Thursday, December 31, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Undertale

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Freedom Fall, with which I noted similarities to Portal for its simple but deep gameplay, and its simple but deep storytelling. Let's go for two.

  • Publisher/Developer: tobyfox 
  • Lead Designer: Toby Fox 
  • Release: PC, 15 September 2015 
  • Genre: Role-Playing 
  • Players: 1 
Violence in video games is one of those things we take for granted. For most genres, there are conflicts between characters in the stories, and obstacles the player must overcome themselves. And I'm not some stop-having-fun-guy who doesn't want anybody exposed to such fictional harmful acts. Otherwise, I wouldn't have reviewed so many games over the years. But every so often, you stop and think about this sort of thing. We don't treat our real-world problems by blasting away at them or whatever -- at least I hope we don't -- so is there some way this could work in a game? To answer that question, developer and composer Toby Fox has blessed us with Undertale. Undertale bills itself as "The Friendly RPG Where Nobody Has To Die". Let's see how that turned out.

You play as a gender-neutral child who one day fell down a hole and into a world of monsters. There are all kinds of monsters to be found here: some will just want to talk to you, or even help you, but most would rather fight you instead. It is within these random encounters that we see our "combat" system, which is unique among turn-based RPGs. You attack by pressing a button in time with a meter, and you avoid damage by taking control of a heart icon and dodging white objects, as in a bullet-hell shoot-em-up game. Just as there are many varieties of creatures you'll face off against, there are even more types of projectiles you'll have to steer yourself clear of.
You must dodge random objects to defend yourself.
Already this "combat" system should interest you more than the average RPG. But I said "combat" in quotes because you are never forced to fight your enemies. Instead, you can use various other commands to interact with your enemies in other ways. Each enemy has their own pattern of actions to be employed against them, when triggered, lets you spare them instead. Sparing your enemies rewards you with money but not experience points, and as such you won't be able to level up and increase your health if you do so. As such, killing your foes and not killing them provide two different experiences of the same story.

If you want this game to surprise you as much as possible, please disregard the rest of this paragraph. There are also separate endings based on whether you've killed all, some, or none of the monsters you encounter. I'm not too keen on this in theory, since it boils down to a binary moral choice system. I would And I must warn you, that attempting a "genocide" play-through may leave you with some unsettling moments. For example, early on in the game, a goat-mother thing named Toriel takes you in, gives you a room of your own, and even leaves a slice of pie out for you. It's a warm and fuzzy feeling, I tell you what. But then when you try to leave, she becomes a boss fight, and killing her just because I was attempting the "genocide" run made me feel like an awful person. Besides, if you only stick to fighting, you won't get the full taste of the "battle" system, so at least Undertale manages to persuade you to stick to the virtuous path by gameplay mechanics alone.
The game has a quirky sense of humour.
Fortunately, Undertale isn't completely downbeat in tone, as there is plenty of comedy to be had. Much of it relies on misdirection, on setting up a scenario one way and then surprising you with an unexpected outcome. For example, there are plenty of puzzles to keep you occupied in-between battles and text boxes, but the game has a bad habit of setting up some of the more intricate puzzles, only to change its mind and either solve them for you or make them ridiculously easy. Anticlimactic, yes, but I suppose it's part of the humour. I'm reminded of the Earthbound (or Mother, if you are so inclined) games because of their shared quirky nature.

This connection also extends to the graphical style of Undertale, which has a simplistic approach to it, hovering somewhere in the realm of 8-bit. As I've said time and time again, I can live with simplistic artwork, as too much detail to the visuals would distract game designers from other, more important things they could be working on. I wish the soundtrack would make up its mind as to whether it wants to be completely chiptune-based or not, although the songs themselves are properly ambient and/or melodic at the appropriate moments. Also, Undertale isn't terribly long, as I finished my first play-through in two to three hours. But it didn't feel that short, as it gave me enough distinct settings to feel like a grand journey. Besides, as much as I like JRPGs on an aesthetic level, I can't seem to get into them anymore for how tortuously padded and drawn-out they can get. So in the end, I would describe Undertale as the RPGs for people who hate RPGs, but really I'd recommend it to everyone just to show the potential of what video games can be and do.

+ Innovative "battle" system.
+ Many funny and bitersweet moments.
+ Not long, but just the right length for an RPG.

- The fight/act "battle" system is a binary moral-choice structure in disguise.
- The art and music styles are a bit inconsistent.

Control: 5 out of 5
Design: 5 out of 5
Writing: 5 out of 5
Graphics: 4 out of 5
Sound: 4 out of 5
Value: 4 out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

So, it appears we've reached the end of Indie-Cember 2. Sorry I didn't manage to get out all the reviews I wanted. Apparently the holidays make me less productive than I anticipated beforehand. No seriously, most of my SDP-related productivity was working to update my old James Bond reviews for YouTube. But as for the stuff I didn't get to during Indie-Cember 2, I was thinking, why should I confine them to just one month out of the year? I have my desires and fears for the game industry, so why not bring these smaller titles to your attention throughout the rest of the year? After all, as I like to say, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. In other words,

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Freedom Planet

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Freedom Fall, a 2D platform with an innovative form of storytelling and the word "freedom" in the title. Let's go for two.

