Thursday, February 25, 2016

Game Review - The Swapper (Xbox One, 2015)

In my last review, I complained about a puzzle game not going far enough with its mechanics.  A puzzle game lives and dies on the satisfaction you get from solving a difficult puzzle, so if the game doesn't build up to some truly challenging stuff, it's going to be disappointing.

The Swapper is definitely not disappointing.

The Xbox One version of the game is a port of the original PC release in 2013.  While it does suffer a bit from the shift in control scheme, the beautiful world, interesting story, and challenging gameplay are incredibly strong.  Here's what you can expect:

The Basics

The Swapper takes place on a derelict space station out in the boondocks of the galaxy.  You control an astronaut who is just looking to survive, which is not too daunting a task, given the hand-held cloning machine at your disposal.

And that forms the basis of the game's core mechanics.  You can create up to four clones at a time, but each will match your movements, so you control them all simultaneously.  These copies allow you to hold down multiple switches or reach distant objects with ease, though maneuvering them takes a bit of foresight and planning.  What's more, those clones will persist either until you touch them or they die (in the normal ways - long falls is the most common), so placing one clone poorly can force you to restart if you can't kill it easily.

Wave your clones in the air like you just don't care.
That system alone leads to some interesting possibilities, but the Swapper goes one step further - you can actually swap places with one of your clones as long as you have a direct line-of-sight.  Now, you can also reach areas that area otherwise beyond your, well, reach.

Together, these two mechanics open up a huge variety of possibilities, but to make some of the puzzles all the more puzzling, there are a couple more important mechanics.  Some areas are bathed in a particular color of light - you can't spawn clones in blue light, and red regions will block your swapping beam.  Later on, gravity enters the fray as well, allowing you to walk on ceilings and create clones that do the same.

All together, these rather simple features lead to some truly challenging puzzles.

Alongside all the puzzling, the story is told primarily through computer terminals you pass along the way.  Each message is brief, but they do a great job of building up the mythology of this particular universe.

The Good

I'm sure you can already tell that I think the puzzles in this game are fantastic.  It starts slow, with fairly obvious puzzles, but it quickly ramps into scenarios that require a lot more thought and setup.  Some puzzles even cleverly restrict the number of clones you can use by forcing you to drop one or two on switches before you can enter the main area, which is cool.  In general, the puzzles are interesting and the difficulty increases steadily but never reaches a point where it's overly frustrating.  It's damn near perfect.

Of course there's creepy machinery in this derelict space station.
The puzzles are just really well done.  I could keep rambling on about them, but let's leave it at that.

And the story is fantastic, too.  It's relatively light on narrative, focusing instead on a few little cutscenes and the terminal messages mentioned above.  That's actually a big boon, as it doesn't beat any parts of the story to death the way that a lot of games do.

But the plot itself is a fantastic sci-fi story.  I won't go into any details, but I'll say that there were a couple points where I thought, "oh, man, that's awesome," and I've become cynical enough that I don't think that too often anymore.

Even better, the graphics and sound do a fabulous job setting the stage.  The whole game looks amazing, with this beautiful style almost reminiscent of stop-motion animation.  It's really cool.

While there's not a lot of music (derelict space station, remember?), it's hauntingly beautiful when it does pop up.  The sound effects are also great, but they're not terribly memorable (are they ever these days?).  And there are little bits of voice acting scattered around, which are also very good.

Clones and colored lights.
The Swapper is just a great package all-around.

The Bad

The worst thing about the game is something that's not really that big of a deal - the controls.  Placement of clones can be a little awkward using a control stick instead of a mouse.  It never felt game-breaking, and it was rarely even a minor annoyance, but it is certainly a flaw.

The only other problem?  It's a little short, clocking in at around 4.5 hours for me.  Obviously, the length depends on how quickly you pick up the puzzles, so it could easily last 10+ hours, but I wouldn't count on it.  Also, being completely reliant on puzzles, there's basically no replay value.  It would be nice to have some optional puzzles that are really hard to give a little something to tackle after beating the game.

