Haunt the House: Terrortown

Haunt the House: Terrortown is sort of like that old GameCube title Geist, only it’s not a first person adventure, you can’t possess people, and the game doesn’t fucking suck. It’s not great either. Like Geist, the concept seems like it should lend itself well to a video game, but there’s not a whole lot you can do with it. Unlike Geist, the game doesn’t attempt to pad out a shallow, low-mileage concept. Haunt the House can comfortably be finished in under an hour. That includes the free Christmas-themed DLC. No, this doesn’t mean it qualified for Short Subject Saturdays. Being able to hypothetically finish something in under twenty minutes doesn’t make it short subject. You can beat Mario 64 in under fifteen minutes. Tell me with a straight face that makes it short subject.

Haunt the House 1

There’s actually a lot of objects to inhabit in Haunt the House, though I’m not certain how some of them are supposed to scare people. In the DLC, you can possess a bulb on the Christmas Tree and make X-Wings attack it like the Death Star. What the fuck? How is that scary? “Oh shit people, GEORGE LUCAS IS HERE! RUN!”

I guess I enjoyed Haunt the House. I mean, there’s just not a lot to it. You enter objects, you make them do something scary. As people become more terrified, you get the ability to make objects do even scarier things. To win, you have to get people so pants-shittingly scared that they flee the stage. It’s actually very family friendly, which is probably why I didn’t fall in love with it. It’s a children’s game, with just enough play time to hold their attention for an hour. I tested this theory on Brent, a friend’s ten-year-old. And then I became one of those people. You know, those people who can’t tell what forms of entertainment will be enjoyed by which age groups. The ones that buy Barbies for thirteen-year-olds, or complex LEGO sets for five-year-olds. At ten years of ages, even Brent was too old to really get an appropriate lark out of Haunt the House. I forgot that kids these days have access to shows like Walking Dead, and their video games are an orgy of terror and violence. I thought maybe I had been wrong about the kids will love it stuff, but then I tested it on seven-year-old Kelvin. He thought it was jim dandy awesome. Also, I’m using the terms like “jim dandy” and “kids these days” to describe anything. Christ, how did I get so old and out of touch so quickly?

Can adults enjoy Haunt the House? Sure, but they’ll mostly just complain that it’s too short, too shallow, or too kiddy. I liked it, but I wasn’t exactly disappointed when the game ended in less time than it takes to watch an episode of House of Cards. Hell, I even found a game-killing glitch in that short time. On one stage, one of the women you have to scare was somehow stuck running a loop on a staircase. She would get to the top of the stairs, then teleport to the bottom and run up it again. There was no way to get her out of it, and it rendered the game unbeatable. The only work around was to quit out of the game and come back. When you do this, all your progress is retained but the woman will be somewhere else on the stage. Just keep her away from the stairs. And other issues abound. When a person is terrified to the point that they’ll leave the stage, sometimes they don’t exactly take the best pathway to do so. It reminded me of Carlton’s freakout from Fresh Prince. The AI has one job: leave the fucking house. It should be more efficient at doing so.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase. Or did she? Maybe developer Tom Vian was trying to show the theory of space and relativity, showing that if you travel faster than the speed of light, you could end up causing an endless loophole of misery and repetition. This is actually one of the best uses I’ve ever seen for gaming to explain the laws of theoretical science and natu.. oh never mind, it was just a glitch.

Is it fun? Yea. Is it on the wrong platform? Yea. I know it came out on PlayStation Mobile, but really, it belongs on Wii U or 3DS. Is it over priced? Ohhhh yea. $4.99 is too much for a game with this little going for it. But if you’ve got wee ones or you can grab it for under $2, Haunt the House isn’t bad by any means. Had I realized Haunt the House was a game best suited for the under-nine set, I wouldn’t have played it. Haunt the House wasn’t designed for me. It was made for children. I’m a sophisticated adult. One who hides clips of a Japanese children’s television show in every review she does, but, um, what were we talking about?

Haunt the HouseHaunt the House was developed by SFB Games
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$4.99 yelled at kids to get off my lawn in the making of this review.

Haunt the House is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Fist of Jesus

Mom. Dad. Don’t read this one.

The Fist of Jesus is based on an independent short film, and it probably should have stayed there. It’s another game that I would consider a novelty title. Without the presence of Jesus, I’m almost certain this title would have been received with universal negativity. As the port of a mobile game, the fighting mechanics are extremely limited. One button does all the punching and kicking, while the other face buttons trigger special attacks that would normally be activated by an on-screen button. Because there’s only one button for attacking, there’s no combos or advanced moves to pull off. Just mash the button until the person you’re punching is dead. Alternately, sometimes your punches randomly stun the enemy and make a meter appear. Press the meter at the correct time and you’ll unleash one of three finishing moves chosen at random. The finishing moves are the same for both Jesus and Judas, and the novelty of watching Jesus rip out the heart of a zombie gets old pretty quickly.

