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Indie Games

Mark of the Ninja

Guys, I think I’ve found my soulmate.

She’s beautiful, she’s thoughtful, she’s well-rounded, she’s smart, she’s lively, and she understands me. She’s so perfect for me.

Her name is Mark of the Ninja.

Mark of the Ninja is the latest game by Klei, a dev team previously known for Shank. Shank was a 2D beat-em-up that took influence from hack-and-slashers like God of War and Devil May Cry. It was all about stringing together combos of light, medium and heavy attacks to beat down varieties of enemies. I liked it quite a bit, mostly because of the visceral feel. The combat flowed remarkably well, and it carried a great sense of kinesthetic immersion; it made you feel like you were really brawling, even though all you were actually doing was pressing buttons and waggling a joystick. It’s one of the few games I can think of that made me feel feral when playing it.

Mark of the Ninja, on the other hand, is a stealth game where you play as a ninja and prowl in the shadows, sneaking past security and assassinating targets. The devs have said in interviews that their motivation early on was to make a ninja game that actually required you to act like an archetypal ninja, rather than almost all other ninja games that basically just consist of beating up armies of baddies.

And let me just say that they succeeded with flying colors. This isn’t just a stealth game; it might be the best stealth game I’ve ever played.

The game runs on a platforming engine, but there isn’t a whole lot of precision platforming involved. The gameplay is mostly about precision timing. I’ve said in the past that at its core a stealth game should feel like a puzzle game, and I stand by that thesis, because that’s exactly what this feels like. Each encounter with guards requires you to analyze the situation and choose your own method of overcoming it.

You have a number of tools at your disposal, and more become available throughout the game — you can shoot bamboo darts to break lights or distract guards, you can throw noisemaker arrows, you can drop spike traps on the floor, you can hurl smoke bombs, and so on. Pacifism is always an option, as is meticulously stabbing each and every guard until the only living creature within three miles is you.

Each level tends to have its own gimmicks that affect the gameplay without forcing you to relearn everything from the ground up. A few levels take place outdoors in a thunderstorm, so every time lightning strikes, the entire area is lit up and enemies can see you for just a moment. There’s one level that takes place in a sandstorm, so you can’t see past a certain distance. A few levels are littered with deadly traps. None of these are jarring like the vehicle sections in your typical shooter; you’re still playing the same game, but the changes force you to look at situations differently.

The levels are big and sprawling, and reward diligent and careful exploration. Each one has three optional challenges and three hidden scrolls; finding the scrolls and completing the challenges gives you points to unlock more tools you can swap out. None of the tools are particularly overpowered or game-breaking, but they add more variety and can help give you an edge in the later levels.

There’s a common tendency for otherwise good stealth games to force in out-of-place combat sequences, usually toward the endgame. (Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are all guilty of this.) It’s generally done to ramp up the tension. It’s the kiss of death for stealth games. At best it’s jarring, since we’ve spent the whole game learning to be sneaky and suddenly can’t use the skills we’ve acquired up to this point; at worst it’s dreadful, because the engine is designed for stealth and not combat.

Amazingly, Mark of the Ninja never does this. I kept expecting to run into a boss battle or a bunch of gun-less guards and have to punch them out, but that moment never came. And I’ll tell you why it never happened: because the folks at Klei are smart. They knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with this game and how to achieve it. The game ramps up tension not by throwing you into a boxing match, but by introducing more threatening guards that are more difficult to sneak by or defeat, and by setting up more complex situations where you’ll have to use strategy in order to get by without being spotted.

Completing the game isn’t extremely difficult, but there’s a New Game + mode that introduces additional challenges. And you can always challenge yourself to, say, complete all the levels without killing anyone. Or without using any items. Or without breaking any lights. The list goes on.

This game has a wonderful checkpoint system. The checkpoints are plentiful and you’re rarely expected to repeat long encounters you’ve already completed. And crucially, if you screw up, you can instantly revert back to the last checkpoint without an unnecessary “You Are Dead!” screen or even a loading screen. It hits that wonderful Super Meat Boy sweet spot where each failed attempt leads straight to the next one, so the game can be challenging while rarely being frustrating.

