Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Enoworld review

Some games dazzle you with graphics or sound. Others have great writing, interesting story or a likeable character. Yet others feature challenging, but not frustrating puzzles. Enoworld isn’t among any of those, and yet it has a certain charm that makes it very entertaining.

Despite the fact that you play a knight who revels in his depression, the name of the game is not misspelled; it’s not an Emo world. Alien robots landed on your planet, wiped out all the other knights, and the scientists have tasked you, as their last hope, to stop the invasion. Your character expects the task to be very tedious and depressing, and jumps at the opportunity to feel down a little longer. Throughout the game, he’ll travel across multiple towns and landscapes, collecting items that would help him to defeat the robots and their mothership.

The game is so incredibly linear that I described nearly the entire story in the previous paragraph. The quests and an occasional puzzle are just as simple. They range from basic Fedex quests through collecting a few items to finding a few more items, partially hidden on the screen. In fact, finding the relatively small hotspots for crossing to the next screen was more difficult than the vast majority of quests in this game. You’ll never have more than the necessary number of items, and you’ll never face a lack of information for what to do next. The author even disabled any progress until you solve what you need at a certain location. And to add insult to injury, in some cases you’ll find the key item for a location conveniently located directly on the screen, ready for taking. Your character likes insults and injuries, though.

While the adventuring aspect of the game may be less than stellar, the rest of the writing is superb. The author managed to create an environment that is eclectic, yet fully integrated. The gaming world consists of locations that differ greatly, not only in appearance, but also in people, their way of life, and their attitudes towards the main character. There’s the depressed town, angry city, happy village and many others. Each place requires a slightly different approach to problem solving. More appealingly, each location features non-player characters with very distinct personalities and tons of amusing conversation. The author added an extra touch by adjusting the facial expressions of each person based on their place of origin.

Other than the distinct facial expressions and varied character of locations, the game offers additional production value in a unique drawing style and a little background sound. The graphic style reminded me a little of that in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, with greatly accentuated heights of characters and buildings. Unfortunately, the overall impression of the world is very flat, and the additional natural backgrounds (largely distant hills) in semi-3D make the rest look even flatter. The background sounds are very appropriate in their minimalism, but I was a little surprised by the disproportionately large sound file.

Still, I must admit I’ve had a lot of fun with the game. The gaming world and its inhabitants were so diverse and charming and the dialogs so entertaining that I was happy to overlook everything else and dive into the wonderful world of Eno.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Broken Sword 2.5: Return of the Templars Review

After several years of work, a group of fans of the Broken Sword series has completed one of the most ambitious independent adventure projects ever: a full-length sequel to the series, hardly distinguishable from the original. In fact, it resembles the commercial games so much that I found myself comparing this title to its inspiration more than its peer group, other independent adventures. In this review, though, I will do my best to rate this game on its merits.

Broken Sword 2.5 takes place between The Smoking Mirror and The Sleeping Dragon. George, the main character, has received a message that Nico, his French girlfriend, has died. He was pleasantly surprised to find her alive, but quite taken aback by her brash behavior and secrecy. It didn’t help to find out that she was accused of killing the mayor of Paris. It’s now up to the player to guide George to find out the truth. As in other Broken Sword games, the truth turns out to be quite elusive, obscured by numerous story twists and turns. And as with other games in the series, Broken Sword 2.5 focuses heavily on the story, so I won’t be revealing anything more.

The game’s presentation is fashioned after the first two official parts: presented in a beautifully drawn 2D cartoonish environment. Many of the backgrounds are actually lifted from the original games, as are the cursors and many character animations. The game authors are not trying to hide this; in fact, in one scene the game actually features flashbacks from the first game in the series when George visits a familiar location.

Unfortunately, reusing existing graphics has introduced the only real problem I’ve had with the game: a lack of visual consistency. There is a visible difference between graphics from the official games and new graphics. The new ones look and feel much flatter, which is a little disturbing with backgrounds and quite annoying with moving people. Especially in scenes where George walks across a new background, surrounded by new people, he stands out like a sore thumb.

Sound-wise, the game is excellent. The voiceovers (at the time of writing only in German, but English speakers will find English subtitles) are some of the best I’ve heard in an independent adventure, and would easily give a commercial game (The Watchmaker, I’m looking at you) a run for their money. The developers were really passionate about their project, and it is perceptible in their voice acting. The soundtrack mimics the official soundtracks, and even though it is not as plentiful as in the original games, it is still very well done. For an independent adventure, the soundtrack is very good, but people looking for the same atmosphere as in the original games will be disappointed by the lack of any music in most screens.

