Game #36: Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty! (2014)

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-17-43-19creator: Lorne Lanning, et al.
language: English
length: 15 levels
finished playing on: 4 November 2016

This is an updated version of Abe’s Oddysee, but I didn’t even know of its existence until recently. It’s a modernized and revamped version – the levels and story are all taken from the original game, but the graphics and style of the game have changed – it’s now a 2.5D game (3D graphics, 2D gameplay), with a side-scrolling window, instead of walking from one screen to the next as in the original.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Abe is an alien Mudokon, working in a meat factory, but he realizes that the evil corporate Glukkons have decided to cook him and his kind into a new kind of meat popsicle, so he has to save all the other Mudokons. He mostly has to sneak past the Slig guard with their guns, but he can also possess and blow them up in various ways.

Overall it’s not a bad update, especially as it allows me to play through the game again, which I haven’t done since that time five years ago. I’ve been more familiar with the sequel Abe’s Exoddus, in the past, but I’ve only played through Oddysee twice, and the levels still aren’t familiar to me, meaning that I’m going into the game almost blind.

Not quite, though. I know about secret areas and stuff that the game tries to hide from you near the beginning – unlike Exoddus, Oddysee didn’t reveal that you can possess Sligs until more than halfway through the game, for one thing. I imagine for a first-time player this would be a funny surprise, and something that would encourage you to play through the game again. As for the secret areas, I remember having a lot of trouble with these in Oddysee because of the lack of Quick-save feature, introduced in Exoddus and mercifully added into this game. But I still actually missed an embarrassing number of them, even having tried to use a guide to make sure I hadn’t.

The game and levels (this applies to the original too) progress nicely and naturally, compared to Exoddus. There’s a long and convoluted opening area, with multiple secret areas, which requires a lot of backtracking to complete fully – that’s a bit annoying, but it works well. But I also found myself thinking that the original games’ designers couldn’t help kind of repeating the same kind of structure in Exoddus – he gets out of the factory and then goes to two temples in order to gain the mysterious power that will allow him to rip the factory apart, and this is repeated in the sequel.

As for this updated version, the graphics are the main updated thing, but there is also a set of difficulty levels, meaning you can play a more lenient version where Abe isn’t killed in one shot (this was too weird for me, and I set it to Hard). Graphically it’s brighter, but less textured, unless you switch to the higher graphic level, which my contemporary Mac couldn’t handle, which is ridiculous (I mean I know it’s designed for PCs and Playstations actually, but come on). I actually had to quit and restart the game about once an hour if I set the graphics higher, but if I set them too low I sometimes couldn’t make out important details.

Changing to a scrolling platformer works pretty well, although they apparently had to make a few design changes along the way, like having sleeping baddies’ ZZZs come right into the next screen, which wasn’t required before. But there are enough places where it’s obvious where the break in the screens would have been in the original, and that grated a bit. I had similar problems with the updated Avernum and Avernum 2 – you can see where previous hardware or programming limitations had forced a design decision that wasn’t necessary any longer.

I had to use Steam, which also annoyed me because it is bloated and has a draconian password-change process (I haven’t used it in five or six years), and because it keeps trying to advertise at me when I load it up to play a game. A small annoyance overall. Changing from a Playstation controller to keyboard controls was the final slight hurdle for me, but I managed to get used to that eventually. I kept pressing the wrong buttons, though. I could reset the controls how I wanted, but the defaults were fine, just pretty left-handed and sometimes with keys arranged differently than I naturally expected.

It was a good replaying experience, and I’m just hoping they’re going to revamp Abe’s Exoddus soon. It also has original DLC, but I haven’t bought it yet. I hope it’s interesting and takes advantage of the new features better. I have a few more things I’d like to say, but that should do for now. Anyone else played this? Or the original?

Game #35: Monument Valley (2014)

monumentvalleylength: 10 levels, about 90 minutes to complete
finished on: 16 August 2016

Someone was advertising this online as a “calming” game, and I decided to download it on that basis. It’s pretty simple, and fits into a few other themes I’ve seen recently, like the Escheresque geometry that it has in common with Hocus. You control a little character and touch the screen to make her (I think) go somewhere. Sometimes you can turn various objects, and you can make them connect in unexpected ways.

