Category Archives: impressions

Transistor’s futuristic city Cloudbank takes a Turn() for the worse

Transistor game final thoughts

It’s been several weeks now since I played and beat Transistor, and since then I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that Supergiant Games’ second outing is no Bastion II. You might already have suspected that based on the look and tone of Transistor, but everything else seems to shout “same mechanics, same style, same story-telling”…alas, it is not so. That’s not to say that Transistor on its own is not a strong, enjoyable experience, but when put side by side with Bastion, a game I absolutely ate up twice and then some, it stands fully in its shadow. Let me explain some more.

One can easily summarize Transistor‘s story, but to detail it out is a much harder task. Cloudbank’s famous singer Red is, without warning, attacked by the Process, a robotic force commanded by a group called the Camerata. During the fight, she’s transported across Cloudbank and gains possession of the very sword used in her assassination attempt, the mysterious Transistor. She takes the Transistor out of the chest of a dead man, but his consciousness and voice are now a part of the Transistor itself, along with Red’s voice. As Red searches for answers, the Camerata continues to track her across the city, demanding the Transistor returned.

Now, truth be told, I got most of that from Wikipedia. If you want to know anything deeper than that, sorry…I’ve got nothing. And I played the game for a few nights in a row, my face only inches away from my struggling laptop’s screen. Alas, the writing is not as sharp and memorable here as it was in Bastion, though I loved the idea of those interactive terminals, but that air of mystery really hangs about like a damning mist, thickening and making it difficult to see where to go. I’m okay with some aspects of the story being vague, but who Red is and why she is going after these people–and who these people are and are about–well…that’s kind of important stuff and shouldn’t be buried in menus or unlocked through superfluous means. In Bastion, you have to rebuild your safe haven, and you get a big choice at the end; in Transistor, you move from one locale to another, constantly fighting, constantly taking in clouded data, and then you have a showdown with, I guess, the person behind your assassination attempt, and I won’t spoil what happens after that, but you guessed it–it’s unclear.

Okay, so I wasn’t super thrilled with how the story actually unfolded in Transistor–or didn’t unfold, if you will–but at least the combat’s interesting. And fun, sometimes. A few fights felt overwhelming and punishing, and you really don’t get a moment to breathe even though you can pause the action. It’s a mixture of real-time combat and frozen planning, referred to as Turn(). Using the latter will drain Red’s action bar, which takes some time to refill, but allows you to plan out each movement more carefully. It’s really nice that you can take as much time as you want and erase previous decisions if things don’t look sunny and bright, just like with Fallout 3‘s V.A.T.S. Red earns what appears to be set experience points after each battle and can collect new powers, known as Functions, from dead victims of the Process. You can equip up to four of these and combine them in multiple ways to create unique and different effects in battle. I played around with the Functions often, swapping in new ones and attaching others elsewhere just to see how battles changed, and there is quite a lot of variety here. I think you need New Game+ to really see everything though.

Just like with Bastion, Transistor gets its monsters right. From the paparazzi-inspired bots that take Red’s snapshot and momentarily obstruct the screen to the shockwave-creating Jerks that will plow you down if you , they are all uniquely designed and each requires special tactics in battle, which makes for some skillful juggling at times. Early on in the game, you’ll find the beach hideaway, which acts as your training grounds zone, as well as a good place to kick back, listen to some sultry jams, and watch the cyber-sun set. I did not end up completing every challenge here, but I did most of them and always visited when the chance popped up. The time-based and plan-based challenges really give you a feel for some specific combat situations, though I wish they resulted in more than just a bump of XP.

As I’m sure we all remember, music and art were a powerful combo in Bastion, and that trend continues here too. The slick, futuristic lighting of Cloudbank presents a city built on power and elitism, while the music is somber and striking, always setting a mood. At any point in the game, you can press a button and have voiceless Red hum along to whatever tune is playing; a small detail, but a powerful one. I wish one could zoom in a little closer on the battles to see some of the monsters better. Oh, and there are these strange, lightly interactive bridging sequences that really show off Jen Zee’s painting skills.

And so I beat Transistor, saw the message that I could begin playing it all over again in New Game+, and quit right away. I haven’t loaded the game back up since. It’s not that I hated my time with it, just that I feel like I experienced everything it has to offer already, and it’s not like the story is going to radically change a second time through. True, it might become clearer, but the fault is then in the cloudy writing, and it shouldn’t take two playthroughs to really grok it all. Anyways, that return romp would be mostly to try out more Function combos in combat and such, but I think I saw–and tried–plenty along the way, with Spark() probably my favorite Function.

Well, as Rucks might say, “I’ll see you in the next one.”

