Shelter 2

This is a weird little art game, but it doesn’t make an impact, and in trying to be more (a skill-oriented survival game on top of the artistic narrative stuff), it flounders somewhat. You play as a mother lynx and are tasked with raising your spawn into adulthood. By the time you’ve caught your first rabbit and delivered it to your four mewling cubs, you’ve seen about all the game has to offer, mechanically, but you’re made to tediously keep doing this as they grow up and follow you around and eventually hunt for themselves. They seem to suck at this, though, which means that at no stage of your life do you get to take it easy. Very toilcore.

In ludonarrative terms I sometimes amused myself while thinking about the trade-off between wanting to eat my catches for myself to keep my irritating stamina meter as full as possible, and wanting to feed my cubs as much as I could in the hopes that it would advance the not-fun-at-all game to the next stage sooner. In some sense this is a very real exploration of “Do I feed my hungry kids in the short term, or do I feed myself so I can get the energy to work to bring in more food later?” Only, it’s approached on the most annoying terms possible. Just like real life!

At one point one of my cubs was eaten by a wolf. Getting into the primitive mindset, my only real thought about this was, “Welp, I guess that’s why I had four of them.” The game ended with me encountering a single phantom lynx, though, which I think was supposed to be my own end of life and reuniting with my dead child in the afterlife. “Art Games Gonna Art Game,” for sure, but considering how little of an emotional connection I had, it only seemed mawkish or maybe funny in an ironic sort of way.

Of course, I’m only assuming that’s what was going on there, and that there would’ve been two or three phantoms in that scene if I’d been an even shittier parent. But how should I know?

…Look, I’m not heartless or anything. They just didn’t pull it off.

The game allows you to play again as one of the surviving cubs as it in turn raises its children, and you can view the family tree from the main menu. You can keep doing this, and you also get to name each cub, ostensibly allowing you to branch out down the family tree a dozen generations with cubs named Goku and Hitler. But there’s no incentive to do this. Names only show up on the tree, not in-game, which means I wouldn’t really be able to tell you if the last cub to get eaten by a wolf had been Weedman, or Anime Dragon God. In any case, I don’t think naming them would get me to become more attached.

It’s not terrible. It’s not a huge studio game, it’s got a cute art style, and its ideas are interesting–they’re just not taken far enough to really work. If they wanted to focus on the mechanics they had, taking the generations thing further, they might have sped the game up and added some kind of choice in inherited traits or something–like, of my two cubs that made it to adulthood, do I want to continue to the next round with the stronger one, or the faster one? All the while with some clear endgame goal for however many generations down the line, like Massive Chalice. On the other hand, if they wanted an art game, they might have dropped all the open-ended hunting with its shallow mechanics and just set up a series of five or six pre-designed hunts instead, each with some kind of obstacle and narrative component to coincide with the different stages of life.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.
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Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

Apart from some decent environments, The Pre-Sequel feels incredibly phoned-in. You have an air tank with a jump boost and ground slam now in place of your old relic slot. These don’t do nearly enough to make the game feel different. Everything else is the same, including everything I didn’t like about Borderlands 2. A number of quests are recycled: Help the guy put up the flag again. Safeguard another freight container for the moonshot cannon again. The postgame “raid boss” is just the end boss again with more health and damage, which is particularly insulting. With the game as empty as it is, I couldn’t imagine buying DLC to raise the level cap for NG+, or to add more characters to play the game with, but those are things that shamefully exist.

There are some legitimately funny lines, but the success rate is probably about 10% or less. A lot of the humor is referential–THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT STAR WARS–and a lot of it is just people shouting and being goddamn wacky. It’s not all bad, and there are some likeable people, like Janey and Pickle. Jack still has some of the best dialogue as well. But this doesn’t nearly carry the game. It also doesn’t bother to do anything funny from the perspective of gameplay–I’m not a fan of the direction the Saints Row games have taken, but those were probably most effective when they had you do something ridiculous, rather than just having you listen to ridiculous things. Borderlands mostly talks at you, and it does so in a format that often gets in your way. Audio tapes get interrupted by quest dialogue, and quest dialogue interrupts itself.

