash immediately. This time, I fared better: it lasted about a half an hour before crashing, long enough for me to get not quite all the way through the first level. Since this level is pretty tutorial-like, I still don’t think I really have a good idea of what the gameplay is like or how hard the puzzles are.

With that, I gave up on puzzle games and tried out Lego Batman, something that had struck me as a good idea back in 1997 when I played Lego Star Wars. After an overlong intro sequence involving some rather forced slapstick — perhaps my tastes have changed in the last four years? — I made Lego Batman run around and hit people for a few minutes, just long enough to decide that this is a game best controlled with a gamepad rather than mouse and keboard. But my system wouldn’t recognize my trusty DualShock + USB Adapter until I rebooted, and after that, it wouldn’t start the game again. It kept throwing up Windows “illegal operation” dialogs.

It’s likely that all these problems, and probably other recent problems as well (like my difficulties with Arthur’s Knights), have a common root in my hardware, probably that the fan on the video card is clogged with dust again or something similarly foolish. But I didn’t feel like doing anything as stressful and taxing as troubleshooting hardware, so I spent the rest of the evening watching a movie instead. At least I can scratch two of the three games off the list of things I’ve purchased but not actually played.

Super Meat Boy: Omega

Popping back one stack frame, I got some more Super Meat Boy in yesterday. Can I just mention how catchy the music is in this game? Half the reason I came back to it just now is that it kept going through my head even as I was playing Machinarium. The game has three versions of most tunes: a clear-toned and bouncy one for the light world, a variation with more crunchy distortion for the dark world, and a chiptune version for the retro warp zones.

But I haven’t been hearing much of those in my latest sessions. I’ve been spending nearly all of my time in the world called The End, where the light-world music is less bouncy and more mock-epic, the dark world is extremely hard to access, and there don’t seem to be any warp zones. Possibly there are some lurking somewhere, but I suspect not, simply because this is the section that strips away all the distractions and just leaves pure challenge. There are no bandages to collect. You can’t even use any of your unlocked characters; apparently confronting Doctor Fetus is something Meat Boy has to do for himself. And, perhaps unintuitively, that’s what’s driven me to play only in The End. From the standpoint of making progress, the chief reason to go back to earlier levels (including dark world levels) is to unlock additional characters who can help you along. If they can’t help me any more, I might as well keep banging my head on level 6-5.

That’s where I am now, level 6-5. It’s the last level before the boss fight, and the only one I need to complete to unlock it. Its name is Omega, and I have just spent a great deal of time on it. It consists of five loosely-defined floating rectangular structures, bristling with buzzsaws, mostly navigable only by long-distance wall-jumps executed in specific places with split-second precision. Just getting into the first enclosed structure seemed impossibly hard when I started. By now, I’ve actually got to where I can see the level’s end a couple of times, but it’s clear that I’ll have to play for hours more before I can actually finish.

The thing is, I’m reluctant to stop playing again now. I’ve made a lot of progress on completing Omega, but it’s not permanent, tangible progress. It’s progress in the form of knowledge and muscle memory — “controller kata”, as an acquaintance of mine described it — and if I spend a week playing something else, there’s a good chance I’ll lose it. This is not stuff you can write down, for the most part. It’s about getting the right rhythm, and applying it without visual confirmation, like Tommy playing pinball. Dustin Hoffman’s character in Little Big Man, during his gunslinger phase, spoke of “firing a gun without touching it”, by which he seemed to mean performing the action so automatically that you aren’t aware of the weight of the gun in your hand until afterward. That’s more or less how I now feel about the earlier actions in this level. The repetition becomes a kind of meditation.

Except that, even in this state, I’m not executing perfectly — in fact, I’m executing so imperfectly that I only occasionally reach the point near the end that I don’t actually know how to execute. Oh, I manage each particular bit on most attempts at it, but the probabilities multiply out to majority failure. It makes me wonder to what degree meditation exercises of the purely mental sort are subject to error and variation that the meditator doesn’t notice because there’s no machine judging correctness and making you start over.

Super Meat Boy: Beyond Death

I recently saw a couple of writeups from different sources about a Flash-based game called Hollow, a short, difficult platformer that really made me think that its author admires Edmud McMillen: the player character reminded me a lot of the bobble-headed monsters from Gish, and the whole style of extremely difficult platforming with minimal downtime on death owes a lot to Super Meat Boy. And, once Super Meat Boy was in my mind, I had the urge to give it another whirl.

