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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Three Dead Zed Review & Developer Interview

Update: Three Dead Zed received a Second Chance with the Chick. Click here for my continued thoughts on the game.

Well, this has never been done before.  A review of a game done while simultaneously interviewing the developer.  I almost didn’t review Three Dead Zed, which sponsors my review index.  Sponsorship on my site is done by donating to charities (either Autism Speaks or the Epilepsy Foundation), so I don’t personally gain anything from it.  Well, unless the $50 minimum that is contributed to the Epilepsy Foundation is exactly what they need at that very moment to cure epilepsy forever.  And you never know, that might happen!  Still, I didn’t want to be accused of a conflict of interest.  If the game sucked, that’s fine.  Nobody would accuse me of slamming a game because it sponsored my site.  But, what if the game was good?  What if it was the best XBLIG I’ve ever played?  People would question whether it was legitimate or not.

Thankfully for me (and not so thankfully for the guys at Gentleman Squid), I don’t have to worry about it.  Three Dead Zed is atrocious.  The idea is you control three zombies, switching between them to make your way across platforms, shoving boxes, avoiding lasers, and killing people.  The game looks great, but the controls are never responsive.  The standard, default zombie feels sluggish and slow, and the jumping physics feel too heavy.  This is the only zombie that can climb ladders or hit switches.  On the flip side of this, there’s a quadrupedal that moves way too fast, jumps way too high, too far, and is a nightmare to control.  It can’t climb ladders, operate switches, or do anything but jumping and wall jumping.  Finally, there’s a giant, angry she-zombie that you use to break down walls and move heavy objects.  This one is slower than death by starvation, can’t jump, and its attacks don’t feel like they have any oomph to them.

Basically, I didn’t like Three Dead Zed at all.  Since I was due to interview developer Fabian Florez, I figured I would kill two birds with one stone and do the interview at the same time, and see what he had to say about some of the issues I had.  All things considered, he was a good sport about it!

Cathy: Before I get to brow-beating you for the ungodly piece of shit that is the game you made, can you give me a little background on your team and how you guys came together?

Fabian Florez: Heh. Well we all work in the same main company. We normally make interactive training for things like online courses for schools or other technical related subjects. Well, the main business was getting slow, and rather than let us all go, I proposed that we take a crack at making games. We had all the primary people needed for a team right there: Artists, programmers, lover of games. So they took a chance on us. Now, with my review coming up, I think “Why would you make this piece of shit” might hurt my chances of a good review.

Cathy: If your job security was depended upon how likely your supervisor is able to hit one of the light switches in the game, would you just immediately start packing your desk?

Fabian: NEXT QUESTION PLEASE!

Cathy: Do you know pink slips typically aren’t pink?  The ones I use are white.  Even the rubber stamp isn’t pink.  More like a crimson.

Fabian: I don’t even think they give slips at all. They just coral you into a room and just say, “Yea it’s been nice but you got to go.”

Cathy: Okay, okay, in all seriousness, why are the controls in Three Dead Zed so all over the place?

Fabian: We drink a lot.  OK,  *I* drink a lot.  It seemed to make sense to me when I was playtesting…that one night…before release. Can you help clarify a specific point?

Cathy: I’ll start with the speedy dude that runs on all fours.  It’s too easy to overshoot everything.  He moves too fast, he jumps too far, and it’s too loose so it’s easy to over jump stuff.  But the controls are also so loose that if you try self-correct mid-air, you’re just as likely to under-jump.

Fabian: He’s very debatable. Some people don’t mind him and adapt quickly. Others hate him outright. I do think it’s a bit of a failure on our part for tutorials and stage layout. For example, on the second tutorial stage after you unlock him, some people don’t just jump straight up. I’ve seen people play this on YouTube, streams, and in person. They always want to jump in a direction first. He jumps higher and you can have a control fall if you do that first. Or jump higher to stick to a higher part of the wall. Sometimes I’ve seen people always want to jump with him everywhere.  Some of the jumping puzzles were meant to be played with the classic zombie, not the jumper, but it’s not obvious enough. That’s just a failure on us.

I could go more into it, but ultimately, a game should just be played without a “guide” so I think that’s why we get hot/cold responses.

Cathy: I get a lot of developers who want to send me a detailed analysis of how to play their game when they request a review.  Always pisses me off and gets things off on the wrong foot.  Doesn’t mean I am certain to hate a game (Hidden in Plain Sight’s developer did it and I ranked it), but it feels like developers know from the get-go there are problems and still release anyway.  Do you think if you had held off on release you could have addressed these issues, or did the game pass the point of no return for salvation?

Fabian: That’s a great question. We initially released the game earlier in the year for Windows and we though we addressed a lot of those initial issues. Our tutorial section for example is longer and added things to what we though might be “second nature” had to be added. Like the area showing you how to drop down from floors. So unfortunately, it’s just that developer trap of “I think we got everything! Release it. OH NO not again!” Tried to touch all bases, but I think it’s really difficult.

But, I think there was also some confusion on our part because a lot of those comments did come from people playing with a keyboard. We did get feedback from people saying switching to a controller made things easier. So, porting to Xbox seemed like it would alleviate that since you can only play with a controller.