Freedom Planet
  • Publisher/Developer: Galaxy Trail 
  • Lead Designer: Stephen "Strife" DiDuro 
  • Release: 
    • PC, 21 July 2014 
    • Wii U, 1 October 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action 
  • Players: 1
But before I get to Freedom Planet, let's talk about fan-games. A lot of the great series of old have had people make their own installments of them. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog are some of the big names with even bigger fan-game libraries. Even I used to dabble in the stuff back in the day, although nothing I've worked on survives to this day. If you need examples of fan-games, some of the big-name ones are Street Fighter X Mega Man, and Super Mario Bros. Crossover, so apparently the more intellectual properties you can roll into your project, the the better it becomes. The reason I diverted your attention with this intro is because our current subject, Freedom Planet, started life as a Sonic fan-game, but replaced the "licence" with original characters and setting, and evolved from there, and was all the better for it.

Freedom Planet offers three characters to play as: Lilac, a purple water dragon, Carol, a green wildcat, and (unlocked after the second level) Milla, a white basset hound. It turns out that these characters started life as drawings by Ziyo Ling, a Chinese deviantART user, who gave permission for the team at Galaxy Trail to user her "fursonae". Each of them have their own slightly unique styles of play. Lilac and Carol have a faster flow to their experiences, although never quite as fast as the real Sonic, since instead of just jumping into enemies to clear them, you have to use dedicated attacks instead. Milla is the odd dog out, since her system of defence revolves around generating green globby blocks to serve as shields and attacks. Other than that, Freedom Planet plays just like any other 2D Sonic: you run around rampy, loopy paths, jump off platforms and springs, pick up rings crystal shards for extra lives, and break TV monitors larger crystals for various flavours of shields. I should note that even though the game purports to have a lives system, if you do run out and continue, you just return to the last checkpoint with your progress otherwise intact, so they needn't have bothered.
Instead of jumping into enemies, you must use one of several attacks to clear them.
Freedom Planet also hearkens back to the 16-bit era by not having any story to speak of -- if you so choose. See, when you start up a game, you get to choose between "Classic" and "Adventure" mode, the only difference being that Adventure Mode inserts additional cutscenes in between each level, all of which are done in the same art engine as the rest of the game. And let me tell you -- unless you absolutely want to know what is going on, stick to Classic Mode, for the following reasons. 1) These cutscenes are way too long for this type of game; some can reach five minutes in length. 2) The writing is hokey as all get-out, often falling back on snarky joking for the heroes and dastardly boasting for the villains. 3) The voice acting is hit-or-miss. Some actors seem to have had more fun with their performances than others. Still other characters' sound quality is all muffled and lo-fi; I'm singling out Torque in that aspect. And 4) This could have all been done without the traditional notions of cutscenes.

To help explain myself, take a look at what passed for cutscenes in, say, Sonic the Hedgehog 3. That game had zero voice acting, and not even any text boxes at all, but got its story across purely through the characters' actions. It was clear how Knuckles was stealing your Chaos Emeralds, or dropping you down a trap door, and you didn't need any quips from Sonic or Tails to punctuate those moments. Freedom Planet does this as well, even in Classic Mode, and if you ask me, this is the best storytelling method this game has to offer. Why couldn't they have just stuck to that? So yeah, the story's there if you want to check it out, but you don't have to -- and that's the important part.
The game world has a heavy Chinese influence, almost like a modern-day Legend of Korra.
But voices aside, Freedom Planet is a joy to look at and listen to. The environments are colourful, just shy of Knuckles Chaotix's epileptic palette, and bear a clear Chinese influence. There are levels ranging from bamboo groves and crystal caves to a giant shopping mall and a fleet of airships. It's like if the world from The Legend of Korra existed in the present day and got taken over by furries. Graphical performance is also top-notch for what it tries to do; sprites speed about the place and rotate smoothly when running over hills and through loops. The controls are alright, although there's a little too much forward momentum when trying to make precision jumps or spring-bounces, and some of the attacks feel unnecessary. The soundtrack, composed by Leila "Woofle" Wilson, is also a knockout. The melodies are emotive and, given time, catchy, and the sounds selected to portray those melodies match the setting of the level they're presented in. Of course, the graphics and music have always been the most consistently good things about Sonic the Hedgehog, even after the "golden age", so it's nice that Freedom Planet takes that approach to heart, if nothing else (not that it doesn't do anything else).