Question: why would ripping the heart out of a zombie kill it? It's a zombie. Its heart doesn't even beat. Oh, never mind. I remember now. It's because we need to have screenshots and videos of Jesus ripping out someone's heart and holding it up triumphantly like he's Mola Ram so that people will want to buy the game.

Question: why would ripping the heart out of a zombie kill it? It’s a zombie. Its heart doesn’t even beat. Oh, never mind. I remember now. It’s because we need to have screenshots and videos of Jesus ripping out someone’s heart and holding it up triumphantly like he’s Mola Ram so that people will want to buy the game.

The movie Fist of Jesus is fifteen minutes long. I put fifteen hours into Fist of Jesus: the PC game. That wasn’t enough to finish it. I’m stuck on the level 50 boss, which is an encounter with a giant octopus, because why not? By this point, you’ve already fought it a couple of times, but this time around, it’s ultra spongy. I never got killed against it. Instead, I died when time ran out. Here’s where Fist of Jesus shows its ugly mobile roots. The game is too padded and has too much emphasis on grinding. I *did* level and money grind quite a bit before I got to it. I had found the perfect level to do so and thought of myself as quite clever. I was wrong. Despite having gained an extra five or six levels doing this, I wasn’t remotely close to beating the octopus on stage 50. Even with 500 seconds, and that I had spent a couple of hours screw-grinding my XP, and even considering that I hit it every single time it poked its head out to open itself up to attack, AND even considering that I had purchased all available upgrades, AND had unlocked all the XP based upgrades, AND purchased the right to start the stage with a gun, I could only knock down three-quarters of its lifebar before time ran out. That’s simply too damn spongy a boss for a game with fight mechanics as shallow as a puddle of spit.

Like many ports of mobile games to PC, I think the developers of Fist of Jesus made a mistake by porting the game straight to PC without optimizing the controls or the mechanics for the platform. The game would have had more value if they had taken advantage of the more advanced capabilities PC has to offer. Slightly more complex fight mechanics, a larger variety of attacks, or especially the ability to play this co-op would have helped Fist of Jesus greatly. The rush to port the mobile game to PC feels a bit lazy. I controlled the action with an Xbox One controller, but needed to switch to the mouse and hold the left button down to scroll the map. There’s an on-screen indicator that dialog could be skipped, but I was unable to do so with the controller or the mouse. These are all niggling annoyances, but I couldn’t help but wish more effort was put into this game. Especially since so many people would buy it just for the novelty value.

To anyone who is offended by this picture, I just want to point out that some people might be offended by your beliefs. You know, according to your religion, the penalty for not combing your hair is God will kill you AND be very angry with your neighbors for letting you be such a slob. I'm not kidding. Look, it's right here.

To anyone who is offended by this picture, I just want to point out that some people might be offended by your beliefs. You know, according to your religion, the penalty for not combing your hair is God will kill you AND be very angry with your neighbors for letting you be such a slob. I’m not kidding. Look, it’s right here.

And really, that’s what Fist of Jesus is about. I never got the feeling from it that it was meant to be a good game. It’s a novelty. “Hey, look, there’s Jesus kissing Judas to bring him back to life, like he’s Sleeping Beauty. There’s Jesus ripping the head off a zombie. 9 out of 10! Eleven gold stars! I can’t wait to show this to my friends!” I don’t get it. The whole “taking a character out of their element is funny in and of itself” joke wears thin so fast, because once you’ve seen Jesus rip out one heart, you’ve seen the entire punchline. Hey look there’s Jesus, doing something very un-Jesus-like! L out L! But really, people have been doing the same gag with Jesus for decades now. South Park had him as a main character on the show, and gave Satan the Disney Princess song in their movie. Is sacrilege funny by itself anymore? Apparently so, judging by how many people liked this game. And maybe as a fifteen-minute-long movie, the joke works. But I think games need to be something more. This one is normally priced $9.99 too. That’s just too damn expensive for a fifteen-plus hour game where the gag stops being funny about five minutes in.

