Archive for July, 2011

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.


And now, for once, a game in this promotion that I didn’t finish in a single day upon first attempting it. Just as well: casual stuff of this sort is best played in little bits between other things. This will be another brief post.

Tidalis, which seems to have been titled at random, is a match-3 game, with the genre’s stereotypical bright colors and elevator music. Its defining gimmick is that the three or more tiles you’re matching don’t have to be adjacent. They do, however, have to be connectable in a chain where every step is horizontal or vertical and skips over no more than three spaces. Each tile has an arrow on it, indicating where it’ll look for the next step in the chain. The arrows are not limitations: you can re-point them at will. As such, they are an indication of what you want. This means that game is a bit more thoughtful than most match-3’s. Elaborate cascading combos don’t just happen: you have to meticulously set them up, tile by tile. (The designers were thoughtful enough to streamline this: you can set all the arrows in a chain with a single continuous stroke of the mouse, and not upset other chains in the process.)

This mechanic strikes me as well suited to gameplay without time pressure, so that the player has the leisure to analyze and perfect each move. And occasionally there’s a level like that — “Zen mode”, the game calls it. But most levels either have a strict time limit, or keep on adding tiles to the board from the top and end the level when they pile up too high, Tetris-style. Maybe I’ll like the “brainteasers” section better, but the Stack demands a playthrough of Adventure mode.

Atom Zombie Smasher

Not a lot of time today, so I’ll just post a brief description (which I may expand on later) of yesterday’s session with Atom Zombie Smasher, an impressive one-developer effort from the author of the absurdist first-person spy game Gravity Bone. His sense of weird shows through here mainly in the occasional “vignette” cutsene, illustrated text snippets of odd goings-on with no obvious connection to the game, at least at first.

I have to say, though, that I knew I wanted to give this game a try the moment I saw the screenshots. They’ve got that ineffable Appealing Game factor, the sort that makes me say “Ooh, I bet I could do that! Let me try!” Also, this is one game where the screenshots really speak volumes about what gameplay is like. You play in a series of top-down cityscapes with humans and infectious zombies (represented as yellow dots and pink dots respectively 1Pink is an unusual color for zombies, but I suppose it’s because they’re atom zombies. ), and you have to save the former and kill the latter. You have a single helicopter for evacuation, which can make multiple trips and land in a different part of the city each time, but usually isn’t fast enough to save everyone. Crowds tend to glom together and flow through the narrow streets like fluid through a pipe, their density nicely indicated by brightness when you can no longer see individuals. Into this you place your forces. You have several tools, such as barricades and dynamite charges and zombie-proof infantry (one of the better tools, because it can be moved around). But only a random selection of them is available for use in any particular mission, which means that sometimes you get stuck with inadequate offensive power and have to rely entirely on delaying tactics. It all feels very much like a tower defense game, despite not having a whole lot in common with the customs of that genre beyond the mere act of placing defenses.

These matches take place within the context of a randomized overworld and escalating stakes. You and the zombies are both rated on performance in the mission and in continuing control of territory, and this contributes to a running score, represented as progress along a track. Whichever side reaches the end of that track first wins the overall game. It reminds me of the scoring tracks found on certain German board games, and it serves the same purpose: distilling a complicated set of rules about victory points into something you can simply see. At certain points along that track — different points for the player and the zombies — are several little circles marking events that grant permanent advantages when you reach them. So, when you reach a certain score, you get a powerful new weapon, and when the zombies reach a certain score, they suddenly start spreading to new territories faster, or start producing giant zombies. So there’s a strong motivation to not just try to beat the zombies to the end, but also to try to keep their score as low as possible. Obviously this system creates a positive feedback loop, but the zombies have such strong natural advantages that they always seem to almost keep pace with the player anyway. Conversely, if you fall behind, there’s basically no catching up.

In length, it falls into an unusual place alongside Oasis: a full campaign is composed of many missions, but is nonetheless a completable in a single sitting. It’s a typical board-game length, if I can make that comparison one more time. I suppose it invites comparison to board games with its top-down view and abstract figures. And, like a board game, it inspires replay. Not in a “gotta find all the secrets and Achievements” way, but in a “I could do that a lot better now that I’ve figured out the tactics a little” way, kind of like Civilization (itself a computer game inspired by a board game).

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1. Pink is an unusual color for zombies, but I suppose it’s because they’re atom zombies.

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.

Toki Tori

Spooky castle is blueHere’s a game that Steam has been pushing relentlessly, including it in various bundles and promotions. It’s priced at $5, but it keeps on being put on sale at 75% off and the like. I guess the main reason is that this is a year-old remake of a ten-year-old game. It’s an extremely slick remake, though. Slick and cute.

So, what we have here is a puzzle-platformer, with puzzles driven by limited use of tools, Lemmings-style. (Not that the game resembles Lemmings in any other respect.) Tools include simple things like the ability to create bridges and blocks, and also exotic mechanics like “ghost traps” that create a hole in a brick floor when a ghost passes over it. Between the ghost trap and the freeze gun, which turns monsters into blocks that you can stand on, monsters in this game are often less enemies than opportunities to alter the level. There are complicated puzzles based around getting monsters to go where they’ll be useful.