If only Spyro the Dragon could burn the in-game camera to a crisp

spyro ps1 early impressions

Spyro the Dragon is a cutesy fantasy action-adventure game from Insomniac–y’know, the Ratchet & Clank folk–that I got to play demo-wise way back in the day when videogame magazines came coupled with demo discs or you could even drop five bucks at the local brick-and-mortar store for a retail disc containing a mighty selection of different games to experience. I have a bunch of these in my collection still because I made a vow to myself long ago to never get rid of or trade in anything. In fact, it’s this one here from PlayStation Underground Jampack that I’m talking about, which I guess I got some time in late 1998 or early 1999:

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For those that can’t see due to camera glare in the above pic, on this are demos for Spyro the Dragon, MediEvil, Metal Gear Solid, A Bug’s Life, CoolBoarders 3, NHL FaceOff ’99, NFL GameDay ’99, Rally Cross 2, Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft, and Small Soldiers. Some classic titles there, for sure. Now, for me, a teenager with little cash to my name, spending five bucks ($7.99 for you Canadian suckers!) to sample a smörgåsbord of all games, ranging from sports to action to fantasy to RPG to racing, sounded a whole lot better than saving up for one big game that could potentially disappoint me. Plus, the natural idea behind these demo discs is that if I enjoyed what little nibble the demo could give, I’d probably like the full meal. Years later, the company Nintendo still has no idea how demos work, but that’s a post for another day.

SIDE NOTE: I’d love to do something here on Grinding Down with these demo discs of mine–I have about seven or eight in total–but I’m not sure just what yet. I mean, I guess I could simply deep-dive back into them all and write about playing these wee slices some fifteen years later, though who knows how interesting that would be. If you’ve got an idea for me to try, please do share.

Anyways, so far, my favorite thing about Spyro the Dragon, which I’m playing on the PlayStation 3 after nabbing it and others during a really good sale a few months back, is that it wastes no time getting into the mix of things. I can think of only a few other games that open just as swiftly and let you start playing before you can even speak a word–Jetpack Joyride and Scribblenauts come to mind first.

Okay, you ready for this. Spyro the Dragon begins with a short cutscene that can’t possibly last for more than 30 seconds. In it, a news team sets up an interview with a couple of dragons within the Artisan World, one of five realms in the Dragon Kingdom (the others of which include Peace Keepers’ world, Magic Crafters, Beast Makers, and Dream Weavers), which have lived in harmony for eons. Well, when the reporter brings up Gnasty Gnorc, a gnorc who lives within his own, sixth realm, one of the dragons describes him as an ugly, simple-minded creature who poses no threat to the Dragon Kingdom. Daaang. Those are fighting words, for sure. And yup, fortuitously, Gnasty is watching the live feed at that exact moment; enraged, he casts a magic spell that encases all of the dragons in crystal and sends out an army of gnorc soldiers to take over the realms. However, one purple dragon called Spyro, due to his smallish nature, is able to dodge the spell, and it’s now up to him to save his elders.

And that’s the gist of the story so far. You are the lucky wee dragon left alive, and you must save everybody us, and you do this by charging into the crystal statues and freeing the elders. Each of these older, bigger dragons has a name and something to say to Spyro upon rescue, but then they are gone in a poof. Rinse and repeat until you find all the dragons in a given themed area (36 levels spread across six worlds). Other than that, Spyro can shoot a small burst of flames from his mouth and jump and even fly a bit (though technically it is falling with style). You want to also defeat enemies and collect gems. More or less, it’s a very traditional character-dependent action adventure game, and there is nothing wrong with the premise to begin with.

However, in a game all about jumping and flying from one place to another, the in-game camera needs to work with the player. This camera is atrocious. Really just horrible, and you can only turn it left or right, not up or down, so if you are standing on top of a castle and want to jump to that smaller castle below, you kind of have to wing it (pun intended) because there’s no way to rotate the camera enough to see where you need to land. You can press the triangle button at any time to lock the camera directly behind Spyro, but this is only handy when you want to ram an enemy head-on with your horns.

Thankfully, despite the camera issues, Spyro the Dragon is a fun, harmless game. And it’s not too punishing, so even if you missed a jump due to not being able to see the land below, you can always try again. Interestingly, instead of some kind of health bar or string of hearts on the screen, Spyro’s health is visible through his butterfly companion, so depending on how that fella looks and acts, you’ll know just how many more hits our little dragon hero can take. You can save your progress at any of the statue spots where you’ve rescued an elder dragon, and most of the difficulty just comes from traversing, rather than fighting enemies or solving puzzles. Oh, and to tie this back to that demo disc above, I remember fondly being super impressed that Spyro could burn plants to a pile of black ash at the touch of a button, and it’s still an amusing thing to do many years later.

I’m looking forward to playing more when I can, as I also have Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage! and Spyro Year of the Dragon downloaded and ready for chomping. Not to mention Gex: Enter the Gecko, Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2, and Crash Bandicoot 3: WARPED. Yeah, I went a little crazy on the PS1-era mascot games during that sale. Not the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

Lastly, I’ll leave y’all on a fun tidbit about Spyro the Dragon–its soundtrack was done by The Police’s Stewart Copeland.

There’s just no turning back in And Yet It Moves

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And Yet It Moves has been in my Steam library and untouched for a pretty long time. Specifically, since July 2011, which is when I got it and a bunch of other not-known-at-the-time indie games as part of the Humble Indie Bundle 3. Man, I can’t even make an estimated guess as to what bundle we’re coming up to now, seeing as that whole process has evolved from just the occasional bundle to weekly happenings and themed promotions and a store and bundles about books and music and whatever else you can think of. Anyways, And Yet It Moves is not the first name at the top of my list of Steam games, but it’s pretty close, which means I see it all the time when logging in to the client, so I’m glad I finally sat down and played through it.