Fist of Jesus is a game. As a game, it just isn’t fun. I can’t stress enough, I spent hours grinding, and there’s no challenges left for me to do except beat this boss. But, what I’ve done isn’t enough to beat the boss I’m on. I have to go back and grind the same small handful of enemies, using the same handful of weapons, until I have enough strength to beat it. Or I can quit and play a better game. Yea, the shock value will never wear off with certain people. My parents are practicing Catholics, and my mother walked in on me playing Fist of Jesus. The look on her face was priceless. I don’t think she could have been more disappointed in me if she had walked in on me getting an abortion. But what’s in it for you if you have nobody in your life to offend with this? One of the dullest brawlers I’ve played and a one way trip to Hell, which will probably be spent playing Fist of Jesus.

JesusFist of Jesus was developed by Mutant Games
Point of Sale: Steam

$4.99 (normally priced $9.99) said “The Fist of Jesus” was the wrong name for this title. It should have been “The Power of Christ Compels You to DIE!” or something less generic in the making of this review.

Default Dan

Default Dan is a novelty platformer, the hook being the game does the opposite of traditional gaming tropes. Coins kill you. Power-Ups kill you. Pitfalls don’t kill you. Springboards can’t be jumped off of. Spikes act like springboards. Sounds wacky and weird. And it is, until you realize that really it’s just any other platformer with the enemy and traps being reskinned. The only such gag that kept getting me were the coins. My brain, like the brains of all gamers, is wired to be like “OH, COINS! YOINK!” Even an hour into the game, my mind would wander just long enough for me to get snatchy with the coins and die. Otherwise, the gimmick gets old really quickly. Even the story, which flips the roles of a Bowser lookalike and a princess didn’t really work for me because the princess looks too, well, psychotic. Actually, she looks like a grown-up version of Elmyra from Tiny Toons. Which, yea granted, she’s one step below Annie Wilkes in the “chick you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room alone with” scale, but still.

Anti-capitalist hippies!

Anti-capitalist hippies!

Default Dan is a decent platformer. It takes only a couple of stages for the gimmick’s novelty factor to wear off. That’s an occupational hazard with comedy games. For Default Dan, really, the concept should have been done as a little three or four stage free flash-game, while the developers put their efforts towards something with a little more meat behind it. Strangely, it doesn’t quite feel like they got the most out of the idea. The boss fights, for example, feel just like any old boss fight in any platformer. You would think they would make the gimmick “you have to get the boss to kill you” or something to beat it. Really, the only difference is the boss throws power-ups at you instead of projectiles, but they’re the same power-ups you’ve spent the last few levels avoiding. Again, it’s all just a glorified reskinning and it feels like it doesn’t go far enough. They should have just gone balls-to-the-wall nuts here. Mushrooms that make you small instead of big (as it is, they just kill you. Really, Mario Lost Levels already fucking did that). Bosses that you have to let kill you. Ice levels with spectacular play control. What’s actually here is downright tame.

Thankfully, Default Dan does have some decent level design. Nothing exceptional, but the stages scale well, add new mechanics through-out, provide a relatively fair challenge, and the game ends before it wears out its welcome. If you want more after the credits roll, there’s a second quest with tougher stages, or you can challenge the leaderboards for previous levels (the second quest’s stages did not have working leaderboards when I played this). The controls are solid, if slightly unresponsive. The collision detection is the biggest strike against Default Dan. Most of the enemies are beaten by jumping up into them. You have to be square under them for it to kill them. Otherwise, you die. Against the final boss, there were a couple of instances where I would hit her and it would register as hitting her, but then I would immediately die because of either how I was positioned when I hit her or because it switched from her “can be hit” sequence to her “invincible, can’t be hit” sequence while I was still midair and touching her. Yea, that was a bit of a run-on sentence. Sorry.

I had an idea for how Default Dan could have been a little more substantial: some kind of mechanic where you switch between the conventional gaming and the opposites stuff. So like, sometimes the coins help you, but then other times the coins kill you. Maybe have like an evil witch cause the game to switch back and forth between the two.

I had an idea for how Default Dan could have been a little more substantial: some kind of mechanic where you switch between the conventional gaming and the opposites stuff. So like, sometimes the coins help you, but then other times the coins kill you. Maybe have like an evil witch cause the game to switch back and forth between the two.

So, kind of mixed bag for Default Dan. The concept did catch my attention on the Steam marketplace. But, the novelty isn’t really strong enough to carry a $5.99 game whose main quest ends in well under an hour. The bosses are boring and don’t really defy convention, which is a big disappointment in a game whose sole hook is defying convention. But, there’s some inspired level design here, enough extra challenge to keep players happy after the credits roll, and a couple laughs to be had. It doesn’t reach its potential, but I had fun with Default Dan, so it wins my seal of approval. And not just by default.

