Tagged: review

Craft Keep Coming November 10th!

You might recall Craft Keep VR from my writeup of EGX 2016, where I was lucky enough to try out the virtual reality fantasy artisan game first hand. Well, there’s some exciting follow-up news. First of all, Craft Keep is coming to Steam Early Access on the 10th of November: that’s less than a week away!

Second, I’m writing this thing! At EGX I got talking to the developer, Arvydas Žemaitis, who said that he was looking to include an interesting story as the player travels about setting up shop in all these weird and wonderful locations around the world. Naturally I sent off an email about it after the event, and here we are! Continue reading

Epistory Video Review

If you’ve been following for a while, you may have already seen my first and second articles on the Early Access version of Epistory, an open-world typing game by Fishing Cactus. Well, now that the game is out, and now that my computer is capable of reliably recording gameplay, I thought I’d try a video review.

Continue reading

“Plants Versus Zombies” Versus “Plants Versus Zombies 2”

Or: Pay to Play Versus Pay to Win. But I feel as though that general topic has been covered over and over, so for this article I’m going to focus on two specific games in the same series that each take a different approach.

Plants Versus Zombies is a 2009 tower defence game that’s made it onto a bunch of different platforms (though I’m only familiar with the Android version). Rather than the traditional variety of tower defence in which you strategically place armed towers around a winding path, Plants Versus Zombies has you plonking plants down directly in front of a horde of zombies who approach in a perfectly straight line.

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Though the basic idea is ludicrously simple–zombies are approaching from the right, your house is on the left…stick something in the middle!–there’s a good deal of strategy involved. You often have to weigh up the benefits of planting a quick defence now versus saving up for something stronger later. You’re also frequently faced with a choice between paying for a very powerful (frequently explosive) plant to use just once, or saving up for weaker plants that will continue to chip away at the zombie horde throughout the level. The game might look silly, but it demands a fair bit of thought.

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It’s also funny. Really, really funny. What story it has is presented through polite notes dropped by the waves of zombies, and the ravings of your saucepan-wearing neighbour, Crazy Dave. The game attracted some well deserved praise when it was new and has maintained a following ever since. Long story short, it’s a neat little package and a hard act to follow. If you fancy playing it, it’s easily worth the (now fairly trivial) price.

Plants Versus Zombies 2 (2013) takes almost exactly the same approach in terms of gameplay, but its pricing is completely different. The game is free to download on Android and iOS (but not available on any other platform), offering optional in-app purchases in lieu of a mandatory up-front charge. Ever come across one of those games that invites you to buy power/crystals/gems to progress better/faster?

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Yeah. It’s one of those, and it attracted a lot of criticism when (and especially before) it was released. Plants Versus Zombies 2 offers opportunities to spend real dosh on imaginary plants at pretty much every turn, even going so far as to take you to the shop screen as part of the tutorial. Twice. The first time funnels you towards (though doesn’t actually require) buying additional plants and accessories, while the second illustrates a FarmVille-style plant-tending mechanic, in which you earn powerups by watering and waiting in real time or (you guessed it) spending gems.

That said, once you’re past the “BUY SOMETHING!!!” portion of the tutorial, it’s easy to forget that the game ever brought it up. Though new level packs are available for purchase before they’re unlocked, I can’t really imagine ever doing this. At the time of writing, I’ve unlocked the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth worlds without even completing the first: paying for number seven at this point would feel like going out and buying a chocolate bar when I already had six melting in my hot little hand. This abundance of levels feels particularly generous compared to the original game, which offers just one well curated (but entirely linear) series of levels.

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The wealth of content available for free in Plants Versus Zombies 2 is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. On one hand, I’d probably recommend it over the first game purely because there’s a lot more to do. Even without paying for any extras, there’s a wider variety of plants and a wider variety of zombies, and the gameplay feels more refined. On the other hand, the non-linear levels make for a weak plot (Your neighbour Crazy Dave has invented a time machine so he can re-eat his taco. There. That’s it.). The first game wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of storytelling, but the setting and the sequence of levels (front garden, back garden, pool, roof) did an adequate job of presenting you, the player, as an ordinary guy whose house is under siege by the undead. The sequel never quite explains why Crazy Dave even takes you along for the ride.

