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Review – Vigil: Blood Bitterness (PC)

Freegamer | Meridian 4 | June 29th, 2007

So these days I try to make it a policy to complete a game before doing any sort of review.  The thought is, I should experience all of it before passing judgment on it.  Sometimes in order to complete this task I do resort to walkthroughs or even in game cheat codes.  This tends to factor into the review however.  If a game is too confusing to get through without a walkthrough or too difficult to finish properly without cheating then there is clearly a problem with it.  I’ve had enough experience and skill development in a wide spread of games to know how to figure out even really tough games.

There is a problem though when a game is buggy.  Especially when it’s buggy enough that I can’t seem to get it to move on or I spend more time fighting through poor controls than I do playing the game.  Vigil: Blood Bitterness is extremely bug ridden.  The basic controls are simple enough but the path finding of the player is terrible.  I gave up trying to navigate through this game early in act 2 when I couldn’t get the screen to roll over to the next area after running around repeatedly where it should transition.

How do I know it should transition?  Well, strike 2 against this game is that it’s extremely cryptic about it’s presentation.  Ok, cryptic is not the right word, cryptic implies that there is a book or a note or some sort of arrow hidden in the surroundings to point you in the right direction or the right method to solve the game’s puzzles.  There’s nothing of the sort present in this game.  You wander aimlessly through the stylized landscape until you’ve managed to find both cut scenes in Act-1, then you pray on the circles in Act-1 then you look up a FAQ and discover you have to pray in a certain order unlock the ability to pray to another symbol in another room.  There are no clues telling you to do this, without assistance you’re left to trial and error.

Trial an error is only good for artificially extending the length of a short and terrible game.

The game itself is essentially a Gothic Horror puzzle game.  There is some vague plot about your character and his world being destroyed by some unknown entity (unknown by act 2 anyway).  There isn’t any real explanations though of anything.  The cut scenes consist of random sinister sounding one liners with no meaning or coherence.  Honestly the only reason I have any idea of what the plot is about is because it was summarized in the game’s description when I bought it.

What attracted me to this train wreck of a game was the visual styling (that and it was on sale for like a buck at Gamer’s Gate).  The art style is very interesting and stark using almost entirely Black and White lines.  There are splashes of color spotted around to give emphasis to different aspects though they are infrequent.  The IDEA of the game is also a nice draw.  This sort of “dark adventure” genre is one that has started to get my interest lately.  I tend to steer clear of “horror” in movies and games but there’s a difference between the horror of atmosphere and the unknown versus the horror of say, Left 4 Dead.  In this respect though, there are much better titles than Vigil: Blood Bitterness to be found.  Amnisia is the best example of a much better alternative in the Gothic Horror Puzzle game genre.

Review – VVVVVV (PC)

VVVVVV Site Banner

I’m not real sure what to call this game.  VeeVeeVeeVeeVeeVee just doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.  Given the gravity based gimmick I’d say it’s more likely the name is Up Down Up Down.  Or it’s more likely a graphical representation of the game’s gimmick in a symbol form, sort of like Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.  The name may also be symbolic of the numerous instant death spikes floating around the game.  It’s multifaceted and deep…. or whatever….

Speaking of the game’s gimmick, the main thing is the quirky control method.  You only move left or right and pressing the “action” button or up or down makes the character flip up to the ceiling or down to the floor.  You use this control scheme to navigate through spike filled puzzles.  Occasionally there’s some sort of enemy, often it’ll be an ASCII style character or a word.  A lot of the game is all about timing and reflex.

There is a secondary gimmick of sorts.  The graphical design is excessively simplistic.  The load screen mimics the look of the old Commodore 64 blue screen and the graphics are intended to mimic this style of retro gaming.  It’s not quite all ASCII like say, Nethack or Dwarf Fortress but it’s pretty close.

This only serves to add to the game’s charm though, at least if you’re a Retro junkie like I am.  there also a simplistic semi retro style plot.  There’s not deep explanation, just occasionally some mostly nonsensical text and the basic premise of rescuing your 5 lost crew members.

