Monthly Archives: February 2014

2014 Game Completed Comics, #15 – Winnose

2014 games completed 15 - winnose facebook

Every videogame that I complete in 2014 will now get its very own wee comic here on Grinding Down. It’s about time I fused my art with my unprofessional games journalism. I can’t guarantee that these comics will be funny or even attempt to be funny. Or look the same from one to another. Some might even aim for thoughtfulness. Comics are a versatile form, so expect the unexpected.

Broken Age’s first act clicks it big, but cliffhangs

Broken-Age-Act-I-SS-Girl-Dialog-Tree copy

Many moons ago, I got in on the hot Kickstarter action that Double Fine snowballed with their plans to make an old-school point-and-click adventure game. Well, a modern one of those, I mean. And since then, I’ve been following along dutifully with the game’s progression–codenamed Reds, truly named Broken Age–via the roughly monthly 2 Player Productions documentary videos, which do a fantastic job of showing how all the pieces ultimately come together to be a final product. Some of it is more interesting than other aspects, but regardless, it’s a rare glimpse into a process generally kept to the shadows. Kudos to Double Fine for being so open, as honest as allowed.

Let’s see, let’s see. Broken Age is, more or less, about death. Some people want it, some won’t ever get it, and some are brought up believing it is their destiny to die. To be more specific, it is about two young teenagers “seeking to break the tradition with their lives.” Vella Tartine is one of the lucky girls to be chosen as a human sacrifice for Mog Chothra, a monstrous, tentacle-tossing beast that eats up people at celebrated events called Maiden’s Feasts. Smartly, she has decided this is not how her life should go. On the flip side, or more like the space side, we have Shay Volta, a young boy living a very cushioned and solitude existence on a spaceship. That is until he meets Marek the wolf, who is probably just a man in wolf’s clothing. With Marek’s prodding, Shay begins to shake things up on the spaceship, which leads to a number of problems. The connection between Vella and Shay, other than thematic, is still not known, though Act 2 will most likely delve into this area of interest.

And so Double Fine set out to create a modern point-and-click adventure game harkening back to the kind Tim Schafer worked on many years ago. Alas, I’ve never played any of those: Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango, and so on. I know, I know. They are all on my germinating to-do list. However, ever since I chipped in on the Kickstarter, I’ve begun playing a lot more adventure games, each of varying degrees of difficulty, and so I kind of know what they aiming for. That said, Broken Age is pretty easy. The puzzles are never overwhelming and obtuse–absolutely zero pixel hunting–and you only end up with a few items in your inventory and so many screens to explore at a single time. When you run out of ideas, just try every item on everything, and you’ll move forward. Also, ladders are vital. I got through Act 1 just fine, and that’s honestly okay, but I’d love to see more of a challenge in Act 2.

Obviously, Broken Age looks nothing like the games that came out twenty years ago. Though there is a way to unlock retro mode for the fuzzy-loving purists. It’s gorgeous, an absolute treat for the eyes, paintings come to life. The cute, colorful art style comes mainly from Nathan “Bagel” Stapley, and it really enforces the carrot-on-a-string trick of adventure games, where you often just want to see what the next area will look like. I enjoyed Vella’s locations more than Shay’s, but there’s a fantastic amount of detail here, and everything really does look like they exist in a singular world; the documentary vids reveal that, while Stapley did a majority of the art assets, others did work on repainting parts of some scenes, as well as probably other things. Don’t worry about any of that though, just lose yourself in the fluffy, floaty clouds.

Initially, I was put off with the announcement that Broken Age was being split into two separate acts, for financial and deadline-related reasons, all explained in the documentary vids. I mean, I think we can all agree that The Hobbit has suffered greatly from being sliced and diced, though it does work for episodic games like The Walking Dead, but only when it is clearly designed to be episodic. This was not the case, and for now, it’s a bit of a bummer that Broken Age‘s first act ends just as the plot comes together and really gets interesting. I’m sure once act two comes out and you can skip from one to the other in a single breath, it’ll be a much more solid experience. Until then, we’re left alone on a beach, jaws in the sand, waiting and wondering.