The main problems with the game are its price and length – I think it was ¥600 in Japan, although that’s partly because the Apple store gouges its customers here, and I don’t think the makers have control over the price in this instance. The game only lasts about 90 minutes, which is long enough to create a concise and fulfilling experience, but I feel like it could have been longer, especially given that I’d paid five times the average cost of an app. I still haven’t tried the game’s DLC, which is another ¥240.

But I did enjoy it, and if you can get past the price tag, it is a nice experience. The sound design is really lush and the game makes little tinkly noises when you rotate something. It also looks really good for a retro-ish game, and the puzzles are interesting but not incredibly difficult. So I would recommend it overall.

Game #34: Avernum 2: Crystal Souls (2015)

a2cscreator: Jeff Vogel
language: English
finished on: 2 May 2016

I reviewed the last RPG offering in this series about three years ago, and this is the second in the reboot series of a reboot series – the third version of a game originally released in the early 90s. I still question the motive for rereleasing it at all, but I think the reason comes down to Apple consistently removing backwards compatibility for their systems, meaning that we can certainly no longer play the Exile games from the 90s, but good luck playing the original Avernum series from the early 2000s. I think the best way is now to emulate the Windows versions.

Avernum 2 was always the most successful, if I remember correctly, but I never paid for the full version of the old games, and only completed the demo sections. This new version cuts off the demo at a much earlier point, after the end of Chapter 1 instead of Chapter 3, which means I was kicked into buying it.

I wrote up there that I finished the game in May this year, but this is slightly misleading, because I actually played the bulk of it last January, while I was job hunting, just after it came out. When I started my new job I was playing it at home for the first couple of weeks, but my computer finally decided to give up on me, and crashed while I was playing the game. Superstitiously or subconsciously, I blamed the game and avoided it for over a year, and got back into it only recently for about a week just to finish it off. Annoyingly, I’d already gotten a level 30 party, so none of the battles were challenging anymore, and I’d already completed most dungeons, so I was running around the far corners of the maps trying to find something else I hadn’t done already.

Storywise, this is probably the strongest in the series, although it runs contrary to the modern trend of open-ended responsive RPGs, as there isn’t a lot of choice in the way you play the game. You’ve got your assigned role by the story, which is initially linear in chapters, and opens out in Chapter 4, which is the bulk of the game. I guess this is open-ended, but I don’t think there’s a way to play the game “evilly” – you have to be good, basically. Like I’m pretty sure there’s no way to join the evil empire, which is something that the creator addressed in his later works.

The plot is that The Empire invades their rebellious underground penal colony, but they accidentally disturb some hibernating subterranean aliens, who don’t take kindly to pesky humans and divide everything off. The main goal is to return the aliens’ still-sentient ancestors, whose souls are infused into crystals. Then you’re supposed to stop the war to win the game again – I forgot the third goal, to be honest. Kill the bad guy, probably.

Similar to the previous game, not much has been changed in this game except the game engine itself (especially that you can now click to walk to an area). Unlike the previous game, there isn’t a lot of new content, except a single tutorial dungeon right at the very beginning. The last game had a whole new town to explore, but here no. This meant that I could use 10 year old strategy guides without much being different, but it also suffered the same problem as the last game, which was that dialogue and other stuff hasn’t really been altered much since Exile, and dialogue trees are endless variations of “Tell me about X” (Exile had you type in a keyword, instead of asking set questions).

This gets even more annoying at one specific point – the old game had two separate magic stones, one called a “crystal soul” and one called a “soul crystal” – sensibly, the second one has now been changed to something different, like “spirit prism”, but the dialogue trees still have your characters being confused over the difference, and characters saying things like “don’t confuse a crystal soul and a spirit prism” – if I didn’t know where this line came from, I’d actually be more confused.

It’s not just that, though – there are also a bunch of places where Jeff Vogel in the 90s had worked out how to do something technically difficult, and coming back to those points now is painful, as it’s no longer technically difficult. I just hope when he makes the third one in this series that he is a bit more inventive with it.

Thematically and structurally, it still mirrors the previous game to an extent, and Jeff Vogel’s dungeon design style, especially the way he used to do it in the 90s, is very predictable, so I got into a kind of rhythm with this one. The missions are also often very similar to before.