Empty recreational areas are almost always creepy.
Still, it's a fantastic game, and it's definitely worth checking out.  I highly recommend it.

My Rating: 9/10 - awesome.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Game Review - Pneuma: Breath of Life (Xbox One, 2015)

One of the things I love most about video games is the discovery.  A new game brings all kinds of things to uncover: new controls and mechanics, new characters to meet and a new world to explore, new challenges and puzzles and strategies.  In my mind, testing the boundaries of the rules and learning to use those rules to your advantage are some of the greatest joys in gaming.

Pneuma: Breath of Life is almost a perfect embodiment of that particular gaming pleasure... briefly.  It's way too short, and the story goes deep into pretentious and annoying territory, but it offers a thoroughly fulfilling gameplay experience (while it lasts, anyway).

The Basics

Pneuma starts with the narrator and player character asserting rather confidently that he is god.  He commands the world, creating the corridors and decor surrounding him.

Or something like that.

You can tell it's a puzzle game from the glowing eyes!
Despite the grandiose introduction, Pneuma is just a first-person puzzle game that reminds me pretty strongly of the Myst series - you're thrust into this world with no real setup (aside from the narrator's mostly inconsequential rambling), and your only focus is to push your way through.

As you progress through the stages, you'll uncover new puzzles with new mechanics, but you have to figure out how they all work through trial and error.  Nothing is every spelled out explicitly (at least, not in advance - there are a few places where the narrator will remark about something you just did), so you're left with your wits and details of the game world to make progress.

The Good

And honestly, that's awesome.

It adds an interesting element to the problem solving necessary to move forward - not only do you have to figure out the solution to each puzzle, you also have to spend time playing with it to learn how it works.

In some cases, the solution may be clear, but the way you manipulate the puzzle may not be.  Other times, the situation is reversed, and you'll find yourself struggling more to find the right path to the answer.

More eyes! But this one's in a little maze...
It's generally a nice change of pace from most modern games, and I really wish we'd see this kind of gameplay more often.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Pneuma isn't the best vehicle for this particular gameplay experience, and the major flaws come down into three big categories.

The first is the one that's least important - the narrator is exceptionally long-winded and the story tries way too hard.  The end result is that common monologues are really annoying, and the game's finale seems... blunt.  The developers clearly tried to do something interesting with the storyline, but it falls completely flat.  It was terribly executed all around.

Second, the game is incredibly short.  I completed it in about two hours, and because it's completely reliant on puzzles, there is zero replay value.  Obviously your mileage will vary depending on how quickly you pick up on each puzzle, but I imagine the majority of gamers will finish between one and four hours - not really worth the $20 price tag when compared to some other games on the market.

It wouldn't be a puzzle game of the modern era without a light beam puzzle.
Third and finally, the most damning flaw: most of the puzzles are relatively simple.  The developers had the freedom to change basic gameplay mechanics for each puzzle, which opens a huge range of potential interactions, but the game hardly explores that space of possibilities.  Most of the puzzles are fairly straightforward, and you can easily brute force your way through some of them that are not.  I was expecting larger, more complicated puzzles as I progressed, but that big payoff just never happened.  It reduces the game to a series of brief puzzles when it could have been so much more.

To be totally fair, there are a few optional puzzles that definitely qualify as "larger, more complicated puzzles," though it's easy not to notice that they're even there.  It just leaves this huge void between the single-step puzzles of the main story and the incredibly opaque optional puzzles.

Overall, Pneuma could have been an amazing game with a few more difficult puzzles to lengthen the whole thing a bit and if they'd just cut the narration.  As it stands, it's great if you're looking for a unique gameplay experience, but even so it provides relatively little bang for your buck.  It's definitely worth checking out if you can get it heavily discounted, but otherwise you're probably better off investing your time and money elsewhere.

My Rating: 5/10 - ok.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

GTASC 2016: Week 5 Report

Good God, the competition this year has been fierce.  We survived this week, but I worry about our long-term chances.

