The Path is a beautifully created imagining of the classic Little Red Riding Hood story that we heard as children. You take the role of one of six very different young sisters and you are told to follow the path to grandma’s house and stay on it. Of course you can simply follow the path to grandma’s house, but the real adventure lies in what you see off the beaten track.
Archive for April, 2009
First things first. This is not a review/verdict or anything similar. I set out with the intention of giving Drakensang a fair, long and ultimately helpful review, but I can’t. I just can’t get far enough into the game to give it a proper review, so this is an impressions piece.
That said, what this piece will also attempt to illustrate is the need for the first chapter of a game to be engaging and, above all, entertaining.
It’s not that Drakensang is a bad game, but it certainly doesn’t have the most exciting opening scene. RPGs often fall into this trap, especially fantasy ones. The game begins with you being sent to a town for some reason that wasn’t interesting enough for me to remember, when, surprise surprise, there’s a quarantine on. Stuck outside the city, a guard helpfully informs you that he might let you in if you get some references from citizens who happen to be outside the city. Off you toddle to go and grab them.
Almost every fantasy RPG I’ve played has something like this in, and it is always annoying. I’m going to use the Witcher for this example, entirely because Chris is playing it while I write this. The exact same situation happens in the Witcher, but is mitigated by not being the very first thing that happens. The Witcher introduces you to its world by having you fight a giant insect beast in a decrepit castle before bonking a witch, then sends you off to Quarantine City, Fantasyland. You get a taste of what the rest of the game will be in that first half hour, manic combat against big opponents, boobs, and the occasional smarmy dialogue line.
You don’t get that impression with Drakensang’s opening. It may be somewhat childish of me, but in RPGs I tend to start judging the quality of something by ranking the awesomeness of the basic spells. When given a choice, I am always some form of wizard; I blame this on the romantic notion of strolling around hurling fireballs at people I don’t like. When playing a magical class, that’s what I want – fiery death. What I don’t want, as became quite quickly apparent in Neverwinter Nights 2 for instance, are spells that look pathetic. I don’t want to bring Warcraft into this, but I feel that I must. The spells in Warcraft look powerful. Yes, they do start to get repetitive, and a great deal of it is just levelling up the same spell to make it’s animation bigger, but they are still impressive. Not so in Drakensang.
I understand that starting spells are supposed to be a bit crap, being, as they are, training spells and all, but they can still look impressive. The fantasy equivalent of a card trick, they should have an effect. My experience of the early spells in Drakensang was very much one of disappointment, my bland looking spell glancing off a generic wolf with nary a scratch. It made me sad.
Also, I hate the camera. Seriously, I really hate it. There’s a strange voyeurism about it that makes the game a little disjointed. It’s not tied to the movements of your character in the same way as other RPGs, instead it clumsily follows you as you run away, like an overweight documentary crew, consistently requiring you pause the game and forcibly move them into a better position just so you can see what you are doing. It’s annoying and was possibly the main reason I lost interest in the game.
It is important that you understand, however, that I’m not saying Drakensang is a bad game. I am in no way entitled to make such a judgement with what I’ve played. You’ll notice I’ve not touched on the plot, or characterisation or any of that business, and that’s because I couldn’t get far enough to get my teeth in.
People will probably say “give it a chance, it gets better once you sink a few hours in” and that may be true. I myself have said that about a number of games in the past. But Drakensang has caused me to rethink this position somewhat. When considering the whole nature of the medium, the vast catalogue of video games currently and soon-to-be available, it is important a game grab you from the outset. Games are all about living a dream of some description, and you need to be sure that the dream the game is going to provide is the one you want. Good games use the first level as a sort of taster of the sort of thing you will reach at the end; they’ll show you a powerful wizard decimating foes, give you a brief play as an ultimate bad ass character, boobs, whatever, then stick you back in noobsville with the knowledge that you will, eventually, become that good again. Sticking you in tedium and saying “the game will get better eventually” without any proof doesn’t provide the necessary hook to draw you in.
Sometimes, I’m glad I don’t get paid for reviewing games. If I was being paid I would have had to have played through Drakensang in its entirety, and I really don’t want to. I have other, more exciting games to play with my time. But still, this is an important point that I think all developers need to understand, from consumer to developer, the first scene of you game must categorically be engaging and interesting, otherwise how do you expect people to stay around until the end?
There’s one question that hovers nebulously over Zeno Clash like the Sword of Damocles, ready to drop and sentence it to commercial and critical death. It’s one I can answer happily, with an elbow to the face, and uppercut to the chin and a kick while they’re on the floor. Yes, the combat in Zeno Clash works. Often, it does more than merely work, and you’ll end up feeling like the star of a martial arts B-movie as you make quick work of a group of four or five other combatants. It’s a good thing, too, as for the majority of the four hour single player story, you’ll be using every hard bit of your body on rat-men, bird-men, mole-men, elephant-men and what I think were pig-men. They weren’t all anthropomorphic, but most were. Although one of them obviously didn’t really understand the concept, and just put a pot on his head. That’s not anthropomorphic, that’s just good sense. Pity he’s unconscious and bloody at my feet, then.