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Though the overall bundle of levels feels a little haphazard, with the game coaxing you into completing various “quests” without ever really doing anything to recommend one over another, this free-to-play game offers a huge amount even if you’re determined to never pay a penny. The only time the game really seems to be pushing you towards “paying to win” is in the events and minigames. The vasebreaker, for example, presents you with a vast field of vases to break. Three green ones will obviously contain plants, while the rest will contain plants, powerups or (far more likely) zombies.

The Vasebreaker minigame screen.

Unfortunately my phone pauses this minigame (and only this minigame) when I try to take a screenshot. It’s very strange.

Vasebreaker plays more like a slot machine than a strategy game, with the level of randomness involved making it nearly impossible to win without either several restarts (to find a favourable vase layout) or several powerups purchased with in-game currency. This is a game where one unlucky break can easily see a super-tough zombie spawn right in front of your base, and 1,000 coins spent on zombie-paralyzing butter (Yeah, it still has all the charm of the 2009 original!) can just as easily stop it. You earn coins steadily for free, and it’s trivial to stockpile them for this one minigame, but when you know you have to–when you know that the only reliable way to win is to throw coins at the problem–there’s little joy to be had in doing it.

The daily events present a similar problem. Your first attempt is free. However, given that you have no idea what that event will involve–shark-wielding giants or swarms of zombie chickens–you’re at quite a disadvantage right off the bat, with little chance of setting up an effective defence. You can retry as many times as you like, but each retry costs 1,000 coins. Since there are additional rewards for beating five events in a row, it’s easy to imagine a situation where you’d be forced to choose between losing a four-day winning streak or paying real money for additional coins.

If people want to invest their money in this kind of minigame, it’s reasonable enough to offer them the option. However, personally, I find it kind of off-putting. If winning five events in a row was simply presented as an additional challenge, I’d be all for it. However, when it feels like a trick to make me invest money in the game, it makes me unwilling to even invest my time. There’s something to be said for paying for extras to support the developers (who have, after all, put out a remarkably enjoyable game for free), but I’d prefer to do that by buying additional content rather than gambling on a minigame. Fortunately, this is where they’re really onto something.

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In addition to the regular quests (which make for the easiest way to earn gems without buying them for cash), the game occasionally offers the opportunity to “Try a Premium Plant for Free!” This behaves like a regular “go here, do this” quest in terms of earning gems, but at the same time trying out the premium plants is pretty neat in itself. Many will be familiar to those who played the first game, and all of them feel finely balanced: a fun extra rather than an overpowered tool to blast through levels. This pretty much hits the “freemium” sweet spot. If you want to support the game, you get something neat in return. If not, you aren’t missing out.

To wrap this up, both Plants Versus Zombies games are well polished and fun to play. If you’ve got an Android or iOS device, I’d highly recommend the second one: it’s certainly the bigger of the two, and (when you’re not being forced to depend on them entirely) the various manually-activated powerups make it faster and more lively than the original. If you enjoy the sequel and want to throw some money towards the franchise, I’d suggest buying the first game over paying for additional content in the second: the original still holds up very well, and the same things that make it feel smaller than the sequel also make it feel more complete as a package.

Bionic Punchline at Immerse or Die

This week, I was pleased to discover that Bionic Punchline has been reviewed as part of Creativity Hacker‘s Immerse or Die series. As the name might suggest, these are no ordinary book reviews. In fact, they’re not so much reviews as the book equivalent of those How long would you survive locked in a wardrobe with a polar bear? quizzes that turn up on Facebook.