Default Dan logoDefault Dan was developed by Kikiwik Games 
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$5.99 conceded that for an ice stage to have markedly better controls, the rest of the game would have had shit controls, so it’s probably a good idea they didn’t use that one in the making of this review.

Default Dan is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Hyphen and Love

Two-for-one special today. Two games I probably shouldn’t have played in the first place, as I’m not the type of person who enjoys games that have nothing else going for them besides extreme difficulty. As my father put it, some people break bricks with their bare hands, while others plop on the couch and watch the Karate Kid.

First up is Love, which I think beats an XBLIG by the name of Dark as the biggest violator of the Google Rule I’ve ever encountered at IGC. The Google Rule states that when you type a game’s name into Google, a link that points to the game should be within the top 5 results. Call it a hunch, but I suspected that there were more than five sites that dealt with the subject of love ahead of the game. I did search. “Love” by itself has the game’s steam page as the 175th result. I’m actually kind of surprised it came up that quickly. Now granted, “Love Indie Game” resulted in the 4th link pointing to the game’s Steam page. But I stand by my point. It’s a lazy, uninspired name. I’m of the belief that if a game’s name is generic, with little thought or effort put into it, most gamers will assume the game itself will be generic, with little thought put into it. I have no idea how much thought was given to the gameplay, but what is here is pretty generic.

The hook is, you have 100 lives to finish the game, but to take the sting out, you can lay a checkpoint any time, any place. Otherwise, the design is very minimalist. No enemies to kill. Just dodge, jump, wait, jump, jump, jump, dodge, jump, wait, jump up the trampoline, dodge, wait, jump, repeat. It’s been done to death, and unless you either have exceptionally inspired level design (Love doesn’t) or a novel hook (ditto), you’re going to bore most non-masochistic players. And the whole dropping checkpoints thing can screw you royally during some stages. Like one where you hop on platforms that you then steer. If you set a checkpoint and then die, the platform stays where it’s at, and you fall to your death again and again until you run out of lives. Then again, only an idiot wouldn’t figure that out and lay down a checkpoint during this section. Cough.

Not one of my proudest gaming moments.

Not one of my proudest gaming moments. (Screenshot is of Love)

And there’s Hyphen by developer Marc McCann of FarSpace Studios. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been friends with Marc for quite a while. But being my friend doesn’t really help devs when it comes to me reviewing their games. Do I display bias? Only if you count applying Neosporin to them after I nail them to the cross. What are friends for?

Hyphen is a spinning-stick game, similar to the Irritating Stick, which was later expanded upon by Nintendo in a series of Japanese-only games for the Game Boy Advance and GameCube called Kuru Kuru Kururin (which I was told after I wrote this also came out in PAL regions. That doesn’t help us Americans much). Maybe I’m spoiled by that series, but Hyphen feels like such a step backwards for the concept. Like Love, you can place your own checkpoints down, though there’s a limit on how many you can use each stage. That’s pretty much all it does different. Sigh.

This obstacle is used semi-frequently in Hyphen, and it's annoying as all hell every time.

This obstacle is used semi-frequently in Hyphen, and it’s annoying as all hell every time. (Screenshot is of Hyphen)

Hyphen is designed with one thing only in mind: drive players mad. The challenge is so incredibly extreme, with so little margin for error, that I just couldn’t get into it. And again, the formula for this series has been around long enough that anyone making an indie based around it simply must either add new ideas to the concept or have extraordinary level design. Hyphen does neither. In fact, it takes away some conventions in a way that only serves to make the game more frustrating than it should be. Like not being able to make the stick rotate faster. At times, there are projectiles fired at you, and not being able to speed up the rotation means you have to manually dodge those projectiles. But, you don’t always have enough clearance to do so.

I lumped these two games together because they both demonstrate the lack of what I call “Glorious Victory.” It’s my term for the idea that one of the most rewarding aspects of super-difficult games are those rare times where you clear a stage on your first attempt. We’ve all had such moments. Imagine being multiple worlds into Super Meat Boy. You reach a stage after burning approximately two and a half trillion lives, and then by the grace of God, you finish a stage on your first attempt. You jump out of your seat, looking around you as if to say “HOLY SHIT, DID ANYONE ELSE JUST SEE WHAT I DID? FUCK ME, I’M AWESOME!”

Many players live for such moments. But if a game is designed around blind leap-of-faith platforming or trial-and-erroring where the errors are almost certainly unavoidable, you deprive players of those opportunities without giving them anything positive in return. For example, look at this leap that Love wants you to make.

2015-03-14_00006

You can’t see where the spikes are below you. You have no idea what you’re leaping into. You don’t know if you’re supposed to just fall straight down, fall to the side, or what. Not dying here on your first attempt is based completely on random chance.

