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3:51 PM on 04.18.2012

Digging Into Dungeons Pt. 1.5: Zaga-33

By means of apology for being late on my first post of this series (as well as probably being tardy on the next- I've got a lot of cool stuff in the works!), I've decided to do an extra little spotlight on a weird but interesting indie sci-fi roguelike, known as Zaga-33.

Created by Michael Brough as a 7-Day Roguelike challenge, Zaga-33 takes the roguelike formula, strips it down to it's very core and runs with it's simplicity in a new direction. While most dungeon crawlers are about clearing each and every room of enemies for sweet, sweet loot, Zaga-33 encourages players to evade enemies rather than directly engage with them. Armed with a handful of quite smart and rather useful upgrades, randomized during each playthrough (similar in idea to the pills in The Binding Of Isaac), the player must navigate through each maze to reach the exit while avoiding or combating the collection of alien foes patrolling the map. The player must complete 25 levels and defeat the final boss in order to win.

This game is really addicting. The controls are simple, where everything can be done with the direction and number keys, and the gameplay is surprisingly deep. With the focus being on evasion and stealth, this game forces the player to try to outmaneuver or trick the AI into bypassing the player so they can proceed towards the goal. Often you may find yourself "juggling" the enemies by going around in circles in a safe area until an opportunity arises, or you can use special items to clear a path to the exit. Again, direct combat is not recommended. The game is turn-based, so it provides the player time to think about their actions and plot out the best path to success, but one wrong step could lead to a spot of bother, so control and planning are key. The outlandish visual style and ominous music really help drive the sci-fi feel of the game, a presentation that makes this unique title stand out from the rest of its kin.

I must say this is one of the most impressive and accessible roguelikes I've ever played, and direction it takes provides a fun and fresh experience that's absolutely worth trying out. It's available on PC and Mac for free on Brough's Blog, and it recently released on iOS for $0.99. It's great for coffee breaks and bus rides, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

ZAGA!   read

3:25 PM on 04.15.2012

Digging Into Dungeons Pt. 1: Hack, Slash, Loot & Roguelikes

The "Roguelike" style of RPG has been arguably the definitive mode of game design for dungeon crawlers since the release of Rogue, back in 1980. Since it's roots as an ASCII-based fantasy RPG, the game has influenced countless titles and remakes in it's 30 year history, and it's effects have been felt in many great games since then. Titles such as The Binding of Isaac, Dungeons of Dredmor, Dwarf Fortress, and even Diablo borrow a aspects of the original and innovate them further, all the while many games are still being made with the core Rogue experience in mind.

A recent example of this is the game Hack, Slash, Loot, by indie developer David Williamson. It's a graphic-based roguelike full of charming sprite art reminiscent of Realm of the Mad God (Which, in fact, Williamson licensed these sprites out to Wild Shadow Studios to make their game). The game is turn-based, which really helps to make it feel like a pen and paper RPG, although sometimes playing with loaded dice. The game features everything a roguelike needs: permanent character death, randomized dungeon layout and equipment, and a host of different enemies and items to create a fresh and interesting experience each time you play. There is also a large cast of unlockable heroes to choose from, as well as collection of unique quests, each with their own story and setting, with the added touch of your own imagination of course.

The gameplay is simple and addicting. Everything is condensed into point-and-click controls, so that the whole game can be played with the mouse alone, although there are keyboard controls if one so wishes to play that way. Moving your character around feels just like a character on a board, and the combat is fun but becomes a little flimsy at times. Often fights will descend into a swatting match of missed blows while other enemies in the room (or anywhere in the dungeon for that matter) will close in on you and surround your character while he is still flailing away at the first goon. Squishy characters such as the Wizard or Archer often meet their demise in such a way, but placement and maneuverability are key assets in surviving this game. The game can be a little unfair at times, and maybe with a little tweaking in favor of the player might help make it play better, but it is by no means ever fully unenjoyable. Besides, when have Roguelikes ever been nice to their players anyways?

The game has a robust graphical interface that provides all the information the player needs, and the retro artstyle is magnificent. The sprites themselves are adorable as they are effective, and the game is always pleasing to look at. One of the best features about this game is it's smart map system. While performing it's basic function as a display of key information and the dungeon's layout, it also acts as a fantastic navigation tool in that the player can simply click on any part of the map and your character will automatically go to that spot. This swiftly alleviates the annoyance of backtracking and allows for rapid transportation to unexplored areas.

If you've never played a roguelike, Hack, Slash, Loot is an excellent place to start. It's quick to grasp and difficult to master, fulfilling its role both as a coffee break simple time-killer, and a deep dungeon crawler with infinite replayability. It's available on PC, Mac and Linux on Williamson's site here, or you can find it on Desura and Steam.   read

3:17 PM on 04.12.2012

Digging Into Dungeon Crawlers: A Series

Diablo 3 is coming.

Really soon.

