Friday, December 24, 2010

Review: Fire God Saga

Title: Fire God Saga
Developer: ???
Genre: RPG
Program: RPGMaker 2K

Fire God Saga is a game set in a world that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. As a result, you can't really lump it into any particular genre because there will be something in the game that contradicts whatever it is you want to call it. The game basically has a little bit of everything you could possibly get away with sticking in an RPG, which can be a bit disorientating if I'm being honest. Overall, intentionally or not, the main bulk of this game focuses around goofy comedy and overblown situations that, as far as I'm concerned, makes this a less-than-serious project.

What originally drew me to this game were the maps I saw in the screenshots section. Such zealous use of panoramas and overlays isn't something you see that often in RPGMaker games because the result is usually kinda tacky but it looked like this game wasn't doing a bad job of pulling it off. In practice, though, the results are fairly hit and miss dependent on the panorama that's used; some of the panoramas fit really well with what's in the foreground but the majority of them don't fit the perspective that the rest of the map uses, making the whole map look really skewed. The same can be said for most of the backgrounds used on the battle-screens as well; a lot of the backgrounds used in this game simply don't match the graphics used throughout the rest of the game and it makes things look incredibly weird.

Sometimes it works, like in this screenshot. Most of the time, though, it doesn't.

Just as the graphics are a bit hit and miss, so are the sound effect choices made in this game. The game mixes sound effects from the RPGMaker run-time package with sound effects that sound like they came from Duke Nukem with sound effects that are generic Windows sound effects etc. Everything is incredibly mismatched and, as with the graphical choices made, it results in a fairly disorientating experience. Sometimes it can be amusing to hear a sound effect that clearly shouldn't be there, but most of the time it's just annoying. I get the feeling that making people laugh was the aim of using silly sound effects now and again but... it just doesn't work often enough to make it worth while. It's more annoying than anything else.

So, what about the gameplay? Well, it's just like the graphics and the music; hit and miss. The most obvious example of this are the battles, which are haphazardly balanced to say the least. Most of the battles are fine and you'll have only minor problems getting past them, but you can sometimes encounter enemies that will wipe the floor with you if you happen to have a little bit of bad luck. For instance, there are some enemies that, if they happen to use their spells twice in a row, are probably going to take your whole party out. Obviously, this isn't actually supposed to happen and I suspect I just suffered some bad luck over the course of my playthrough, but that doesn't mean it is any less annoying. It's annoying because, as a player, there's nothing you can do except resign yourself to reloading the game. Luckily, I'd just saved the game each time this happened so I didn't lose too much time, but I might've stopped playing if I'd lost a significant amount of my playthrough due to something like this. Something for the developer to avoid in the future, me thinks.
"So here I lie, in the belly of a shark!" 
(Also an example of the strange graphics: why is a shark swimming in a shallow pond in a forest and why is that shark represented by a small fish on the area map!?)

The other problem with the battles, aside from the haphazard balancing, is that there isn't much to do apart from attack. You get a handful of skills, but most of them are just stat-boosting/degrading skills that you're only likely to use when you come up against stronger enemies, meaning they're useless in 90% of the battles you encounter. Fortunately, the battles are generally very short and they aren't random so they don't get a chance to become annoying, but they certainly aren't entertaining. A lot more work could've been put into them. The same is true of the area-map gameplay; there just isn't enough to do. Most of the maps are just straight lines from A-B without any puzzles to keep you entertained. The game doesn't even resort to mazes to keep you entertained, although I've never really been a fan of pointless mazes so that's probably a good thing to be honest.

As for the storyline, it's all over the place. I was never really sure what was supposed to be going on as the game seems to drop one storyline and introduce another without really tying anything from the original storyline up. The game starts with the main character being hunted by a church and, although that comes back in every now and again, you spend a lot of the game doing odd-jobs for other people that don't really tie together into anything major. Now, I'm not going to lie, I didn't finish this game; the mediocre gameplay eventually got to me and I just couldn't go on. Because of this, if the game happens to have an overarching storyline towards the end then I wouldn't have seen it. However, there was nothing in the portion of the game that I played that suggested this would be the case; it just seemed like random quest followed by random quest over and over. Maybe if the gameplay was better I would've continued, but that wasn't the case.

This game is very hit and miss, but the emphasis lies very much on the miss side of things. The gameplay is dull and uninspired, the dialogue tries too hard to be random (although it can elicit giggles at times) and the graphical aspects are all over the place. 3/10.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Devblog: Why You Back Up Your Projects...

Even though I have a new computer (which is why I've been playing so much Starcraft II and Football Manager 2011 instead of working on my own game), I still use my old laptop when I'm working on Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl (the game I'm developing). I do this because I use MS Paint to create the graphics for this game and the new MS Paint has an annoying habit of changing the colour depth of PNGs when you save them, which causes many a problem if you're using RPGMaker 2003. 

Unfortunately, my laptop has decided to start the very slow process of dying, which would've meant I'd have lost the whole of this game if I wasn't backing it up properly... but I was backing it up properly, so I'll just continue development on my new computer using Paint.NET or something to get around the problems I have with the new edition of MS Paint. 

The lesson here is basically this: BACK UP YOUR PROJECTS!