2015-03-14_00007

When random chance factors in, that takes the glory away from not dying on your first attempt. You didn’t make it using your skills. You just lucked out. There’s no glory in luck. So many indie devs simply don’t fucking get it! They think it’s about the dying. No. Punisher gaming is at its best when players don’t die.

Hyphen is guilty of this too. Like in this spot of the game. Sometimes Hyphen has bombs scattered throughout the map. When the bombs blow, they scatter projectiles. Now, the point of Hyphen is to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. You’re on a timer. There’s a sense of urgency. So when you see the bomb, a player’s instinct will naturally be to move past it and get away from it as fast as you can. So here I am moving past the bomb.

2015-03-15_00004

And here I am getting trapped in a section where I have no clearance to dodge out of the way just as the projectile from the bomb is about to kill me.

2015-03-15_00005

This “GOTCHA!” moment is going to probably kill the overwhelming majority of players on their first attempt at this stage. I would actually be surprised if there was a single player who made it past it on the first attempt. Now granted, some people like games like this, and you can still get satisfaction when you finally beat a stage. But because you’re going to certainly die from that projectile, the possibility for a “Glorious Victory” is taken from players. Gaming at its apex should have as many chances at being exhilarating as possible. Marc just took one such chance away from players, and gave them nothing in return, except for frustration.

There are players out there that don’t complain about this type of level design. But I think the majority of players probably would prefer games to be skill-based, not luck based. Deaths in gaming should because the player failed, not because the game gave players a no-win situation. Jesus Christ people, did you learn nothing from Star Trek? The Kobayashi Maru test wasn’t fun for anyone!

Love was developed by Fred Wood. Point of sale: Steam. $2.99 didn't love it in the making of this review.

Love was developed by Fred Wood. Point of sale: Steam. $2.99 didn’t love it in the making of this review.

Hyphen was developed by FarSpace Studios. Point of Sale: Steam. $7.99 said that price is an outrage, a practical stick-up in the making of this review.

Hyphen was developed by FarSpace Studios. Point of Sale: Steam. $7.99 said that price is an outrage, a practical stick-up in the making of this review.

Schein

This is the first official “Money Where Your Mouth Is Challenge” from Indie Game Riot. The idea is, they will select a game that has fallen off my radar for me to review. I purchase the game, and they match the price of the game as a donation to the Epilepsy Foundation (in one big donation at the end of the year). In theory, they’re looking for good games for me. But I’m not so sure. I think they might have been trying to cause my blood pressure explode and give me a massive coronary with today’s game.

Dick Move

Schein is a platformer with a neat idea: certain platforms and traps only appear if the right color light is being is shining on them. This could, and in fact did, lend itself to some nice puzzles. The problem is, Schein wanted to be a puzzler, but it also wanted to be a punisher. Not just a punisher, but one that subscribes to the “no warning instakills” theory of challenge design. Forcing players to die as the only way of discovering a trap doesn’t make your game challenging. It’s not really a challenge if you have no hope of succeeding. All it really does is make you repeat the same section, now with full awareness that there is something that can kill you in a specific location. A real challenge is having something there that can still take you by surprise, but you also have a reasonable chance of reflexively avoiding.

Dick Move 2

Some people call this trial-and-error gaming. Trial-and-error gaming is perfectly fine, as long as the game is based just around that mechanic, such as The Impossible Game. Otherwise, trial-and-error only works as long as there’s a chance, even a remote one, of clearing an obstacle on your first attempt without needing luck. When you can’t, that’s just making busy work for players, and it’s not fun.  In Schein, you’ll sometimes be forced to turn your light on to see a platform. Sometimes though, the spot you’re standing on has a vine that is only deadly when you can see it, when the light is on. You had no way of knowing that vine is there and you die. Schein does this a lot. It’s such a common mistake among indie developers of punishers.

Dick Move 3

In the above example, the vine isn’t challenging. When you learn about it and die, you didn’t die due to difficulty. You died because you had no way of knowing it was there. Let me put it this way: let’s say you have a game where you’re in a town and you talk to one person in the town. That person tells you they’ll only give you what you need if you go to a person on the other side of the town.  You have to walk across the town to talk to that person, grab what they had, and then walk back. Was that a challenge? No. It’s just walking across town. Well the unseen vines in Schein are pretty much that. Run into a vine to discover its awareness, respawn at the check point, walk back to the spot where the vine is and hop over it before turning the light on. There was nothing challenging about it. All the vine did was make busy work for you. Go from point A to point B, watch unavoidable event, return to point A and go back to point B.

