Monday, November 02, 2015

Devblog: Squashed Some Bugs, Altered Some Dungeons

I've uploaded a new version of my game, Engalia: The Wager, that aims to broaden the experience a little whilst also squashing some bugs. There are three reasons for releasing this new version of the game:
  • The first reason is to fix a big that was preventing enemies from using skills that buff their stats. I'd forgotten to set those skills up properly (because of a bug in the RM2K3engine, they need to be set up a certain way), which made it so that enemies wouldn't ever consider using them over their other skills. This bug should now be fixed, I hope.
  • The second reason was to update the mapping so that the caves looked less square and had a little bit more depth. This basically meant adding more "diagonal" sections to the maps. I've also added new tiles to the chipsets that allow the "outside" parts of the caves to appear as if they're fading to black, which adds a little bit more depth and realism to the mapping.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I've extended the size of the caves in order to give the player more exploration to do. This is based on criticism offered in Cashmere's review. Chests will now be something that you need to be more proactive about looking for, and the caves should feel less linear to explore as a result.
Enjoy :)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Devblog: Frog, The Update No One Asked For

NEW DOWNLOAD! VERSION 2.O! GET IT HERE!

What The Hell Is This Update?

This game came out way back in 2009 and there's basically been two updates since then. One was when I cut down the soundtrack because the download was far too large for such a simple arcade game, and the other was an update to make sure the RTP was included with the game so that it would be easier for people who aren't unfamiliar with RM2K3 to play it. This update isn't like either of those updates, because this update is a pretty big overhaul of the graphics and sound present in the game.

For a long time I've wanted this game to move away from using ripped graphics towards something that, whilst still very much styled around games like Frogger and Pacman, uses graphics that I could call my own. I also wanted to move away from using a soundtrack that contained licensed music towards something available under a creative commons license, whilst also moving towards music that would fit the arcade feel I was going for better than what I originally used. The thing is that I've never really had much drive to make those changes, but now that I have I'm pretty happy with the results:


They're not the best in the world, but at least they're not rips any more! I mean, think they look better than they did before, but I'd obviously think that since I'm the one who made them!

In addition to wanting the game to use graphics that I could call my own, people with a very good memory will realise that I've made a conscious effort to address the criticisms that Halibabica had in his very old review of the game. This is why I've made the addition of road-markings to the highway, and the addition of "a big nasty *SQUISH* noise" when Frog gets run over by a vehicle. I thought that both of those comments were very astute observations for Halibabica to make and I should've probably addressed them much sooner than this.

Why Are You Doing This Now?

Like I said, I've been wanting to make these changes for a long time, but I've never really had the drive to do it. Why do I have that drive now? Let's just say I've had an idea for a sequel to this game, and so that's what's driven me to make the updates that I have. I don't want to feel guilty for continuing to use blatant rips if (and I say "if" because it might never happen) I decide to make said sequel.

Additionally, although I was always quite pleased with how this game turned out given that it was originally a throwaway project based around a minigame present in Sore Losers, it would be slightly sad if I didn't try to make it as good as I think it can be. That isn't to say that I now think it's super-awesome-amazing and that it should be getting 5-star reviews from everyone, but it's definitely a more cohesive product than it was before.

Conclusion

Not much has changed about the gameplay, but I do think the graphical tweaks help make the game much more fun to play and that the sound changes make the game more entertaining than it was before. And if not "more entertaining", they certainly make the style more consistent.

I don't expect boatloads of people to be downloading this since it never had that many downloads in the first place, but thanks for reading and I hope that anyone who does play enjoys the updates :)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: Sunken Spire

Title: Sunken Spire
Developers: Indra, Fomar0153, MakioKuta and Rachael.
Homepage: http://rpgmaker.net/games/6475/
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Sunken Spire is a light-hearted RPG where you start out as a pair of royal investigators traipsing around an abandoned laboratory. They're attempting to find out what the laboratories were being used for before their inhabitants seemingly high-tailed it, but they don't come across a great deal of answers. What they do come across is a slime, as in the common enemy trope, which seems to have been important to the research being performed. They decide to take the slime with them, ostensibly because they want to make sure it isn't dangerous, but it quickly becomes more like a pet. Their actions also somehow cause the titular spire to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, close to a nearby town. The two investigators, along with their "pet" slime, head to the spire to try to find out what its link to the laboratory is; as well as to attempt the rescue of the townspeople whose curiosity got the better of them!

I'll take one pet slime too, please!

From a storyline point-of-view, the two characters that you start with are essentially the only playable characters that matter. One of these characters is Elsa, who is a bratty, rash, violence-loving general who seems incredibly averse to anything that remotely sounds like a reference to her femininity (or lack thereof). The other character is Alma, who is the exact opposite; a serious, logic-loving engineer who has no problem mocking the mannerisms of her partner. These two characters generally stick very well to the archetypes they're trying to represent and, in keeping with the light-hearted nature of the game, the interactions between them are lively and vivacious. 

I suppose you could say that their "pet" slime, the third playable character that you encounter, is also relevant from a dialogue point-of-view, but they embrace an ultra-naive archetype that means they don't really have anything important to say and are mostly there to make comedic interjections. I thought that these scenes usually came at the correct times and, outside of a couple of moments, that they never became too silly or too slapstick. Overall, both the characters and their dialogue fits the tone that the developers were clearly aiming for.

Even the non-playable characters are written in a humorous manner, especially the two main antagonists. Much like the two main protagonists, most of the antagonist's humour stems from the fact that they possess diametrically opposed personalities. It would be easy to believe that their scenes dilute the similar ones between the protagonists, but that isn't the case. Although these sequences are similar in nature, the devil is in the detail and the developers have done a good job of making sure they differentiate the two sets of sequences from one another just enough that they don't end up treading on each other's toes. 

No, really. I'll take one pet slime too, please!

Unfortunately, although the characters are portrayed in an entertaining manner and the dialogue between them is usually amusing, the storyline simply doesn't match up. There was little about the story that really jumped out at me as being significant or unique, because the storyline basically amounts to "thing there, go get!". Although there's nothing really wrong with that in a videogame, and there are certainly plenty of good games that do the very same thing, I think that the depth gifted to the characters caused me to expect a little bit more from this title as far as story development goes.

Nor did the setting interest me all that much, and this is despite the fact that the game definitely tries to get you to invest in both the locales and the lore of the world. To be fair to the developers, I've read that this game is set in the same universe as a bunch of other games (the so-called "Arum Universe"), but I've never played any of those games. This means that there's a chance my lack of investment in the setting is because there are things going on or references being made that are too subtle for someone playing in this universe for the first time. There's obviously no way for me to know whether this is the case, but I'm self-aware enough to know that this is a possible reason why I wasn't really feeling the storyline and the setting.

"person there, go get!"

What I was feeling is the way that the characters aren't just differentiated from one another through their mannerisms; they're also differentiated from one another through their core gameplay mechanics. Each of the three protagonists has a completely different skill system to the others, which applies to both the methods they use to learn new skills and the way those skills are paid for once you get into a battle. This is great because it adds a lot of variety to the game, even if each of the skill systems are fairly simple when taken alone. 

