As I noted in my review of qrth-phyl, I get called out a lot for picking on developers. I really try to avoid this and focus on the game, but sometimes my methodology on criticism can seem like I’m going after someone when I’m not. If I say a developer’s game sucks, it’s taken to mean I think the developer sucks. And if I’m especially harsh on a game, it’s thought that I need to lighten up and look for positive things to talk about and “quit being so personal.” It’s never personal. Ever. So hopefully I’ve cleared that all up and can now focus on writing a balanced review.

Sententia is the worst Xbox Live Indie Game of the year.

I spent a few hours slogging through it, including accidentally scrubbing my save file while attempting to show someone how the game began, which meant I got to start over. Of all the critics who are covering the Uprising, I’m pretty sure I made the least progress in the game. I know there are people who say that a review doesn’t count if you don’t finish the game. To that I say, unless it has a magical stop-being-crappy section, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly miss discussing about it.

The idea is you’re some kind of demon monster thingie (I think) who is coming of age and learning to use magical connect-the-dots to um, do something. I honestly have no clue. Which is odd because there’s certainly enough writing that I would hope to grasp what is going on. Instead, a kid just kinda wanders off on the woods, sees giant-sized devil thingies, and doesn’t turn around and run home to his daddy.

Sententia describes itself as an art game in its marketplace blurb. I’m not a huge fan of games that label themselves as such, because most that do so use it as an all-purpose bullet-proof vest for criticism. It gives a developer or a game’s fans the ability to deflect any valid complaints by saying “it’s art house, it’s not for everyone.” I got this vibe when I interviewed Michael last month. I came away liking the guy and admiring his amazing effort in organizing the Uprising. I also looked at his game, compared it to the other eight games, and figured it didn’t belong. And it doesn’t.  I get no pleasure from saying that, but it’s true. It probably should have been the last game to release, so as to not taint the event.

Let’s picture non-regulars on the XBLIG scene catching wind of the Uprising through some of the big time coverage it has got. Sententia is the second game in the promotion, after the very good but also very weird qrth-phyl. Maybe qrth-phyl looked too weird to sample. Thus, Sententia becomes the first game that many people sample in this promotion that purports to show off the best XBLIG has to offer. Within fifteen minutes, everything wrong with Sententia becomes evident. Bad graphics. Annoying sound effects. Horrible play control. Sloppy interface. Bad writing. Cheap level design. Those people who think XBLIG is a joke and avoid the channel like the plague who decide to take a chance because of the hype say “this is the best Xbox Indies are capable of?” They don’t know that Sententia, and this will really sound harsh, only got in because it’s the game created by the guy who ran the promotion. So those people play this, are completely turned off by the scene, and they never come back.

And for the record, I feel like a total bitch for saying that.

Guys, next year I’m picking the order.  

Sententia’s hook is that you occasionally have to pause the game and do a connect-the-dots puzzle. Every dot has little slash-marks on it, signifying how many lines will extend from it. This is actually a cool idea for a standalone game, assuming it’s done right.  Sententia doesn’t do it right, mostly owing to the clumsy building interface. It’s slow-moving, awkward, and accident-prone. If you make a mistake, deleting a line can be an exercise in frustration. There were times where the cursor simply refused to highlight the line I wanted to delete. I had to delete all the other lines that it wanted to highlight instead before I could correct the mistake. There’s also no “clear-all, start over” button. So if you’ve totally cocked-up a puzzle (and you will do that a bunch, trust me), your punishment is to slowly clean up before starting over. I asked Michael if anyone had pointed this stuff out to him, and he said no, the play testing went well. So going off that, good job play testers! Given the nearly universal negative reaction to Sententia I’ve seen today, I can’t believe none of you thought “maybe I should say something.”

This is where I quit. The smaller, hard-to-see blocks in the center of the level drop quickly after you land on them. Because of the timing of the controls, you don’t have enough time to shoot the enemies or defend yourself in any way against them. It’s one of the most horribly conceived layouts I’ve ever seen in any game.

So the hook was botched. The rest of the game pretty much plays like a run-of-the-mill platformer, assuming the run was given to a recently lobotomized goldfish. The controls are horribly sluggish, with movement and jumping being slow. There’s a noticeable delay in responsiveness. So naturally the game has several sections that require timed-precision platforming with respawning enemies. The enemies are typically placed on narrow platforms, and will fire at you if you are on the same plane as them. Since you can’t jump and fire at the same time, you pretty much have no choice but to rely on luck and hope the game glitches out and the enemies get respawned on the wrong platform. That happens. And thankfully the enemies can’t possibly respawn on the wrong platform in a way that makes it impossible to proceed. Oh wait, that happens too. Don’t worry though, it won’t matter, because you’ll get stuck trying to walk past two respawning enemies on platforms that drop out from underneath you almost as soon as you step on them. Or “get as close to the edge as you can before jumping” platforms that are scattered all over the game. I honestly can’t come up with a single positive thing to say about the gameplay. It’s abysmal in every way a game can be.

I’m not sure how Sententia was released in the state it’s in, or how anyone, even the creator of the game, could be delusional enough to think this should have been included in an Xbox Live Indie Game showcase. A theory kicked to me on my Twitter feed is that Sententia made it in as a matter of convenience, because it was a game that was available and done. If that’s the case, I object to the use of the word “done.” Unless we’re using the “stick a fork in it, it’s done” context. Simply put, you don’t stick a game that is total and complete uncompromising and unapologetic garbage in a lineup of games designed to showcase the potential of a game platform on the grounds that there was nothing else available. It would be like not having enough food to cover a reception, so one lucky guest gets the honor of eating a plate full of shit. Again, not trying to pick on Michael Hicks. He’s a cool dude. But his game could very well be the worst game on the entire XBLIG platform, and should not have been used in a promotion designed to lure in new fans. Michael, I commend you for your efforts in the third Indie Games Uprising. You busted your ass hard for your fellow developers and you should be saluted for that. You spread the gospel of Xbox Live Indie Games like a modern-day John the Baptist. And, like John, your head ended up being served on a silver platter.