Freedom Planet does for Sega Genesis games (read: Sonic the Hedgehog) what Shovel Knight did for the NES (read: Mega Man). (I probably should have reviewed Shovel Knight first, but oh well. It's great. Take my word for it.) It picks up where Sonic Team left off from, after they discovered 3D and everything went to pot. But most importantly, it doesn't steal all of Sonic's trappings, but instead creates a new world with both new and familiar mechanics. Moving to a new IP was a wise move on Galaxy Trail's part indeed. But even if it were a new Sonic game, it would still be a thumpin' good one. Just be sure to stick to skip all those cutscenes, okay?

+ Tight, fast-paced gameplay.
+ Multiple characters with distinct play styles.
+ Gorgeous artwork and music.

- The voice-acting quality is inconsistent, but mostly poor.
- The story bits are too long -- good thing you can skip them!

Controls: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Design: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Writing: 3 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Graphics: 5 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Sound: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Value: 3 skipped cutscenes out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

[1] GalaxyTrail (August 12, 2012). "The Evolution of Freedom Planet". ModDB.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Freedom Fall

Freedom Fall
  • Publisher/Developer: Stirfire Studios 
  • Lead Designer: Lisa Rye 
  • Release: PC, 10 January 2014 
  • Genre: 2D Action 
  • Players: 1 
  • Cost: US$10

Previously on Indie-Cember 2, I reviewed Go! Go! Nippon!, an example of the visual novel, a genre of gaming that revolves entirely around reading text. And that's not a diss to the genre, since any type of game can be great at what it does. For example, a game revolving entirely around reading text can be great for having a good story and/or writing. But man, wouldn't it be neat if a game could have a good story and/or writing without sacrificing gameplay in the traditional sense? There may be multiple ways of accomplishing this feat, and I am about to review one of them: Freedom Fall.

In Freedom Fall, you play as Marsh, a thief who has been arrested, tried in front of the local king, and locked away in a cell atop a tower that is so tall it makes the Burj Khalifa look like a puny molehill. But wouldn't you know it, somebody left a neat little hole in the floor for our hero to escape through! So the game is all about you falling to freedom, hence the title, but it's not the fall that kills you, as they say. As you make your way down the labyrinthine tower, you'll have to dodge many different forms of traps including spikes, spikes on walls, spikes on balls, cauldrons of fire, dragon statues that blow jets of fire, other dragon statues that shoot fireballs, electric fields, acid pools, and so much more. And yet there is absolutely no falling damage in this game, go figs. I'm not complaining or anything, but doesn't this mean that he could just find an open window and bypass the rest of the tower, along with all the traps therein? And why does everyone go around barefoot? Wouldn't that hurt Marsh when he's sliding down walls all the time? (For the record, this last question has been addressed by the creator herself: "The prisoners have their shoes taken away to make it harder for them to escape, and the princess isn't one for giving herself a handicap. =)" [1])
All of the game's exposition is delivered by writings on the wall.
Don't fret about all the hazards you'll be facing, as you have infinite lives and a series of checkpoints which are fairly common. Success in this game more or less relies on memorising a sequence of maneouvers, so it's nice that they're broken up just enough so as not to become overwhelming. To help yourself out, you can collect and throw bombs to break away most of the traps you come across, and you can collect nuts, bolts, and gears (the game's form of "coins") to build equipment with. There are only three things you can build, and whilst two of them are functionally identical (the parachute and hoverboard, both of which let you fall more slowly), the set of wings offers a double-jump, and in doing so does the most to change up the feel of gameplay.

Throughout the game, you'll read messages on the walls written by the princess, a bratty half-pint named Empheria. Some of these serve as tutorials, introducing controls and new mechanics in a way that doesn't metaphorically hold your head underwater, which is great if you're replaying levels for whatever reason. At points where the path splits into two temporary branches, she is also nice enough to have marked which way is the easier option and which is harder. But mostly these markings are just the musings of our princess, which are entertaining in their own right. She apparently takes a sadistic form of glee in letting prisoners get impaled on various pointy bits and what-not. But as you move on through the game, her painted comments get more personal, detailing the issues of being a princess and the troubled relationship with her mum, as well as unraveling the mystery of why you were arrested in the first place. What's amazing is that it builds and develops her character without breaking the flow of gameplay, which is especially notable as nobody in the game ever speaks, and you don't even see the princess that often, apart from impromptu races with her at the end of certain levels. (Although granted, if you're not English-literate, you're stuck out of luck, but then again the same could be said of this very blog too.)
The way down diverges into easy and hard paths at many points.
I don't know about you, but I first discovered Freedom Fall through its lead artist Lisa Rye, an Australian sheila known on deviantART as risachantag. I wouldn't put it past you if the game's art style sold you on the darn thing. Many art assets in this game have a hand-painted look, including the characters themselves, whose anime-styled faces manage to be expressive but still fit into the rest of the game's aesthetic. As for the animation, it isn't bad, per se, it's more... economical. There are few organic characters or objects that require distinct frames of animation, and so most other things (i.e. traps) get by with moving and/or rotating still art assets to simulate motion. And as for actual animation, some of the characters' animation cycles aren't as smoothly animated as others. It's not a deal-breaker; after all, Japanese anime also tends to place the emphasis on the still image as opposed to the motion, and I love it for it.

