Nostalgia’s great, but…

So Nintendo has announced a direct sequel to the SNES classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, taking place in the same world and- the video available implies- almost the same map.

I’m really not sure how to feel about this.

Like most 90s kids, I have very fond memories of the original A Link to the Past. In its’ day, it was an amazing game- like Super Mario World before it, a quantum leap beyond what the NES was capable of in size, depth, and complexity. It was a great game and I’m not denying that for a second.

On the other hand, like most of the other games in the series, it was a standard world with a fairly straightforward design. While the game had a plot, there were precious few characters and nothing particularly compelling about the world’s setting. Nostalgia is nice, but beyond that I don’t see anything terribly compelling about a return to A Link to the Past’s Hyrule over an original take on the world.

Is there really anyone chomping at the bit to go back to Misery Mire and fight that giant goddamn blob of eyes again? More to the point, anyone who wouldn’t already pick up something with “Zelda” in the title?

I’m usually more than willing to excuse companies for wanting to revisit their successes and port and re-release their old games- heck, I love the fact that I can now play many of my childhood favorites on my phone- but this really does feel like an attempt to capitalize on nostalgia rather than creating something new.

– HC

Danmaku Unlimited

The titleI’ll be honest and say that it’s been a while since I’ve really followed the doujin scene, for various reasons. I’ve stopped following most of the gaming message boards I used to hear about them on, and the feed focuses much more heavily on western projects these days. While I still feel the danmaku itch occasionally, I usually scratch it by means of Cave’s back-catalog. Still, when I first heard about the two Danmaku Unlimited games, I was happy to see something fresh.

Donmaku Unlimited and its sequel Danmaku Unlimited 2 are a pair of doujin-style shmups for the iDevices. Although they’re a bit on the easy side compared to many of their contemporaries, they’ve got decent graphics combined with solid mechanics and controls into a very nice overall package.

To get the front-matter out of the way: visually, both games are solid if unremarkable; they’ve opted for the generic planes-and-spaceships sci-fi motif rather than the moeblobs that have plagued danmaku shmups for the last decade or so. The audio in the first is mediocre, but the second introduces a soundtrack worth digging out headphones for. Both games control using the familiar drag-anywhere-to-move-your-fighter method used by Cave’s iOS ports and Taito’s Space Invaders: Infinity Gene; it’s missing the ‘dead zone’ at the bottom of the screen that the Cave ports include, but it’s otherwise solid. It is a bit more generous than Infinity Gene, however; you won’t have to worry as much about enemies ambushing you from the bottom of the screen, and onscreen buttons are kept to a minimum. The second eliminates onscreen buttons entirely, using up or down swipes with a second finger in their place. It’s a little awkward at first, but feels very natural once you get the hang of it. DoDonPachi’s influence on both games is clear: both feature ships wielding both a wide, ‘bullet’ spread and a narrow, more powerful beam weapon.

The meat of most danmaku games comes to their scoring systems; the DU games use a combination grazing and combo system. At the top-left of the screen is a multiplier- this starts at 1x and builds up by increments of .1 as you graze enemy bullets. Grazing many in succession yields a combo; large combos both yield bonus points and build up the multiplier more quickly. Your multiplier is reset to 1x if you die or bomb, and decays rapidly if it’s over 100.0x or you take too long to defeat a boss. Also in play is a system similar to the Hyper mode of the latter DoDonPachi games- destroying enemies and grazing bullets builds up a ‘trance’ bar which, when filled, can be triggered to increase your offensive power and the value of point items dropped by enemies for a limited time. Finally, there’s a Shikigami no Shiro-esque system in play as well, whereby destroying enemies when you’re near bullets or other enemies yields a multiplier up to 16x. I haven’t determined if this is additive or multiplicative with the multiplier yielded by grazing; potentially, it could provide huge stacked bonuses.

Danmaku Unlimited 2 tweaks most of these systems. The game features two modes: Classic and Burst. Classic is similar to the original, save that your multiplier is now connected to collecting certain itmes rather than building up graze combos. Burst Mode changes things up a bit- your standard secondary laser is replaced by giant beam with the ability to destroy enemy bullets and change them into multiplier-boosting items. This beam is charged by collecting a third new type of item from destroying nearby enemies. I’m quite fond of the change- instead of offering screen-clearing bombs that you’re penalized for using, Burst Mode gives you a secondary ability which you’re rewarded for learning to use effectively… It’s something that I’d like to see in more shmups.