Zeno Clash is mental. It’s by and far the most bonkers game I’ve ever played, not just because of the denizens of the world, or the fact the sky changes colour at the drop of a hat, or that you’re never quite sure whether you’re in the present or the past. There’s something very fleshy about the world, where everything from the (handily) pulsating fruit that you eat to regain health to the buildings themselves seem to be molded out of the same stuff as the people. It’s not just that; what you see of the world itself seems to be a microcosm of what is really there, just a tiny, focused look at this world ACE Team have created. This is in part due to the often quite obvious linearity of the levels, highlighted most memorably when you see the characters climb up and over obstacles that you yourself have no way of overcoming. It’s ok, though, because there are faces to punch. Zeno Clash is quick to remind you of what it is, with Street Fighter-esque VS screens coming up before every fight. They prepare, amuse and entertain you, and while they may break the illusion, it was never all that enforced anyway.
The game is short, but it gives off the impression that it’s been trimmed heftily, creating a streamlined experience that only begins to grate near the end, when you begin to revisit similar fights to some earlier scenes. This is only a minor frustration because the rest of the game has been so startlingly original. The Corwid, a forest dwelling people who have chosen a life free from reality and reason, are a particular highlight, because each is so brilliantly strange. One eats people, because that is what he feels he needs to do. One is eaten, because that’s what he needs to do. Another thinks it’s best to be invisible, so if he doesn’t want to be seen by a particular person, he cuts out their eyes. There’s a great moment when you find a particularly interesting Corwid who walks in a straight line, stopping at nothing. Manouvering enemies into his path only to watch them crushed beneath his massive feet was particularly satisfying, if only because he seemed so incidental to the level.
Similarly, the few boss fights that are thrown at you are generally fun, with the final act being slightly less so. Flying squirrel bombs is a term that’s been bandied around the game, but they really do define the general tone behind it. An interesting dynamic is created between dealing with the explosive nut-hoarders, or sniping at the guy throwing them at you. The fact that guy is on a giant giraffe/elephant/dinosaur and huge mutated whale respectively only adds to the absurdity of it all. And it is absurd. They plot is vague at best, with huge chunks in the narrative missing. There is little reason for where you’re going and there’s little motivation apart from ‘run away or die’. Something so basic works to begin with, but really it’s just a vehicle for your tourism in this strange world. Kneeing people in the head is great fun, but what you remember from Zeno Clash are the locations and the characters.
The single player story is not the sole offering. Challenge levels are also on offer, with multiple levels of increasing difficulty and variety available. Leaderboards will be kept once the game is live, charting how long each section took you, but really it’s a rather smart move by ACE Team. While the main game is thoroughly enjoyable and accomplished, there is very little incentive to go back, bar a few reward-less achievements that you didn’t pick up first time around. The combat, though, is visceral and addictive, and it would be a shame not to be able to just revisit the game to crack some skulls. Challenges provide that, and even though each ‘floor’ of the Tower has a set amount and type of enemies, what you can do to them varies wildly, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of punching the weird flightless bird things into each other. The Challenge Rooms provide longevity, and enough reason to go back to Zeno Clash after the story is over. Leaderboards may be incentive to some, but the draw of the fighting is far more likely to bring you back.
Zeno Clash is surprisingly accomplished for a first-time Indie title. There are a few minor flaws, but the fact that I remained thoroughly entertained throughout the main game, and enough to go back to each Challenge level multiple times is a testament to the fact that they really don’t matter. The final act can get slightly flakey, but that’s only because the rest of the game holds it to such a fine standard. The voice acting can grate a little, but for the most part it’s wildly better than most Triple-A titles, not least because of the variety of voices, from Father-Mother’s dual chorus to Golem’s deep boom. You should play Zeno Clash just to experience its world, even if you’re not enticed by the satisfying crack of elbow against face.
Buzzword. Buzzword buzzword buzzword?
I figure “Braid” qualifies easily, and with good reasons – one of them surely being the brilliant artwork. Which has now, indeed, been released for free by the artist David Hellman. Notice that this decision was made just a few days after the PC release, while Xboxers got nothing. This clearly demonstrates that the PC is superior. And that Jonathan Blow / David Hellman are awesome.
It is safe to say that we are entering a new Steam Age, rather than a time when steam is a new power source this Steam Age is where Valve’s program is at the heart of the modern PC gamer.
Steam is home to over 20 million users and plays host to over 500 different applications. In recent years it has become much more than simply a digital distribution platform. (more…)
Scarygirl, the wonderful looking cartoon platformer by ludicrously accomplished illustrator Nathan Jurevicius, has been released, today, for free, in your web browser. This means that you can play it without even going through the annoyance of even downloading it. This also means you have absolutely no excuse not to play it. What, you’ve got work to do? That’s not an excuse, that’s an occupation. Or something. Just go play it, it’s worth it for the intro video alone. Still not convinced? What if I told you it was a wonderfully accomplished, perhaps slightly too imprecise with the controls but worth looking at anyway because of the gorgeous visuals platformer? I don’t think you’re in a position to remark on my convoluted descriptions. Fine, look at this trailer then go and play!