Before I played Mark of the Ninja, I saw that the Destructoid review said this:

“I find Mark of the Ninja to be perfect. Let it stand as the benchmark by which all stealth games are now measured.”

My initial reaction was, “Oh, come on. That’s got to be hyperbole.” But now that I’ve finished it, I think Destructoid is onto something. I’m still a firm believer in the notion that No Game Is Perfect, but this game is the closest to perfect that I’ve seen in a long time.

Before I leave, I’d like to give a big thank-you to Varewulf for gifting me this game. And also a big thank-you to developer Klei for making it. You two gave me the opportunity to feel like a ninja, and I can’t thank you enough for that.


Dungeons of Dredmor

Damn, has it really been almost three weeks since I last posted? Huh. That’s the longest time between posts I’ve ever had.

Hi, guys. Sorry for disappearing for awhile. If you want to know why, well… Let’s just say a certain thing happened. A thing happened that drained away my creative energy. In fact, it sapped me of pretty much all my energy, creative or otherwise. I’ll probably elaborate on my other blog at some point, but for now let’s just say it was personal. A personal thing happened.

I’m going to try to bring my spirit back by forcing myself to write again. So here’s Dungeons of Dredmor.

I first tried Dungeons of Dredmor quite awhile ago. I opened it up, spent a good five minutes or so choosing the skills for my character, started off on my adventure and got killed by a monster in the very first room.

I exited and let the game collect dust.

DoD is a Roguelike. For the uninitiated, a roguelike is defined by Wikipedia as “a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by randomization for replayability, permanent death.” I would add that they’re also characterized by being impenetrable. They are often represented through blocks of text, as with the classic Nethack:

They also generally have horribly complex and unintuitive control schemes wherein every single button on the keyboard serves a function. To top it off, they’ll generally have an almost vertical difficulty curve and no tutorial whatsoever.

So yeah, after my first attempt I just assumed that DoD was just another typical, inaccessible roguelike and left it to rot. But then I read Jarenth’s retrospective on it and it inspired me to give the game a second chance. Now, well, now I dare say I’ve become rather obsessed with it.

Let’s look at all the things DoD sets itself apart from most roguelikes.

Well, for starters, it looks a hell of a lot better than most — that is to say, it actually has an appealing aesthetic. Yes, this has nothing to do with gameplay mechanics,  but despite what a lot of old-school gamers might say, visual design matters. This game is presented in classic indie pixel art, and it’s charming and cute.

The game provides a number of thorough tutorials that teach you pretty much all the basics of the game — movement, combat, equipment, consumables, abilities, leveling, the works. Some of these are fairly obvious and intuitive gameplay elements, but the crucial thing is that by running through the tutorials you can be assured that you aren’t missing anything important. This is something a lot of roguelikes and a lot of older RPGs failed to cover; I remember it taking me quite awhile just to figure out how to rest in Fallout.

Of course, the game includes the usual obstacles that a roguelikes provides — gratuitous difficulty, permanent death, and grueling length. But let me show you one of the screens you encounter before starting a new game…

Is it just too tough for you? Switch down to easy mode. Are you sick of having to start over from the beginning? Turn permadeath off. Is grinding getting tedious? Switch it to quick mode. This isn’t to say the game will be a cakewalk with all these features introduced — it’s still very challenging, even on easy mode. But it’s more accessible and less mean-spirited.

Truth be told, I’ve actually been playing on medium with permadeath on. Unlike with The Binding of Isaac, in this game I’m actually alright with starting all over from the beginning now and again. The game hosts a myriad of skills that you get to pick from at the beginning, and with each attempt you can try out different combinations until you find one that suits you best.

I’ve talked down about games that force you to make all the important choices before you start the game, but in this case it actually feels appropriate. In Morrowind you’re stuck with those decisions you made for several dozen hours, assuming you’re not going to get paranoid and start over. In this game each playthrough generally only lasts a few hours, so you can keep testing the different skills and see which ones complement one another.

And that’s ultimately indicative of the game as a whole. This isn’t a game about winning; it’s a game about learning. Every time you lose the game says, “Congratulations! You have died.” In pretty much any other game I would interpret this as the designer laughing in my face, but with DoD it actually makes sense to me. Congratulations! Now you can start fresh with a new hero and a new dungeon!

