Sportsball

I don’t like review scores. To me, they don’t effectively tell the full story of a game’s quality. It would be like reading Moby-Dick, turning to the first page and discovering that the entirety of the text is “Call me Ishmael. So um, like, whales and stuff. Man against nature. Revenge is silly and fruitless. The end!” That would leave something to be desired, don’t you think? Even if you had a sort of idea of the point the author intended to make, maybe the deeper understanding of why they were making that point is lost.

Plus, numbers can lie. Take a game like Grand Theft Auto 4. If forced at gunpoint to give it scores, I would give it high marks in every category, but then the ultimate, final score would be on the low side. At least for me, because I found GTA 4 to be pretty boring. There’s a lot of games that could fit the “marvelously produced, technically impressive but boring for inexplicable reasons” bill. Once you reach that point, aren’t review scores kind of irrelevant? Who cares if the game gets a 10 out of 10 in graphics if the game is no fun? Isn’t the entertainment value of a game the only thing that matters?

Look at Sportsball by TOO DX. Here’s a game that I have almost nothing positive to say about it. It’s ugly. It (might) control awful. The characters are horribly imbalanced. The arenas lack variety. It used the bathroom and didn’t wash its hands. It is a terribly made game. I’m about to say a lot of terrible things about it.

But I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the most fun party games on Wii U, indie or otherwise. So, before you go any further, please note that Sportsball is really a lot of fun and probably worth your money. Is that clear? Good. Because the rest of this review could get ugly. The last time something this good got beaten this badly, it came back from the dead three days later.

Nope, none of this will make sense. You have to see it in motion to get it.

Nope, none of this will make sense. You have to see it in motion to get it.

Sportsball is essentially the classic Williams game Joust (right down to guys riding giant birds), only you’re trying to kill each-other. When you do (called a tackle here because it sounds sporty, I guess), the victim drops a ball that bounces around. You have to bonk the ball around until you get it into a goal. If someone on a different team touches it, it becomes their color and scores a point for them if it goes into the net. There’s no limit to the amount of balls that can be loose and bouncing around at any time. It’s a nice idea that could be exceptionally fun. And it is! But it does so many things wrong. It reminds me of an awkward teenager asking his girlfriend how much he could get away with and still have her love him. “Would you love me even if I was blind?” “Yes!” “If I lost both arms and both legs?” “Yes!” “If I was caught at the back of the school bus smoking crack and having sex with a dog?” “You know, that one I’m going to have to think about. What kind of dog?”

First off, I want to offer congratulations to TOO DX for giving their game the most uninspired name in gaming history. You have guys riding giant birds, trying to kill each-other in order to turn them into glowing egg-ball-things that you then have to smack into a goal. Some pretty wild imagery there, and SPORTSBALL is the best they could come up with? I mean, I guess there’s a ball and it’s a sport-like thing, so Sportsball is technically accurate. But really? Let me ask TOO DX this: how far do you think Nintendo would have made it if they had named Super Mario Bros. “Platform Jump”? How far would Square had made it if they had named Final Fantasy “RPG Select Attack from Menu”? There is not a single soul on this planet who is going to be inspired to check out what this game is about when they see “Sportsball” in the eShop. Not even sports fans. It’s a generic, thoughtless name that seemingly screams “BORING!” into your ear with bullhorn. So lazy and worthless that I feel some sort of celebratory gesture is in order, like dunking your heads in a toilet and giving you a swirly.

By the way, TOO DX is hardly alone in being guilty of this. You need to treat the names of your work like the first line of advertising. If a name fails to catch a player’s attention, holding their interest long enough to find out if it’s a good game or not becomes tougher.

As for the gameplay, well, it’s fun. Really fun, in fact. This is Joust, if Joust had a versus mode. The controls looseness depends on the character you select, but ultimately everything handles like Joust or Balloon Fight. If you detest those games (and many people do), Sportsball is probably not for you. There’s a single-player training mode that I didn’t bother to play. Sportsball is designed with 2 to 4 players in mind, and that’s what I focused on. Playing with guests aged 8 to 65, we first noticed that we couldn’t see the game’s floor. I checked a trailer of the game to see if they had even bothered drawing a floor. They did. We tried to go to the menu to adjust the screen, but that wasn’t an option. Awesome. So, depending on your screen, part of the action might be cut off. “So you can’t see your character’s feet. No biggie, right?” Yea, actually, it is a problem. The floor might have holes in it, where if you or the ball fall through it, they pop out from the top of the screen. This could have been useful for forming strategy, but since we couldn’t see it, we couldn’t use it. Yes, we could go to the Wii U menu to adjust it, but we shouldn’t have to. Other games offer it as an option, usually upon booting it up. Adjustable viewing area is essential for modern console gaming and its omission here, especially when the edges of the screen contain important gameplay mechanics, is inexcusable.