For example, the "research" system that Alma uses is a fairly standard skill system on the face of it; you choose a type of research that you want to her to work on and EXP will be added to that research every time you win a battle. The great thing is that research can do lots of things, from allowing Alma to create equippable items that teach her new skills, to building an autonomous ally that can help you during fights. On the other hand, the "runes" system that Elsa uses allows her to collect four different types of rune based on the skills that she uses in battle. These runes are then used to buy new skills and to craft new items. Notably, this is the only way to obtain Elsa's best defensive equipment, something that the game surprisingly makes you aware of at the very start of the game. One of the more interesting things about this system from a gameplay point of view is that it almost forces you into using skills that you maybe didn't want to use so that you can gather runes faster than you otherwise would do. This means that the game gives you something to aim for other than getting through each random encounter as quickly as possible.

Because the skill systems are so well put together, it's a shame that that the normal battles are incredibly trivial. There are plenty of interesting systems in place that mean the game would have so much depth to it if the enemies were more threatening than they currently are, but this game is ultimately a cakewalk from a combat perspective. There's absolutely no challenge whatsoever to any of the random encounters you'll encounter throughout the titular spire, and even boss enemies will rarely do anything other than scratch your armour. This is made even worse by the predictability of some of the enemies that you'll encounter; there's normally an argument to be made that enemies being somewhat predictable is good because it allows you to make informed, strategic choices, but this argument doesn't work when the enemies you encounter don't pose any threat to you! 

I didn't heal once in this boss battle, so this represents all of the damage that one of the bosses did to me throughout the whole of their lifespan. Pitiable.

Another annoying thing about the battles is that there isn't any real indication as to the current status of the enemies. As far as I could tell, there was no way of knowing what status-effects were currently applied to any of the enemies that I fought. I didn't even see a single "miss" come up when I used a status-effect, which meant that I had no way of knowing whether or not my skills were even working. The existence of enemies that use "Reflect" makes this especially annoying because how the fuck is the player supposed to know when an enemy is capable of having spells cast at them again if you don't let the player see that enemy's status-effects? Finally, it's really jarring not to see damage indicators when enemies are poisoned; it makes poisoning enemies very unsatisfying if I don't know how much damage the poison is doing and whether or not it's still in effect. All of these things are pretty big oversights in my opinion, and they would be a massive problem if the enemies were even remotely challenging.

Speaking of status-effects, one thing that's nice about the enemies is that they're certainly not afraid to use them! The way that status-effects stack is also interesting because healing items are normally capable of healing several "stacks" of a given status-effect at once. This means that you might not always be getting the most out of your healing items if you use them immediately, which adds a little bit of extra thought to how you should approach healing your characters. Another interesting thing is the way that being stunned grants a few turns of stun resistance, which is a novel solution to the problem of stun-locks being easily one of the most annoying (or overpowered!) things that can be present in an RPG. So not everything about the battle system is bad, but this does come with the proviso that the enemies being pathetic overrules everything that the battle system does well.

I really can't stress just how incorrect this line of dialogue is.

The out-of-battle gameplay is varied well, consisting of a decent mix of both puzzles and exploration. On the exploration side of things, most of the maps are laid out in an intricate manner that makes them non-trivial to traverse, with full examination of each area being encouraged by there being plenty of treasure to find and lots of townspeople to rescue. On the puzzle side of things, there are definitely some straight-up puzzles that need to be solved before you can progress through certain areas of the spire and, although none of them are particularly difficult, they're usually entertaining. My favourite was a puzzle involving a band of skeletons, who want you to work out how their song should be played based on riddle-like clues. There are also a lot of puzzle-esque gimmicks, such damage tiles that move around or turn on-and-off so that your full attention is required if you're going to dodge them, and ice-sliding puzzles that need to be solved if you're going to get to the other side of a given room. These factors mean that you're usually required to pay attention whilst wandering around the maps, and that you're not just walking from battle-to-battle as you explore the spire. 

I must admit that it did occasionally feel like the developer ran out of ideas and this led to some areas falling below the standard that the others had set, but this didn't happen all that often. An honourable mention goes to the forest sections that appear before you reach the spire itself, because they struck me as being very well made. A dishonourable mention goes to the option to turn off dashing because why would I ever need to do that!?

Everyone likes ice-sliding puzzles, right?

Concerning exploration, I liked the way that "hint arrows" were used to make hidden treasure and useful objects apparent to the player. The game will display an arrow over anything that can be interacted with in the environment but, instead of having useful items shown up at all times, the arrows only show up once you get close to the object in question. This isn't exactly a unique system but, because of how the maps in this game are laid out, this system's use ensures that people explore the maps thoroughly in order to find those arrows.

Imagine having to search all those bookcases one-by-one to find the hidden switch!

I didn't really notice anything particularly special about the music, so I guess the most I can say is that it wasn't annoying? What I will say about the aesthetics is that this is an incredibly charming game from a graphical point-of-view. The character sprites are really well-drawn, and I also really liked the character portraits. Most of the mapping is spot-on as far as the aesthetics go, and even the weaker maps are only average at worst.

The only thing that I would criticise about the graphics are the in-battle character sprites. They come across as very strange, but not because they're badly made in-and-of themselves. The reason they come across as strange is because the in-battle backgrounds are made using the same tilesets as the area maps, which makes the difference between the in-battle and out-of-battle character sprites very stark. I would've preferred if the battle backgrounds were made in a style more befitting of the in-battle character sprites, or if the out-of-battle character sprites were also used in-battle, because the way it is at the moment is quite jarring and comes across as incredibly sloppy.

Out-of-battle those trees are twice as high as my characters, but in battle they're the same height?

This game has a lot of good things going for it. Exploration is well-worked, the graphics are cute, the characters are entertaining and the skill-systems are interesting. Unfortunately, although I can overlook the storyline being somewhat shallow, I can't overlook how mind-numbingly boring the battles are. They really do make this game a right chore to slog through! 5/10.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Devblog: What Inspired Your Game..?

So, I posted this in the "What Inspired Your Game" topic over on the RPGMaker.net forums, but I figure I’ll post it here as well since I think it says a lot about both this project and its sequel, Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl.