Gameplay-wise, it’s enjoyable, but addictive and repetitive, so I often found myself playing it into the night. Oops. I did get tired of it, though, especially when it got easier at the end – perhaps if there’s a next time I’ll play it on a harder difficulty (there’s an online community for whom playing with one character on the hardest difficulty is the gold standard – I’m more happy to play with close to the default 4 characters on normal difficulty).

I was glad to finally get to play through the story after probably about 20 years since I first tried the series. As I say, I’ll be looking out for the next installment, but I hope he changes it a bit more than this one.

Game #33: Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm (2013)

kerrigan_customizationDirector: Dustin Browder
Language: English
Length: 27 levels
Finished on: 15 February 2016

This game is the first of two expansion packs to Starcraft II, and it includes the Zerg campaign and storyline, as well as a bunch of new units and tweaks to the previous game, but as I never played the previous game when it first came out, I don’t know it well enough to judge which units are new or not.

Content-wise, this game has the same number of levels in total as the Terran campaign, but in general it was a lot more linear. The Terran campaign tried something new with the system of earning credits and buying upgrades, before choosing a new planet for each mission. This game lets you choose between one or two planets to travel to next, and it’s not totally fixed which order you acquire new units in, but you are funneled through three levels per planet. Then you upgrade your character using limited skill points, and you can choose her abilities on an either-or basis, but you can just swap them around freely between levels (this does give the game some replayability). This was simpler but made me feel like less effort had gone into the system.

The story of this game, spoiler alert, is that the great Kerrigan, “queen of blades” and leader of the Zerg, was made human again by her boyfriend Jim Raynor, at the end of the last campaign. But in this game, she has to escape her prison and regain control of the Zerg. Simple enough, but confusing at the start because I expected her to be more fully human, and in some ways this campaign feels like a retread of some previous themes.

Anyway, she goes around and collects other Zerg characters to be her new swarm, and they revisit the Zerg homeworld – that was a very interesting take on the species that hadn’t been done before, and in the cinematic cutscenes they made them look like dinosaur-pokemon, but in practice they were the same units with different skins – a bit disappointing. They do other stuff over the course of the story, and as in the other campaign, there are some interesting levels, like one that freezes over every five minutes, allowing you to cut down the enemies. I also liked being able to “test” the new upgrades to units by trying them out in a mini-tutorial.

My major beef with this game is that I feel like the makers think they’re very modern by having the main character and a lot of the side characters be female (if monstrous), and yet Kerrigan looks like a modern sci-fi update of Lara Croft. She has massive boobs and curvy thighs, even when she becomes her monstrous Zerg form. Maybe I just don’t see the appeal. She also didn’t have much in the way of character – her main motivation in the story was her boyfriend and the rest of it was her posturing and saying pseudo-profound stuff about the power of the swarm. It got boring.

Oh yeah, and the other thing that annoyed me was all the units that were downright missing from the campaign game. Overlords were completely useless, for example, as at no point did it let me upgrade them to dropships or detectors, so I ended up with a pile of them sitting behind my base on every level. I’m pretty sure some other flying units were just missing too, or at least underutilized. Again they put more effort sometimes into reintroducing units from the old game as a campaign special.

That said, I did still enjoy playing it, and I was looking forward to starting the next campaign. Real life, as I mentioned before, got in the way a bit as I got sick and stopped playing. I just haven’t taken it up again yet.

Game #32: Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010)

sc2wolDirector: Nicholas S. Carpenter
Language: English
Length: 26 levels
Finished on: 7 February 2016

I tried to download this game quite a while ago, maybe two or three years ago, and couldn’t, because of a firewall in my sharehouse. I found out just as I was leaving that the firewall hadn’t been in place anymore for months if not years, perhaps when the wifi had been refitted, and I felt cheated! So I set about downloading it and played it over the first couple of months of this year.

I decided to play the campaigns first before ever trying online play, which scares me a bit (actually I still haven’t tried it seriously, only against a friend in the same room). For some reason, the campaigns for Starcraft II are all in separate expansions to the game, which I didn’t really get. I think they did it on the excuse that they could put more detail in each campaign, which I guess is fair enough, but I think the real reason is money.