Sportsball 2

In space, nobody can hear you flap.

Also, there’s something in the options menu that says “Flap Mode” but no explanation is given at all as to what that is. A little pop up explaining what you’re about to turn on or off would have been nice. This is an example of developers forgetting that not everyone has spent the last X amount of months with their lives centered around their game. I’m sure to them “Flap Mode” needed no explanation. This is another common annoying problem with gaming in general, and not just indies. Menu options of game-specific features should have clarity as to what they adjust. When they dont, it’s annoying.

The biggest problem with Sportsball is character balance. There’s four teams, each with four selectable characters. Each character is rated on a 1 to 5 scale in four stats: Attacking, flying, control, and speed. That’s fine, but there’s a couple of characters who have an overwhelming stat advantage over others. This led to everyone trying to claim dibs on using a character from the pink team called Rhea. She had a 4 in attack, flying, and control, plus a 3 in speed. Only one other character had nothing below 3, Rooster on the red team, who had one point less than Rhea in control. We ended up unanimously voting to ban Rhea, and then Rooster after that. Both were just too overpowered with no tradeoff unless you’re one of those guys who thinks you’ll catch the gay from using a pink character. Meanwhile, I once accidentally picked a large green team character called Gigantoraptor. This character is so worthless that I wonder if it’s the bi-product of a drunken dare. It has a 1 out of 5 in flying, which is essentially like painting a gigantic bullseye on it. This is a game where you can only kill people by getting above them and dropping down on them. Really, ALL characters should have had the same ability to fly and maneuver, with only their speed and attack-dive speed/distance for stats, or how hard a ball bounces off them when they bump into it. The low flyers give up too much and there’s never really a reason why you would want to. If this game was any more imbalanced, Nintendo would reskin it with their characters and call it a Smash Bros title.

Sportsball isn’t a pretty game to look at. The graphics look flash-based. Old, bland, boring, hand-drawn in a bad way. There’s several different locations for matches, but in total there’s only three backdrops, none of which are exciting. The whole experience playing and reviewing this has been one of the most bizarre I’ve experienced since starting this blog. Not since Random the Dungeon have I liked a game so much that seemingly does nothing right. Sportsball is a bad game. But it’s fun. Everyone who came over to play it wants to play it the next time they come over. It’s not even ironically fun, like watching a bad movie. The fun is completely genuine. It made me wonder, what if? What if more care had been put into it? What if the characters were more balanced?

What’s even more odd is that, you would think the more chaotic Sportsball gets, the more fun it would be. After all, who has time to notice all the broken aspects when the action is utterly insane? But that’s not the case, either. Including myself, we had seven people rotating in and out of the matches. For the first hour, we focused on four-player matches and had a pretty good time. We were laughing, and high-fiving each-other, and cheering, and screaming. Nobody was bored, not even those watching. Until we got to a mode where each “tackle” results in five balls at once spawning. This leads to a lot of chaos, and actually wasn’t fun at all. All focus and strategy went out the window in favor of a glorified garbage cleanup. Then I said that I had to test the one on one mode where the first player to score five goals wins. As it turns out, this was the highlight of the entire day. We spent the next couple hours playing this, winner-stays-on style. It’s unusual for an indie built around four-player action to excel when less than the envisioned amount of players are involved, but it doesn’t surprise me that Sportsball does. Nothing about it has been conventional.

I’m really happy that Sportsball exists. Now when people ask “why don’t you have review scores?” I have a perfect example of a game that would be unfairly blistered if review scores were used. Sportsball can’t stand on its gameplay merits. It doesn’t have any. It’s fun despite itself, in a way that review scores could never fully explain. And although I’ve just essentially boiled its creators in oil with one complaint after another, fun doesn’t usually happen accidentally in gaming. TOO DX is solely responsible for the hours of fun me and friends and family had with it. Although we fought over who got to be which character, whined about the lack of variety in stages or the absurdity of the locations (why does South Africa’s stage take place on the International Space Station? The hell?), or made fun of the name (even the eight-year-old made fun of the name!), there wasn’t one frown in the house. Everyone walked away happy. Everyone wanted to know when we’re playing again. That counts for a lot in my book. Sportsball needs a lot of work. A lot. I’m guessing not too much time was spent play testing and balancing it. But if what’s here is a proof-of-concept and a tease of its potential, what it could end up being is something transcendent. Sporstball is a bad game. But it’s a fun game, and fun is all that should matter when it comes to gaming.

