Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Game Review - Quest of Dungeons (Xbox One, 2015)

Games are amazing in that they can uniquely appeal to a couple innate human desires.  The constant sense of progression through growing your character or even just beating levels is nearly unmatched in daily life, and the ability to explore fantastic locales is something most of us can only dream of doing in the real world.  I think that all games touch on both of these features to some degree, though the emphasis obviously shifts dramatically from genre to genre.

Roguelike games likely give the most repeatable opportunity to explore both of these elements, as procedurally-generated areas mean that there is always a new dungeon you could explore, and the risk of permanent death means that character development has higher stakes and can be easily reset to start again.

I've always enjoyed roguelikes, especially because they are often great for filling small bits of free time in ways that other, more narrative-based RPGs usually cannot.

Though it doesn't do anything particularly innovative, Quest of Dungeons scratches that itch.  There are sadly some unfortunate design deficiencies preventing it from being a truly stand-out title.  Here's what you can expect:

The Basics
Quest of Dungeons successfully hits all the major roguelike tropes: each time you start a new game, you're dropped into a new, random dungeon.  All the action takes place on a grid populated by monsters, traps, and treasures.  You can only move in one of four directions (up, down, left, right) and attacks, spells, and item use are executed with a single command.  Enemies only move or attack whenever you take an action, so the gameplay is about planning and developing your character instead of mastering a complex combat system.

Your basic game in Quest will consist of choosing from one of four character classes (with a fifth unlockable class) and trying to pilot that character to victory.  Each class approaches combat in a slightly different way with access to different skills and different weaponry, but the basic gameplay is much the same: you clear out rooms searching for the stairs to the next level down, all while building up to a boss battle on the bottom-most floor.

Our heroic warrior facing down a ghost, with the blood splatters of previous victories visible to the right.
While each floor is procedurally generated, some features remain constant - each level has a merchant, with whom you can trade random treasures for new gear, keys (useful for opening some doors and chests), or restorative items.  In the "preset" dungeons (which are essentially the game's version of a campaign, as there are little introductory cutscenes to each), the tileset for each floor is always the same.  And with each tileset comes a particular group of monsters; you'll always see the same handful of baddies anytime you see the same visual aesthetic.

Everything else is random, though.  The floor layouts use the same room shapes repeatedly, but each floor is usually big and complex enough that it doesn't feel overly repetitive.  Random items spawn, too, so there's no guarantee that you'll get any particular gear or skills (because you can only learn skills from skill books).

On top of all that, you have the option to generate a custom dungeon.  The options are rather limited, as you can only adjust the size of each floor and the number of floors, but even tilesets are randomized in these dungeons, so they offer the promise of near-infinite replayability.

Perhaps the most important roguelike feature shows up in Quest, too: permadeath.  If your character dies, that's it.  There are no save files to reload, no checkpoints for respawning.  When you die, you have to start all over with a new character.  You can reasonably complete most dungeons in about an hour, with the biggest possible custom dungeon still only take about two, so you're never losing tons of investment upon the death of your character.

The Good
Now that we've covered the basics, let's talk about what the game does particularly well.

The biggest plus is the overall aesthetic.  The soundtrack is fantastic, with a handful of upbeat tunes used effectively to enhance the gameplay.  For instance, there's a nice, peaceful song that plays while you're in the same room as a merchant, while an intense song amplifies the tension of boss fights.

Similarly, the game looks great.  It takes the 2D pixellated perspective and runs with it, making great use of low-res character and item sprites.  There are a handful of items that don't really look like what they're really supposed to be, but for the most part, the sprites are pretty well done.  There's also a surprising amount of detail, everything from bosses to blood splatters look great.

The game definitely has a great vibe from the moment you jump into it.

