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Age: 30
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In the past I have opined that there's not really any such thing as 'playing it wrong.' If a lot of people don't like a game and people say they're just not playing it properly, that is almost always because the game did not communicate to the player well enough how it wanted to be played.

It was somewhat disheartening, then, to see Tim Schafer - one of my video gaming heroes, no less - post up what appeared to be a rather defensive guide on how to get the most out of Brutal Legend, how it isn't best played as an RTS and how it ought to be played for the best possible experience. It's something that hasn't passed unnoticed and I must concur that if you give a player a set of tools that looks a lot like an RTS, teach them to use them in the manner of an RTS then you shouldn't be surprised when people continue using them in such a way.

The problem is quite subtle, I think. The game does do a good job of introducing the various gameplay elements, the first couple of hours of the game spent in encounters that gradually uncover more and more of the strategic parts of the gameplay. There's never much doubt as to what tools are in the box, that's for sure - the game is clear at every step about what you can and can't do. Where the difficulty arrives is in the precise manner in which it teaches you to use them.



For example, the first time you set up the stage for a battle, you are on the defensive. There is another highly defensive battle in the mid-game where the aim is just to stay alive. While these missions change things up a little, they also muddy the waters because after a while it becomes apparent that the full-on stage battles reward extremely aggressive tactics which would probably be considered reckless in other strategy games. The game wants you to move in hard, fast, to cut off the enemies' supplies before they get a chance to build up a force in early, daring raids. The experience of doing so can be utterly exhilirating. If instead, however, you choose to do what the game taught you to do at first - defend your stage, keep your resources guarded you will find yourself getting into in a war of attrition which is much, much harder to win and far less fun.

In fact, it's like playing a completely different game. In one battle fairly late in the game I unwisely took the attrition approach and was beaten by an AI that was just better at being on the ball with what units to buy and when, and where to send them. It was a slow, soul destroying defeat. The next time I played I decided to be ultra-agressive, going for quick, early strikes to capture all but one of the enemy's fan geysers (basically the 'gold mines' of the game). I spent most of my time on the ground hacking at stuff and felt like I was leading from the front. As a result, it was over within ten explosive, action packed minutes that were well in keeping with the mood of the rest of the game.

Why the game doesn't do a better job of teaching you 'aggressive strategy' I've no idea. Granted, it's a hard balancing act to teach because there certainly are moments in the game where it's worth holding back and building up a force. But I can only concede that it is a problem with the game, a flaw that I believe has contributed majorly to some of the (slightly!) more negative reviews that have appeared.



BUT... (that 'but' in the title had to crop up eventually)

I can't stay mad at it. I just can't. I thought it would be a problem for me - I was nervous as I sat down to play the game. But after figuring out how the game really wanted me to play it, and a couple of hours of finger-wagging ('Bad Schafer. Naughty Schafer. You should have told me that's what you wanted from me!') I was left with classic Schafer. A brilliantly realised world that bleeds imagination, from a man who knows how to build 'em and surrounds himself with people who bring it to life wonderfully. Truly excellent writing, characters and comic timing. Finally, gameplay that is solid (above bitching aside), thematically sound and just damned good fun enough to support everything else that is good about it.

Here's the real test: Tim Schafer said that he hoped the game would make people who previously weren't into Heavy Metal like it. Well, I admit there are a couple of classic metal tunes I found myself unexpectedly enjoying but I don't think I'll be browsing the Metal section of my music shop any time soon. However, it's a testament to how well the game transports me into its world that from the moment that I press start to the moment that I quit for the evening, I can honestly say that Metal is my favourite genre of all time.

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Now that the first chapter of Tales of Monkey Island is out, it's difficult to to write about. As you may have gleaned, the series is kind of a big deal to me and so to collect my millions of feelings I have about Launch of the Screaming Narwhal and put them here takes considerable thought. Here we are, though - my impressions of the game after watching the credits roll last night.

1 - Visuals
I've lost count of the number of times I insisted that the footage shown at E3 was a work in progress; to wait for the final product to get a better idea of the presentation of this game. I am pleased to report that that wait has pulled off.

Even since the release of the gameplay trailer a mere week before the game came out I noticed a few touches added such as the monkey hands that poke out of the hold of Elaine's captured ship, bringing extra life to the scene. Backgrounds are colourful and well designed, reminding me far more of Curse of Monkey Island's distinctive art style than Escape's rather forgettable one. The whole thing is enhanced by great use of depth-of-field effects and sweeping camera angles which only work because of Telltale's switch to direct control of characters' movement (more on that later). This is the best presented Telltale game yet, make no mistake.