SportsballSportsball was developed by TOO DX
Point of Sale: Nintendo eShop

IGC_Approved$9.99 said a German Shepard in the making of this review.

Sportsball is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

 

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Super Pixalo

I bought Super Pixalo because a reader of mine, ReverendDS of Indie Game Riot, believed in the game so much that he offered to get it for me. It wasn’t even his game. He was just a fan. I pay for all the games I review at Indie Gamer Chick, so I politely declined. Then I had a thought and made the reader an offer: if he matched the price I paid for Super Pixalo ($3.74) as a donation to the Epilepsy Foundation, I would guarantee him that I would play and review it. He agreed (and I’ll verify he did so immediately), even rounding up his donation to $5. I like this idea. I like it so much that it will now be a monthly feature at Indie Gamer Chick, in collaboration with Indie Game Riot. I only wish that I had liked Super Pixalo as much as ReverendDS did. Or at all. I didn’t. But hey, if the worst thing that happens to me this weekend is I spend a few hours with a boring game and a couple bucks get kicked towards my charity of choice for doing so, that’s not a bad thing.

So, Super Pixalo. Contrary to what people think when they see the way I review games, I don’t like tearing apart bad games. It’s not sport for me. I want to like every game I play. Nobody wants to play bad games, especially me. My only hope is the developer takes my criticism to heart, doesn’t give up as a game developer, and vows to do better next time. Nothing about Super Pixalo is offensive to the point that I would declare he has no talent and should take up another hobby, like being shot out of a cannon. I finished all the stages simply because I was hoping something would happen that I could comment positively on. Sadly, it never came. Not once. Not even for a single second. It’s just a really badly made, boring game.

There's 124 stages in Super Pixalo, counting the bonus stages. I don't remember picking up an extra collectable along the way. I can't tell if this is a glitch or not. There's a good chance the achievements need patching. I got the Achievement for beating all the bonus stages before I had actually beat all the bonus stages. Also, I didn't get the achievement for dying 1,000 times, even though the game says I died 1,100. Also, I'm fairly certain I didn't die 1,100 times. Or 1,000 times. I would be surprised if I died 100 times.

There’s 124 stages in Super Pixalo, counting the bonus stages. I don’t remember picking up an extra collectible along the way. I can’t tell if this is a glitch or not. There’s a good chance the achievements need patching. I got the achievement for beating all the bonus stages before I had actually beat all the bonus stages. Also, I didn’t get the achievement for dying 1,000 times, even though the game says I died 1,100 times. Also, I’m fairly certain I didn’t die 1,100 times. Or 1,000 times. I would be surprised if I died 100 times. The vast majority of stages I beat on my first attempt, and it never took me more than a minute or two to beat any tricky stage.

Part of that is tied to the play control. Super Pixalo has the feel of every annoying ice-world stage that I’ve come to dread. Movement is very loose and slippery. You do get used to it eventually, as many fans of the game pointed out to me. But getting used to something doesn’t mean it becomes a good thing. Eventually I would get used to it if a clown ran into whatever room I’m in at the top of every hour and pied me in the face. It doesn’t mean I would like it, or that it’s a good thing. The controls of Super Pixalo never feel second nature, and that’s the lifeblood of decent platforming action.

But, the ultimate killer of Super Pixalo, the thing that makes it unsalvageable, is the level design. The play control could be tightened up in a patch. But nearly every single level would have to be completely redone and reordered to make Super Pixalo in any way a worthwhile game. First off, all the stages are broken up by decades. I have no idea why this was done, since the graphics don’t really get better as you go along, nor are there any backdrops that suggest you’re playing in a different era. Stuff does happen, like the 90s adding scrolling stages, or the 2010s adding disappearing blocks. I don’t get it. All the platforming stuff Super Pixalo does has been done for several decades now. I didn’t notice anything 2010ish about the 2010 stages, except in the collectables you pick up. I couldn’t typically tell what those were though, except that they were things the game seemed to want me to pick up. All of them come from pop culture, and might offer a brief chuckle if you’re one of those people who finds references to things everyone knows about to be humorous without any punchline. “Hey look, it’s Wilson from the hit movie Castaway! I too saw the hit movie Castaway! L. O. L.!”