*Runs around screaming and flailing arms madly*

...Okay, so it's still a month away, but it's a heck of a lot closer than ever before- and it's finally coming! I'm a huge fan of the Diablo series, and dungeon crawlers in general so I'm pretty stoked for a chance to finally play it. How I did not get into the Beta I don't know, but then again I've purposely kept myself in the dark about a lot of the game's particulars to keep everything as awesome as possible.

But this post isn't about my love of Diablo, rather an introduction to a small series I wish to write in anticipation for Diablo 3's imminent release. Each week I am going to blog about my experiences with four different games that have the dungeon crawl design in mind, and by the time they are finished I'll be straight into Diablo 3!

So why do I love dungeon crawlers? I don't care much for other conventional RPG's but dungeon crawlers in particular I have a certain soft spot for. Possibly because I spent so much time playing Diablo 2 that the style just scratches the itch that other games don't satisfy, but I think with my recent playtime with these sorts of games have led me to understand and appreciate their design much more than I could have when I was 12 (and what is this). The element I find most fascinating about these sorts of games is the completely randomized elements, from the dungeon layout to weapons and enemies, each time one plays it it's completely fresh and new. A new adventure each and every time, with new stories and scenarios imagined as the characters I created and recreated come to life (and often meet their death) in these labyrinths.

So If you're a fan of Diablo or other Roguelikes and RPG's please check in for more! I plan on posting these each week, starting on April 14th (Saturday), and if I keep my schedule then they should be all finished by May 14th, the day before Diablo 3 comes out.

*Squee*!!!   read

11:47 AM on 03.25.2012

Speculation: Quentin Tarantino and Half-Life

I literally just wrote down my two favorite things, and I'm absolutely giddy that there may be a correlation between the two. According to one tiny detail on Tarantino's IMDB Bio the quirky director has a deep love for Valve's revered series, Half-Life, and has considered making a film adaption of the game. Let me state again, that the following is pure speculation. As much as I would love this to happen, there is no confirmation that it will, but I want to think how exactly it could be done.

I am a huge fan of both the Half-Life Series and Quentin Tarantino's films. I carry my Bad Mother Fucker wallet with pride and have played each of the games numerous times, digging for details and finding new things each playthrough. As much as I would love this fission of ideas to come together, I can't help but be apprehensive about it to a degree. I'm mostly concerned about the two different tones presented. The spirit of revolution and near-future sci-fi are for the most part quite serious, whereas Tarantino is at his best when he takes violent subject matter and gives it a cartooney twist; like he did with Kill Bill (or what could have been done with Inglorious Basterds). I do trust Tarantino to take the subject matter appropriately, but I know his efforts are best spent dealing with the absurd. Another thing is that Gordon Freeman is a character that must never speak. He is the shell for the player to inhabit and act out as the hero of mankind's revolt against our alien oppressors. So how could Tarantino go about a Half-Life film without Gordon Freeman and a completely different tone? Simple: new location.

Humanity doesn't surrender unconditionally to alien forces in one place while the rest of the world carries on with their lives as normal. Earth surrendered entirely after the 7 Hour War. Now in control, the Combine displaced citizens all around the world, which explains why Half Life 2 takes somewhere in Eastern Europe. That single detail there is enough to allow for almost anything to happen, and I know exactly where it should.- Neo-Tokyo. Okay, maybe not exactly Tokyo, but some sort of post-futurist Asian city. Perhaps some sort of blend between Blade Runner and The Animatrix. This backdrop would provide Tarantino ground he is very comfortable working in, as well as provide an interesting take on the aesthetics of the Half Life universe.

As for characters, one could use nearly anyone to fill the cast thanks to the theme of displacement. Did all the Black Mesa scientists end up in the former Soviet Union, or were they divided even more? Are there other heroes of people leading revolutions elsewhere? What atrocities are the Combine doing to humanity elsewhere? Personally I'd like to see Tarantino take another stab at the Guerrilla insurgents idea but this time focusing more on the revolutionaries rather than the girl who runs the tea shop next door. Perhaps they too got wind of Freeman's exploits across the world and took up crowbars as a symbol of the revolution. This could also allow for a delve into the depth of the revolution in general. How far spread is it? Is the lambda a global symbol now? What other heroes were there in this revolt? Speculating speculation!

These ideas would allow Tarantino to run wild and make an incredibly stylized, violent film set in one of the coolest video game locations conceived. Would it be a single narrative? A collection of short films? Animated sequences, or perhaps entirely animated? The possibilities are quite endless with a man of his mind. Needless to say this would be a project I would love to see come to a reality one day.

Until then, we'll just have to make do with the incredibly high quality fan films being made today. If you haven't seen them, I highly recommend you do so. Beyond Black Mesa is by far one of the most ambitious projects I have seen in quite some time, and Half Life: Origins is well worth a viewing as well.   read

9:29 AM on 03.22.2012

Don't Run From Canabalt!