As with previous games in the series, it often does a poor job formatting itself best for cooperative play or repetition. You’re made to listen to repeat dialogue even more so than in Diablo 3 (and Borderlands doesn’t share Deebs’ non-campaign game mode). Even on your first playthrough you’ll find yourself standing around at doors waiting for characters to finish their wacky unskippable exposition so you can move on, as if you’ve listened to it three times already. Story shouldn’t ever be an obstacle to the player, but there’s also just nothing especially engaging here. You go deliver a parting message from Zarpedon to her daughter, and I find myself trying and failing to imagine someone who has possibly found enough in this character to give a shit. This game may be closely tied to the Telltale one, but they’re miles apart.

The combat itself does offer a fair number of diverse and enjoyable enemy mechanics, damage types, skill builds, and so on, but it’s far from perfect. Game feel is a hard thing to express, but the best example is probably the awkward collision detection, which makes every moment of jumping up rocks or walking up a steep slope or whatever feel like you’re trying stupidly to break the game, even when you’re taking the only path available to you. An object you’re standing on starts to move, and you just sort of vibrate until you’ve fallen off. Characters in Overwatch are similarly cartoonish and attacks are also expressed in that game in terms of hitpoints and damage values–you bounce off roofs and generally feel awkward trying to parkour around there, too–but The Pre-Sequel, and the Borderlands games before it, just feel a lot less right.

There’s also a lot of the old dated MMO mechanics kicking around–the game can’t even cope with the thought of communicating the details of two quests at the same time–and these are of course incredibly shallow experiences in single player. I did not (and would never think to) solo this game.

If I were to spend any more time in The Pre-Sequel, it would only be as something mindless and dull to occupy myself with while listening to a podcast. Getting even a couple friends together at the same time to play something is difficult enough already when the game is good.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Gods Will Be Watching

I was expecting a point-and-click adventure, but I tried not to hold my false expectations against it. What GWBW is, I guess, is a “turn-based balance maintenance” game. Each level (there are about 8, give or take) involves pushing one variable in that aforementioned balance without throwing off another. Tell this person to dig for the next half-hour, but keep an eye on his stamina. Stall for rescue during torture without confessing to everything, but give away enough that you don’t die before rescue comes. Sacrifice your crew’s morale by having somebody forego sleep to hunt for food at night, but don’t let it drop so low that crewmates freak out and run off into the woods to die.

I’m not crazy about it. It’s heavily RNG-based, which I’ve never been fond of. To me, good game design centers around the idea of incentivization, and in my experience having less control over an outcome causes players to fail to adapt meaningfully to challenges, to feel less responsible, to be more frustrated and to experience less satisfaction upon victory. A later update to the game added difficulties which remove elements of chance, although the exact nature of the changes is poorly explained. While this is an admirable thing to do, the game was still envisioned with those elements, and gameplay feels unsatisfying and simple at times… even though the game doesn’t necessarily become easier.

For example, instead of attempting something when the success rate reaches 60%, you would have to wait for the full 100% success rate to even try. In terms of difficulty alone, this is usually balanced out by the disappearance of random failures, but it also reduces the design complexity. When playing with RNG you can allow yourself to be caught in a lie during torture and still waste some time, but without RNG, you can’t even choose to lie until you’ve spent some time getting your teeth pulled while thinking out the particulars of the story you planned to spin. It becomes very simple trial-and-error, and the optional challenge goals are made unavailable (think FTL‘s achievement system, but without getting cool new ships). I found myself switching the difficulty a few times, doing some levels with it and others without.

FTL was random as well, and to some extent there is a place for randomization. You don’t want to know the correct antidote ingredients when you start, or there’s no point to working out how to synthesize it. And look at other games: in Minecraft you don’t want to have one seed where you know where all the diamonds are already. If the outcome of a dice roll is that you have to adjust to a new variable, like one of five equally-difficult but differently-handled problems springing up, that can be interesting, but if there’s a fifty percent chance of something great happening and a fifty percent chance of something that immediately ends your run, that’s pretty awful. If every good or bad bit of fortune is significant enough to matter to players but not significant enough to guarantee failure, and the challenges run long enough that the “law of large numbers” comes into play and the good and bad balance out, that can be passable, which could perhaps be said of something like dice rolls in Dungeons & Dragons. I still don’t think that’s a perfect system, but GWBW also has some longer-term challenges and in its case that essentially only leads to more opportunities for instant failure and frustration.