If I had to criticise this game (and I do, or otherwise I'd be a very short-sighted critic), I would make two observations. One, your character seems to stick to walls a little too easily. In a game demanding such precise movements, trying to jump off of walls can become a liability. And my second complaint is that the game is a little short. A single run-through should only take you an hour or two; my current record is around forty-five minutes. (And I did that without buying any equipment, too!) There is some actual replay value, however, as you can try to break time, score, and death count targets for each level as part of the game's Achievements. Each level also has their own online leaderboard, but that's just a load of bollocks because you know someone, somewhere, has found a way to exploit the game's mechanics to produce a score that no one could ever duplicate by all the conventional practice in the world. Face it, all online rankings are like that.

But you know what other game was short but had really interesting and non-invasive storytelling? Portal. Yeah, I said it. Any game that can swim even close to Portal's wake is deserving of high honours. In terms of what it does to the concept of 2D platforming, Freedom Fall may not have any mechanics as original or innovative as the portal gun, but like Portal, it does introduce new elements at just the right pace to get you properly acclimated to them, and of course the writing's at least as sharp or witty than anything involving cake or companion cubes (okay, bad examples). It may be a little insubstantial, but it seems most indie games are depending on your expectations. Pick it up when it goes on sale (or don't wait, what do I care?), and you'll be glad you did.

+ A brilliant, effective, perhaps innovative, method of storytelling.
+ A sensible amount of challenge.
+ A gorgeous art style.

- It's a little short.
- A few shortcuts were taken in the animation.

Controls: 4 spikes out of 5
Design: 4 spikes out of 5
Writing: 5 spikes out of 5
Graphics: 5 spikes out of 5
Value: 2 spikes out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] Rye, Lisa (23 January 2014). "Comment on Freedom Fall: The Princess character sheet by Risachantag". deviantART.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Never Alone

Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa)
  • Publisher: E-Line Media 
  • Developer: Upper One Games 
  • Release: 
    • PC / PlayStation 4 / XBox One, 18 November 2014 
    • Wii U, 25 June 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action/Puzzle 
  • Players: 1-2 Co-op 
  • Cost: US$15

Previously on Indie-Cember, I reviewed Go! Go! Nippon!, a dating-sim visual novel which would totally have been a generic addition to its genre were it not for the context of exploring a foreign culture. And because I have suddenly decided to arrange my reviews this month in some sort of narrative flow, I shall take on Never Alone, which does the same thing in the context of a platform-puzzler. ...Well, shoot, that seems to have given away my opinion on the game right off the bat, but stick around and I'll try to explain myself.

Never Alone takes place in the world of the Iñupiat, an Inuit society living in northern Alaska. The heroine of this story is a young Iñupiat lady named Nuna, who goes out hunting one day and gets chased by a polar bear, only to be saved by a white arctic fox, with whom she goes out on adventures of some sort. As you play through their adventures of some sort, you switch control between Nuna and Fox on the fly, as you utilize their differring abilities to solve platforming puzzles and move forward. Nuna can push blocks and, once acquired, throw her bola to hit distant targets, whereas Fox can climb certain walls and call on spirits to serve as platforms. The puzzles are no more complex than in, say, the Lego Star Wars games. A co-operative mode is also available if you have a friend handy.
Some passages require the abilities of both characters,
such as Fox making rope spirits appear for Nuna to swing on.
I'm not sure the controls are firing on all cylinders, however. Whichever character happens to be controlled by the computer can be a little sluggish in following your character's movements. It's almost as if the game was trying to coerce you into playing co-op, eh? Another specific gripe I have is how you throw Nuna's bola by holding the right control stick opposite the direction you want to aim in, and flick it across to throw. I found this a very imprecise mechanic at all but the shortest ranges. Honestly, it's at least as bad as the aiming controls in Yoshi's Island, admit it. And sometimes, you have to do so while you're being chased by someone or something, and given that you'll only have one or two spare attempts to hit your target, the aiming becomes a severe liability at all but the shortest ranges. At least you have infinite lives, checkpoints are frequent, and the overall pace of gameplay is quite leisurely, so it never feels too stressful. Also, as I was playing the PC version, I got stuck with a bug where I ended up controlling both characters at once, rendering the game impassable early on. This bug has been acknowledged by the developers, who have posted a solution here. I don't know if this is true for everyone, but considering the persnickety nature of PC gaming, I feel I should bring this to your attention.

