Magicians & Looters

UPDATE: Magicians & Looters received a Second Chance with the Chick. To say it improved the game is an understatement. I now consider this to be the best Xbox Live Indie Game ever made. Click here for my updated thoughts.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Xbox Live Indie Games, where expectations are so low that there’s not sufficient clearance for microbes to hang themselves from it.  Because of this, sometimes games that are just not that good end up getting elevated beyond their actual value.  Take Magicians & Looters.  Here’s a really ambitious first effort by a group of developers with not a whole lot of experience, and it’s not terrible.  It also has, for my money, the best comedic writing ever seen on an XBLIG.

M&L is a Metroidvania.  I fucking love those, but XBLIG hasn’t been the best source for them.  LaserCat is my favorite.  It was the original #1 game on the old, ten-games-only Leaderboard.   But it’s a different breed of Metroidvania.  There’s no combat in it, only avoidance.  It’s also easier than boxing a newborn paraplegic orangutang .  But that was pretty much the cream of the crop.  Other attempts were nowhere near as successful.  There was Astroman, a Metroid-inspired adventure that came very close to hitting the mark, but wasn’t quite there.  Still, this is probably the genre that, if done right, I like the most.

Mom?

Mom?

I try not to get hyped for games, and I certainly try to avoid hearing what my fellow XBLIG critics think of a game that I intend to play.  Unfortunately, becoming good friends with them means sometimes you hear things.  Like, say, Tim Hurley putting Magicians & Looters at #5 on his Leaderboard.  Or Jed Presscott calling this game “better than Symphony of the Night.

Hahahahahaha…………. no.

To get the good out of the way first: Magicians & Looters isn’t broken or glitchy or likely to physically materialize like that spooky chick from The Ring and murder you after seven days.  In fact, all the ingredients seem to be here, fully functional, and primed to present one of the best values a game could have.  But, for me at least, it just never came together.  By far the best aspect of Magicians & Looters is the writing.  The story is a sort of spoof of Harry Potter.  You play as three teenagers enrolled in a wizard’s school.  It gets overrun by evildoers and you must band together and save the day.  They’re also all, to put it politely, type-A personalities.  They spew out non-stop sarcasm, have endless disdain for one-another, and almost seem to speak in the language of a sitcom.  I always hate games like that.  It’s one of the things that turned me off of musical RPG Sequence.  Here?  It works.  Even better, the jokes don’t rely on referential humor.  No callbacks to bad game dialog.  No “remember that movie you’ve seen?  We’ve seen it too, and we’ll demonstrate that by quoting it verbatim, but you should laugh because we’re going to do it in an unexpected way” type of stuff.  Hell, they don’t even directly reference Harry Potter, and the game is a send-up of it.  I mean, damn.  Standing ovation right here.

The sharp writing is the ONLY thing that kept me playing, though.  Mechanically speaking, I just found Magicians & Looters to be boring.  Mostly because of the combat.  I give them props for wanting to do something different.  Here, touching enemies doesn’t inflict damage on you.  Everything is handled by actual hand-to-hand fighting.  You attack a few times, then hold block, wait for them to miss, and then continue on.  That sounds great, but there’s a reason why 2D games typically don’t do that: because it’s slow and it makes combat a plodding chore.  Of course, there’s no real reason to fight enemies.  The leveling-up system is handled entirely by finding hidden trinkets, which was another dumb idea.  For almost any game, combat will stagnate after X amount of hours.  The grind of leveling up could very well be the only thing that keeps your average player from just running past enemies.  In M&L, they do drop money that you can use to buy better weapons, but progress on that is too slow as well.

The main hook is switching between three characters, each with their own unique abilities.  Unfortunately, this also is bungled, because two of the characters (the guy and one of the girls) are too slow.  For a game that already has severe pacing issues, this one really got to me.  Most of the time, I wanted to be playing as the near-naked chick, who was faster in movement and could jump significantly higher than the other two.  But she was especially crappy at combat.  So, you have to switch between the three to open up the map, but playing as the other chick, who was so slow that I was wondering if she had Lou Gehrig’s disease, was torturous.  Also, in order to switch characters, you need to go back to a save-station.  They’re liberally scattered throughout the world, but the needless backtracking when a Castlevania III like on-the-fly switcheroo would have been so much more preferable and obvious just adds to the dullness factor.