Regardless, here are the games that've been in my console this week:

Pneuma: Breath of Life - 1183 Points - I started the week with an interesting little puzzle game. While I enjoyed the gameplay quite a bit, the narrator is really annoying, and the whole thing is awfully short.  Still, it was good for over 1000 points in only a couple hours, so it helped me start this scoring period off right.

Just Dance 2014 - 194 Points - I'm a big fan of dance games right now because they give a nice opportunity for some exercise while contributing to the GTASC cause.  This week, I nabbed the achievement for getting 3 stars in each song.  The next big step of going to 5 is going to be tough.

Sacred Citadel - 486 Points - More Sacred Citadel as well.  I finished all the level challenges, which were more tedious than difficult, and knocked out a few other random things.  It's clear at this point that completing this game will just take time, as nothing about it is particularly hard.  Among the remaining time-consuming goals?  Playing through the entire game three more times.  Joy.

Double Dragon Neon - 404 Points - Because I haven't gotten my fill of beat 'em ups with awkward controls, I played through this one.  It's silly, which is easily the game's biggest strength, but that doesn't make up for the generally clunky combat.  There is some potential buried inside, so if you're willing to work past the initial frustration of coarse movement controls, you might have a fair bit of fun on the harder difficulties.

Dance Central 2 - 264 Points - More dance games!  I was getting tired of grinding the same songs over and over, so I popped this one in for a little more diversity.  Unfortunately, I'm a little disappointed with this game's soundtrack overall; it has some quality songs, but a lot of them are not things I'm really interested in playing.  We'll have to see how I feel after dedicating a bit more time to it.

On Friday morning, our team was in a pretty rough spot, already being below the elimination line.  As such, I whipped out some of the games I'd been saving that I knew could yield some points without too much effort:

The Raven - 529 Points - This game is essentially a terrible point-and-click adventure.  Maybe it's just a consequence of the Xbox's control scheme, but it blows my mind how incredibly frustrating this game is to control.  It's absolutely miserable.  And the storyline isn't all that interesting, either.  In short: stay away (unless you're desperate for some achievements, in which case, follow a guide and don't look back).

Velocity 2X - 1221 Points - Velocity 2X is easily my favorite of the games I played this week.  Nothing else even comes close to competing for that honor.  It's fast-paced action with awesome visuals and a high skill ceiling.  I'm really going to enjoy working towards the "perfect" medal achievements, even if it's going to be insanely hard.

Tomb Raider - Definitive Edition - 25 Points - I loved the Tomb Raider reboot from a few years ago, and I'm quite excited to play Rise of the Tomb Raider sometime soon.  Before that, though, I want to replay the previous game, so why not stack some achievements along the way?

As is tradition, I completed daily challenges for Magic Duels and Kinectimals Unleashed, too.  I also did some work in Neverwinter, chugging away at the various campaigns (including the new one that was released for the Xbox this week!).  More of the same for each of these, so not much to report.

Here's hoping next week is a little less stressful...

Tell me about what you've been playing recently!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Game Review - Polychromatic (Xbox One, 2015)

Even as games get more complex, there will always be a market for old school games where the only goal is to rack up as many points as possible.  Unfortunately, you can't just re-skin an early-80s arcade game and hope to have a quality product; you have to add something to your game to give it the depth or longevity necessary to compete for our money.

That's where Polychromatic misses the mark - there's nothing technically wrong with the game, but it lacks the depth to even make it worth the admittedly low $5 price tag.  Here's what it's all about:

The Basics

Without any fanfare, Polychromatic gives you control of a little square in a circular arena, and you can move around and fire bullets like any twin-stick shooter.  Your only mission is to survive by destroying all the other shapes that appear.

Woo explosions!

That's it.  That's the entire game.

To be fair, I'm exaggerating a little bit.  There are three game modes, though they are really just small modifications on the same formula (you're in the same arena each time, the only difference is that you only get one life in one mode, and you have a time limit in another).  You also have a couple special weapons, a dash that can rush through enemies and a blast that will fire bullets all around you, but those additions are pretty minor.

The game is honestly the most bare-bones twin-stick shooter that I've played in a long time.

