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. 

Beautiful... 

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.

LATE EDIT: 

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!

EVEN LATER EDIT:
 

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
 

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: To Arms!

Title: To Arms!
Developer: Max McGee
Genre: RPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

To Arms! is billed as a tactical roleplaying game because it (is supposedly designed so that it) requires more tactical knowledge than other games using a front-view, turn-based battle system. However, this isn’t the genre I would put it under as I am of the opinion that this game is nothing more than a traditional, turn-based RPG that just happens to have larger numbers of units present in battle. There isn’t any tactical placement of units required, you don’t get to move your units around, your attacks don’t have ranges, your attacks don’t deal damage over a certain area and the game never gives you statistical breakdowns such as the exact chance of your next attack hitting the enemy. These are all things that I would associate with a tactical RPG and, as To Arms! decides to exclude such things, I am refusing to accept that it is one.

Anyway…

To Arms! is set in an unnamed medieval universe and it handles this setting a lot better than most other games set under similar circumstances. This is because a lot of other games that use such settings often gloss over things that wouldn’t go down too well in our day and age and the result is a setting that is more “medieval-lite” than medieval. This isn’t always a bad thing because the developer’s intention isn’t always to create a gritty, realistic universe, but I certainly don’t think that To Arms! is intended to be a light-hearted game. Another reason that it isn’t a bad thing is because a lot of developers are incapable of creating a truly mature setting and end up creating something cartoon-ish when they try to force the issue by using excessive swearing, violence and other such things. To Arms! does not do any of these things. Instead, this game successfully takes unsavoury elements like murder, rape and sexism and turns them into integral and, importantly, believable parts of its storyline. By creating such a gritty yet believable setting, To Arms! makes itself stand out from the “medieval-lite” crowd.

The characters are also a perfect fit for such a universe and, because the characterisation is so consistent, there is rarely a bad bit of dialogue. The auxiliary characters are especially well written; from knights who care more about their honour than getting a job done to mercenaries who are willing to do anything for the right amount of money to apothecaries who are too inquisitive for their own good, all the characters in this game are convincing and compelling. The star of the show, however, is definitely the Lady of Rydony. Her dialogue, especially the words directed at those men who try to rule over her life, is really well written. I found it hard to dislike her, despite the fact that her actions are ones that should make you hate her guts for the situation she puts the main character (and hence, you) in, because she is a character whose back-story is so well fleshed out that it will make you sympathise with her actions. It is rare to see a “villain” portrayed so realistically in a videogame because they are often too one-dimensional, so To Arms! was definitely refreshing in this sense.

So the backdrop is good, but what about the gameplay?

Well, like the tactical games that it is trying to emulate, To Arms! is a game that has pretty much no area map gameplay. There is very little exploration, there are absolutely no puzzles for you to navigate and, as such, most of the gameplay will take place on the battle screen. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t give the illusion that exploration is possible by using mapping more reminiscent of a traditional RPG than a tactical one, in that you’re allowed to walk around the areas you visit as opposed to exploration being left to dialogue choices and simple menus. The result of this is that you’ll encounter enemies who have stolen equipment from a town and yet you won’t be able to steal it back; that you’ll walk past weapon boxes and item chests but won’t be able to loot them and; that when the game finally does give you a chest to loot, it will come across as if the developer was forced to put the items there instead of coming across as if their presence was part of the environment you’re in. The lack of “life” in the environments you “explore” is jarring and results in a lot of frustration, frustration that is doubled when you are low on items and could really use that potion sitting on the shelf. The reason that this was probably done was so that the game could focus on the in-battle gameplay, but if you’re going to let the player walk around then you might as well make the environment feel “alive” while you’re at it!