As far as the blog goes, I know I haven't really stuck anything up for quite a while so I will be trying to get some more reviews out over the christmas period. I don't really have much else to do since I'm staying at my parent's house over the holidays so, if I don't update, I don't really have any excuses!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Review: Legendary Legend

Title: Legendary Legend
Developer: Sibhod
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker 2003
Legendary Legend is a game that's sparked a lot of debate over at RMN ( recently because it's currently their featured game. The reason for all the attention (aside from it being featured, of course) is that it's one of those games that purposefully labels itself as "comedic", resulting in arguments that revolve around the extent to which "comedy" and "writing" can make up for "gameplay". Of course, this instantly implies that people don't really rate the gameplay in this game, because if people did rate it then there wouldn't be any need to ask if "comedy" and "writing" can make up for it because it wouldn't need making up for! Unfortunately, I have to agree with this sentiment as the gameplay in Legendary Legend is physically painful.

First of all, you have the battles; they are far too easy, the enemies have far too much HP and there is no strategy involved whatsoever. This is a bad combination because it means that every single battle is a space-mashing fest that the player has no choice but to suffer through. This sheer lack of entertainment is compounded by the fact that the battles take far too long to finish. I know this is true because I actually timed one of my battles and I found that, for one of the characters, it takes a full forty (40!!) seconds for their ATB meter to fill up. If you consider that it takes around 4-5 hits to kill a typical enemy in this game and then consider that there are usually 3 or more enemies present in a single battle then you'll probably see why this is a problem. If a game has boring battles and then insists on dragging them out for incredibly long amounts of time then it is just being silly; this isn't fun and if you happen think it is then do me a favour and go play Desert Bus.

The second problem with the gameplay are the "dungeons", a word that is placed in speech-marks because I refuse to actually acknowledge that there are dungeons in this game. Every single area is basically a straight line with little-to-no exploration and little-to-no puzzles to keep you entertained. This is not an exaggeration since, as far as I can remember, throughout the whole time I was playing this game (I survived around an hour and a half before I gave up) I branched off the beaten track once and I pressed a single switch
. Admittedly, the lack of exploration wasn't that big a problem because that would've meant more battles, but that I didn't want to explore because the battles were terrible isn't really something the developer should be proud about...

And... there aren't any more problems with the gameplay, but that's only because there isn't anything else to the gameplay. That's your whole lot and, as far as I am concerned, no amount of good writing can make up for this kind of garbage. To end the review here, however, would be incredibly unfair because I'd be leaving more than half the game untouched. You could argue that it's pointless for me to continue because it's already obvious that the gameplay alone is enough for me to abhor this game (spoiler: the rating is 0/10), but I'm going to struggle on regardless because I want to talk about the so-called "saving grace" of this game: The writing.

As I've already made obvious, I'm not of the opinion that even the finest writing could make up for the gameplay in this game. However, a lot of people have talked up the writing and the comedy as something that makes the rest of the game worth "playing" through (playing is so the wrong word). Of course, this only gives me more impetuous to point out that the writing in this game is, in fact, terrible.

The most obvious examples of why the writing in this game sucks are the characters themselves. They are inconsistent as hell, the main reason for which being that, although attempts are made to seperate the characters into obvious stereotypes (shy/geeky/cowardly and brash/jock/brave, for example), the characters will break these stereotypes for the sake of an easy joke. For example, one skit calls for a Spanish-speaking character to yell a load of angry rubbish in Spanish whilst jumping through a window to save a woman...

I'll admit that the image alone looks kinda funny, but the problem is that the game - up until that point - portrays the Spanish-speaking character as being laid-back. As laid back people do not jump through windows because they assume the person on the other side is someone they need to save, the jumping is instead done by the more obvious person to have jump through the window; the aforementioned brash/jock/brave character. This now means that the developer now has a character [i]who isn't Spanish speaking[/i] yelling Spanish garbage because it [i]might[/i] be funny (it isn't). Erm, what!? Basically, the whole joke was an ill-conceived idea and the same can be said for most of the other jokes in the game:

Shoe-horning characters into funny situations does not good comedy nor good writing make. The idea is that you write jokes around the personalities of your characters, not the other way around. For good examples of this, watch shows like 30 Rock or Seinfeld or something...

As for the rest of the jokes (the ones that don't fall into the "forced comedy" bracket explained above), most of them are gags that have already been used in other parody games and movies and shows over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I mean this in the most literal way possible because I know that I've seen many of the jokes in this game used word-for-word in other so-called "comedic" RPGMaker games. They're not funny anymore. In fact, they weren't funny in the first place. In fact...

The funniest thing about this game is that it was featured, but that's also the saddest thing about this game. Whoever made that decision should be ashamed of themselves and I mean that in the most sincere way possible. 0/10.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: Eyes Without A Face

Title: Eyes Without A Face
Developer: YDS
Genre: Survival/Horror
Program: RPGMaker VX

Eyes Without A Face (French: Les Yeux Sans Visage) is a short-game based on Georges Franju's critically acclaimed, French horror movie of the same name. However, despite being a horror game, it isn't a game that plays in a similar vain to other horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. In fact, there is very little in the way of "traditional gameplay" involved: You don't get to shoot hordes of monsters, you don't have to manage an array of items and ammo and you don't even have to solve a load of puzzles in order to escape. In simple terms, this game is nothing more than exploring a house and interacting with objects in the right order. However, to leave it at that would do this game a great disservice because this game doesn't try to focus on "traditional gameplay". Instead, this game focuses squarely on creeping you out. It certainly succeeds. 

How does it do that? I think it's the fact that you never really know what's important that makes everything so creepy. By playing out a rather innocent opening over such an obvious horror staple, that staple being an isolated mansion, the game forces you to acknowledge that something bad is going to happen; it just doesn't give you any sort of clue as to what. It's the perfect introduction as, frankly, waiting for something to happen when you know it is going to be bad is the worst (or should that be best?) kind of fear. 

