FIG 2015 Report

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Sep 152014
 

Well, I made it to the Boston Festival of Indie Games again this year, and just as happened last year I basically got sucked into the show floor and never made it out. I got my hands on some interesting games though, and as a service to you, dear reader, I now report my experiences.

I love games that involve grappling and swinging, so I was immediately drawn to Mark of the Old Ones, which attempts to join this gameplay to the Lovecraftian themes that are not overtly racist. The player character is a little bundle of stuff that instantly reminded me of a koosh ball. Little strands can shoot off of the ball and stick to some surfaces, and doing this repeatedly is the only way to move around. The movement mechanics felt good, which doesn’t always happen in this sort of game, and some useful indicators helped make every movement situation a little more interpretable.  The game, which had successful Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns, should be entering beta soon. I was told the whole game has been roughed out and most of the levels have been completed. Hopefully there’s time to add a little detail to the environments because at least the demo level I played felt a little spare. Still, I’m excited to see how this one turns out.

The other game I played with a spherical protagonist was Gemini, which appears to be the outgrowth of a student project at NYU. The player has control over a little ball of light here and can only move it left or right using controller triggers. The ball of light has a twin; moving while close to the twin increases altitude while moving far away causes the player’s ball to sink. In the level I played, the goal was to move upwards, activating light orbs, until the pair pierces the clouds into what looks like a new world. The controls were intuitive, the AI for the companion ball was well-designed, and with a big assist from the music the whole thing evolved a very zen feel. Under the circumstances, I felt the demo level was a touch too long and I will probably feel the same if the game just continues to hit that single note in different colors. If there’s a good emotional range, though, this level would probably be a good size.

Screenshot from Gemini

Screenshot from Gemini, from the website

A similar sort of zen approach informed GNOG, a sort of toy-game about interacting with giant monster heads. Certain features on each head are interactive, and they can be turned around to reveal an interactive interior. I enjoyed the demo, but something about it felt a little off. As it transpired, interactive points were either on the way to progress or were just dead ends. What the game could really have used were some kind of “side-quest”, clusters of 1-3 objects that worked together and made some interesting change to the environment that wasn’t necessarily productive but was interesting. As it was, everything either moved the level along or was just dead. The plan is to bring this one in about a year or so to PC and iOS, which will probably be the better fit. Some polish is needed here, but there’s a fair amount of promise.

The same could be said of Blood Alloy, which is a side-scrolling run-and-gun game that allows for some really amazing action. The demo that was available was basically just an arena level with waves of aggressive enemies, but it had plenty of space to show off the wall-running, shoot-and-slice action. What’s holding this back , and it’s admittedly something that was an outgrowth of the environment, is that the learning curve is clearly pretty steep. What the character can do is pretty awesome, but getting her to actually do it is perhaps overly complex, especially since the nature of the demo required the player to essentially figure out all the tricks right away. The aiming method for the gun was also not a great match for the controller, which made reticule movement too sluggish and sloppy, or the size of the enemies, which put too high a demand on precision. With a little tuning and polish, though, this could be a really impressive action game.

On the other end of the complexity spectrum, but sharing some similarities in aesthetic, was Unbroken, an endless runner hack-n-slash coming to iOS soon. The game had simple, solid controls similar to Punch Quest for attacking and blocking. Character development takes place between runs, which are quick, so this should make a decent idle-play title. I liked the pixel-art aesthetic and I’m looking forward to grabbing it when it comes out.

Airscape: The Fall of Gravity, starring a cute little octopus on an adventure through a world where the down direction is variable, also seemed fairly close to release. I got to play through some ground levels that involved some moderate-speed running and jumping, and some water levels that involved a somewhat tricky swimming mechanic. Cute as it looks, this seems like it will get pretty challenging.

Another cute-looking game I got my hands on was Treasure Adventure World, an open-world side-scroller about a kid with an awesome hook-hand and a bunch of different hats. The goal here is to make something like a Zelda game where acquiring new abilities opens up new areas for exploration and treasure hunting. The website says 2014 is the target but the game felt further out than that; a boss-fight seemed poorly balanced and glitched out after a character death. The early-game portion I demoed worked pretty well, however, and did some fun things with the character’s movement. I also appreciated the spirit of the game. This one can be pre-ordered at its website.

