Monday, June 22, 2009

Light's End Review


Old Skool RPG lovers rejoice, and join me for a celebratory drink! I've been keeping an eye on this one since it's low-key announcement, and I took a couple days to reflect, just to make sure I wasn't overreacting. I wasn't. This is a really cool (and yet modest) game.

Yes, I love RPGs and therefore you can accuse me of a bias, but I would argue that regardless of your like/dislike of RPGs, that Light's End does so many things right that you can still acknowledge it as a great game. Whether or not you enjoy playing it is another story.

First up on the awesome list, innovation. Any game that brings a fresh mechanic to the table and does it well gets points. Light's End approaches the RPG from a new angle and asks the question, "What if you don't just play as one one character, but as all characters?" And I am not referring to a party of characters - I mean you can literally play as anyone that you meet in the game. You just hit 'Y' and a small flame indicates the transfer of control.

Now then, this is cool on a couple levels. First, as a puzzle-solving mechanic it creates some creative scenarios. In order to advance the game, you need to encourage interactions between the right characters - paying attention to dialogue clues can help point you in the right direction, and there are some very clever solutions. (no spoilers here folks) There's also a great amount of well-written dialogue that of course changes depending who you're controlling.

Second, the character-switching mechanic is geniusly tied to the plot. I can't go into detail, but there is a reason why the game is played in this manner and it all comes together in the end. And for a game with no combat (neither turn-based, nor live) and no 'big boss battles' the ending was quite a treat.

You may look at the screenshots, and think that it's nothing special graphically. And it's true, you'll need to appreciate the charm of simple 2D graphics, but it's actually far more appealing once you see it in action - they grew on me. Also, the design is so tight that it becomes easier to love, and some wonderful music tracks raise the bar up again.

All of this said, plenty of people will likely feel starved or grow bored of a game that is primarily based on dialogue and one stand-out character-switching mechanic. There is lots of reading to do, and some puzzle solving that may get tedious for some. You won't fight monsters, gather loot, or explore huge maps. But you will experience a wonderful short story with dynamic characters and some thought-provoking social commentary.

At 200MP, this is a no brainer in my book. It's a tight, unique experience. The auto save feature lets you replay the demo until you make it through the first chapter (nice touch) - so there's no risk in trying it out and seeing if it strikes a chord.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Revenge of the Evil Aliens Review


Oh man those aliens sure are evil. And they want revenge. There's your premise!

Revenge of the Evil Aliens is another eye-catching dual-stick space shooter, with a pretty standard set up, and a focus on a solid shooter experience. The first thing you'll notice when looking at the screenshots is that the game accomplishes an interesting 3D feel to the enemies which provides some depth in an often flat-feeling genre.

You'll be treated to a nice level of polish in most areas, with a full tutorial, multiplayer capabilities and three difficulty levels for replay value. Props for including those - three important elements that some might say should be standard in a shmup, but still deserve being noted.

What I liked most about this game was the powerups - you can really pimp out your ship nicely with some heavy artillery both by collecting different bonus items (increased range, bouncing bullets, etc), and then leveling them via scoring lots of successful hits. It's actually possible to collect and level up all power ups, at which point you can dish out some serious pain.

You also get a a taste of some pretty wacky enemies. Beyond the UFOs of varying toughness, you also fight off floating brains, skulls, and Martian insects. I enjoyed the variation, but on the flipside the randomness had me scratching my head.

My main complaint with RotEA is that it's simply not a long enough experience. With only three levels, good players will zip through this game in a couple hours or less. And then the "I died in a tough spot and now I start with no powerups" disease comes in to play as well. There were a couple spots that left me pretty helpless and fighting a tough sequence over and over.

As a final nice touch, there are some built-in achievements to score which can add to the excitement.

I'd recommend this for any shmup fans who want a good challenge (the highest difficulty is no joke) and at 200MP the shorter experience sits okay with me.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mind's Eye of Jupiter Review


This one caught my eye because it's outside of the 'norm' in terms of what you find on Xbox Live Community Games (soon to be Xbox Live Indie Games, don't forget). And I don't mean to say that the norm is bad - just that we are seeing quite a few apps, shmups, and platformers - so this one seemed like a good way to mix it up.

Upon first impression, part of me thought I might have a poor man's Myst on my hands (which would be sweet) and I suppose I was not too far off with that - it's just a matter of how poor, so read on and then you can decide for yourself.

Mind's Eye of Jupiter drops you into a smallish 3D world and your primary agenda is exploration. You aren't given much in the way of an introduction or lead-in, but sometimes that can add to the allure if early visual/text clues are used well. (more on this below)

The 3D environment is okay for an indie - it's hard not to notice the lack of graphical polish in some areas, however. As you skim around the bumpy terrain (no footsteps SFX) it's a bit too easy to imagine the 3D editor creating small peaks and valleys. This is a reminder that polished 2D graphics can still outshine 3D. In fact, even lower end 2D graphics maintain some 'old school charm,' while lesser 3D graphics feel like you're tooling around a level editor.

That said, the initial immersion factor (with help from the ambient music) was high. Most everyone can appreciate the fun of exploring some old ruins and solving the mysteries within.

But to make that work, and keep the player immersed it's very important that any text/dialogue follows suit. This is where Mind's Eye lost me. As you explore the ruins, you come across dialogue cues - hitting a button let's you read what you'd expect to be flavor text - something that advances the plot or creates mood. And there is some flavor text, albeit nothing that really captured me. But some, whisk the player out of the game entirely and remind them that they are in fact on the couch stuffing their face with tortilla chips (and spicy salsa!).

When in game, on a [supposed] deep otherworldly exploration of some mysterious ruins, the text cue "This game is rated IM, for immature" pretty much takes a giant poop on believability, immersion, and all of the hard work that goes into releasing an indie game. The same goes for "Not another game where you need to find a key." Whoops, self-inflicted injury.

Unfortunately, I found this to be a rather fatal flaw, and I put the game down after a couple run-throughs of the demo. I didn't have enough time to complete a quest (because the first one just has you hunting down 15 clay jars, 15?!), so it's possible that later chapters are better.

For me, games of this nature rely heavily on believability and immersion. The player has to be captured by the world and that can hinge on every word they read. As soon as you read something that takes you out of that world and the game is being referenced within the game, the spell is lifted and you want to leave. With a serious and sophisticated set-up (created by the title, box-art, and premise), the self-deprecating humor within Mind's Eye of Jupiter feels entirely misplaced.

Gamers who are looking for a relaxing 3D adventure may still find some enjoyment here. I'd suggest trying the demo to see if you can get past what I could not. At 200MP, if the game can offer 3-4+ hours of gameplay, it might be a fair value.