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!

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.

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

Review: The Encephalon

Title: The Encephalon
Developer: Deckiller
Genre: RPG
Program: RPGMaker 2003

The Encephalon was developed alongside entrants to Shinan’s recent “One Room” contest, although it wasn't entered in the contest, which was a contest were developers tried to create a game that took place in a single room within a 72-hour timeframe. Technically, The Encephalon fits the bill as the bulk of the gameplay takes place within a computer server that is stored within a single room but, because the world stored on this server has several rooms, it would be pretty unfair to compare The Encaphalon with games that were entered into the contest. Still, despite this game not quite fitting the rules for the “One Room” contest, we have to recognise that finishing a game in 72-hours is a difficult thing to do and take this into consideration when playing the game…

… but the only way that this game really shows it was made in 72-hours is with its use of the default graphics that come bundled with the RPGMaker 2003 program, the so-called “runtime package” or “RTP”. I don’t really consider this a problem since the graphics are actually used really well, but people who are tired of seeing the RTP are going to have to take this into account before playing this game.

Anyway, with that slight disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into what this game is actually about, the titular “Encephalon”:

In the game’s “real world”, the Vector company has developed a machine called the “Encephalon” that is able to take the “souls” of dead humans and copy them into one of many “virtual worlds”. People live forever in their chosen “virtual world”, which is considered a form of “heaven”, but this process is only available to those who can afford it. Hackers, supposedly annoyed about the cost of the process and the controversial development of a “virtual hell” that could be used to punish criminals, implant a virus into one of the Encephalon’s “virtual worlds” that starts to erase souls from the Encephalon. As a result, you – scientists who work for Vector – are sent into the machine to try and rid the world of the virus.

The way this is turned into a traditional RPG is quite clever. By making it so that the "virtual world" infected by the virus is one that reflects everything stereotypical about a JRPG (all the customers for this particular "virtual world" probably played one too many JRPGs in their lifetimes...) and by making it so that the “virus” is symbolised by the appearance of “monsters”, Deckiller cleverly enables the use of a typical JRPG gameplay. Essentially, JRPG style battles become the method of choice for destroying the virus that is infecting the Encephalon.

Make sense so far?

In my opinion, it’s a really well-thought out scenario that allowed the developer to make use of the most readily available tools and resources, something that is vital for a 72-hour development timeframe (Deckiller states that the game was made with only 15 hours of work!) More importantly, though, it is a scenario that allows for an entertaining experience and ensures that the storyline is fairly gripping. There isn’t much to the game, it only takes an hour or two to complete, but this setting manages to keep you interested throughout.

Unfortunately, the dialogue doesn’t match up to how good the setting is and, as a result, the interplay between the characters you control is nowhere near as gripping as the backdrop. The main reason for this is that the scientists you play as are fairly unlikeable, but it’s also because their conversations with scientists outside of the Encephalon (in the “real world”) are really jarring. There is never any indication of when your characters are talking amongst yourselves and when they are talking to the “real world” scientists and this makes the “real world” scientists’ interjections seem really random.

Another bad thing about how the relationship between the "virtual" and "real world" scientists are portrayed is that, because you rarely ever see what is going on in the “real world”, you don’t get a feel for how hard their job actually is. This means that the changes they occasionally make to the “virtual world” your characters are in seem forced and also means that you end up thinking “why couldn’t they have done that sooner?”

None of this really detracts from the game too much (although it is definitely something I think could be looked at for the sequel), because it’s the gameplay that is the true focus when you’re playing The Encephalon. Well, not so much the out-of-battle gameplay because a lot of the out-of-battle gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from a generic JRPG and The Encephalon doesn’t really do anything special in this respect: It is the in-battle gameplay that is the true focus when you’re playing this game.

This is because the “real-time class change” system that Deckiller has implemented, a system that works in a similar way to the “paradigm shift” system in Final Fantasy XIII, works really well. By allowing you to change class whenever you want, the game makes sure that battles, especially boss encounters, aren’t just space-mashing affairs. Because most enemies have massive resistances and weaknesses, the game ensures that you always have to pay attention and that you always have to be changing classes to end battles quickly. For example, if you come up against an enemy that is resistant to magic then you're going to want to switch to a party with more fighters, or if you come up against an enemy that uses a lot of magic then you might want to take advantage of the mages higher magic-resistance. It’s a simple system, really, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the battles in this game because of it (it does help that they're superbly balanced as well!)