The game builds on this cleverly once you take control of the main character, doing so by presenting you with a series of objects that have seemingly innocent explanations associated with them, such as roses that are dusty because the housekeeper isn't good at her job. The game builds these "innocent" things up in such a way that you end up thinking you have a good idea of what the people in the house are like, before it then brings everything you thought you understood crashing down in a single scene. This throws you off so much that it makes you question everything from that point onward, extended the creepiness of the opening sequence beyond the point of realisation in a beautiful manner. 

Unfortunately, although the story and the setting manage to be creepy, their effects on the main character aren't portrayed so well. She will go from scenes where she sees people with their eyes brutally removed to scenes where she is nonchalantly commenting on record collections; this is understandably jarring and is certainly something for the developers to think about in the future. If anything is intended to affect your audience psychologically then it should affect the character they're playing as, too. It doesn't manage to ruin the game because the story and the setting are so well executed, but it's definitely a distraction. 

From an audio/visual viewpoint, there is little (if anything) this game does wrong. The score is beautiful and well chosen. The sound effects are suitably creepy, especially for that one death animation (anyone who has played the game will know which one I mean). As for the graphics, they're just amazing. Furthermore, the game doesn't resort to any cheap sound effect/image based "screamers", something that never turns out good and that all aspiring horror developers should avoid. I said recently that "it's no real surprise to see a Team Cascade project looking and sounding so good" and this still applies, but it's a statement that doesn't take anything away from how well crafted this game is. 


Scary enough to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the whole experience; it's just a shame the main character isn't as creeped out by her situation as you will be. 6/10

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hype: Necropolis

I figured I would feature another game that's still in development since getting games a little bit of hype before they drop is pretty important and since the last blog seemed to go down pretty well. I hope you all managed to get a look at Bit Bonton because it really does look like it is shaping up to be a good game!

Enough of that, though, the game I am going to be talking about today is this:

Look at that sexy title screen!

Necropolis is an RPG in-development by Jude that is seeking to bring some NES-styled sexiness to the RM* community. You play as Marcus, a soldier who has been turned into an undead creature and wants to find out the reasons behind his transformation, become a human again and then bring down vengeance on those who cursed him. Sounds kinda generic, but I'm cool with that if the gameplay is good...

... which it seems like it will be because I'm really impressed with the concept that's being developed for the combat system. On the face of it, the custom battle-system (CBS) this game is going to introduce utilises a fairly common front-view, turn-based battle system. However, the game switches things up by making it so that skills and spells can be chained together into combinations. Over a series of three turns, your lone hero (something that is also fairly unique, come to think of it) can combine several skills together in order to perform "finishing moves". These moves are unlocked if you pull off a certain set of three skills in a row, meaning that balancing your combinations with healing requirements and the like (you don't have a cleric hanging around to heal you or anything like that!) becomes the focus of combat. I think this is really interesting and I can't wait to see how well it works in practice!

As for how the game looks, you can tell just by scrolling through the range of static screenshots, animated screenshots and gameplay videos available for this game that it's going to look absolutely amazing when it's done. The most surprising thing about the graphics, though, is how dark the game manages to come across as because, when you think back to how most RPGs looked on the NES, you'll probably remember colourful fantasy environments. This game doesn't have any of that and, if I'm being honest, it is the overall graphical style of this game, rather than the NES mimickry, that impresses me most. This game is absolutely dripping with style.

Overall, I'm really excited about this game, so I think you should all check it out and track its progress. The main webpage can be found here!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hype: Bit Bonton Buzz

Unfortunately, I've been busy with loads of different stuff recently, so I haven't been updating much. If I'm being honest, though, I could've probably made more time to log on so I'm sorry about the blog being on the back-burner a bit...

Anyway, onto what I actually wanted to talk about, a beautiful looking game called Bit Bonton that's being developed by Team Cascade (comprised of YummyDrumSticks, tardis, TheDigitalMonk and Rhyme). If you want an idea of how awesome this currently looks and sounds, especially by RPGMaker standards, then just watch the introduction sequence video that was recently released:

Despite how aesthetically pleasing this game currently looks (and I know this is based on a small amount of evidence), it's no real surprise to see a Team Cascade project looking and sounding so good. It's definitely one reason to get excited but it isn't a real shock and, because of this, it's not just the aesthetics that are making me have an interest in this project; the real reason Bit Bonton has caught my eye is because the gameplay synopsis is really intriguing.   

From what I can gather, you play as a girl who stumbles across an alternate reality, the titular Bit Bonton, which is made up of vapourware games. On discovering this world is falling apart, she is told that she must help restore Bit Bonton by piecing together items that the world's creator, "The King", left behind in the real world. From this, I can only imagine that puzzle-solving in Bit Bonton leads to clues that will help you in New York City and vice-versa, a duality that really interests me.

Why? Mostly because I like it when a puzzle game doesn't come across as a straight-up series of puzzles as this will bore me fairly quickly unless the puzzles are really good; anything that can diversify a puzzle-game from appearing too straight-forward tends to catch my eye and this "two-world" idea does the trick in this particular case.