Cathy:  There’s a lot of niggling control issues.  Jumping off ladders with the default zombie, hitting switches, and some problems with collision detection.  We’ll start with the switches first.  I’m personally having problems lining up and pushing them correctly.  Brian isn’t.  His IQ is about 50 points lower than mine, so if your target audience is dumbass pseudo-gingers, mission accomplished, but wouldn’t larger area-detections be a no-brainer?

Fabian: Switches: It’s a pretty sizable hit detection. It was increased from the Windows to the Xbox build. The reason why it’s not even bigger, if I remember correctly, is because we didn’t want you activating things behind a wall on the other side on some scenarios. We’ll take a look at it again though.

Ladders is the new one that I did witness in our Peer Review.   Never heard that until we ported it. It’s another one of those, “Probably include it in the tutorials?” Push left or right and jump. I saw Ryan (aka MasterBlud of VVGTV) playing the game and he was stating how he hated the ladders also. The problem there is we have areas where you are going to want to jump from ladder to ladder. If you just push left or right and he drops, you wont be able to jump to the ladder. Minus the actual jumping from ladder to ladder, this is very similar to Mega Man’s approach. Except once you push jump, Mega Man would drop.

Cathy: I get that you guys were trying to go for a Trine feel, but one of the other problems was the game couldn’t seem to decide what it should focus on: platforming or puzzling.  Some games comfortably blend both, but this one seemed to jump from one to the other and it was jarring and killed the pace.  I don’t really know how to word that into a question for you.  First off, I assume Trine was inspiration for Three Dead Zed?

Fabian: We get Trine a lot and I swear, that was not our intent!  It was one of those things that just happened that way. Although I owned it, I still haven’t played it. 3DZ was inspired by a mix of the C64 game Goonies and NES Batman (hence the wall cling). If you never played The Goonies, you controlled two people who need to do something to unlock a door. Tough as nails. Anyway, along the way, we dropped that because, hey, we’re new devs and that was biting off more than we can chew. So we combined them all together to be one “super zombie” and made it more of a traditional puzzle platformer. Nothing too crazy in the way of puzzles though simple things for the most part.  The NES Batman was also a heavy influence on why the fast zombie sprints forward so quickly.  Some like it.  Some hate it. It was meant more for moving from wall to wall and that was it. “You are going this direction!”

(While this interview is going on, Bryce and my boyfriend Brian are playing through Three Dead Zed, enjoying it way more than I did, and start busting up laughing from chasing an old lady into a saw blade).

Cathy: Brian and Bryce just chased an old lady into a saw blade.

Fabian: Brian and Bryce, you are AWESOME. We wanted people to scare “innocents” into the hazards. We think it’s funny too. We almost had an award for scaring old ladies into buzz-saws but then pulled it.

Cathy:  I guess this moves us into the art.  It’s pretty good.  It reminded me of the stuff by Behemoth (Castle Crashers, Alien Hominid).  I find a lot of games on XBLIG that put a premium on audio-visuals tend to be mediocre or worse.  You just became the poster child for that.  Yay?

Fabian: *laughing*  Well we tried!  We thought, “Man if we could just make something so beautiful, it’ll be like a Greek Siren to Indie Gamer Chick and she’ll give us glowing reviews!”

Cathy: Good graphics do get my attention when it comes time to review a game, but once I start playing, gameplay is all that matters.  However, your game does have appeal in other areas.  The voice overs are great.  Who did them?

Fabian: Awesome to hear! Get it?!  Hear?

Cathy: ..

Fabian: Ahem.. Actually our star voice actor would love to read that. The two main voices you hear the most (intercom and shadowy figure) are actually the same guy. The intercom is inspired by Rick Moranis/Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. The Shadowy voice is…shadowy? The other voices are various people including the team. He also does the voice in the cut scene changing from zombie to zombie.  He actually does professional voice over work, and he offered to help us out for free.

Cathy: Do you have any future plans for game development?

Fabian: After your review? No. Closing shop. Taking our ball home and doing lots of crying.

Cathy: Hang on one second, I need to add another check mark to my gun.

Fabian: Actually, yes.  We’re working on another game.   It’ll be our first multiplayer game. You can put the chisel down.

Cathy: Awwww.

Fabian: Hey, you killed our joy.  Only fair we kill yours.

Cathy: Touché.  What lessons did you learn from making Three Dead Zed that you’re going to apply to the development of.. what the fuck is it called anyway?

Fabian: It’s called 2012.  Better late than never?  Actually we have no name yet. Basically: Playtest, playtest, and playtest. You really can’t do enough. We did quite a bit for Three Dead Zed (Both online and in person) but you just really need to do more than you think. A BIG sample definitely helps you find trouble areas.

Cathy: Have anything to say in closing?

Fabian: I do thank you for trying out our game regardless! You’re tough as nails, we’ll hopefully win you over with the next game.

I hope so too.  I would like to thank Fabian for being cool about this admittedly awkward situation.  He’s a good guy, and he should be proud of his efforts.  I still can’t recommend Three Dead Zed though.  Great graphics, great concept, and its heart was in the right place.  It’s just not beating.

Three Dead Zed was developed by Gentleman Squid Studio

240 Microsoft Points wondered if Gentleman Squid is any relationship to Armless Octopus in the making of this review. 

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