If not for the controls, the I’m not sure any of the stages in Super Pixalo would have been difficult at all. I never got the achievement for dying 1,000 times (and by the way, please stop making those kind of achievements, developers. If your game is too easy, you’re essentially encouraging suicide in a backhanded kind of way), and probably didn’t come close. The only truly challenging moments were “Last Mother Fucking Pixel Jumps.” You know Last Mother Fucking Pixel Jumps. It’s where you have to avoid hitting the jump button until you’re standing on the very last pixel of a platform. Nobody likes those. They’re annoying even when the play control of a game is as close to perfect as play control is capable of being. That certainly doesn’t describe Super Pixalo. It has a few instances where the margin of error is razor-thin. Check out the picture below.

Super Pixalo 3

Believe it or not, Pixalo is actually standing still right there. That’s how close to the edge of the platform you need to be for some jumps. Even if you’re got the reflexes of the best gunfighter who ever lived, you’re going to struggle to time that jump correctly every time. Come just a pixel short and you’re going to miss the jump. That’s not a realistic challenge players. Sure, I bet with enough time you could become an expert at such timing, but who wants to put in the amount of time it would require, for any game? These are the kind of things developers need to think about when they make their games.

Super Pixalo’s most annoying platforming elements are usually the moving platforms. These are the slowest moving platforms I can remember. They’re the senior citizens of moving platforms. Super Pixalo seems to be inspired by Super Meat Boy, yet the game often makes you sit still for excruciating intervals just waiting. Waiting is not fun. Waiting is boring. This can be fixed by the developer. Just make the fucking thing move faster. There wasn’t a single level they were in where I didn’t want them doing such. I don’t know if it would have made things unfair, what with the controls as slippery as they are, but hey, those can be fixed too! Another thing that could be fixed is having all the platforms and fireballs/sparks/enemies/whatever the hell they are reset to their starting positions every time you die. All the moving objects in Super Pixalo are so slow that quitting out to the menu and restarting the stage that way is often the better option than waiting for them to come around again. I mean, come on, developer. This is common sense stuff. You shouldn’t have to be told it.

This level in paticular is one of the worst offenders of that. Any deaths I occurred here could be attributed to natural causes.

This level in particular is one of the worst offenders of that. Any deaths I suffered here could be attributed to natural causes.

I’ve been looking for something, anything, nice to say about Super Pixalo. I couldn’t. Not a single thing. Others seemed to enjoy it, and I’m really happy for them that they liked it. But I thought it was terrible. Horrible play control, dull graphics, and boring levels. However, allow me to offer this glimmer of hope: there is NOTHING here that can’t be improved upon in future efforts from the developer. Hopefully Super Pixalo was a getting-your-feet-wet experience that he intends to grow from. I hear he’s a good guy and I wish I had fun with his game. I didn’t, nor did I have any fun writing this review. Well, maybe a little fun. I mean, that clown analogy was a good one, right?

Super Pixalo logoSuper Pixalo was developed by Philip Royer 
Point of Sale: Steam

$3.74 (normally priced $4.99) now envision the ninth circle of Hell as being forced to play this game with the standard Ouya controller in the making of this review.

Update: Developer Phil Royer read this review and promised to look into many of the issues I brought up, and thanked me for the feedback. Class act all the way. Good luck to you, Phil. It might be hard to believe, but nobody will be as hopeful about your future projects as I will.

The “match the game’s price with a donation to the Epilepsy Foundation and Cathy will purchase a copy and guarantee a review” will be something done between Indie Gamer Chick and Indie Game Riot only. Please do not donate to the Epilepsy Foundation with the expectation that Indie Gamer Chick will review a game of your choosing. However, if you want to donate to them just to be cool, 

 

 

Jacob Jones & The Bigfoot Mystery and Quell Memento

Puzzlers are the absolute toughest games to write a review for.  I’ve spent hours staring at my monitor trying to figure out how to describe these games in an entertaining but informative way.  Good games mind you.  But still puzzle games.  It’s a genre that doesn’t lend itself well to the types of reviews I write here.  If I didn’t love them so much, I would probably quit covering them.  They do the lowest page views too.  And yet, they’re an absolutely essential part of gaming.  I would be beside myself if I couldn’t have a puzzler on my handhelds.  It just seems like it would be wrong otherwise.  I’m also not looking for games to sit down and play through all at once.  That’s why this review took so long to go up.  Because I played these games the way they ought to be played: little bits at a time.  To do otherwise is to maximize a puzzler’s potential for stagnation.