Remember when you were a kid driving down the road, picturing a little man running along side the car jumping over obstacles and taking great leaps over intersecting roads? I did it, and I'm sure as heck you did too. Sadly, for years that hero has been locked to the confines of my head... until I picked up Canabalt.

Created by Adam Atomic (Gravity Hook, Press Any Key), this autoscrolling parkour-platformer is addictive as it is intriguing. Simplicty is at the core of the experience, where the player simply jumps from rooftop to rooftop while avoiding barrels and falling debris. The player picks up speed as they run, so an uninterrupted run can lead to a fast paced and frantic experience. The path is randomly generated each time, which makes each run is different. While this may not allow for practice with some of the more tricky jumps such as a low hanging glass pane, it keeps the experience fresh and interesting each time. Occasionally you will run into an impossible solution and be killed instantly, such instances are rare. The final score is determined based on how far you get and there are online leaderboards to submit your high scores to.

The presentation of the game is absolutely astounding. An interesting colour scheme (despite being various shades of gray) and fluid 8-bit graphics give this game a slick and modern style. Beyond the enthralling gameplay lies the incredible musical score. Created by none other than the brilliant Danny Baranowsky, it really sets the mood of the game. While only having three or so tracks, each loop perfectly and provide three distinct moods. The graphics and the music both work together to create the narrative of the game, with a little imagination of course.

Needless to say this game is pretty fantastic. It's quick, simple and addictive; all excellent features to have in a browser or mobile game. You can find Canabalt iOS, Android, PSN, as part of the current Humble Bundle, or play in your browser for free right here.

If you liked the original, you should check out the Passage mash-up spoof, Passagebalt.   read

7:10 PM on 02.29.2012

A Pound of Flesh: Making Skins in Minecraft

Hey everyone, this'll just be a quick post, but I just want to talk about something that I discovered today. Recently I picked up the insanely popular Minecraft and have been trying to make the most out of the modding community around it, trying out texture packs and whatnot. While most texture packs simply change too much of the game for my liking (not just the blocks, but the tools, items, and even the loading screen and menus!), I decided to take a gander at what skins are available and I was quite surprised at the sheer amount of skins that are being made each and every day.

I discovered the website Minecraft Skins aka "The Skindex", which houses an online model editor and I was again surprised at how easy it was to create original skins. I saw the editor tab and thought there would be a convoluted method with bizarre file types and unforgiving programs, but the online editor and upload/download processes are both clean and efficient. The model is easy to manipulate, limbs can be removed for painting nooks and crannies, and limbs automatically apply changes symmetrically to save time. There is a neat grid as well helps keep everything clean and exactly how you want it. It's a fun little thing to do if you have some free time and a bit of creativity!

I think it's brilliant that there are simple tools like this that allow anyone to create content that can be easily integrated into the game and uploaded for the global community to have for their own. While not paying attention in class I made the destructoid community a little gift, a Mr. Destructoid skin! so if you have Minecraft, give it a download and slap a pig as everyone's favorite suited robot.

Just be sure to remember which way is forward... otherwise you'll end up like Blue Dude below...   read

12:19 PM on 02.17.2012

A Humble Reminder of Mojang's Mojam+ UPDATE!

Who are these finely animated characters? Why, they are Mojang of course! (Spoiler: It's written in the image.) These are the chaps responsible for the ridiculously popular and grindtastic blockathon, Minecraft! With the respect of the collective gaming community and money-insulated studio in Stockholm, they've decided to take on a daunting challenge for charity. I'm sure many of you are aware of the Humble-Bundle/Mojang collaborative game jam, I'm simply here to remind you that the event is going down. It's happening. Right now, and you can watch it live! If you've ever wanted to watch a bunch of Swedish dudes make a game from start to finish, then today is your lucky day!

Mojang gave themselves 60 hours, the better part of a weekend, to create a game from scratch. The past few days the direction of the game was left to the vote of gamers around the world. They got to vote on the game's genre and theme. The votes were tallied and the winner is a Steampunk RTS. Should be interesting, right? I'm still a little bitter that it's not a dungeon crawler (the votes were so close!), but I'm confident it will still be an enjoyable game.

The game will be a pay what you want, and all the proceeds will go to charity, so it's something you should keep an eye on this weekend. As an added bonus, if the game reaches a million dollars, Notch will shave his beard. So donate and humiliate a man on a global scale.

Do it for the children.

*Update* It appears that Mojang is getting some backup and not one, but THREE games are coming out of this. Oxeye and Wolfire are joining into the fray! Wolfire will be doing a game with the same premise of Mojang and their original project (Now titled Catacomb Snatch, while Oxeye is taking on the second place category, which will be a dungeon crawler beat 'em up set in post-apocalyptic WW2.

Holy pants this is great news. Two games now, and I finally get my dungeon crawler. I suspect it'll be some kind of Wolfenstein-esque game where the character has to explore Nazi Bunkers that are filled with zombies and mutants after an atomic bombing. I hope it's a roguelike and we get to fight demon Hitler.