I used to play the original Starcraft when I was a kid (I was never good, to be clear), and I was glad to see that there was a clear progression from the units and style of the previous game to this one. Of course they’ve changed a lot of the things that were annoying – like removing the maximum number of units you can select at once. And of course there are many new units.

I found that, confusingly, the units and tech available in the campaign are very different from the ones available in multiplayer, which is a departure from how Blizzard’s other games have operated. In the campaign, the tech you get is researched on the deck of a battleship, using credits that you earn by completing missions and objectives, and it’s automatically available in-game, like you don’t have to do so much levelling-up while playing. Most levels also start you with a basic base so that you can get on with killing baddies. I found this streamlining useful, in the end.

The other big difference is the units – the campaign retains a few units from the original Starcraft that were removed from the multiplayer Starcraft II, like Firebats and Goliaths, for example, and it was a bit of a shock when I tried out the multiplayer against a computer and I didn’t know any of the units. There have been other changes too – like when playing Zerg, the way of making new units is slightly different, and in the multiplayer there’s a confusing mechanism with Queens to make more larvae or something, so the standard strategy from the original game of building two Hatcheries was made moot.

The campaign of the first game is the Terran one, and they put a lot of effort into it. There are a lot of cutscenes and cinematics, and the characters all have something to say when you complete a mission and go back to the battleship to upgrade and chill between levels. There are even a couple of places where you can make choices and it will give you a different level as a result, although you can also play through the alternative one if you so please.

The other thing I was impressed with were the levels themselves – they often have some kind of theme or extra obstacle, such as the levels with rising lava threatening to engulf you if you don’t get off the low ground. There aren’t any that just straight-up pit you against a computer, basically. They also don’t take too long, about half an hour each on average. This kept it interesting, and addictive. When I was playing it I’d often do three or four missions in one evening.

I’m glad I downloaded it, and I was happy overall. It’s not a perfect game by any means, and I found it confusing at times. I played the Zerg campaign too, but I’ll review that separately as it has, um, issues. I also started the Protoss one, but then I got sick and stopped playing for a while. I can’t start again just now because I’ve had a bit of a wrist injury and can’t use a computer mouse too much. But maybe when that’s better someone could challenge me to a game?

Game #31: Hocus (2015)

hocus-1Creator/director: Yunus Ayyildis
Language: none / English
Length: 50 levels plus, probably a maximum of 2 hours
Played on: 16 October 2015

This seems to be a pattern with me: every so often I’ll remember that my phone can play games, get bored, and download one to try late at night. Then I quickly realize that the games are often boring, or they try to foist paid-for upgrades or extra lives on you.

One of my biggest “successes” has actually been Bejeweled, but that’s a highly addictive game and perhaps dangerous for that reason. Another more recent game would lock up if you lost all your lives in the hope that you’d shell out for a lives pack. I quickly deleted it when I realized its sole purpose was to rip me off (Bejeweled, by comparison, encourages you to buy but doesn’t lock the game if you don’t: it’s more subtle at making its money but also more permissive of casual players who won’t spend anything).

But by contrast to those games, this game is a lot simpler, and doesn’t try to make you buy anything – in fact it doesn’t have in-app purchases as far as I can see. It also goes for a minimalist design, which is nice, but the dinky music got to me very quickly.

Each level is a kind of maze on an Escheresque impossible 3D structure. The little cube that you control will be stopped by any crossing bar in the way, and you have a choice of which of the three dimensions to travel in. It’s a cute little idea and it’s well-executed overall.

The downfall of the game is that although many levels are difficult at first glance, and sometimes you can’t see an effective way to get to the exit, I didn’t play a single level that I couldn’t “brute force” – that is, in almost all cases, I could just keep experimenting until I accidentally found the answers. I think this is perhaps a problem with any maze.

So that’s a shame. It’s probably not worth trying, if it comes to that. I’m sure there must be something better for iOS out there.

Game #30: Braid (2008)

braidCreator: Jonathan Blow
Language: English
Length: 6 worlds of varying lengths; 38 levels
Played on: 12 June 2015

It’s far from the first time that I’ve played this game – I played it a few times when I first got it in 2010, but that was before this blog started, so this is the first time I’ve reviewed it. I actually suspect that I’ve played it since then and not recorded it on my diary thing, because it’s quite an easy game to pick up and play within a couple of hours.

