Oct 132010

If you’re going to make an episodic game, you need to put your best foot forward in part one. That’s tough to do with a game, because the workaday business of teaching the player how to play often gets in the way of the really cool stuff you want to include. But, it’s critical to show off your best design early on. The memory of a really awesome opening segment can propel a player through some mid-game doldrums, but a lame beginning means you’ll never sell part two. Decay, an XBox Live Indie Game in the adventure-horror mode, begins strongly, with a suicide that immediately cultivates an atmosphere of despair. Unfortunately, this first episode just wasn’t very good, which is a shame because the second episode shows real promise.

The first episode of Decay wasn’t bad, exactly. The atmosphere was suitably creepy, mostly thanks to the music, and the story seemed intriguing, although I am really effing tired of serial killers (also: guys, get your text edited by a native English speaker, please). Unfortunately, the gameplay got bogged down in the same old problems that sent the adventure genre down the tubes. Most of the puzzles didn’t really make any sense in the context of the world, and they relied on arcane and illogical solutions.

For instance, one puzzle required you to arrange four portraits that were hanging on a wall. The nature of the necessary pattern (oldest to youngest from top to bottom) wasn’t evident from the arrangement of the room or the position of the frames themselves. Indeed, given that an even older-looking portrait was hanging on the wall to the left of the four portraits, the room actually suggested an incorrect solution. After solving this puzzle, you needed to play a game of tic-tac-toe to three draws. Why you needed to rearrange these portraits or play this game wasn’t at all evident, and neither activity felt like it had anything to do with what was going on. An even more frustrating puzzle later required you to figure out that some ninjas on a TV were giving you the combination to a lock in another room, which is the sort of thing that made me swear off Sierra games.

It made me swear off Decay, too. The first chapter was such a disappointment that I left the second chapter unplayed for several weeks.

That was a shame, because when I finally decided to play it, I found that the second chapter of Decay was much, much better. Of course, it still has some adventure-game nonsense, such as somebody hiding a cardkey in a toy piano, but the puzzles are generally much more naturalistic — for instance, you retrieve the key by playing a melody you hear in the chapter on the toy piano. There is also a really clever little self-aware bit of action in the level, tied to a scare that plays wonderfully off the universal experience of being caught playing a game when you shouldn’t be. Overall, the second chapter plays much more naturally and sensibly than the first, and shows a lot of promise.

The second episode arguably swings a bit too far towards readability, because its efforts to point you in the right direction sometimes verge on hand-holding. Having this assistance (the arrow in the elevator, the footprints, the smudge on the keyboard) be optional in future chapters would be a good choice.

I haven’t checked the download numbers, but based on the number of ratings it seems like the second chapter of the game got a lot less play than the first. That’s to be expected, based on the weak opening, but it’s a real shame. If you tried Decay part one and were put off by the too-traditional adventure-style puzzles, give the second part a spin. I’m almost certain you’ll find it superior to the first. Hopefully Shining Gate will continue to refine their design as the story continues.

Decay parts 1 and 2 are available via XBox Live Indie Games.

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