Thursday, February 15, 2018

SPHEROIDS (PS4)


In short, Spheroids is “Pong meets platforming”. It´s an indie game made by a friend and former colleague, with a fairly small team. That´s where most of its merit falls, since it does look like it has been done by a bigger group of developers

Gameplay wise works smoothly: You jump and shoot a hook that destroys “evil balls”, tool that is later upgraded to allow swinging. Nothing in the game is really revolutionary but instead evolutionary, so the core systems feel natural by default. There are some mechanics to learn/master and enemy iterations, but nothing that requires much thinking. You just sit, play and enjoy without much trouble

You will find some story bits in between worlds, but don´t expect too much out of them. I don´t think the developers did either, they just provide an excuse for moving on, a quick chuckle and that´s all

The game difficulty is appropriate and generally well-tuned, with novelties here and there to keep your interest up. On the minus side I could have used some more checkpoints: Some sections where not necessarily difficult but became really tedious because you were forced to re-do a big chunk of the level multiple times

Being an 8bit kid, I found the visual style charming, mostly when the camera is distant. It´s a 4-5 hour game, which I appreciate since I can easily make that fit into my daily routines. Some may find the music a bit too-present, but I liked it. In short, if you like classic arcades with a twist you will enjoy Spheroids, and since it´s not expensive it becomes a great choice for any rainy stay-at-home night

Sunday, January 28, 2018

LUMO (PC)


One of my favorite games of all times is an isometric platformer (either Knight Lore or Head over Heels, not totally sure). Not because I still like to play them but because the fascination created on the teen me by those rooms full of secrets and the fake 3D effect

Partially out of nostalgia I purchased Lumo, another isometric platformer but a modern one released in 2016. I was somehow disappointed: Not by the game per se - which is actually a fair attempt to revive that genre´s glory - but because it stroke me with some huge issues those old games had and was never conscious of

Back in the 80s your perception of gameplay was different: You would normally assume the game was perfectly designed and balanced, and if you had problems progressing it was YOUR fault. That´s why a couple of issues inherent to isometric view vs platforming were not obvious to me:

The first one is the uncertainty about your character´s position. The camera angle doesn´t give you a good reference of the distance against (commonly deadly) world objects. This is even worst when mid-air, when your shadow disappears in most surfaces. Dying is common because of this

Lumo is affected by this as well. Platforming involves a lot of dying. Gameplay works fine when you have to move objects around the room or you have second chances, other than that you die a lot. It´s not too frustrating since you immediately respawn almost in the same spot, but it´s not for everybody´s taste

The second issue I noticed are framerate problems. In my MSX times I remember the performance of most games changed dramatically depending on the room you were. I never thought it could be done differently. Today I know the game was not optimized enough

Lumo´s framerate performance often drops for no good reason as well. Some big rooms with several enemies and particles run smoothly while some other small ones are almost unplayable. Seemed to happen randomly at different game sessions, which makes me think the game wasn´t bugfixed properly

Aside from the above, the game is enjoyable and offers a bunch of nostalgia references. Menus are sketchy and I could have used an option to "select chapters" enabling achievement hunters, but the overall game structure is solid and generally flows naturally to the next unexplored area. Since I tried some achievements while progressing I might have died more than I should, and in any case is not a long game. I believe it was done mainly by one guy only, which has A LOT of merit

In short, if you are missing those good old Filmation-style 8bit games, Lumo will give you the chance to have a good time

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

FAMILY GYMKHANA 2017


As every year in my family gathering, I organize a group activity for my nephews. It was originally a kind of gymkhana, then transitioned into a treasure hunt

However this year I tried something different, because I wasn´t sure if the weather would be favorable, and secondly because hiding the clues for the treasure hunt was a lot of work and the kids fully expected that to a point they looked for them hours before the event started

So I tried a small competition on a series of challenges: I asked for a couple of captains (generally the older ones), gave them a recap of the trials and asked them to choose teams among the rest of kids, and assign one “champion” per challenge. That would make the teams root for/against, and keep them interested

The trials themselves were easier to arrange than other years: Some were simplified versions of board games (Trivial, Pictionary, Brainstorming) or well-known party games such as the balloon race or beer pong. Every challenge rewarded a number of tokens to the team

By the end, each team had around 90 tokens. Somehow it balanced it itself, although I´ll admit some trials gave much more benefits than others. I asked them to participate in an auction, so they would bet on the gifts I had bought. I prefer this approach to just assign prices to each present, since an auction prevents “exploits” – I can see some gifts being too cheap or expensive when confronted to the kid´s real interests

One additional challenge every year is to update the rewards, since the kids are growing up and most of them are too old for child games. But if you tempt them with gift cards or apple/android credit then the interest increases. This year I gave them both Carrefour and Game credit, as well as mobile phone money

It went well, although there wasn´t much excitement for being a captain in the first place, and some trials/rewards were unbalanced. Also a bunch of gifts didn´t get much attention so I saved them for next year. But ey, it´s about kids having fun, so mission accomplished

Friday, December 22, 2017

DEVICE 6 (iOS)


Highly praised by its text-based approach to puzzles, I purchased it some time ago, played for a little while and then abandoned it. Only recently I found the time to complete it

It´s not long, and it´s indeed a very fresh take on text adventures. The visual design is elegant and puts to the test the way you interact with your device (an iPad in my case): Screen rotation is a must, as well as using swipe with precision to find clues

I´m a bit torn since I generally value a lot originality, good graphic design and puzzles, but honestly I didn´t enjoy the game a lot. I had to use internet walkthroughs several times and that makes me feel stupid. Puzzles can only be solved in a certain way, and some of them are a bit obscure, twisted or even unfair (the clues you´re given may change depending on latter actions without telling you, forcing you to fall back often to see what changed in the scene)