The most outstanding aspect of the game, though, is the writing. Broken Sword 2.5 fits very snuggly into the overall Broken Sword universe as it maintains plenty of ties to previous and future games. Throughout the game, the player will meet familiar characters and share fond (or not so fond) memories. In a few cases, the designers actually included some extra background information, which explains some of the questions that were left unanswered in the original series. The authors touched also on upcoming titles, hinting to future events. In a particularly amusing jab at The Sleeping Dragon (Broken Sword 3), George even comments on how much he dislikes pushing crates around.

The overall story is excellent as well. It may sound very improbable and convoluted, but in hindsight I found it on par with the official games in the series. Unfortunately, towards the end the game slides into lengthy explanations that tie all the loose ends, instead of having George figuring out the entire story himself. Still, the effort the authors put even into this part, is commendable, and with the exception of one aspect – the sudden disappearance of several supporting characters from the storyline – the story worked above my expectations.

The only weak part of the writing is puzzle design. As with the commercial games, the puzzles are usually easy and straight-forward. However, a few puzzles are a little convoluted, and then there are those that require a little pixel hunting. Given the size of the cursors and a certain stickiness of hotspot descriptors (they slowly fade out when moving the cursor elsewhere), some hotspots are easy to miss, making the game a little frustrating at times. My main gripe here, however, was the inconsistency that occurred when George needed to use money: money miraculously appeared when the authors didn’t need to further the story, even though in an earlier scene George couldn’t afford a single ice cream cone.

Overall, though, Broken Sword 2.5 is easily the most pleasant independent adventure experience I’ve encountered this year. It is almost on par with the commercial games in the series, and way above any standard set by free independent adventures. It easily fits into the range of independent games that were commercialized, such as Dark Fall and Final Destination. I feel very lucky I was able to play Broken Sword 2.5.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Reactor 09

There’s nothing more I admire in a game developer than self-discipline. Being able to write a game that is focused, and resisting the temptation to go off tangents and create unnecessary and often confusing additional content is very rare. Making it appealing to gamers is even more difficult. The author of Reactor 09 managed to pull it off.

Clyde is down on his luck. As a new “lifer”, a prisoner with a life sentence for murder, he’s keeping himself busy mopping the jail floors. Just as he’s picking up some more cleaning supplies while under the watchful eye of a correctional officer, an earthquake cuts the power to the room and locks both of them in. Clyde, not satisfied with the turn of events, wants to find out what happened and if possible, escape into a safer place.

As you may have already guessed, you play as Clyde, the prisoner. Formerly, he was an engineer who designed a set of power generators, and as it turns out later in the game, one reactor has already exploded, causing the earthquake, and another is about to blow up. This relatively straight-forward adventure premise is greatly spiced up by the interaction between Clyde and the correctional officer. The CO has plenty of his own personality. Some of it is well defined; for example, he is very anal when it comes to following rules. Other, however, is quite loose – the CO changes his attitude towards Clyde during the game. This is represented by a trust bar, which can be seen when the mouse cursor is placed over the CO. The trust can be adjusted by various actions, as well as conversations, which further reveal the depth of character of both Clyde and the CO.

Character development plays a much more important part in this game than the puzzles. All of them are on the easy side, mainly because the author dropped plenty of hints on how to solve them. You can thus pay much closer attention to your alter ego. Thanks to Clyde’s complex personality, your character is not just a tool to use to solve problems. He is a prisoner who maintains his innocence, who risks his life to save the city, but also a person who doesn’t have a problem to make cruel fun of the CO and provoke other inmates. Throughout the game, additional information on Clyde’s background is revealed, though a series of newspaper clippings. I found those to be the only element that slipped the author’s tight control.

The game offers other rarely seen features as well. One of them is an information screen: at certain points in the game additional information is offered on the problem at hand or the game environment. All this information is something the main character should have been familiar with, but is outside the scope of the game. Having an information screen of sorts, where the player can read up on this information, is a very elegant way to present it.

Presentation-wise, the game relies on very good graphics and cut scenes. Both the beginning and end give some additional story details, and the way they have been designed frames the game into a very coherent, separate entity. The soundtrack is subdued, with the exception of the later stages in the game, when it very appropriately picks up to create a sense of urgency. Character animations are very clean, but sometimes they evoke the feeling of Egyptian murals, especially when multiple characters stand on the same spot, revealing that they lack depth.