Again, the game has all the right parts of a good Metroidvania, such as a very well done map. Unfortunately, being fun just didn't make the cut.  I think this is mostly on the dull combat.  For everything it borrowed from Symphony of the Night, the thing it needed the most was pushed aside in favor of something slower and blander.  If it had been remotely close to Symphony of the Night's combat?  Probably a top-5 XBLIG game.

Again, the game has all the right parts of a good Metroidvania, such as a very well done map. Unfortunately, being fun just didn’t make the cut. I think this is mostly on the dull combat. For everything it borrowed from Symphony of the Night, the thing it needed the most was pushed aside in favor of something slower and blander. If it had been remotely close to Symphony of the Night’s combat? Probably a top-5 XBLIG game.

My dislike for M&L has nothing to do with the hype I got from my buddies.  If anything, I spent more time with it than I would done with any other game because I was trying to find the game they both loved so much.  If you hear something unequivocally called better than one of the best games ever made, it catches your attention.  I also wasn’t looking for reasons why it’s not.  That’s what lifeless fanboys do.  No, I wanted to see what they saw.  I looked hard for it.  Instead, I found dull combat, bland level layouts, and just an overall slowness that I couldn’t get into.  I tip my hat to the guys at Morgopolis Studios.  I typically discourage first efforts from being this ambitious.  Ambition wasn’t what went wrong with Magicians & Looters.  Truth be told, it’s a well designed game.  Results will not be typical, I guess, considering that my colleagues are shaking their fist in anger that it’s a digital-download game and not on disc, meaning there is no hole for (remaining review censored by Brian for the sake of Cathy’s parents.  I don’t want them to know I taught her what THAT is)

xboxboxartMagicians & Looters was developed by Morgopolis Studios

$1 (still censored.  Sorry folks.  Her filth bled into the money joke) in the making of this review. 

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Guacamelee!

I wasn’t even sure I was going to get to play Guacamelee!  Many readers, aware that I have epilepsy, warned me that the game occasionally vomits flashy, eye-hurting rainbows.  However, I was given assurances from readers that such effects only happen when you pick up an upgrade or immediately as you enter a boss battle.  They were right, and I was able to play Guacamelee.  Hooray for me!

Unfortunately, after a couple very promising opening hours, Guacamelee fell apart.  For me at least.  I felt the game had issues with padding, humor, and the occasional game-killing bug.  Someone who I think is part of the development team assures me a patch is on the way for such bugs, which might be able to bump the game up to a Seal-of-Quality title.  Despite all the bitching I’m about to do, there’s a pretty good game somewhere in this mess.  A game that at times made me laugh, cheer, and occasional spit on my television.

Guacamelee 0

They should have found someone else to be the hero. Juan slouches. Real heroes don’t slouch.

The idea is you’re a dude who was tragically born with his neck coming out of his chest.  The president’s daughter is kidnapped by an evil undead bullfighter person.  In the process, you’re murdered, but you come back as a super-powered luchador who must save the girl and the world from being merged with the realm of the dead.  I appreciate how the guys behind this took a moldy-old game story and dressed it up with funny dialog and a couple twists along the way.  Having said that, I wasn’t a big fan of the whole luchador thing.  It seems like it was done more out of a desire to be quirky.  The gag seems to be “luchadores are random and weird, get it?”  Yea, I got it.  I got it years ago when Killer 7 had a luchador in it.  I got it when Jack Black played a luchador in a movie.  I got it when WB had a Luchador-themed children’s cartoon and an accompanying awful Game Boy Advance game.

The luchador setting only serves a purpose to the game in the combat, which has a wrestling theme to it.  You punch, you grapple, you throw, or you buy advanced moves like a suplex or a piledriver.  Great.  But why wasn’t the theme more incorporated into the plot or the humor?  Juan becomes a luchador, and then he’s just a luchador for the rest of the game (except for when he’s a chicken.  Don’t ask).  They could have made gags or a plot that revolved around him having to avoid losing his mask, since that’s a central theme for luchadores.  Or they could have made jokes about how wrestling is staged.  Instead, it’s left at “he’s a luchador, and that in and of itself is quirky.”  No, it’s not.