While the non-RNG mode feels too simple on some stages, even guaranteed lengthy trial-and-error can be better than highly randomized lengthy challenges. Doing the desert navigation level with the RNG off, winning was just a matter of making a handful of suicide runs in different directions to map the unchanging terrain, so I would know where to find shelter or an enemy stronghold when the time came to try for real. And yet I sort of enjoyed this busywork more than a lot of the rest of the game, because I could get a sense of my progress by looking down at my map as it became more and more detailed. I couldn’t imagine wanting to throw myself at this mission dozens of times with an ever-changing desert, but looking at some online guides for the level, “extreme frustration” appears to be a recurring sentiment.

I’m a sucker for pixels, I’m not crazy about the art here. It’s not bad exactly, but it has some issues, especially blown up to the large size it expects you to display it at–you either go full-screen–which, with a modern screen resolution, blows up the pixels too much to be ideal–or you try to resize the window by hand, and the relative pixel size ends up all over the place. Good pixel art means having all the blocks on the screen adhere to the same rules, but there are UI features and the like in GWBW that aren’t pixelated and which end up drawing attention. Not having fixed resolution settings also means not being able to draw pixels at perfectly scaling multiples as well, which ends up distorting text and other graphics.

For a game that’s all about survival via number balancing, the UI is also somewhat bad about showing you these numbers. Sometimes you have to go talking to an NPC and clicking through a couple screens of conversation choices to reveal stats like a character’s proximity to death by cold exposure, when these things really should have been shown at all times as bars above people’s heads, or else freely revealed at any time with the press of a single keyboard button.

The story is somewhat interesting, and I like its hook, but right from the first scene I saw its tendency to bloviate with the writer’s meditations on ethics and terrorism and whether ends can justify means. Having written things for years I definitely can see a bit of myself in there, having shared that same tendency. That’s probably why I feel qualified to call the writing juvenile in form; something in need of restraint. It pulls us away from the characters themselves.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Regency Solitaire

This is a strange one. A solitaire game set in Regency-era England where a young lady must restore her house to fortune by making money somehow through playing a card game by herself. (It’s not really explained.) It’s kind of charming, and the setting distinguishes it from a lot of other stuff coming out every day on Steam, but I ultimately found the plot a little too open-and-shut: the bad guy runs off without making too much trouble, the lady has already caught the dashing gentleman’s eye even before getting her family’s finances back in order. Everyone is as they appear at first glance. The plot doesn’t develop; the king and queen illustrated on the card faces don’t figure into the story. I couldn’t tell if the heroine was gambling to solve the debts incurred by her brother’s gambling, or what. And the ridiculous way money is earned adds to the underpinning of farce that’s usually present in these situations when you’re in the perspective of someone of high upbringing in a rigidly class-based society. I find myself wondering if there’s some turnip farmer waste-deep in shit a few miles away, dying from something curable, and completely barred from making his own money through magic single-player card games.

You do 10 rounds of solitaire to advance to the next level, which feels like padding, especially once you find out that the “Retry” button only brings you back to the start of the current round with no other penalties. (They don’t tell you how it works, but they should.) In a game with several luck elements (the order of cards in the deck, or the use of powers to shuffle or destroy certain random cards) it would be asking too much to get 8-9 perfect rounds in a row without using Retry. It feels almost like a free-to-play facebook game toward the higher levels where the odds are so stacked against you that you’re pressured to buy the in-app purchases. Except that here, the things that feel like microtransaction cheats–the retries, special energy powers, and joker cards–are all free. They become necessary, but invalidate the challenge, and this isn’t even motivated by real-world profit. It’s a balance that doesn’t really work quite right for anyone.

Likewise, I can only see people earning the high-combo achievements by throwing several matches in a row just to pull wildcards out of the deck, and then spending them all in one hand. You’ll eventually realize that the two destructive bonus powers don’t add to your combo when they remove cards from the playing field. This means they’re actually lowering your potential maximum combo. If you’re not stacking wildcards, then, you can only otherwise wait a very, very long time for the right RNG values to come along. Again, the sense of challenge is largely fake.

