Friday, August 09, 2013

Review: Ankharia

Title: Ankharia
Developer: koaangel
Homepage: http://rpgmaker.net/games/4821/
Genre: Arcade
Program: Unity

Ankharia is an arcade game based largely on the concept behind Acia, which was a late 80s/early 90s Commodore 64 game. I'm actually fairly sure that the giant box of C64 games I owned as a child contained Acia, but the only games I really played on my C64 were Impossible Mission, Sid Meier's Pirates, Cricket Captain, and the Shoot'Em Up Construction Kit... and that was only when I could be bothered waiting ages to load a game from a cassette instead of playing on my SEGA Master System!

This is Acia, check those slick graphics!

Anyway, nostalgia aside...

Given that it's an arcade game, the concept behind Ankharia is quite simple. The object is to clear each level of coloured boxes without being impaled by spike traps, cut up by flying razor-disks, falling into lava, being bashed in by rotating spike-strips, or running into any other type of trap that I might've missed out. The "clear the level of x whilst dodging y" concept is pretty ubiquitous within arcade gaming, with games like Pacman (clear the level of pellets whilst dodging ghosts) being obvious examples, but there are a few ways in which Ankharia shakes things up.

The first (and most important) thing is the way that blocks are cleared from the map. The hero of the game, a quite strange looking pyramidal cyclops, can only clear out blocks that are the same colour as they are. Since the only way to change colour is to step on specially placed floor-tiles spread across each map, all blocks that are a different colour to you essentially become part of the walls of the level. This forces the player to think critically about how they traverse each level, because it is quite possible to get yourself into inescapable situations if you're not thinking carefully about the order in which you break down blocks.

The second thing are floor tiles that dictate how you can move around the map. There are two such tiles, the first being arrow tiles (you're forced to move in the direction of the arrow if you step on them) and the second being teleport tiles (you're teleported to a teleport tile of the same colour somewhere else on the map). These tiles reinforce the idea that the player needs to think carefully about the order in which they break down blocks, but they also add an element of timing as both arrow and teleport tiles can push/teleport you into dangerous situations if either your timing or control aren't very good!

If you're not careful about how and when you hop onto these teleport pads (the circular coloured/black pads in the centre), then your momentum is going to carry you into the spikes on the other side!

The final gameplay mechanic that I want to talk about are "shop items", special items that can be purchased using coins that you'll find throughout Ankharia. These "shop items" actually aren't too important when it comes to completing levels, but what they are important for is collecting unique silver and gold ankhs that are required to unlock the last two levels of the game. This is as "shop items" tend to open up areas of the level that don't actually contain any blocks; they instead tend to open up areas that contain either ankhs or a large number of coins. The items in question are bombs, keys, and an item that allows you to see secret passageways. Each item is a single-use deal, so making sure you have some whenever you enter a level is pretty important. 

The main problem with the gameplay is that there isn't really any sense of urgency. There isn't a scoring system that encourages you to take down the levels faster, the traps are either static or on-rails and so aren't going to chase you down and pen you in unless you let them, and there isn't any sort of timer that forces you to complete the levels in a given amount of time. What this means is that you can approach the levels in a slow and careful manner because, assuming that you don't die, you're eventually going to destroy all the blocks without being punished for doing so sub-optimally. The overall result is that even the hardest of the levels isn't too taxing on the brain, and I can't help but feel that this is a direct result of the lack of urgency required. It felt like if I was forced to rush through the levels then some of the more difficult levels would've definitely posed a solid challenge, but being allowed to take my time made it so that even the most challenging sections were far easier to get through than they could've and probably should've been. I'm not someone who likes ridiculous difficulty levels (for example, bullet-hell games are my least liked variety of shoot'em up), but this game could definitely do with a bit more spice. 

Another thing that I found strange is the way the difficulty of the game changes as you progress through the levels. I should probably explain that there are ten levels in total and each of them contains an "easy", "medium" and "hard" stage. New stages are initially unlocked by completing a certain number of the preceding stages, but the stages that make up the ninth and tenth levels can only be unlocked by collecting the silver and gold ankhs that I mentioned earlier. Because of how the levels are laid out, some of the "medium" and "hard" stages will have to be played before you'll unlock new "easy" stages. The problem is that the hardest "easy" stage is easier than even the easiest "medium" stage, which results in the difficult going through a series of peaks and troughs as you bounce between unlocking new "easy" stages and having to play "medium" or "hard" stages. Being someone who is used to arcade games following an upwards curve terms of in difficulty, this was something that I hadn't expected to happen and, although it isn't a big deal, I figured I would mention it as something that I found very weird. 