And… well, there’s not much more to say about this game. A lot of what it does is generic because of the limited time-scale that it was developed in, but I don’t think people should let that put them off. For the one or two hours you need to put into this game, what you get is a solid experience supplemented by an entertaining battle-system that makes battling a real pleasure. It's a shame that the dialogue isn't up to scratch but it really didn't bother me that much; the battles were enough to keep this game fun!

“Behold, a game that took 15 hours to make” is the first statement that you see at the top of The Encephalon’s gamepage, but it doesn’t really show when you play the game. This game goes to show that, if you plan properly and maintain your focus, you can achieve a lot in a small timeframe. 7/10

Review: Village Brave

Title: Village Brave and the Escape From Dread Mountain
Developer: Kentona
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Village Brave is a game intended for the two-week Game Gale contest that happened to take a little longer, although Kentona insists that only two-week’s worth of development time was actually spent on it. Couple this short dev-time with the fact that this is Kentona’s first project using RPGMaker VX and you’ve got a combination of circumstances that should result in lowered expectations. However, having played and enjoyed (and reviewed) Kentona’s previous short-dev time project, Generica, my expectations weren’t lowered one bit and I opened this game with a lot of optimism.

Why optimism? Because sometimes, when a project tries to do too much or tries to be too innovative, it is easy for the developer to forget that the game has to be fun as well, but what Kentona does as a developer is create games that are entertaining without ever trying to break the mould. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, although it would be easy to say that this is a bad thing if you’re the kind of developer who prefers pushing the boundaries or the kind of player who relishes new experiences, because I love being able to pick up a game without needing to read reams of tutorials and backstory to enjoy it. Kentona’s games are generally very “pick-up-and-play” and this is definitely a good thing.

The problem with this sort of approach to game design is that, although you very rarely hit low-points, you’re never going to hit the high-points. You’re not going to give players the sensation of a new gaming experience; you’re not going to bend their emotions with your storyline or characterisation and; you’re not going to hook them with new puzzles or minigames. In most cases, this doesn’t really hurt Kentona’s games because they’re still varied enough to pull off the generic role-playing experience without getting tedious. It also doesn't hurt Kentona's games because he generally produces gameplay that is a perfect facsimile of the role-playing gameplay you used to love on your SNES or Mega-Drive. Unfortunately, neither of these is true of Village Brave.


First of all, Village Brave doesn't manage to have area-map gameplay that is engaging and rewarding, something that I certainly didn't expect from a Kentona game! You will press the up key more in this game than you are likely to in any other because you are only ever moving in one direction. This gets fairly tedious. More tedious are sequences like the "cracks in the floor" segment, where stepping on certain tiles will make you fall down into a cave below you. This mechanic is cool if you use it to hide items or if you use it as a puzzle, but to have a whole area littered with invisible "fall" events that the player has to trial-and-error their way past is silly. It artificially extends the playtime, it is really boring and it is really, really unimaginative.
Holier than the pope...

Another problem with the area-map gameplay is that, although there are a lot of things you can loot (I think everything in the opening village is searchable, you can loot campsites and everything from logs to rocks are searchable), the maps never really force you to look for these events; they are absolutely everywhere. This works for "mix" items like flint and wood because you need them in high supply (and you would expect things like flint and wood to be everywhere), but it doesn't work for equipment and weapons because such items should make you feel "rewarded" when you find them. Equally, they should be used as bait to get you searching around the map but, because the maps are so linear, there isn't any where they could be placed that would get you searching. By having equipment and items in random piles of wood and rock that are basically everywhere, you remove this mechanic for rewarding people and make your maps even more boring than their linearity is.

Battles are another area that are lacking in this game. The most prominent problem is that the skills your characters learn are basic, lack variety and are far too easy to spam over and over. For instance, both Babby and Red Hawkwind have multi-hit skills that they can use - why do they both need one? And why does Red Hawkwind need one when his "rage" move (basically a limit-break) is supposed to be one? Even the “mix”-style skill that the main character has fails to spice things up because there are so few combinations available and because one of them, “Magic Wand”, is ridiculously more useful than the others. Couple these problems with the fact that the enemies in Village Brave are not very varied (nor very difficult to defeat) and you end up with a rather mediocre combat system. The battles were far from terrible (I have definitely seen worse) but, because there wasn’t anything on the area-map backing the battles up, they got boring.

Wow, two attacks in one turn! But... isn't that supposed to be my "limit break" as well!?

The game does have some saving graces, though...