Gaslamp Games has done something impressive here; they’ve taken a genre that’s famous (or infamous, depending on where you stand) for its inaccessibility and managed to transform it into something anybody (well, any gamer) can get into. Sure, it’s tough, but it isn’t mean-spirited. It lets you in so it can smash you down. Then it helps you up so it can smash you down again.

One day I’ll beat that Dredmor…


The Binding of Isaac

Heads up: The Morrowind stream will be happening today at 5:00 PM, Central Standard Time (that’s 11:00 PM in GMT). Jarenth will (hopefully) be joining me for voice commentary. The stream will be featured on this link: http://www.livestream.com/ninjagameden

Anywho, I got The Binding of Isaac awhile ago when it was first released. I’m not a fan. I didn’t talk about it then, but I want to talk about it now. I hope you don’t mind.

I think it’s fruitful to compare The Binding of Isaac to Super Meat Boy. On the surface they seem like exceedingly similar games. They’re both projects led by the same person (Edmund McMillen), they have essentially the same art style, they both have gameplay based heavily on classic Nintendo titles (Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., respectively), they both have very silly stories, and they’re both aggressively challenging.

But get past the basics and you can start to notice that the general philosophy behind the games are almost diametrically opposed; specifically, in how each game regards the player.

Every level in Super Meat Boy is carefully designed to offer a fair and gradual progression of difficulty. It introduces you to gameplay mechanics and then tests your ability to utilize or overcome them. It starts off fairly simple, and then gets harder and harder until you’re facing obstacles that seem impossible on the outset, but are entirely beatable using the skills you’ve acquired.

And if you should die in Super Meat Boy, the game respectfully lets you retry the level you’re on as many times as you like. The levels are generally very short and concise (until the ending, that is) and so you never feel cheated. And if you exit, you can go back to that same level whenever you want to retry, or you can go back to previous levels to try to beat your time or collect bandages.

The game can be excruciatingly difficult, but it never feels unfair or disrespectful. (With the exception of the Warp Zones, which seem like deliberate attempts from the game to make you ragequit.)

The Binding of Isaac, by extreme contrast, does not give a fuck about you or your time. Everything about the game is randomized, from the levels themselves to the powerups you find. And those powerups are severely unbalanced. I still remember the first time I tried to play the game, one of the first items I found was something that permanently reduced my max health to one heart (33% of the normal maximum) which pretty much guaranteed that I would fail. That was the first of many times the game would give me the middle finger.

If you die in TBoI, the game spits in your face and forces you to start at the very beginning again. Checkpoints? Save systems? What are those? Never mind that you had some items you actually liked, because you stepped the wrong way one too many times, so now you have to start at the beginning!

Coupled with the fact that some powerups are far, far worse than others, and that some of them actually hurt you, and you have a game that inordinately wastes your time. When you finally do beat the game it probably won’t be because of your skill or coordination; it’ll be because you found the most overpowered items.

I find the best way to summarize The Binding of Isaac is with two simple words: Fuck You. That sounds like hyperbole, but it really isn’t. I said that to a few of my friends who actually like the game, and they agree with me. This game is mercilessly mean-spirited. It hates you, and it does not want you to feel gratified or entertained.

Maybe you like an unfair challenge. Maybe you want a game to treat you like its bitch. I can’t empathize, but I won’t tell you you’re wrong to enjoy something. But what really bugs me is when I hear people say that this is how all games should be. You know, those people who say that “gamers these days aren’t willing to WORK for their fun!” I will never understand that. I already worked for my fun. I worked fucking minimum wage for the privilege to play this game. All I ask for in return is for the game to provide me with some sort of entertainment value without treating me with disrespect and wasting my time.

Super Meat Boy made me want to punch my monitor at times, but I’d still recommend it to anybody who enjoys platforming. I would only recommend The Binding of Isaac to masochists.


Minecraft 1.8: The Fight Against Nature

Before I start, I just want to direct you to the top of your screen. See that URL? See the .wordpress on the end? There isn’t one, is there? That’s right, because Ninja Game Den has its own URL now! Man, this is crazy. It’s like I’m running an actual website or something.

Ahem. Anyway, my friends and I started up another server on Minecraft in accordance with the 1.8 patch.

