"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
Figment Available for Xbox Live Indie Games
Created by Tempula 80 MS Points
Action Platforming is a genre that we as gamers know. It has existed since before the NES era and if you haven't played one yet, revoke your gamer card. Games like Donkey Kong, Contra, Manic Miner and many others established the core of what we know and Figment is daring to add a few new things to it.
At the outset of the adventure, you are allowed to choose between two characters (seen above). This is more of a crucial decision than you'd think as they play completely differently. No Bob and Bub pallet swaps here; one character's style is going to stick with you and one you'll just have to adjust to.
Playing as the arachnid styled female protagonist allots you a double jump, faster speeds, a combo system that juggles opponents and a back jump. The sandman styled male protagonist rewards you with a long range projectile, a more powerful combo, a higher jump and a slide. These differences might not seem like much, but they definitely change the way you approach platforming.
The easiest character to start with is the sandman. His projectile makes clearing opponents from long range a bit easier than having to get in close and juggle them. While killing enemies is mostly unnecessary, you will find yourself needing to remove some baddies to advance. His combo is pretty much useless as it is too slow to respond accurately to oncoming enemies without taking some damage. Paired with the fact that his landing animation forces him to stop for a few milliseconds and it just makes more sense to have him stand back and snipe whoever is in his way. Though he can kick enemies into pits, which is a nice feature.
The arachnid woman just doesn't have any long range capabilities. This makes dealing with flying enemies (while also dealing with platforming) a chore. Initial level design also looks like it is fit mostly for the sandman as some minor platforms will force you to double jump up. That being said, she is able to navigate through the levels at a much faster rate as she lands without any pause making jumping a bit easier to manage.
I'll be upfront about the platforming. It's hard. Certainly not impossible, but at one point it goes from a cakewalk to a controller smasher with no warning. It's not because the jumps are impossible, they certainly aren't. It's not because the enemies are too hard, they're really simple in design. It's just the way the level is set up and it doesn't help that standing Y just doesn't ever respond when you want it to.
There is a function on the controller that allows you to see ahead. The fact that this is necessary for crucial jumps is simply bad level design. The camera isn't static, so that area that you couldn't see before will be a blind jump when you come to it. I eventually found that marking a location on the background and aiming for it is the only way to get through some of the trickier jumps. And there are trickier jumps.
The game starts with simple enemies blocking paths and simple jumps to make and then changes direction in to a series of precision jumps over long floors or walls of black death. This is alleviated by checkpoints littered throughout the game, but sometimes it feels like they are too far and too few in between sections of the level.
Figment's difficulty is only exacerbated by the fact that many platforms are the exact size as your character. When this is paired with some fairly loose controls, you have a hard game. The flying enemies of the game however make it a serious pain. This isn't like a medusa head styled enemy that knocks you back five feet or turns you to stone. These enemies are fairly simple. Really, the only thing they do is shoot projectiles at you while countering your movements. They are also very plentiful near make it or break it jumps that necessitate precision, forcing you to attack them less they mess up your chances of landing the jump. They also take two hits to knock down so focusing on them while standing on tiny platform over a sea of black death is a controller smashing affair. This is a lot of focus that I'm paying to one enemy.
A better writer than I once said this about these enemies: "You remember how Prometheus was chained to a rock and every day, without fail, an eagle would eat his liver? This is sort of like that, except that while the eagle is pecking out your organs, you have to jump on top of it."
The sandman can try to snipe these fliers for one hit, but that only works with enemies that don't notice you. Since you can only shoot downward, the enemies that recognize you will counter your movements and stay above the shots. Simply put, this segment is a wall of challenge. It will prove whether you are willing to put up with the game or not. Learn how to get past this section and you'll be prepared to face the next series of challenges.
Figment does offer a two player mode that is preferred, but offers many different challenges than the single player experience. Similar to Contra or New Super Mario Bros, the characters share the same screen and can help each other out with enemies. Death of one character is not a problem as they will turn into a floating little creature that can shoot little projectiles in front of them. This lasts until you come across the next check point and are revived. The projectiles you shoot as a ghost don't harm, but stun enemies for you. This is huge in the case of the flying creatures as they can fall into the black abyss below and die.
However, it presents a huge problem with the precision jumping. Like I said before the controls allow you to scan to other areas in single player. In this local co-op mode however the camera will pan out if the two of you get too far apart. For critical jumps, this is a nightmare when you plan to jump forward and the camera suddenly shifts perspective. It even carries over into the little shmup creature's perspective. Explorative friends will cause you many unforeseen deaths that rival anything Contra or Rescue Rangers could have.
I need to talk about the presentation partly because Yorda is a member here and an art designer of the game, but also because it's a unique look for the genre. Unsurprisingly, it's a good looking game. The characters are diverse and interesting. Little details like sand dropping off the sandman's body brings character to the game. It compliments the dream theme that the background story sets up.
Unfortunately, the story is relegated to a simple single scrolling image and the important part you can see above (full version here). The fact that our heroes did kind of a half-assed job protecting the boy is a bit silly, but it really doesn't matter. I really can't count off for story as platformers don't need them and all it really does is set up the theme instead of creating a significant plot.
I can't say much about the game's sound. The music fits, but it is nothing that I would call memorable. Really I must highlight the art as its one of the best designed features of the game. Enemies turn into childhood toys when defeated. The static backgrounds are interesting to look at and I wish there simply was more to look at. The motif was expanded upon and it sets up the rest of the game nicely.
Figment is a tough game to love, which is pretty unfortunate. There are a lot of good things to take from this game and I am pretty excited to see what they can do in the future with these ideas. These elements however just didn't come together in the right way for a genre overloaded with great platformers. If you want a hard platformer though this might be up your alley. For 80 MS points you are certain to get something out of this.