I guess I can talk about the two Sore Losers games a bit…
Both Sore Losers and Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl have a setting that is heavily inspired by the movie Escape From New York, in that all criminals have been sent to a locked-down urban area to fend for themselves as opposed to the state maintaining proper prisons. Secondary inspirations for the setting include Final Fantasy 7 and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter because both of these games have dystopian societies where slums feature prominently, although in those two games the slums aren’t there for the sake of criminals. Another inspiration would be the Streets of Rage games, a game that is referenced heavily in the original Sore Losers in homage to how much I love that series(1).
That the original Sore Losers has lots of "one-off" minigames (sniping, chase sequences, helicopter flying, a Frogger minigame(2) and others) is inspired by the three PS1 Final Fantasy games (7, 8 and 9). All of those titles contained plenty of "one-off" minigames that broke up the standard JRPG gameplay. FF7 was especially great at integrating those segments into the storyline (snowboarding, motorcycling, marching, the hypothermia section etc.) and so that’s what I sought to emulate with Sore Losers. I think the result was hit-and-miss based on reviews, but I’m going to try to take those criticisms and use them to create better "one-off" minigames for Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl, which will follow in the same tradition.
Both Sore Losers and Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl also focus quite heavily on "recurring" mini-games (lockpicking, hacking, hotwiring, smashing and others(3)) and this was largely inspired by the minigames seen in Fallout 3, where lockpicking and hacking also feature prominently(4). My original concept for the hacking minigame in Sore Losers was actually a complete rip-off of the hacking minigame in Fallout 3, which based on reviews might have been a better choice than the maths-based minigame I ended up with! Fortunately for you guys, the hacking minigame in Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl will be vastly different based on the those same reviews!
Graphically, I’d say that the original Sore Losers was mostly inspired by another RPGMaker game, The Burning Grail. The credits sequence at the end of Sore Losers is an homage to the excellent, excellent opening sequence contained within that game. You could also say that the movement system in Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl is inspired by The Burning Grail, although it probably owes more to multiple point-and-click adventure titles (without the actual point-and-click because RM2K3). The graphics used in Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl aren’t inspired by anything other than my wish to make the game look more "cyberpunk" than Sore Losers did; I never really got across the "cyberpunk" stylings I wanted in the original Sore Losers, something deftly pointed out by Darken in his review of the game.
(1) Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl was originally thought-up as being a cross between a JRPG and a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, but it somehow ended up as a cross between a JRPG and a point-and-click adventure game. Probably because I wanted to use RM2K3 and the idea of making a side-scrolling beat ‘em up in RM2K3 scares the pants off me. It is still something I’d like to do though!
(2) The "Frogger" minigame in the original Sore Losers eventually evolved into Frog, The Collector, which is one of my other titles. That game also takes inspiration from Pacman and similar arcade classics.
(3) Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl is actually going to have loads more "recurring" minigames thanSore Losers.
(4) Did you know that the Bethesda Fallout games were originally going to have a surgery minigame for healing crippled limbs? Imagine Surgeon Simulator but via a Pipboy. It was cut to help the pacing of battles, which was probably the correct decision.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Devblog: Riot Grrrl's Lockpicking and Hotwiring

Lockpicking

It wouldn't be a Sore Losers game without a lockpicking minigame... right? Well here it is, and I'm sure people who played the original Sore Losers will recognise most of the graphical assets used. 


I originally only made the control overlay at the bottom, but it thought it looked kinda silly since it covered up parts of the puzzle being attempted. That's when I decided that intentionally cutting off a significant portion of the puzzle would probably look more aesthetically pleasing, whilst also making the minigame more difficult without me really having to change anything! 

The chipset needs updating to fit the Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl style a little more (it's still the same as it was in Sore Losers so it does need a change) and I'll probably do that next. Then I'll need to apply the changes to all the other lockpicking puzzles in the game, as well as adding more of them since the game definitely doesn't have enough of them. 

... workworkwork. 

Hotwiring

Some people said they didn't like the hotwiring minigame from the Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl demo so I decided to modify it. I didn't want to take a completely different direction with the minigame because I still wanted to keep the key element (picking "wires" from one side and matching them to another side) and so I went with something that should be a familiar concept to people: 


I think it speaks for itself. The game lets you pick a tile from the left and then lets you try to match it with one on the right. The tiles on each side are completely randomised each time you attempt (or re-attempt!) the minigame in a given area, and the process repeats until you've either matched all the tiles or you've ran out of attempts (attempts only deplete if you give a wrong answer!). The game will give you 12 attempts initially, but this will be reduced as the game goes on. It's basically a memory test, I guess :) 

*You have no idea how many lines of eventing it takes to randomise the bloody tiles. Holy fuck. I'm glad it's completely copy-pastable now it works else I might've had to shoot myself.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Devblog: Six Hundred And Sixty Six Downloads!

So the current demo has 666 downloads (over on RMN), which I think is pretty neat. It wasn’t a landmark that I was looking out for, I just happened to load the page and there it was, but dumb luck is sometimes pretty cool.
This is also a heads up that I will be taking down the current demo in the near future. The current demo no longer reflects the current state of this project, what with all its graphical placeholders and all the recent gameplay updates I’ve been making, so it won’t be around much longer. I’d estimate that it will be gone sometime over the weekend, so grab it while you can because there’s no telling when (or even if) an updated demo will appear!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Devblog: Just Making Some Maps...

This isn't directly to do with any of my current projects, but a while ago I made a whole bunch of maps for no reason and I imagine I'll eventually use them to make a game set in the Engalia universe. Here are the "overworld" maps that I have thus far (you'll have to excuse errors where maps are pasted together; this isn't all one map!), and all the caves and houses have also been mapped! 

Full version of the image is here: http://i.imgur.com/fieXwtC.jpg

Monday, August 17, 2015

Review: It'll Look Great On Your Resume

Title: It'll Look Great On Your Résumé
Developer: Slash
Homepage: http://rpgmaker.net/games/5782/
Genre: Arcade/Platformer
Program: Unity

With a title like It'll Look Great On Your Résumé, I wasn't really sure what to expect going into this game. If I hadn't already read a bit about it or taken time to look into the promotional screenshots, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have expected a brightly-coloured arcade platformer centred around collecting neon-pink balls whilst avoiding being shot at by laser turrets. I would've probably expected something more in the vein of the infinitely varied "simulator" games that don't seem to stop popping up on Steam! In any case, the basic premise of this game is that you're taking part in a job interview process and as part of that you're asked to complete a set of tasks meant to test your suitability for the job. These tasks are ultimately the platform sequences I just mentioned, which basically means that these storyline sequences are nothing more than a cute, delightful façade implemented to lend reason to the platforming elements on show. They're neat, but they didn't really impress any sense of importance on me and so I didn't really pay them much mind. 

Super serious storyline! Honest!

As I just alluded to, there's a simple premise to the platforming mechanics involved in this game. You jump around and collect neon-pink balls whilst trying to avoid all of the things that are attempting to kill you. There's a variety of different things that can and will kill you if you touch them, ranging from "enemies" that patrol around the map to turrets that fire missiles at you to lava pits that you can fall into. Thankfully, the many types of obstacle that you have to avoid are all pretty well-worn archetypes that are well well-enough differentiated from one another that they're very easy to get used to and understand. Not that finding them easy to understand always means that they're easy to avoid because the number of "enemies" that are on the screen at once can become pretty hard to keep track of, especially later in the game! 

There is a further mechanic that the game uses to keep things interesting and this is way that the game frequently changes the direction that gravity drags both you and any "enemy" influenced by gravity. Each level will start with gravity dragging everything to the bottom of the map (as you'd expect), but every now and again this will switch (with a nice visual representation to warn you) and you'll find that gravity is now dragging you to the other side of the screen. Depending on the timing, this can be a welcome change or a very frustrating change, because it's just as likely to pull you into something that's gonna kill you as it is to make collecting the next ball easier. It definitely led to me swearing a lot at the screen, especially in the later levels where the difficulty is ramped up to maximum, but I think that's sometimes the point of an arcade-style platformer. I don't think that the developer would be doing it right if the game wasn't capable of frustrating you, and it isn't as if the game is unfair about it because gravity changes are very well indicated and also apply to enemies just as much as they apply to you!

