Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aveyond: Gates of Night

Created by: Amaranth Games
Where to get it: http://www.amaranthia.com/modules/oledrion/product.php?product_id=69

Gates of Night, the second chapter in the Aveyond 3 trilogy by Amaranth Games, feels like the second season of a Joss Whedon series. It starts out with no nonsense, everyone seeming to be in their stride, introductions kept brief in favor of getting straight to the action. While the biggest flaws in the series have yet to be addressed, there have been some subtle improvements that show promise of better things to come.

By far, the biggest improvement is the pacing. Gates of Night picks up after a nightmare from Stella, one of the main characters. If you haven't finished Lord of Twilight, Gates of Night starts off just before a search for four artifacts known as the Quarter Keys. While the writing here is as good as Lord of Twilight, there's considerably less in the hour-long demo, and far more exploration. With Mel established and not actively being hunted by Gyendal (the eponymous Lord of Twilight from the previous game), there's far more freedom to wander around Aveyond than before.

Even better, many of the time-consuming quests in Lord of Twilight have been shortened to allow gamers to get up to speed quickly with the people who played through the first game. Combat has also been addressed, seeming slightly more balanced now than before. And best of all, an alternate mode of transportation appears in Gates of Night to considerably speed up travel. It seems like several minor glitches and irritations were acknowledged by fans and fixed accordingly, so kudos to Amaranth Games for listening to and addressing their customers' concerns.

Sadly, not all of Lord of Twilight's weaknesses were addressed in Gates of Night. The areas available in the demo have been streamlined, but if you're looking to see what's been added in Aveyond, you'll have to buy the game to be sure. The game also seems to have gone a bit too far in some cases with its non-linearity, as it's often difficult to figure out exactly where you're supposed to go once you've started the search for the Quarter keys. This latter issue is a minor detail, however, and with any luck the journal entries will compensate better for this in future games.

The tedious quests of Lord of Twilight also make an unwelcome return. First, just before leaving for Naylith, the king asks you to retrieve a map from his chambers. Nothing else noteworthy is in those chambers. Can't he just send a servant for these menial tasks instead? In an even more irritating example, there's the point where Mel is taught climbing if she passes a test... by matching items from rooms. That this challenging but non-sequitur mini-game is set to some of the most distracting music in the game only makes the experience that much more excruciating.

One area that Gates of Night nails, however, is its place within the trilogy. Unlike other games presented in episodic form, it really is possible to play Gates of Night without having previously playing Lord of Twilight. The streamlining of the early quests makes it possible for newcomers to the series to get up to speed quickly, and if they really want to know what happened earlier, they can always buy Lord of Twilight. On the other hand, anyone who finished Lord of Twilight still has plenty of game to go through. Gates of Night fits seamlessly into the trilogy, and other developers thinking of dividing a game into episodes should take notes.

Aveyond: Gates of Night can be summed up in seven words: a little less conversation, a little more action. It doesn't take any great strides forward, but the minor touch-ups do help. They don't help make it considerably better than its predecessor, though, as only fans of the first game (or obsessive-compulsive reviewers) will truly appreciate the subtle tweaks in the second.

The bottom line? If you liked Lord of Twilight, you have absolutely no reason not to shell out $9.95 for Gates of Night. However, if you haven't, give it a look anyway. In the worst case, if you're still not sold on Gates of Night by the end of the demo, keep an eye out for the last game of the trilogy, The Lost Orb. When the annoying filler isn't getting in the way, Aveyond is a fascinating world to explore, and Amaranth Games will hopefully improve on this world in the games to come.

3/5
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Friday, August 14, 2009

Aveyond: Lord of Twilight

Created by: Amaranth Games
Where to get it: http://www.amaranthia.com/modules/oledrion/product.php?product_id=58

Amaranth Games is a rarity in the casual gaming market. Not only have they spearheaded the attempt to market old-school top-down console-style RPGs (also known as CRPGs) to a new generation of gamers, they've also been active in supporting other developers of games based on the RPG Maker engine. The games in the trilogy known as Aveyond 3 are their most sophisticated offerings to date, with Lord of Twilight featuring graphics designed entirely from scratch by competent artists.