For instance, getting a baby to write the dialogue for a character no one is supposed to understand (bar the main character) is a clever touch and, as a result, the dialogue for Babby is pretty funny throughout. In fact, the dialogue throughout is pretty strong because the way the characters talk suits the native American setting really well. Like another reviewer pointed out, things like "sister boy-child" do just enough to distinguish the setting from what we’re used to in traditional role-playing games (that being a fantasy-medieval setting) and this is definitely a good thing! To be honest, seeing something that isn’t based around a fantasy-medieval or sci-fi setting is always nice regardless of how well it is executed; that it is so well done is just the icing on the cake.

Another impressive part of the game were the various riddles used thoughout. The riddles aren't overly difficult (which riddles always have the potential to be) and I had just enough trouble with them that they were entertaining. However, this is definitely a "your milage will vary" situation - if you're not a big fan of riddles then you're going to hate these segments no matter what and there isn't much Kentona can do about that (although, I suppose, you could always look for the answers on the internet).

Overall, this game doesn't do the gameplay basics well enough and that really hurts its playability because there isn't much else on show. The setting is novel and is well executed, ensuring that the early exchanges (in the titular village) will make you smile, but once you leave the village this game doesn't have too much to offer except the odd riddle or puzzle...

Village Brave isn’t brave enough to step-up and make itself shine, but it forgets to get the basics right too! This is a shame, because the setting is really well executed. 3/10

Review: Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer

Title: Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer
Developer: Calunio
Genre: Psychological Horror
Program: RPGMaker 2003
Serious conversations about sexual activity are something that a lot of people find difficult to sit through in the first place, but when the topic moves onto the more twisted ways of gaining arousal then people don’t want to hear it. An example of such activity would be finding enjoyment in torturing and humiliating people, or “sadomasochism”, something that is part of the fetish sub-culture that most of us are probably aware of; whether that is through leaked news stories about politicians and their mistresses or because we’ve all seen Pulp Fiction. On the face of it, finding enjoyment in these kinds of thing is relatively harmless when the subject is taking pleasure from and, most likely, paying for it. But what if the subject isn’t willing? We can (hopefully) all agree that this is intrinsically wrong and, because of this, perhaps we should ask ourselves "why would anyone want to play a game that puts in the role of such a person?"

Putting aside the obvious, yet amazing retarded, "people who'd want to play this game are sick themselves" answer, I see two possibilities. Some people will play a game like this because they believe it is an interesting insight into the psyche that these people may have and they want to learn more; you would require talented writing to appease such players. Some people may put the more disturbing elements of such a game to one side and play it simply because they see it as a puzzle to be solved; you would require a good understanding of gameplay mechanics to appease these people.

Of course, some people are just going to hate the concept altogether, regardless or any “merits” it may have; but how can you possibly avoid this from happening when tackling such subject matter?

Anyway, enough psychological commentary and onto the content of the game.

Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer is a game that tackles its subject matter brilliantly. The personality of the playable character, Verge, is incredibly well developed and – somewhat scarily – very easy to sympathise with. This is because the reasons behind his obsession with dealing out pain, both physical and psychological, are well explored throughout the game; because, through a series of in-depth conversations with other “dungeoneer’s”, we learn why he finds it fascinating and; because we learn why he wants to become as good as he can at his “art”, a storyline that focuses mainly around his primary love interest.

This storyline is, on the face of it, a relatively simple one: You are trying to make good videos so that Verge can get laid. If things were that simple, though, then this game would be so much worse from a writing perspective. The way the storyline develops over the course of the game is amazing and I actually didn't see the ending going the way it did. I had a completely different idea of what was going to happen that, although not as simple as the "Verge gets laid" premise, was pretty basic in comparison to what actually happens.

Another feature that leaped out at me from the writing in this game is that there are strong parallels to be drawn between Verge’s initial frustration at the failure of his videos to gather fans and the frustration some of us, as developers, must feel when our games fail to attract the same kind of attention. This kind of frustration is something anyone who produces their own “art” is going to feel at one point or another but the realisation that Verge’s motivations are very similar to our own is slightly worrying and extremely creepy; even when it is something that should be blatantly obvious. Perhaps it is just something that, as people, we are not be willing to face or accept and it is this that stops it being obvious? Here I go again with the psychological commentary, but it is something that is hard to escape when you are playing this game and it is probably another reason, aside from those that I mentioned earlier, that this game is going to be so polarising. Simply put, some people aren’t going to want to accept that Verge’s motivation is very human; they are going to want to assume he is a monster. They won't want to relate with him and this will prevent them from enjoying this game.