Reactor 09 was nominated for the most AGS awards last year, and yet it came up empty-handed. It had the bad luck of running against some very strong competition. (Personal gripe – I still think it should’ve won the Best Supporting Character Award.) The number of nominations shows, though, how well-rounded the game is. It is definitely a game I can recommend to anyone who likes graphic adventures.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trilby's notes

The world of adventure games is full of private detectives, paranormal investigators and loners with an axe to grind. Trilby could easily fall into all three categories, but he wasn’t always like that. He started out as a master thief, and only the encounter with an evil murdering entity has changed him to the extent where he got clumsy, got caught and was forced to work for a government team focused on out of the ordinary events.

Chronologically, Trilby’s Notes is the second of the four part series by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, which started with 5 Days a Stranger. Even though released later than the adventure in space of 7 Days a Skeptic and thus potentially confusing the story’s timeline, thanks to a very good introduction the player will quickly pick up where he left out in 5 Days. New players won’t have any problems either, as Trilby’s Notes is a fully self-contained game.

The action takes place in a hotel, which seems to be shifting between two realities. Trilby, the main character, will shift even more, completing very simple tasks or merely observing during five different historical periods, all of which explain some of the background of the cursed statue that caused so much trouble in the first game, and which is now back. Showcasing his superb writing, Yahtzee once again spins a very tight and enjoyable story, which despite its subject matter doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief. The author advances the story via writings that Trilby occasionally finds, in addition to the already mentioned flashbacks. At the very end, the player is treated to a bonus backgrounder that appears after the game’s been completed and before the end titles.

Gameplay-wise, the author has resorted to good old fashioned adventuring. The timed scenes from 7 Days are thankfully gone, and there’s no action like in the 1213 series. The puzzles are all relatively easy, and the greatest challenge will be with the text parser. The author decided to use it instead of a full point-and-click interface, but he did an excellent job loading the parser with synonyms. With only a single exception (finding the proper name for a smoke sensor), I’ve never had a problem with the parser. The greatest puzzle-related challenge will be the relative linearity of the gameplay, where many items appear or are usable only after certain puzzles are solved, and only in one of the two realities. Given the dozen or so spaces that Trilby will have access to, this will mean a lot of running back and forth.

Production-wise, the game bears Yahtzee’s signature. The backgrounds are very simple and clean, drawn in 256 colors (which tends to get a little frustrating when trying to get screenshots). Character animations are very basic, and they reminded me of 1980s commercial games – in a good way. The author was obviously inspired by slasher movies, especially the Friday the 13th series, as the main villain loves to maim other characters with big, pointy objects, in animations that were designed to shock. Even though the horror-themed hotel reality left me cold, the sudden killings out of nowhere did make me jump. The music, as simple as the graphics, fit in well enough, but didn’t evoke the eerie feeling that music in some other games does.

The simplicity of the production value isn’t a bad thing, though. On the contrary, it gives the game a very distinct character and has the author and the player focus on the story and the game itself. This allowed the author to leverage his strength, his superb storytelling and writing. Trilby’s Notes is an excellent game I’m happy I got to play.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chivalry is not Dead

Sometimes it’s good to be evil. Sometimes not so much… But it’s always good to have a choice, and this game offers an unprecedented array - for an independent adventure - of such choices. Chivalry is not Dead may look like a run of the mill adventure game, albeit with unique and pleasing graphics, but it’s focus on dialog and multiple endings makes it quite unique.

Deirdra Kiai is an experienced adventure maker. I’ve already enjoyed and reviewed her previous game, The Game That Takes Place on a Cruise Ship, and she’s interned at Telltale Games, the publishers of the Sam & Max series. I was eagerly awaiting her new title, and quickly got into playing once it was released. The author has also written a series of articles about developing the game for Adventure Gamers Underground, but I decided to skip those articles until I finished the game, lest my gaming experience be spoiled.

In Chivalry, you play Phlegmwad, an assassin employed by the villain. You are so ugly that you wear a paper bag over your head, and based on the reaction of people you meet, your awful reputation precedes you. You are tasked with killing the beautiful Queen of Everything. How the story goes from there is up to you...

Well, not exactly. As I mentioned before, the game offers multiple endings, but despite Kiai’s goal to the contrary (as expressed in her articles), the game is very linear. The variance lies mainly in dialog choices, which shape the attitudes of people around you, and which may offer an exit from the storyline prematurely and end the game. There are a few actions, mainly involving the main character’s knife, which can be optionally selected, but how the game plays out depends primarily on how other people see you. In this, Kiai shines.