You might think that casual gaming and RPGs would go together as well as peanut butter and Spam. You might also think that a shareware RPG would be unable to compete in a market with other excellent freeware games. You'd be wrong on both counts. Despite lacking too much to be truly outstanding, Aveyond: Lord of Twilight shows flashes of brilliance in resurrecting a genre presumed dead years ago.

If you've never played a CRPG, they're basically about three things: plot, combat and exploration. After a brief prologue, Aveyond 3 really gets off the ground with the introduction of its heroine, Mel. She's a tomboyish, arrogant street urchin who has no idea that she's about to save the world. Like the game's other characters, Mel seems a bit too stereotypical at times, but also deep and fully developed. By far, the deep character interactions in the writing has been one of Aveyond's greatest strengths, and it continues here.

The first task of the game, obtaining a treasure for mysterious hooded figures atop a large mansion, starts out promising. Leading Mel through the streets of a small town at night to the rooftop of a sizable mansion is an unexpected way to start the game, and an excellent introduction. But once the action shifts to Darkthrop Keep, the game suddenly shifts to a very typical dungeon crawl complete with switches and rats. Where did all the fun sneaky stuff go?

That isn't the only time that Lord of Twilight raises expectations and then brushes them aside. For example, there's one point where the game fast-forwards six months past Mel's spying lessons. This would've been a perfect opportunity to draw more attention to the grey area Mel seems to thrive in, but it's never paid off. There are also several other minor instances of good writing that seem to turn into generic quests. The writing in Aveyond 3 offers a startling array of possibilities, but none of them seem to be explored nearly enough.

Meanwhile, combat in Lord of Twilight suffers from a similar problem. The side-scrolling fights (with non-random battles, thankfully) are a nice alternative to the stock RPG Maker first-person battles, and everything is shown to scale. The backgrounds are also given plenty of attention, perfectly matching wherever area Mel and company traveled before shifting perspective. However, other than graphic effects for strikes and spells, the battles are desperately in need of more moving things on the screen. And like most CRPGs, the combat mechanics are menu-driven and don't offer anything new or exciting. While not as frustrating as other games, with intuitive keyboard controls and icons that are easy to click on, this does little to make the fighting less tedious.

Exploration in Lord of Twilight has some uniquely entertaining quirks. Getting around in Aveyond is a challenge in itself, as speedy transportation won't exist until Gates of Night. Locations are separated by realistic roads and passageways, not vast plains. Traversing these twisty paths can be frustrating when trying to quickly get from Point A to Point B, but never dull. One problem, however, is the constant insistence of characters that certain locations are off limits because they're not a priority at that time. Whatever happened to guard stations, roadblocks, and rabid gerbils? Apart from this annoyance, getting around in Aveyond is one of the game's biggest challenges, but also one of its biggest selling points.

The graphics and sound are as much a mixed bag as the rest of the game. Visually, there are some excellent character portraits and illustrations, and the only problem with them is that there aren't enough of them. The rest of the graphics are far less consistent. Character sprites lack detail and polish, and the tile-based landscapes are far too blocky even by early 90's console standards. The mouse-based interface seamlessly and unobtrusively meshes with the rest of the game, however. If nothing else, Lord of Twilight is as simple to control as CRPGs get.

A lot of attention has been paid to the sound of Lord of Twilight, but it too is inconsistent. In a nod to its roots, many of Aveyond 3's sound effects have carried over from previous games. The intentions are admirable, but for newcomers to Aveyond, these pale in comparison to the higher-quality effects, and the inconsistency is jarring on the ears.

On the other hand, next to the writing, the music of Aveyond 3 is its strongest elements. There were only a few really irritating tracks out of the several dozen in the game, though clever use of background noise makes these far easier on the ears. The liberal use of real instruments makes a big difference in the overall sound quality, reminiscent of a silent film soundtrack with its intimate ensembles. When Walz is at his best, the result is absolutely breathtaking.