Never Alone is based on lands in the real-world Arctic, so naturally the setting is going to deal with a lot of ice and snow. But, as we learned from Frozen, it is easy to make that sort of thing look pretty. And despite it all, some of the chapters nonetheless manage to stand out in terms of the sites and sights they present. For example, one takes place inside a giant ice whale, and another takes place on a cliffside village during an aurora borealis. Granted, part of the notability of these levels comes from the mechanics they introduce. The ice whale part introduces swimming (in which Nuna and Fox can never drown, as commented on by the narrator... I'm serious), whereas the other level I mentioned features aurora monsters which follow looping paths and must be avoided, lest Nuna and/or Fox suffer death by snatching. So it looks like I've solved the mystery of why each of these levels were memorable despite all of them taking place in the same biome. The soundtrack is ambient and, together with the setting and the relaxed pace of gameplay, does a great job of building the feeling that you are... well, not alone, because that would make a lie out of the title.
The game's setting is pretty much all ice and snow,
but some chapters mix things up visually.
The story is narrated at certain points by a storyteller in the Iñupiaq language (subtitled in English, of course), sometimes without breaking the flow of play. There are cutscenes, of course, but most of them are presented in a quasi-animated, leather scrimshaw style, as if to mimic styles of art that are popular up there. But those aren't the only cultural ties that Never Alone boasts. Throughout the game, you can find owls which will unlock video clips, called Insights, to play at your leisure. These Insights are mini-documentaries, only a couple of minutes each, about some Iñupiat cultural feature. These range from their unique beliefs to facets of their everyday lives, and all of them have to do with something that happens in the game. Indeed, members of the Iñupiat community helped write this game, and as such it really feels like those people are sharing themselves with the gaming world. It is for that reason that for all its insubstantiality, I can't stay mad at the game.

At first I was going to liken Never Alone to DLC Quest, in that it's an ordinary 2D platformer buoyed only by its context. But upon further reflection, I think Papo y Yo would be a more fitting comparison. It's simple, relying on just a few mechanics for most of its puzzles, and it's heavily steeped in a foreign culture and presented with great imagination. Either way, it's amazing the difference a little context makes. Without any of the trimmings of its setting, Never Alone would just be another puzzle-platformer with no replay value and not even a lot of first-play value. Also, US$15 is a bit much for an indie game, especially one this short. But if you could take just a couple of hours out of your time to breeze through this game and watch all the Insights, you might just walk away feeling enriched.

+ Puzzle platforming with a patient pace.
+ Unique and distinct level designs, even within the confines of an ice/snow theme.
+ Wonderfully ambient and emotive.
+ The cultural insight videos enrich the story.

- Clumsy controls, especially with computer-controlled characters.
- Only about two hours long, with almost no replay value.

Controls: 2 bolas out of 5
Design: 3 bolas out of 5
Writing: 5 bolas out of 5
Graphics: 4 bolas out of 5
Value: 2 bolas out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Go! Go! Nippon!

Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~
  • Publisher: MangaGamer 
  • Developer: Overdrive 
  • Release: PC, 30 September 2011 
  • Genre: Visual Novel 
  • Players: 1 
  • Price: US$10
After reviewing two Roguelikes back-to-back, even if they are really good Roguelikes, I feel like I need a break. Or, perhaps a vacation. And me being the egregious otaku I am, if I could go anywhere in the world on holiday, it would be Japan. What can I say, it is relevant to my interests. Well, realistically speaking, that would require so much preparation that Indie-Cember would be long over by the time I'd get going. So in the meantime, I've come up with a solution to address both my wishes. I'm going to review Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, a visual novel about taking a vacation in said country.

Now, this review will be tricky as I'm nowhere near being an expert on the genre. I haven't even played any visual novels before this, unless you count the Ace Attorney series, which I don't because A) there's more to the gameplay than just scrolling through text boxes, and B) the underage girls in those games never whip their jugs out (thank God). But in terms of how we in the West associate with that genre, namely the "dating sim" type of visual novel, then Go! Go! Nippon! was what took away my metaphorical virginity.

In Go! Go! Nippon!, you, the player character, are off on a week's holiday in Tokyo, Japan, escorted by two sisters named Makoto and Akira. Makoto is the gentle, voluptuous older sister, and Akira is the tempermental, flat-chested younger sister. They stick rigidly close to the "yamato nadeshiko" and "tsundere" character types respectively. Although, if you stick around you might get to learn some secrets about them which, without wishing to spoil, bring in the feels like a... Well, I was going to say "tsunami" but that would've been tasteless. I'll get back to you on that comparison.
Makoto (left) and Akira (right) stick close to their character archetypes... at first. (ver. 2015 shown.)
So if Go! Go! Nippon! can't innovate on its characters, what does it do to stand out amongst so many dating sims? Context, context, context. As I stated before, this game is about exploring various real-world sites around Tokyo and abroad, with Makoto and/or Akira as your tour guides (they even made little uniforms for themselves, how cute). How it works is for each of the first three days, you get to pick from six (eleven in the 2015 version, more on that later) destinations to visit for that day. Your guide(s) will describe the various sites and sights of Tokyo districts like Ginza, Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku, et cetera. They take you to different landmarks and restaurants, and spout tidbits of trivia about them all along the way. As somebody who has already been around Japan more than once, I may not have learned all that much from this game alone, but you probably will.