The goal on every level is to collect a number of eggs lodged in inconvenient places. As soon as you have done so, the level ends. The nice thing about this sort of goal is that the ordering of the sub-goals can be an emergent property of the level design. For example, sometimes there’s a particular egg that has to be collected last because it’s in a place that you can only leave by using up tools needed elsewhere. I’m reminded of the general “kill all the monsters” goal in DROD, which had a similar effect on gameplay. In fact, I’d call the puzzle content here overall very DRODdish in feel, even though the mechanics are completely different. At the more advanced levels, this is a game about what the DROD community calls “lynchpins”: realizations about what sort of interactions are possible.

One thing worthy of special note is the “rewind” feature, which I assume wasn’t present in the original version from 2001. You can take your actions back continuously, kind of like in Braid, except that it’s not part of the puzzle content here; it’s just a convenience for the solver, and a pretty useful one for this kind of puzzle-solving. I remember that when Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time came out there was a review that said that the ability to rewind your mistakes was such a staggeringly obvious improvement that every game from now on was going to have to have that feature in order to be taken seriously. Well, not a lot of games took that to heart, but Toki Tori is one of them. Also of note is the way that rewinding distorts the screen in imitation of rewinding a VHS tape. Now, the graphical style of this game suggests it’s aimed at children. Is the sight of a videotape rewinding something that children understand these days? Has it entered the lexicon of things obsolete but iconic, like the scratch of a phonograph needle?

Jolly Rover

Just like last post, we have here a game that I purchased in a bundle deal some time back but didn’t get around to trying until it was made part of the current summer promotion on Steam, and which I finished in less than a day after I finally started it. It probably won’t be the last.

SCUMM and VillainyJolly Rover is one of those games that’s easy to sum up in a single sentence: it’s Monkey Island with anthropomorphic dogs. Seriously, the MI influence here is so strong that I think I have to call it homage in order to avoid calling it rip-off. You’ve got the nerdish hero who becomes a pirate over the course of the game, the damsel in distress who’s more competent than the hero, the voodoo, the ghost pirate, the cannibals who turn out to not really be cannibals, the occasional mentions of circuses, the jungle maze that you can only navigate with cryptic instructions and the cavern maze that you can only navigate with aid from the dead. There’s an opening chapter at a settled island with a pirate bar (where the locals complain about how bad business is lately), which you return to in the end, just before a wedding takes place. It even reuses a couple of MI‘s jokes.

The details are shuffled around, of course. The ghost pirate isn’t your enemy. The wedding doesn’t involve the damsel in distress at all. The circus is part of the player character’s backstory and device for “Son, I’m proud of you” material. The voodoo is primarily a magic system used by the player, with puzzle-solving effects like heating iron and making trees drop their fruit.

The biggest difference is that Jolly Rover is just a much gentler game. I mean that both in the sense that it has a more relaxed ambience, and that it gives the player a lot more help. You get a parrot companion early on who dispenses hints in exchange for crackers (a collectible scattered throughout the game), but outright hints are just the beginning of the help you get. The game highlights clickable objects when you hold down the space bar. It also keeps track of what you’ve done, so you don’t have to: any action with a result you’ve already seen will have its highlight text in white, while any action that yields something new has blue text. This rule holds even when clicking on an item multiple times yields different results: it’ll highlight in blue until it runs out of reactions.

And it’s only polite that it gives you this much help in finding things you haven’t clicked yet, because this is a game that really wants you to click on everything. There are three distinct sets of collectibles — the aforementioned crackers, pieces of eight, and fragments of pirate flags — that can turn up pretty much anywhere. Click a wooden statue, and it might turn out to have crackers stuck in its teeth. Sometimes crackers can be collected from a single barrel multiple times. I haven’t achieved 100% completion in this stuff yet, but this is exactly the kind of thoroughness challenge that obsessed me as a child hunting for all the points in the Sierra games, and so I may come back to Jolly Rover the next time I’m in the mood for mechanically working my way through all the objects in a room until all the text turns white. (It’ll be an opportunity to listen to the Developer Commentary, which unlocks after winning the game once.)

There are two features that I felt worth singling out. First, this is a game with a status line, containing the player’s current score, an old-fashioned rank title determined by that score, and a brief statement of your current Quest: “Join a crew”, for example, or “Find Treasure”, or “Make Salamagundi”. It reminds me a bit of the use of the status line in The Blind House, but here, it’s used for humor: sometimes the Quest line changes several times over the course of a cutscene as the player character’s assessment of the situation changes. For example, at one point it goes from “Make friends with the nice pirate ladies” to “Hide from the scary killer pirate ladies” over the course of an overheard conversation. This particular mechanism obviously isn’t a Monkey Island imitation, but the playful treatment of the user interface struck me as being much more in the spirit of Monkey Island than a lot of the things that imitated it quite closely.