Aveyond: Lord of Twilight is an adequate CRPG and an excellent use of the RPG Maker engine, but as someone who grew up with Lunar and Final Fantasy, I wanted to see this knocked out of the park. It's an easy recommendation to hardcore CRPG fans and anyone who liked the previous Aveyond games, but it doesn't have that extra oomph necessary to fully draw CRPG newcomers in. And while Lord of Twilight is filled to the gills with nostalgia, it needs more consistency to truly pay tribute to its roots. Nonetheless, amidst a glut of match-3 and hidden-object clones, Lord of Twilight is a good alternative for anyone seeking an epic blast from the past.

3/5
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Programming Note

IHODLs has been a little quiet lately, but that's about to change. Because I'm devoting not one, not two, not five, but three posts to the two latest RPGs to come out of Amaranthia Games; Aveyond: Lord of Twilight and Aveyond: Gates of Night. Why three? It was going to be just one, but then I found out an old colleague back from my regular MIDI sequencing days, Aaron Walz, did the music to it. So to those of you who aren't visiting this blog just because you did a Google search for "New Star Grand Prix crack", you're in for a treat. Not only will there be a double-header review of Aveyond: LoT and Aveyond: GoN, you will also get a review of the soundtrack to both games (which will feature more obscure classical references than The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). And, if that weren't enough, I'll post an interview with Aaron Walz, composer for the Aveyond games since the days of Ahriman's Prophecy. So come for the review, stay for the music discussion!

One final note for those who weren't expecting anything here but clicked anyway:

This wasn't meant to correspond with Amaranthia's 7th Anniversary, but consider this my present: free publicity! I'm not guaranteeing a glowing review, but as someone who grew to love video game music thanks to Lunar: Silver Star and Lunar: Eternal Blue, I couldn't be happier that role-playing games have against all odds broken into the casual gaming market. Congrats, guys!
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pure Hidden

Created by: Ouat Entertainment
Where to get it: http://www.purehidden.com/

Hidden object games are the bottom of the casual gaming barrel. Far too often, they involve finding objects that have no business being there in the first place, like a scorpion in an office or a bale of hay in a bathroom or other similarly nonsensically-placed junk. Pure Hidden from Ouat Entertainment takes a different approach, throwing logic out the window and offering a plethora of gorgeous artwork in which to hunt for objects. There's no question that Ouat's take on the genre is a beacon of hope for a genre weighed down by tedious Mystery Case Files clones. The problem is, for all the bars raised by its presentation, it fails to meet those raised standards in the gameplay. The result is a game that looks like no other hidden object game on the market, yet plays like every last one of them.

Pure Hidden is presented in a series of boxes, each containing a decal to be applied to the next one. The first box gives a fairly good idea of what to expect of the rest of the game: A bizarre collage that looks like something out of Andy Warhol's nightmares, set to a Brian Eno-esque soundtrack. Items seem to blend fairly well with the background, and for once actually look like they've been deliberately hidden rather than randomly thrown around. Sometimes they even blend a little too well, making it nearly impossible to see anything other than an errant squiggle or two out of place. Luckily, there's no time limit to contend with, and the hints refill relatively quickly. The attempts to address some of the biggest flaws in hidden object games are commendable, and more importantly, noticeable.

What makes Pure Hidden so different is how artistically sound it is. The scenes themselves are each legitimate works of digital art in their own right. Then there are the "surprises," which include everything from decorating a bathroom to routing a chicken to egg baskets to a cat catapult. Each is very similar in spirit and execution to the legendary WarioWare mini-games, though they can all be skipped at will in case you just want to get to the hidden objects for some reason. Art is obviously a major part of any hidden object game, but nowhere is it integrated more completely into the game than Pure Hidden.

