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.

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