Who else might join? Many games have been made in 24 hours, so there's always time for more developers to join in and make this game jam bigger and better! One can always hope.

40 more hours to go.   read

8:36 AM on 02.16.2012

No love lost for Dear Esther: a defence.

The reception of the recent remake of the 2008 mod Dear Esther has been quite dividing. Destructoid's Allistair Pinsof wrote his review of the game and scored it an understandable 4.5. Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun two reviews of the game went up, one that was against it, and the other that was in in support of it. Simply put: you're either going to love it or hate it. Personally, I quite enjoyed this piece for what it demonstrated exceptionally, and these features I feel forgive many of the other issues one may have with the game.

Let me state that this simply is my opinion, and I can entirely understand why one might not like this game for almost any reason, but I want to make clear that there absolutely is merit to the game and that there are many things still worth appreciating about this game.

If you are not aware of this game, it's an art game through and through. Don't expect any action, explosions or witty dialogue. This is a slow-paced game where one needs to become engrossed in the world. Immersion is key. You assume the role of a man who arrives on an isolated and lonely island and embarks on a journey into this island, pressing forward constantly, drawn by the red light of an aerial in the distance. What the island exactly is is entirely open to interpretation. Is this is limbo, or even hell? Is he alive, dead, or both? Is it by chance that he simply came to this isolated island because of it's history with him and Esther? There really is no answer, and answers are not something that often come up in the vague literary dialogue that occurs at certain points throughout. You follow your mostly linear path, occasionally coming across curious symbols and chemical equations drawn out in illuminating paint. It seems you are following the markings by one "Donnelley", and again, who he is is vague. The journey is notably paralleled with Saint Paul's journey to Damascus, and "Damascus" is continually referred to by the narrator and the writings on the walls, similarly to the Rat Man in Portal. So you trod along your journey at a snail's pace, seeing beautiful and haunting sights throughout until you finally reach your destination.

I'll come out right now and address the biggest issues people seem to have with the game. The controls are extremely tedious. As mentioned a moment ago, the character travels at speeds that many tortoises would come to appreciate. Maybe he's so riddled with guilt that he literally drags his own feet across his journey of damnation or whatever, the point is is that this game is slow. Very slow. Movement is limited to looking and walking. No jumping, no running. There are a few moments where I wish I could have jumped over a foot-high rock and explored some of the more mysterious and curious spots, but I was forced to stay in my seat in this slow coaster of shame and only look at these mysterious set pieces. An unspoken feature of the game is that it encourages whatever exploration is possible, finding little oddities and unsettling objects constitute the "extras" of the game beyond the single path and narrative. Sometimes being presented with a fork in the road will result in a poor choice and a long walk back to see every part.

The narrative is another part of the game that many people dislike about it. It's pretentious as hell. I'm not a very literary person so most of the time the narrator was simply spouting poetic nonsense at me, and I was only able to decipher probably about 40% of what was actually going on. But hey, at least they have a good voice actor, so it's pleasant on the ears at very least.

So I just spent two paragraphs slamming the two core aspects of the game, the actual gameplay and the narrative, so what makes this game good? For me, I was immediately sold on the audio and visuals of the game initially. It's a somewhat shallow reason, but those are two factors that I'm a sucker for in games and these two were exceptional. As having played the original mod back in 2008, I was intrigued by the vast differences in visuals when I first heard about the remake a few months ago. Having nothing better to do on Valentines Day, this seemed like a great way to either feel terrible about myself for not being with someone, or have a moment of catharsis in hearing a tale of someone who's far worse off than me. Reasons aside I ponied up my $10 and got the game and experienced something I didn't expect: fear.

What this game does beautifully is creates a living breathing world, even if it's dead. The feeling of isolation is engrossing among the tall grass riddled with thistles and the burned out and derelict settlements. The music sets the tone beautifully. The low groans of cellos and the haunting piano lines create a genuinely eerie atmosphere that few games have managed to accomplish in recent memory. Searching stables and finding bloodied surgical equipment or dust-covered and dirty tables with discarded books and playing cards that make you wonder what happened to the inhabitants of the island. Clearly it was something grim. The most tense and brooding moments of the game come in the exploration of the dark crevasses that tempt you off the main path. Occasionally you'll see a dark way that your gut tells you not to go into, but you are dragged by your desire to see everything. As one enters these darker paths the sound design shows it's true colours and the choice of slow pace becomes apparent, with these two factors coupling into a moment of growing terror as you see what awaits you at the end of the guilting hall. (Not going to spoil it for you, so you'll have to check it out yourself!)

The visuals of the game are outright beautiful. Using a modified version of the Portal 2 Source Engine, there is beauty in everything from the light swaying of thistles in the wind, the moving skybox and the play of lighting on the surfaces. And then you enter the caves. For some reason the caves were the only place I felt safe, I felt like I belonged there. The incredible use of colours, water and light make this portion of the game beyond praise. It's breath taking.