Then I realized I had promised these reviews over a week ago and had still not come close to completing them.  So I embraced the stagnation, like a naturist who thinks showers are for conformists.

Not all the puzzles in Jacob Jones require anything resembling brain power.  This puzzle, over half-way in, took me all of twenty seconds to solve.  In fact, I sort of solved it on accident while I was trying to figure out which moves to make in my head.  Um, I don't think it was supposed to happen like that.

Not all the puzzles in Jacob Jones require anything resembling brain power. This puzzle, over half-way in, took me all of twenty seconds to solve. In fact, I sort of solved it on accident while I was trying to figure out which moves to make in my head. Um, I don’t think it was supposed to happen like that.

First up is Professor Layton and the.. excuse me.. Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery.  Sorry about that, but let me explain how I can make such a mistake.  The game is a set of various logic/math puzzles that are strung together with an utterly nonsensical, raving insane storyline.  The same type of puzzles you would see in the Layton series.  Similar hint system too.  And a  similar “find stuff in the backgrounds to help you buy hints” setup.  Plus, pretty much an identical scoring system for the puzzles.  Or a notepad you can overlay on top of the puzzles.  You know, Lucid Games, in some cultures they cut off your hands for this sort of thing.

The two big differences are in the art style (which looks very similar to Costume Quest) and the episodic setup Lucid is going with.  Here, $3 buys you the first chapter of the game, which gives you 25 puzzles to work on.  This is a very good idea.  I’ve owned all Layton games, but the only one I played through all at once was the first one.  Mostly because the game was such an anomaly that the novelty held up.  For the four sequels, it did start to drag a little.   So breaking up Jacob Jones was a masterstroke.  It doesn’t become “that game that I played so much it got boring.”  They should space out the chapters three months at a time.  Give players just long enough to forget how the story bogs down at the end of each episode, and how the puzzles are not really all that original to begin with.

The real problem is the game is more about the story than the puzzles.  With the Layton series, the story is just there because having 150 random, unrelated puzzles in a package would be a tough sell.  Well, more so than your average puzzler.  Ultimately, I find the Layton games as well written as glorified place-holder stories can be.  But they work because it’s more about the puzzles.  That’s why it’s so funny to encounter a random character on the street who will only give you the clue you need if you can solve a riddle for them.  It’s so stupid, yet charmingly so.  In Jacob Jones, the opposite is true.  The game is over-saturated with dialog.  Not awful dialog, mind you.  The writing can be sharp at times, even if all the characters but Jacob himself are flat-out unlikable.  But the attraction should be the puzzles, or at the very least, an equal blending of both.  In Layton, some of the puzzles can be tricky to the point of being boring.  Nothing in Jacob Jones is that difficult, and instead boredom comes in the form of scenes that feel like they just fucking refuse to end.

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery was developed by Lucid Games ($2.99 can't believe they introduced the bigfoot as a main character this early into the series in the making of this review)

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery was developed by Lucid Games ($2.99 can’t believe they introduced the bigfoot as a main character this early into the series in the making of this review)

Regardless, I do highly recommend Jacob Jones, especially to you Sony diehards who’ve never owned a DS and thus missed the Layton series.  It’s not an original idea.  In fact, it’s about as blatant a clone-job as you can get.  I’m actually stunned that my good buddies at PSNStores.com could interview Lucid Games without once bringing it up.  Talk about failure to address the elephant in the room.  In this case, the elephant is holding a bloody machete and standing over a pile of dead cheerleaders.  How can you NOT bring it up?  But the puzzles are well made and very satisfying.  The “find the soda cans” hook for the backgrounds is a huge step above Layton’s “just poke randomly and hope you stumble upon a coin” setup.  And sometimes the dialog is genuinely funny.  I probably won’t fully review the remaining chapters, but I think unless they’re outright broken, you can pencil all of them in for my seal of approval as well.  Probably.  I mean, it’s a pretty hard formula to screw up.  Especially when someone else has so beautifully laid it out for you and your job consists of tracing the lines.

Every time you submit a puzzle to see if you guessed correctly, the game does overly-dramatic close-ups on Jacob (pictured) and whoever is asking the puzzle.  It's supposed to look like "gee, I hope I got that right."  Instead, it looks more like "I wonder if they realize it was me who farted?"

Every time you submit a puzzle to see if you guessed correctly, the game does an overly dramatic close-up on Jacob (pictured) and whoever is asking the puzzle. It’s supposed to look like “gee, I hope I got that right.” Instead, it looks more like “I wonder if they realize it was me who farted?”