I said before that world 4, the “Hell” world, seemed to be beyond my abilities, but now, I’ve not only got through it, I’ve passed the world after it as well. Perhaps Hollow helped to get me into the right mindset. The thing about these levels is that, however impossible they look at first, they do yield to persistence and practice. After trying and failing enough, the trickiest jump sequence becomes temporarily easy, the necessary moves burned into short-term muscle memory. The one real challenge, then, is convincing yourself to spend enough time replaying a given level to beat it — and it’s much easier for me to do this in a shorter game.

It seems like the boss levels are getting easier at this point. The first three worlds all had some kind of time pressure in their boss fights — in particular, world 3 ended in a race against time instead of a conventional boss. But there doesn’t seem to be any time factor at all in world 5, and in Hell, time is actually on your side: the boss fight is a survival challenge, where all you have to do is stay alive long enough for the massive but idiotic opponent to brain himself via repeated failed attempts at head-butting.

The boss fight in Hell is worth special note because it’s one of the few places where a platformer acknowledges the hideousness consequent on taking the action literally. The boss, apparently named “Little Horn”, is a colossal Meat Boy formed from hundreds of Meat Boy’s former lives. In the cutscene that introduces the fight, we see dead Meat Boys raining down into Hell, visibly disturbing the living Meat Boy as he grasps what they are and just as quickly suppresses this knowledge. Now, usually in platformers there’s an unspoken assumption that, when you die, everything since the last checkpoint unhappens. But this isn’t the first suggestion that this isn’t the case here. Meat Boy leaves red stains on everything he touches, and those remain in place from life to life. (Sometimes I even use the stains as guides to help me repeat actions precisely.) When there’s an explosive hazard, sometimes one life’s spatter of blood is still airborne when the next life starts. But such things fade from the attention, until the game feeds us a cutscene that reminds us of them.

Thinking about it mythically, journeys through Hell are all about conquering death. Thus, it’s fitting for Meat Boy to encounter and defeat here a creature literally formed from his own numerous deaths. The symbolism gets a little weird when you consider that meat is, by definition, something that’s already dead, but this can be taken as showing how complete his mastery of his own mortality is — an interpretation made stronger by the self-destructive behavior the game provokes, accidentally leaping headlong into circular saws and not caring much. Meanwhile, the chief antagonist is Dr. Fetus, someone who hasn’t even been born yet. So far from mastering death, he hasn’t even gotten started at mastering life. No wonder he resents Meat Boy so much.

If I read the art correctly, dead Meat Boys continue to be a menace in the next world, where zombie versions of yourself pursue you. World 5 is actually unusually dense with active enemies of various kinds (counting guided missiles), considering that the world is titled “Rapture” and it’s set in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. All this seems to go away in world 6, “The End”, which goes back to basics: just player versus environment, with circular saws on tracks or swing-arms as the only moving elements other than the player character. The End has only five levels before the boss fight, but they’re so preposterously difficult that I haven’t got through them yet. Furthermore, it should be noted that The End is actually the second-to-last level, and also that there’s a whole mechanic concerning “light” and “dark” versions of every level, where the light version is what you get by default, and the dark version has to be unlocked by beating a certain time to get an “A+” rating on the light version. (There are no other ratings. You get an A+ or nothing.) Steam has two separate Achievements: “The End”, for beating the light world, and “The Real End” for beating the dark world. I think I’ll probably only be going for the fake end, but we’ll see how I feel after I’ve reached it.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

According to Steam, I have spent 11 hours playing Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. In fact, I’ve spent something more like half an hour at it, little enough that I haven’t even made it out of the intro/tutorial level (which is strikingly similar to the tutorial level in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). Remember Arkham Asylum? That had a problem with Steam’s timekeeping too. It had a launcher that spawned the game in a separate process and then terminated. Since Steam only counts the time spent in the program it actually launches, its time count was way too low. But at least that didn’t lead to further troubles. PoP:TFS has the opposite problem, which is far worse: for some reason Steam can’t tell when I’ve exited the game, so it keeps on counting me as playing when I’m not. And also, because it thinks I’m still playing, it won’t let me launch any other games, or exit Steam. The only way I’ve found to exit this state is by killing the Steam process via the Windows task manager.