But while Pure Hidden raises the bar artistically for hidden object games, it doesn't try hard enough to bring the mechanics up to the same bar. You've still got scenes that promote random clicking, in some cases because the game isn't looking for that out-of-place item at that time. The optional point system is a blatant cop-out, an artificial attempt to reward players for doing what they'd do in every other hidden object game. The spot-the-differences levels involving 3-D scenes reminiscent of cylindrical dioramas are particularly flawed, looking remarkably blocky and running painfully slow. And then there was a game-crashing bug that happened with an errant click. Pretty pictures can make problems like these tolerable, but they hardly make up for them.

Pure Hidden should've been a slam-dunk. It should've been one of those games that pleases with both form and function. As it stands, it's all about the form with function seemingly an afterthought. That won't work when the whole point is to do more than look at everything. Pure Hidden's unique aesthetic is most definitely an improvement over its competitors. However, it's still questionable whether or not that makes it worth buying. Give it a look to see what happens when art becomes the centerpiece of a hidden object game, but it feels more like a prototype to be improved upon than a true gaming masterpiece.

3/5
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tales of Monkey Island, Chapter 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

Created by: Telltale Games
Where to get it: http://www.telltalegames.com/monkeyisland

For the past several years, it seemed like LucasArts, the makers of Monkey Island and many other superb adventure games, was trying to pretend its rich adventure game-laden past never existed. Instead, the once-innovators cast their lot with cash-ins on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises with generally mediocre results. But Telltale Games has finally acquired the right to develop a series of five Monkey Island games, starting with Tales of Monkey Island, Chapter 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. As the first authorized Monkey Island game in nine years, it doesn't fully live up to its legendary legacy, nor does it attempt to try. But it should please any fan of Guybrush Threepwood or adventure games in general.

Pirate hero Guybrush Threepwood has returned once again to stop his nemesis, the evil LeChuck, from taking over the world and putting the moves on his sweetheart Elaine Marley. It's a bit disarming to see Guybrush now looking in his thirties and with a beard that doesn't suck. Thankfully age hasn't made him much less incompetent or less funny, and voice actor Dominic Armato still hits his lines as beautifully as he did in the two previous games. For that matter, all the voice acting is excellent, particularly veteran voice actress Alexandra Boyd's Elaine, who cuts the right mix of ironic casualness when asked about how she's been while tied to a mast in the middle of LeChuck's voodoo world-domination ritual. A lot of effort clearly went into making Tales of Monkey Island something worth all the fuss they went through to get the license in the first place, and it shows.

The frequent camera cuts in Telltale Games make it feel like you're playing what would've been a cinematic cutscene in earlier games. Sometimes the camera doesn't always get it right, particularly with the trammeled Elaine getting in the way of important items, but generally the effect is a good one. The inventory system is unobtrusive, but a bit cumbersome. For example, to combine inventory items you need to move your mouse to the right side of the screen, click on the arrow that appears, click on one of the two items you want to use with each other, place it in one slot, click the other item, place it in the other slot, then click the easy-to-miss plus button between the two. Movement is also a bit counter-intuitive with a click-and-drag mechanic that feels difficult to control. The initial release also has some significant graphics bugs that make it annoying to set up. And worst of all, there's no insult swordfighting in this game. These are easily the weakest part of Tales of Monkey Island, and hopefully will be adjusted in Chapter 2.

But that's it for major weak spots. The writing is excellent, though a few more dialogue options would've been nice in the demo. Visually, everything looks like three-dimensional versions of the art from Curse of Monkey Island, exceptionally faithful to its cartoonish roots without looking as much like extras from the movie Aladdin. Composer Michael Land returns with some exceptional music fit for a pirate, liberally using marimbas and steel drums to great effect. The rest of the sound effects are also well-done, and the cute pings make the slightly cumbersome inventory system a little more tolerable.

It's intriguing to note that the Tales of Monkey Island series isn't meant to be Monkey Island 5, and it feels like more of a casual spin-off than a full-fledged Monkey Island epic. While this might make it more marketable to a mainstream audience, gamers wanting more than just a casual romp are going to be disappointed. The serial style of marketing used by Telltale Games allows them to treat each title as a standalone game, and as such, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal sometimes feels like it's just filler for those who paid for the $35 season ticket until they get to what they actually paid for.