Braid’s central mechanic is that the player can rewind time by pressing a button. It’s simple to pick up. At first, it’s mainly just a useful way to not die, but later more mechanics are introduced, like a ring that slows down time, or parts that aren’t affected by the reversal of time, and the game becomes more of a puzzle. Aside from that, the game explicitly resembles and invokes Mario, such as having “goombas” that the main character can jump on to kill, and a series of castles at the end of a level where someone tells you the Princess is in another castle.

It’s a fun game, and actually I think one of the problems is that it’s over too quickly – there is no level editor and I don’t know about any modding, but that’s probably because the artwork and backgrounds are so lush that a fanmade level probably wouldn’t live up to it.

There are some bonus stars that you can find in the game – they’re so well hidden that when I went through to find them on my second or third playthrough a while back, I had to use a guide, at least to give me a hint of what to do. They make the game a thousand times more obnoxious, not just because they’re difficult to find, but because the game practically chastises you for having the audacity and single-mindedness to bother – like the creator considers gamers too nerdy for their own good. This is a bit rich when one star literally requires you to wait two hours standing in the same spot. You can chastise all you want, and you can put in such obnoxious obstacles, but you can’t have both.

Anyway, one more point about the game was that it came early in a wave of indie games that purported to push the boundaries of artistic expression in video games. Arguments abounded on the internet about the true meaning of the game – what the MacGuffin-esque princess stands for and all that. Apparently she probably stands for the atomic bomb or the Manhattan project, but I don’t see it. I’m hesitant to give the game too much credit in this area. And with a mixture of the violin soundtrack and the red hair, I pegged the main character as Irish to start with.

I will probably keep coming back to this game, and having not played it for a few years, it’s fun to rediscover it. But it could do with a sequel or some replayability value beyond the bonus stars and the time trials.

Updated review: Machinarium (2009)

IMG_2303.JPGCreator: Jakub Dvorský of Amanita Design
Language: mostly gibberish with some on-screen instructions in English
Finished on: 23 Sep 2014

I guess I don’t do such reviews as this particularly often, where it’s something I’ve already reviewed on here. I can’t remember what I wrote about Machinarium the last time I played, but then that was about three years ago, so I don’t exactly expect to. I can at least say that it had a lasting impact on me and I liked it enough to want to play it again.

I actually picked this up again because I discovered that you can download it for the iPhone. Thus, I want to make a few comments about the iPhone port just now. Point and click games like this are very suitable for a touch-screen interface, but I think I need to specify that more clearly as something with a bigger screen than an iPhone. Maybe a tablet would be good.

It’s a minor nitpick I suppose, but furthermore, the programming on this app was faulty, as it had a “pinching” function to zoom in and out, but pinching your screen would also make you randomly click on things. In this game, it never really makes a difference, because you can’t accidentally kill yourself or make the game impossible to win, but it was annoying.

As for the game structure, it is awfully linear; even when your robot comes into an open area where it looks like you can make a variety of choices, there is basically only one route open. Then he throws away any item he no longer requires, which I found boring because it means that he can’t collect up that many items just on the offchance that they would be used later in the game.

One more minor complaint is that it’s probably impossible to ever come back to this game fresh, that is, without knowing what is coming next. The linearity and non-randomness of the game means that there is no staying power to it. I can’t play the game again and have the same reaction as I did the first time. It’s still enjoyable, though. Also, all that said, I had still forgotten the solutions to several of the puzzles.

The mini games also suffer from a related problem, which is that they’re too short. Some would make interesting games in their own right. As it is, it’s eclectic and a little frantic.

I should stop criticising the game so much, though. It’s making me look like I hated the game, which couldn’t be further than the truth. I always think it can only be a compliment if the main criticism one has of something is to say it didn’t last long enough. The game is very engrossing and addictive, I really like the illustration and the characters, and I think it deserves to be played by more people.

Game #29: Tapes (2014)

IMG_2168.JPGDeveloper: Sato Yohei
Length: 72 levels
Language: English
Played on: Sep 9, 2014

I think I got bored recently when I was in bed one night and checked out the app store for something to play to try and relax, perhaps.