Apart from choosing your destination for each day, there's nothing much in the way of answering multiple-choice questions or anything like that, which would give you a chance to project your personality for the virtual characters. If I may be permitted to use my imagination for a bit, I would have put in a handful of multiple-choice questions, where the answer you choose would elicit a different reaction from whom you were speaking to, but not immediately trigger a different scenario to play. But each response would build up an invisible counter, or set of counters, resulting in a nuanced picture of your personality that the characters can respond differently to. Again, I don't know if this a standard trend in this genre, so I don't know how valid it is for me to be complaining about its absence.

Then, after three days of free-wheeling fun, the plot gets a bit railroad-y as the girls take you on an overnight excursion to Kyoto. The same tourism approach is still in place for this chapter, and it's fun to see both Makoto and Akira play off each other, but my problem is that the Kyoto part is always the same for every game you start. There are many other places in Japan they could've done in Kyoto's place, so why couldn't they have done that like they did with the Tokyo chapter? After that, you get one of two endings based on which sister you ended up taking with you during the first three days. At the very least, these endings reveal hidden depths of the girls, and with them bringing down the feels like a... ton of bricks, that's what I wanted to say before! Yeah, that'll work.
This game depicts numerous real-world locations around Japan. (ver. 2015 shown.)
Visual-novels are some of the most bare-bones games in terms of graphical presentation, but Go! Go! Nippon! is even more deficient in this arena (I assume). It has a nasty habit of breaking the "show, don't tell" rule of storytelling, as sometimes the characters will talk about something specific in the area that isn't shown in the background art. And some places don't even have background art, but just cut to a picture of the sky! The character portraits don't move at all either (unless you're running the 2015 version) There are little touches I do like, such as the fast-forward button and the two language tracks displayed at once. Having both English and Japanese text together means that you could even learn bits of the language if you'd care to study it, isn't that cool? (The 2015 version adds more language options, namely Chinese and romanized Japanese as of this article.) The translation is fine, apart from a few instances of "om nom nom", because... funny?

Before I end this review, I wish to inform you that there was recently a major update made to this game. So I shall. *ahem* There was recently a major update made to this game. Called Go! Go! Nippon! ver. 2015, this downloadable upgrade adds five Tokyo excursions to the 6 from the base game, effectively doubling the content. They also added widescreen display support, as well as "animations" which "morph" the character portraits to simulate the characters' chests rising and falling with their breath, or their hair waving in the wind. Now, this is paid DLC, and I said before, it's pretty sad when you have to pay extra for a decent experience. But I'm not mad, because both the base game and the expansion are cheap enough (you can get a bundle of both for US$15). It's not like some $60 multiplayer-only FPS with only, like, four maps and a $50 season pass on top of that! Because that would just be stupid! ...Right?

So, has Go! Go! Nippon! sold me on the visual novel genre? Eh, not really. In terms of its characters, it doesn't evolve much beyond the standard archetypes, but that's not to say I didn't develop some sort of emotional connection to a degree. The real reason to try this game, if any, is for its Japanese tourism trivia, so if you're planning to go there yourself or it's just an interest, it won't hurt to check it out. It would have been stronger, though, if I had more say in how my player-character acted with them. I do see a lot of potential in this genre, however, that wasn't realised by Go! Go! Nippon!. If you readers know of any better ones out there, I'd be willing to check them out.

+ Lots of interesting facts to learn about Japan.
+ A satisfactory Japanese-to-English translation.
+ Give it time, and you can form a real attachment to these virtual girls.

- Breaks the "show, don't tell" rule on numerous occasions.
- Not much in the way of player choice.
- Too little content (unless you buy the 2015 upgrade).

Design: 3 tours out of 5 (Base game) / 4 tours out of 5 (ver. 2015)
Writing: 4 tours out of 5
Graphics: 2 tours out of 5 (Base game) / 4 tours out of 5 (ver. 2015)
Value: 2 tours out of 5 (Base game) / 3 tours out of 5 (ver. 2015)
The Call: 60% (C-) (Base game) / 75% (B-) (ver. 2015)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Crypt of the Necrodancer

Crypt of the Necrodancer
  • Publisher: Klei Interactive 
  • Developer: Brace Yourself Games 
  • Lead Designer: Ryan Clark 
  • Release: PC, 23 April 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action / Rhythm 
  • Players: 1

Here we go again, another bloody Roguelike for another bloody Indie-Cember. Oh, but of course I wouldn't even be bothering with it if it didn't bring something new to the table. Today's subject, Crypt of the Necrodancer, doesn't involve a drastically different genre, but it still does its own thing and is all the more unique, engaging, and memorable for it. Read on.

There are multiple playable characters that can be unlocked in Crypt of the Necrodancer, but the default character, and the one you'll be spending the most time with is, a young woman named Cadence. In the opening cutscene, she went out digging in a graveyard one night, when she fell into some catacombs and nearly died. She comes to and discovers that she was kept alive by a curse which keeps her heart beating at a steady rhythm and forces her to move in time with it. In gameplay terms, this means you must move from space to space within the various dungeon levels in time with the background music. You must overcome this handicap and struggle your way through four zones, conquering the miniboss on each floor before you can move onto the next one. Thankfully, you can start a new game from any of the zones you have unlocked, instead of being forced to start from zone 1 all the time (which is still an option for really skilled players).