I managed to spend a little time with the cute-but-really-not-cute OBEY, a somewhat asymmetric king-of-the-hill game in which cute bunnies vie for control of a giant robot gun tower they can use to kill their cute bunny friends. This one is pretty far from release, and only some of the systems were implemented. Even so, as a sort of stealth game where I tried to crawl my bunny towards the tower I found it was pretty fun. Eventually the game will implement a control system that gives it its name, where the bunny in the tower will have the ability to command the other bunnies to do things for it in exchange for not being destroyed by a giant gun tower. This might be one to keep in mind for later.

Albino Lullaby screenshot, from the website

Albino Lullaby screenshot, from the website

The most unique-looking game I played was Albino Lullaby, a first-person horror game with a marker-drawn aesthetic. The demo level I played was mostly exploration, with some very light puzzle-solving and, later, some wonky stealth. The environment was, for the most part, really well made and achieved the sort of “creepy-horror” vibe the developers said they were going for. It also featured a really fascinating moment where a huge interior room was dramatically rearranged. So, despite the few rough patches I think this could be really interesting. The game is planned to have three episodes of which the first is expected to land in February. The game has an active Kickstarter to fund its marketing campaign, if you’re interested.

I got a good look at Tumbleweed Express, the most literal rail-shooter ever made, in that it is a game about a train from which you shoot things. The player has control of a turret in the train’s caboose, while cargo cars have automated turrets, giving the game something of a tower-defense feel. The game’s cel-shaded look and absurd enemies gave it something of a Borderlands vibe, and in the levels I observed the sheer number of enemies and general chaos made it feel almost like a shmup. The game has been a multi-year spare-time project of its creators, who currently have a Kickstarter to fund completion and an active Greenlight campaign going.

There were a couple of other wild west themed games on display, but I particularly liked Flamingo!, a Mexican-standoff strategy game. Only the multiplayer component has been implemented so far. In this mode, two players  have four gunmen (who can shoot from 1 to 4 times) to place on a randomized screen. If a gunman shoots a bank he gets money; if he shoots another gunman, he gets that gunman’s money. Whoever has the most money wins. It plays fast and the design is pretty tight. The developer I spoke to said they plan to implement a one-player “puzzle” mode and AI opponents as well. The scale here is small but I thought Flamingo! was very good at what it was trying to do.

I’ll close with two games that were entertaining twists on venerable ideas. Breaker’s Yard is a twin-stick shooter set in a vast junkyard, which features a unique dynamic weapons system. As he runs around the yard the player constantly picks up powerups of which he can hold two simultaneously. Some replace the base shot with drills or chainsaws, others cause 3-way shooting or wavy shots that cover more ground. It’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s good old-fashioned fun. Similarly, The Forgettable Dungeon is a fairly standard roguelike with a 3D pixel look following the aesthetic of 3D Dot Game Heroes. A similar kind of character customization also seems to be in the cards. It was a good bit easier than the typical roguelike, no doubt in part because of the 4-player cooperative play, but it still had a pretty hard final boss to face. Given the speed of the levels and the amount of fun that can be had flinging items (and each other) in all directions this might prove to be most fun in local co-op game.

Well, that’s most of what I managed to get my hands on, but by no means most of the games that were on display at FIG (I haven’t even dipped into the tabletop stuff!). If this keeps up I’m going to have to demand that they expand to two days next year.

(Sorry comments are closed because I don’t want to deal with 100 spam comments from people trying to sell glimmer).

Sep 032014
 

I blame Daniel Day-Lewis. I watched Last of the Mohicans and got a hankering to play a game set in the Colonial frontier, one of many periods of history poorly covered by games. In fact, in a reasonably extensive library the only game that really addressed this setting was Assassin’s Creed III, a game that, to put it mildly, I did not like very much. Shorn of its only real virtue, the multiplayer component, I felt reasonably certain I would still hate the game virulently. I’ve given second chances to games I formally liked less, though, so I booted up some flintlock-and-tomahawk action. Spoiler alert—the game is still junk, for largely the same reasons I identified in my review. There is, perhaps, a bit of perverse genius in a game design that systematically expresses the Templar view of the world with the aim of infuriating the player, but it’s difficult to believe this was really the intention of a game that is so incoherent, stupid, and poorly made.