The author spent two articles explaining how the dialog and attitude adjustments worked on a technical level, but didn’t really touch on the writing of the choices themselves. I found the conversation topics to be more convenient than in any other adventure game I played. Even though they were set in a fantasy word, I felt that I could honestly pick responses that reflected my beliefs, even though at first I didn’t do so. When I first started the game, I played the role of my character, and as the evil assassin I was supposed to be, I disposed of the queen in five minutes. When I realized that I possibly missed a great deal of the game I returned to it, but instead of playing at Phlegmwad I played as myself. Suddenly, the characters around me developed their own personalities, which were ever changing based on what I told them or what I did. As the time went by, I also developed feelings for the non-player characters, which is something I very rarely do. In this case, they were mainly feelings of disgust and frustration, but fortunately the author offered me a way out in the form of a short intermission where Phlegmwad actually met the game developer and was able to stay in her word. I actually felt relieved to take this path and escape from the game, leaving all the others who kept exploiting me behind. Later, I explored other dialog options, but by that time I knew what Kiai strived to achieve, and so they didn’t have such an effect on me anymore.

It’s difficult to understate the importance and genius of the dialog tree in this game. It not only drives the story forward and gives surprisingly deep character to non-player figures, but it also provides for most of the puzzles in the game. Inventory is greatly limited to just a few items, and the cursor only allows for walking, looking and talking. Detailed actions, such as smelling items or eating them, which appeared in the author’s previous game, as missing here. This simplicity further expands into graphics, which are very clear and large. Just as was Kiai’s goal, the player will focus on the dialog.

In her last article on the game, the author mentioned that most players reported to her that choosing more evil courses of action seemed to be easier than selecting good actions. Killing or threatening a non-player character indeed seemed to get the results faster than trying to convince the character to do the player’s bidding. I felt that Kiai named the game as a plea to try a different path to victory, to be more chivalrous to the queen who’s obviously a self-centered bigot. I must admit I enjoyed abandoning or abusing the queen over and over again, but I truly appreciated having a choice in this matter. In this respect, Chivalry is one of the best adventure games out there.

Pigeons in the Park

Later, Kiai released another game, which takes the dialog idea to the extreme. Pigeons isn’t truly an adventure game – it features no puzzles, not even character movement. It only has two strangers having a conversation on a park bench. The author did an incredible job with the dialog, though. Once again, there are many forks the player can take and even more so than in Chivalry, the forks sound very real, and the player may be truly drawn into the dialog. One of the greatest innovations, in my opinion, was to also include a “no answer” option. Keeping silent is a response as well, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it in other dialog-driven games yet. I thought I’d play this game a few times, to explore the different forks in conversation and their effects. I ended playing it only once, and I won’t be going back to it. I found that I could pick every answer truthfully, based on how I really felt about the conversation. At the end, my conversation partner developed a real personality, and I didn’t want to spoil this by exploring the software behind the two characters anymore. If you have a few minutes, try it out to see what I mean.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed

I still don’t know what this title won the AGS Best Innovation Award for: the very addictive gameplay, or the very unique name. In order to save space and my index fingers, I’ll use a shorter name for the game in this review, and call it simply Linus and focus on the gameplay instead. Hopefully I’ll be forgiven…

The game itself is very reminiscent of Rubik’s Clock, where you have two puzzle planes, which you need to set to certain values, but where an action in one plane affects the action in the other puzzle. Vince Twelve, the designer of this game, came with a great way to solve the problem of a steep learning curve. Instead of having the gamers plunge into the whole puzzle and force them to figure everything out, the author first enabled only one side of the puzzle.

In this game, you start out as playing an alien servicing a fast food restaurant. The orders got mixed up, and you’ll need to assign them to the right customers. There are two basic challenges you’ll be facing. First, you’ll need to use the menu to translate the orders into basic food ingredients and find the proper containers with their right combination. Then, you’ll have to distribute the meals onto predefined positions. Here, moving one container also moves up to three others, and thus shifting them to their proper places requires the greatest deal of thinking.