The Good

Polychromatic's biggest plus is that it nails the aesthetics.  Everything is colored with soft pastels, and even your enemies exploding has a gentle feel to it.  And the soundtrack is nice.  It's borderline ambient music at times, and there's not a whole lot of diversity, but it's pretty mellow.  The whole thing makes for a surprisingly calming experience.

Aside from that, I guess the really basic mechanics are good?  You can get into a bit of trouble during gameplay because the explosions often obscure what the evil geometries are doing, but my deaths never felt cheap - it was always clearly my fault, which is ideal for this sort of game.

A selection of half the types of enemies in the game.

I know that's not exactly detailed praise, but there's not much to say.  In a game with simple controls and limited content, the sights, sounds, and fundamentals are really all that you can even talk about.

The Bad

And that is Polychromatic's biggest flaw.

I have no real complaints about anything in the game because there's so little actually in the game.  There are no powerups or point multipliers, there's only one arena to challenge you, and the three game modes are all identical in the way they play.  Hell, even the enemies are all pretty much the same, with varying movement speeds being the biggest differences between them.

It feels like I'm stuck commenting on the tutorial for a much larger game,

As you might expect, the result is very limited replay value.  Unless you're driven by a deep desire to reach the top spot on the leaderboard, there's nothing to encourage you to come back after your first handful of plays.  Contrast that with other similar games (Geometry Wars certainly comes to mind), and you'll find that Polychromatic simply can't compete even within its genre, let alone with much grander games.

Granted, it's only going for $5, so it deserves a bit of a leeway with some of my complaints.  Even so, I don't think it's worth your money because it's only marginally better than free Flash games from a decade ago.

If you're desperate for another game where you can outperform your friends on a leaderboard, you might give Polychromatic a shot.  Otherwise, you're better off investing those five bucks into something a little more expensive but worth significantly more.

My Rating: 5/10 - ok.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

GTASC 2016: Week 4 Report

Hoooooo boy.  This week was another scary one, though this time for good reason - going into the last 8 hours of the scoring period, we were about 100 points below the elimination line.  I busted out some of my quick-and-easy achievements to keep us above the threshold.  I think I've been a bit too conservative with my achievements,so it's probably worth pushing a bit harder in the near future.

Even so, here's what I was playing this week:

Neverwinter -  90 Points - Same as last week - grinding campaigns, not much else to say.  I did pop one achievement for completing one of the epic dungeons, but the others are still a bit beyond my reach (unless I end up with somebody who can carry me through, but those people seem quite rare).

Sacred Citadel - 381 Points - Sacred Citadel is the newest free "Game with Gold" for the 360, so I started that sucker up this week.  It's a pretty disappointing beat 'em up, where, among other things, it is far too easy to stun lock enemies (and be stun locked by them).  I played through every stage, so the only remaining achievements are going to be rather grindy affairs.  I'll probably work on that slowly over the next few weeks.

Far Cry 4 - 1241 Points - Oh, boy, Far Cry 4.  Despite having a favorable opinion of Far Cry 3, I hated this one when I started playing it last summer.  The driving mechanics are awkward, it's frustratingly difficult to trigger the on-screen prompts to interact with objects, it's impossible to engage in melee combat with enemies (because they always knock you down before you can connect), the map is huge and vehicles are surprisingly hard to find, and the random wildlife annoyingly gets in the way.  It's just not fun.

Still, I started it up again this week when a teammate wanted to try to knock out the coop achievements.  We weren't able to get those done (we can't connect to each other for some reason, despite being able to do coop with randoms online), but the effort inspired me to work on the single-player campaign.  I've now completed the story, so it's just a matter of cleanup from here.

Rare Replay - 373 Points - This was my "quick-and-easy" desperation move. In under half an hour, I earned nearly 400 points.  It would've been nice to save those for later, but the peace of mind they gave was totally worth it.  Here's hoping I won't have to whip something like this out again next week...

Magic Duels and Kinectimals Unleashed, too, though I (still) didn't earn any points in either this week.

But enough about me, what have you been playing this week?

Until next time, have a good one!