From a writing standpoint, I clearly don’t have enough superlatives for this game. It is a game that drives home (what I think is) its central point with a massive measure of competence; that these dungeoneers are just as human as we are. Needless to say, I believe Calunio is an immensely talented writer, but what use is brilliant writing if the game can’t back it up in other ways? If this game was somehow turned into a book or a movie then it would be a sick, twisted but, ultimately, brilliant piece. With games you have to offer something more; entertaining gameplay. How is it that a person can have fun when they are playing something that is so fundamentally disturbing?

When it comes down to the gameplay this game is a puzzle game, and the best way to make puzzle games fun is to keep their mechanics simple whilst ensuring the puzzles themselves are challenging; this is something this game does well. There are basically two different puzzle sequences contained in this game.

First off is the art of “seducing” your victims. This is a well thought out sequence that is based heavily on a “dating sim”. The idea is to try and form a strong enough relationship with the victim that they will come home with you. Using the information Verge has gained by stalking his victims, you need to decipher how best to talk to them in order to build a relationship. If you manage to get the relationship bar high enough you get to take them to your dungeon whereas if you cause them to run out of patience you will have to try again. Two meters to worry about and a series of dialogue choices you need to pick your way through; simple, but challenging and, ultimately, quite fun.

The second system is the torture part of the game. This requires you to reduce your victims to the state where they are going to achieve a “beautiful escape” when they exit the dungeon. To do this, you need to force two status bars (will and health) to a low state (below 20%) without depleting either of them. If you deplete either of them then the victim will either die (health) or go into despair (will). Both of these are bad as they result in lesser reviews. If the victim escapes with either of these two bars above 20% then you are arrested and you get a game over.

Achieving a “beautiful escape” isn’t the only thing you need to worry about as there are also a series of other statuses you can inflict on your victim before they leave the dungeon. You can give them hope and cause them to scream, both of which will impress your audience but are relatively easy to achieve, or you can also hit their “soft spot”. This is the real trick as it is what turns your videos from average to amazing. It is also the part that cleverly links this system with the system used for seduction. Through your conversations with the various victims in this game you will learn what it is that makes them tick and you will learn, if you are observant, something that really frightens them. Invoking this in your dungeon is what is really going to get you points and finding the ideal combination of traps to do so is something that, I am going to have to admit, I found fun. To be honest, this goes right back to my central ethos concerning this game. That you’re not going to like this game if you’re unable to let go of your morality and play the game for what it is; a well-thought out puzzle game!

None of this is to say that the mechanics of this game are perfect. Far from it.

One annoying element becomes obvious when you’re setting traps in the dungeon. The system is cumbersome because it forces you to pick up one tile at a time when it would be better to allow you to pick up multiple tiles at once or to allow you to place tiles using some other system. This is probably the most minor issue as the dungeon isn't that big and it doesn't take that long to set the traps up, but a slicker system would be appreciated none-the-less.

The mechanics of seducing your victims are also quite quirky; the “relationship meter” that displays how close you are to getting the victim to come with you works perfectly, but the “patience meter” that displays how likely you are to drive the person away isn’t clear enough. At first, I thought I had until the patience meter reached zero to form a relationship with the victim but I quite quickly found that that different victims would leave at different points on that meter. Once you know how each victim works it is quite easy to tell when they are going to leave as the level of patience they leave at remains constant. However, you shouldn’t have to fail each seduction once in order to learn how much patience a victim has; it should be obvious simply by glancing at the meters. This is another minor issue as, once you talk to each victim once, you know how their patience meter works. However, as with the map, a slicker system would be appreciated. Whether this system is making the patience bar go to zero every time or putting a marker on the meter that indicates that victims level of patience does not matter; it just needs to be more obvious!

The game tries to mask these errors with beautiful maps and eerie atmospherics that fit the subject matter perfectly. The choice of music is commendable, really setting the tone for what is going on, and the sound effects are appropriately screwed up. The mapping is terrific, even if several of the maps are stolen from Streets of Rage, simply because lighting is used to such good effect. The gauges that appear when seducing someone don’t work in an intuitive way but they do look nice. The range of animation used when characters are being hurt or damaged is stunning (although I could’ve really done without the rape animation; that was a little much for me). I only have praise for this game from a purely artistic point of view.

In short, this is a game that tackles its subject matter incredibly well and has fun, formulaic gameplay, assuming you are able to handle it. The writing is especially awe inspiring and I can't say a bad word about it. A lot of the systems present are flawed but they are all easily fixable and are fairly forgiveable given that this game was made for a contest that stipulates a short development time.

Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer is probably the most contentious game I have ever seen developed using RPGMaker and I don’t think it will be surpassed any time soon.

An amazingly creepy and thought provoking game that is awe inspiringly well-written: 9/10.