Although I’m not going to complain about this too much in my capacity as an unremarkable shmupper with the deteriorating reflexes of a man in his early 30s, both Danmaku Unlimited games seem fairly easy by comparison to many of their competitors. Although you start with a limited number of lives and continues, you’re given more as you play through the game on a fairly generous basis, and both allow you to take several hits before you die as well. The touchscreen controls give you far more control over your speed and direction than more traditional D-pad-style controls; once you’ve acclimated to them, you’ll have far better control than you would from a keyboard. Looking through the global high-score list, it looks like there’s a maximum score that many players of the original Danmaku Unlimited have hit. The second is better, but it’s also pretty clear that ‘serious’ players are thin on the ground, even if only because I was able to land in the top 25.

All in all, though, I’m pretty happy with the Danmaku Unlimited games. They’re both solid, high-quality doujin-level efforts with solid mechanics and a control scheme that makes me wonder why more PC shmup developers haven’t embraced the mouse. I’d strongly recommend that fans of the genre give the two a try- free demos of both games are available on iTunes.

– HC

A Valley Without Wind

I missed Arcen Games’ A Valley Without Wind when it was originally released, but seeing stories about A Valley Without Wind 2 come across the RSS feed piqued by interest. Consequentially, I decided to give the original a try.

Reality has shattered, creating a new world out of broken pieces taken from different times- Ice Age plains abut abandoned contemporary cities and robotic junkyards from the far future. This new world is also filled by the Wind, which seems to scour the very souls of everything it touches. The survivors of this catastrophe have gathered together in a few settlements, beset by evil Overlords and their minions but protected by mysterious intelligent stones. These stones have created Glyphs to aid the survivors, which allow humans to resist the wind beyond the guardian stones and grants them a variety of magical abilities with which to explore the harsh world beyond the settlement.

A Valley Without Wind is difficult to categorize- it’s essentially a combination of Metroid and Diablo, with elements of a lightweight city-building sim. You’ll spend most of your time exploring a series of randomly-generated continents, seeking the resources you’ll need to destroy an evil overlord and his lieutenants and building up outposts of survivors as you go. The game is a platformer, like Metroid or the latter-day Castlevanias, although it’s a more exploration-centric game than either of those- you’ll be scavanging for supplies in a huge world, not finding abilities to unlock new areas. As you explore, you’ll come across materials that you can use to craft more powerful attacks and unlock new missions and enemy types; you’ll earn the power to place buildings that strengthen you and weaken your enemies; you’ll learn about the cataclysm that befell the world, the wind, and the mysterious stones that protect your settlement. While it’s certainly easy to get sucked into the largely pointless excercise of exploring the world’s every nook-and-cranny, A Valley Without Wind does provide a decent list of short-term, concrete goals. This makes it very easy to pick up and play for half an hour, and also very easy to pick up and play for “half an hour” only to find that half a day has passed.

The biggest drawback of the game is the sameyness of a lot of the world- while areas are randomly generated, they’ll start to look awfully similar after a while. The game goes on forever; defeating the Overlord of a certain continent merely unlocks another, with stronger enemies. Although the first few new continents will unlock new spells and crafting materials as well, that only continues for so long and only offers up so much variety.

The visuals are another major source of controversy; although they’re passable, they never really rise to “good” and more-than-occasionally dip down into “ugly”. This is a game that was produced with a shoestring graphics budget, and that is very clear from playing it. I found myself wishing that they’d opted for the chunky faux-SNES style so common among indie games rather than the very rough-edged attempts at more advanced graphics that they’ve put together instead.

Finally, the tutorial could be a lot better, and it took me a couple hours to grok what I should be doing and how. The game attempts to introduce everything at once, which is both difficult and overwhelming, and makes the game feel more complicated than it is. I spent the first couple hours with the game lost, but eventually picked up on many of the points that should have been better-explained.

All that being said- I’ve put about 30 hours into A Valley Without Wind over the last few months, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. The sequel is also available; I’m looking forward to giving that one a try, too, but I’m holding off until I’ve played through a bit more of the original. A Valley Without Wind is available on Steam for both OSX and Windows; a huge demo is also available, both from Steam and the Arcen Games website.

– HC

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

Over the course of the last couple weeks, I’ve played through the iOS port of the third episode of the Penny Arcade game- officially named “Penny Arcade Adventures: ON the Rain-Slick Precipice OF Darkness 3“, and hereafter referred to as “Rainslick 3” because holy crap that’s a mouthful. It was decent, but unfortunately I’m not nearly as impressed by it as I hoped to be.