I wish Schein had just been a puzzler. It does puzzles fairly well. But the platforming mechanics are not suited for the type of game Schein might want to be. It’s a confused game, unsure whether it wants to be a punisher or a puzzler. There’s too many instakill spikes and vines, and because the game uses rectangular collision detection instead of mapping it to the character, the margin of error is razor-thin. Combine this with the bleak, joyless visuals and I just couldn’t get into the game. It was practically exhausting.

Dick Move 4

I quit Schein after putting four hours into it and not really enjoying any of it. My early optimism that this was going to be a less bleak take on the type of platforming Limbo made popular was gone within just a few minutes. If this hasn’t been IGR’s challenge against me, I wouldn’t have played it as much as I did. I wanted to find something to complement other than the voice acting and character design. But even the puzzles that I slogged through the platforming sections to get to became tedious busy work. The concept behind Schein is really solid. But the forced-repetition of the puzzles, bad collision detection, and some just plain bad design choices sink this one. On the opening stage, the area of green “revealing” light is fairly small. Why? It doesn’t help the game. The light stuff becomes significantly better after you beat the first boss and the light becomes bigger. Also, the placement of the checkpoints is mind-boggling too. Sometimes a fairly simple puzzle is sandwiched between two checkpoints, while at other times, the checkpoints are spread out so far that you’ll be practically begging for one to show up, so that you don’t have to run through a dull platforming section more than once. I spent more time wondering why such design choices were made when they only serve to contribute to the game being less fun. There is a satisfying puzzler somewhere in this mess, but it’s buried under so many bad choices that I personally can’t recommend Schein. I like puzzlers. I don’t like Schein. It’s boring. I wish I could see why so many people are raving about it, but I guess I’m in the dark.

ScheinSchein was developed by Zeppelin Studio
Point of Sale: Steam, Desura, Indie Game Stand

$9.99 said Geoffrey Rush was unavaiable for comment in the making of this review.

 

8BitBoy

I’m reviewing far too many neo-retro games. 8BitBoy lured me with a siren song of colorful, convincing retro graphics and a modest $0.99 price tag (when it was on sale. Price is now $3.99). An opening narration eases you into the charming, Neverending Story-like setting of a man who discovers that one of his beloved Sega Master System cartridges from his long-lost childhood has a label with a missing title. He plugs it in, and suddenly he’s in the game. I loved the idea. So it’s a real shame that the storyline never pops up again, at least until you beat the final boss. Only it does the Bubble Bobble thing where you have to get all the correct items to unlock the true ending. I didn’t bother trying, but for those who purchase 8BitBoy, you’ll be happy to know that it put a lot of stock in replay value. That is, assuming you can look past some of the worst play control seen in a good indie platformer that I’ve experienced.

Sigh. No, I can't ship the dev off to the Turkish prison. They have no room left for people who make ice stages. Because that would be like 99% of all platform games. Nobody likes ice stages. Stop making them.

Sigh. No, I can’t ship the dev off to the Turkish prison. They have no room left for people who make ice stages. Because that would be like 99% of all platform games. Nobody likes ice stages. Stop making them.

8BitBoy handles awfully, at least with an Xbox One controller. Part of that is on me and my clearly-demonically possessed left thumb. No matter how many times I rest it on the d-pad and tell it “you will use THIS! The stick is no good!” the damn thing has a life of its own. Serves me right for smoking nutmeg that one time. But, actually, stick or d-pad, movement is ultra slippery. The best example of how movement needed a lot of tuning up are the Super Mario like vines. Sometimes you’ll hit a block and a vine will come out. The act of climbing this vine should not be a chore, but simply going up it in a straight line is agony. I kept wiggling to the left and right. I’m told this is much easier with a keyboard. Um, yea? So what? Who wants to play a 2D hop-‘n’-bop platformer with a keyboard? I don’t. I haven’t spoken with the developer so I can only speculate what happened, but I’m guessing he designed the game to be played with a keyboard and the controller support was only added afterwards. When you turn on the controller, the cursor for selecting stuff from the menu is also mapped to the controller, even though it still handles like it’s mapped to the mouse.

There’s a lot of other weird control issues. The game does the Super Mario “hit the block to reveal the item or get coins” thing. Only in 8BitBoy, you have to be perfectly lined up with the block or just bonk off it to no effect. There’s really no benefit to making a player be perfectly lined up. It’s just busy work. Like Three Dead Zed, 8BitBoy feels like the all the movement physics are transplanted from a different game. There is no one-sized-fits-all style of movement physics. Two of my favorite-controlling platformers are Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight. Both couldn’t be more different. Take Super Meat Boy’s controls and put them in Shovel Knight and the game would be a disaster. Put Shovel Knight’s into Super Meat Boy and the game would be unbeatable. As a developer of a 2D platformer, you need to make sure the play control is perfect for your game, based on nothing else but how your game should handle. Don’t say “I like how (Game) controls. I’m going to make mine handle that way!” Because what you’ve designed might not lend itself well to that. And for God’s sake, don’t stop testing with complete strangers until the moment you go gold. Once you’ve released, you’re sort of locked in. Ask the Three Dead Zed guys.