The puzzle is not as dry as it may sound, though, as the author spiced it out with lots of humor. Your in-game father is a moron who makes Homer Simpson look smart, and your customers range from fellow aliens through known characters like Chewbacca and the Borg, to Charlton Heston. (By the way, did you know that MS Word recognizes the word “Chewbacca” as valid and grammatically correct, but doesn’t recognize “Heston”?) The customers feature very appropriate and highly amusing dialogs, such as HAL 3000 who replies to your request to repeat his order with “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

All through the game, you’ll see a different action taking place on the upper portion of the screen. There, someone who looks like a Japanese samurai mimics your actions from the bottom of the screen, but unless you can learn and understand Japanese, you won’t know what’s going on. You’ll learn soon enough, though. When you successfully complete the initial puzzle, the upper part will be unlocked by switching to English. You’ll learn that you’ll have to re-sort some items on the top, too, to release your goddess from her prison. Unlike the bottom game, the top part does not feature any humor; instead, it is very serene. You’ll have to figure out the chronological progression of an ancient legend, and find out which spot you’ll need to place each item at. Just like with the bottom part, you’ll switch multiple items at the same time, but using a slightly different method than that on the bottom. Why? Because at the same time you’ll be solving the bottom part again, and as both characters are mimicking each other’s moves having different item movements allowed the cruel designer to mix up the items in different ways.

It may take several attempts to solve the game, but given how addictive the gameplay is, it won’t be a burden for most players. Given the game mechanics, however, I can’t really describe Linus as an adventure game. Even though the author incorporated two stories, in the end these stories are of very little consequence, and the game is pure puzzle. That doesn’t detract from its value, though, and one can just stand in awe, realizing how much has Twelve accomplished with AGS, a game creation studio designed for adventure games.

Production-wise, the author did also a great job. In line with the subject matter of the two puzzles, he created a cartoonish and artistic part of the game. The bottom, cartoonish part, is very colorful and quite loosely drawn. The customers who appear in TV monitors are very eclectic, yet fitting for the theme. The top part is very appropriate for the sober topic matter: all colors are dulled, brownish, the graphics are very precise, and the animations are as innovative as the puzzle and game title. The movement animations of the samurai are enough to warrant replaying the game if you already tried it, and a download if you didn’t.

Overall, Linus is deservedly the most innovative AGS game of last year. The basic mechanics of the puzzle may be well known, but the author managed to dress it up in two very engaging stories, and structure the game in a way that would allow relative newcomers to puzzle games to easily learn the concept and thus have a much better chance to finish the game without getting frustrated. I’ve had a lot of fun with this title, and I hope you will, too.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ben Jordan Case 6: Scourge of the Sea People

Ben Jordan has decided to take a vacation. Little did he know what the rest of us already did – that if it’s a Ben Jordan game, he’ll be chasing after monsters no matter what his original intentions were. This time, the story takes place in an idyllic Greek village, and the monsters appear to be the descendants of the Greek mythological god Phorcys. This god, along with his wife, seems to have spawned quite the offspring, which included Medusa and the other gorgons, the Sirens, and more.

The author of the game has done his homework in this game, and has dutifully described Phorcys and his wife, and relayed parts of the legends about him. Ben Jordan finds himself entangled in a plot where the Sea People, descendants of the god, awakened after a thousand years and once again began dragging people into the sea. With his two friends, and joined by the author of the guide for paranormal investigators, Ben must find a way to stop the attacks.

Francisco Gonzales, a.k.a. Grundislav, the maker of the Ben Jordan series, has grown tremendously since the first title. Over the past few parts he developed a slowly changing personality for his main character, and as the time goes by, he adds new characters who tag along, but who also have their own personalities. Even though sometimes I feel the character development seem to be a little too fast, such as in the third game of the series where Ben managed to fall in love, get betrayed by and have his love interest die in a span of ten minutes, Grundislav has improved in this respect as well, and instead of having the characters experience everything on the screen he allowed them to have their own little adventures in the background. Their character development, relayed through the characters’ retelling of their stories, seems thus more believable.

The author also keeps improving the structure of his games. Instead of making them more difficult and appealing to an ever tighter group of fans of the series, he actually made them more accessible to others by focusing on the story and character development, and keeping the puzzles relatively easy. The fact that the number of locations is strictly limited helped in this regard even further. This will not only attract new players to the series, but also prompt them to play older games, as Grundislav threw in a bunch of flashbacks from earlier games to bait the new players. In addition to these flashbacks, he hinted at future events and an unknown entity behind all the paranormal occurrences.

Not all is perfect, though. Even though the game demands great suspension of disbelief as Ben encounters various mythical beasts, I was a little taken back by the anticlimactic ending. Given the amount of damage and fear the monsters have caused, seeing the culprit was worse than watching the ending of a Scooby Doo episode.