The game, mechanically, is fairly solid. It’ s got an oldscool feel and visual flair that works in its’ favor, while the underpinning ‘systems’ borrow from some of the 16-bit era’s better ideas. Combat mixes the oldschool Final Fantasy turn-based system with a visible ‘initative’ bar and the ability to delay enemy turns or create ‘periodic’ effects, which works fairly well; they’ve put a few interesting twists on a solid foundation. Characters are developed with a class-based system, similar to the Job systems seen in some of the old Final Fantasy games- each of your four main characters has a default ‘class, which grants stat bonuses and abilities, and you’ll eventually gain the ability to equip up to two additional ones. It works pretty well, although I found that once I had a setup down, there was very little reason to ever change it up. I thought the challenge level was decent- I wiped several times through the game, but the penalty for doing so is light, so it didn’t feel terribly onerous to change up my strategy and try again. The other side of that coin, however, is that each area contains a certain set of predefined combats which don’t appear again- although there is one area where respawning enemies appear, on the most part, you don’t have the option of grding levels as a recouse if you get stuck. This didn’t bother me personally, but may be a sticking point for other players.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of smaller issues with the game that bugged me. While the plot is fine for what it is, the writing is florid in a way whch just makes my eyes slide right over it sometimes. The writers- I’m not sure if it’s wrtten by the PA folks themselves or someone from Zeboyd- frequently seem more interested in showing off their vocabulary than actually telling a story in an interesting way. There’s quite a bit of reuse of old PA gags; nearly every one-panel gag character they’ve come up with appears at least briefly, whether as a full character or a random enemy. Rex Ready? Dr. Jacob Crunchner? The Broodax? Karapyss the Crabomancer, and his companion Professor Necro-Dead? You’ll bump into all of them as you go through the game. While there are worse things than having shout-outs to the old strips (and I admit that I was glad to see the criminally-underused Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood), I can’t help but feel that relying so heavily on callouts to Penny Arcade the comic prevents Penny Arcade the game from forming its’ own mythology. I also suspect that non-readers will be a little put off by the onslaught of old injokes and callbacks, but at this point the PA folks may have given up on attracting them to the game in any real numbers. The fact that there are neither repeatable nor random combats gives me the same on-rails feeling that many modern games to; playing Rainslick 3 definitely feels more like a scripted series of minibosses than exploring an open world.

There’s no nice way to say this: the game did not run well on my iPhone 3GS. The graphics are unevenly-scaled in a way which makes the faux-16-bit style that they’re rendered in look tremendously ugly, I had numberous issues with the game crashing, and the interface is incredibly clumsy on an iPhone screen. Maybe it’s better on later-generation phones (or iPads), but if you’re interested at all, I’d strongly recommend the PC/Mac version. I don’t know if it’s better, but frankly I’m not sure it could be worse without being borderline-unplayable.

I don’t mean to be too down on the game. The mechanics are solid, like I said, and none of the issues I’ve mentioned above prevented me from finishing or enjoying the game. That being said, I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend the game to anyone who wasn’t a fan of the comic. You could certainly do worse if you’re looking for an oldschool-style mobile RPG- but you could probably do better, too.

– HC

Silversword, picked up!

I AM GROOTIt seems that the iDevices don’t see much ‘full-size’ development; even well-established companies seem to tend toward bite-size offshoots of their popular series. This is part of the reason I was happy to see Final Fantasy Dimensions pop up, even if the combined price and mediocrity of the game has kept me away from it. That being said, there are some full-size games hiding out there.

A friend- whose indie tabletop RPGs you should totally check out– pointed me at Silversword a few weeks ago, and I’ve been enjoying it tremendously ever since. An original game based heavily on the 1980s-era Bard’s Tale series, Silversword has you controlling a party of adventurers in one of the last settlements on an island colony beseiged by evil forces; as you can imagine, this involves a lot of delving into monster-infested caverns and abandoned crypts filled with the restless dead.

Silversword’s look and feel cleaves very close to its’ oldschool roots; although you’re exploring a polygonal world in a new story, everything about the game strongly resembles the games it’s based on. The class selection, the spell lists, and even the screen and menu layots resemble the games that it’s based on (perhaps a little too much in the latter case, as inventory management can be a bit of a pain on a tiny iPhone screen). That being said, it offers a more modern difficulty level- there are certainly areas where you’ll need to grind a bit or where not paying enough attention will kill you, but it doesn’t quite reach the “one wrong step means death, even right out of the gate!” level of many of the games it’s based on.