“Where the Mild Things Are”

Sententia was developed by MichaelArts

80 Microsoft Points had no fun writing any of the above in the making of this review. In fact, I feel pretty dang rotten about it. 

Also check out the reviews of Sententia from my associates at Indie Theory, Clearance Bin Review, and more to come.

Indie Games Uprising III Interview: Sententia

It’s back!  Last year, the ten games of extreme varying quality (somewhere between sublime and subfeces) took part in what was the most promoted event in Xbox Live Indie Game history.  This year, nine new games are ready to show off what the platform is capable of.  It’s called the Indie Games Uprising III.  The man running it, 19-year-old Michael Hicks, has a game of his own in it: artsy platformer Sententia.  I talked with him about his game, the event, and what exactly “art house” gaming means.

Kairi: When I hear the term “art house style game”, I typically throw-up a little bit in my mouth.  What do you think the medical term for that is?

Michael Hicks: Ha! Well, I guess you could say I used that to rebel against “the man” or status quo. It’s kind of a vague term looking back at it now, but this game is extremely personal to me and marked a big change on my outlook towards game design. I wanted to be sure that when going into the game people would know that I attempted to make something more than a game about jumping over blocks and attacking enemies; there’s a ton of reasoning behind all of the design decisions… almost an unhealthy amount! I guess I was just worried people wouldn’t get me, so I decided to go all hippie hipster and call it an art game!

Kairi: When I watched the video for Sententia, it looked to me like a cross between a punisher and Scribblenauts.  What is the actual inspiration for the game?

Michael: You’re the first one to call it a punisher! The game is very challenging and ramps up fast – I don’t think that’s something people typically take away from the trailer. The gameplay wasn’t really inspired by a particular game, but you could say that it was inspired by the themes and messages I wanted to convey. The games that made me open my eyes were “Aether” by Edmund McMillen, “Gravitation” by Jason Rohrer, and “Braid” by Jon Blow. These games are very powerful, but they tell stories through basic gameplay interactions and themes, I wanted to try and experiment with what they pioneered. As I started to get more technical with the platform designs I did reference “Super Meat Boy” quite a bit, as the game is very challenging, but never felt frustrating (at least to me!).

Kairi: Your previous games have been space shooters, and now you’re doing a self-described “art” game.  You’ve started taking drugs, haven’t you?

Michael: No, never! It’s insane how many times I get asked this by people… it’s so weird that when people start to make more expressive things others instantly think they’ve turned to smoking weed or something!

Kairi: I’m actually kind of surprised by the lack of quote-unquote “experimental” games on XBLIG.  Why do you think developers don’t try to get weird when they create their games?

Michael: It’s really easy to just stick with what has already been proven to be successful, it takes some practice to really work the “originality muscle”, and I’m still trying to exercise it myself. It also takes some guts to make something super personal/deep/experimental and release it to a wide audience; I’m very terrified to release my own game, I think the closer it gets to the release date the more I am going to lose my mind.

Kairi: When you made your previous games, was there any off-the-wall weird shit that you thought to include but chickened out of?

Michael: I don’t think I’ve ever censored myself like that, but before “Sententia” I was going to make a game based around this joke rap project that my friend and I do on occasion. We started recording music for it back in High School as a way of making fun of pop culture. In this game you were going to drive around with a police officer collecting donuts while this song of ours played on the radio. Then I remembered that I’m in a position where the games I make can actually affect people’s lives and I wasn’t interested in committing career suicide.

Kairi: You pussy!

Michael: Hey, I thought it was the right thing to do!

Kairi: Okay, so now that you’ve finally manned up and are doing something off the beaten path, are you finding it difficult to implement your vision using the XNA framework?

Michael: Definitely not, I hope I never have to work with anything else. I really don’t care for C++ or any of the hardcore techie languages, even though I can use them. I love to program, and I’m glad I can do it… but I don’t like spending time doing all of the crap that those languages require when I could be doing more game specific type stuff.

Kairi: You’re the man in charge, more or less, of the third Uprising.  Are you fucking insane?

Michael: A lot of people think I am, that’s for sure! It’s really an honor to be involved like this, but it’s a huge responsibility; I want to make sure this is a promotion that people won’t forget.

Kairi: Some people, who shall remain nameless (ME!) thought the last Uprising was incredibly disappointing.  This year looks much more promising right from the start.  What do you say to those (ME!) that are skeptical about the quality of the games this time around?

Michael: Reception of indie games at this level is kind of a weird thing, you get such mixed reactions. Personally though, I am really excited for the line up this year… a lot of the games are very interesting. I’ve played most of the titles thoroughly, and I would definitely rank a good number of them in my “Favorite XBLIGs Ever” list.

Kairi: I noticed all the Uprising games are single player titles.  Is the irony that we’re doing an event where the community rises up together yet plays games alone lost on you?

Michael: Wow, that never dawned on me before! We tried to get a variety of games, but mainly we wanted to scout out some titles that we thought were great games.

Kairi: In closing, how do you feel the games of this Uprising stack up against the games of the previous two events?

Michael: The selection this year is totally different from last time I think. I would classify those games as more extroverted and these games as more introverted… maybe that makes no sense. Either way, we’ll just have to see what people say when all of this kicks off!

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