That’s not the only thing about the experience that reminds me of my experiences with Arkham Asylum, for just as AA introduced me to the joys of Games for Windows Live, so too is PoP:TFS my first experience with Ubisoft’s “Uplay” service and their infamous need-a-constant-network-connection-to-play DRM. It’s not clear to me how closely linked these two things are; all I can say is that I encountered them both for the first time together, and so my dissatisfaction spreads to both. The chief effect of Uplay is that I needed to exit the game to change the default resolution (800×600) to something that looks reasonably good, because most of the configuration is outside of the game, in the Uplay launcher app. The chief effect of the DRM is that, once I exited the game, I couldn’t get back in. The game gets stuck at a screen telling me that it’s “attempting to restore the network connection”, which is absurd, because I have a network connection — I can alt-tab out and surf the web, send email, etc. without problems. Goodness knows what the real problem is.

Uplay seems like a very unnecessary thing to me. It’s trying to be like Steam or GfWL, but those services at least have games from more than one publisher, and Uplay doesn’t. Still, when I first launched the game and was told I needed to register for an Uplay account first, I was actually inclined to say “Well, at least it isn’t GfWL”. I mean, when it downloaded a patch for itself, it did it fairly quickly, needed only one iteration, and didn’t ask me to restart the app. This is still worse performance than your typical single-programmer indie work on Steam, mind you, because it’s using Uplay’s built-in patcher, which doesn’t run until you try to launch the game.

But such objections pale in comparison to the DRM, which is a piece of software whose sole purpose is to prevent the game from working. In theory it’s only supposed to prevent it from working for pirates, but apparently someone at Ubisoft decided that keeping the wrong folks out was more important than letting the right folks in. It’s like one of those overzealous IP lawyers who hurt their employers’ business by harassing fan sites and alienating customers. The message it puts on the screen when it refuses to let me play even seems to acknowledge that I’ve successfully run the game before, which you’d think would be a good indication that there’s no good reason to stop me from doing so again.

I suppose I could download a crack. I mean, it’s not like DRM actually works for its intended purpose. But why bother? There are plenty of other games waiting.


Brick walls seem to be a good trick for increasing the sense of detail.The main thing I have to say about Trine is that it’s breathtakingly pretty. It’s a storybook-fantasy world of gnarly trees and crumbly old castles, huge glittering treasure hoards and picturesque waterfalls with rainbows in front of them, all 3D-modeled in exquisite detail and lit with glowy sunbeams. And most of that is irrelevant to gameplay: this is another of those 2D platformers with 3D graphics, so much of what you see is either in front of or behind the plane of action.

The game’s defining gimmick is that you have three characters that you can switch between at will: a thief, a wizard, and a knight, each with different abilities. So it’s a little bit Lost Vikings, but not a lot: only one of the three characters exists in the world at a time, and switching from the thief to the wizard (for example) means just swapping the wizard in at the thief’s position. The base abilities of the three characters (which can be extended somewhat via upgrades): the knight does hand-to-hand combat and has a shield that can ward off some kinds of environmental damage, the thief has a bow and a grapple, and the wizard has telekinesis and can create objects.

I find the most interesting of the three characters to be the wizard, who they could have called the engineer, given the way he interacts with the levels. At first he can only make boxes of varying size, but over the course of the game he learns to make planks, and then, towards the end, a single floating platform. All this is accomplished through a simple drawing interface, like in Crayon Physics, although there are limits to how large a box or how long a plank you can draw. Still, within these constraints, you have considerable latitude to come up with your own solutions to the game’s problems: passing over a spike pit with a plank propped up on a couple of boxes, for example, if you find that swinging over it with the thief’s grapple is too difficult. The game has enough of a physics engine for the levels to have various sorts of see-saws, carousels, and counterweights, and they can usually be made more manageable by a plank wedged in the right place. And yes, sometimes abusing the wizard feels like cheesing out, but sometimes it feels like the ideal approach, something that it would be a shame not to do. I almost said something about “intended solutions” there, but when you come right down to it, the designers of this game designed in multiple approaches. I can’t imagine that they intended us not to take advantage of them.

As to the other characters: The thief is good for getting up to high places quickly by swinging on a rope, and as such shows off the physics a bit more. A deft hand can even put the thief at a point higher than the spot the grapple hits, and this is often necessary to reach caches of the green bottles containing “experience” (a strange notion that the game just takes in stride). But even this is sometimes best accomplished with the wizard’s aid, laying down a plank across a couple of supports for a better landing zone, and this is probably the point at which it feels most like the characters are acting as a team. The knight definitely does the least to pull his weight, especially once you’ve upgraded the thief enough to one-shot most enemies from a distance. I mainly used him as a damage sponge, and he was pretty good at that.