Indeed, just about everything in Crypt of the Necrodancer follows the beat of the background music. There are many types of monsters to be found, and they all have their own movement patterns. Some monsters move in a set pattern, some follow you, and some may even move more or less randomly. And while you're trying to work out their patterns, you have to keep moving to the beat as well. If you stand still for a beat, you lose the coin multiplier you build up by killing monsters. It's not a huge penalty, more of a mental conditioning to keep you playing by its rules. Still, having to keep moving and processing where all the enemies are going to move is a bit much for some players to handle. And sure, one of the unlockable characters ditches the rhythm aspect altogether and just has the enemies move when you do, which is great for practicing the game, but where's the fun in that?
The many enemy types can be hard to keep track of,
especially when you have to keep moving yourself.
Despite having only four zones, Necrodancer makes up for its short length not just by the difficulty, but by the many unlockable items, characters, and modes. You are armed with a basic dagger to attack monsters with, and a shovel to dig through walls with. The starting dagger only deals one point of damage to one space in front of you, so you would do well to find a new weapon. There are many, many types of weapons and items as well. You may find them in treasure chests, or buy them from the shops that are found on every floor. You can also pick up diamonds during your travels, and spend them in the post-game lobby for permanent upgrades, such as more heart containers to start with, or new kinds of items to find or buy in-game. (And no, there are no microtransactions for buying diamonds with real money, thank God.)

Necrodancer is a rhythm game, to a certain degree, so naturally the music will make or break the experience. I am pleased to report that the soundtrack, composed by Danny Baranowsky, fits the bill with flying colours. One bit that stood out was the third zone, where all the floors are split in half between a fire theme and an ice theme. The music in the fire half is a more intense rock/metal piece, whereas the ice half uses the same song arranged in a chill electronic style, and the two songs seamlessly transition from one to the other depending on where you are in the level. Now, if that's not originality, then I'll be a Green Slime. You can also stream and buy it from his page on Bandcamp. Still, if that's not enough for you, you can also set up your own MP3s to play in the background, and the game will automatically detect the tempo for you. Graphically, the game uses a pseudo 16-bit art style which doesn't appear all that special at first. It's the animations that pull this game's look together, whether it's the tells that inform you of an enemy's imminent action, or just the dance-y idle animations of some monsters. Every moving object in this game seems to have a bounce to it, adding a much-needed visual reinforcement of the rhythm that drives this game.
Collect diamonds to permanently unlock additional items.
One last extra I'd like to bring up is the Dance Pad Mode, available from the beginning. Basically, it's an easier version of the first zone, so as to accommodate players who wish to use a dance pad. I've tried it, and well... it didn't exactly work out for me. Maybe it's because of the way I've trained myself to play Dance Dance Revolution, to alternate my feet as much as possible, or maybe it was this style of game forcing me to think on the fly, but I was pretty much two left feet here, pardon the pun. Still, think about it this way: it is 2015 as I write this, and there has not been a new DDR game made for home consoles in four years (seven in Japan!). So if Konami's not gonna play ball, what other use will there be for your dance pads? And even if they were, where else can you break it out for a genre other than simple beat-matching? Basically what I'm saying is, it's the thought that counts.

Despite all my hangups about Necrodancer being a Roguelike, I somehow found myself playing round after round after round. Maybe it's the vain hope that what little mental experience I've gained from previous failed attempts will give me the luck I need to conquer that one zone. Or, maybe it's just fun. I think I'll go with that. You might not have thought about the flavours of dungeon crawlers and rhythm-based gameplay going together, but they do indeed work, and with any luck will open the possibilities of other such melanges. Be it on a keyboard, controller, or dance pad, there is simply nothing like Crypt of the Necrodancer.

+ A unique and compelling concept.
+ Awesome soundtrack that fits the gameplay perfectly.
+ Loads of extra content.

- It's a Roguelike, so it can be tough to make progress.
- The many enemy types are hard to keep track of.

Control: 4 diamonds out of 5
Design: 4 diamonds out of 5
Graphics: 5 diamonds out of 5
Audio: 5 diamonds out of 5
Value: 4 diamonds out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Heavy Bullets

Heavy Bullets
  • Publisher: Devolver Digital 
  • Developer/Lead Designer: Terri Vellmann 
  • Release: PC, 18 September 2014 
  • Genre: 3D Action (First-person shooter) 
  • Players: 1

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Receiver, a first-person shooter with Roguelike design and primitive 3D graphics. This being the case, I think I've got the perfect game to kick off Indie-Cember 2 with. Heavy Bullets, not to be confused with the preferred ammunition of the Heavy class from Team Fortress 2, is a first-person shooter with Roguelike design and primitive 3D graphics. This is where we've come in the last two years, people -- naught but full-circle. ...Just kidding; Heavy Bullets is quite original among first-person shooters. It may not have the detailed gun mechanics of Receiver, but how does it managed to stand out?