It may seem strange to talk about focus in an open-world game, especially one made by Ubisoft, but it’s worth remembering how very pared-down the original Assassin’s Creed was. That game didn’t even have money, and aside from the viewpoints and a few collectibles there was very little to do aside from story-oriented missions. Money and a loose sort of base development were innovations of Assassin’s Creed II, which kicked off a progressive expansion of both protagonist abilities and potential side-missions that teetered on the edge of real trouble in Revelations and tumbled right over the edge and shattered at the base of a cliff in III. We have hunting, and a homestead, and naval missions, and brotherhood development, and territory to capture, and fistfights to get into, and missions to acquire goods, and sewers to explore for some reason, and also, oh hey, these missions associated with Connor’s actual storyline, not to mention Desmond.

Most of this stuff is half-assed and little of it really fits into a coherent whole. It’s never clear why Connor builds his little homestead or even his brotherhood. He’s a grade-A heel and quickly disillusioned with the Patriots, so his desire to help out these (white) people who need letters and goods delivered feels unmotivated, at best. The hunting and fistfights at least fit his character and personality, but they also just exist off in their own little world without seriously playing into the game’s main storyline or themes. The naval missions are the only legitimately good part of the single-player experience, but I’ll be damned if I understand how they really fit in to the rest of it. As for the Desmond missions…

Ugh, Desmond. I have always hated him, and his only saving grace in this game is that he is actually less of a shithead than Connor. Also, Nolan North doesn’t shout all his lines the way Noah Watts does. I get that Connor is supposed to be seething with barely-suppressed rage, but since this only comes across in the voice acting and a few non-interactive scenes it’s kind of a failed depiction. As with so many open-world games, once an actual mission starts it’s time for helpful!Connor rather than the actual character that has been depicted for 10 hours.

This is not actually the game’s biggest narrative problem, and neither is its bizarre choice not to take the opportunity to free itself forever from the Animus and the horrible frame story that goes with it. Instead, the problem is a change in attitude. Assassin’s Creed, and especially the Ezio trilogy, had previously presented stories that seemingly intended to make history more interesting and exciting than it actually was. One got the impression that the developers had looked at the actual events and asked, “how can we make this more awesome?” That’s how we ended up with Leonardo’s creations coming to life and actually working.

Assassin’s Creed III seems to take the opposite approach: the developers seem to have had the desire to make the real history look as dumb as possible. The emblematic example of this is when Lance recreates Leonardo’s flying apparatus and it fails embarrassingly, but this attitude manifests throughout. I’m all for deconstructing the founding fathers, but Assassin’s Creed III goes out of its way to make these men look like bumbling fools. Thus, Benjamin Franklin shows up only to show off his lechery, Paul Revere is reduced to a goofy backseat driver, and Washington shows up as a bad general but not as a good politician (which even the game admits he was simultaneously). Sam Adams gets a more sympathetic showing, but disappears halfway through the story.

Maybe this is just what you should expect when you ask Canadians to make a game about the Revolutionary War. Still, it seems like the least interesting thing one could possibly do with the conflict, especially when one considers the number of key players belonging to “secret” societies, the intense debates over the proper nature (republic vs monarchy, federalism vs home rule) of the new government, and the personal conflicts (e.g. Jefferson v Hamilton) between the founding fathers themselves. Much fertile ground was ignored in favor of Revere riding double with Connor.

Even those who can ignore the poverty of the narrative shouldn’t forgive the game for being junk on a fundamental level. The addition of free-running in trees is neat, but hardly any salvation given that free-running in the cities is a dull chore thanks to discontinuous buildings, a failure to address climb-lock, and an overabundance of rooftop guards. The repetition of the exact same goddamn tree throughout the wilderness still grinds my gears, especially since it doesn’t include a safe leap of faith from the viewpoint, and of course one cannot mention the viewpoints without pointing out that finding all of them does not reveal all of the game’s absurdly bad map. That’s just one outcropping of the mountain of garbage that is the game’s hideous user interface, which seems to have been designed with the motto: obtuse, obscuring, obstructive.