The level layout of Ankharia, showing how the final level requires eight golden ankhs to unlock.

I suppose it doesn't help that there is the occasional glitch, notably resulting in situations were enemies fly out-of-bounds and no longer pose a threat. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence. 

Well, that's one way to avoid traps...

Some mention should be given to the graphics and music, which do a really good job of conjuring up a thoroughly Egyptian aesthetic. Being someone who was brought up on shows and films depicting ancient cultures as people who constantly filled their temples with deadly tricks and traps, this design choice struck me as an incredibly good fit. You could easily imagine Indiana Jones throwing himself through these environs in search of some ridiculous artefact, the only problem with this image being that there aren't any snakes!

This is a solid arcade romp that possesses the necessary charm and simplicity required for an entertaining experience over the short amount of time it takes to complete. Unfortunately, the experience is somewhat let down by both underwhelming and sporadic difficulty, coupled with slow pacing resulting from the lack of urgency required. 6/10.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Review: Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate

Title: Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate
Developer: Lustermx
Homepage: http://rpgmaker.net/games/3373/
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate is not a game that tries to deviate itself from other JRPG titles through the means of a premise that we’ve never seen before. Instead, it is very reliant on a scenario we’ve seen countless times within the genre, the idea that crystals somehow prevent the whole of the game’s world from descending into chaos. It’s actually a bad joke that so many games within the genre seem to revolve around crystals (or in this case, the titular Orbs of Fate), the result of which is that any newer title wishing to walk down this well-trodden path should probably dispense with walking altogether and instead try something slightly more eye-catching like cartwheeling or moonwalking or waltzing. In some senses, it's completely redundant to make such a statement as it's ultimately true that any game in any genre will benefit from adding flourishes to common tropes and formulae (assuming you execute and present these flourishes well), but I also feel like this is multiple times the case in a JRPG genre that is already so full of cliché. 

However, this is also not a game that tries to deviate itself from other JRPG titles through the means of unique gameplay features. The developer has clearly chosen to follow common JRPG tropes to the letter as I didn’t personally manage to notice a single exception or deviation; if they’re there then they’re definitely not obvious. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing when all those common clichés (your random encounters, your turn-based battle systems, your map-by-map exploration and treasure hunting, and your dungeons involving lots of switches and other such puzzles) are executed in a competent manner, because it's very hard and very harsh to criticise a developer for managing to produce a game that replicates all the tropes and systems they intended to replicate. It's even harder to criticise a developer when none of these major gameplay elements seem flawed, imbalanced, or annoying. At the end of the day, the JRPG genre would’ve never taken off so spectacularly if these gameplay elements weren’t fun to play through. However, though it may well be hard to criticise a developer who competently replicates the features they set out to replicate, it's also very, very hard to commend them when competence is all they achieve. None of the features included in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate struck me as achieving a level of excellence that deserved recognition, a problem compounded by the lack of distinction the game's general premise brings to the table. 

What I've basically described thus far is a game that makes few mistakes in replicating the feel of a traditional JRPG, but also does little to amaze or excite the player beyond what mere competence allows. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that this game is average in every way I’ve covered so far, leaving me with little to criticise and little to praise, and the fact is that such games are common in the RPGMaker community given that they're exactly what RPGMaker engines are designed to produce. The problem is that an engine can only take you so far, and one thing that they definitely can't do for you is to write likable characters the player is going to relate to and care about. It is this point on which this game falls apart, and I'll spend the rest of this review telling you why. 