The whole experience wraps up around you like a blanket and doesn't let go. Provided you don't try to break free from the path you never thing to yourself "Yep, this is a game I'm playing". The only constraint is the path you take. Everything else just envelops the player and allows for an easy escape into an uneasy mind. This is one of the most immersive games I have ever played, and it greatly reminds me of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You never have to run from monsters or hide, but the ambiance of it all is simply incredible, and at times it can be almost as frightening. You need to lose yourself in this game to fully appreciate it. Were someone to mod this mod to be able to have run and jump, what would be gained? It would cut out some of the frustration certainly, but for the most part this game succeeds at what it sets out to be: a ghost story. Interaction with the objects would be a nice addition, but it is not necessary.

As Pinsof noted, this is a game by definition, but I really wish we wouldn't call it a game. I wish we wouldn't call it a game in the same way I wish I didn't have to call Amnesia a game. These games are mostly about atmosphere and the player in those worlds. Amnesia has a lot more skill and interaction that Dear Esther so I can understand why it qualifies as a game, but it certainly is not fun. To me a "game" should have a sort of entertainment value to it, and something that doesn't entertain me but can still make me think and feel something like terror should be appreciated. If we could step into a novel or work of art and just look explore the nooks and crannies of it alongside the story or message the author wants to tell, Dear Esther would be the thing to do it. Games may not be the best tool to tell a narrative it, but interactive art may be.

In short this game is an exceptional experience and absolutely worthy of praise, but I can understand where people might think poorly of it. The gameplay and narrative are restricting, but the sheer audiovisual mastery is enough to create an experience that's beautiful and haunting. Clocking in at around an hour and a half with little replay value certainly makes the $10 price tag somewhat steep, but we've all gone to godawful movies or had a poor meal for the same price or more. You can still download the original mod for free, but I'd honestly just wait for a Steam sale and pick it up on the cheap. Or buy it now and support the artist. Your call, but either way this is a game that should be played.   read

8:33 PM on 02.14.2012

Who Would You Kick?

Double Fine's Adventure Kickstarter fund certainly has caused quite the stir in its wake. Closing in on the $1.8 million mark at the time of writing in just a week has resulted in a lot of discussion among the gaming community, as well as renewed optimism for the rebirth of games long lost. The discussion has also turned towards topics of the necessity of publishers, customer investment and influence on the development of the game. Most importantly, this has sent out a message to developers everywhere that people will pay for what they want to play.

Among the countless praises this miracle of crowdsourcing has proven, there are a few critiques, and the one of note would be the success of Double Fine's endeavor due to it's reputation. In gaming culture, Tim Shafer's name means something, as does Ron Gilbert's. A beloved studio releasing incredibly creative and interesting games certainly earns a space in the heart of any gamer, an a quick payment shortly thereafter- but what of everyone else? It is no doubt that this will become an increasingly popular thing among development studios from here on in, be it to free themselves from the control of a publishers, or simply to raise the funds necessary to make the game itself, we will see studios big and small follow in Double Fine's gold-plated path.

Customer investment is not an entirely new concept, at least in gaming. The thinktanks over at Valve tossed around the idea of community investment a few years ago. Solid in theory, but never really put into practice. At least until now. Kickstarter investments will surely be taken up by many studios and independents from here on in. Destructoid has already talked around the dream games they'd like to see Kickstarted, and we've all had our say there (Freedom Fighters 2! Let's make it happen!), but who would we trust blindly with our money? Double Fine has given no details about the game they plan to make beyond it being a Double Fine point and click adventure headed by Shafer and Gilbert. Over 50 000 people ponied up their share based on the reputation of these people alone, and that is by the one of the biggest selling points of the unknown game.

So I ask you: who would you trust your bid to? What studio continues to make the excellent games that tickle your fancy time and time again and would trust with blind faith to deliver you content that you would be happy with? Partially a question of fandom, but also a reflection on the developers themselves. Credentials are key, but never a guarantee.

I've spent too much time up to this point discussing the matter so I'll limit myself to my two developers of promise.

The Behemoth
I've loved Newgrounds ever since I was a kid. I had an outdated PC and didn't have a console until the Gamecube, so the vast selection of flash games available kept me going through the years. Those, mixed with the countless crazy animations that I would watch (especially the ones when my parents were out of the house) probably helped form the weird man that I am today. When Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin formed The Behemoth, I was ecstatic. Castle Crashers is to date one of my all time favorite games. The artstyle and quirky mannerisms of the game (and their other works) tickle a particular fancy that I do not think they could rub wrong. After Battleblock Theatre comes out, I know for certain I'll be interested in their next game, and if I could give them money now to get end result immediately after it's finished, that's an instant buy for me.