Up next, Quell Memento.  This is one of those rolling-a-ball-in-a-maze puzzlers.  I’ve played dozens of these since gaming hit cell phones, and there’s even been a recent one to hit Vita called Chronovault.  Well, saying it “hit” Vita might be a bad choice of words, since the game missed the mark completely.  It was, quite frankly, awful.  The touch-controls were poorly handled and the level design was overly long and dull.  Right out of the gate, Quell Memento proved to be a better realization of the concept.  Puzzles are all single-screen affairs, and movement is simple and accurate.  It also has a clean but distinctive and pleasant art style.  I can’t stress enough how important accessibility is for you potential puzzle developers out there.  Nobody is going to buy your game because of amazing graphics or expansive 3D worlds.  They just care about the puzzles themselves.  You’re not making the next Skyrim.  You’re making a game that appeals to only those who wish to test themselves, and the likelihood of you wooing non-puzzle fans to your game is slim.  So design your game to appeal to your base.  It’s rare that a puzzle game becomes a break-out hit, and when it does, it’s never because of the art style.  The only time art matters is when it’s ugly to the point of being a turnoff.  Otherwise, it’s always about the puzzles themselves.

In that spirit, Quell Memento succeeds because it does more than just “get ball to exit.”  Some stages are still that.  Others have you lighting up all the blocks, or positioning a ball in a way where it causes crystals to reflect.  It certainly keeps the game fresh throughout.  But, while some of the puzzles can be clever, I really didn’t find Quell to be all that difficult.  I breezed through most of the levels in just seconds, clearing many on my first attempt.  Part of that is on me and just simply having played so many of these type of games.  But part of that is, this sub-genre is inherently simple.  If you make a mistake, just don’t repeat the same moves.  Unlike something like Lolo, there’s only so many different ways you can move the ball.  While many of the solutions are self-evident, those that aren’t become apparent immediately after your first mistake.  I’ll admit right here and now, I did use the hint system for Jacob Jones once.  I never had to for Quell.  The difficulty never really ramps up all that much either, leaving the final stages lacking in a climatic feel.  While it never fully crosses the line to being too easy, it does dip its toes in it a little bit.  Also, the system in place to give the game replay value by awarding you trophies for completing stages in the fewest possible moves isn’t all that significant either.  Again, once you know how a stage is finished, it’s simply a matter of subtracting the wrong moves.  It doesn’t require you to be a genius to figure out.

This is one of the light-reflecting puzzles, which I found to be the easiest of the lot.  You can immediately identify where the ball (or balls) have to go to properly reflect the light.  But the really insulting thing is, the entire first part of it actually marks the ground with an X.  Guys, it's not THAT difficult to figure out.  Anyone who needs that type of hand holding would never have bought this to begin with.

This is one of the light-reflecting puzzles, which I found to be the easiest of the lot. You can immediately identify where the ball (or balls) have to go to properly reflect the light. But the really insulting thing is, the entire first part of it actually marks the ground with an X. Guys, it’s not THAT difficult to figure out. Anyone who needs that type of hand holding would never have bought this to begin with.

Quell Memento was developed by Fallen Tree Games ($4.99 said their logo is more like "Fallen Branch" games, but branches fall all the time so I guess that would be a silly name in the making of this review)

Quell Memento was developed by Fallen Tree Games ($4.99 said their logo is more like “Fallen Branch Games” but branches fall all the time so I guess that would be a silly name in the making of this review)

So did I like it?  Yea, a little bit.  That’s really all I ask of from games, to enjoy them.  So it gets my approval.  But the breezy puzzles nearly mute that amazing “TA DA!” feeling I crave from these types of games.  I wasn’t interested in the story in the slightest bit, and I really didn’t go back to find all the hidden gems (one in each level, though I use the term “hidden” very loosely as most of them you can’t help but stumble upon).  You can’t help but like it, because it’s well produced and charming.  It won’t bend your brain too much, but perhaps that does make it more accessible for those non-puzzle loving fans.  Of course, they’ll skip right past it anyway because puzzle games are skateboarding giant emus on parade.  That makes no sense at all, but everyone quit reading one word into this review when I started the first sentence with “Puzzlers.”  I can pretty much say and do whatever I want from here on out.  I think Half Life is slightly overrated.  I have a Sonic the Hedgehog tattoo nobody knows about.  I hate children.  I periodically let the air out of my parents tires.  That penis that someone drew on Brian’s forehead while he slept?  That wasn’t Bryce.  It was totally me.  And nobody will ever know because when it comes to puzzlers, nobody seems to give a shit except me.  Well, me and the skateboarding emus on parade.