There's usually a lot going on, which makes it quite easy to die!

Having just spoke about how the game can sometimes be rage-inducing, I feel I should mention that the difficulty level goes from moderate to difficult fairly quickly, by which I mean there's a fairly sharp learning curve. Despite this, I don't think that the game ever really becomes overly frustrating; it definitely has frustrating moments, as I just mentioned, but you'll never feel horribly overwhelmed or feel like you've been cheated. The second part of that sentence is really important because games like this are definitely supposed to annoy you at times, but they also have to feel fair and this game hits that balance perfectly. If the game was as difficult as it is and also felt unfair then this review would be reading a lot different than it does. As a bit of an aside, I do wonder how much of that "fairness" comes from the fact that you can seemingly take as much time as you want without being punished for it, and that there isn't really much punishment for dying. Both of these factors definitely remove a lot of potential frustration from the game. I probably wouldn't have minded there being a true "game over" condition given the "job interview" premise of the game, but maybe that's just me showing my age? The idea of having a proper "game over" just doesn't seem to be a popular feature of the platform genre any longer (or any genre, to be perfectly honest). I also think this game would be nigh-impossible to complete if there was a true "game over" system, so that's also something worth thinking about!

Anyway, aside over, I'll move onto the graphics because graphics are really important in a fast-paced arcade game like this one. The graphics need to be clean and simple because the player shouldn't be thinking too much about what different graphics mean whilst simultaneously trying to dodge all the things trying to kill them, and the graphics in this game do exactly that. It's obvious what everything means and this makes the mechanics even more intuitive than they already are, a good example of which being the indicator that comes up when the gravity of a level is about to shift. But don't let my emphasis on how clean the graphics are take anything away from how beautiful this game looks when in motion; they graphics aren't just functional, they also look amazing and that's much to the credit of the developer.

Lava pits? Check! Pink ball to chase? Check! Blue ball to dodge? Check!

I should mention some problems I had with this game from a technical standpoint, and having read into it I don't believe that these problems are inherently part of using the Unity engine to develop a game. One problem is that you have no option but to play in full-screen mode because (as far as I can tell) there is absolutely no option to go into windowed mode. This might seem like a minor gripe, but when the game also takes over your second monitor whilst open (blacking it out completely) then that can be fairly annoying. I can't be the only person who has two monitors and likes to have Twitter/Facebook open on their second window just in case someone wants to talk to them! To further compound this problem, I also found that if I came out of the game for any reason (because I had used ALT+TAB to get out of the game or because something had popped up in the background) then I didn't seem to be able to get back into the game; there was an icon on the task-bar but clicking on it did nothing. It didn't even let me close the game, which meant that I had to bring up the control panel just so that I could close the game in order to restart it! Quite frustrating...

Be ready to play before pressing start; much like an actual job interview, this game doesn't deal well with being interrupted!

But technical gripes aside, I think this is a very solid arcade platformer. There aren't really many things that the game does wrong. It has a challenging difficulty curve that keeps you interested throughout; the game manages to have the frustrating moments that all platformers require without ever making you feel like the computer is being a cheating bastard; the graphics convey exactly what needs to be conveyed whilst still managing to be very eye-catching; and to top it off, the game has a charming, occasionally funny job interview scenario pasted over the top of the action just so that each level possesses a smidgen on contextualisation.

There's very little that you can point at in this game and say, "this isn't done correctly". It'll Look Great On Your Résumé is a very solid arcade game, and this is despite some technical issues with how the program itself operates. I definitely recommend that people give this game a look if they haven't already. 8/10.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Devblog: Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl Updates

There's been a lot going on with Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl over the last couple of months, so this is a bit of a cluster-fuck of updates sourced from a bunch of different posts I've made over at RPGMaker.net recently. Hopefully it will all make sense once I'm done!

Battle Animations

One of the big things that I've wanted to redo for the longest of times are the battle animations. The animations that were included in the demo were only ever intended to be place-holders, so they've become understandably limited in scope as development has progressed. This is largely because a lot more weapons have been added to the game since the demo was released; there are currently 25 different weapons in the game and each has 1-3 skills associated with it, so the need for new animations to represent all these skills properly was pretty high on my to-do list!

In any case, I'm happy to announce that I have now finished re-doing all the animations for Sore Losers: Riot Grrrl. I think I'll refrain from adding any more weapons purely because I don't want to have to make any more of these any time soon; I'm not that good of a spriter and so making even simple animations like this takes me way longer than it's probably worth. Anyway, here a few examples for you to look at!


qooSJDD.gif



*I should point out that I'm rebalancing enemy/skill stats and haven't gotten around to the enemy side yet; that's why enemies appear to do no damage and die so quickly. That won't happen normally!

Item Placement and the "Search Minigame"

Another thing I've been changing is the item placement around the levels. This is partly because I reorganised the database and so some old variables need pointing to new variables; partly because I didn't do it in a very structured or balanced way the first time around; partly because I have a lot more weapons now (see above) and so I'm replacing some of the item placements with weapons; and finally because I'm redesigning the "search minigame" and so doing the item placements at the same time makes a lot of sense.

The redesign I just mentioned is something that I recently posted a screenshot to show off, but I'll go into more detail here. I've basically been cleaning up the "search minigame" so that there's no longer a worded tutorial (there's now an on-screen command prompt) and so that the rest of the screen fades-to-black whilst you're playing the minigame. The latter is actually way more effort than it sounds because the minigame's "search bar" is a charset, which means that using the "tint screen" command would black-out the "search bar" as well as the background graphics! The idea behind these changes is to make the minigames flow better (the same logic is going to be applied to all the other minigames - and several of the minigames are going to be changed to new minigames because reasons!) and to make it so that the important parts of the minigames don't clash with the background graphics. For some of the small "search bars" it looks pretty simplistic, but it makes a lot of the more complex "search bars" far easier to tackle!

Here it is in motion. For clarity, there are two search attempts shown here. The first one misses and the second one hits. The .gif then loops back to the first attempt... and before anyone asks, of course I missed the first attempt on purpose!

I think it looks a lot cleaner!

What Next?

Well, one thing I intend to do next is the thing that I just mentioned. I will be updating all the minigames so that they have on-screen command prompts like the one shown above, as opposed to having written tutorials that take up too much of the player's time. I will also be replacing some of the minigames with new minigames, with the "hotwiring" minigame being one that is definitely in the firing line given how few people seem to actually enjoy it.

Another thing that I'm currently doing is drawing out additional sections for level three of the game. Having gone through the level a few times whilst updating the "search minigame" and moving around items (see above), I felt it was missing something. This is especially true when it's compared to the second level.

