September 11, 2012 22 Comments
As I noted in my review of qrth-phyl, I get called out a lot for picking on developers. I really try to avoid this and focus on the game, but sometimes my methodology on criticism can seem like I’m going after someone when I’m not. If I say a developer’s game sucks, it’s taken to mean I think the developer sucks. And if I’m especially harsh on a game, it’s thought that I need to lighten up and look for positive things to talk about and “quit being so personal.” It’s never personal. Ever. So hopefully I’ve cleared that all up and can now focus on writing a balanced review.
Sententia is the worst Xbox Live Indie Game of the year.
I spent a few hours slogging through it, including accidentally scrubbing my save file while attempting to show someone how the game began, which meant I got to start over. Of all the critics who are covering the Uprising, I’m pretty sure I made the least progress in the game. I know there are people who say that a review doesn’t count if you don’t finish the game. To that I say, unless it has a magical stop-being-crappy section, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly miss discussing about it.
The idea is you’re some kind of demon monster thingie (I think) who is coming of age and learning to use magical connect-the-dots to um, do something. I honestly have no clue. Which is odd because there’s certainly enough writing that I would hope to grasp what is going on. Instead, a kid just kinda wanders off on the woods, sees giant-sized devil thingies, and doesn’t turn around and run home to his daddy.
Sententia describes itself as an art game in its marketplace blurb. I’m not a huge fan of games that label themselves as such, because most that do so use it as an all-purpose bullet-proof vest for criticism. It gives a developer or a game’s fans the ability to deflect any valid complaints by saying “it’s art house, it’s not for everyone.” I got this vibe when I interviewed Michael last month. I came away liking the guy and admiring his amazing effort in organizing the Uprising. I also looked at his game, compared it to the other eight games, and figured it didn’t belong. And it doesn’t. I get no pleasure from saying that, but it’s true. It probably should have been the last game to release, so as to not taint the event.
Let’s picture non-regulars on the XBLIG scene catching wind of the Uprising through some of the big time coverage it has got. Sententia is the second game in the promotion, after the very good but also very weird qrth-phyl. Maybe qrth-phyl looked too weird to sample. Thus, Sententia becomes the first game that many people sample in this promotion that purports to show off the best XBLIG has to offer. Within fifteen minutes, everything wrong with Sententia becomes evident. Bad graphics. Annoying sound effects. Horrible play control. Sloppy interface. Bad writing. Cheap level design. Those people who think XBLIG is a joke and avoid the channel like the plague who decide to take a chance because of the hype say “this is the best Xbox Indies are capable of?” They don’t know that Sententia, and this will really sound harsh, only got in because it’s the game created by the guy who ran the promotion. So those people play this, are completely turned off by the scene, and they never come back.
And for the record, I feel like a total bitch for saying that.
Guys, next year I’m picking the order.
Sententia’s hook is that you occasionally have to pause the game and do a connect-the-dots puzzle. Every dot has little slash-marks on it, signifying how many lines will extend from it. This is actually a cool idea for a standalone game, assuming it’s done right. Sententia doesn’t do it right, mostly owing to the clumsy building interface. It’s slow-moving, awkward, and accident-prone. If you make a mistake, deleting a line can be an exercise in frustration. There were times where the cursor simply refused to highlight the line I wanted to delete. I had to delete all the other lines that it wanted to highlight instead before I could correct the mistake. There’s also no “clear-all, start over” button. So if you’ve totally cocked-up a puzzle (and you will do that a bunch, trust me), your punishment is to slowly clean up before starting over. I asked Michael if anyone had pointed this stuff out to him, and he said no, the play testing went well. So going off that, good job play testers! Given the nearly universal negative reaction to Sententia I’ve seen today, I can’t believe none of you thought “maybe I should say something.”
So the hook was botched. The rest of the game pretty much plays like a run-of-the-mill platformer, assuming the run was given to a recently lobotomized goldfish. The controls are horribly sluggish, with movement and jumping being slow. There’s a noticeable delay in responsiveness. So naturally the game has several sections that require timed-precision platforming with respawning enemies. The enemies are typically placed on narrow platforms, and will fire at you if you are on the same plane as them. Since you can’t jump and fire at the same time, you pretty much have no choice but to rely on luck and hope the game glitches out and the enemies get respawned on the wrong platform. That happens. And thankfully the enemies can’t possibly respawn on the wrong platform in a way that makes it impossible to proceed. Oh wait, that happens too. Don’t worry though, it won’t matter, because you’ll get stuck trying to walk past two respawning enemies on platforms that drop out from underneath you almost as soon as you step on them. Or “get as close to the edge as you can before jumping” platforms that are scattered all over the game. I honestly can’t come up with a single positive thing to say about the gameplay. It’s abysmal in every way a game can be.
I’m not sure how Sententia was released in the state it’s in, or how anyone, even the creator of the game, could be delusional enough to think this should have been included in an Xbox Live Indie Game showcase. A theory kicked to me on my Twitter feed is that Sententia made it in as a matter of convenience, because it was a game that was available and done. If that’s the case, I object to the use of the word “done.” Unless we’re using the “stick a fork in it, it’s done” context. Simply put, you don’t stick a game that is total and complete uncompromising and unapologetic garbage in a lineup of games designed to showcase the potential of a game platform on the grounds that there was nothing else available. It would be like not having enough food to cover a reception, so one lucky guest gets the honor of eating a plate full of shit. Again, not trying to pick on Michael Hicks. He’s a cool dude. But his game could very well be the worst game on the entire XBLIG platform, and should not have been used in a promotion designed to lure in new fans. Michael, I commend you for your efforts in the third Indie Games Uprising. You busted your ass hard for your fellow developers and you should be saluted for that. You spread the gospel of Xbox Live Indie Games like a modern-day John the Baptist. And, like John, your head ended up being served on a silver platter.
80 Microsoft Points had no fun writing any of the above in the making of this review. In fact, I feel pretty dang rotten about it.