Does that make sense? If not, perhaps this synopsis from the game's webpage will do a better job of explaining:
"Savannah explored her apartment for the first time... when she stumbled into an attic with countless drawings and a dusty computer. Curious, Savannah pressed the ON button, and FLASH! A portal was opened to the new land of Bit Bonton, a broken world on the brink of disappearing. 
Inside this near empty world, a little creature named Bearling explains to Savannah that Bit Bonton is made of vaporware created by The King. Over time, what was left of these places were missing and lost, and the little creature begged Savannah to restore Bit Bonton by finding "artifacts" left by The King in her own world - New York City - and to uncover what happened to their supreme ruler."
What I like even more is that this game is being developed for Sam's Game Drive, the idea behind which being that developers have signed-up to finish a project between now and the first of June. I really, really like the idea behind this game-drive, not only because it gives the developers involved a tangible deadline to aim for, but also because it brings together a small community of developers who will hopefully support each other in their aim to get a project done in the next six to seven months. I'm hoping a lot of good, amateur games spawn out of this and, considering some of the people involved, I'm sure that will be the case; Bit Bonton is just the game that's intrigued me most thus far!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Blog: Managing Time

Creating your own game from scratch isn't an easy task. Even when people use tool-kits that do a lot of the background work for them, like RPGMaker and Gamemaker, there's still a mammoth amount of work involved if they ever hope to finish. Development times that stretch over several years are not uncommon and neither are unfinished projects, so anyone who wants to get into amateur development really needs to understand before they start that it isn't going to be an easy task to complete a project... 

... but, having said that, are the long development times we encounter in the amateur community really because it's so hard to finish or is it because we aren't organising our time properly? And is it even a bad thing that we take so long to finish? 

It isn't unheard of for games to have much shorter development times, with games like Generica and Visions and Voices managing to be finished in a matter of weeks. These games were created with a particular time-frame in mind and the developers, Kentona and Crazuman (Craze x Karsuman) respectively, obviously planned their work around that time-frame. This certainly isn't a bad way of doing about things; setting yourself a limit and working to stay within that limit is the most efficient way of finishing a project and, if you stick to it, it's going to ensure you get your game finished as quickly as possible. 

It's also a mindset that you have to respect because it takes a lot of will-power. Why? Because by setting yourself a certain time-frame and dedicating x amount of your time to your game per day, you are essentially making your amateur development into a second job. It becomes something you you have to do rather than something you want to do and, at the end of the day, this may not be ideal.

Imagine the situation: You come home from work (or school or college or whatever it is you fill your day with) and you're tired. All you want to do is have something to eat and lazily watch the television (or play on the computer or read a book or whatever it is you do when you want to be lazy). However, instead of getting to be lazy, you come home knowing that you should be working on your game. See how that could get frustrating? For a short-project it might not be so bad because you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but for longer projects like the 10 hour+ games a lot of people in the RPGMaker community are taking stabs at, it's likely to fail; the frustration would likely build up to the point where the game is cancelled.

What's the other option? The other option is to treat amateur game-development as what it is; a hobby. To treat it as something you only do in your "spare time". The advantages of doing this are obvious. First of all, there is less chance of you getting frustrated and so less chance of you rage-quitting halfway through development. You're also less likely to make mistakes by rushing through things if you're not constricting yourself to a certain time frame or to certain "working hours". Finally, if you're treating development more like a hobby, you're less likely to get bored of your game and quit making it (although this does assume you have fun developing games, but if you don't then you should probably get a new hobby anyway!)

There are, of course, downsides, with the obvious one being that you won't finish your game nearly as quickly as you would if you meticulously planned out your time. A slightly less obvious downside is the risk of falling prey to scope creep or getting stuck in the "improvement cycle", neither of which being something you want to do. A game will suddenly take ten times longer to finish if you do fall into one of these and this is likely to result in boredom and frustration.

So, both ways of working have their upsides and downsides. Which is better? Neither, really, because there can never be a strict answer to the question I posed at the start of this article. It's all down to the kind of person you are and the kind of game you're making. If you think you have the willpower, or if you're only working on a short game, then treating development like a second job might not be a bad idea. Conversely, if you're working on a long project or you don't think you have the willpower, then it's probably best to treat development a little more casually. 

Personally, I fall into the latter camp; I would never finish a project if I treated it like work. As far as I'm concerned, you don't need to finish your game as quickly as possible and you certainly don't need to put any added pressure on yourself to finish. Developing the game is meant to be the fun part anyway, not finishing...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blog: Marvel Brothel Forced Off The Interwabs!?

If you read my last blog then you'll know that I was pretty excited for fellow amateur developer Calunio, whose game, Marvel Brothel, had managed to get a thousand-or-so downloads over the course of a weekend. This was all thanks to a few features by websites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun and, although a couple of thousand might not seem like much to people used to the mammoth view counts on sites like YouTube, it would've been a massive deal to Calunio; to get such a spike in activity and interest is every amateur developer's dream.

Not only is it every amateur developer's dream to see their game take off like that, it was probably extra special for Calunio because I know he had waited a long time for his game to be taken anything close to seriously. A lot of people saw the title of the game and thought it was a joke or something and I guess I can't really blame them because I did the exact same thing the first time I saw it. However, after playing it (thanks to a review request, which I never actually got around to writing...) I found out that it wasn't a joke at all; I discovered that it was a well-built management sim that deserved to be taken more seriously!

Unfortunately, especially for those of you who tried to follow the link in my last blog, Calunio was forced to take the game down from the internet. Why? Because someone at Marvel caught onto what was going on and decided to issue him with some sort of request to take it down. I imagine there were threats of a legal kind or something similar but...

Why would they do this?

The amateur community, especially the RPGMaker community, is full of games that rip material from other sources, yet very few of them are forced to be taken down. There are games made with resources from established companies; there are fan-games for a multitude of different series; there are games that take characters from a mish-mash of different sources and try to smash them together; and there are even a load of total clones floating around. Hell, there was even someone trying to de-make Final Fantasy VII using RPGMaker 2003 once over. What makes Calunio's work different from all these other titles?

