Awakener has young adventurer Fadi performing a number of tasks

gd final impressions awakener screenshot

Evidently, I still have a bunch of Ben Chandler’s earlier point-and-click adventure games downloaded on my laptop, waiting patiently. Ready to be played, like good little patients. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. That is, only if I use my mouse cursor to click on them and hit “run.” That might not sound like a tricky puzzle, but some days, some cold, tired, lonely nights, it can be a true struggle to do anything other than crawl under the heated blanket with a cat and burn the dark hours with a continuous stream of Netflix. That said, I decided to check out Awakener over the weekend and was surprised to discover it was both a short and straightforward experience, peppered with wall-breaking humor and flashy animations, like when Fadi finds the dagger.

Here’s the deal. A nine-year-old boy called Fadi thirsts for adventure much in the same way a drowning man thirsts for air. Er, no. That’s probably too dramatic. So, when asked to retrieve a potion from the local store by his Aunt Sylvia, he sees this straightforward challenge as much more, as a not so simple task. With point-and-click adventure games, it never really is anyways. In order to retrieve this potion, this Spirit of Hartshorn, which should be potent enough to wake the sleeping man outside his aunt’s home, Fadi will have to jump through some non-literal hoops, supplying people he meets with just what they need to give up whatever item they have to help him progress. I mean, that statue isn’t going to dress itself.

As it turns out, Awakener takes place across a single screen, though it does scroll left and right, so you could argue that it is like three rooms connected with no loading. This is not a detriment, as some developers can do a lot with a little. I personally liked the bite-size environment to scour, as it never felt overwhelming, and the backtracking only took a few clicks. You’re in a sort of open market area, with a couple houses and a bar, though you can’t go inside anywhere; no worries, as everyone you need to converse with for puzzle actions is outside, getting some fresh fantasy-limned air. Just like Chandler’s other earlier works, such as Fragment and ~airwave~ – I Fought the Law, and the Law One, the characters and environments are brightly colored, zany, with some nontraditional takes on geometry.

Awakener‘s puzzles are all item-based, which means speaking with someone to figure out what item they need or how to get the item they already have. You’ll never hold too much in your inventory at one time, which keeps things pretty simple to figure out. The solutions are fairly obvious, like helping an assassin on her assassination quest, though I did get stuck for a minute or two on how to obtain the soldier’s pike, not realizing it was a timing issue. Also, if I recall–it’s been a few days now–all puzzles are solved using a single item on a second single thing, with very little item combining at play.

Ultimately, this is a short, early comedic stab from Ben Chandler, one still worth checking out if you have a few minutes to spare and like clicking on things. The dialogue is amusing, especially if you are a fan of adventure games and can take a few jokes at a genre you enjoy, though don’t expect much in the sound department. You can grab a free copy of the game over this a-way.

I wish to be kidnapped right away by Final Fantasy IX

final fantasy ix square in alexandria

Over the weekend, as we creep closer to finishing off the first two months of 2015–two absolutely frigid and skin-cracking cold months at that–I realized I needed to start doing something about my promise to finally play, with the intent to complete too, Final Fantasy IX, Radiant Historia, and Silent Hill 3. Now, I’m naturally not crazy enough to juggle all of those at once, and so I picked the one that called to me most, that has always called to me, fifteen years after its release in November 2000, and that’s how we’re here now, with a save entry in Final Fantasy IX around the six-hour mark. Six hours, ten minutes, and thirty-five seconds, with 3,181 Gil to spend if I’m to be exact.

I’m not going to wax nostalgia too much, but Final Fantasy IX, despite me only ever getting as far as the second disc (of four discs in total) made a big impression on me as a sixteen-year-old gamer kid. Much more than Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII ever did–sorry, Cloud and Squall, respectively. There are a number of elements here that I think about constantly, such as Active Time Events, Triple Triad, how the plot bounces between a Game of Thrones-esque cast of characters, the jaunty pacing, that orchestral soundtrack, kupos and the noises they make when receiving mail, and more. Truly, I’ve never understood why I haven’t completed it sooner, but I feel like a part of me always got distracted by something else, especially on disc two, when things slow down, but much like previous goals wherein I remained on the path to complete games like Chrono Cross and Metal Gear, I’m hopeful this is my chance.