Edmund McMillen/ Team Meat
Another one of the Newgrounds crop, Edmund McMillen is a man with a bizarre vision and an excellent eye for game design who I've only recently come to appreciate. I love The Binding of Isaac and what it sets out to be as a game, as well as the challenge and energy that Super Meat Boy provides the player. If only Kickstarter was a thing during his cry for help campaign, he may very well have had a more successful recovery from his illness. Thankfully, he is alive and well today, and we are all the better for it. Another man who I trust with my dollar, because his twisted mind would surely come up with another great success.

So who would you put your share to in the black hat of mystery? If Valve offers a Kickstarter for Episode 3 to happen next week, would you toss in your share? How about that malnourished indie dev who you've never heard of but has a few cool ideas, would he get your pittance? Do you think this will be just a fad that will blow over when the oncoming tsunami of fan-funded games turns out to be nothing more than a wave of mediocre experiences that lack the lustre of big money's money? Are cookies better than cupcakes? Let your voice be heard, comment below!   read

10:56 PM on 02.12.2012

Trial and Error: The Satisfaction of Constant Failure

Difficulty in games can be a tricky subject for developers to properly implement in their works. A game that is too challenging and unfair to players will likely be left in the dust, disc snapped in half. A game that is too easy will be seen almost as a waste of time if it lacks any other alluring or noteworthy aspects to its quality (Fable, you're walking a fine line!). But then there are games that are very challenging, if not ridiculously so, but are fair with their difficulty and respect the player; encouraging further attempts rather than frustrating them with repetitive and tedious punishments for such failure. More often than not these such games are critically hailed as masterpieces of game design and offered almost as challenges to anyone skilled enough to brave it's difficulty. Death or failure can be a common occurrence, but rarely is it truly irritating or disrespectful to the player. Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and Limbo all share a common design of trial-and-error style gameplay, and as a result they all also feature a lot of player deaths and failures. And I mean a lot.

Then what makes trial and error so satisfying? Surely watching your avatar get spiked, sliced, crushed or otherwise mutilated countless times in a myriad of maddening ways would make a grind on one's patience, right? Well, for those without patience and determination, they do not get to experience the incredible satisfaction of glorious victory upon success of these cruel challenges. Remember when you *finally* completed the ridiculously difficult Veni, Vidi, Vici Segment of VVVVVV, all to get that last energy core? Or when you *finally* figured out the precise timing to jump over the buzzsaw while the brain slug slowly dragged you to your potentially grizzly demise in Limbo? How about watching and cheering on the championing member of the swarm of Meat Boys as he jumps, slides, dips and dives to save Bandage Girl from the wrath of everything around him in the replays of Super Meat Boy? Much like the fastest sperm to an egg, that champ was, and is, you. Congratulations, chief, doesn't it feel great? We all know the fiery feeling of victory when we finally overcome the most challenging of situations, and that's what makes those games great. Figuring out every possible way to fail and finally coming out on top. Unless you did it the first time, in which case, you are a bad enough dude.

Sometimes games don't need to be ridiculously hard to appreciate the trial and error gameplay mechanic. Consider Patrick Smith's quirky little game Windosill. It's a game that probably best exemplifies the notion of games-as-a-toy, and fiddling around with every possible option is what brings out the beauty of the piece. The whole game is about interacting with the environment in order to find the little cube that opens the door to the next room, and like trying to get that last penny out of the piggy bank, you're going to have to shake every possible way first. The more the player interacts with their environment, the more things they discover, and the more tools and toys they have to play with. This is the fundamental idea of games as a whole, experiences that challenge and treat the player, rewarding players for actions, and providing progress to the proven. If you can't figure it out, try something else, and if that doesn't work, then play with what you've got. After all, that's why we're all here for, to play. Even the badasses.

I really do urge people to stick it out when playing a game that seems impossible, because its satisfaction grows exponentially with your failures. The harder a thing is to complete, the more satisfying it's completion will be. At the same time, don't let a game disrespect your time by sending you to the beginning of the chapter due to a lack of checkpoints or genuinely unfair game design, that's not your fault, that's the developers not caring about the player.

If you have VVVVVV in your Steam library, give it another chance, because it really is a magnificent game. Same with Super Meat Boy and Limbo. Don't get discouraged, because these games were made to be beaten. They were made to challenge your skills and tenacity, and with perseverance you will feel outstanding more times than you could playing any game that simply holds your hand and drags you along.

You are awesome. You know it, now go prove it.   read

11:49 PM on 02.07.2012

A First Stab at Shank 2

Today was really the first big day for game releases in 2012. EA's new RPG: Kingdoms of Amalur came out alongside 2K and Digital Extreme's The Darkness 2 in the big game releases, we all got the Skyrim creation kit to mod the weapons/armour/hair/boobs/butts/dragons/sky's/rim's of the RPG we all love, and the quirky and frantic mayhem of Gotham City Impostors, but one game I fear may be buried under all of this is the sequel to Klei Entertainment's stylish beat-em-up, Shank 2. It's been two years since the Shank's first massacre and I've been salivating for another Tarantino/Rodriquez-esque slice-and-dice, and Klei has delivered as promised.