This is our village. My house is the generic looking high-rise apartment on the very left.

1.8 added many things, but the most notable addition is hunger. Now when you’re playing in survival mode with the difficulty set higher than Peaceful, you’ll have a hunger bar that slowly decreases. You have to eat food in order to bump it back up.

Note that hunger isn’t the same thing as health; now your health will regenerate by itself, when your hunger bar is high. But if your hunger bar is empty, you’ll start losing health at a rapid pace. And food doesn’t restore health anymore (although I guess it restores your health indirectly since you need to be full in order to gain your health back).

It doesn’t sound like much of an addition, but it completely changes the dynamic of the game.

See, normally in Minecraft you’re completely safe once you get:

  • A torch or two, and
  • A closed-off shelter

Both of these are very easy to get early on, so the game doesn’t really feel like a fight for survival, even though you’re playing on Survival Mode.

Now you have to have a closed-off, well-lit shelter, and a stable source of food. This means you can either go hunting often to get animal meat, or you can grow a farm. Each of those options offers its own challenges. Hunting can put you in danger, since you have to travel long distances and are in danger of getting lost or stranded at night, and farming is a fairly complex process that requires a lot of space and preparation.

On our server, we went with farming.

We let all the wheat grow, and then periodically one of us (most often me) will go through, pick all the wheat, turn the wheat into bread, till the fields, and plant new seeds. It sounds tedious, but it goes by pretty quickly and it feels satisfying. Then we store the bread in the common house and whoever needs food can go grab some.

I love this feature. It really drives home that survival feel; it makes you feel like you’re in an ongoing struggle against nature. It also makes damage from enemies not quite as frustrating, since you don’t have to eat three pork chops just to recover from one skeleton ambush.

It also makes the game last longer for me. The main reason why I’m not as much of a fan of Minecraft as everyone else is because I’m just not really much of a visual artist, which means I don’t really have the desire to build big, extravagant, pretty scenery. As such, once I have adequate housing with adequate tools, I pretty much run out of stuff to do. I did eventually reach that point in this, but it took longer to get there since I had to gather food along the way.

I’ve been having a hard time deciding between my default ninja skin and this Zeratul skin.

Apparently for 1.9 they’re talking about adding procedurally-generated NPCs with procedurally-generated quests. I’m extremely skeptical about that. What kinds of quests could you incorporate into Minecraft? The three that come to mind are “Kill X amount of Y,” “Gather X amount of Y,” or “Travel from X to Y.” None of those sound appealing for a game like this. I have never looked at Minecraft and thought it needed more World of Warcraft.


Serious Sam

Take two things into account:

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that JPH loves himself some Serious Sam.

I’ve already decided that Serious Sam 3 is the next on my list of DO WANT! games. I’ve been playing Serious Sam: The Second Encounter in the meantime, which I never finished beforehand, and I’m absolutely loving it. But if there’s one thing that drives me crazy, it’s Serious Sam fans.

It’s not because they really like the series; after all, I really like it too. It’s not the fact that they’re over-hyping it; every Big Game is over-hyped these days. It’s not even that they use the word Serious every chance they get; I’m fairly guilty of that as well. No, what annoys me is that their reasoning for why it’s great generally doesn’t make sense.

If you want to see what I’m talking about, look at the tagline for Serious Sam 3: “No cover. All man.”

I don’t know how much of this is rooted in nostalgia, but a lot of shooter fans on the ‘net have decided that cover-based shooting is inherently horrible and stupid and an abomination on the games industry. They sneer at Gears of War and Mass Effect, and they complain endlessly about the various directions shooters have collectively taken over the years.

As such, when a company like Croteam dedicates itself to making shooters with old-school running & gunning, they jump all over it like it’s the Software Messiah.

I’ve said in the past that I really like the old-school style of shooting, since it’s fast-paced and it’s all about movement. But I don’t think cover-based shooting is inherently bad. If it were, it wouldn’t be so popular. It’s just different. It can work quite well if it’s done properly and it fits the game’s tone and gameplay. (Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes to mind; I don’t think that game would have felt nearly as realistic and immersive if it was a run & gun.)