Besides being a famous quote said by Galileo, And Yet It Moves is a puzzle platformer, one where you turn more than you actually jump. Let me explain. The game’s main nifty shtick focuses on moving the player character, represented as a colorful man made of paper with wavy hair, through an environment full of hazardous obstacles. At any time, one can freely rotate the entire game world with the left and right arrow keys, transforming walls into floors and moving things like boulders and broken branches out of the way. Your goal is to basically navigate the environment and make it to the end safely, and you’ll have to be careful how you turn the world as our little paper hero can’t fall from very high and ends up maintaining momentum even as everything around him shifts.

There’s no real story to follow or even a thin set-up in And Yet It Moves. You’re just this paper man, stuck in a rotatable world. That’s okay, honestly, but it probably wouldn’t have been too difficult to come up with some kind of conflict. Maybe the paper man wants to find out who made him, how he is alive, where this rotating power came from. I actually thought we were getting somewhere along those lines during the last few levels, where everything begins getting LSD trippy and unpredictable. Anyways, the game features paper collage-inspired visuals designed by Jan Hackl, which are a treat to behold and watch move behind and in front of other visual planes, and a beatboxing soundtrack performed by Christoph Binder that really becomes its own when the vanishing platforms appear, your jumps nearly timed to the drums.

I only ended up getting seriously stuck in one spot, where there is fire involved. Little ol’ me didn’t notice that the flames change direction as you tilt the world, so you need to position them just right to set other things blocking your path ablaze. Other than that, trial and error and persistence are the key tactics here. There are other game modes to try like time attack levels, but this never felt like the sort of experience one should rush, especially given how slow the main character moves.

Oh, and we can add And Yet It Moves to that list of games with fantastic, interactive end credits. It can stand proudly next to Vanquish, even if it doesn’t last terribly long due to the small staff behind it.

Let’s see, let’s see. So, from the Humble Indie Bundle 3, I’ve now gotten through two entire games–And Yet It Moves and VVVVVV–played Cogs for a wee bit, and have never even launched Crayon Physics Deluxe or Hammerfight. Maybe I’ll try to see what those last two are like sooner than later or maybe they’ll just have to be even more patient and wait a couple more years. I know, I’m so cruel.

Something continues to lurk in Deeper Sleep’s darkness

Deeper Sleep final impressions

I’m not going to deny it–I still think about Deep Sleep. It’s a really short, browser-ready atmospheric point-and-click adventure game I played last year that, by all means, should’ve just been a thing that ate up a few minutes of my day and then disappeared into a void, not worthy to take up space in my actual sliver of brain memory devoted to gaming. Trust me, over the years, I’ve dabbled in a number of instantly forgettable yet fun, small games, just things that you experience for a moment and then move on. In fact, Deep Sleep inspired me to try some of that very popular “talk and play games” video stuff, though I’ve not really done much else with that medium since.

Anyways, Deeper Sleep is the direct sequel to Deep Sleep, where you basically find yourself stuck in a waking nightmare. The original game had a wonderful sense of atmosphere, a murky, pixelated look, sounds that could shake you still, and some highly tense action moments where timing your clicks was vital to staying alive. I really loved it, but never moved on to the readily available sequel…that is, until now. Also, this is my fiftieth game beaten in 2014, and we’re only halfway through the year, so we’ll see if I can break one hundred or not by the time that big ball in New York City drops.

In Deeper Sleep, you go to the library to investigate more about lucid dreaming, seeing as you are now obsessed with the subject. Unfortunately for you, the world dissolves, and you find yourself back in the nightmarish stomping grounds from Deep Sleep. This time, however, you get to learn a bit more of the world(s) and its inhabitants through a prisoner and his various dialogue options though, when I think about it, that’s all this prisoner is there for, so could be totally skipped or missed by some players. Regardless, it is much of the same pointing and clicking and scouring of dark rooms for clues or items that can help you progress. I believe the inventory system remains the same, too, so it should be familiar territory for many.

Overall, I found Deeper Sleep to lack a clear goal, which, let me tell you, is basically descend down the well in the woods and see the “to be continued” screen. And don’t get killed by the creepy girl in the attack. However, in the original game, you didn’t want to be asleep, and so your goal was to find a way out, a means to wake up. Here, you are probably not surprised to find yourself back in this maddening dream-world, and all you want to do is find out more about it…but where and how is never explicit. Once you are able to unlock the door to the outside woods, the game sort of becomes convoluted, having you wander this way and that, and there are two paths that are extremely difficult to notice, which made puzzle-solving impossible until I looked up a walkthrough to see what I was missing.