My only slight graphical concerns are that in some scenes, particularly around the docks, the lighting is perhaps not as polished as it could be and that sometimes characters' facial expressions come across as a little unusual (while at other times they are excellent, especially in Guybrush's case). These moments are minor, however.

2 - Music & Speech
Michael Land, who has worked on every iteration of Monkey Island since the first returns to deliver a score which is pleasing and unobtrusive. Part of me wished to hear some more memorable tunes but everything was so suitable that I can't bring myself to complain and I couldn't think of anyone else I'd rather have doing the music for a game in this series.

Meanwhile, on the voices front, everything is just peachy. Dominic Armato hardly needs mentioning - Guybrush is second nature to him and there's nary a line out of place. Several other cast members return and all the new characters are voiced well. The biggest change is that Earl Boen does not reprise his role as LeChuck. While that would have been preferred, Adam Harrington is such a competent replacement that I forgot about it very quickly.

While we're on the dialogue, I just want to mention that there were a few points in the game that I got a choice of, say, three similar but slightly different pieces of dialogue which were funny to read, but what Guybrush would actually say was a more generic response that would fit all three - which felt like a bit of a let down. Luckily, while it happens repeatedly at the start, the dialogue improves considerably after that.



3 - Story
There is a distinct feeling that this is just the set up to a much grander adventure, and as such the story is only enough to whet the appetite in this first Chapter. It's rather reminiscent of the first part of Monkey Island 2 in which Guybrush is similarly trapped on an island. In that scenario, and this, the process of trying to get off the Island neatly sets things up for the rest of the game - even though the actual getting-off-the-island part is rather peripheral to the plot in the grand scheme of things.

In other words, the jury is out, but what I will say is that the story is nice and piratey so far, which is what fans were looking for, and that there is promise of even more piratey things to come.

4 - Puzzles
Telltale have done a great job of pitching the difficulty of this first chapter just right, having played with hints turned all the way off. Puzzled erred slightly on the easy side but never so much that it felt more like watching a film than playing a game. One particular puzzle involving a map made me feel slightly cheated in that the thing I had to do to make it work - while it made some sort of sense - wasn't something I would have thought of to try, and I stumbled on the solution purely by accident.

Aside from that one moment, everything seemed logical and one particular locked-room (or chair - you'll see what I mean) scenario about halfway through the game was one of the most satisfying puzzle moments ever to occur in a Monkey Island game.



5 - Controls
This is worth briefly mentioning. The game controls with WSAD/Arrow keys to move Guybrush about while the mouse handles interaction with the environment in a pretty traditional point 'n' click style.

There is an alternate control scheme which uses a mouse-only click 'n' drag in a direction to move method, but this was fiddly for my taste and apparently doesn't work to well when running the game windowed. Still it's there for those who are physically sickened by the idea of using a keyboard in a graphic adventure game. Whiners.

Speaking of whining, I've seen a lot of it about 'why can't it just be point and click to move?' Briefly, the answer is simple: direct controls allow for far more creative use of camera angles as you are not restricted to making every scene easily navigable by clicking around. Also, on a personal note, when I played Sam and Max I actually found walking around large environments like the main streets a pain. For example, I'd click to move, the screen would scroll, then I'd have to keep clicking at the edge of the screen to make Sam keep moving in the same direction. It's ineligant and a wise move on Telltale's part to start phasing it out - they just need to figure out the mouse-only stuff a bit better if they want to continue in that direction.

6 - Conclusions
I played through this game with the critical eye of someone who has been a big fan of the series since the beginning and knows what they like. After all the excitement it was almost inevitable that finally playing it was not going to be the emotional orgasm that my unrealistic expectations desired, no matter how hard I tried to resist such hopes. So I can't, in all honesty, say that this first chapter was everything I ever hoped it would be because my hopes have been irreparably warped and twisted into improbable proportions.



Dialling back my expectations to something more within the realm of human capability, then, the game merely had to pass three tests, or trials, if you will:

1) The Trial of Not-Doing-Anything-Spectatularly-Wrong
Pass with flying colours.

2) The Trial of Being-Generally-Enjoyable-To-Play
Ditto.

3) The Trial of Anticipation
Basically, and this is the real test for me, after finishing chapter 1, every so often I would suddenly remember that in but another month there will be a brand new episode, then three more after that. When this pops into my head I am filled with glee and positive anticipation and that, more than anything, must mean that Telltale are doing it right.