That tray of paper/folders in the background are also mostly game development notes...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Devblog: New Version Released (Engalia: The Wager)

I've added a new download for this game. Most of the changes made are aimed at balancing the battles so that they're more difficult than they were in the previous version, but there also some other changes thrown in for good measure. Most of the changes that I was hoping to make are discussed in this blog-post, but I'll give a quick run-down of the changes here.

Balance Changes

As explained in the previous blog post:
  • Most enemies have had their HP raised by at least 50%. This means that it takes more than just a couple of attack-all skills to wipe out enemy parties. This isn't true for some enemies that already had a lot of HP; I don't want enemies to have too much health!
  • Most enemies have also had their attack, intellect and defence increased by approximately 20%. I was originally only going to change the main attack stat that enemies had, but I think this was the better change. 
  • In addition to modifying enemy stats, I've also made it so that most enemy skills now do exactly 40 more base-damage than they did before.
  • Poison and Burn are now retained after battle, and so need to be dealt with if you don't want to take damage whilst moving. They also won't wear off naturally (unlike other status effects), so they need to be dealt with in boss battles as well!
  • Enemies that accompany bosses have higher HP in line with the fact that they're technically boss enemies themselves. This should make some of the boss encounters more interesting, such as the Frost Wyrm and the Skeleton King.
  • It also seems that healing skills were too strong, so they've been nerfed twice over. Firstly, they now cost the same as they originally did, which is twice as much as they do in the current release. They also heal by less than they did before (but more than they originally did) so you're going to have to be more careful with MP use on your chosen healer.
  • Oh, and the last boss is much more of a bastard now: That's for sure!
The aim of these changes is to make it so enemies are dangerous enough that attempting to button-bash through several battles will get you killed, but not so dangerous that any single battle (other than boss battles) is capable of completely wrecking your shit. What I'm aiming to do is make the game a battle to survive in the sense that, because there's are a limited number of items you can get whilst in the dungeon, you'll need to be efficient to get all the way through the game without straight-up running out of ways to heal yourself. My testing seems to indicate that I'm close to that level of danger, although it wouldn't shock me if I've gone slightly too far. What I do know is that the game isn't as hard as it originally was, which I'm trying pretty hard to avoid, and that it's possible to complete the game with a variety of party compositions. As long as you're sensible about having a good balance between support/damage-dealing classes, you should be able to make it through.

Skill Loci and Focus Loci

Probably the biggest addition to the game in this version are "Skill Loci" and "Focus Loci", equippable items that either allow your heroes to use new skills or give them a boost to their stats. You will get one of each whenever you open a chest whilst travelling through Nyodymous Cave, and they've been added to the game so that the player has more customisation options than they did in the previous version (you could only find rings and amulets in the previous version!). A word of warning: The stronger the Loci, the more it's a detriment to the things that it doesn't improve!



Skill and Focus Loci give the player more options for customising their heroes!

Other Stuff

I fixed a bunch of things that didn't really make sense in the last release. For example, as I made obvious in the last blog post, I've fixed the bridges so that they're a lot easier to spot. I've fixed Feylin's "Sacrifice" and "Mass Sacrifice" skills so that they can only be used in battle, as originally intended (this wasn't as trivial as it sounds!). I've also made it so that Elene's Tarot skill is properly animated as previous there was a ~1 second waiting time between the animation finishing and damage being dealt that was incredibly jarring. There's a bunch of other stuff that I've also fixed or tweaked, but most of it is minor optimisation of events or the fixing of small bugs (ie. passability errors) so I won't go into them here.

Conclusions

Some stuff was fixed. Some stuff was added. Some stuff was re-balanced. The game should be better now. I hope people enjoy it more than the last release and I look forward to hearing people's comments!

Monday, July 06, 2015

Devblog: Gotta Keep On Improving!

I was pretty disappointed after reading CashmereCat's review for Engalia: The Wager (which you can find here: http://rpgmaker.net/games/6014/reviews/4034/) because it seems like a lot of the changes I made to fix problems people had with the original release had gone too far. In trying to make the game easier, I'd made it too trivial and therefore boring to play through. Obviously this is something that needs to be fixed, and there are also other problems that I'd like to tackle at the same time. I'm going to be taking the current download down whilst I fix these problems.

Things That Need To Be Fixed

The main problem seems to be that battles are too easy to beat without actually thinking about what you're doing, which is obviously a big deal in a game that focuses heavily on battles. So first of all, I've gone back into the database and tweaked enemy damage and stats so that they're between when the original release had and what the current release has. This should make the game somewhat more challenging and force people to be more mindful of their strategies, especially against the mini-boss and boss enemies. As far as balance changes go, the pointers would be that:

  • All enemies have had their HP raised by 150%. This means that it takes more than just a couple of attack-all skills to wipe out enemy parties, and puts more focus on killing enemies that cast heal-all first since you shouldn't be able to win a war of attrition against them as easily as before. 
  • All enemies have also had their main damage-dealing stat increased by 150%. This means that spell-casters have had their intelligence raised by 150% and that other enemies have had their attack raised by 150%. Enemies dealing more damage will make healing less effective than it seems to be in the current release, which I hope makes things a bit more difficult. 
  • Poison and Burn are now retained after battle, and so need to be dealt with if you don't want to take damage whilst moving. Before, it was too easy to ignore these status effects if you were in a random encounter since the encounter didn't normally last so long that they'd become a massive problem. They were more of an annoyance, which isn't the point. They're meant to be a danger. They also won't wear off naturally (unlike other status effects), so they need to be dealt with in boss battles as well! 
  • Enemies that accompany bosses have higher HP in line with the fact that they're technically boss enemies themselves. This should make some of the boss encounters more interesting, such as the Frost Wyrm and the Skeleton King. 
  • It also seems that healing skills were too strong, so they've been nerfed twice over. Firstly, they now cost the same as they originally did, which is twice as much as they do in the current release. They also heal by less than they did before, so you're going to have to be more careful with MP use on your chosen healer (there are only really two...)

Another problem brought up was the level design, specifically that bridges are too hard to spot, which I guess I agree with. I'm personally pretty used to seeing bridges like the ones this game currently has so I didn't notice it was a problem, but obviously I know exactly where the bridges are! Here is what the bridges are going to look like; note that there are gaps between the wooden slats so you can see through to the ground or, in this case, through to the trademark blue-hair of Zack! 

Wooden bridges might not make a great deal of sense deeper in the cave, but I think that concession is better than making it hard on the player to see what the fuck is going on. The alternative would be no vertical bridges, but it's too late to reverse that decision... 

There were also some other problems brought up about the battles that had little to do with balance, such as the game running too slowly etc. so there are some things I'm going to fix in that area as well:

  • I'm going to find a way to make the battles go faster by messing with the agility stats of heroes and enemies. Hopefully this should be possible without using patches, but the fact of the matter is that the ATB in RM2K3 has always run a little slow and I don't know if there is anything I can do about it. I personally think the ATB runs at an okay-ish speed - approximately similar to some of the PSX Final Fantasy games such as Final Fantasy IX - but making it a little bit faster can't do any harm. 
  • I'm going to re-add the ability for people to choose between "Active" and "Wait" so that people can, if they so choose, give themselves more time to think about what they're doing in battle. It can be kinda annoying to have enemies hit you when you're still reading the descriptions of the skills available!