I see only three options:

a) The popularity of the title: I don't think I have ever seen a download rate like the one Marvel Brothel was getting at its peak over the weekend. The argument here is basically that the popularity of the game meant it was more likely to be seen by a Marvel employee and hence more likely to be pulled.

b) It was pulled purely because of the content, which would be ironic since there isn't much in the way of lewd material contained in the game; there's certainly nothing that would make you blush.

c) Marvel are cunts.

The first of the two options seems the most likely at first, but games like Kentona's Hero's Realm have managed to be featured in magazines and amass thousands of downloads without being forced off the internet. This makes me doubt that this alone is the reason.

The second reason then becomes the most likely candidate. If you were the one who originally designed or wrote a character, would you be peeved that they were starring in a game about a brothel? I guess you probably would. But would you be so annoyed that you'd force a fairly harmless game off the internet? Probably not unless:

You were a cunt.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Blog: Starcraft 2 + Marvel Brothel!

So, I meant to write something about finding the time to work on your amateur games, but I've been side-tracked by Starcraft 2. Now I have my new computer, I've been playing it pretty much non-stop; the only time I haven't been playing it is when I've been at work or eating or something...

Not that this is a problem because this game is really freakin' good. Admittedly, I've spent most of my time so far working out how all the new changes to the Zerg work out (Zerg all the way!) and trying to work out some decent build orders (rushing doesn't seem to be the way forward anymore), but I'm having fun anyway. The campaign isn't half bad either; just a shame you have to play as the Terran throughout most of it.

Pretty ironic that a post about productivity has been killed by procrastination. I guess the lesson here is that, if you want to get something done, don't go and buy Starcraft 2.


Almost forgot! I wanted to congratulate fellow amateur developer Calunio on getting an absolute fuck-tonne of downloads for his Marvel Brothel game. Yes, that sounds like a joke game, but it really isn't; it's a well thought out management game and you should give it a try. Don't believe me? Check out its feature at Rock, Paper, Shotgun!


I just found out that Marvel Brothel had to be taken down because of a copyright request from Marvel. How much does that suck? It's not like Calunio was making any money off it or anything. Eugh.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Preview: Metal Gear Solid: Lunacy of Legion

Title: Metal Gear Solid: Lunacy of Legion
Developer: Zephyr
Genre: Stealth'Em Up
Program: RPGMaker 2003
When I first saw this game, I subscribed almost immediately; I couldn't resist the temptation of playing a Metal Gear fan-game created with SNES-era Zelda graphics. The strange thing is that it wasn't just the novelty of this idea that caught my attention, it was the thought that the two styles might actually work well together. I'm not going to deny that the two styles seem like an awkward mix at first, but the more and more I thought about it the more and more it seemed like this was a combination that would work. Why? Because the first two Metal Gear games actually have gameplay that's quite similar to the SNES-era Zelda games. You wander around, look for key(card)s, find items that let you progress and then fight a gimmicky boss; rinse and repeat. Obviously, there are some differences to consider because Metal Gear has enemies that are smarter and has its trademark stealth sequences, not forgetting the difference in tone between the two franchises, but it didn't seem like such a stretch to create a fun Metal Gear experience with Zelda-style graphics. I was pretty excited about the whole thing!

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work as well as I would've hoped, though it's nothing to do with the combination of styles present in this game. The Zelda-styled character sprites created for Snake and company work well when placed over the top of the Zelda chipsets and the chipsets are also good from a gameplay point of view because the top-down viewpoint works well with the stealth sequences present in this game.

The blend of graphical styles looks good, no doubt about it.

On the face of it, the stealth elements are well-worked too. Despite the lack of a minimap showing you where the enemy's field of visions falls, ala. Metal Gear Solid on the PSX, you'll never feel that the enemy's scope of view is ridiculous. If you rush around too much then they'll catch you out, which is what you'd expect, but they can never see you from off-screen so you'll never accidently stumble into one of them if you pay enough attention to what you're doing. Also, because their routes are set-up in such a way that they check obvious hiding spots and frequently stop to have a look over their shoulder, they generally pose a decent challenge. At first, I was pretty impressed with the stealth elements in this game, but problems arise when you have to do anything other than sneak around the guards.

The most obvious problem is Snake's inability to execute guards using "stealth kills". This definitely hurts the gameplay because "stealth kills" are pretty important in a game like this; you don't want to alert all the other guards to your presence everytime you have to attack someone and you don't want to waste time sneaking past the same guard over and over when you could've just stuffed them in a locker the first time around.

However, as big an omission as this is in a Metal Gear-oriented game, it is only a small problem compared to the other problem I had with the stealth elements in this game: Snake's inability to hide once he has alerted the guards. No matter what you do once the enemies are alerted, they will always be able to see you; their well-thought out fields of view get thrown out of the window and they can suddenly see through everything. Stand behind barrels, hide behind trees, move behind a big rock, it doesn't matter what you do because the guards can still see you and, not only can they see you, they can shoot you through those obstacles too! Frankly, this is ridiculous and it ruined the game for me. As soon as you get spotted you may as well re-load the game because you've got very little chance of getting out alive.

I wanna slit this guy's throat and stuff him in the locker, but I can't!