At least this time a bug didn’t take out a whole district’s worth of assassin missions in New York, but the notoriety system was still thoroughly broken there. I also got to experience a cute bug in the forest where the game spawned something like 9 wolves in a row and then got stuck in combat mode because one of them clipped to the inside of a rock. Naturally this led to a desynch since Connor can leave no dead animal unskinned.

And there you have it. Years later and I still can’t forgive ACIII for being such an utterly dumb, shambolic pile of garbage. Sure, there’s some fun to be had running through the woods shooting deer or sailing on the ocean shooting boats, but the core of the experience is rotten, and it infects everything else. There is not one single aspect of this game that is well-designed, solidly coded, and reasonably well integrated into the whole. In retrospect, my 6/10 score may have been too generous.

Aug 262014
 

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: Transitions between 3D and 2D platforming.

Best Design Decision: Adopting noir trappings that go with its mechanics.

Worst Design Decision: Inconsistent behavior of shadow edges.

Summary:

Contrast feels like half of a game. That impression comes from the story, which is short, simpler than its noir aesthetic trappings suggest it should be, and ends abruptly. It also comes from the gameplay, which never reaches a point of maturity. In any platformer I expect to have a moment where I have to put together everything I learned earlier in order to succeed; not coincidentally such challenges tend to demonstrate the developers’ understanding of their own systems. That moment never really comes in Contrast, which instead introduces new tricks almost up to the last minute and seems to forget about half of them.

The game’s story has a weird structure. The most emotionally intense moment comes at the end of the first act, and the rest of the game is overwhelmed by the twee adventures of the little girl and her hapless dad. I suppose I wouldn’t mind this so much if the girl were an actual agent but her role is to show up in a room, act briefly, and then stand there uselessly while Dawn does all the work, even for puzzles that would obviously be most efficiently solved by two people. I didn’t mind so much that the game wasn’t entirely clear about what happened to Dawn, but if Vincenzo was going to be a part of that they should have really done something with it rather than tossing a line in at the end. I came away from the whole thing unsatisfied and underwhelmed.

Verdict: Not recommended.

Aug 182014
 

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: Showing off every single input the Vita possesses

Best Design Decision: The “mystery” puzzles, though they could have been harder

Worst Design Decision: Showing off every single input the Vita possesses

Summary:

Well, Golden Abyss is bad, and I’m glad Nick Burgener wrote this detailed post about its many shortcomings so I didn’t have to.  My single point of departure with his opinion would be on the combat, which I thought was also total garbage, albeit in a completely different direction. Drake’s foes are ridiculous bullet sponges in this game in ways that barely make sense, combat encounters are telegraphed at the start and barely coherent afterwards, and it was not long before I dialed down to easy to make them go by faster. The rhythm of the gameplay and story are both completely rote by now, and on the whole it was such a bore that despite having completed it yesterday evening I could not tell you with any specificity one single thing that happened in its story, platforming, or gunplay. I do remember there was some bullshit rowing.

I can’t really blame SCE Bend studio for the disaster. They were handed a beloved property and did a decent job with it (though there were many areas that showed the Vita’s comparative limitations). They were also evidently handed a mandate to incorporate literally every method the Vita had available for input. Most of it turns out to be a dreadful hash or a source of dire boredom—the dust-clearing and charcoal rubbing were abominations, aiming guns and cameras using the gyroscope was a hideous mistake, and so on. I did like the idea of assembling various collectibles and photos into mysteries to be solved, but this was ruined by the damn card-game tie-in (likely also a mandate from corporate), the too-easy puzzle solving, and the awful turquoise and jade lumps. Every time I veered off the main path and found one of those things was three times I saw a side route and moved along to avoid the wasted effort. The one or two good ideas here don’t outweigh the bad, and all in all I’m glad I got this through PS+ rather than buying it.

Verdict: Not recommended