Alundra dreams about one obtuse puzzle at a time

alundra early thoughts PS1

According to an online walkthrough, I’m just about halfway through Alundra. And yes, I’m playing with a guide at my side; if I didn’t, I would have given up on the action-adventure Legend of Zelda wannabe sometime back during the saint puzzles in Lars’ Crypt. Or maybe even in the Coal Mine. No doubt about it. But like a bad dream, I’m jumping around and getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it back to the start, just after the awesomely anime cutscene that reinforces the fact that this was most definitely made in the 1990s by Matrix Software, a Japanese video game development company from Tokyo.

The story, while cliché in places, like collecting a bunch of crystals via one dungeon at a time to stop a big baddie, is actually kind of interesting: Alundra, the silent protagonist you control and name of the game, is an elf from the Elna clan of Dreamwalkers. He comes to Inoa after getting shipwrecked, but also because of a recurring dream where a mysterious figure calls him “Releaser” and says he must save the villagers from the evil wizard Melzas. After a while, the people of Inoa begin blaming Alundra for all of the terrible happenings despite his earnest attempts to save them. It’s a pretty straightforward and rather serious story, with some goofy moments and characters now and then, such as Bonaire, the surfer dude and his dream of winning over Sara, a bodacious babe.

I can’t recall if Alundra was ever called “the Zelda killer” though I do know that phrase was used around Dark Cloud, which was not at all a Zelda killer, but did eventually lead to a fantastic sequel that I still need to beat one day, but only after I restart and get all the vital photos along the way. Sorry, got distracted. To get to the point: Alundra is no Zelda killer. Far from it. If anything, it’s a Landstalker/Zelda clone, but much harsher, with subpar controls, and doesn’t give a lick if you can’t figure out its puzzles. Sure, you are traveling across an open world, slashing grass, tossing bombs and pots, charging your sword up for a more powerful attack, and gaining new powers after specific dungeons that can help you advance in the next one, but that doesn’t mean you can toss away your yellowing copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past now that Alundra is in your life. We all know that Charles Caleb Colton said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and I’ll leave it at that.

Just kidding. Alundra is not terrible, but it’s probably one of the more frustrating games I’ve played in a long time, and I really don’t know how people played this back in 1997 without a helpful walkthrough at their side. I’ve had to look up just about every puzzle past the first few dreams Alundra jumps into, and it’s not because I’m a mindless idiot; in fact, I’d like to think I’m fairly smart, intelligent enough to figure out many point-and-click game puzzles. For many of Alundra‘s puzzles, it’s not all about figuring out the solution, but also executing the moves to get the job done. There’s a lot of platforming- and timing-based moves you have to do to open the door to the next room, and unfortunately, Alundra does not move very well. You can only walk in four directions, and the jumping never feels good. Run is assigned to the triangle button, but it is useless because you can’t run and jump–only run. Plus, there’s a lot of depth perception going on in hopping from one column to another, and oftentimes, if you miss a landing, it means starting the jumping all over again, usually from much earlier in the process. That’s my biggest hurdle here: identifying what jumps can and cannot be made.

A couple of negative nitpicks include that while you pick up new armor, like boots and chestplates, these are not visible on Alundra. Fine, I can let that slide. Not every game is about that, but unlike The Legend of Zelda, you can’t even see what gear you have collected in your inventory menu. You just have to remember. It is automatically found and applied, which is disappointing, especially since you get a decent jingle when opening treasure chests and defeating dungeon bosses. I like seeing everything I’ve found along the journey, whether it is useable or not. Fighting enemies is tedious due to Alundra’s inadequate ability to move fast, as well as move and attack at the same time, leading me to avoid combat in most cases.

But despite all that, I’m still really curious. About everything. Just to see what happens next, what special tool Alundra will earn, and so on. It’s probably because I’ve been dreaming myself of playing this game for so long, ever since I read about it in some nascent issue of PSM, but by the time I got around to being able to buy videogames at my leisure, stores no longer carried PS1 games. Flash-forward many, many years, and you can now find Alundra on the PSN for a couple of bucks, and dang it, I really need to know if it was worth all the waiting, all the hoping. Given how much frustration I’ve already encountered eight or nine hours in, I’m thinking no, but one never knows, and I’d rather see it to the end and know for sure then spend some more years living in uncertainty.