Production-wise, the game is still a mixed bag. Grundislav did his best with the graphics. Despite the very low resolution of 320x200, the backgrounds look like watercolor paintings, and all of them are very atmospheric. Character animations and graphics, especially in close-up scenes, look still amateurish, though. The highlight, however, was the excellent and very fitting soundtrack, which seems to include a specific theme for each of the locations. It worked very well towards the overall immersive atmosphere for the game. The only tiny gripe I have here is that in the sound of doors being opened sounded more like someone getting punched in the stomach. Unfortunately, there are very many doors that need to be opened…

All in all, though, Ben Jordan Case 6: Scourge of the Sea People, is a very fine game, easily accessible to adventure players of all levels and very immersive. It shouldn’t take more than three hours to play through, but it offers a peak at other titles in the series, which those new to the series may want to explore and thus extend their playing experience. Ben Jordan is slowly but surely rising up the pantheon of adventure game heroes, and it would be a shame if you missed out on him.

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It's alive...

It’s alive… It’s alive! The monster is alive! After a long hiatus I’ve come back. I think I owe an explanation to the 2.43 readers who may still check this blog from time to time, though: I’ve been, and I still am incredibly busy at work, but that’s my own fault – I simply like what I’m doing too much. However, even with my limited time I’ll be able to re-launch the blog in a different format, so the “too busy” excuse loses much of its validity. The simple reason why I disappeared for a time was that I burned out. What was originally a lot of fun, turned gradually into a chore. Checking for new games and indie games news became a secondary work for me, and even though I’ve had fun playing very many of the games, there were many more that offered the entertainment value of vacuuming my apartment. I got increasingly bitter in my reviews of such games, which put additional pressure on my conscience – after all, even the creator of the worst game achieved more than I did: created a game. Who was I to judge them?

I didn’t stop playing adventure games, though; I just limited myself to the better ones. And this will now be part of the new blog format. Even though I’m aware that many readers appreciated that I reviewed all games, I don’t want to burn out again. Instead, I will focus only on games I have something nice to say about, games I can recommend to others. Obviously, not everything is perfect, and I won’t shy of criticism, but I will no longer feature a game only to tear it apart. This narrow focus will allow for a second change in the format: instead of mile wide and inch deep articles where each game, no matter how good and bad, gets one paragraph, I’ll be writing more in-depth reviews. There won’t be any rating, considering that only games I like will be reviewed, and I’ll try to stay below 1000 words. The reviews will begin with older games, which I played last year but never reviewed on this blog, and I’ll be slowly working my way to the present. I’ll stick to independent adventures, since that’s when the action and true innovation lies. I hope you won’t mind the new format too much…

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Robotragedy 2: Countdown to Doomsday Review

Ladieeeeees and gentlemen! Welcome to this week’s fight for the fate of the universe. In the villain corner, weighing an impressive 358 pounds is a large crocodile who returned to conquer the entire reality as we know it. In the hero corner, weighing 47 pounds (if we take away his entire inventory) is a big metallic ball on top of a pole with wheels, also known as Toby X, a common household robot. And so, without further ado, llllllets get ready to rumbleeeeeee!”

We’re in trouble. A villainous villain has emerged, threatening to spread his villainy and take over the entire universe.

“Whyyyyyyy?” Cry all the beings that are capable of making a sound. “Why does it have to be a reptile? Why not a pink flamingo, donkey or koala? Why is the villain again a crocodile?”

We may never know. But here’s some good news: the villain can be stopped. All we have to do is to find five pieces of an artifact, which nobody really believes exists, and whose parts are conveniently strewn through five planets, hidden behind numerous traps and puzzles.

“Whyyyyyyy?” Cry the same beings again. Actually, not all of them – there are a few worlds which adventure clichés didn’t reach yet. “Why is it always a device straight out of a legend, which is more magical than technological, and yet which somehow got scattered across the entire universe, several very distinct cultures, and which is protected by puzzles that require chewing gums, magnets, and who knows what else?”

Fortunately, not everything is lost. I’m sure that the Galactic Council finds someone capable of solving this crisis. Oh wait, I’ve spoken too soon…

“Whyyyyyyy?” The cry is getting quite annoying. Especially now, when it reaches a new, feverish pitch, and threatens to rip my eardrums. “Why did the Galactic Council choose a tiny household robot incapable of lifting large items, with only one retractable arm and socially awkward? The entire universe is at stake and the Council didn’t consider using every means necessary – including military force – to comb over the five planets and collect the artifact?”