Something I'd Like To Add

Cashmere (and some other people) have brought up that they'd like more character customisation. Currently, the only customisation you get is in the form of amulets and rings that are dropped by Mimic-chests. I don't know if I really want to add additional weapons to the game because that sounds really difficult given that there are so many bloody heroes in this game; heroes also need to have the correct type of weapon equipped else they can't use some of their skills (although this is only really a concern for physical skills; I really should've made all the character's weapons "cursed" so they can't be removed by the player because that kinda fucks things up...) 

What I will probably do is make it so that you can find "Orbs" or "Crystals" or "Materia" or "Espers" (or whatever name I come up with) that equip to the "Shield" and "Armour" slots. The "Shield" set would increase a hero's stats, giving you some strategic choice, with more powerful increases causing a decrease in other stats to balance it out. The "Armour" set could give a hero a skill that they don't already know, which again gives you some strategic options. Does that sound like a good idea? I think that's a good idea to work with!

The Thing I Ain't Changing

There are, of course, some things from the review that I don't agree with. The main one would be that I don't agree the encounter rate is too high. I said in reply to the review that the encounter rate is triggered after 15 steps, but having now looked at the eventing I see that the encounter rate chooses a random number between 25 and 35 steps. I feel that having at least 25 steps, given that the maps are approximately 50x50, is very reasonable. This is something that I won't be changing. 

Conclusions

This game still isn't where I want it to be. I did mention when I released the "final" version that it probably wouldn't be the "final" version if people were forthcoming with criticism. It's clear that there are quick ways to make this game better than it currently is, so I'm going to look to implement them over the course of the next week. Hopefully people give it another chance afterwards, but they probably won't. Barely anyone has played it as is. Oh well, it was only a contest game, but there's no reason not to patch it up where I can.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review: Soul Sunder

Title: Soul Sunder
Developer: Red_Nova
Homepage: http://rpgmaker.net/games/5751/
Genre: JRPG/Dungeon Crawler
Program: RPGMaker VX

Soul Sunder is a game that advertises itself as a challenging dungeon-crawler that takes place in a survival-horror setting and possesses a powerful, character driven plot capable of spewing out a bunch of different endings depending on how you play. That's a bloody mouthful, so if I have to pick somewhere to start then I'll start with the storyline that's meant to drive all these factors along. The game focuses on a woman named Zero, who was once a girl named Arya, and how she attempts to deal with an accident in her childhood that resulted in the death of her brother, her mother, most of the people in her home village, and the paralysation of her best friend from the waist down. It's safe to say that this game isn't a cheery game. Over the nine years that have passed since this incident, Zero has learned little from her attempts to work out why all those things happened to her and her village; it's only then that she receives a letter asking her to head to a town named Haven. The letter appears to come from a person she holds responsible for the incident and it tells her that the answers she wants can be found within Purgatory, which a dungeon near to Haven. 

Once in Haven, Zero befriends a "point man" named Isaac who helps her through the initial levels of Purgatory. From the off-set a general dynamic is set-up between these two characters, with Zero being the stoic/broody/serious-type and Isaac being a more light-hearted/goofier/joking-type. This makes a hell of a lot of sense given the events that Zero has suffered through; I certainly wouldn't be going around cracking jokes if I'd had to see almost everyone I knew die in an incident that I couldn't explain. The game does sometimes forget that this is the case and has Zero engaging a bit too heavily with Isaac's silly shenanigans, or responding a little too childishly too them; a really good example of this is a conversation held after finding a "magical bomb" because Zero's childishness regarding the item is really at odds with what otherwise seems to be a very apathetic demeanour. Fortunately, these sorts of out-of-character situations are definitely not the norm and they don't happen in scenes that are actually important for the development of these characters as the story progresses. 

The storyline itself is pretty complex, and it's hard to go into it without giving too much away. The general idea is that almost everyone who has been brought to Purgatory, or at least anyone who matters from a storyline point-of-view, has also recieved the same kind of letter that Zero received. These letters are always from someone who had a part in the past of the character involved, someone that the character has strong feelings for (this can be either love or hate, it would seem), and someone who was at the centre of a life-changing event that happened in the character's life. All of these letters seem to suggests that the writer of the letter has answers for them, and that these letters (and the writer themselves, so goes the implication) can be found in Purgatory. This theme even applies to some of the NPCs that you'll find dead within Purgatory, still clutching the letter that dragged them to the grave; in fact, piecing their stories together can sometimes be pretty interesting and does a lot to flesh out the setting. 

Poor Ralph. That's what you get for trying to replace Alex!

Speaking of the setting, though, I actually thought that more could've been done with it, at least as far as town of Haven goes. The basically comes down to the fact that I didn't think there were enough interactive NPCs. There are some NPCs who have stories that progress as you go through Purgatory, and some of these stories seem to be fairly tragic, but they're presented in a fairly superficial way and this means they're never as impactful as they otherwise could be. The town of Heaven is supposed to be portrayed as a tragic place, a place where a people go to find answers or treasures/glory descending through the dungeon that is Purgatory, to ultimately never come out again. 

So much could've been done with the survivors that make it out, so much could've been done with how their stories build up from the starting point (eager to get into the dungeon) to the ending (eager to get away from Haven altogether). It's a missed opportunity, because you can see that the game is trying to do it without ever tackling it head on. So much more could've been done. Equally, I felt that some flavour text from the NPCs, such as a drunk man asking for his stomach to be pumped, didn't make much sense given the setting. Unless medical science is far more progressed than the fantasy setting seems to imply, of course! 

Ultimately, if you only have one town in a game then it shouldn't be that hard to make that town feel alive, especially when it is supposed to be an absolute mecca for sellswords, adventureres and the like. Those types of people can be anything and everything you want them to be! 

The first time in the game this guy does anything other than lie on the floor puking is at the very end. When did he even find time to drink!?

Anyway, back to the storyline. What you find as the storyline progresses and you delve deeper and deeper into Purgatory is that everyone important you've met seems to be linked to each other through a set of coincidental intermediaries. How all of these characters (playable characters, intermediaries and NPCs all) deal with one another once they find out how intricately they're linked is what makes up the real bulk of the storyline on offer. Because it's so vital to how the storyline ends up fitting together, it's a good thing that these interactions work really well; the dialogue is nuanced and progresses at a good rate, the characters don't do anything ridiculous or out-of-character when it actually matters (as I already mentioned), and the changes in personality that each character goes through over the course of the game is set out in a meaningful, proper way that never seems jerky or sudden. The storyline will definitely sink it's hooks into you early and it isn't going to let you go; the storyline will definitely be the thing that drags you through to the end of the game. 