Moreover, if you simply praise Serious Sam because it doesn’t have cover-based shooting (or regenerating health, or the two guns rule, or whatever aspect of new shooters you hate) you’re selling it short. You’re not giving it the credit it deserves. Because Serious Sam isn’t awesome because of the features it lacks.

You can love it if you like. In fact, I encourage you to do so. But don’t love it for the features it doesn’t have; love it for what it does have. Love it for its brilliantly balanced and varied weapons, monsters and level design. Love it for its imaginative set pieces. Love it for its wonderful pacing, which always seems to follow every particularly brutal fight with a relaxing wave of beheaded dudes to let you take a deep breath and mellow out. Love it for its amazing optimization, which allows it to look beautiful while still running smoothly on relatively low-end hardware.

But don’t just love it for its lack of cover-based shooting, because that doesn’t make sense.


Sandbox Survival Horror

“I forgot how scary Minecraft was when you aren’t on peaceful. They should reclassify it from sandbox to survival horror.”

This is something a friend of mine said to me yesterday. He meant it as a silly little joke, but it really got me thinking. Have we ever had a sandbox horror game before?

All logic and common sense about game design would state that a sandbox horror game simply wouldn’t work. Horror demands a great deal of careful pacing, and a nonlinear game simply cannot offer that. Even a great deal of linear “horror” games fail to offer that — I’ve said as much regarding FEAR 2 and DOOM 3. I’ve heard similar complaints about the Dead Space series, though I haven’t played much of it so I can’t really say.

Still though, my curiosity has certainly been piqued, and I’d really like to see a sandbox horror game attempted. I can imagine a game where you’re able to explore different areas of a dark, scary gameworld infested by powerful monsters you have to avoid.

Interestingly, the closest I think we’ve come to a sandbox horror game would be Minecraft, which I suppose is fitting, since that’s what brought up the subject. Even though the entire world is procedurally generated, it still can be very spooky when you’re exploring deep caves spiced with monsters. The darkness of the environment sets the atmosphere. You tend to hear the monsters before you can see them, which is very unsettling. And then when the monsters suddenly attack it’s very sudden and frightening, without feeling too much like an unfair jump-out-scare.

It’s like procedurally generated pacing. This usually doesn’t affect me very much though, because I tend to turn on my own music while I’m playing Minecraft. And it’s hard to feel genuinely frightened when you’re listening to Blood Elf Druids.

The 1.8 patch has done much to add to the whole horror vibe, I think. The addition of hunger really adds to the tension, since you know that every moment you spend exploring is costing you more food. Survival elements tend to go hand-in-hand with horror — after all, the genre tends to be formally known as Survival Horror.

And then there’s the newest enemy, the Enderman.

I think the Enderman is brilliantly designed for horror.  It’s neutral to you until you look directly at it, in which it becomes hostile and opens its mouth, staring ominously. Then once you look away, it speeds toward you at a rapid pace, even teleporting if it’s very far away.

To me it feels very reminiscent of the gameplay mechanic in Penumbra and Amnesia, in which looking directly at a monster causes you to panic and give away your position. This essentially forces you to look away from the monster, which is a great way to bring tension. Humans are naturally inclined to look at everything, especially the unknown, so when we’re called upon specifically to look away from something, it’s hard to resist looking right at it. This also means we don’t get a very good look at the monster, which works really well since a monster is generally scarier the less you see of it.

So in short, Minecraft can actually be quite a scary game when played on Survival mode. I don’t think it really stands up as a horror game when compared to the likes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent or (reportedly) Silent Hill 2, but if a horror game is classified as a game that scares you, Minecraft might actually count as Sandbox Survival Horror.


Bastion

When I said Human Revolution will probably be my favorite game of 2011, Nick Lester Bell recommended the game Bastion to me.

So first, let me say thank you, Nick.

How, exactly, does one describe Bastion? That seems like a challenge in and of itself. I suppose “stylized” would be a good word to start off with. Everything about this game is very stylized and unique. Beautiful art style, brilliant soundtrack, top-notch voice acting, gorgeous set pieces.