The process goes something like this: Jefferson Smith, the reviewer, hops on a treadmill and starts reading. Either the book immerses him for the duration of his 40 minute workout, or (upon accumulating three strikes for “WTF” moments) it dies, with its survival time becoming a sort of score. As the banner says: 1 book, 40 minutes, 0 mercy.

So how did Bionic Punchline do?

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12 minutes, 4 seconds!

Based on the other reviews, that’s actually not too bad. Out of more than 200 books, only something like 21 have made it through the entire 40 minutes, and many don’t make it through the first one. It’s also just nice to see a detailed, critical review.

Though I’ve quoted such gems as “Most of the stories are pretty good” on the back of the book itself (and I’m hugely grateful for any review, no matter how brief), it’s great to know that there are people out there willing to take the time to explain precisely what they do and don’t like. The treadmill test might sound gimmicky, but actually the scores it provides feel like a more practical gauge of a book’s quality than an overall star rating. I don’t insist that every book keep me riveted for hours at a time (and Jeff himself suggests he might go back to Bionic Punchline at some point), but as a rule the best ones do, so that’s definitely something to look out for.

With that in mind, if you’re looking for a really great read then the Immerse or Die Survivors would probably be a good place to try. And if you want to see the full review of Bionic Punchline, you can find it right here.

Spoiler Alert!

Spoiler Alert is now available on Steam: find it here!

Contrary to what that title suggests, this post does not, in fact, contain spoilers. It’s about Spoiler Alert: a game by independent developer, Megafuzz. It’s had the honour of being awarded “Most Promising Game in Development” by Indie Prize Amsterdam 2014, as well as nominated for “Best Desktop Game” and “Most Innovative Game.” Why? Because, to quote the tagline, Spoiler Alert is the very first game you will eveuncomplete!

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It's also the first game to feature my name in the credits!

It’s also the first game to feature my name in the credits!

“Additional Story Input” actually involved more playtesting than writing, but it was an amazing project to get involved with, and definitely an interesting premise. Playing the game back to front, you have to place coins in the level and jump on crushed enemies to resurrect them. Fallen spikes rise to the ceiling as you approach (backwards, duh), and you must avoid balls of plasma that newly un-exploded baddies in robo-suits are sucking back into their guns. And did I mention that you’re playing a chilli pepper in a crusader helmet? Because that’s kind of important.Mr. Deathbunny

Naturally there are bosses, complete with end-of-battle fighting talk! The final boss, Mr. Deathbunny, is probably my main contribution to the game. At one point he would attack with rainbow beams and love grenades, but now mostly serves to illustrate the backwards game mechanics. Be thankful you don’t actually have to fight him any more: he was a terrifying opponent, as his truly horiffic appearance will probably suggest.

The game as it stands now–due to be released on June 30th–has come a long way, and the removal of the Deathbunny fight is just the beginning (and if you get the desktop version on Steam, you’ll be able to compare it to the original version from Game Jam). Not only is the whole experience significantly more polished, and not only does it include an unlockable speedrun mode (and bonus level), there’s a level editor complete with hilarious item descriptions:

Level EditorPictured above, a level in which Chilli Pepper Knight pursues a morbidly obese undead garden gnome that originally would have rolled around attempting to crush him. If you’re familiar with my short fiction, you may be surprised to learn that this was not, in fact, one of my contributions.

Patronising Completion ScreenThe level editor gives you a huge range of customisation options–from changing the backdrops and music to the little end of level completion message–covering pretty much everything you find in the main game. And as much fun as that main game is, I suspect that the user-generated levels may end up being even better. A lot of what makes Spoiler Alert interesting to play from start to finish…er…finish to start is that it’s exactly like playing a short, Mario-style platformer backwards. That means that, say, you won’t generally pick up two different powerups in one level, but in a one-off, user-generated level free from a wider story, that could be a neat thing to do. Incedentally, the powerups themselves are another neat nod to the backwards nature of the game: you don’t collect them from within the levels, you gain them by resurrecting a version of yourself that died while wielding one. That is to say, if you see a chilli pepper corpse lying on some spikes wearing a dragon helmet, you throw yourself onto it and can then run backwards away from the spikes, unbreathing fire as you go.