Secondly, there are a couple of items that are too large to carry, but which go into the player’s inventory when clicked anyway, with the explanation that the PC is just remembering where it is so he can move it when he needs it. The inventory item in these cases is just a memory, a token that lets you signify your desire to use a distant object. This is an approach to inventory that I’ve contemplated using before, and not just for exceptional cases, but for everything in the game. Really, all it requires is a slight change of concept: consider inventory not as what you’re carrying on your person, but as the set of tools at your disposal, including anything that you can get at easily. But is such a reconception really even necessary? The way inventory is treated in adventures is typically pretty abstract already. Text adventures sometimes make a nod at realism by putting a limit on how much you can carry and forcing you to drop stuff, but graphic adventures frequently don’t even allow you to drop stuff. We have no problem accepting this, which is a pretty good indication that we’re already thinking of the inventory as composed of puzzle tokens rather than physical objects. Whether this is a good thing probably depends on the story you’re trying to tell.

Swords & Soldiers

OK, I’m interrupting the expedition to Syberia. I intend to get back to it soon. But for now, Steam is having another one of its promotions. Like last year’s “Treasure Hunt” (or this year’s “Potato Sack” promotion for Portal 2, which I sat out), it involves earning rewards via special Achievements in various games. And as before, I’m not particularly interested in the rewards, but I find the Achievements appealing. I don’t intend to buy any games just for the promotion, but I’ll certainly be trying for the Achievements in the games that I already have.

Day 1 of the promotion featured two such games, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, which was also featured in Day 1 of the previous promotion (perhaps because it tends to come up first in alphabetical listings), and Swords & Soldiers, a game I know nothing about which I got in a recent Indie bundle. (For my money, games that I know nothing about are pretty much the point of those bundles.) AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!‘s new Achievement is to complete a special level with a five-star rating, and I made some attempts at this, but found it difficult; on a couple of tries, I came close enough that I would have succeeded if I didn’t keep smashing into things so much. This was frustrating enough that I took a break with S&S, which proved engaging enough that I wound up playing all the way through campaign mode for all three of its sides.

S&S is a port of a WiiWare game, but to my newly-sensitized-to-iOS eyes, it seems like it was developed with an eventual phone port in mind. Everything about the UI is extremely touchscreen-friendly. What’s more, it seems like a pretty good example of a post-Angry Birds iPhone game, or at least part of the same stylistic trend as Angry Birds: it’s all broad slapstick and extreme stylization. I just described the caricature in Syberia as restrained. There’s no sense of restraint in S&S. It’s a story of three childish nations warring over things like barbecue sauce and toys. The three sides, in the order they become available for play, are the Vikings, the Aztecs, and the Chinese, all thoroughly stereotyped, which strikes me as especially problematic in the case of the Chinese, who still exist. (Sure, descendants of Aztecs and Vikings exist, but the Aztec civilization is long gone, and Viking was always more of an occupation than a race.) The Chinese here speak in pidgin, they say things like “Ah, chop chop” when summoned, their swordsmen wear conical straw hats (which as far as I’m aware have never been part of any military uniform), etc. So it’s not even current stereotyping, but more like Chinese stereotypes from the 1930s, which is probably why the authors thought it was acceptable. For my part, as a white guy, it’s not my place to be offended on other people’s behalf, but it’s nonetheless too embarrassing to pass without comment, and for that reason has engendered some painfully clueless arguments about racism on the Steam forums (content warning: “It’s just a game” used).

Regardless, the gameplay is interesting. It’s essentially an RTS with asymmetric sides. It’s also a simplification of the genre, like Eufloria but in a completely different way. The biggest simplification is that the map is one-dimensional. Some maps have bits where the path splits for a while and rejoins, with a railroad-like switch at the branch point to tell your units which way to go, but even there, within the path you choose, you’re fighting for distance along a line. Furthermore, you have no direct control over your units. Whenever they’re not fighting, they’re moving from left to right. As is normal for an RTS, the simplest way to win fights is to have lots of units together, but the fact that they all go running off the moment they’re summoned tends to work against this approach. Each stereotype has different ways around this. For example, the Vikings, the most straightforward side, have a healing spell that you can use to help your frontmost warrior survive in combat until the guys behind him catch up, while the Chinese have a spell that duplicates a unit, letting you build a posse out of one guy. The Aztecs have necromancer units that can turn corpses into animated skeletons, so each guy that pulls ahead and gets killed gets to be part of an undead horde later.

The interesting part is how little these simplifications change things. In practice, RTS-style gameplay often reduces to a fight along a single path between two bases, each side throwing all they’ve got at it, trying to counter the opponent’s offense efficiently enough to have resources to spare on an effective offense of their own. S&S takes that moment and turns it into the entirety of the game. And it works pretty well. It’s essentially a game of tradeoffs. You’ve got the tradeoffs between current troop strength and research into more powerful stuff, you have to increase your gold-collection rate by spending current gold, and in the later levels of their campaigns, each side develops their own megaweapon that they can use if they can refrain from casting other spells long enough to afford its mana cost. The Aztecs can even sacrifice their own units to gain a little mana, but I suppose that’s essentially the same choice every side makes when they decide whether to cast a defensive spell to save a unit’s life or not. Apparently there are some gambits that are extremely difficult to counter, so two-player play might not be all that interesting in the long run. But the single-player campaign remains interesting and varied for as long as it lasts, which was about six hours for me.

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