It’s a nice, solid ‘full-size’ RPG, and while the price is high for an iPhone game, you’re getting a lot of content for that. If you’re looking for a real RPG on the iDevices, I’m ready to call Silversword a must-buy. Check it out at the App Store here.

– HC

Infinite Space

Infinite SpaceInfinite Space was originally released around 2010 without, as far as I know, a whole lot of fanfare. Although it’s a frustratingly uneven game at times, it also has a whole lot of very interesting ideas in it and deserves way more attention than it got; unfortunately, like so many cult games, getting to the creamy middle requires biting through about 5 hours of uninspired plot points and a very spotty tutorial.

At it’s core, Infinite Space is a JRPG, with many of the things that entails- a fairly linear storyline, an explicit separation between battles and ‘overworld’ scenes, and a teenager on a quest to solve the mysteries of the universe. Infitite Space’s big innovations are a heavy focus on customization and a storyline that’s smarter than your typical anime gibberish and- in a way- seems to be attempting to introduce a few of Bioware’s concepts.

Infinite Space follows the adventures of Yuri, a teenger from a backwater planet who was given a mysterious treasure called an Epitaph by his father. Since it wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise, he decides to leave his home to see the universe, bringing his sister and hiring a ‘launcher’ to be his mentor along the way. After some time battling pirates, he becomes involved in organizing his galaxy and its’ neighbor to defend themselves against a pending invasion by the massive Lugovalian Empire as he attemps to unravel the mystery of the Epitaphs and his purpose in the universe. It’s a pretty straightforward setup, but it’s decently well-told and populated by a large cast of relatively unique characters.

The unfortunate first issue with the game is that the first act of the storyline- where Yuri more-or-less aimlessly fights pirates for 5 or 6 hours of game time- is probably the weakest. It’s lengthy, and it doesn’t really highlight any of the game’s strengths- it may be intended as a ‘tutorial’ period, but I can’t help but think cutting some segments out of it would help. It also often feels as if the game is simply working through plot points as quickly as possible early on- some of the more egregious examples are retroactively explained later in the game, but it’s still a big chunk of time that feels like pushing through dead wood to make it to the good bits.

The second portion of the game- organizing resistance against the Lugovalian threat- is by for the longest and best, where the game really shines. This portion of the game introduces a lot of political figures in a lot of warring nations that Yuri and his crew need to sort out. The writing here really captures the difficulty of doing so, to a much greater degree than similar sequences in a great many RPGs have- your enemies in these struggles act because they are concerned about the fate of their nations, or are self-interested, or more often are simply carrer soldiers who happen to be on the other side of the battle, not supervillians acting out of the simple cruelty or transparent evil that infects most giant universe-conquering empires from the top down. Likewise, there are benefits to living under Lugovalian rule, and when one character who appears early on in the game resurfaces later as a Lugovalian officer, it’s possible to understand why.

After the first act of the game, there are only a tiny handful of antagonists who are villians because they are transparently evil and for no other reason- something that I appreciate and that very few RPGs can claim.

Throughout the game, there are a number of ‘split paths’ in the storyline, or minor choices you make which may have consequences much later in the game. It’s a nice touch, and I see it as a move to be closer to the Bioware model- unfortunately, these choices aren’t terribly common, and some are clearly designed to have a ‘right’ answer which provides some sort of bonus. It’d say it’s a step in the right direction; while the game’s still mostly on rails, at least they try to change it up and obscurethat fact a bit.

Things go downhill, however, in the third act, when the game focuses again on the “high-level sci-fi” storyline. Very few of the game’s “big questions” have satisfying answers, and unfortunately the whole thing boils down to a ham-fistedly ambiguous Gainax ending. I was pretty disappointed with this, but the rest of the game was solid enough that I’m willing to forgive it.

Shorter the last chapter of Infinite Space

The game’s systems are interesting- they’ve got some holes in them, and there are some things that aren’t really covered in the tutorial, but all-in-all it’s pretty enjoyable. For most of the game, you’ll be tooling around the galaxy with a fleet of up to five ships built from plans you’ve collected. Each ship can be further customized with various ‘modules’, placed like Tetris pieces on a grid- a grid whose exact size and shape is dependent on the ship. It’s a good system, and allows ships of the same model to be significantly different while also providing a way to differentiate between the many available ship designs that’s less trivial than simple stat adjustments that can be directly compared. As mentioned above, there’s a large cast of characters who’ll be joining your crew; each of these crew members can be assigned to a job on your fleet to provide stat bonuses as well. There are a limited number of jobs, and you’ll fill them all well before the end of the game, but it’s a good way to remind you that you’re on a ship with a huge crew, not just the handful of characters who regularly appear in cutscenes.