The use of items always makes logical sense, such as putting batteries in a flashlight and combining thread and the sewing needle, and then using them on key parts of the screen is easy enough to figure out. I just worry that a few of the locations are purposely hidden and shrouded in gloom to force the player to initially miss them, elongating their plight. This proved extremely frustrating, as I felt like I was on a good track for most of the game until I hit the outdoors and that empty flour bag puzzle and had no idea how to fix the bag without thread; nope, going back to the room with the sewing machine resulted in nothing. Turns out, I had just missed a path four or five times in a row.

There’s a collectible this time around in the form of scraps of paper, which ultimately make up one complete note. These are depicted as tiny balled-up wads of paper, often in plain sight, but also easy to gloss over. I got 14 out of 15 by the end of the game, so yeah…no idea where the last one is hidden. Either way, it’s a decent thing to collect that also tells us a bit more about these lucid dreams, but also a bit of a cliché in the survival horror genre, as I think you pick up notes in both Slender Man and Daylight, as well as a number of others.

While Deeper Sleep doesn’t pack the same punch as the original game, both in terms of scares and exploration enjoyment, it’s still a worthy, entertaining adventure to see through to the end, and I’m very much looking forward to the release of The Deepest Sleep, the last in the trilogy, in just a few days.

The Temple of Elemental Evil is full of deadly crayfish

temple of ee crayfish death

Seems like Divinity: Original Sin from Larian Studios is the latest talk of the town this past week, especially over at Giant Bomb, my go-to for influence on trying out games I’ve never even heard of. It’s the newest and latest CRPG, which stands for computer role-playing game if you didn’t know, a genre that is not as common these days or, if it is, not as talked about. Evidently, the game’s developers used Kickstarter to help raise additional funds, acquiring over $1 million, a pretty hefty sum of cash that makes me think about just how much money Double Fine got for Broken Age, an old-school point-and-click game, another genre you don’t see in the spotlights these last few years. All it takes is support from fans, so let’s now get that Suikoden VI ball a-rollin’.

It’s been described as “hardcore overhead Skyrim,” which more or less means adding Dragon Age: Origins and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim together–you get tactics, you get openness, and you get a lot of content to devour. Alas, I’m not in the mood to buy a brand new game, even if it is only retailing for $40 on Steam, and besides, I have a massive backlog–hey now!–so surely I have something similar enough to Divinity: Original Sin in there that could quench my curiosity-limned thirst for the time being. And yes, I was right. Hello, there The Temple of Elemental Evil.

If you’ll recall, I played Icewind Dale II some seasons back, covering the first sixty minutes of gameplay for The First Hour. In the end, I liked the dialogue trees, but hated mostly everything else. I got it from Good Old Games during a  “buy one Dungeons & Dragons game, get The Temple of Elemental Evil for free” campaign. My first dip into old-school RPGing didn’t prove a great time, but since then I’ve played a few more really fun D&D sessions with friends and am more aware of some of the rules and restrictions. Plus, I promised to try The Temple of Elemental Evil at some point, so here we go.

The Temple of Elemental Evil begins, as all games did in in the early 2000s, with an epic CGI intro. It’s basically a big war scene, with wizards and soldiers and goblins and two-head trolls and even darker things amassing on the battlefield and fighting to the death, and it ends with some horrifying demon dude getting locked–and magically sealed–in a temple. If I was to refer to the game’s Wikipedia, it would say this, “An evil demoness founded a cult dedicated to exploring evil in its most elemental forms. This cult was based in a temple just outside the village of Hommlet in a vile shire known as Nulb. Soon, this cult rose to rule the region with tyranny and grim times of chaos and violence ensued. Hard-fought battles were waged and the war was eventually won by the good armies of nearby lands. The temple was razed, the villains were imprisoned, and order was restored. The temple itself faded into distant memory. Until now…”

Yeah, I never really picked up on any of that. Evidently, this is based on a famous Greyhawk adventure, using the D&D 3.5 ruleset.

But before the crystal clear story could start unfolding, I did the Tutorial section, a separate menu option. Here, the game taught me many of the basics, like how to walk, how to open doors and chests, how to loot, how to attack enemy rats, how to make friends and chat, and so on. Alas, I never comprehended how to cast Magic Missile, and so I died fast in a room full of zombies, unable to complete the Tutorial. On well, I’m sure not knowing how to properly cast magic spells won’t bite me in the ass later on. Forward, to the main meat!

Just like in Icewind Dale II, picking your party members is both the first thing you do and the most intimidating part of the adventure. I went with all lawful good people, three men and two women. I think they were all different classes, but two might have both been warriors or whatever you call those decked out in shiny armor. This is one problem I have with these large party-based RPG adventures–it can be hard to keep everyone separate, and it’s more like a mass of names and faces rather than actual personalities and such.

The very first mission has your band of merry men and women fighting off some bandits raiding a traveling caravan, and I did this with ease by simply clicking on them until they died. Next, the group traveled to the village of Hommlet, which is a quite sizable place. Here, we explored a bit, spoke to some people and got clues about other places to go, though our main mission is finding the rest of those bandits, as they kidnapped some women and children. I then mistakenly decided to look at the map and click on the Emridy Meadows, a place mentioned to me by someone in a tavern. Suddenly, my group began moving across the map, getting halfway there and stopped by a pop-up menu that said, “2X Crayfish.” I clicked okay and unfortunately found everyone in a one-sided fight against two giant crayfish. My team was able to take one down with extreme losses, and the second crayfish killed everybody left standing. Again, here is where it might have been handy to know how to properly cast magic.