Yeah…a lot of this makes more sense if you can actually see it happening, so I’ll just leave this here for you:

But even the trailer doesn’t quite do the whole thing justice. Little things, whether it’s all the rain in the level falling upwards or the way you have to drop onto a bouncy mushroom to get down from spaces you couldn’t have reached by jumping, all add to the feeling that you really are uncompleting the game, and that’s not something I’ve ever seen before. If it’s something you’d like to try, grab the game on Steam on the 30th right freakin’ now, or wait around until the mobile version’s out. Since it’s all played with just one button (okay, sometimes it’s with two), I can see this being quite a good pocket timewaster.

Also, the story’s amazing. I’d tell you about it, but you know…spoilers. 😉

“Ludonarrative Dissonance” and Other Videogame Quirks

Have you ever noticed how stories in games don’t always sit well with what you actually do in them? How you can revive your spiky-haired buddies time and time again with unicorn tears right up until one of them gets bumped off in a cutscene, at which point they’re gone for good? How that mysterious virus has turned the entire city’s population into zombies, but you can get bitten hundreds of times and suffer no ill effects? How your magic sword can cleave boulders in twain (according to the description), but for some reason you still have to round up Farmer Busywork’s sheep so he’ll open a waist-high wooden gate for you? That’s ludonarrative dissonance. Or, to put it a less hilarious-sounding way, that’s when story and gameplay don’t work well together.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll probably know I’m pretty keen on games. Particularly video games. I’ve even had a go at producing a game myself, though as a writer I tend to focus on story over gameplay. And that’s what’s got me thinking. That, and Metro: Last Light.

Metro: Last Light, if you haven’t heard of it, is a sequel to 2010’s Metro 2033, which in turn is based on Dmitri Glukhovski’s novel by the same name. It’s a post-apocalyptic Survival Horror in which you travel through the decaying tunnels of the Moscow Metro, and occasionally the even more decaying surface. The gameplay is notable because it uses a first person perspective with no heads-up display. There’s no health bar, no compass and (usually) no ammo counter. All the necessary information is presented either inside the head of the player character, Artyom–a pounding heartbeat if you become seriously injured, laboured breathing as your gasmask’s filter begins to clog–or in the world itself: you can see the stack of bullets gradually disappearing into your rifle as you fire, and cracks in your visor indicate that it is damaged and poisonous air from outside is beginning to seep in. The hardest difficulty level in 2033 and a downloadable expansion for Last Light add further realism, removing the crosshair from the centre of the screen and generally increasing the threat posed by enemy fire and slavering mutants.

Compared with the vast majority of first person games, Metro is extremely immersive. In addition to the overall lack of direct “here is how many medpacks you have” type information presented on-screen, the game takes pains to remind you that you are an individual human being moving through a real and deadly world, rather than some tank-like camera-bot maneouvering through an arbitrary series of similar-looking corridors. Any splashes of grime or blood on your mask obscure your view and must be wiped away with a button-press. Cutscenes frequently see your view change and tilt as Artyom looks around or is knocked over by some sudden event. And yet, somehow, all these realistic little touches also serve to highlight the ways in which the situation is, in many respects, completely unbelievable.

It’s made clear time and again that Artyom is not an invincible action hero. The people of the Metro, despite being somewhat desensitised to its horrors, still dread the bandits and hordes of mutants lurking in the darkness, and the player’s character is no exception. This is particularly clear in the–for want of a better world–haunted patches of the world, where shadowy figures appear, whispers are heard and, occasionally, electric lights stop working, forcing you to navigate by the light of your cigarette lighter. And yet, he’s curiously unaffected by the sight of some glowing-eyed horror suddenly lurching into that three-foot pool of light. You can shoot as accurately at a charging, pig-faced mutant as you can a tin bullseye at a shooting range. Not only that, if you are caught off-guard, you can calmly reload or switch weapons while the pesky tunnel-beast claws at your face. You the player might be freaking out on your sofa, but you the character get on with it just as quickly as you would in a brigtly-lit room with a great big “Reloading for Dummies” poster on the wall in front of you.