The soundtrack in particular is something I’d love to talk about, although it’d feel slightly out of place to talk about it here since this is a gaming blog and not a music blog, and Mumbles already talked about it anyway. But still, this soundtrack is probably the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. Terminal March in particular really stood out for me, though I’m sure part of that is because of its vaguely Middle-Eastern influence and my Persian heritage.

But style is not this game’s only forte. Not by a long shot.

One problem I’ve had with several big indie games like Braid and LIMBO is that it seems like their designers were too obsessed with keeping their stories ambiguous and “open to interpretation.” The result is that the respective plots of these games are all but impenetrable. They want to make sure people will discuss them on forums, so they make it virtually impossible to know what’s going on without getting on forums.

Don’t get me wrong — I love both of those games. But both of their approaches to storytelling really bothered me.

Bastion doesn’t have that problem. Its method of storytelling is completely unique, and it also completely works. Throughout the adventure you’re followed by an in-game narration that gradually explains the backstory of the world around you.

I have to admit I was skeptical about this when I first heard about it; after all, isn’t the golden rule of storytelling “Show, don’t tell?” But I’m perfectly happy to have to eat my own words in this case. The narration works perfectly to the game’s favor. It tells you enough without telling you too much. It leaves certain things to the imagination, and it gives you the pieces of the puzzle and leaves it up to you to piece them together.

It also gives you a great deal of flavor text about the lore of the world, and I have to wonder how much more I would have liked that if I was a lore buff. You know lore buffs — they’re the people who read all the codex entries in Mass Effect, all the e-mails in Deus Ex, all the tales of Andraste in Dragon Age. They’re the ones who want to know all about the setting they’re exploring. I’m not one of those people, but I still got a kick out of the story. If you’re a lore buff, you’ll love this game.

Now, I’ve heard people say that the gameplay in Bastion is mediocre and the real strong point is in its story. I have to disagree. Not about the story, mind you — the storytelling was absolutely brilliant. But I also loved the combat.

The fighting in this game really works. It’s very refined, and it demands a level of skill from the player. What I love about it is that it allows and encourages varying play styles. You acquire a great deal of weapons throughout your journey, and every single weapon is unique and offers a different approach to combat. The musket packs a punch, but it’s also very inaccurate and has a fairly long reload. The machete is extremely fast, but you have to be right up against the enemy to land a successful hit. The bow is accurate and pierces enemies, but it takes a long time to pull the bowstring all the way back, and the arrow moves slowly once it’s launched.

I’m an adrenaline junkie; you all know that by now. I love moving about at high speeds and delivering quick hits. I found myself becoming quite fond of the dueling pistols and war machete. Those aren’t the best weapons, but they fit me perfectly. If you play, you’ll probably find a different loadout that suits your style.

So, all in all, Bastion is a fantastic game. It’s unique, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s compelling, and I’m not too big to admit that I found the finale very touching. But with all that said I still liked Human Revolution more. Let me explain why.

Bastion is, at its heart, a game about murdering tons of dudes. Yes, there’s a great deal of backstory underneath it, and the game has interesting characters and powerful storytelling, but what are you, the player, actually doing the whole time? You’re going through levels and killing everything that moves. That’s it. It’s a game about killing tons and tons of monsters.

Deus Ex is a game about killing, sneaking, hacking, persuading, and debating philosophy. Better yet, it rarely forces any of those different aspects upon you — you get to choose yourself which ones you want to do. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that what I value most in games is what I’m doing as a player. I want to feel like I’m a part of the experience. Gameplay first, everything else second. And what I love about the two Deus Ex games I’ve played (actually, I mean the only two Deus Ex games that exist, and anybody who wants to correct me on that should be slapped) is that all the player choice is given during gameplay. It makes the game feel far more intelligent, fleshed out and meaningful to me.

So it remains in my heart as the best game series to ever exist. That doesn’t mean it is, by any objective standards, but it just chimes really well with me.


Chantelise Demo

Hey, remember that game Recettear? It was a Japanese indie game that was evidently received quite well. It was a sort of playful spoof on JRPGs in which you run a shop and sell items that you’d expect to find in a Final Fantasy game. There was some dungeon crawling and combat you could do, but most people considered that to be the boring part.

It wasn’t a masterpiece or a breakthrough in design, but it was a fun little diversion. I only played the demo, but I thought it was pretty good.