We join our forlorn companion on a bus driving through the South American jungle when it gets hijacked by the local Cartel Militia, and it doesn't take long for one of them to do any slight wrong to Shank in order for him to demonstrate his moniker. Shank must travel by foot through a Cartel-occupied village to get to safety on the other side, hacking and slashing his way though any meaty or wooden obstacle in his way. The gameplay is much of the same as in the first Shank, most of the time you run from screen to screen slaughtering anyone who stands in your path with a few platforming challenges in between the bigger brawls.There seems to be a much larger emphasis this time around on environmental interactions with explosive barrels, turrets, interactive objects, and environmental dangers such as grinders and saws. Fire is another addition which can be somewhat frustrating in a brawling game such as this, but can also be quite entertaining if used correctly. There are also items that Shank can pick up in combat and use instead of his regular strong attack, weapons like cleavers, baseball bats, torches, even fish. Each act differently and can be discarded/thrown at any time and add a little extra level of diversity to the dismemberment. All these elements add up to the wonderful combos that Shank can unleash upon his victims, and it's easy to say that many of the "AWWWW YEAAA" moments of the game come forth from these riotous revelries. Challenge seems to be a bit more of a focus this time around with health being less frequent and less potent, forcing the player to keep on their toes, especially if there's still two more meat hedges to trim before you find the next tequila bottle.

In addition to more ways to kill, this time there are more things to kill too. In addition to the "big" and "normal" sizes of baddies before, there are also "fat" and "little" characters that act in their own ways and add a little more variety to the mix, what with big lummoxes barreling through and little lads sneaking under bullet fire. Wolves join the pack as well alongside the attack dogs of before, and while not harmful there are other animals throughout the levels that you can hunt for achievements. The classic boss battles are back as well with comically huge characters ready to pummel you into the ground if aren't agile enough to escape their painful blows and crushing grips. While the first Shank had a collection of boss battles that each had a rather apparent trick how to beat them (say, wait to dodge a power attack then grapple them while they are stunned/stuck), this time around the battles are far more vague. Sometimes doing a specific attack or combo will cause one of these stun moments to appear, followed by a slick animated sequence of Shank shanking, other times you'll simply have to resort to dodging and attacking while it's safe. Perhaps I'm simply playing these sections wrong, but they are far less apparent than before.

Shank 2 is a game that excels at many things. Alongside solid gameplay and brutal combat come slick visuals, fitting music, and blood. Lots and lots of blood. The level of detail in the animations in Shank 2 are one of the most impressive elements of the style. Taking on a solid 2D Venture Bros. design fitted through a Machete framework it's clear to see why the animator of Shank won Animator of the Year at the Canadian Game Awards. This time there are more animated sequences before, scattered throughout the gameplay and at the opening and close of each level. This is usually limited to character interaction or before a boss fight, but occasionally used to establish something else, for instance a helicopter coming in for a bombing run or a village that is set ablaze by someone who will soon meet their unfortunate end by you and your malicious tools. The whole presentation seems to be tighter and smoother than the previous iteration, and while being pretty much visually flawless anyways, any slight difference is always worth noting. For some reason it seems that they changed the voice actor for Shank, and while not necessarily the most noticeable of differences it seems a bit odd. In all reality he just sounds a little gruffer. Perhaps he took up smoking. If the Cartel were after me for killing my former boss I would too.

While Shank 2 is almost entirely faithful to the original, the sequel took the liberty of changing some of the controls for better management with the new ability to pick up items. Dodging and rolling is done with the right control stick instead of the trigger and the flying pounce has been moved from the bumper to the left trigger. Not really that much of a difference and just requires a little getting used to really. In the meantime I just occasionally toss a grenade when I shouldn't or pounce on a boss when I should have rolled. Another changed thing is the inventory. No longer can you carry all three of each firearm and special weapon, instead the player chooses a loadout before each mission and makes do with what they chose. Inventories can be changed on the death screen so you are not fully married to the weapons you pick for each level and consistent deaths might require a change of weaponry.

While the game also features an array of unlockable costumes for the single player mode and multiplayer survival feature, I've only played around an hour and have not unlocked any of these. Speaking of the multiplayer, unfortunately I haven't played that either, so I won't speak for it but the game certainly lends itself well to the concept, and you can look over at the Shank 2 Blog to see some of the unlockable costumes available. I suspect these costumes are unlocked with achievements, Survival scores, and collecting Cartel Intel packets hidden throughout the game.

I can say for certain that this game is everything I expected of it within the first hour of playing. It's fast paced, visually-striking, cathartic and cool. While I'm still a little bit grieved over the boss battles, I've still only played an hour of the game, so I'm sure more surprises will await me in the future. The game is said to be longer than the first too, so hopefully the campaign will last a bit more than 4 hours, or at very least have an excellent co op campaign like the first one did, in addition to a solid multiplayer/challenge mode. The game is available on PC (Steam& Origin), PSN, and XBLA for $10 or whatever the console spacebucks are equivalent to and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a solid brawler, or if you've ever had a bad day.