Well, no problem, I thought, I’d just reload my save and not travel to the Emridy Meadows just yet, certainly not until my party has leveled up and gotten some better armor/weapons. Alas, no. Ha ha nope. Clearly I forgot I was playing a ten-year-old videogame and I never made a manual save during my gaming time, and the only auto-save in the list is right at the start of the fight with the crayfish. Thanks, The Temple of Elemental Evil. Though maybe I’ll try again. I think I just need to really play slower and pay attention more to every move I make. Again, I love all the dialogue, and there’s some pretty good voice acting here. I think I even ran into a Scottish bard in one of Hommlet’s homes, which is enough to get me to revisit this down the line.

That said, maybe I’m not ready for Divinity: Original Sin just yet. Or I should at least wait until the game drops in price or goes on sale. I don’t know how similar they are to Icewind Dale II and The Temple of Elemental Evil, but I also have a trio of Ultima games downloaded and uninstalled at the moment. Hmm. Maybe I’ll try one of them soonish if I get that itch again for some old-school RPGing.

Charlie Murder is pure punk rock punching and kicking

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Charlie Murder is one of the two free games given out last month on the Xbox 360 for Gold members, and I nearly forgot all about it, ending up downloading it on its last available day, a few hours shy of midnight. Whew. Thankfully, it’s a small game, somewhere under 400 MB, and so it didn’t take very long to go from Microsoft’s server to my hard-drive. Skip ahead a few more days, and I actually got to play a wee bit of it, enough to put some thoughts in my head, which I’m now sharing with y’all.

Let’s see. Charlie Murder from Ska Studios is…well, I don’t really know what’s happening story-wise at the moment. The game begins with our titular character in Hell, but only briefly; see, a paramedic is actually resuscitating Charlie, though I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Seems like the streets are now overrun with denizens of Hell because the end times are upon us. Three cheers for that. Now back on his feet, Charlie and his friends (if you have friends to play with, that is) must fight off this stirred evil. There’s also some story stuff about Charlie’s band, which I’m only just beginning to glimpse, though I imagine it is either going to be of the “rise to fame” or “fall from grace” ilk. We’ll have to wait and see on that for now, and I’m definitely more interested in that than anything else.

Charlie Murder‘s a brawler, a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up, which, to be honest, is not a genre that really excites. Sure, over the years I’ve had some decent fun with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, Streets of Rage, Shank, X-MEN Arcade, and so on. Heck, I’ll even openly admit right here, right now, that I put many hours into the demo of Fighting Force because, in 1997, I just couldn’t stop hitting men with broken bottles. But for the most part, walking left to right and beating up generic goon after goon with fists or a range of weapon types until you can move on wears out its welcome real fast with me. Especially the part where you repeatedly mash the X button. Alas, that gameplay style seems to still exist here in Charlie Murder, but at least the game has personality, as well as some RPG elements to freshen tactics up.

There’s just one problem–I can’t read any of the text in this game save for the colored button prompts for quick time events. It’s tiny and scribbly, and yes, I’m wearing glasses and even sitting pretty close to my television. See, a big part of the game is using your smartphone, checking in on a Twitter-like app to see who is messaging you and how many followers you’ve gained, as well as reviewing your inventory, buying skills, and selecting which special powers to assign to what buttons. Y’know, key elements to make Charlie stronger and more unique, and I’ve ended up going on guesswork alone, hoping that this shirt is better than the other one based on some iffy color cues. Like, I know this is a bad image to begin with, but this is more or less what is like to be me and see the game and its text as I’m playing. Insert a grumpy face emote here.

So, that’s a bummer. Thankfully, the game has style out the wazoo, and you wouldn’t be wrong for immediately thinking of Jhonen Vasquez’s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac comics and Invader Zim series. Muted colors save for greens and purples and dark, quirky humor work pretty well here, especially that one part where Charlie had to rough up a man in a hamburger costume at a fast-food joint. You can change how your character looks with clothing and tattoos, which is always a plus in my book, seeing your actual equipped attire reflected on the person, and it seems like there’s plenty to spend on, though money does not come fast or free, which might mean grinding, and now all I’m doing is frowning.

But yeah, this indie brawler is nice to look at and listen to, I just worry that playing by myself, especially unable to read most of the stats on weapons and gear, is not going to be a lot of fun. You can join up with other people online, which I tried once and got immediately booted, so there’s that option, but I don’t suspect I’ll be back to stop this punk-rock apocalypse from happening any time soon unless I magically receive two more Xbox 360 controllers and three new ready-to-go friends. It’s competent, but conventional, and I’m sorry if that hurts to hear, Mr. Murder and friends.