Other humor in the game comes in the form of referencing online memes, the joke being “it’s that thing you know of.  We also know of it, and we made reference to it in our game!”  That’s not a joke.  If I go up to a stranger and say “did you ever see that video of a monkey that picks its ass, smells its finger, and then passes out?” that is not me performing stand-up comedy to that person.  Guacamelee way over uses this, and that’s sad because there’s some characterizations and bits of dialog that don’t use the referential-humor crutch.  Like the slutty demonic chick that hangs out with the bad guys and shakes her ass at you in an attempt to get her way.  Which doesn’t work, making her pout.  That’s funny.  “Hey look, it’s Strong Bad!” or “Hey look, it’s Link!” is not funny.  It’s just not.  Retro City Rampage had the same problem, where the jokes were mostly “It’s funny because I too have seen the games you played or watched the movies and/or television programs you watched!”  Some people enjoy this type of humor.  There’s been eleven seasons of Family Guy and five installments of Scary Movie.  I personally don’t get it, but I guess there is an audience that just wants assurance that, yes, other people remember the pop culture trivia that you remember.

Why does Juan have a championship belt on? That should have been something you get for beating the game. "He got it for beating death! Get it?" says Brian. I suppose.

Why does Juan have a championship belt on? That should have been something you get for beating the game. “He got it for beating death! Get it?” says Brian. I suppose.

Guacamelee is a 2D Metroidvania, something I probably should have mentioned early.  I love this genre, and I really wanted to love Guacamelee.  At first I did.  The graphics are absolutely stunning, and the play controls seems like it will be pretty good.  The world of Guacamelee is well designed, with vast dungeons to explore, towns to mingle in, and lots of hidden pathways to open up unlockables.  However, I wasn’t thrilled with the combat.  Many are considering it to be the game’s greatest attribute, so I think I could probably have trimmed this review down to “play the demo.  If you like the combat, you’ll like the whole game.”  I really didn’t mind fighting, for the most part.  It’s actually fun to string together huge combos, throw enemies into each-other, or see how long you can keep yourself airborne while dishing out damage.

But then the game starts to lock-down for forced arena-style combat.  This was presumably done to pad out the length.  I came to dread these sections because it kills the pace of the game and makes the combat needlessly feel like busy work.  The developers tried to keep it from stagnating by giving enemies shields which require a specific special move to break, or having enemies appear in one dimension and their shadows (which are still capable of causing you damage) in another.  This forces you to switch from dimension to dimension (this is a thing you can do, I probably should have mentioned that too) to fight the baddies off.  The intentions here were good, but the shields and the phasing-planes combat just adds to the tedium and makes fighting a chore when you’re locked in a single-screen.  Worse yet, your dude dramatically flies back, Simon Belmont-style, when you get knocked down.  Getting up is slow, and once up, your temporary-invincibility is too brief.  Thus, enemies can and will juggle you.  I went into a room late in the game with full health, got knocked down once, and never again had a real opening to fight back as multiple guys (some of whom fire projectiles) just endlessly pounded the crap out of me.  You do have a dodge attack, but the window to use it is too brief.  It also doesn’t help when a room has multiple enemies attacking just out-of-synch enough that, when one attack animation is ending, the other is beginning.  Now admittedly, I have no sense of timing, but a quick look at a few YouTube videos confirms that other players are the victims of cheap hits as well.

By the way, most of those videos end with the players talking about how much they love the combat in Guacamelee.  I guess some people are just wired to enjoy this type of shit.  I really did like the combat, but there’s too many foibles associated with it that I couldn’t get over.  Personally, if I wanted to get ganged up on with no opening to fight back, I’d book myself to go on the O’Reilly Factor.

I'm not so sure Juan would make a good wrestler. He spends most of the combat laying on his back.

I’m not so sure Juan would make a good wrestler. He spends most of the combat laying on his back.