To be honest, I really want there to be more good things I can say about the game, but as we'll see in a moment, there were so many disappointments that it's kind of hard to talk it up.  Maybe the only other great feature is actually the relatively short length of most dungeons.  In many games these days, especially games with RPG elements, it's hard to play for only 45 minutes or so because you'll barely progress at all.  With Quest of Dungeons, however, you can completely explore a full dungeon in that time, so having bite-sized gaming experiences is something of a boon.

The Bad
During the 20 hours or so that I've played Quest of Dungeons, my opinion of it has fluctuated wildly.  Initially, I thought it was excellent because of the beautiful atmosphere and simple execution of roguelike elements.  A bit into my third or fourth dungeon dive, I started to become frustrated with some aspects of the combat and character growth systems.  As I developed a deeper understanding of the game's mechanics, it started growing on me again, as I realized I had greater control over the outcome of various scenarios than I originally thought.

Time to do some shoppin'!
Sadly, that positive outlook waned yet again as I learned that the game can really screw you with bad RNG, and it does so often.

So that's the biggest strike against the game: there are times where you might open a door and die, without ever having the opportunity to defend yourself or run away.  It's something you have absolutely no control over, and no amount of cunning can save you in those situations.

And it happens a lot.  The big problem is that there's a huge disparity between regular monsters and bosses.  Bosses, like everything else, spawn randomly, and I've seen up to two on a single floor.  These guys hit much harder than normal enemies, in some cases killing me faster than healing items could save me, and they take at least twice as many hits to defeat.

That by itself wouldn't be such a big deal if not for one other problem: every character in the game moves at the same speed of one tile-per-action.  This means that it is impossible to run from a monster because you'll never gain any ground during a chase.  The closest solution to running is moving to a different floor, but they'll be sitting right by the stairs when you come back, so you have to find another way around.

It's incredibly frustrating to engage a boss and discover that you stand no chance and then be stuck because you can't run away.

This formula is particularly problematic with 4 of the 5 classes, as only one (the archer character) can fight at range with no restrictions.  Every other class either must fight in close quarters or relies on MP to cast spells, both of which can leave you vulnerable to one-hit-kills.

It's worth noting that this kind of nonsense happens even on the easiest difficulty setting.

On top of those "oops, you died" frustrations, there are some other mechanics that just aren't balanced.  For instance, some spells have a chance to inflict a status condition, like freezing you in place for several turns or doing continuous damage over several turns.  The power level of these status effects seems completely disconnected from the power level of the source.

As an example, it's pretty easy to get strong enough that regular enemies deal less than 5% of your max HP in each hit.  I've ended up in many situations where a damage-over-time effect from those rather weak enemies straight up kills me in 5 steps.

It's a worm boss. Bonus cameo from the Necrodancer unlockable class.
Basically, all these complaints come together to say one major thing: the game is not well balanced, and as a result, sometimes you'll just die to randomness.

I have a few other comparatively minor complaints (like most monsters function identically and you have no real control over your character's development), but I don't feel it's worth belaboring the point.

However, I'll say this: Quest of Dungeons, while a cute game with a charming feel, is a disappointing and frustrating roguelike.  It's certainly not the worst game I've played, but I would have a hard time recommending this game to anyone, whether they are roguelike veterans or newcomers to the genre.  It's definitely not worth your money, and it's probably not worth your time.

My Rating: 4/10 - mediocre.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Game Review - The Deer God (Xbox One, 2015)

The Deer God.  To sum it up in one word: bad.

Dear God...
The Good
Let's start with our best foot forward, though.  The soundtrack is fantastic.  Boasting a surprisingly diverse score, the Deer God has a number of mellow ambient tracks that create a generally relaxing atmosphere.  It's very well done in that respect.

And the graphics aren't bad.  It's all done as an interesting hybrid of stylized pixels and 3D back- and foregrounds, which kind of makes it feel like it's trying to capitalize on Minecraft's popularity.  With that said, there's nothing particularly stunning about the environments and characters.  It's all sort of blocky, low resolution stuff.