Oh well, too late to change anything. So now it’s up to you, Toby X, to save the day once again. You got some adventuring experience when you rescued that pop star you were in love with from the kidnappers. Granted, her life was not in danger because as a robot she had none, but you still became her hero and married her at the end. Now, however, the love nest is empty. She is recording a new album, and you have a universe to save.

This, in a nutshell, is the premise of Robotragedy 2, which is a much better adventure game than you may think after reading the introduction. Its author must be a special case: patient, organized and very inventive, as he managed to create a game that’s long enough to compete with most commercial titles, and which remains interesting from the beginning to the end. Even though the story has been told numerous other times, the author’s knack for puzzles, very good writing and non-linear gameplay makes this one a keeper.

The game is tightly controlled in three self-contained parts. In the first part, you’ll be able to access only one planet, in search of the first artifact piece. This allows you to get used to the kind of puzzles you’ll encounter, the large dialog trees, as well as traveling between the artifact planet and your home to collect items you may need in your quest. The second part is much more expansive, with thee new worlds becoming available. Applying the same principles you learned before, especially in terms of solving puzzles on one planet with items collected elsewhere, you’ll work on finding three more artifact pieces. Just when the quest becomes tiresome and repetitive, the location of the last piece is revealed, and the storytelling switches to a frantic mode. Even though there are no action sequences, you’ll feel like time is really against you.

Puzzles play an enormously important role in this adventure. Unlike many other adventures, the narrative is only secondary here. Cut scenes are short and quite generic, as the author focused on puzzles. They are often very complex, sometimes requiring you to visit several worlds to piece together the solutions, and other times interacting with several non-player characters. Conversation often triggers new actions, which unlike other games don’t consist of simple FedEx quests. In fact, very few characters will ask you for something. They’ll either mention a problem that needs to be solved, or you’ll find out about their needs from other people. Puzzles that don’t require character interaction often consist of several parts, which cannot be solved at once. Instead, your character will be forced to set a puzzle aside, in order to solve something else, which in turn will allow him to continue on the previous puzzle.

I must admit that I wasn’t too good at solving this game. Just like the original Robotragedy, I got distracted by items that served as a ruse. There are many items that offer very simple and elegant solutions for given problems, but they are either not available, or they’ll become available much later in the game, as part of a much more convoluted solution to a wholly different puzzle. In addition, despite having three entire worlds available, the game remains relatively linear, as many crucial items only become available as previous puzzles are solved. The author has greatly limited the number of concurrent puzzles, which, in my opinion, detracts from the gaming experience.

Presentation-wise, the game is above average. The graphics range from good to great, with some of the backgrounds being on the top end of this scale and a few characters on the bottom. The good news is that the graphics remain consistent throughout the entire game, which is impressive given the length of this title and the number of locations.

Interface, on the other hand, would benefit from a little more polishing. The author is not a native English speaker, which shows in the language, but given how important character interaction is in this title, asking a few people to proofread would help a great deal. The dialogue and item descriptions confused me at times and led me away from a particular puzzle solution.

The other problem I’ve had with the interface is the inventory screen. Robotragedy 2 is heavy on items, often requiring you to combine multiple pieces into a single contraption. Unfortunately, the inventory screen shows only one row of four items. Scrolling back and forth to combine items has proven to be quite the exercise in patience.

All in all, Robotragedy 2 is a great game, albeit for a limited audience. Its expansiveness and puzzles take it out of mainstream independent adventures and put is along classic LucasArts titles. As such, veteran adventure players will enjoy the challenge, but newer gamers, used to the current crop of commercial and independent adventure games, may find themselves overwhelmed and frustrated. I found this title’s design to be refreshingly challenging and yet addictive, often turning off the game, only to keep thinking about a particular puzzle and a returning to it first thing next morning to try several new approaches. And unlike so many other recent titles I played, I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment when I finished this game and saved the universe.

“Whew,” said people all across the universe. “We lucked out this time; the villain’s minions were obviously so inept that they couldn’t foil this little household robot in finding the amulet. Come think of it, this wasn’t such a great threat after all. Maybe it’s time we fire the Galactic Council for spreading panic and elect new representatives. And maybe, just in case the little robot is needed in the future, we give him a second arm and a laser on top of his head. A big fricking laser…”

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Museum of Broken Memories Review

The Great Machine spins its wheels. It spits out yet another soldier caught in the middle of the horror of war. Or maybe the horror only exists in his head; the real war may be over. I guess we’ll never know, as this soldier is trapped in a world with no escape; a world consisting only of fragments of his memories.