Controls can be frustrating too.  I had trouble hitting just the basic (press circle) headbutt on yellow-shielded enemies, as I would typically do some other form of attack.  This became especially true after I opened up the blue “dash-forward” move.  In order to throw those headbutts, I had to completely stop moving and set myself, as any forward momentum seemed to cause the wrong attack.  This gets kind of difficult when you have multiple enemies ganging up on you and no pure method of blocking.  The only way to avoid getting juggled is to move around, but the only way to break an enemy’s shield is to sit still.  You can see how this might be a problem.  It gets really swear-inducing when enemy shields reappear after you’ve broken them because you didn’t kill them fast enough.  This all just makes the game so much more aggravating than it needs to be.  Those locked in combat rooms too, only done to pad out the play time.  Games don’t need to be long to be amazing or earn critical acclaim.  Look at Journey.  The average player takes barely three hours to finish it, and it won numerous Game of the Year awards over big-hitting contenders and multimillion dollar AAA titles.  So would it have mattered if Guacamelee was an hour shorter and didn’t have those combat rooms?  I don’t think it would have hurt its reputation at all.

I didn’t finish Guacamelee.  Towards the end, it started to bug out on me.  First, I couldn’t complete the training room because every time I got half-way through a combo, the screen would go completely black.  I wasn’t sure if this was done intentionally to add challenge, but then I found out that wasn’t the case.  Then the stuff with the yellow shields took over the combat and slowed the pace down even more.  Finally, I got into one of those combat rooms.  This one was especially annoying due to having nearly-out-of-reach bomb/enemy things that you have to kill before a timer ticks down, or they explode and claim a lot of your life.  On top of those, there was a large pillar with a spike on top of it that you had to hop back and forth over.  The controls were decent, but not so great that such actions could be completed smoothly every time.  On top of those, there were projectile-throwing enemies who (along with the bombs) could phase between the two planes of existence.  I did suck at the combat, quite frankly, and I had reached that point I sometimes get to where I just want a game to be over with.  Well, after failing a couple of times at this room, I finally cleared it out.  Only the game glitched out and the doors never unlocked.  Thus I would be forced to exit to the title screen and start the room over.  But, I don’t want to.  I’m done.  Seen enough.  Satisfied that it’s not going to get better.  Don’t want to risk this happening again.  Get back to me when you’re patched.  It will probably end with the stupid “A Winner Is You” line from Pro Wrestling on the NES anyway.

(spoiler alert, highlight: holy fuck, it does.  Jesus Christ, I was fucking joking!)

Hello? Please let me out? Please? 

There’s a ton to like about Guacamelee.  It has personality.  It has charm.  It has an incredible map.  It’s very beautiful to look at.  Most people even like the music.  I don’t.  Personally, I think Mexican music must have been invented by an atheist to disprove the existence of God.  Really, though, your like or dislike of Guacamelee will come down entirely towards whether or not you enjoy the combo-heavy combat of the game, cheapness and all.  I liked it but couldn’t get past the cheapness.  I would still barely recommend it despite that, but the game has issues with glitches and I really think those need to be cleaned up before I say “okay, now you can get it.”  I’m told fixes are on the way, so if you have PlayStation Plus, get it now while it’s on sale and just wait to play it.  Just don’t expect a game of the year contender.  Expect yourself to say “what were they thinking, making you push this many buttons mid-air just to get across this one room?  Were they fucking mad?”

I have to say, I've never been a fan of the "being chased by a gigantic monster" action beats in games.

I have to say, I’ve never been a fan of the “being chased by a gigantic monster” action beats in games.

Oh, and in closing, I know this wasn’t my funniest review (was my longest though).  To make up for it, here’s a random sampling of games I’ve played and movies I’ve seen.  Feel free to bust a gut if you’ve watched/played the same things.  Remember, this qualifies as humor: Portal, Final Fantasy, Mario, Sudoku, Parcheesi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Seven Psychopaths, Se7en, Seven Samurai, Total Recall, Total Recall that sucks, the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination, and a video of a monkey that picks its butt, sniffs its finger, then passes out.  Okay, you can stop laughing now.  The review is over.

GuacameleeGuacamelee! was developed by DrinkBox Studios

$11.99 ($14.99 for non PlayStation Plus members) said “it’s different when *I* make referential jokes because.. um.. hey look over there!” in the making of this review. 

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