My friend Kyle Lock of Vintage Video Game TV is doing a marathon to raise money for the Lung Cancer Research Foundation.  Be sure to check it out starting tomorrow (Friday, June 14).  He’ll be giving free games away and raising money for a good cause.  And hey, as a smoker, I might end up needing their research someday 😛 Donate here and watch the stream here.

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery and Quell Memento are both Chick-Approved and will be ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard on July 1.

IGC_Approved

Thomas Was Alone (and Benjamin’s Flight DLC)

Early on in Thomas Was Alone, I really didn’t get the hype for it.  “THIS is the game all the cool kids are talking about?” I tweeted, somewhat baffled.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  The game was alright.  But my fans had been trumpeting this one since it launched on PC last summer, promising me that it was a platformer unlike anything I’ve played before.  To a degree, they were right.  You just can’t tell right away.  Thomas Was Alone is one of those slow-starters that wakes up at seven but doesn’t get out of bed until eight.

At heart, Thomas Was Alone is a minimalistic platform-puzzler with the hook being an eccentric storyline that gives personality to the squares and rectangles you control.  Again, it’s something that didn’t grab me at first.  It came across as artsy-fartsy, bordering on pretentious.  But, about a third of the way through, it started to grow on me.  Who would have guessed that it was possible to give such distinct traits to fundamental shapes, with no animation sprites or anything resembling humanity?  It does it so well that I would think one could consider Thomas a candidate for strongest writing of the year.  But I have to disqualify it for that, on account of a couple groan-inducing references to the Cake is a Lie and the Arrow to the Knee.  God damn it so much.  Is there some kind of code on the indie development scene that I’m not aware of?  Like a secret handshake or something?  Two guys go up to each other at a developer conference, lock pinkys, touch ring-fingers with the other hand, say “The Cake is a Lie!” and then fall down laughing until it hurts because that will NEVER EVER grow old or stop being funny ever no matter what?  Well it’s not funny and it hasn’t been for years.  No matter how many ways you guys try to make it work, it never does.  You’ve beaten this dead horse into dust, and now you’re just beating your fist on the blood-soaked ground underneath it.  STOP IT!!

I think everyone's favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur.  I would love to get more of her story.

I think everyone’s favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur. I would love to get more of her story.

Anyway, mostly strong writing.  However, it ended without giving me a sense of closure for the characters that I had grown fond of, or anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion for the overall story.  It just sort of ends.  And don’t look for the DLC to provide the comfort of an ending either, because it doesn’t.  I guess Thomas Was Alone’s finale is supposed to be open to interpretation or something, but I was left disappointed.

You know what?  I don’t play platformers for their stories.  If they’re decent or better, that’s just a bonus.  For this genre, gameplay is king.  In which case, Thomas Was Alone is at best a knight, bordering on a rook.  After a mind-numbingly dull start, the level design picks up momentum about one-third of the way in.  By time you’ve reached the finish line, you’ll have played some of the most inspired levels seen in platforming in a long while.  But, the ratio of slog-to-awesome is not so great.  A good portion of levels revolve around stacking your characters in a way to make a staircase for the less jumpy in your squad.  A handful of these would have been just fine.  But sometimes you’ll have to build the exact same staircase five or more times in a single level.  It’s tedious busy-work that needlessly cramps the game’s whimsical style.

When Thomas Was Alone’s level design is good, it’s really good.  So good that my ear-to-ear grin was in place because of just how clever a world was designed and not because of the narration.  Quite frankly, after a way-too-long tutorial sequence with levels and platforming so basic that it makes Atari-era stuff like Pitfall! look advanced, I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was.  Then I would be hit with some pretty ingenious stages that involve timing, precision platforming, and thinking outside-the-box.  I loved these moments.  I’ve always said I’ll take those “ta-da!” moments in puzzlers over the best headshots in shooters or game-winning shots in sports games.  Thomas doesn’t provide a lot of those moments, but when it does, it’s special.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I'm not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn't, that would be quite a good idea.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I’m not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn’t, that would be a good idea.