On the whole, it’s a pretty polished piece of work. Of all the games I’ve played during this promotion, this is the one where I’m most tempted to go for 100% completion. I’m pretty close as it is; I just need to hunt down some stray experience bottles. (Gotta drink ’em all!)

Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time

OK, here’s another one I’m not finishing immediately. I think I probably could beat it in a day — I’m about halfway through by levels — but I just don’t have the patience right now.

Doc Clock is a physics puzzler/platformer. Despite its time-travel theme, it isn’t in any way about time-travel puzzles. The overall goal involves finding the parts of a time machine so you can travel back to before a mistake you make in the very beginning, and it has a Braid-like rewind mechanic, and that’s it. As we observed in Toki Tori, though, a rewind mechanic doesn’t really need to fit in the fiction or theme; it fits comfortably in the realm of save/load and restart level functions. (Although “Toki Tori” is Japanese for “time bird”, so perhaps earlier iterations of the title fit the rewind into the story? The version I played didn’t really have a story, but I understand earlier versions did.)

Instead, the game seems to be mostly about wacky vehicle customization, except for the first couple of levels, which are about planks: using planks to bridge gaps, rotating them to form inclined planes, attaching them together to form larger planks, etc. Vehicle customization is also about attaching grabbable objects together, and is very fiddly. You can attach components to your time-car at any point and at any angle, so getting that spring on just right so that it propels the vehicle onto a platform above you without overshooting can take multiple little adjustments — and each attempt involves a nontrivial recovery time, even with rewinding. The one problem I seem to have the most is stability: a lot of arrangements tend to flip over on their back in adverse conditions, like accelerating. You can fix this by attaching something heavy (like a sofa or a refrigerator) to the bottom of the vehicle, but that approach has problems of its own.

Anyway, I started this game thinking that it would be lynchpin puzzles, things with an “Aha!” factor, but it turns out to be all tinkering and adjustment and falling onto spikes because the irregular block you put over them is a few pixels away from a stable position. So I’ll get back to it some other day, when I’m in the mood for that sort of thing.

A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda

Once more, a recent indie title can be played to the point of rolling the credits in under six hours (and that includes one particularly hard jumping sequence that probably took me a half an hour all by itself). It apparently expects you to play it through multiple times, trying to better your performance ratings. Is this the general trend these days? It seems like not long ago that Portal‘s length was a cause of widespread complaint. I suppose this is something that ebbs and flows. You certainly didn’t find 40-hour epics in the arcades of old. When I first tried MAME, I was shocked at just how short those games became when you have infinite quarters. But that’s what fit the arcade machine model, and I suppose the current trend towards many short cheap titles reflects the market of XBLA and its ilk.

A.R.E.S. is a 2D (with 3D graphics) platformer/shooter in which you play an advanced humanoid robot fighting hordes of less-advanced evil robots. In other words, it’s the same story as Megaman, and to a large degree the same gameplay as well. But where Megaman has cartoony, round-featured art that indicates a target audience of children, A.R.E.S. has a shiny mecha anime look aimed at slightly older children. The game supports both gamepad and mouse/keyboard controls; in the latter, the keyboard moves your avatar around while the mouse cursor aims your gun. I’ve encountered such schemes before — I think Crack dot Com’s Abuse was the first. I found it extremely awkward in Abuse, but it feels pretty natural to me here. I’m not sure if this is more due to the game or to my improved skills as a player. Probably the game. You throw a lot of bullets around here, and the targets tend to be fairly big, so it’s not like you need to aim all that precisely.

Dead robots turn into scraps that you can collect and “recycle” to purchase health packs, grenades, and, most importantly, upgrades for your various weapons. I found that a single pass through the game wasn’t enough to get me enough scrap for everything I needed to take out the end boss — I got the upgrades I wanted, but only by spending so much that I couldn’t afford enough health packs. The game encourages you to go back and replay earlier chapters in situations like this. In other words, it’s got grinding. The unusual thing about this is how non-diegetic it is. Not only does the plot not allow for the possibility of taking a break from the immediate crisis to go level up your gear (a dissonance that’s pretty common in CRPGs), the mechanics don’t allow for it either. This is a game that keeps locking doors behind you. The only way to access earlier areas is through a menu, and when you do, you effectively go back in time, but with cooler stuff. I recall commenting about similar things going on in Lego Star Wars, but it seemed more like a tool for completists there, and less like a necessary part of one’s first pass through the game.

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