Each game starts with a quick page of exposition, where you learn that something bad has gone down at the hunting grounds where your character works at, and the two people speaking decide to send down employees (read: you) to sort it out, regardless of the high chance of them dying. Not yet having beaten the game yet, I can't say the story amounts to much, and it's probably not why you're playing Heavy Bullets anyway. You're here for a first-person romp through eight levels. As the game starts for real, and you find yourself with a gun and only six bullets. However, these bullets may be picked up and used again, ad infinitum. You'll use your bullets against monsters like floating imps, snakes camouflaged amongst plants, and various flavours of automated turrets. Upon finding you, they make distinct sounds which help you to tell them apart, although this isn't always enough; the pink bomb-bugs gave me very little warning before dashing up to inflict massive damage. I dare say, even, that said bomb-bugs are this game's equivalent of the hover-drones from Receiver, although they thankfully won't necessarily take away all your life if they get you. The monsters still can give you a brief scare if they chance upon you undetected, epsecially the aforementioned flower-snakes. It's no Five Nights at Freddie's, and the shock can be conquered as you practice hunting down those enemies, but it's that period of practice which is the killer. It helps if you take it slowly and carefully as you walk into new areas, which is easier said than done given your character's zippy walking speed.
Enemies can sneak up on and even scare you until you learn to look out for them.
I let slip this was a Roguelike game, which means the levels, enemies, and items are randomly generated, and if you die, you lose all your possessions and have to start a new game. Yeah, I've fallen out of favour with Roguelikes since my last Indie-Cember for some reason. I suppose that reason is that it is impossible to retry levels you failed at, and without the chance to learn from your specific mistakes, it can seem like you're not making any progress. And unfortunately for me, there have been many, many indie titles which incorporate Roguelike structure into multiple genres, including first-person shooters like the aforementioned Receiver. If nothing else, the random structure better suits a linear level-based layout as is the case here, as opposed to Receiver's open world approach. There's no searching countless empty rooms in vain, is what I'm trying to say.

To survive your quest, you may chance upon items out in the open, but more likely you'll rely on three types of vending machines: one selling spare bullets and other weapons, one selling health refills and other boosts, and the aforementioned storage banks. The array of findable and purchaseable items is decently vast, although some will help you more than others. I don't know about your play style, but I prefer to stock up on health potions, carry and reload upgrades, and the Backpack, which lets you hold a second type of item. The problem is, since everything in the game is randomised, you can't count on your favourite items showing up when you need them most. Here we go again, me taking another stand against Roguelikes, you might say. Still, amongst the recent trends in Roguelikes, I've also seen some of them make token nods towards carrying over some form of the progress you make. To that effect, in Heavy Bullets you can store your money at one of the bank machines you may encounter on your journey. Any money or items you have stored up in the bank will remain for you to use in future playthroughs.
The two bosses are the only things which remain constant from game to game.
The other connection I made between Heavy Bullets and Receiver are their graphics, which go for a low-polygon approach, but it works better here for a number of reasons. First, unlike Receiver, which managed to chug even on my improved graphics card, Heavy Bullets runs fine. Second, unlike Receiver, which relies on a more realistically drab colour scheme, Heavy Bullets is filled with highly-saturated pinks, blues, and greens. These two facts make the lack of graphical definition come across less as a shortcut and more as a stylistic choice. Building upon its 80s/early-90s aesthetic is the synthtacular soundtrack, composed by independent rapper Doseone. Why the background tunes keep fading in and out, however, I can't quite say. On the subject, I'd also like to give a tip of the hat to the sound effects. Each type of monster has their own cry which helps you tell them apart and react accordingly, even if you can't see them when they spot you. The pulsing sounds and screen flashes when you're low on health, however, not so much. It was unwelcome way back in The Legend of Zelda, and it's unwelcome here too.

If you've tried Roguelikes before and decided to hate them, Heavy Bullets will not change your mind. But as far as Roguelikes go, this is a good one. The action is fast-paced, the reusable bullets mechanic is a welcome twist on first-person shooter conventions, and the random level generation never gets too much in the way of your fun. Basically all you need to take from this review is that, for all the strengths of both games, I liked Heavy Bullets more than Receiver. It's a unique game that I wouldn't mind playing over and over in a vain attempt to make it to the ending.

+ The reusable bullets mechanic is a twist on FPS conventions.
+ The random level generation is integrated well.
+ A unique audiovisual style.

- Randomised items and shops are hard to rely on.
- A few jump scares.
- Not much of a story.

Control: 4 bullets out of 5
Design: 4 bullets out of 5
Graphics: 5 bullets out of 5
Audio: 4 bullets out of 5
Value: 3 bullets out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

You might also like: Receiver, Tower of Guns, Strafe