The beauty comes in some of the visual effects.  Many areas have various particles in the air, like snow or leaves, and their movement is fabulous.  My favorite effect, though, is the way that light shines through the background.  Objects behind the game's two-dimensional play area will block visible sunbeams and cast shadows when appropriate.  It's a really cool effect.

It's hard to show these effects with still images, but this one demonstrates the sunbeams.
The Bad
And that's where the praise ends.

Actually, it ends a little before we get off the topic of graphics.  The pixelated style has one significant casualty - it's incredibly hard to identify things in your inventory, especially how many of each item you have.
How many of these things do I have? It's impossible to tell at a glance.
Knowing what's in your inventory fortunately (or unfortunately, if you like good game design) doesn't matter because the gameplay is miserable.

Here's the basic premise: on a night of (presumably) drunken deer hunting, out hero is aiming to snipe a young deer-ling when he's fatally wounded in an attack from behind (by a wolf, maybe?).  Upon his death, this hunter is reincarnated as the very animal he sought to destroy.

Of course, it's not as simple as all that, because the Deer God explains that he must redeem himself of his crimes against deer-kind.  Our hero sets out to accomplish this goal (as a trans-human deer, mind you).

You then get control of the protagonist, and that's where the world stops making sense.  There's absolutely nothing to go on except classic video game logic that suggests, "go right."

As you venture into the great unknown of the right, you'll encounter Deer Elders and humans with various quests for you.  All of these favors amount to "go do this thing that's within 20 feet of here," so calling them "quests" is generous.

And the quests are pretty nonsensical from a story perspective because there's no explanation for what's going on.  I finished the game, and I can see what they were trying to accomplish in retrospect.  It seems like one of those things where the developers were trying to be subtle and insightful, but instead, they made something confusing, pretentious, and shallow.

For once, this comment isn't speculation about the designers' goals: the marketplace description of the game includes "asks deep questions about reincarnation, karma, life, death..."  If it asks those questions, it does so in a soft whisper in the corner of the room.

But hey, who cares if the story feels scatterbrained, the key to a good game is the gameplay!

Igloos. Yep.
Yeah... About that...

The gameplay is pretty weak.  It's a 2D platformer at heart with a few little puzzles scattered throughout.  But there aren't any tricky platforming sections, and the puzzles are all pretty easy to figure out.  You can collect various skills and items along the way, but the game is already pretty easy even if you're only using story-related skills.  You don't really need any items, either.  There's basically no real use for any of the various trinkets you'll acquire throughout the game.

But the biggest flaw, oh boy, the biggest flaw is the procedurally generated world.  In principle, it sounds like a great idea: a platformer that's different every time you play it.

While technically true, this procedural generation runs by grabbing chunks of landscape from some relatively small pool of possibilities.  As a result, the world repeating itself is noticeable early on.  Even if a second playthrough was substantially different, allowing for a genuinely new gaming experience, it's all so easy that I still wouldn't see the point.

The really bad part is how much useless filler there is.  Between quests, you'll just have to keep moving.  And moving.  And moving.  Yeah, the game procedurally generates the path ahead of you, but the paths are so full of little nooks that serve no purpose and enemies that you can always dispatch in the same repetitive way.  The game is mostly about running through the same sections over and over on your way to your next objective.

An adventurous inventor is stuck at the bottom of a lake. He'll die without the help of a certain deer.
Did I mention the game is extremely, painfully repetitive?

To be totally fair, the Deer God does one particularly nice thing with its procedural generation.  If you miss a quest giver or some other special event, they will keep appearing as tiles are added to the path in front of you.  You may have to run half of forever to get to them, but they will always come back.  It takes the "go right" philosophy to an absurd extreme, but it also means that nothing is missable.

I could keep ranting about the poor features of the game, but I think you get the point.  The Deer God makes an amazing transition from confusing as hell to boring as hell, neither of which is a good reaction to a game.  Honestly, I feel that getting this one for free is too high of a price.

My Rating: 2/10 - terrible.