And finally, Telltale's track record for episodic releases suggest that the best is yet to come for Tales of Monkey Island.
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Sorry. I've talked about Tales of Monkey Island plenty and there's more to come. I admit, I love this series of games and I want to see people playing it, so I'm doing everything I can to keep people informed about it in my own small way. It's true. I'm a bit of a fanboy when it comes to these things - but things I have said before, like the fact that the visuals will be polished up quite a bit since E3 are clearly borne out in these new screenshots, so I like to think that I'm a realistic and honest fanboy, at least.

One of the most common negative things I hear about the game around the internet is people saying how it should be in 2D. There are reasons for this: the first three games were 2D and 1997's Curse of Monkey Island was beautiful for it. By contrast, the 3D (with pre-rendered backgrounds) Escape from Monkey Island was ugly as sin, and people don't want to be reminded of that (even though this new 3D style is actually closer to the art direction of Curse than Escape).


Curse of Monkey Island

I understand the desire for a 2D game - really, I do. But let's look at the practicalities involved. For cinematic moments each frame of animation would need to be individually drawn, a time consuming process. Even if this would be possible for Telltale to do under their business/production model of ~6 months initial development time followed by monthly releases while working on three episodes at a time, it would be limiting.

With 3D, if they want to create a cinematic moment, they can do so just by placing a camera and getting their animator to move the characters around, enabling them to create very dynamic scenes at any point in the gameplay. With 2D the best they would be able to muster is a few bespoke animations here and there when particular situations demand it, and some pre-animated cutscenes - but I have my doubts that even this is practical under their working schedule.


Escape from Monkey Island

So, the choice is: cheaper, faster to produce graphics that are arguably much more flexible and versatile to work with OR more expensive, time consuming graphics which arguably might look prettier. It's easy to see why they went with the first option, particularly since they already have a 3D engine and artists/animators geared up to work in 3D.

In conclusion, sure, it would be nice to see a brand new 2D Monkey Island game from Telltale. In the same way, it'd be nice if everything I touched turned into money, too - but a) it's not something I can reasonably expect to happen and b) even if it did, there are plenty of disadvantages, too, so why waste time thinking about it? To my eyes, Telltale are doing a fantastic job with what they've got.


Tales of Monkey Island
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KestrelPi
7:17 AM on 06.30.2009



I thought I'd put together a disjointed and scatterbrained c-blog post as I surely must be entitled to do at least once a year, on my birthday (which is at least once a year). Happy birthday to me.

So, 27 is here. I'm not one to get particularly worried about numbers. I still do all the things I did years ago. I sing to myself in silly voices when nobody is around to hear, I jump on the bed, I eat cereal in the middle of the day (if I'm not at work) and I pull faces in the mirror. I have absolutely no idea how to be a 'proper' adult - I just bumble my way through it much like, I suspect, almost everyone else in the world does, if only they would admit it.

At my age, the only thing mentally different to me, at least, is a slightly increased tendency to say things like 'at my age.'

There are other things worth noting, though. It has been said in jest that 'nostalgia isn't what it used to be' but in a way that's true. Take someone born in 1991. They weren't even born when The Secret of Monkey Island came out but now they are 18, grown up memers of society with their own things to remember fondly. When people talked about youthful nostalgia, say, five or ten years ago they were talking about stuff that belonged to me but at my age I start to hear people remembering things from their youth which came out when I was already all grow'd up.



Now we're really getting into old-man sentimentality, which is ridiculous when you consider that 27 is really no great age. But it does make me sad when I think of things which people may never have got to enjoy growing up and just don't care about now. For example, I seem to live under the delusion that the rest of the gaming community is excited as me at playing the new episodic Monkey Island series. I was very pleased when my Q&A with designer Mike Stemmle made it to the front page but then saddened to see that only 10 people commented on it. And two of them were me.

Okay, so Michael Jackson inconveniently dying about ten seconds after the post went up might have had something to do with it passing unnoticed. But if, fifteen years ago, even a single screenshot for a new Monkey Island game had been released it would immediately become the subject of tremendous speculation amongst mainstream gamers.

If I seem to be measuring how things have changed solely in terms of Monkey Island, then it's for a good reason. After all, that's the game which made me realise, at the age of no more than ten, that these game things were not just toys for kids and I would be playing them for the rest of my life.

Is the entire gaming world waiting with tremendous excitement for Monkey 15, as I expected they would be by now? No. Is gaming anything like what I thought it would be back then? No. Is there any real point to this c-blog? I'm starting to suspect not, though I did warn you. But I was right back then, in thinking that I'd still be playing all these years later, and I'm sure that's meaningful in some respect.