Let me share with y’all Final Fantasy IX‘s concomitantly light and heavy plot, at least for the opening hours of the game. The adventure begins with Zidane and the Tantalus Theater Troupe kidnapping Princess Garnet during her sixteenth birthday celebration. As it turns out, Garnet actually wanted to be kidnapped, not knowing what to do over Queen Brahne’s increasingly erratic behavior. Along the way, Zidane and Garnet are joined by Vivi, a black mage who is troubled by the idea that soulless black mages are being sweatshop created for nefarious purposes, and Steiner, a soldier sworn to protect the princess. The group travels to Lindblum to speak with Regent Cid over what to do next. Things go from there, but I won’t go into every detail; just know that the group is being pursued, Mist is a problem, Garnet is discovering everyone is holding her back, and Zidane is not quite the ladies monkey he believes himself to be.

I suspect I’ll go into other elements in separate posts later, so for now I’ll write a bit about the combat and combat-related mechanics. Battles are active and turn-based, coined as Active Time Battles, meaning you get to select an action for whoever once their meter fills up, but the enemy’s turn meter is also filling up simultaneously. Depending on party members, your commands are pretty standard: attack, steal, black magic, skills, items, flee, and so on. After taking enough hits, characters can enter a “Trance” mode, which is activated for a short duration and not too far off from Final Fantasy VII‘s Limit Breaks used in Final Fantasy VII. Trance grants special attack commands; I’m actually not a huge fan as one often enters Trance during non-boss battles, making them anticlimactic and not very useful, unless you time your Trance meter “pop” just right.

Here’s one of my favorite things about Final Fantasy IX‘s relatively straightforward combat. Weapons and armor include special character abilities, which can be equipped so long as the ability matches their class. For instance, Vivi should focus on items that come packaged with spells. Anyways, through battles, ability points are applied to all items currently equipped by a character, and once each item has been maximized, the character no longer needs to wear that gear to use that ability. It is much clearer in the game than how I just wrote it, but basically, it makes grinding purposeful, as you are always working towards filling up an item’s ability meter. I’m so crazy about this stuff that, right now, Zidane is equipped with a less powerful dagger so that he can learn an ability to up his thieving skills, despite a stronger dagger sitting unused in my inventory.

Well, I’ll be back to write more. Currently, Zidane, Viva, and Freya–real quick side note, I decided to be an adult and leave all their original names as is when prompted–are working their way through Gizamaluke’s Grotto, in pursuit of a runaway Garnet. Unfortunately, remember when I mentioned earlier about always getting distracted by shinier thingswell, it seems like Giant Bomb‘s Dan and Drew are heading back into Metal Gear Scanlon soon, and I like to be one step ahead of them before watching, so I might run into a snag where I have to juggle this and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Hmm.

Nothing works properly for Abel the Stringshaper in A Landlord’s Dream

a landlord's dream screenshot 01

It only takes three screens to tell the story of A Landlord’s Dream, but, for a Monthly Adventure Game Studio Competition (MAGS) entry, this is all it needs. Amazingly, there’s a world here, cyberpunky and mysterious and sparkling with inspiration, not that far off from dystopian Los Angeles from Blade Runner or the futuristic, augmented Detroit from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It may not be entirely fleshed out in every instance, but there’s a lot to digest, with plenty of room to grow and become something bigger. Certainly, the conspiracy goes deeper than just the landlord.