The problems with the stealth-system are only made worse by the problems I had with the combat system. Your character, Snake, follows the mechanics you'd expect from Zelda-style combat; his projectiles fire in a straight line and he swings his sword combat knife one tile in front of him. This is all well and good and I have no problem with this. However, the enemies do not follow these rules. They do not fire their projectiles in a straight line and are instead able to hit you whenever you're in their field of view, meaning that while you're lining up your shot they're blasting away at you. Even with the implementation of a strafing system to make aiming easier, this game makes fighting enemies a near-impossible task. If you end up fighting more than three/four enemies in a row without finding a health pack then you're pretty much dead and if you end up fighting more than one enemy at once (which happens quite often if you alert the enemies to your presence) then you're definitely dead. Like I already said; as soon as you get spotted you may as well re-load the game because you've got very little chance of getting out alive.

Basically, in this game, the computer is a cheating bastard.

Zephyr isn't joking: You're going to see this screen a lot!

It's a shame that the gameplay is broken because the dialogue and characters actually manage to be quite amusing throughout the game (throughout the portion of the game I played before I could no longer take seeing the game-over screen, at least). The dialogue and storyline is a lot more light-hearted than your usual Metal Gear outing - they did get a bit melodramatic towards the end of that series, didn't they? - but you won't get a chance to enjoy it because you'll be dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

An interesting concept that would've worked if it wasn't for several broken gameplay mechanics. If the combat was fixed up then it would probably be a decent game, but in its current state it's fairly unplayable. 2/10.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Devblog: Time Is Always Too Short!

Why is it that, whenever you actually want to work on something, you don't have the time and yet, when you don't wanna work on something, you have all the time in the world? I swear that all my best ideas come to be when I am at work and can't do anything about them, only for me to have run out of the will to implement them once I get home.

Eugh...I wish this actually worked:

Anyway, enough self-rage, and at least this has encouraged me to start working on an article about managing your time when you're creating your own amateur game. Balancing development with all the other stuff we have to do, like working and socialising and exercising etc., is pretty fucking difficult and I think trying to spell it out would be a good way for me to work out how I could do it better.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Review: Super Crate Box

Title: Super Crate Box
Developer: Vlambeer
Genre: Shoot'Em Up/Arcade
Program: ???

"Have you heard the good news about SUPER CRATE BOX?" - Craze

Super Crate Box doesn't easily fall into a genre, which is fairly ironic for a game that's all about boxes. I've tried comparing it to other games but there isn't really anything out there that you can compare it to. The closest I can get is to say "it's an arcade game", but this brings up a whole new set of problems because the arcade genre is a pretty vague category in and of itself. What are you gonna do? In the end, the best thing to do is to explain the objective:

Super Crate Box is a game where you collect crates. 

Sound stupid? It probably does because you're probably thinking the same thing that I was thinking as I scanned through the screenshots and my friends were thinking as I tried explaining it to them: "How could that be fun?" 

I will attempt to give an answer...

The gameplay in Super Crate Box, like I've already said, consists mainly of collecting crates. In these crates are weapons and you use these weapons to kill enemies. These enemies cascade from the top of the screen to the bottom of the screen in a predictable way and are fairly easy to dodge. Touching an enemy results in your death, but since dodging them isn't that hard you're probably thinking: "Where is the challenge?" 

The challenge comes from the utter chaos that ensues when you introduce these two gameplay mechanics:

1) Enemies that you don't kill before reaching the bottom of the screen will re-spawn at the top and move twice as fast as they originally did. They will continue to re-spawn (although they won't get faster) over and over until you do kill them.

2) Each time you collect a new crate, you discard your current weapon for the one in the crate. 

In case you can't see how this works, what essentially happens if you don't kill enemies is that the screen becomes flooded with them and they are no longer easy to dodge. This forces you to kill them, but because some weapons are better than others and because you always have to discard your current weapon for the one in the next crate, you're not always going to be well equipped to do this. When this happens you're forced to either:

1) Run to the next crate as quickly as possible so that you can get a new weapon, all the time hoping it's better than the one you have and that only a few enemies manage to re-spawn during this time. 

2) Attempt to kill the enemies with a non-ideal weapon.

Now do you see where the challenge is? This game essentially uses complete chaos as a weapon against you, always trying to keep you in two minds about what to do next. If you have a good weapon in your hands then you don't really want to part with it, but if you don't collect more crates then you'll never get a good score. You both fear and crave the next crate at the same time and this strange mix of anticipation and trepidation is something that you don't experience too often in videogames (or ever), making this a unique experience.

The game builds on this by including unlockable levels, unlockable costumes and unlockable weapons based on the number of crates you've collected. Because these totals are cumulative regardless of your deaths, it doesn't unfairly punish players who aren't too good at chaining crate combos together, keeping the game fun whilst you're still learning how to play. On the other hand, the game also allows you to unlock harder versions of each level if you manage to chain together a certain number of crates on that level, rewarding those people who do get good at chaining crates together. Essentially, the game caters for players of all skill levels and that's hard to find in an arcade game because arcade games are famous for having "brick walls" that you'll never get past if you aren't good enough. 

Of course, for those who get really good there's also the challenge of competing for the top-spot on the on-line leaderboards on the game's website. Unfortunately, I'm nowhere near good enough to get onto those scoreboards so this isn't something I've experienced, but it's there if you need it and I think it's a good idea.

Chaos is fun!

As you can see from the screenshot, the graphics in the game are pretty simple. This is a strongpoint. The simple graphics won't cause any distractions and this means that you always know what is what. This is good in a game where you don't really have a chance to stop and think, because stopping and thinking generally leads to death. The music is equally simple, being of the chip-tune variety, and I don't have any complaints about this because I really like old-school videogame music and the tunes in this game are particularly good. Their high-tempo beats fit the chaotic style of gameplay really well; a perfect match.