Onto the gameplay, of which a passing glance would suggest mostly consists of battle-screens. Saying that battle-screens are the only thing worth mentioning wouldn't even be a slight against Soul Sunder given that almost every enemy group will give you something to think about; there's definitely an "optimum way" to tackle any given group of enemies and by "optimum way" I literally mean planning encounters from start to finish. Figuring these things out is a big part of doing well in this game given that most enemy groups are perfectly capable of wiping you out (or at least dealing serious damage) if you're not paying attention. 

One part of the battle-system that I think exemplifies this is the way that enemies telegraph their attacks to you before actually using them, which is because most enemies usually require a turn of charging up in order to use their skills. There are three different types of skill, each type has both it's own "charging" animation, and there's a status-effect that disables each individual type of skill from being cast. This means that the game allows you to have a shot at preventing the opponent from ever using the skill they've just charged up, assuming that you're paying proper attention to what's going on, and this means that you only need to use your (often SP expensive) "disabling skills" if you know your opponent is about to do something that needs to be prevented. It's a clever system that gives you something to worry about in-battle other than dealing out as much damage as possible per turn; it forces you to learn the habits that each enemy has so that you can dispose of them whilst taking as little damage as possible. 

Another part of the battle-system that I think showcases this idea of an "optimum way" to tackle each enemy is the way that all enemies can be "scanned" before taking your first turn, allowing you to take the time to plan a proper route through the battle (or at least the first turn) before ever swinging a blade in anger. For example, if you know an enemy has a high attack stat then you can choose to blitz them with an all-out-assault on the first turn so that the damage you're going to take from them is reduced; or you can focus more heavily on preventing them from using their skills so that their best damage-dealing abilities are never encountered. Similarly, if you know that an enemy has a high defence stat then you know that throwing magical attacks at them is going to be better than throwing physical attacks at them, so you can ensure that your "warrior"-types focus their abilities elsewhere. 

So that's what you're weak to? INCOMING FIREBALLS!

Truth be told, there's a lot more to be impressed with when it comes to the in-battle gameplay in Soul Sunder, but I don't want to go on about the battles so singularly because that would be selling what I think was the developer's vision short. The truth is that the idea of "survivability in battle" is supposed to be something you're thinking about even when the battles aren't happening; it's supposed to be something that ties every system in the game together and you need to look at them as a whole to understand what this game is about. 

Take the idea that I just spoke about, the idea that you're able to prevent enemies using skills. This obviously directly links into survivability by affecting how efficiently you can kill your enemies ("disabling skills" deal less damage than skills aimed purely at dealing damage, which means you're killing enemies slower by using them when you don't need to) but it also filters into how you set-up your party's equipment. This is because most skills are granted dependent on the items you have equipped; it's useless knowing that you need to break an enemy's legs if you don't have a weapon equipped that allows you to do that! Once you know what the enemies around you are capable of doing, you're able to change around your party's equipment to cater to those needs, which therefore means that the equipment system has as direct an affect on your survivability as being able to figure your enemies does. 

To further illustrate this, I'm going to take a simple starting point (the way that resting works inside dungeons) and run with it. In Soul Sunder, your heroes only have the ability to rest once per save-point, which prevents the player abusing the save-points for unlimited healing. This is coupled with the fact that you can't exit Purgatory to buy more healing items until you finish the level you find yourself on, which essentially places a hard-cap on how many battles you can have in a given area before you're going to run out of healing items and die. Fortunately, enemy encounters are completely avoidable, theoretically allowing you to avoid all battles should you choose to do so, but that obviously wouldn't be a good thing to do because you'd miss out on both the items that enemies drop and the experience gained for killing them. So what the game does instead of encouraging you to avoid battles aimlessly is to also allow you to easily escape battles, which means that you're encouraged to approach battles with risk-versus-reward in mind. This brings the "scan" system to the fore, because before you've even taken a turn you're allowed to look at an enemy's stats to assess whether you're ready to take them on. The "scan" system then allows you to exploit the link between "disabling skills" and equipment that I just mentioned, because what you're essentially able to do is enter a battle, "scan" the enemies, see what they're capable of, leave the battle, and then either re-equip your party to deal with what the enemies are capable of doing or choose to avoid them altogether. 

More useful than it is in most RPGs.


It's a clever set of ideas when you think about it, but unfortunately how these ideas work in practice falls way short of how clever they look in theory. This is because of how the difficulty level actually pans out as you progress throughout the game compared to how the developer seems to have wanted it to. 

It's true that progression in Soul Sunder is at first as difficult as the developer seems to have wanted it to be, and that the gameplay in these early sections fits perfectly with the "survivability" ideas outlined above, but what becomes apparent over the course of the game is that these ideas only work if you manage to prevent the player from readily massing up healing items. Healing items are distinctly lacking in these early-sections of the game, but problems with an over-abundance of healing items start once you reach the second area of the Purgatory. 

This is partly because it coincides with enemies starting to drop healing items more regularly, but that's far from the only or most important problem; how the fact enemies drop more healing items works in combination with some of the gameplay mechanics I haven't spoken about yet is the real problem, and it's a problem that's definitely greater than the sum of it's parts. So much so that what the combination of factors I'm about to outline ends up doing is skewing the difficulty curve so badly that it becomes a difficulty slide. Surviving actually ends up becoming easier as you make your way towards the end of the game and, given that Soul Sunder bills itself as having an "emphasis on survival rather than grinding", this isn't a good thing. 

It's not hard to survive when you're literally encouraged to do this...


The main factors that contribute to this problem are the low number of obtainable weapons/armour, a crafting system that allows you to readily make most (all?) of those weapons without having to spend any money, and the fact that there are absolutely loads of damage-dealing "consumable weapons" that are far more effective at killing your enemies than your normal weapons/skills ever will be. Once you combine all of these things together, it quickly becomes obvious that all the money you obtain should be dumped into healing items and nothing else, which in turn means that you should rarely encounter a situation where you lack the ability to heal yourself after battle. What this then does is completely ruin the clever interplay behind the resting/scan/escape/skill/equipment systems that I just spent a couple of paragraphs delving into because you're never actually placed into a situation where survivability is a problem. The battles still retain their difficulty as far as individual battles go, but they're no longer a collective threat because of how much money you end up being able to throw around, and that ruins a lot of what this game is supposed to be offering up. 

A really good example is how elemental skills work. As already noted, skills are granted by the weapons and armour that you have equipped. Notably, if you have a piece of equipment that grants an element-based skill then it will usually give you a weakness to the opposite element, and this should emphasise the risk/reward elements of the resting/scan/escape/skill/equipment systems that I was talking about earlier. It should encourage you to enter battles, scan enemies, leave battles and then re-jig your equipment accordingly. It should give you a reason to want as many variations of these items as possible so that you're always prepared, meaning that you should be willing to part with money to get them or the items needed to craft them. The problem is that the elemental-damage dealing consumable weapons you find are so strong (in terms of damage dealt, the fact that they don't require SP to be used, and the fact that they don't seem to be reliant on the stats of the hero that uses them) that they override the need to worry about elemental equipment. Guess where all that elemental equipment goes? It goes straight to the store, because you're better off selling those items in exchange for more healing items. 