The game starts at the Applon Academy, which is essentially an academy for heroes that instantly reminded me of Balamb Garden from Final Fantasy VIII. Although it may be a little harsh to compare an amateur game to what I consider to be the best Final Fantasy game, such a comparison allows me to quickly point out the biggest problem with the characterisation in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate. What Final Fantasy VIII does to make this setting work is to ensure that the range of characters you meet have instantly distinguishable personalities, whilst also striving to make sure these traits play off against each other in an entertaining manner. A good example would be the bickering between Seifer and Zell throughout the course of the Dollet mission, which gives you a reason to care for Zell (by portraying him as an underdog) whilst also giving you a reason to dislike Seifer (an eventual antagonist). Another good example is the way Quistis' interactions with Squall foreshadow the deeper feelings that she has for him, which makes the revelation of these feelings much more believable and gives you a reason to feel for Quistis after Squall reacts. Ultimately, creating links between different characters by having their personalities bounce off one another allows a writer to reveal much more about their characters than they'd be able to do through the use of other methods, and it's really the interactions between the characters in Lunar Wish: The Orbs of Fate that make them so rapidly easy to hate. Simply put, nearly all of the children who study at the Applon Academy have cancerous personalities; they're constantly bickering, making snide remarks, making hateful comments, and playing practical jokes. 

For example, in one scene a character kills a fellow student's pet rabbit, kicks the carcass into a body of water, and then neglects to tell them about it. In the process of doing so, they show far less remorse for having done this than they show concern about being found out. This wouldn't be so bad if this character went on to be an antagonist, but they instead go on to be the focus of the main character's affections and thus a character we're supposed to care about. I suppose that it also doesn't help that the character to whom the rabbit belongs is the only person at the Applon Academy who seems to be a caring, likable character, a fact that I find incredibly telling and incredibly ironic! 

A later example of how callous the characters at Applon Academy are is a scenario that has the headmistress of the academy split the students into two groups in order to go through a practical assessment. The assessment is a competition between the two groups, with the winning group receiving what is made out to be an important honour. To ensure their safety, two older students are sent to supervise them over the course of this exam. Throughout the course of this assessment, several distasteful things occur:

  • One of the students who isn't in the player's group does not enter the assessment area with her own group, instead deciding that it's better to fight the player's group in an attempt to prevent them from being able to complete the task first. This action simultaneously shows her complete disregard for her own safety, the safety of her own group, and the safety of the player's group. 
  • The supervisors fail to supervise the task properly because they are too busy making out (an action that is heavily inferred and heavily foreshadowed, despite never being seen). This clearly shows a complete disregard for the young students they're supposed to be protecting, which is despite the fact that some of the students are related to the supervisors. 
  • After being saved by the player's group, members of the other group show no gratitude whatsoever and instead try to steal completion of the task for themselves. They're only stopped from doing so by the sudden appearance of the supervisors, who "saw the whole thing" and yet didn't attempt to help out. Not only does this add to the second point I made, it also shows what awful people the members of the other group are. 
  • The headmistress decides to award the whole class with the honour she was keeping for the successful team, something that she presumably chooses to do after hearing everything that happened.
     
Basically, the whole of this scenario is sickeningly terrible and, given that it takes up the period of the game that's supposed to hook you in by giving you a reason to care for the characters, I almost stopped playing the game immediately after its conclusion. I didn't stop immediately, though, instead deciding to play a little bit further. I suppose what I was hoping was that things might change once the party starts to meet older, more mature characters. I probably should've realised this wasn't going to be the case given how badly written the "headmistress" and "supervisor" characters were, terms that I now put in speech marks as their actions are far displaced from what their titles might suggest. 

What eventually made me stop playing were the very first exchanges that you have with a character named Gummi, who is referred to as a very famous inventor. This scene, a scene in which said character shows no regard for her dead bodyguard, no regard for her knocked out bodyguard, and shows no sympathy towards the party for helping her (going as far as to snap at them after she goes back on her offer of giving them one of her gadgets for free), made it clear to me that I was never going to care about the heroes in this game. 

Despite realising that this guard is dead, the characters don't seem to react in a very caring manner, which is strange given their age. Moreover, they make no attempt to awaken the knocked-out guard, who will presumably be killed by monsters shortly after the "heroes" leave.

Characterisation clearly isn't everything in a videogame but, given that the rest of the game is merely a JRPG that doesn't really try to stray away from tried and tested formulae, the lack of a likeable cast or meaningful storyline means that this game really isn't worth playing. 3/10.