What I do like about the game is the sense of progression. I was never the type to waste time away playing Microsoft Solitaire. But set that in a world with art and people, sprinkle some plot between matches, allow the player to buy bonus abilities (reveal face-down cards, add jokers to the deck, etc.) and you’ve got my attention. (Mind you, for better or worse, this isn’t Klondike.) It’s just a little too shallow to get my endorsement.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Bully: Scholarship Edition

Bully is like a GTA game in a smaller sandbox, with no ability to drive cars or listen to the radio. You dominate various school cliques in missions much like you would conquer Saints Row gangs. The game shows its age. I had crashes that made me have to redo entire missions again, and I couldn’t tell you why it doesn’t autosave mission progress or update collectibles when you pick them up. Maybe autosave was a fringe belief in 2008.

It was nice to see Rockstar try a different setting, and the game has some endearing qualities, but they could have tried harder. It still adheres too closely to the GTA mission-and-minigame formula. (I should put a little disclaimer that I haven’t played GTA V yet, so I can’t speak to how it might or might not differ.) It would’ve been good to see some choice in quests, allowing you to take on school in a way that appeals to you. The protagonist is kind of bland and unlikable, and I didn’t especially appreciate initiating some awkward 10-second wish-fulfillment kiss through the lips of that short-ass Bobby Hill motherfucker every time I wanted to restore my health. The Rockstar character humor also felt a bit formulaic within their South Parkish comfort zone, and while I didn’t by any means hate the dialogue, it didn’t have me barking out loud.

I had been excited to see what the classroom stuff was like, as that was the major component of the game that was particularly not Grand, Theft, or Auto, but it mostly consists of QTEs, other janky minigames, or being tested on whether you already know where a country is on an unlabelled map. I would have liked to see influence from something like Persona 3 here, which really did a lot of cool stuff with with classrooms, scheduling, and its classmate characters, though even its classroom gameplay was still ultimately nothing other than choosing dialogue options. GTA IV incorporated entire stand-up comedian routines that you could go watch, so if they had given Bully as much polish, it might’ve been cool to listen to humorous takes on class lectures while actually sitting at a desk and choosing either to participate, or to be a shitty kid who shoots spitballs at the nerds in front of him. Maybe actually learn something. Balance your academic success on one side, and your classmate respect in not being a teacher’s pet on the other! Throw a paper airplane at a kid’s neck right when he’s about to raise his hand, and steal his opportunity to answer! Choose to answer questions correctly, sarcastically, or just plain wrong, with an Alpha Protocol dialogue choice system! This would be a completely different and far more interesting game that I’m describing, I think.

They spent a lot of effort incorporating various activities–racing games, skateboarding and BMX riding (one of the most fun things to do is hop around on a bike, but there’s no grinding or challenges to do a 1080° spin or anything like that), rhythm games (music class), dodgeball, shooting galleries, photography, stealth (instantly fail a mission if you’re seen, no proper stealth mechanics), tower defense (or at least a mission where you can knock out some guys with traps before they reach you)–but none of these million things go above a state of mediocrity.

And while they have all these things, the fundamentals of movement and camera control aren’t even handled well: the player character doesn’t turn with the camera if you try to adjust it as you run, so you need to take your thumb off the left stick before the game recalculates which direction you’re heading in. (Movement in GTA IV was awkward too, though I couldn’t say off the top of my head whether it was as awkward as Bully’s.) Using various punching and grappling moves in combination with debilitating items is actually more interesting than GTA IV’s awkward cover shooting, but it has a kind of “generic third-person action-adventure game” mechanical feeling, by which I mean the multitude of N64-PSX era action platformer games, or something like Psychonauts, which had more than enough charm, cleverness, and good writing to compensate. With nothing really standing out, and more than a few missions that try a player’s patience, Bully wears out its welcome before you’re through.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Toki Tori 2+

I became interested in Toki Tori 2 after seeing some talk about the metroidvania-like aspect of traversing its connected levels, and it’s interesting that you can go straight to some tough places at the beginning of the game just by understanding what puzzle elements you’ve been given to work with. But does it really matter if you can do one frog bubble puzzle earlier than another one? I doubt it, but there’s certainly some cleverness involved in the set-up. Most importantly, you don’t collect items or powers, so you always have what you need to solve any puzzle you come upon. But even that’s not perfect: more than once, there wasn’t really a puzzle there, and I wasted time trying things to reach a ledge that was inaccessible from my position.