Ultimately, the game doesn't have enough content to keep you smiling forever, but you'll probably get several hours of fun out of this game before you truly get bored. And of course, I can't really criticise a game for having too little content when it's a free game and it gave me hours and hours of playtime. Plus, if you leave it for a couple of days then it becomes fun again anyway. Score!

Instead of forcing you to play through the same crap over and over again just so you can see something new, Super Crate Box ensures you are always having fun and always unlocking new things regardless of your skill level. This is a rare trait in arcade games and it's one that makes this game stand out. 9/10

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Review: Alter A.I.L.A. Genesis

Title: Alter A.I.L.A Genesis
Developer: Neok
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker 2003

If I said that Alter A.I.L.A. Genesis was one of the most anticipated RPGMaker games since Don Miguel originally translated the maker, I don’t think there are many people who would accuse me of being silly. However, when I take that a step further and say that AAG is by far the game I've looked forward to most, people might start thinking exactly that. This is because there are dozens of other games that people would point to instead, games like A Blurred Line and Hero's Realm (feel free to discuss your own choices), but the fact is that no other RPGMaker game has caught my attention quite like this project did. Ever since playing the demo I've been waiting for the day that this game was finished, so much so that I volunteered to help beta-test it just so that I could get my hands on it earlier than expected. Having said all that, I guess you should look at this less as a review and more as an answer to this question:

Does AAG live up to the expectations I had of it?

A Brave, New, Horizontal World

The best place to start would be with the feature that caught my attention most; the side-scrolling area-maps. It’s incredibly rare to play a role-playing game that works like this, so much so that I can’t actually think of any off the top of my head, and this means that exploration can be a bit disorientating because it is sometimes hard to work out how areas are linked together. However, I personally thought that this made exploration more rewarding, as opposed to more frustrating, because it made “small realisations” like "so that's how I get back to x from y" seem really important. By making even the smallest achievement seem like a big deal, AAG ensures that exploration rarely becomes boring, which is a problem a lot of other role-playing games have (cf. Final Fantasy XIII).

Exploration yields a lot of rewards... one of them being this little easter-egg!

AAG doesn’t let this unique method of exploration carry all the burden, though. It still makes sure that the things that are “big realisations” in other role-playing games - finding secret areas, reaching hidden items boxes, solving complex puzzles – are handled well. Take items boxes, for instance, a device that is used in almost all role-playing games to reward players for exploration. AAG ensures that it gets the most out of this device in two ways:

The first is a fairly common way of making the most of item boxes, by ensuring that “hidden” item boxes are visible to you from areas that you can’t yet reach them from. What this does is that it ensures the player is eager to find them and gives them direction in their exploration. You don't wander around aimlessly hoping to find items and end up dissapointed when you don't get any, instead you know exactly where you're trying to get to. As I say, though, this is a fairly common thing to do, so much so that any good role-playing game will almost certainly do it.

The second method AAG uses to get the most out of item boxes is less common, that being the way AAG grades item boxes into two groups: “common” and “unique”. By doing this, the game ensures that know beforehand whether or not you’re looking for something good, which means that it prevents you from being disappointed if you put in a lot of effort and end up with a less-than-great item. The best examples of other games that do this would be the Zelda series; it works really well in those games and it works really well in AAG too.

Essentially, the way item boxes are used in AAG boils down to this; increased anticipation and less disappointment. Where’s the downside? There isn't one, and because AAG applies this logic to pretty much all exploration, the side-view style works really well.

Attack, Attack, Attack-Attack-Attack!

The second thing that caught my attention when I was playing the AAG demo was the battle-system because, despite using RPGMaker 2003's broken default battle-system, Neok was managing to squeeze a lot out of it. Admittedly, some of the features Neok was introducing seemed really gimicky and I wasn't too sure about the difficulty of the battles, but Neok has took the comments he recieved after releasing the demo and crafted something truly spectacular within a pretty limited engine.

However, it is impossible to describe the battle-system without going into how it effects the way you equip your characters and vice-versa, so I’m going to have to tackle both at the same time.

The AP/EX system is the stand-out system that Neok has implemented and it basically dictates how you go about defeating enemies and equipping characters. On the face of it, each skill your characters have cost AP, which can be regenerated by defending and by using items, and EX, which can be “charged” through the use of skills. This seems really simplistic and almost makes battles seem a simple case of “charging” up your best skills over and over until the enemies are dead. However, it isn’t that simple or mundane in practice and this is because the way AP/EX work is dictated by the “mode” your character has equipped.

Modes can slow or quicken the rate at which you get AP/EX, doing so in a trade-off against negative or positive status effects respectively (i.e. earning X more AP per turn may lead to Y% of your HP being removed each turn), so balancing these “modes” – and there is often only one of each mode – to get an optimum damage output is the name of the game. This system adds an incredible amount of depth to battles and also makes equipment a lot more important than “sword A deals more damage than sword B, I’ll equip sword A!”, I was really impressed with how everything came together.

Another system Neok has put into the battles is an element system and, on the face of it, it’s exactly the kind of resistance/weakness system that pretty much every role-playing game since the beginning of time uses. Much like the AP/EX system, though, the reason elements work so well is because they’re used to make sure that setting up your equipment is really important. This is because (pretty much) all the weapons you can equip have an element attributed to them and, as most enemies have a massive resistance to one or more of the six elements available, if you don’t manage to balance elements out properly you’re going to have a really hard time getting all your characters dealing a respectable amount of damage. This is made all the more important because enemies have predictable patterns of resistance based on the “class” of enemy they are, which makes sure you study them carefully to come up with combinations of elements that are unlikely to be resisted at the same time as each other. That AAG makes sure that you’re rewarded for being observant is really important.