Jonas Kyratzes has written several great games. He focuses on the horrors of war, and on the individual trapped in those horrors. The main character is always alone. He reacts very strongly to the environment, becoming very emotional and retrospective at the smallest impulse. This game is not an exception: once again you play a person scarred by the war who contemplates on the past. His memories aren’t limited to the horror of war, however; he also remembers fragments from his pre-war past, and in contrast, the war looks even more brutal.

This very theme was explored by one of the author’s previous games, The Great Machine, to a great extent. In that text adventure, you played a soldier trapped in a never-ending cycle of survival on the battlefield. The author references the game here when he mentions the wheels of the great machine spinning and threatening to grind the player, but here he is more interested in exploring the character’s psyche. The very powerful narrative allows the player to explore the main character, and despite the relative lack of linearity, it always fits together very well.

The Museum of Broken Memories takes place – not surprisingly - in a museum. There is no visible exit, but some of the paintings serve as portals to other worlds in the main character’s brain. You can move around by clicking on a room on the museum’s map. Despite the game being presented in a first person view, one can only turn around in the museum; movement is not implemented in the main interface (a pseudo-movement is available in some of the sub-games, by clicking on the door to the next room). This doesn’t detract from the experience, though, most of the game lies behind the five portals you’d be able to access.

These portals lead to five different worlds in the main character’s mind. Some of them present skewed and fragmented memories, while others seem to stimulate the character’s imagination. In one world, you’d feel the strong urge to escape from an unseen horror, in another you’ll want to find your friend, and yet in another you’ll be helping others to regain their memories. Each world has very unique graphics. In one case, for example, you’ll move around an adventure game storyboard, drawn in simple lines on a notepad. In yet another world, you’ll be blind. The place is totally dark, and you’ll move only by touch.

The heart of the game, however, isn’t connected to the very appropriate graphics, but lies in the narrative. The main character remembers things. Nearly every memory sparks an emotion, which further colors his speech. The author paid close attention in giving the character a very unique voice, which does not explain anything to the player, and yet makes the player understand things as the game goes on. You’ll be able to extract a great deal of information about the war and suffering the character and his lowed ones went through. One scene in particular, where your character explores the memories of a child who lost its toy, is extremely powerful and may stay with you for a long time.

However, nothing is perfect, and neither is this game. Interestingly, it is the narrative that fails. In one of the five worlds, it is much weaker than elsewhere, and given how strong it is in the other four worlds, this contrast is enormous. The largest world you’ll find yourself in is a maze without any light. The screen will remain dark throughout your journey here; only the cursor will change in the appropriate spots. The character will be able to use his hearing and touch, though. Here, the storyline follows the search for your lost love, only finding death all around you. The house you are moving in slowly falls apart, morphing into a battlefield. Given the lack of graphics, I anticipated the author to pay a much greater attention to the narrative. I expected not only the usual flashbacks, but also a much more detailed environmental description, and possibly my character guessing what he heard or touched. I was sorely disappointed. The flashbacks and emotions were almost gone, and all that was left was the description of the environment. The character seemed more curious than anything else. The author tried to compensate by using a very flowery language, but even that didn’t work. In fact, sentences like “a carpet of broken bones, bound together by rotting flesh” sound quite ridiculous if the main character doesn’t express any emotion.

Still, this deficit barely scratches this great game. Even though the graphics and music should be enough to please any gamer, the main strength of this title lies in the writing. In fact, it reads more like a poem than a game. That may not be too surprising, considering that the author seems to have been inspired by the writings of William Blake. In fact, Blake’s god of intellect, Urizen, plays an important role throughout this adventure. I found Urizen to be a little more malicious and active here than in Blake’s world, but this is the author’s prerogative. Jonas has later explained to me his vision of Urizen as the Authority, the personification of everything that’s fueled by short-term greed, such as senseless wars, economic and military imperialism, and more. His description allowed me to better understand the solitude of the main character as well, as Urizen also represents the repression of the individual.

All in all, The Museum of Broken Memories is a highly original and insightful work. It won’t be enjoyable in the classic sense of adventuring, as it lacks the traditional inventory system and puzzle solving. It will work itself into the player’s brain and create more questions than answers. With its superb graphics and soundtrack it will make it a little easier to digest the narrative, which is outstanding on its own. Despite a small hiccup in writing, I highly recommend this title to anybody looking for something more mature than what games usually offer.

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