It’s an interesting game, though it can be slightly frustratingly cheap at times.  Fortunately the frustrations wears off a bit when you account for the fact that you essentially have unlimited lives at your disposal.  There are some challenges however to trying to beat the game while dying less.  You’ll die a lot mind you, especially the first play through.  I racked up around 1000 deaths my first time through, and I actually am pretty sure i did better than many people.  Fortunately the truly cheap deaths aren’t until near the end of the game, at which point you’ll know it’s close which keeps one’s drive going.  If the whole game had been full of pointless dearly unsolvable puzzles it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

Also, while I enjoyed this game, I can see where it likely isn’t for everyone.  It’s pretty much all the same puzzle over and over in different forms.  Also the frustration of dying constantly could get old for some.  The retro graphics won’t be for everyone either.

I guess the point is, if it LOOKS enjoyable from say, screen shots, it’ll probably deliver, since the game is more or less everything you see, not much more or less.

Review – Limbo (PC)

I’ve been a bit lax on posts the last few days, with good reason.  I’ve been plowing through Limbo in order to do a proper review of it.  Here’s the short, this game is phenomenal.  It’s so simple in it’s design and gameplay and just all around but I have not been so engaged by a game the way Limbo did for a while.  I’ve been devoting my free time to playing through it instead of doing productive things like blogging.

So the plot presented here is very simple, you must travel through the surreal land of Limbo to find your sister.  There actually isn’t much plot in the game itself, that description comes from the game’s description.  You basically just start out alone in Limbo and must figure out what to do next.  The entire game is a complex series of platform based puzzles.  There are so many twists that are so cleverly done however that it will keep you on your toes for the entire game.  There is also a ridiculous amount of variety to the world which keeps it from ever getting repetitious.  As i said, the game is extremely engaging, you just want to push onward, even if there is never any explanation as to WHY you’re pushing onward.

The controls themselves are extremely simple, left and right movement, up to jump, control to activate objects.  You can push some objects and pull levers from time to time as well.  Everything flows extremely smoothly and the physics behind the world are all extremely good as well.  This comes into effect a lot later in the game as the world occasionally rotates or you must swing from ropes and defy gravity.

To make everything even better, the presentation is phenomenal.  The entire game is presented in a very dreamy black and white grayscale.  This does not detract at all from the extreme details of the environment and the use of focus, or the lack thereof, for background objects is done really well to give the world depth but not be distracting from what is going on in the player’s range.    There is no music either, only sound, which is also used effectively for timing or foreboding as needed.  The atmosphere all around is really rich and really helps the world come together.

The atmosphere isn’t just pushed by the graphical look either.  The world itself is very eerie.  There are all sorts of odd machines and ruins of buildings and signs that you pass.  Your character also must do everything he can to survive at times such as tearing the legs off of the persistent giant spider or combating the few natives which show up to attack you.  The traps themselves, especially later in the game, become increasingly more lethal and the game is actually a bit gruesome and elaborate when it depicts the player’s death.  Another good choice was the way death is handled, dying essentially means trying that particular sequence a second time and there are reset points everywhere you’d hope they would be.  There isn’t one part where you complete a complex puzzle only to be killed by the next complex puzzle and get forced to re-complete the previous round.  This would have only hindered things for the worse as you will die in this game, a lot.

There isn’t much to wrap up that has not already been said.  The game is presented amazingly, the gameplay is well designed and it’s generally an amazing game.  You probably won’t care for it if you don’t care for games with “artistic flare” or quite a bit of thought required but if it has already peaked your interest you’re probably going to enjoy it, a lot.

Review – Beat Hazard (PC)

Somewhere along the way, the “Sh’Mup” or “Shoot Em Up” genre evolved and became the “Bullet Hell” Genre.  Play styles and enemy patterns from games like R-Type, or Gradius remail but there is a lot more going on in the playing field than older systems could handle.  Hell there’s probably more going on in a single screen of a modern Shoot Em up game than happened in an entire round of Gradius.  Since the screen is covered in action and well, bullets, the term Bullet Hell is used.

If you want to go way back, Asteroid is essentially the grand daddy of this genre.  They come in two flavors, games like R-Type which scroll along in one direction as enemies attack and the player navigates a stage or Asteroid types where the screen generally stays stationary and the player navigates around the screen defending his or herself.

Beat Hazard falls into the latter type.

It has most of the common elements of this genre, lots of action, everything is glowing and neon colored, power ups, score multipliers and a general dependence on score as a game mechanic.  What sets this game apart is it’s musical gimmick.