I’m really frustrated with 8BitBoy’s loose controls because everything else about it is sublime. I almost never talk about the graphics of a game, but what’s here is practically an 8-bit siren call. 8BitBoy is colorful, inviting, and beautiful. Well, opening level rainstorm not withstanding. Seriously, why would you start your game with a rainstorm? Rainstorms are depressing. Christ, is there some kind of unwritten rule that indies must be at least THIS bleak? I shudder to think of what an indie reboot of Mappy would be like. “Act One: Mappy’s mother just died of cancer. Mappy laid down in bed and began to cut himself. Going too deep, Mappy nicked an artery. Our adventure begins with Mappy slipping into unconsciousness..”

Gene Kelly is the only person who made rain seem less than bleak. For everyone else, rain is like liquid sadness. What was the tummy symbol on the unhappy Care Bear? RAIN!

Gene Kelly is the only person who made rain seem less than bleak. For everyone else, rain is like liquid sadness. What was the tummy symbol on the unhappy Care Bear? RAIN!

And that level design? Sorry to quote Inspector Gadget, but I’m feeling it here: wowzers. Perfect use of old school tropes here. Excellent moving platforms. Well placed spikes. TONS of hidden pathways and rooms. No matter how bad the controls were, I wanted to experience these stages. When I found a warp zone early on and skipped to the midway point of the second world, I was kind of bummed out. But, the fact that the level design is so inspired only serves to frustrate me with the controls more. How could a developer get one aspect of the game so fucking right and completely and utter airball an equally important component? You know, a common theme in indie gaming is final stages that go out with a whimper instead of a bang. Where you can tell the developer rushed the finale out just so they could see the game released and hear what people have to say about it. 8BitBoy doesn’t have that. The last levels are some of the best in the entire game. Normally that would have me looking to give the closest person a tearful hug of relief. Here, that made me just shake my head and wonder, what if they had got it right?

8BitBoy by all rights should be a top 25 game on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Does it do anything new? No. Instead, it feels like an all-star version of an old school tribute. Every conventional 2D mechanic is here and damn near perfect. Even though I spent my entire run cussing the controls, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have any fun. 8BitBoy is a lot of fun. It’s yet another one of those “dream game come to life” titles. But this dream game is a bit of a nightmare. The controls are completely unacceptable. I do absolutely recommend 8BitBoy, both to love-sick nostalgic types and cynical nostalgia-hating cynics such as myself. But I also recommend it as an example of a game that does everything right except the thing it needed to do most. Giving a game like this to a fan of platformers (such as myself) is like handing someone a Porsche without a gas pedal that has to be started like Fred Flintstone’s car. Hey, it’s still a Porsche, right! Just be ready to pick glass and rusty nails out of your feet.

8bitboy logo8BitBoy was developed by Awesome Blade
Points of Sale: Steam, Desura

igc_approved1$0.99 (normally priced $3.99) didn’t note above that there’s a nasty glitch where sometimes you have a reserve item, go to activate it, and the item is lost with nothing happening. They really ought to fix this in the making of this review.

8BitBoy is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Three Dead Zed (Second Chance with the Chick)

It’s been over two years since I reviewed Three Dead Zed, by former Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard sponsors Gentlemen Squid. Last time, I interviewed them alongside the review. And I didn’t like the game. The only way that whole situation could have been more awkward is if I had just run over their dog beforehand. I considered bringing them back for this Second Chance with the Chick, but I’m not doing that for the same reason I decided not to pursue a career as an obstetrician: because I didn’t want to ever have to tell an anxious parent that their child was stillborn.

To their credit, Gentlemen Squid fixed the worst issues from my first play through. I never once reached for a switch that didn’t activate on my first attempt. Just having that work by itself makes Three Dead Zed playable. But I still really didn’t like it. It’s not for a lack of personality, either. The hilarious story of a shape-shifting zombie getting loose and trying to find cats with tinfoil hats is raving lunacy. And I mean that in the best possible way. I sort of wish the best bits unfolded when you started and completed levels, instead of having to find hidden rooms. In the event I missed one, I shook my hand at the sky, as if God himself was responsible for me somehow missing it. I never once wanted to replay a stage to find those secrets. I just wanted the fucking game to be over with, which is never a good sign. Having said that, the writing is extraordinarily sharp. If you can put up with everything else I’m about to say, Three Dead Zed might be worth it for you.