Ah, shaddup. Whippersnappers.

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Yes. It's this game again. But I'm glad it's getting a lot of word-of-mouth buzz and feel the need to contribute to that, because, well...

When I first saw Rocket Riot on XBLA I was greeted with the above image. I didn't give it a second glance. I mean, look at it - kind of a cheap looking logo, a fairly generic sounding name and a tacky Flash-style design, the whole thing just screams 'filler.' Which is an incredible shame because when I tried it following Topher's recommendation on Retroforce GO! the story in game couldn't be more different.

I'm not sure whose idea it was to let this game slip in quietly, without fanfare, among two other fairly high profile releases, Magic: The Gathering and Sam & Max when in fact it's one of the best games released on the platform so far but it seems to me that they just didn't have the deserved confidence in this game.

So, the game then. It's a bit like if you took Worms, made it real time and then made it so everyone had jetpacks all the time and could only use the bazooka. And made the arenas much bigger. With different play styles like a capture-the-flag style rugby game and the occasional boss battle. And added Bomberman style powerups. And made it a sort of retro-styled 2.5D.



Yeah. A bit like that.

More than anything it gave me the feeling of playing a re-make of an long-forgotten-but-awesome Amiga game. I thought perhaps I was alone in this until I listened to them talking about it on Giant Bomb and they said exactly the same thing. I've played about 55 out of 80 single player levels so far and dabbled in the multiplayer (which is sure to be incredible) and there are really few bad things I have to say about this game. Perhaps there are too many deathmatch-y levels compared to the equally fun other styles of play. Maybe it takes a few too many easy levels before the difficulty starts to feel right - but by halfway through the challenge is significant. Apart from those fairly minor nitpicks, though, I can't imagine what Codeglue could have done to make the game they made better.

Except perhaps change the name and make the cover art better so people wouldn't pass it by, like I did at first. Get it. Now. The game deserves to be played.

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Oh, how some people endlessly and boringly lament the decline of difficult games. There are plenty to be found, though, for those who would like to look. Mega Man 9, for example, is there for those looking for a more retro-styled experience but even more modern stuff such as Left 4 Dead on higher difficulties could hardly be described as 'easygoing.'

Then there's Bit.Trip Beat, a WiiWare release that has got me thinking about this whole issue of difficulty and forced me off the fence about it.

As an game, Bit.Trip Beat is admirably pared down. A Pong paddle which you move up and down by tilting the 'mote is all you need to play. The game sends a series of objects your way in very cleverly designed and rhythmic patterns for you to bat away. It's difficult not to marvel at the way the stages are put together and the whole thing is packaged in a delightfully retro feel.

The problem is, it's difficult in the wrong way.



Okay, let me explain this a bit. In each of the three long stages of the game, when you miss too many hits, it sends you into a black and white mode which is basically warning you 'stop making mistakes or you're out.' It's a cool effect and panic inducing in the good sense. If you continue to make too many mistakes and not enough successes, it's game over.

All of this is fine but the problem arises when the part I am having trouble with is, say, eight minutes into the stage. The way that you get better at a game, especially one like this, is by practice and that happens through repetition. So let's say I need to practice this section ten times to get it down. Well, that's going to take me eighty minutes to do and about seventy five of those will be spent just getting to the part I need to work on.

Not only that but the sooner people retry after failing (as long as it isn't in anger), the more likely they are to learn from their mistake, as they remember more clearly what went wrong. So that eight minute gap not only wastes my time directly but also indirectly - it makes it less likely that each attempt will teach me anything.



So I came to realise: it's not so much the difficulty of the gameplay - it really doesn't matter to me if an individual jump/rhythm/enemy/puzzle/whatever in a game is extremely hard. When it starts to get on my nerves is when the game takes away opportunities to improve.

Bit.Trip Beat's levels are ingenious indeed but even they are boring after too many replays in a row to get to the bit I am stuck at - and they are time-consuming too. These things are a barrier to improvement - I would like to get better and if the game gave me a better chance to do so I would still be playing it instead of on here writing about it. Even Mega Man 9 checkpointed once per level and before the boss so that I could at least give it a few quick-fire tries before being shown the door; in comparison this is just brutal.

So, games. Challenge me all you want. Bring it on. Do your worst. But when you do, you'd better make sure that my journey from pwnee to pwner is a pleasure and not a chore.

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