A Landlord’s Dream comes to us from LostTrainDude, and this is the first game of his or her portfolio that I’ve touched, but I suspect I’ll dip back into some older work, such as A Night That Wouldn’t End, which is an intriguing title to start. Anyways, this short hop around a building is about Abel Lowen, a Stringshaper and sleepy band member, who is awoken in the middle of the night by his apartment’s alarm clock on the fritz. Once he’s finally up and at ‘em, Lowen realizes that almost nothing technological seems to be working properly–not his phone, not his alarm system, and certainly not his implants, the ones that power his musical talents. Venturing out into the hallway, he quickly sees that he’s not the only one experiencing problems.

Gameplay is your standard point-and-click adventuring stuff. You can left click to use/interact with items and right click to learn about them. Lowen has an inventory too, though you won’t hold very much over the course of three screens. Inside your inventory, you can examine objects further or click on them to use on whatever person, place, or thing you desire. In terms of puzzles, they are mostly logical, though I got stuck for a bit on how to create a distraction despite having the idea down; eventually, I just tried every combination of items until something happened, which did not make me feel smart, only frustrated.

A couple of other nitpicks I ran into with A Landlord’s Dream. Technically, there is some pixel hunting for some of the tinier items or interactive spots, such as using the cell phone on the door alarm, and the game ends with the UI still accessible during the end credits sequence. Small quibbles, but they are there nonetheless.

I’m usually not the sort that replays point-and-click adventure games, but if this one got reworked a bit and lengthened in all the right areas (more screens, more info about implants, more characters to chat with), I’d be down for helping delirious men with prophet-driven hallucinations and scaring cats to create distractions again. I don’t know, but something about the grainy pixel art of this digital world really resonates with me.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #20 – Awakener

2015 games completed awakener gd01

To wake the sleeper
Help assassin, buy pennies
Oh, dress the statue

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Ascend towards an unknown destination in The Old Tree

the old tree gd impressions

According to Steam, I completed The Old Tree in twelve minutes. Thankfully, those were twelve really good minutes spent in a bizarre, surprising world, starring a microscopic octopus-like alien blob, as well as a couple other cartoonish characters, like that insect bellboy. It’s a short experience, but satisfying, and there’s obviously room for so much more.

From Red Dwarf Games, The Old Tree effectively mixes point-and-click adventuring with beautifully interactive art. Think more Samorost 2 than Botanicula, but both fit the vibe when it comes to imagination and creativity. Anyways, in this atmospheric free-to-play title, you help guide a tiny alien thing, which I’ve seen referred to as both Dumbo Octopus and Baby Cthulhu by fans, to an unknown destination. Basically, you’ll hit a number of progress-blocking puzzles, where you have to figure out what to click on in the environment–and in what order–to open up the path for our leading creepy, crawling turnip to keep moving. Despite some of the surroundings, the puzzles are mostly logical, such as how you can’t open a door as easily when it is submerged in water, meaning you need to empty the tank first. I really liked getting around the insect bellhop and his/her need to control the light switch.

Strangely, there’s quite a sinister air hanging over The Old Tree despite nothing terrible happening and–spoiler–a happy ending for the little alien dude. Maybe it has to do with the dark lighting or use of unnerving insects in human-like positions, and the quiet, haunting soundtrack probably doesn’t help much. Either way, I kind of dreaded every new scene, waiting for things to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never happened. I guess that is more on me than the game, but I might not recommend this as a bedtime story just yet. Maybe stick with Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the meantime if you are looking for a blob-driven narrative.

That said, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Red Dwarf Games’ next project, which is called Tales of Cosmos, already on Steam Greenlight and aiming for a 2015 release. Similar to Lost Constellation and Night in the Woods, a freebie taste of what’s to come really helps rope me in for the long haul, and I hope it works on others, as there is something special here in the art direction, something worth exploring in a larger capacity.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #19 – The Old Tree

2015 games completed gd the old tree

Newborn alien
Help it travel, up and out
Mind the bellhop, cat

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Gotta match ‘em all in Nintendo’s free-to-play Pokémon Shuffle

pokemon shuffle 287723-FFA1

Like sand dunes eroding over time, Nintendo is slowing dipping its toes into the free-to-play market in an attempt to see what all the hubbub is about, as well as milk fans for money. Now, I never did download Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, which had a unique take on bartering for cheaper mini-games, but it sounded like, at the very least, a fresh take on giving players something free to play while enticing them to drop some dollar bills for a bit more to experience. I’ve also not given Steeldiver: Sub Wars a look, so I can’t speak for how that submarine-steered competitive multiplayer thing faired. Naturally, the first free-to-play plunge from Nintendo I’m interested in trying out is Pokémon-related.