This was one little free puzzle game that caught my eye, and I had a go at it. It was fun enough to keep me going, but it’s very much a one-trick game. The idea is that you drag each tape or ribbon across the screen until all the squares are full and all the numbers are down to zero. They can cross over each other in certain ways, so you have to make use of that to win many of the levels.

I should probably just say right away that I finished the whole thing in probably under an hour; not very long, anyway. Most of the puzzles were really easy for me to get, especially when I started noticing patterns in the level design, like places where one of the tapes had to finish, and it was then usually obvious from the number which one.

And while it was initially enjoyable, I found it became tedious quite quickly, because the levels are very monotonous. It also appears to be part of a trend: I’ve also tried at least one other game with a very similar gimmick.

So, it was fine, but it’s not the next big thing.

Game #28: Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (2007)

lego-star-wars-the-complete-saga-10096director: Jon Burton
language: English, though not really spoken
length: 36 levels, took me in the region of 16 hours
story mode finished on: 21 Mar 2014

I downloaded this when I was on a renewed app-downloading spree after getting a new phone, which has a lot more space to play around with than the previous one, so randomly buying 800 MB apps has become a possibility. It lets you play the first episode (six levels) for free, before asking you to pay $10 for the privilege of playing the other five episodes. I’d already played the original trilogy levels a few years back, first in 2007 when my housemate bought the game, and later in 2010 when I wanted to replay it myself. The game is getting old now.

The iOS version is pretty much a straight port of the console version, although it misses one of the most crucial elements of why Lego Star Wars was successful and popular in the first place, which is the co-op two player mode. You can’t even connect two phones over wifi in order to play co-op, so they’ve just taken it out entirely. The game is still fun to play single-player, but there are a lot of design choices that make absolutely no sense without the implicit assumption that they were made to accommodate two players. There’s even a whole “arcade” mode which hinges on the idea that you have two players competing.

The controls can be a bit frustrating. There are two ways to play it: touch controls and a virtual D-pad. I went for the D-pad, because the touch controls were inaccurate and led me to accidentally kill civilians by touching them. The initial problem with the D-pad is that it appears wherever you first touch the screen, and you have to physically move your finger in the direction you want it to go, if that makes sense. If you release your finger and press down again you won’t keep going in the same direction, you’ll have to move the finger again. It took me a long time to work out that there’s an option to “lock” it in one position, which is much better for muscle memory. With the D-pad there is also a set of right-thumb controls in the same layout as the Playstation or X-box, with little icons for their function instead of symbols like Triangle and X.

Anyway, the game is fun – fun enough that I wanted to replay it even after several years. The prequel trilogy levels aren’t as good as the original trilogy levels – they’re partly hampered by a worse story, to be fair, but because they were actually made first, the game makers had a lot to learn. The original trilogy levels tend to be longer and make use of different mechanics: for instance, there’s not as much jedi force manipulation and there’s a lot more brick-building. The prequel trilogy has high-jumping sections which don’t occur in the original trilogy. A bit of digging tells me that the level list for “The Complete Saga” has a few differences from the original games, and that Lego Star Wars I, the prequel trilogy, had something called fruit blocks. It also had a practically impossible level in the podcast race, which is only level 4 or so – its time limit is absurdly low and it’s very unforgiving. It’s replicated in this game as a bonus. The new version is very easy to pass.

Lego has been very successful about expanding their brand to video games, and I’ve heard good things about the new movie (although I’ve yet to see it), so maybe that should be my next step. I should note that while this game is good, the iOS version of Lego Harry Potter didn’t live up to my expectations, as it seems to have been greatly simplified for the platform. I guess my main criticism of Lego Star Wars is that it can get basically too cutesy and a little insufferable at times. The music is also repetitive (although it mostly fades into the background, to be fair), and the 100% completion drive is a little irritating, as it means that to complete the game fully (which I haven’t done yet, technically) you have to play every level three times: first on story mode to unlock everything, then on free play mode to get the hidden minikits, and then on challenge mode, which is a time trial. Then there are enough bonus levels and so on to keep you going for months. I don’t think I have the energy.