But a metroidvania should be fun to simply move around in (like Super Metroid or Castlevania, of course) with wall kicks and double jumps and bomb jumps and super jumps and… well, I guess jumping tends to figure pretty heavily into it. In Toki Tori 2 you do not jump. You can’t even influence the direction of your own fall. It’s a puzzle game, after all, not a falling game, and I suppose puzzles should be about knowing where to fall from, not about having really good aim.

So it’s not the best metroidvania. But it breaks some cardinal rules for puzzle games, too. If you try to do some self-directed collectible hunting, or you try to return to some area you were at before but don’t remember exactly where to find it, you’ll have to repeat the same tedious busywork every time you pass through a room you’d already covered. Break this bridge. Get wet. Splash water on that thing. Push this thing onto that thing. Make that frog fall down this ledge. It sucks and it feels like it takes forever. There were some small puzzles I must have “solved” a dozen times. If you have to pass through a major puzzle room again, there will usually be some kind of mole tunnel that lets you bypass it, but god help you if you missed a collectible somewhere in the middle of one.

On top of that, even though I can praise their obvious cleverness, I have to say that the major puzzles can be incredibly frustrating the first time around. They usually involve micromanaging the facing of a bunch of frogs who will kill themselves the second you turn around. The animals follow various rules about whether or not they’ll follow a noise or hop down from ledges and so on, but it still feels like the whole game is one long, horrible escort mission. And even after you’ve figured some puzzle out, you’ve got to spend several minutes lining up little creatures to make it happen, and if a bug you need crawls out an inch too far before you launch a bubble or block a light or whatever, you’ll probably have to kill yourself and start the whole process again. The game does require some intelligence (oh uh), but it rewards good timing and the patience of a saint far above that, and I seem to carry those traits in even shorter supply.

I think these sorts of games should be played blind, but finding your way around is a huge pain, to the point where I made several fruitless google searches for an annotated map. As I said before, there wasn’t always some puzzle or trick allowing you to traverse each area from a given direction. There were numerous times where I’d noticed a warp beacon I’d yet to activate on the in-game map, would start heading towards it, and would find out fifteen minutes later that I’d taken what was (to the best of my knowledge) a dead-end. Maybe these paths would connect to where I wanted to go, but only as a one-way street going the opposite way.

I think I did (sort of) beat the game, because I gathered a bunch of unique frogs (including one that I also gave up and googled; turns out the goddamn frog was invisible) and made some stuff crash on a beach, and then I saw no other immediate objective besides gathering all the collectibles to open a big door somewhere. On the Deadly Premonition post I talked about what makes collectibles fun, and this Banjo-Kazooie shit–gathering hundreds of identical, charmless trinkets scattered around arbitrarily–is the worst of it. Gathering them all kinda sounds like a post-game objective for obsessives if you ask me, but in any case I got about 85% of the way there, realized that only the most tedious ones were left, and decided I did not care enough about whatever was behind that door.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Papo & Yo

In terms of the audio and visuals, Papo & Yo is really neat, and it has some uncommon influences, which I like to see in games. But the gameplay is a little too crude. The platforming puzzles are mostly a matter of interacting with objects in the order you come upon them, each allowing you to move slightly further, with some tedious busywork. You do a few things with block placement very early on, and that’s about as complex as the mechanics ever get.

Simple things like running and jumping around seem joyless as well, though it’s obvious that things like that were never the game’s focus. It might just be that the player character doesn’t really interact with things like walls and ledges when moving around, and tends to ghosts through things like soccer balls and the tops of ladders. But it’s a 3D indie game from a small developer, so the bar should probably be set low here.

More importantly, interactivity isn’t leveraged in any particularly compelling ways, There’s “interactive storytelling” of the sort where you push the control stick forward during a kind of cutscene, and it reminded me of those heavy-handed dream sequences in Mass Effect 3. Rather than a 3 hour game, it probably would’ve been better as a 20 minute animated short. It’s a good foil for a game like Brothers, which was also a mechanically simple puzzle-platformer, but one with new gameplay ideas, and far better fitted by its medium.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.