Well now the studio behind Recettear has made a new game, Chantelise. At a glance it seems to be cut from the same carpet as Recettear. The title is comprised of the two main characters’ names spliced together. It follows the story of a girl and her fairy companion. It has the same art style, items, general cuteness, etc.

The main difference here is that instead of it being a spoof of RPGs, it’s just, well, an RPG. An action RPG, to be specific, but an RPG nonetheless. They took the combat from Recettear that nobody liked and decided to run with it.

And the result: A resounding, low-pitched, “Urrgh.”

Okay, it’s not completely dreadful. The combat does have some much-needed variety added to it. You can pick up magical gems from the bad guys you kill and use them to shoot spells at other bad guys.

… Actually, that’s about it. Other than that it’s the same old story. You run around and attack monsters, and you run from monsters when they try to attack you because the game lacks a block button. And you get hit a lot because the camera is a piece of shit this time around.

Why is this, exactly? The camera in the Recettear dungeons typically was able to show me all the enemies trying to kill me. This time around, well, I challenge you to not get blindsided by any attackers just in the demo for Chantelise.

The levels are very linear. Often times you’re just walking through narrow corridors stuffed with monsters. The monsters themselves are quite repetitive too.

Expect to fight a lot of these guys.

All in all, it gives me a “Tales of Symphonia but not nearly as good” vibe. But none of those annoyances were enough to kill the game for me. No, that didn’t happen until I died for the first time.

Many people, myself included, have talked about the lives system seen in the games of old and how it’s a completely obsolete feature for games nowadays. The general gist of it is that you have around three lives, and if you die that many times in the level you get kicked out of the level and have to start from scratch. Even if the level has checkpoints throughout it, you have to start at the very beginning if you run out of lives.

Chantelise technically doesn’t have a lives system, but it feels to me like a game that has that system but only gives you one life. Whenever you die you get kicked back the world map. Actually, no, you get kicked back to town. Then you have to leave town to get to the world map, and then enter the area you were just playing in. The area you play through in the demo consists of six levels, plus a boss fight.

See how it lets you start in any level you want? Yeah, that’s just for the time trials. If you actually want to get anywhere in the game you have to play the “Story Mode,” which always starts you off at the very first level. So when you get hit one too many times from some dick you couldn’t see because the camera didn’t have the decency to show you what was going on, that means you get to trudge through every shitty fucking level just to get back to where you were before, and you better make sure not to get hit this time.

I must confess that I didn’t actually complete the demo; I lost against the stupidly overpowered boss fight and decided I had better things to do than play through the entirety of the Terran Ruins again. And of course I haven’t discussed any of the mind-blowing depth of character yet, so there’s that.

But if the demo’s job is to make me want the complete game, then it has completely failed in that regard. Unless the combat completely changes after that first world, I really don’t think there’s much reason to buy this.

And it’s a shame, because this is a sort of game I really want to like — a hack-and-slasher. We don’t see many of those on the PC. I suppose Diablo-style dungeon crawlers technically count as hack & slashers, but they feel very different than the kinds of games I’m referring to (God of War, Ninja Gaiden, etc.) and I’m kind of burned out on Diablo clones by this point.


Humble Indie Bundle #3

Humble Bundle is back!

For those of you who don’t know what that is, the Humble Indie Bundle is a website run by an indie game dev studio called Wolfire Games that collaborates with other indie studios, and this is the fourth bundle they’ve put out for sale.

With this bundle you get five indie games with no DRM (that means no service tied to it, i.e. you can download the games as many times as you want on as many computers as you want) and you can name your own price. No minimum (unless you count $0.01 as a minimum) and no maximum.

Also, you can choose how much of the price goes to the developers, how much goes to the Humble Bundle organizers, and how much of it goes to charities Child’s Play and EFF.

Yeah, these guys are pretty much saints. You should buy the bundle. Right now.

And in case you don’t want to click that link at the top, the games in this particular bundle are Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, VVVVVV, Hammerfight, and And Yet It Moves.


Jamestown

Finally, I can talk about a game that’s still relevant.