As you play, your weapon becomes more powerful or weaker to the music playing in the background.  If there is a quiet moment, you’ll shoot tiny single bullets.  If it’s jamming a guitar riff, the screen will light up and glow as you stream energy all over the screen.  This is also augmented by the power ups.  You collect Volume and Power emblems.  The Volume makes the music get louder and increases the spread and coverage of your weapons.  Power pickups increases the music’s power, makes it sound less flat and causes your weapons to do more damage.  when you max out both Power and Volume you unlock “Beat Hazard” mode and become a very powerful force.

The game’s built in tracks are pretty good but the real fun comes in playing your own tracks.  Beat Hazard is compatible with any MP3 files you want to play.  For a $1 DLC fee you can add AAC and MP4 files from iTunes (this is to cover the license to play AAC).

The biggest drawback of this game is it’s lack of variety.  The levels are more or less randomly generated based somewhat on the music choices but the number of different enemies you encounter are few.  There’s some large garbage ball asteroid things, some small and medium ships that simply fly back and fourth, some larger ships that follow you around a small boss which shows up in pairs and a larger boss.  That’s it.  There’s a new DLC pack slated for release this year which promises to add some more enemies however. 

There’s also a bit of a simplicity aspect to the game play.  It’s not real hard to beat most levels by dodging things and spinning your aiming target (mouse) win circles shooting everything around you.  This doesn’t work on the bosses and often it’s effective to stop and concentrate fire on the landing point of the enemies but when things get busy this simple strategy will most likely pull you through.  Also, mostly a minor nitpick, the larger ships that follow you around could stand to be slightly less tough.  They tend to snake after you and it’s easy to get trapped in a corner.

The game also features a leveling system that actually does a pretty good job of keeping itself relevant.  The early stages and difficulties are easily doable on the lower rankings but the later stages become difficult very quickly without leveling up your a rank.  There isn’t a direct “one level means more damage” relationship but you’ll earn helpful abilities like “Start with 20x Multiplier” and “Start with +1 Volume”.

It’s still a blast to play despite it’s flaws.  Especially if you are a fan of the genre and fast paced heavy Rock/Techno music.  Be warned though, the game itself warns, there is heavy use of strobe style bright effects and anyone prone to seizures caused by such things should really steer clear.  the game’s warning isn’t joking.

Beat hazard is available via Steam.

Review – Gish (PC)

Chronic Logic | Released: 05.04.2004 | Rated: Teen

The Short: An ambitious and interesting 2D Platform title that is hindered by it’s clumsy, gimmicky control scheme.

The Long:

The phrase “Physics based” is a popular one these days with Indie developers it seems.  It’s essentially a buzz term to define a game in which objects are “realistically affected by gravity”.   It’s also the entire focus of the character Gish and his gimmick.

Gish is a gelatinous ball of oil, or goo, or… something….  He’ll have to do the best he can to manipulate his structure as he travels across the world in search of his kidnapped girlfriend.  This is definitely an old school throwback plot line, 80s game characters were never very good at keeping track of their women.  The next best thing a hero can do besides save the world is save his woman.

This little blob, having no arms or legs, has only his own self to assist himself in his travels.  This brings in the game’s gimmick, and it’s primary weakness.  Through use of controls, Gish can be made fluid, to slide through small cracks and holes, made more solid, to crush enemies and break things, or made sticky, to climb walls.  Gish can also make short hops and can jump higher based somewhat on elasticity and the compression of his body when he’s on the ground.

Jumping is one of the more annoying aspects of the game.  You can only make small jumps from a stand still though jumping in succession at Gish’s most compress point will cause him to rebound higher.  This means that in order to make any jumps you’ll have to repeatedly bounce up and down, which is generally time consuming.  More annoyingly, the only real way Gish has to attack enemies is to jump at them and become solid to cause damage.  This wouldn’t be so bad except as mentioned before, Gish’s default jump is pathetically weak so even killing basic enemies becomes trickier than it really should be.

The second major annoyance comes from the wall climbing.  It doesn’t quite work the way one would expect (see Metroid’s Sticky Ball).  If you are attached to the floor and the wall, you’re going to end up stick to the floor unable to climb.  This often means timing your jumps to latch onto walls higher up or onto ceilings.  Once again, like jumping, it’s not overly difficult to accomplish, it just raises the tedium level of playing considerably over the fun level.

It’s not to say it’s a terrible concept or design, it could just use a bit of polish.  As the saying goes, Your Mileage may vary” but i generally find I’m pretty good at “Physics based games” and still found this game too frustrating to get excessively far in.  Which is kind of sad because I really wanted to like this game more than I did.