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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