When I first saw Jamestown on Steam I wasn’t too intrigued. It’s a bullet hell shooter (read: top-down shooter where you fly around in a spaceship-type-thing and bullets come at you from all directions) and as fun as it may be, it’s not exactly an uncommon genre in the indie crowd. Sure, it may be a very refined example, but I can play Frantic 2, a bullet hell shooter that’s refined as all Hell, for free anytime I want.

But Jamestown surprised me in a number of ways.

I wasn’t expecting the gameplay to bring any new ideas to the table, but it actually did. Here’s how a bullet hell shooter generally works: You glide around on the screen and constantly shoot bullets at the enemies, who are constantly shooting bullets at you. If a game is feeling frisky it’ll give you a special powerup ability you can use every once in awhile to blow up a bunch of enemies, or give you invincibility, something like that.

Jamestown goes the extra mile by giving you three abilities. You have a primary weapon, a special weapon, and a “Vaunt,” which essentially works like the powerup I mentioned earlier. The special weapon is different depending on what ship you use, but it generally makes things a lot more interesting and brings strategy to the field. For the standard ship you can use a special beam cannon, which does much more damage than the regular gun but lowers your movement speed immensely. With another weapon your special button will make all the bullets you’ve fired instantly explode.

By introducing these elements to gameplay it makes the whole experience feel much more varied and strategic. Generally speaking, a game can challenge you in three ways: Skill, strategy, and reflexes. Jamestown manages to test all three, and I really like that about it.

Jamestown has what is possibly one of the most intriguing premises of any shooter I’ve ever seen or played. It takes place in an alternate history where the original Jamestown settlement was built on Mars rather than New England, and you fly around in a spaceship gunning down Martian Spanish conquistadores. I had to laugh when my friend said they ruined the premise by using it for a shooter rather than an RPG. I think the setting fits pretty well with the gameplay.

Here’s one of the “cutscenes.” There’s supposed to be text at the bottom…

As you may have guessed, this game very much has a retro vibe about it. It’s presented in blocky, quasi-16-bit graphics, and the story is as preposterous as ever. Now, I feel I may have given the wrong impression in that one rant I wrote a little while back, because there are aspects of old games that I really do like, and Jamestown picks up on that very well. The visuals in the game are absolutely beautiful, in a Castlevania: Symphony of the Night kind of way.

Oh, so that’s what happened to Roanoke…

Two valid complaints I’ve heard are that the game is rather short (there’s only five missions in the campaign, plus some bonus challenges on the side) and that there’s no online multiplayer. As for the length, this is definitely the kind of game you’re supposed to play over and over in order to beat all the difficulty levels and hone your skills. As for no online multiplayer, fair enough, that does suck. Though there is local multiplayer, so you can have one person using the mouse, one using the keyboard, and two using USB controllers.

All in all, quite a solid game. I enjoyed it a lot, and so might you. At least worth a look if you’re into the whole arcade shooter scene.

BUT! There’s one big complaint for it that I’ve been saving until now, and it goes thus.

One big part of my philosophy on games (god damn, I bet I’m sounding pretentious right now) is that a game should be beatable by anybody, not just the unemployed psychotics who are looking to brag to their friends and the Internet about how awesome they are at games. Old games seemed to go completely against this concept, but eventually games started opening up to more people by scrapping the lives system (Nintendo excluded because they apparently don’t like change), making enemy attacks and death traps less unfair, and most importantly, adding separate difficulty levels. This way the player can choose what difficulty to play on, and everyone ends up having a proper challenge. In theory, anyway.

Here’s the weird thing. Jamestown has five difficulty levels (Normal, Difficult, Legendary, Divine, and Judgement), but once I beat the third level I got a popup saying (paraphrased) “You cannot progress to the next level until you’ve beaten all the previous levels on Difficult or higher.” The fourth level doesn’t have a normal difficulty, only difficult and beyond. And the last level won’t let you play until you’ve beaten all the previous levels on Legendary or higher.

This completely ruins the entire point of having separate difficulties. What’s the point in giving us easier modes if you’re going to flat-out stop us from using them after a few missions? What, did you just really want to make sure that no newbies get to enjoy the ending?

It was never a big problem for me. I’m fairly experienced with bullet hell shooters, so I was able to beat the final level on legendary after a few tries. It still bugs the hell out of me though. It seems like they really missed the point.