Doki-Doki Universe may be irreverent, but at least it’s imaginative

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There exist many great RPGs, like Suikoden II and Chrono Cross, and in these also exist little slivers of additional content lovingly called side quests. They get this name mostly because they are smaller tasks on the side put upon the hero, heroine, or group while they also handle much larger tasks like killing that evil dragon and saving the world. More often than not, a great side quest can outshine the main path; for instance, take a look at the “The Power of the Atom” quest from Fallout 3, which stands out to me more some six years later than all that water-purifying monkey business with your runaway father. Of late, I really loved London Life, a kinda large mini-game bundled with Professor Layton and the Last Specter that is all about fetch side quests and ate up many hours of my life.

Well, good news–Doki-Doki Universe is a game made up almost entirely of side quests. It’s basically them, plus a handful of personality quizzes which are not as mundane as they sound and can be quite enjoyable so long as one spaces them out between helping random planet inhabitants and riding coffee mugs with wings up into space. Y’know, be sensible about your tasks like that. It’s a lot of to- and fro-ing, but I always seem to need these rather straightforward tasks in times of brokenness, so I’m really having my fill. The game is a freebie this month for PlayStation Plus users, and I initially thought it was only for the Vita, but evidently it is a cross-play title. That’s awesome, and something we need to see more with other consoles.

There’s a story here and, just like Le Petit Prince, it is both sweet and sad. Maybe not as crude as that French children’s story though. You’re robot Model QT377665, but let’s go with QT3 for short. Turns out, your human family sucks and abandoned you and your balloon buddy on an asteroid. Flashforward 11,432 days, and Alien Jeff shows up to give you some bad news. Evidently, your model is getting recalled and scrapped because the company that made you apparently doesn’t believe it has enough “humanity.” Alien Jeff is assigned the task of discovering just how much humanity QT3 is capable of before reporting back to head-honchos.

And so off you go to different, humorously named planets to solve the myriad of problems people have–and animals and talking vegetables and sentient snowmen–to learn more about humanity and gain some perspective. Space is an open map of planets, and you can visit them in any order; in fact, you’ll often need to visit other planets for additional presents to help people with some of the trickier requests early on. Most often, QT3 just needs to summon a specific summonable to finish the quest; for example, someone on Yuckers desires a smelly item, and so QT3 just needs to make a pile of poo magically appear next to them. Quest complete. Others have you either performing a greeting with the right analog stick (waving, bowing, blowing a kiss) or throwing someone like a slingshot to a specific part of the endlessly scrolling level, which is actually a bit tricky.

Besides handling simple side quest after side quest, which despite how it sounds really does scratch a specific itch, there’s personality quizzes to take and email to read. Mmm I do love a game with email, and I’ve been tinkering away slowly at a Grinding Down post about why this is so; maybe it’ll make an appearance down the road. Anyways, the personality quizzes are cute multiple choice questions, with a quick summary of you as a person at the end. They don’t always nail my personality, but are surprisingly accurate the majority of the time. These quizzes are perfect to do before you land on a new planet, too. As you grow as a robot, Alien Jeff and friends you’ve made along the way will send you adorable little emails that are animated and colorful and keep those stories going a bit longer after they technically ended.

Not all is green and dandy in Doki-Doki Universe, as I have stumbled across some very annoying hard crashes and lock-ups. These always happened when QT3 would begin to pull up the multitude of bubbles that makes up his inventory. There’s also no great way to sort through all your consumables, a problem the closer you get to collecting 300, as you can really only view a handful at a time on screen, and so if you’re trying to hunt down one specific item, best keep hitting randomize or trying your luck with the similar button. The game will occasionally log me out of PSN, too, though I know not why and how. I might have also run into a glitch where you are supposed to return to the Home planet and speak with the red balloon; alas, for some reason, the balloon is high in the sky, and QT3 can’t reach it to begin a dialogue. Hmm.

Based on how many consumables I have and how many decorations I’ve acquired for QT3′s Home planet, I must be pretty close to the end, to seeing if this little robot that likes dressing like a lumberjack has enough humanity instead to save his steely skin from being turned into scrap. It’s not a long game, but long enough for me, and I’m looking forward to finishing it up and adding it to my never-ending list of games completed in 2014. At least this one should be relatively easy to draw a comic about, since the art is more or less on my level.

Gnoming the Minnesota countryside for more answers in Puzzle Agent 2

puzzle agent 2 screenshot

Look, I think Telltale Games really messed up in how they presented Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent and Puzzle Agent 2 to adventure and puzzle fans worldwide. They are not two separate games, but rather one cohesive story broken right down the middle, with some faux resolution to make one feel like they finished something when in reality, all they did was open the floodgates for further answers. Answers that would have to wait for a second go-around. If we could travel back in time and I could get a job at Telltale and confidently speak up during one of those early brainstorming meetings, I’d rename them as so: Puzzle Agent, Act 1 “Acer Eraser Chaser” and Puzzle Agent, Act 2 “Gnome Man’s Land”. You’re welcome, everyone.