And when you think even further about what’s actually going on in the game, it just gets more and more impossible. To begin with, you have a huge choice of weapons and all of these can be upgraded in some way or another, meaning that none of them are guaranteed to work quite the same way as any of the others. Compounding the problem, quite a few have been made, post-apocalypse, in the Metro tunnels. Somehow, Artyom is deadly accurate with literally all of them and never has to fumble around trying to work out how to take off the safety or eject an empty magazine. You can chalk this up as an acceptable break from reality, since spending twenty minutes in an empty tunnel quietly working out how to use the thing would almost certainly not improve the game, but acceptable or not, it’s a break, and once you’ve noticed it, it’s impossible to un-notice.

It’s also worth considering that Artyom’s uncanny ability to just pick up and use any gun he stumbles across has knock-on effects. The myriad of designs–some pre-apocalypse, some cobbled together in the tunnels–mean that even though several will share one sort of ammunition (pistol rounds, rifle rounds, shotgun shells, etc.) the way these are actually fed into the weapon may be (and usually are) enormously different. In order to swap his double-barreled shotgun for an automatic one, Artyom would have to sit down and load every shell he has into the appropriate magazine: otherwise, next time he wanted to use it, he’d have an empty shotgun, an empty magazine and a big bag of loose shells. Again, that would make for a seriously dull game, but it leads me into quite possibly the biggest knock-on issue…

You can fill magazines with bullets instantaneously. There’s a definite pattern in Metro‘s gameplay, and indeed in virtually any game in which you have to reload anything. You don’t want to get caught without any bullets in your gun, so you reload at pretty much every opportunity. Just finished shooting? Reload. About to open a door? Reload. Don’t like the look of that suspiciously dark/bright/symmetrical room up ahead? Reload. Not sure you reloaded last time you decided to? Hit the button anyway, just in case. The issue with this is that, in almost every case, the magazine you take out of the weapon isn’t actually empty. That means that either you’re left with a spare (but not full) magazine, or you sit down and refill it with individual bullets. The reason you don’t have to do this in Metro is, yet again, that it’s a chore, games shouldn’t involve chores, and in fact the entire concept is so tedious that I’m just going to leave a link to this page for anyone who wants a more detailed explanation.

So there are good reasons why, in terms of gameplay, it’s often best not to strive for absolute realism. However, in the case of Metro the visually immersive nature of the game–the condensation on the gasmask, the lack of a heads-up display–and the comparative vulnerability of the character make some of these breaks from reality seem unusual: the story/setting suggests one thing, the gameplay something else. It is strange to play as a character who lives in a chaotic, crumbling world and yet know how to use every new bit of equipment you stumble across. It is strange to play as a character who must scavenge for every scrap of ammunition he can find, and yet doesn’t have to worry about the practical problem of how to manage it. The result is a game that suggests you are playing a living, breathing, feeling character, but ultimately still plonks you down into the curiously invisible shoes of a camera with a bullet-hose mounted on the bottom-right corner.

I’d be interested in seeing a game that at least acknowledged the day-to-day difficulties that even Artyom ignores. Granted, it wouldn’t be a good move for some bullet-spraying Medal of Duty fragfest, but for a Survival Horror game, I can imagine it boosting both the realism and the difficulty. You might not have to be completely overwhelmed by the first monster that got hold of you, but your ability to reload could be significantly hampered. You might not have to wait five minutes while your character rearranges the bullets in his or her backpack, but you might have to think twice about whether it’s really a good idea to reload while you still have a handful in the magazine. You might not have to face so many enemies, but those you did would present more of a challenge. Metro does a fantastic job of really letting you see through the eyes of its protagonist. I only wish he were human.