The lack of life the environs exhibit is only a minor problem, though. The bigger problems are with the way the game doesn’t give you enough time to work out its systems and with the way that the game doesn’t prepare you for how different it is going to be from your normal roleplaying experience. Don’t misunderstand these comments as a slight against the general balance or difficulty of this game, though, because (aside from enemy evasion being a little bit too high and some skills being too ineffective *cough* healing *cough*) I don’t believe that the problem lies with how difficult the game is. Initially I did, but after playing through it a few more times I no longer think that this is the case. Given the right knowledge and the right understanding of the game and its systems, the player is going to find that both quests are pretty fun to play through and that the balance is probably at the level the developer intended it to be at.

The real problem is that the player simply isn’t given enough time to familiarise themselves with the game’s mechanics, and this results in the game seeming more difficult than it actually is. The reasons for this are many.

To start with, the first quest is fairly simple and it isn’t that long, which means that you aren’t going to be pushed into finding good class combinations. Equally, you wouldn’t have enough time to experiment with them during this quest anyway as you only get the option to choose classes about half way through this quest. As a result of these factors, by the time you do get to some difficult fights you’re going to have to figure such things out on the spot, without a chance to experiment. The product is that it is easy to paint yourself into a corner and this means the game seems much harder than it actually is the first time you play through it. Once you’ve played through the game once you will probably have a good idea of what classes can do what and how you want your party to fight, making the game easier, but a new player is not in a position to know such things and so will assume the game is too difficult.

The second reason is that the player will inevitably base their class choices on the party available to them during the first quest as they will want to maintain a good balance. This is all well and good… except that they may end up without a vital class for the second quest when the party splits up! Once you’ve played through the game once and know that this is going to happen you are in a position to pick a party balanced towards the resulting “two party” system you end up with, but a new player won’t know that their party is going to be split up and so will end up without proper balance. This is obviously not a good thing and it is also something that is unexpected as, in most games where you get to pick classes, you have that same party available to you throughout the whole game (or get to pick and choose your party throughout the whole game).

Another reason is that the tutorial that tells you about the classes doesn’t actually give you a lot of good information. It is very basic and doesn’t go into much depth. Even if you’ve been following the development of this game and have read the blogs the developer has written about the classes, it is still difficult to determine what class is good for what sort of role in your party.

Finally, the game just has so many things about it that are different to normal RPGs. There aren’t many RPGs where you are able (or required) to buy a lot of items at the start of the game and nor are there many RPGs were evasion and accuracy are more important stats than defence and damage. By not giving the player enough time to get used to these elements and the requirements such elements place on your party, this game sets itself up for a massive fall.
 
Trust me, you’re gonna need them…

The result of all these problems is that people are forced to play the game through at least once in order to get anything out of it. Most people who are familiar with RPGs and move onto this game will not want to play it through a load of times just to learn how to play because this isn’t a gameplay mechanic that is common in RPGs. Moreover, it is a game mechanic that is being phased out in other genres too, even those that were traditionally focused on making a player play early sections of a game over and over just to get back to the part that stumped them (cf. SNES-era Mario games and Mega Drive-era Sonic games). This mechanic needs to be removed from this game in order to keep new players playing; if it isn’t sorted out then this game is never going to garner much of a following.

As for the visual and audio stuff, this game definitely isn’t anything amazing. The mapping is competent and I’m glad that the game doesn’t use the character sprites that come bundled with RPGMaker VX because they are ridiculously poor, but the game certainly doesn’t stand out in a graphical sense. Nor does it stand out in a musical sense as the only thing I can think of that is worth commenting on is the use of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” as battle music; it was something that made me smile despite the fact that it didn’t quite fit. I understand that the game is supposed to have a custom soundtrack, though, so I guess I’ll have to wait for that to be released before passing true judgement on the music.

In summary, it is obvious that the frustrating gameplay will (and has) quickly drive new players away from the game despite the storyline and setting being executed really well. This is a shame because the gameplay in To Arms! is actually pretty good once you’ve gotten the hang of it; the game just doesn’t do enough to ease new players into the action.

Amazing characters, a realistic setting and, if you have enough patience, a fairly decent game. However, by doing too little to get new players initiated, this game is likely to annoy too many people to actually make an impact. 5/10