But really, that’s just me being picky over the fact that these are clearly meant to be played together. One, then the other. I mean, I have no idea how anyone could play Puzzle Agent 2 and not have experienced the story from the first game and still understand what is happening in this dark, disturbing tale of disillusionment and dementia. Everything is connected, and nothing is hamfistedly explained for the player a second time round. You either know who Isaac Davner is or you don’t. It’d be like if the first act of Broken Age had been released with the full implication that it was, for lack of a better way to put it, a complete and finished product. People would have gone bananas-infused crazy if that had been the case, but granted, from what I can tell, the two Puzzle Agent games are small fish in the big adventure games pond. And what a shame that is.

Puzzle Agent 2 is more or less the very same game as Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent, with one pretty key difference between the two: difficulty. In the original game, I found many of the logic puzzles to be absolutely mind-hurting and found myself looking up answers online even after I used all three possible pieces of hint gum. It’s no fun getting stuck on a puzzle in these kind of games because it basically means you can’t see any more, and I felt like the majority of the puzzles were just too obtuse or unfair, though maybe the later Professor Layton games really softened me up. That said, I looked up maybe two to three puzzle solutions at most in Puzzle Agent 2, finding many of them almost ridiculously easy and simple. Guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The strange story of a shutdown erasers factory and the Hidden People whispering in the woods continues on and on in Puzzle Agent 2, with Nelson Tethers returning to Scoggins, Minnesota to finish what he started. Alas, he has to use up all his vacation days to do so as the FBI believes everything is cleared up. Immediately upon arriving, Nelson feels unwelcome and receives a mysterious note that highlights the fact that many others have gone missing, not just Davner. Your first step is figuring out who, in what order, and why. Naturally, you’ll do this by talking to locals, running down dialogue options, and solving puzzles. It’s quite perfunctory and by the numbers, but it’s also really great and entrancing thanks to the tone, delivery of the voice acting, and Graham Annable’s unsettling art style. Seriously, there’s some fantastic dialogue here, especially between Nelson and newcomer (and potential love interest) Korka, and even more fun-to-watch cutscenes thanks to a bump in the animation department.

However, there was one puzzle that really disappointed me. It’s one of the final puzzles in the game, where Nelson is running from some people and trying to find a thingy. I believe the instructions were telling me to draw lines from certain floating items in a specific order to help keep Nelson focused on the task, but I failed every time, and this is one of the rare puzzles where you are being timed and have to act fast. I felt very confused from the word go, and I blame the instructions, as they weren’t very clear. I had completed all the other puzzles up to that point, so it was frustrating to see one slip by, especially that close to the credits.

This time, thankfully, when Puzzle Agent 2 ends, it ends. Though there is a postcard-size hint that maybe a third adventure, one not set in Scoggins, could happen down the line, but given that Telltale Games is now working on four episodic adventure games series concurrently…I doubt anyone is really pushing for more Nelson Tethers action. I mean besides me. Let me know if I’m not alone in this. Heck, if a potato salad can see rise to a great Kickstarter, why not Puzzle Agent 3: The Bermuda Bummers? Let’s do this.

The geometric world of Hexic definitely needed my help

hexic w8 phone screenshot

Are you a cats or dogs kind of person? If you must know, I’m a big fan of cats. For proof, here’s my two furry critters: Pixie and Timmy. And I’m not just throwing this question out here for any ol’ reason, but I think you could potentially use that common question and apply it to videogames as well, such as so: are you a Call of Duty or Battlefield kind of fan? Crash Team Racing or LittleBigPlanet Karting? Or, to get right down to it, are you a Bejeweled or Hexic kind of puzzler?

For me, I never really played much Bejeweled save for a round or two on Facebook when I had a few minutes to kill and wanted to see who else on my friends list was doing the same. I’m a Hexic man through and through, and I’m fine with that. Heck, the game was designed by Alexey Pajitnov of, y’know, Tetris fame, so it’s got some serious cred behind its creation. Anyways, Hexic HD came pre-installed on my original Xbox 360–which is still operating since mid-2009–and I played it a lot. Almost like a friendless fiend. No, really. I would come home from work on my lunch-break to eat and instead shove food into my mouth as fast as possible while I dangled a controller on my lap and stared at a screen of tiles, analyzing the scenario and seeing which ones to turn next. Eventually, I moved away from Hexic HD as the remaining Achievements seemed nigh impossible to unlock, and they still do some five years later, but it remains a fun memory.

But Microsoft knows I’m still their unconditional, unwavering Hexic man, releasing a version for both Windows 8 and the Windows 8 phone for me to eat up. Naturally, I played the latter, and while it is far from perfect, it’s been a great little game to eat up ten to fifteen minutes every day as I progressed through all of its 100 levels. For those that don’t know how it plays, you are trying to rotate hexagonal tiles to create certain patterns and clear spaces on the board or create special tiles that have various effects. This time around, the mobile version sets different goals for each level, like hit X amount of points or destroy all of the dark tiles in X number of moves. It’s more goal-driven, which works in its favor for gaming on the go.

There’s also a bit of story, with a blue-faced tile encouraging you forward. It’s light and thin stuff, but it is nice to read some cutesy–if throwaway–dialogue between rounds and learn about how certain power-ups work.

Now for the negatives. Hoo boy.