You know a game is in trouble when its best comedy bits are often hidden in the background. Like the warning about the company BBQ. Why would a company need to caution against a barbeque you ask? Maybe my father is there serving his infamous chili. Though if that were the case, the only place they would draw the fire is around the buttocks.

You know a game is in trouble when its best comedy bits are often hidden in the background. Like the warning about the company BBQ. Why would a company need to caution against a barbeque you ask? Maybe my father is there serving his infamous chili. Though if that were the case, the only place they would need to draw the fire is around the buttocks.

It wasn’t for me. Movement is just all over the place. Which, um.. you know, come to think of it, movement by definition should be all over the place. What I’m trying to say is the controls are crap. Honestly, with the game’s engine and the way the characters were built, there wasn’t much they could do to fix this part of Three Dead Zed from the first time out. So I was sort of bracing myself for the worst when I restarted it. And I was right. There’s just a lack of parameters for certain actions. Like it’s easy to have a tiny sliver of your body standing on the edge of a moving platform and getting crushed from passing by a ceiling. Or you’ll struggle to make jumps with the moves-too fast while jumping-too-loose frog-athlete-zombie thing. You have to use this zombie all the time too, because it’s the only one that can make long jumps, or do wall jumping. But judging how close you can get to something before you die never quite clicked for me.

It’s really hard to put a finger on the difference between a good platformer and a bad one when it comes to just the act of movement. It almost defies explanation, but I’ll try. In a good platformer, you form an equilibrium with the layout of stages. You can instinctively judge distances in jumps, or how close you can get to that buzz saw trap before you’re going to die. I never got that from Three Dead Zed. A long time ago, I might have thought that would be on me, but considering that I’m able to easily find that balance in almost any other platformer, I think I sort of have to blame the game. I also don’t think it has to do with switching between three characters. I had to do that in Trine as well, but never had that issue. Three Dead Zed lacks a certain elegance of movement and jumping. I don’t think with the engine they used, it could have ever been precise.

I did appreciate the effort. The stages are pretty well constructed, even lending themselves well to non-linear exploration. I would have probably taken more advantage of this, if not for the bad controls, or if Gentlemen Squid haven’t been so obsessed with dick-move enemy placement. They really had a fetish for putting soldiers on the exact spots where they best stood to unfairly tag you with bullets in a way that you never had a reasonable chance to know they existed, and even less chance of avoiding their attacks. I hate it when games do this. When I mention it to developers, sometimes they giggle and say “I know right?” as if they expect a high-five. Sorry to leave you guys hanging, but I need to level with you: any idiot can make an unfair game. It takes no talent. It takes no creativity. It takes no artistry. When Mario Maker hits the Wii U, you’ll probably see hundreds, if not thousands, of user levels that center around “last pixel jumping” or dick move enemy placement. I assure you, nobody will complement the twelve-year-olds making those stages on their mastery of level design. When you have absolutely no hope of dodging attacks, or even knowing the enemies exist, that takes no skill to create. This also shouldn’t be mistaken for adding “difficulty” to your game. Difficulty should be something where a player has a reasonable chance to overcome it, thus displaying their skills. When they have no hope, that’s difficult in the same way you would use the word to describe someone who chains themselves to a McDonalds and claims they’re going on hunger strike until they stop serving beef. “How’s it going with that nut who chained himself to McDonalds?” “Well, sir, he’s being.. difficult.”

Three Dead Zed 2

Hooray for busywork!

Did Three Dead Zed ever have a chance, even with patchwork? Probably not. The devs were frank with me in admitting that they could only do so much with the engine they used. That’s fine. You know what? They showed me that they have a lot of talent to work with in the future. The writing was very sharp, even inspired, and the level layouts (sans bastard enemy placement) were well done. With a better platforming engine with more precision movement, Three Dead Zed probably could have been something special. Chalk this one up to life on the learning curve. I’m certain Gentlemen Squid will blow me away next time. They seem determined to. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have bothered fixing the stuff that made Three Dead Zed unplayable the first time around. I’m excited for their future. I think they are too, since they just squirted ink all over me. Well, at least I hope that’s ink.

Three Dead Zed logoThree Dead Zed was developed by Gentlemen Squid
Point of Sale: Steam, Xbox Live Indie Games

$4.99’s father’s chili is banned by the Ginevra Convention in the making of this review.

 

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