2014 Game Completed Comics, #14 – Broken Age (Act 1)

2014 games completed 14 - broken age act 1 facebook

Every videogame that I complete in 2014 will now get its very own wee comic here on Grinding Down. It’s about time I fused my art with my unprofessional games journalism. I can’t guarantee that these comics will be funny or even attempt to be funny. Or look the same from one to another. Some might even aim for thoughtfulness. Comics are a versatile form, so expect the unexpected.

You fear to go into those Spelunky mines

beat olmec in spelunky GD

Let’s get real: I’ve only been playing Spelunky for about two weeks and some change now, nearly daily, attempting at least one or two runs. Originally, I had no interest in the game, as it came across as maybe too punishing to be considered fun, and so I always kept my attention elsewhere. But then Patrick at Giant Bomb began playing, streaming his daily attempts to escape the mines, dive deeper down, and get better at the numerous mechanics and tricks, and it was actually quite interesting to watch. Kind of like a horror film, where it’s fine and dandy to watch someone else put themselves into a tough and trying situation, only because it is not you, and you can just kick back and absorb.

What is Spelunky, you ask, not knowing? Well, it’s an indie action-adventure game created by Derek Yu that has you running through caves, collecting treasure, and saving damsels for a high score and an attempt at beating the boss Olmec. It originally started as freeware in 2009, getting remade for consoles and the PC years later. The trick here is that the dungeon levels are randomly generated each and every time, and you only get one shot at it, though there are ways to increase your health and gain a second life. Traps are deadly, enemies are tough and quite unpredictable, and don’t even try stealing the idol in the jungle levels unless you have enough bombs to reach safety.

Some runs in Spelunky last around twenty minutes, and some are over in mere seconds. Like an endless runner á la Temple Run 2 and Jetpack Joyride, the “one more go” mentality is strong here. Very strong. Every death is your fault, and there’s always something to be learned for your next spelunking sojourn. Next time you’ll know that you can’t fall from that specific height, that you can’t jump on the walking Venus fly trap enemies, that bees should just be avoided at all costs, and so on. Visually, the game comes across as quite simple, and that’s even more noticeable when you compare the freeware version with the updated console versions, as not many details change, but things obviously get prettier. That said, this is one of the most complex and strategy-heavy games I’ve played in a long, long time.

I’ve beaten Olmec once. And it happened quite fortuitously. See, there’s this fellow called Tunnel Man who you meet when traveling from one themed group of levels to another. Such as exiting the mines and reaching the jungle. And he can open up shortcuts to these worlds if you give him specific items, like two bombs or a shotgun. However, to open the final shortcut to the temple, you have to bring the gold key you find in the mines all the way with you through the mines, jungle, and ice caves, and it’s no easy thing. Or at least I thought it was going to be grueling. Er, I did it on my first attempt. Even crazier is that after I gave the Tunnel Man his shortcut-opening item I finished the temple levels and got to the final boss, all wide-eyed in wonder and disbelief.

Let’s see. What else can I say about Spelunky? Dat music. Now, you can never really hang around too long in each singular level, as a ghost shows up that can one-hit kill you, so you are trying to move through the world at a speedy–but safe–clip, and that means you’re unfortunately missing out on some fantastic tunes. Everyone will be most familiar with the songs for the mines, and they are moody and down-tempo, with elements taken from jazz and all things 1990s. That jingle that plays when you anger a shopkeeper is both awesome and terrifying. The game’s soundtrack, which you can listen to here, is written and produced by Eirik Suhrke, with some additional friends helping out here and there.

Despite beating Olmec, I’m nowhere near done with Spelunky. Not one lick. First of all, there’s a second secret boss called Yama, and to get to Yama requires a lot of specific steps, and you can’t mess up one of them. It seems tough, but practice makes perfect, and I’m going to at least try. First I have to reach the City of Gold and then Hell. Hmm. But I’m also playing the game on the PlayStation 3, which has Daily Challenges, singular runs where the goal is to get the highest amount of treasure, and leaderboards nicely show how all your friends stack up against you. I’ve recently added a ton of Giant Bomb users to my friends list, which makes this feature much more enticing than when it was just me by my lonesome. And who knows–maybe one day I’ll tackle a solo eggplant run?