February 17, 2015 1 Comment
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.
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.”
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.
$4.99’s father’s chili is banned by the Ginevra Convention in the making of this review.