Hexic is a free-to-play game that asks you, pretty frequently, to spend real money. Either on special boosters or extra lives. See, you get five lives–also know as five chances not to fail a level–and they refresh themselves over time. I think it’s maybe around 20 to 25 minutes for one new life to be gained. If you run out of lives, but want to keep playing and can’t wait around, well…the game has a store button for you. I’m not one to ever get involved in microtransactions, and let it be known that you can complete every level in the game without spending a real U.S. dollar; granted, I probably would’ve been finished with the game a month or so ago if I had, but there is nothing wrong with making something last. Patience is a plus.

The game also ends up crashing a lot, seemingly for no real reason. The first few times I chalked it up to how I was holding the phone and maybe I accidentally bumped the back arrow or something. Nope, not it. You’ll be doing well, making combos and gaining a high score, and suddenly you are kicked from the game back to your phone’s main screen. A straight dump. What’s even more frustrating is that when you log back in to play, the life you were just on is gone, and so not only did you mess up a good run, but you’re down one life. Knowing this also helped fuel my desire to never spend a single dime on extra BS because I had to now live and play in constant fear of crashes.

I haven’t uninstalled Hexic from my phone just yet, but I really think I might be done with my tile-turning time. For now. There’s maybe one or two more Achievements I could possibly go after, but the remainder seem to require some hard-earn money to get close to, and while I love Hexic, I don’t love it that much.

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is solving mysteries in Scoggins, Minnesota

puzzle agent first impressions

I think Fargo is a really great movie; I remember the first time I saw it, some ironically cold, wintery night in my freshman year of college, on one of those many weekends my roommate went home to see his parents and friends and left me to my lonesome–which, in the grand scheme of things, was perfectly fine by me. We were not meant to be. I had the lights off, the volume up, and my eyes glued to the screen. It’s a humble movie about small people committing big crimes, all for, to quote Marge Gunderson, “a little bit of money.” So far, I’ve seen the first episode of the Fargo TV show and really liked it, so here’s hoping it comes to Netflix down the line.

Anyways, that intro paragraph exists because I played a bit of Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent last night, which clearly takes inspiration from Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 cult American crime flick. Both are set in Minnesota, and both rely heavily on accents and smallfolk quirks to sell the setting’s personality. Granted, one deals with murder and kidnapping, and the other an accident at an erasers factory, so there are some slight differences in tone, but a mystery must be investigated nonetheless. Which brings us to the titular Nelson Tethers, who works for the Puzzle Research Division of the FBI; this is his first field assignment, and he’s humble enough to really want to do a good, thorough job, impress the higher-ups. As soon as he arrives, Tethers begins to see that this quiet, snowy town has a few extra secrets slinking in the shadows.

Puzzle Agent is a puzzle-driven adventure game in the same vein as the Professor Layton series. There’s a story at play, but to see it unfold, you’ll have to solve seemingly random puzzles–though some are definitely more themed for the plot than others–and these range from jigsaws to answering a question based on a specific set of rules. I think I even ran across a “bug grouping” puzzle that I also recently found in Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, which I need to get back to sooner than later. You can collect pieces of chewed-up gum (gross), which act as hints for puzzles, and naturally, you get rated for how many hints you used and how many wrong answers you submitted. Other than that, you’ll question people via your trusty notepad of topics á la L.A. Noire and examine scenes, though there is no inventory to manage.

Visually, Puzzle Agent is a delight. It has this wonderful art style from the creator of Grickle Graham Annable, which is a really cartoony look, and you can see it so when the cutscenes zoom in on characters and you can make out the pencil lead in their outlines. As an artist, I dig this, though I get why some might not. Environments are detailed where it matters so far, and the illustrations for the puzzles get the job done. Speaking of that, when you submit an answer, you get this fantastic animation of your solution being zipped off to HQ for review, as well as a ticking number tallying up how much taxpayer dollars you are spending on this. It’s probably the slickest element of the entire game’s presentation, and yes, the character animation is meant to be so rudimentary. It’s for effect.

Not to keep comparing it to Professor Layton, but that series is really the pinnacle of puzzle-based adventures, and so there are a few things I wish Puzzle Agent did more like them. For starters, often, the text for the rules or question you are trying to solve is found in a sub-menu, meaning you have to constantly keep clicking back over to remember what your goal is, whereas the Professor Layton games, mind you, they are on a system designed with dual screens, keeps the information right in front of you at all times so you can read and solve in unison. Secondly, the game will not auto-complete a puzzle if you find the right solution; you have to hit submit to see it through, which has already lead to me second-guessing a few choices here and there.

Alas, I kind of spoiled a little bit of the game as I went searching for a good image to use on this blog post, but regardless, I’m still excited to see how everything plays out in Scoggins, Minnesota. I don’t think it’s a very long game, so maybe I’ll finish it over another sitting or two. What’s even better is that I apparently also have a copy of Puzzle Agent 2 on Steam, waiting for me immediately after. I guess I got both of these through a bundle at some point, but have no memory of such a purchase. Or maybe I bought them in a fever-driven state of consciousness. Hmm. Let’s just end on another Marge quote: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.”