Give it a try, it's a bloody good time.   read

12:07 PM on 02.03.2012

VVVVVV: A Malevolent Masterpiece.

Some people deserve to be punched in the face for all the right reasons. Terry Cavanagh is one of those people. He did not burn down an orphanage, nor did he disseminate hateful messages about a certain race creed or gender. No, his crime against humanity is the creation of VVVVVV, one of the most brilliantly cruel and masterfully crafted games ever to grace the platforming genre. His game is simplicity at its core, and executed in a matter that tests your patience and tenacity as much as it does your skills.

Developer: Terry Cavanagh
Publisher: Terry Cavanagh
Released: Jan 10, 2010 (PC)/ Dec. 29, 2011 (3DS)
Price: $4.99 (Steam/PC)/ $7.99 (3DS eShop)

What makes this game so intriguing? What is the force that drives the player to drag him or herself through his or her own blood, sweat and tears to complete this game? Even the title looks threatening, what with each of those V’s looking like a line of spikes (And I assure you, there are plenty of those ready for you to pull your hair out over). So why subject yourself to this? Surely bragging rights are to be earned, but another reason is simply because despite it’s sadistic game design, the game is just too damn good not to slog through.

The primary focus of this game is on level design, and that is what this work excels at beyond any shadow of a doubt. Nearly every puzzle puts the definition of the word “Challenge” to its most literal sense, forcing the player to execute the precise movements necessary to complete the stage to progress further. While Canavagh’s other independent titles focus more on games as a narrative medium, VVVVVV (Pronounced “The Letter ‘V’ Six Times”, or simply “V”) is textbook expert level design. Everything is laid out in front of the player, but only though dozens of deaths will the little details come forth. While this is may seem to be a frustrating method of trial-and-error, it becomes apparent that the level design is smarter than it appears, and it has an almost arrogant quality to it. Simply put: the levels know they are smarter than you and will taunt you with failure until you can stop an analyze the situation and realize you are doing them wrong. The game is a puzzle platformer where the only game mechanic is the reversal of gravity. The player can press a button and be drawn up or down while players can control their passage between one surface to another. Simple enough right? Now add spikes, moving platforms, flying debris, bouncing wires, enemies, and a myriad of other elements to twist one’s head around and you have one hell of a mess to work through. Despite how cruel the game is, it is also equally fair. Checkpoints are scattered everywhere throughout the levels, often at the beginning and ending points of puzzles so as to not force the player to repeat puzzles already solved, and respawning itself is never tedious as you immediately come back to life at the last checkpoint. Not to say death isn’t an all-too-frequent occurrence, unlimited lives and instant respawns make the process itself simple and easy. It’s the dying itself that will drive you up the wall. In my play-through I died 1580 times. The game keeps track, possibly to tell your friends, but probably just to mock you.

The player assumes the role of Captain Viridian, a Viridian-coloured smiling chap who’s crew has been scattered all over an alternate dimension by some cataclysmic event that left his spaceship immobile until he can gather his crew to repair them. Needless to say the story isn’t the core of the game but the ultimate purpose is to explore the game-world (Commonly called “Dimension VVVVVV”) and rescue his 5 crew members (each name a colour starting with “V”- Vermillion, Violet, etc). The world is presented in a large open Metroid-esque space that the player must explore every nook and cranny to find his scattered comrades, and as well collect the 20 optional energy orbs hidden throughout the level. These objectives are secured once the player completes some of the more innovative puzzles, or location-specific special challenges (for instance running a vertical gauntlet as spikes quickly chase you- lagging for an instant often leads to failure and death).

The game presents itself in a charming retro manner, harkening back to the days of early DOS and Commodore 64 graphics. With it’s use of bright colours and ease of transition between screen to screen it’s always clear to know where sections begin and end. Backed by a brilliant chiptune score by Magnus ‘SoulEye’ Pålsson, the music is melodic and upbeat, evoking a 70′s futurist mood of space and exploration.

Literally my only complaint about the game is the movement controls. While still fully functional the player controls almost as if he was on ice, slipping and sliding, often leading to many, many, MANY cheap deaths and failures at inopportune times (Although whenever has death been truly opportune in this?). Again, this is a game that tests your patience just as much as your skill and keeping a cool head will always led to more success then raging at it.

This game is hard, brilliant and beautifully done. Terry Cavanagh will have a hard time topping this in his more commercial projects, and he created a new hallmark in the platforming genre alongside Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be The Guy, especially in the “I dare you” department. I absolutely recommend this game to anyone who wants a challenge. This game is not easy. This game is not nice. This game is not your friend, and I love it for it.

Score: 9.5 out of 10   read

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