I don´t want to sound negative, I think the way they approached the puzzles is part of the proposal. I presume they didn´t have the production manpower to make a long game so they deliberately chose to make puzzles complicated to secure a decent total playtime. It´s just that I like what I call “Hollywood challenges” – Like in movies, the main character (me) is given an apparently unsolvable problem... which can be overcomed in a matter of minutes

The story is intriguing and evocative, and I value the fact that some art forms (like this game) makes you challenge your concept of reality. We could use more of those

In summary, a great proposal. Not my time of game, but surely there´ll be a good number of people out there who will find it indispensable

Thursday, December 21, 2017

HAUNT THE HOUSE: TERRORTOWN (PC)


Hidden in my Steam library it´s been waiting for months (years?) until I recently decided to give it a try. I´d be happy if I can finish all games I have, although it does sound like a fool´s errand…

Haunt the house is short (I finished it in 2-3 hours) and cute. You control a little ghost who can possess pretty much any object in the scenario. When possessed, these objects can play scary animations that will make human inhabitants flee from the place. Once you get rid of all of them, you beat the scenario. That, and the charming visuals, is pretty much the game

The game´s hook is the cute graphics and animations. They´re really charming and the possessions are varied and funny. I imagine the game was conceived by an animator / artist, and from that point of view they can say “mission achieved”. The game has visual personality, and watching all possessions becomes a goal for you

However the game has some deep gameplay issues. The worst of all is the complete lack of control over the NPCs: When you spook them, they tend to go around the place randomly except for where you want them to go. You eventually have to chase them across the place activating objects and see if they´ll eventually decide to go to the exit. I tried to understand the AI patterns that govern them, but failed. Maybe there are hidden “scared” bars making them behave differently depending on the level they´re at? Maybe also it depends if they´re adults of kids? Do different objects have different AoE ranges? No idea

Second issue (less important) happens when you´re controlling an object and play an animation: You have to wait until the anim ends, you cannot stop or cancel it. Very often you´re trying to chase up an NPC (see point above) and this slows you down for using the nearest object. I can imagine the creative direction of the title was in the hands of an animator, this “animation vs responsiveness” is a classic gameplay issue when designers are overridden by other disciplines

Third problem I´d mention is the lack of level design novelties. The game has 4 levels and they´re all essentially the same. There are no new mechanics added, no new challenges…  Just new cute animations to play. Again it looks like the game´s focus was on creating cute visuals and the basic “possess and spook” loop and that´s all. Thankfully the game is short, otherwise it´d have made itself repetitive fairly soon

Other than that, like I said, the visuals are really nice, and the spook animations are nothing but charming and funny. It truly deserves 1 hour of your time, but more than that… you´ll probably get bored

Monday, December 18, 2017

RESISTANCE 3 (PS3)


And here comes another PS3 game I didn´t really cared much, but got so cheap I thought "well, I´ll have to play it :)". I tried the first Resistance a bit as part of some game design research (I was working at Pyro at the time) and liked the concept but never felt it was distinctive enough from other shooters to make it truly unique

Resistance 3 creates the same reaction in the user. It is by all means a solid work of experienced developers, but from a high level perspective its unique selling points are not that special. This is mitigated by the superb weapon design, which eventually leads to a contradictory feeling of "I like what I´m doing, eventhough I don´t care much in the long term"

On the plus side, as mentioned, the weapons are extremely solid and satisfying. Seriously, Insomniac makes great weapon designs and this is no exception. Enemy abilities are interlinked with your own, creating a matrix of options for the player to be particularly effective against some enemies if certain weapon is used. When you nail this (and R3 does) the gameplay is always fun. On top of that the weapon progression system makes failure rewarding: You don´t feel you wasted time when dying, since the gun you were using leveled a bit in the process

On the so-so front, the story is a good-enough vehicle for you to move across the US chasing down baddies, and the graphics are acceptable but not particularly ground-breaking. The level design is ok as well, but I could have used more wow moments. The setting (an alternative 1950 US invaded by aliens) is distinctive enough to make you feel a bit curious, but I don´t think they exploited all possibilities it offers

On the minus side the game does a poor job of making you feel you´re doing something special. Everything is adecuate but not "oh my god I´ve never seen anything like this". The story creates the minimum motivation for you to move forward, but that´s all, and the whole game becomes a bit predictable in general

I had fun playing, though. A shooter with good weapon systems is always satisfying, and if for some reason you´re into the game fantasy it´ll probably double the fun!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

SOUTH PARK FRACTURED BUT WHOLE (PS4)


Just finished South Park Fractured but whole, and I honestly didn´t expect to enjoy it so much. The previous South Park game was good, but the sequel has managed to fix some minor gameplay inconsistencies to the point of making it really addictive (at least for me)

I think the biggest improvement has been the short-term challenges. Much like the previous game, the world extension is limited but packed with small content in form of collectibles. This time those are linked to character progression or crafting, as opposed to achievements. Also they seem to be everywhere. In addition to that mini-puzzles are common. As a consequence you always have that feeling of "ey, just 5 more minutes so I can check out that corner"

The combat system has been expanded to support movement on a 2D grid. It´s a good addition but the camera is a bit too low so sometimes you miss some combat perspective, and AoE abilities are a bit underpowered. Overall it works perfectly fine, though. If you add the minigames, exploration and puzzles you´ve got all the game scope. It´s well balanced and keeps the humor and visual style from the first game and series.  The story insists on making you meet all possible characters because of reasons, but it´s interesting nevertheless

I liked it so much that I not only completed the game but also got the platinum trophy. That was another nice improvement from the other game: This time you can unlock them when you´re free roaming after the main story. Good game!