You see this guy? He is going to stomp your face if your modes aren't set-up properly!

There is only one aspect of the battles that doesn’t have a massive influence on your equipment and, ironically, its the one I like the least: Field effects. Field effects are things like all units having their HP healed by a little each turn or all units having reduced defence, little changes that are supposed to have a big influence on how battles pan out. You are able to induce these with items and bosses can induce them repeatedly and, when it comes to boss fights, they’re fairly clever because they add another level of strategy. However, because boss fights are pretty much the only time you’re really going to use or encounter them, they feel a little underused. I would’ve personally liked to see them applied in a lot more fights in order to give certain areas more flavour (a field effect that “poisons” everyone would’ve worked well in sewer areas, for example) but this didn’t happen. Their under use doesn’t really drag the game down in any way, but I would definitely consider it a missed opportunity.

To summarise so far: Exploration is really good, the battles work really well and equipment is actually important. Where’s the catch? Well, there really isn’t one as far as the gameplay goes. Everything about the gameplay links together really well and, aside from the under implementation of the field effects, I don’t have a bad word to say about AAG in this respect. The game really delivers when it comes to its gameplay so, if we go back to my original question, you’d have to say that AAG lives up to my expectations thus far.

What about the writing?

One thing that I was really interested in was how Neok was going to twist the multi-path storyline of the original Alter A.I.L.A into a more traditional, linear storyline without making everything about the story seem forced. By replacing sequences that required the player to make decisions with sequences where the characters make decisions for themselves, I thought that Neok was running a rather fine line and that he was going to have a really difficult task making the characters, especially the main character, seem natural. Basically, I thought there was a big risk of the storyline falling flat without the player-based interactions that drove the plot of the original Alter A.I.L.A. forward. However, the storyline that Neok has come up with is brilliant and I don’t have enough praise for it. The twists and turns from start to finish are well timed, well plotted and never manage to seem (too) forced. The game manages to grab you early on and then makes sure you keep playing through what can only be described as a roller-coaster ride. I loved every minute of it.

The dialogue is also good and I loved the exchanges between the characters as the twists the storyline took changed them from allies to enemies and back to allies again. One particular monologue that Erin directs at Scott (those who have played the game will probably know which one I am talking about; I won’t say more so that I don’t spoil anything) was particularly excellent, but the truth is that there are tonnes of enjoyable cutscenes scattered throughout this game.

As for the characters themselves, it is definitely true that the characters are all massively stereotypical and do little to step outside of those stereotypes. However, for the most part, Neok manages to make you care about them anyway. You will end up feeling a real connection to these characters by the time you’ve finished playing and will no longer care that they are “only” stereotypes, something that I think Neok achieves by showing us the flaws of his characters instead of just their strengths, a problem that stereotypes usually perpetuate. I have to admit that this isn’t true for all of the characters and there are definitely some that could’ve been fleshed out a little better (I’m looking at you, Dread!), but those characters who are central to the storyline are generally well written. I have very few complaints.

Basically, the storyline in AAG hooks you and, aided by entertaining dialogue and a cast of well-written characters, doesn’t let go. For the second time in this review, I have to come to the conclusion that AAG manages to live up to my expectations. In fact, that’s selling it a bit short, because in this respect it has surpassed my expectations. I always thought that the gameplay would be brilliant after playing the demo and the full version doesn’t disappoint, but I was never too sure about the writing and AAG amazed me in that respect anyway!

Pretty Things...

I’ll just come out and say it: This game looks spectacular. I shouldn’t need to write anything about the graphics in this game because you don’t even need to play the game to know that they’re spectacular, all you need to do is scan through a few of the screenshots.

No clever caption needed.

As for what is most impressive about them; that honour has to go to the comic-styled cutscenes that the game uses. Not only do these cutscenes look amazing, and it must’ve taken a long time for Neok to come up with them all, they add so much to the dialogue. It's much the same as the way the character animations in Final Fantasy VI added to the script in that game. Being able to see the facial expressions and body language of the characters is something that people take for granted now that it is the norm in high-definition games, but it is far from the norm in the RM* world and it really makes a massive difference.

Another part of the graphics that I found really amazing were the in-battle character animations. Despite the RPGMaker 2003 engine being terrible for creating battle-animations, especially when it comes to character animations, Neok has managed to create animations that look really smooth. I was incredibly surprised with the range of animations displayed by the characters and, having tried to do similar things in my own games, I’m still not quite sure how Neok has managed to get away with it.

As for the music, it’s equally as good. I also didn’t recognise much of it, which is always nice. A special mention should go to the frantically paced battle music, a track that I never got tired of throughout the whole experience, but I really don’t think Neok did anything wrong with any of the chosen pieces. I quite often play videogames with my own music on in the background, at least for a little while (grinding usually induces this when it comes to RPGs), but that didn’t happen once with AAG because there really wasn’t any need.

You can't hear it, so just trust me when I say that the music in this battle is as immense as the battle looks.

The Final Score

I’m aware that this probably reads less like a review and more like rampant fanboyism and, in that respect, I’m (almost) sorry. There’s nothing I can really do about it, though, because there just isn’t much to criticise in this game. I found the battles to be well-balanced and entertaining, I loved the in-depth customisation available through the equipment system, I thought that exploration worked incredibly well, the storyline gripped me, the dialogue is emotional and entertaining, the graphics are amazing and the music is well chosen. Downsides? None at all.

This is it, this is the best RM* game. 10/10