Wednesday, November 03, 2010

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.

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