This leads into the way that these consumable weapons completely void most of the choices available via the synthesis system. I know I don't need to create any of the weapons that synthesis grants me because of what I just said above, so I can take all those crafting materials and either a) sell them b) use them to make even more consumable weapons or c) use them to create more healing items. No matter which option you choose, the end results are the same. The factors that should've and could've made survivability a theme throughout this game end up being downplayed, and the synthesis system ends up being something that might as well have not been included. 

Me whilst playing this game. More money, less problems.

The fact that there are so few weapons available probably plays into the two factors I just described more than I've let on, and that's because a low number of weapons means a low number of weapon tiers (or in this case no tiers, just different elemental-flavours spread out over one tier). If there were a greater number of weapon tiers available, with some tiers sitting below and some tiers sitting above how strong consumable weapons are, and if higher tiers required lower tiers in order to be synthesised, then the player would have more to think about. They'd be encouraged to save weapons they find instead of just selling them, because although a weapon might not be useful right that second it could be in the future. Ultimately, they'd end up with less money to buy healing items because there'd be a point to saving items for synthesis. I already said it once but I'll say it again; the synthesis system ends up being something that might as well have not been included. 

However you slice it, and however you think it should be fixed, it's pretty frustrating that these three factors managed to screw up the difficulty curve so badly because I think that fixing just one of them would fix the game (most likely the presence of such powerful consumable weapons). Ultimately, this game promises so much by having a solid set of gameplay elements that theoretically do a good job of reinforcing one another, only for other factors to over-ride that system entirely. 

And besides, damage-dealing consumables don't just screw up the difficult curve; sometimes they screw up in other interesting ways!


I don't think the problems with the difficulty curve are helped by the fact that there are a lot of glitches (see pictures above and below) and bad gameplay decisions present outside of battle. A basic example would be the fact that you have to hold down a button to sprint, which hasn't been cool since the 90s. Another basic example would be that within 5 minutes of starting I managed to completely break the game when I used the "look forward" command, which I wouldn't mind as much if this ability was even remotely useful as you progress through the game. It isn't remotely useful and so ends up being a broken feature that feels like it was included for the sake of including it. 

Another instance would be that save-points aren't always in locations where you'd expect or require them to be, such as before the boss of a particular area or after a particularly lengthy scene taking place. Sometimes the game will warn you that a boss is coming up without giving you a save point, which inevitably leads to a lot of backtracking to find a save-point so that you can negate the time lost if the boss manages to kill you. This isn't just annoying, it also reveals more bugs because despite the fact that backtracking is (unintentionally) encouraged, several areas (ironically) seem to have been written under the assumption that the player won't back-track. One such example means that backtracking in this manner plays sound-effects intended to foreshadow a boss that you'll have already defeated if you're backtracking through that area, which I thought was a pretty silly mistake to make. 

Not shown: Arya. Why? Because the camera buggered off somewhere and then prevented me from moving. This happened a full five minutes into the game!


A further case would be a "puzzle" where an NPC in Purgatory tells you to find the "real" version of themselves, whilst talking to (or even touching) a "fake" NPC deals heavy damage to your whole party. At first it seems like you're supposed to talk to all these identical NPCs until you find the "real" one, but not a single one of them is the "real" one. The "real" one is found by making you way through to a completely different area and triggering a cutscene. This absolutely stinks because there isn't a single indication that you're not supposed to be finding the "real" NPC in the area where you start and so the (incredibly heavy and capable of killing you) damage they trigger is simply a case of "fake difficulty" in the sense that it makes battles in that area more difficult than they would otherwise be if the game wasn't falsely implying that taking said damage was the way to solve a puzzle. It was a good job I had so many First Aid Kits that I could probably drown in them, although my eventual solution was reloading the game and repeating the section over so that I didn't waste anything. Very frustrating because the scene served its storyline purpose without the heavy damage being there; there was just no need to punish the player for doing what seemed to be the correct thing! 

If it wasn't bad enough that this sequence exists, the game floods you with a whole corridor of "fake" NPCs to dodge after you do find the "real" one...

The final example of this problem would be the "survival gear" system, which at first seems like a really good idea but ends up being a bit of a joke. The idea is simple; equipping "survival gear" will allow you to do something useful on the map, such as lighting up a dark room or blowing up loose rocks or... those are the only two things. So why even bother with this system existing? Why not just give me two buttons to press, one for the Lantern and one for the Bomb, instead of forcing me in and out of the menu all the time to change equipment? It's jarring and it doesn't feel like it's well thought out; it again feels like something that exists just because it can and not because it should. 

I guess the general theme I've been trying to get at over the last few paragraphs is that there are lots of things that are grating or unpolished or probably don't need to be there, as opposed to being downright awful or game-breaking. None of these things are bad to the point of being game-breaking (some of them aren't even things that I'd bring up if they were present by themselves, such as having to hold down a button to sprint), but the combination of them all makes the game feel noticeably worse than it otherwise would be. 

Another example of bad design: Selecting "Yes" gives you a straight-up game-over. Guess who accidentally selected "Yes" by pressing the button to skip through dialogue too quickly?

Unfortunately, this sense of a "lack of polish" spills over into the mapping, which floats somewhere between passable and awful depending on the kind of area you're in. There are so many wide-open areas devoid of decoration; tree and cliff-lines that don't deviate from being perfectly straight for screens at a time; houses that are far bigger than they look from the outside and are filled with far less furniture than they'd need to look lived in; and supposedly labyrinthine dungeons that are too easy to navigate your way around. 

It doesn't help that the "shift-mapping" (the art of blending tiles together properly) is basically non-existent, making things look even more unnatural than they already do, and that these maps are made using a set of tiles that I personally believe require an excellent map designer to look anything other than awful. Other than the "jail" level of Purgatory, which I thought was incredibly well made in both a layout and aesthetic sense, the mapping in this game really isn't anything to write home about. To be honest, outside of the character portraits (which do a really good job of adding extra emotion to the words that you're reading), this game really isn't pretty to look at. 

The same kind of idea (a "lack of polish") applies to how music is used in this game. Although the developer has actually done a good job in choosing the right music for each section of the game, I lost count of the number of times I went from an area with a low volume to an area with a drastically louder volume with no sort of transition in between. These "RIP ears" moments occurred far too often for my liking and they were a massive distraction to me as I played through the game. 

I know the "three-tile rule" isn't a strict requirement, but c'mon!

As I started this review: Soul Sunder is a game that advertises itself as a challenging dungeon-crawler that takes place in a survival-horror setting and possesses a powerful, character driven plot capable of spewing out a bunch of different endings depending on how you play. Smashing all these things together is pretty ambitious, and what results here is a game that doesn't really manage to do any of them particularly well. The shining point is definitely the story and characterisation, which was just about good enough to keep me playing until the end despite the problems I had with multiple facets of the gameplay.

Ultimately, for every thing that's good about this game, there's something that's bad. That's frustrating because there's a good game in here screaming to get out from underneath non-essential, unpolished or straight-up-broken features. It's a good job the storyline works well enough to keep you playing! 5/10