But even on its own, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is a good way to kick off a series that's been lying in the briny depths for nearly a decade. Is it alone worth the season price of $34.95? No. But it's certainly worth a look if you've never seen a Monkey Island games before. So if you're looking to see what it's like as a mighty pirate... look somewhere else. But if you're looking to see what it's like as a semi-competent pirate in a funny tale that crashes through the fourth wall at will, Tales of Monkey Island has just what you're looking for.

4/5
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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity

Created by: Dejobaan Games
Where to get it: http://www.dejobaan.com/aaaaa/

There's one word that best describes Dejobaan Games, the makers of The Wonderful End of the World: stylish. With AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (henceforth referred to as Aaaaa!!!), they've abandoned the chic coffeehouse (literally in one case) whimsy of TWEOTW in favor of gleeful punk anarchy. In other words, if The Wonderful End of the World was Cambridge, Aaaaa!!! would be Worcester. Like Worcester, not everything's being used the way it should in this pre-release demo. But also like Worcester, what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in pure chutzpah.

Your goal in Aaaaa!!! is to base-jump from the top of one building to a landing area. Successfully managing in one piece can be a challenge in itself, as you can mangle yourself easily on everything from the sides of buildings to flying cars. But of course, surviving is the easy part; you also have to do it in style. This primarily means two things: Flying close to buildings, and doing it near as many buildings as possible. The game refers to these as Hugs and Kisses, and will give you points for both. Later on, you can also acquire power-ups like a thumbs-up/flip-off glove and an espresso double-shot, which give you still more chances to score points.

This isn't a realistic depiction of base jumping. It is, however, a really fun depiction of base jumping. The jumper moves with a little more control than you'd expect out of someone hurtling toward potential bone-shattering injury. A halfway-decent player can manage a two-star jump easily. This isn't to say that the game is too easy, as there are plenty of times when you'll become one with the surfaces you're attempting to hug and kiss. The parachute can be a little tricky to deploy properly, but it's easy enough to land without turning into a pile of powdered calcium, as the game mercurially announces upon a fatal landing. And five-star ratings, as was the case with unlocking the tougher of TWEOTW's levels, requires superhuman dexterity and ingenious planning to attain.

As if the game itself weren't impressive enough, Aaaaa!!! provides even more entertainment with its shamelessly irreverent presentation of its dangerous subject matter. Teeth are the currency in Aaaaa!!!, an understandably rare commodity among frequent base-jumpers. Sadly, there aren't nearly as many icons as there should be to represent the game's core concepts, a missed opportunity that hopefully will be capitalized on in the finished product. There are, however, plenty of funny messages (such as the informative "No means no" as an alternative to yes), as well as one of the most bizarre bonuses ever seen in a game: a guided meditation break. Played absolutely straight, it's a brilliant counter to all the depraved insanity elsewhere in the game (including an Anti-Meditation unlockable in the full version). There's also an excellent punk rock soundtrack for the game proper, and delightfully cheesy musak for the level selection menu.

Sadly, Aaaaa!!! has its faults, including one big one. After a while, the jumps tend to feel and even look the same despite some very colorful abstract effects and hilarious billboards. Sure, there are tons of unique layouts (including nine in the demo), but despite that, each jump tends to play the same way. There's one notable exception in the set of skyscrapers with horizontal pylons that make it look like the Death Star trench run, but other than that, there isn't quite enough variety to completely draw gamers in. As for the look, all of the floating buildings look identical. There's some good variation in the stationary ones, but the bigger ones just look like what you'd expect Worcester to look like if it was all a floating roughly cylindrical city: grey and lifeless. There's also not nearly enough sound effects in the game other than the blips and beeps of your proximity meter. All three of these problems, however, have been acknowledged by the game's designer, and with any luck will be dealt with by the time the game sees its official release later this year.