Pokémon Shuffle is another take on the “match three” puzzle formula, but instead of lining up similar looking gems or flowers or pieces of underwear, you’ll be matching cutesy disembodied heads of all your favorite–and probably some of your non-favorite–pocket monsters. You use the stylus and touchscreen to make this happen, and the game, thanks to its vibrant, colorful look and simplistic presentation, moves at a rapid clip. Basically, you’re matching three or more heads to deal damage to whatever Pokémon you are fighting, and different types of Pokémon to do more damage by way of a weakness system. Once you beat the Pokémon, you get a chance to capture it, and the capture percentage is upped a bit by how many moves you have left by the end of the battle; of course, you could always pay to up that guarantee of a capture. Strangely, some common Pokémon have really low capture rates, which doesn’t exactly line up with the, um, fiction of games like Pokémon Y and Pokémon White 2.

The free-to-play gating begins immediately once you get past the tutorial bits. See, there are three types of currency to pay attention to: Hearts, Jewels, and Coins. The core currency is Jewels, which you can buy for $0.99 each, with a small discount for if you buy in bulk. You can then exchange Jewels for Hearts. Hearts let you play one level one time (win or lose), and you can have a maximum of five total, with one reappearing every 30 minutes. Coins are a sub-currency used to purchase one-use power-ups before a battle begins, and from what I can tell, the majority of the power-ups are way too expensive for what little effects they cause.

I think Pokémon Shuffle‘s biggest misstep is in its Hearts. Also known as the Energy system when it comes to these things. Levels generally take one to two minutes to complete, possibly a bit longer if you are really studying the board for key combos or up against a really tough encounter, like Mew, which is the random event Nintendo’s running for the next three weeks since launch. That means, especially early on, you can use up your five Hearts in five minutes and then end up having to wait two and a half hours to play five more times in a row. Hexic for Windows 8 phones, which I found pretty addicting, was similar to this, but you only lost a chance to play again if you lost a battle/level; if you won, you kept going, riding it like a pro. I once downloaded Candy Crush Saga, but only played it once or twice before deleting, meaning I can’t tell you how it compared to this–but all in all, Pokémon Shuffle seems a little too eager to immediately put the player in a standstill and ask for an investment.

I will never drop any real money into Pokémon Shuffle, but as something I’ll pick up and play once or twice a day for maybe ten minutes at most, it doesn’t offend me. Too much. I can happily ignore all its free-to-play tactics and begs, though I do wish Nintendo took a chance to thank its long-time fans and incorporate some kind of connection with the various other Pokémon games for the Nintendo 3DS. I mean, my copy of Pokémon Dream Radar is collecting digital dust, so it would’ve been nice to keep that train a-chugging. Or, heck, use those Play Coins to help purchase extra hearts or Great Balls.

Again, Pokémon Shuffle doesn’t really bother me too much because I’m not investing anything into it other than a small chunk of my day, but if I really want my match three fantastical animal heads fix, I should probably wait for Pokémon Battle Trozei, releasing next month on the eShop for $7.99. Think about how many Hearts that could buy you in Pokémon Shuffle. Here, I did the math for you–$7.99, due to the odd way they are priced, could get you 6 Jewels, which could then be turned into 30 Hearts. So, the choice is yours–$7.99 to play thirty times or play as much as you want. I know, this is a tougher choice than trying to name an Audino for the umpteenth time.