Don’t worry, puzzle haters.  There is nothing here that will bend your brain or make you have to consult GameFAQs.  At most, Thomas will ask of you to apply some forward thinking and course plotting.  Most of the puzzles revolve around what order you guide the blocks to the goal of each stages.  Victory is achieved through having all blocks in their unique exit doors at the same time.  Once you have a feel for the abilities and limitations of each block, figuring how to get them to the doors comes naturally.  Actually, it almost becomes instinctual.  It’s so rare that a puzzle-platformer does that to me that I can’t help but be impressed.  It also helps that the controls are smooth and the main game never asks more of a player than can be reasonably expected.  I don’t consider myself especially skilled at platformers, but I must be getting better.  I figure I died probably around a dozen times over the course of the game’s one-hundred levels.  Thomas Was Alone gives a trophy out for dying 100 times, but by time I had finished the game, I still hadn’t earned it.  I’m pretty proud of that.

I’m not here to give the game an undeserved blowjob though.  There’s plenty of problems with it.  I’ve described some above, but the one that gets me the most is the difficulty curve.  Or lack thereof.  Other critics have noted how perfect the curve is.  It makes me wonder if they played the same game as me.  Even late in Thomas Was Alone, I encountered stages that offered no challenge at all to finish.  The sixth world (really the seventh world, since the world numbering starts in the zeros) especially stands out.  I wasn’t timing it, but it probably took between ten to fifteen minutes to complete while possessing the most basic and dull stages since the opening tutorial.  Just weird that this would pop-up over half-way through.  But stages like this are all over the place.  I guess the excuse for these (and the overly long fish-in-barrel stages that start this thing) is they’re there as place-holders to drive the story.  Well that’s a shitty excuse.  A platformer should never let proper storytelling get in the way of proper pacing.  People probably should buy the game for the game.  I mean, it’s a pretty good game.  So while I enjoyed the story, I almost resent the fact that the vastly superior gameplay was in part sacrificed for it.  The result is a curve that appeared to be drawn by someone laying in a hammock during an earthquake.

After finishing the final stage, you’re treated to an extremely brief ending, and then the credits roll.  I was disappointed not just by the ending but by the last level.  Thomas Was Alone goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, which left me wanting more.  After stewing on it overnight, I decided to grab the overpriced DLC pack.  My intent was to get my craving for more Thomas out of my system.  Mission accomplished, but not in the way I intended.

The DLC levels are so horrible and mismatched with the main body of the game that I actively questioned whether developer Mike Bithell had entered his emo phase in life when he designed them.  Thomas Was Alone was a quirky logic-puzzle-platformer.  The DLC levels alternate between back-to-basics platforming (that you have to pay extra to suffer through) and punisher-stages designed with nothing else in mind than a huge body count.  What a stupid decision on developer’s part.  These levels do not remotely have the almost childish innocence the main game does.  It’s also the first time the controls didn’t feel right.  Benjamin, the star of the DLC, possess a jet pack, but the only use they could come up with for it was navigating narrow corridors of spikes.  The controls here are so touchy and the margin for error so low that any possible fun that could be had gives way to frustration and boredom.  Benjamin’s Flight has twenty stages, and while the cutesy story is present, I can honestly say that I didn’t find one single stage of this pack to be worth paying any amount of money for.  It might be the worst level pack I’ve ever purchased.  I just don’t get why the tone changed so much.  It would be like announcing that they’re going to make a new Dark Knight movie, only this one will be a buddy comedy and Batman is being recast as Adam Sandler.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC.  I nominate this for "worst stage in a good game" ever created.  It's repetitive and insanely long for what it offers.  Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC. I nominate this for “worst stage in a good game.”  It’s repetitive and insanely long for what it offers. Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

So here’s where I stand: Thomas Was Alone is pretty decent, but it takes a while to get that way.  I wish the developer had focused more on ingenuity.  When the levels in Thomas are clever, it’s one of the best of its breed to come out in a while.  There’s just enough meat here to call it a must-buy.  At the same time, the story ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied, and the game only has enough “this is amazing!” moments that it ultimately feels under-realized.  You can’t count on the DLC to drown-out those thoughts, because it feels rushed and sort of half-assed.  So different from the feel of the main quest that I was a little surprised to learn they came from the same guy who had awed me just yesterday.  If I had my way, Thomas Was Alone would be alone, because I would bury that DLC in the desert next to unsold Atari carts.

Thomas LogoThomas Was Alone was developed by Mike Bithell

IGC_Approved$7.99 with PlayStation Plus discount (normally priced $9.99) plus $3.49 (Benjamin’s Flight DLC) said “hey now, Red Kryptonite has caused all sorts of problems, so don’t go there” in the making of this review.

Thomas Was Alone is Chick Approved, but for God’s sake, skip the DLC unless it’s free.  And even then, you’re not missing anything by ignoring it. 

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