If Aaaaa!!! were a celebrity, it'd be Denis Leary. It's got a curmudgeonly, gritty exterior, but also that little bit extra needed to break out and become a star. Dejobaan Games has clearly banked on this potential with probes into converting the game to the Wii and Xbox 360. It remains to be seen whether the game will be worth its final $25 cost, but as it stands now, the lower price of $15 seems like a fair price. And even in its pre-release state, it's worth the download for the free demo levels alone. So get in touch with your inner suicidal maniac and give AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity a try.

4/5
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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Braid

Created by: Number None, Inc.
Where to get it: http://www.gamersgate.com/DD-BRAID/braid

Since I've called him out and poked fun at his game, I figured it was only fair that I actually give Jonathan Blow's brainchild, Braid, a fresh review on this blog.

Blow has repeatedly spoken about the ills of high-budget, low-concept games. Appropriately enough, Braid is neither. On the contrary, Braid is definitely the wrong game for anyone purely looking for a side-scrolling romp. In fact, as the game progresses, it's clear that the goal is less about getting through an area and more about figuring out exactly what's going on and what to do about it. That's why Braid deserves a critique that doesn't rely on rhetoric, and why it deserves all the accolades it's received.

Tim is the protagonist of Braid, a mysterious man in an ill-fitting suit out to rescue a princess from an evil monster. It's a deliberately ambiguous plot, and the ambiguity only grows as the plot unfolds (told primarily through books at the beginning of each world). Even the level progression, starting at World 2, doesn't really make sense until the very end. And even the ending (with a vaguely Dickensian twist) only leaves more questions, which aren't even answered fully after every last thing there is to do in Braid has been done. Which is good, because the things to do in Braid are what set it in a field of its own.

At first glance, Braid is a side-scrolling platform-jumper that gleefully rips off both Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Tim can run and jump, but he can also manipulate time. Instead of dying after a misstep, you're prompted to press a button that will rewind the action. In World 2, this seems like little more than a lame gimmick to a pretty but limited game. But as the game goes on and more variations on time manipulation are introduced, it's clear that thinking about Braid as a traditional platform-jumper just doesn't work. Tried-and-true techniques that would work in countless other games don't in Braid, and the only way to make progress is to really pay attention to what's going on. It forces you to actually play it rather than just test your reflexes.

But not only does Braid play great, it also looks great. Combining sketch-like marker art and Van Gogh-like backgrounds, the aesthetic is best described as Paper Mario trapped in On Starry Night. Everything moves beautifully, from Tim himself to the dinosaur who serves as a not-at-all subtle allusion to Toad from Super Mario Brothers (even announcing that the Princess is in another castle!) to the cloud platforms. It's a game that looks so good you could park Tim on a cloud and just watch it for an hour.

I've already blathered ad nauseum about Blow's questionable reasoning for choosing licensed music rather than working with a composer. However, I haven't talked enough about the quality of that music. Each of the eight gorgeously airy music tracks are impressive in their own right, but their use in Braid accents the transcendental feel of the game perfectly. As for the rest of the sound, the boings, bonks and other sound effects are all viscerally satisfying, and the whole game sounds great whether you're at normal speed or rewinding at quadruple-speed.

And with updates, promises of better settings customization, and a level editor, the only bad thing to say about Braid is that it feels like it's come ten years too late. Side-scrollers reached their peak in the early 90's, when many of the subtle jabs at the genre would've been at their most effective. As it stands, the ones most likely to "get" Blow's more satirical references are older gamers, who could only have dreamed of a game like this when the market was churning out Mario clones the way developers churn out Bejeweled and Halo clones today. If there's any justice in this world, there really will be a Braid 2, and it really will look like this.

Braid will stimulate your mind in ways most video games don't even try. In throwback fashion, it does the unthinkable. It does something spectacular in a genre thought to be devoid of freshness. Jonathan Blow clearly loves games. He also clearly wants others to love games as much as he does. That love shows here. If every developer were able and willing to put as much love into their game as Blow did with this one, I'd have to find something else to write about.

5/5
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