While this system works, on the most part, there are also a number of annoying oddities that mar the experience quite a bit. There are a number of seemingly-obvious missing pieces to the ship-buying interface. While you can look at the stats of any ship you have plans for and sort on a specific one, there’s no way to compare a ship you’re looking at to one you already have or to each other directly; you’ll have to flip back and forth between the two ships you’re interested in on the ‘buy’ list or, worse yet, the “Customize fleet” and “buy ship” screen, two menus apart. Likewise, you can’t see the module grid for a ship until after you’ve bought it- although there are only a few ships with truly awful layouts, it still seems an obvious omission. There’s a “database” available from the title screen which includes brief blurbs about each ship you’ve seen ingame, but these texts are not visible from anywhere else in the game… Once you’ve built up a decent stock of plans, most of the game’s ships start to blur together; maybe it’s a minor thing, but I can’t help but think that a button to bring up the flavor text for a given ship on the purchase and customize interfaces would have gone a long way to give ships more personality.

Combat is an action-RPG-ish system; it’s a bit limited, but serves its purpose. Essentially, your fleet and the enemy’s are placed at either end of a single linear path; you can both move back and forth to close with the enemy or retreat from them- important, since all your weapons come with minimum and maximum ranges. Taking action consumes portions of a ‘command guage’ that fills during battle; how fast this fills depends on the skill of your command crew and the modules of your ships. You start with a couple different actions- a normal attack fires all of your guns, a barrage fires all your guns a couple times, and dodging gives you a big bonus to evading barrages until you take another action. Eventually, the game also introduces the ability to launch fighters which do gradual damage to enemy ships and prevent them from retreating, an anti-air option to counter fighters, and the ability to board enemy ships. The latter seems like a missed opportunity- in theory, it seems an equalizer against higher-preformance ships, but in practice it’s often arbitrarially disabled in battle, consumes a lot of command guage, and is difficult enough to win reliably that it doesn’t seem worth it. The enemy fleet is also working with the same commands off of its’ own command guage, which is visible to you- watching the enemy fleet carefully can tell you when they’re dodging and when they’re about to attack.

Combat is quite difficult early on- something that’s exacerbated by a poor tutorial and a number of fairly steep jumps in difficulty in the game’s early areas. (Protip: if you look at the ‘enemy ship’ indicators in battle, you can see where they are in the enemy’s formation. You have a massive penalty when attacking ships that aren’t in the front lines, and the target selected at the beginning of the battle is typically a flagship in the rear of the formation. This took an embarrasingly long time to click for me.) Not paying enough attention can be quite lethal early on, even in random encounters. That being said, once you’ve got the hang of things and built up a fleet for one strategy or another, you probably won’t need to switch it up for the rest of the game; I took a battleship-centric ‘big-gun’ approach and relied on Barrages, but I know there are other players who swear by Fighter-based approaches as well. Attack animations could be a little better-managed; they’re skippable but long, and skipping them hides how much damage you’ve done and which of your attacks has hit or missed.

Infinite Space brings a lot of new ideas to the table- the level of customization available will appeal to Armored Core fans, and I certainly hope that more Japanese companies begin incorporating Infinite Space’s split-path-heavy model. While there are times when the game falters- and there is a certain amount of gritting your teeth required in the opening chapters- it’s an interseting, solid game overall, and I’m glad I hunted it down.

– HC

Oddly Familiar Dimensions

Faris hits Sol with a stick.I gave into temptation and my own fanboyish impulses a few days ago and tried Final Fantasy Dimensions on iOS. I really wanted to like this one- a new FF in the style of the SNES ones! What’s not to like?- but I find myself overall pretty unimpressed. While they definitely have the look of the old games down, their soul has been barely captured, if at all- the writing isn’t particularly good, and the great many subtle visual callbacks to older games in the series feel like pandering rather than homage. Remember the weird octagon-shaped roofs on towers in FF5? The rounded cave floors in FF4? Everything about Mount Ordeals? They’re all back!

The game’s plot and systems crib very heavily from Final Fantasy 5; within the first chapter, you’ve got jobs obtained by collecting crystal chips, the world splitting in two, and cities being sucked into the void. The game’s job system itself is basically similar to FF5’s with a few tweaks, but these changes feel like they don’t add much save cruft to FF5’s elegant system.

The game is purchased chapter-by-chapter; the free prologue is about two hours long and doesn’t even introduce the job system by the time it’s complete. That only the prologue is free is part of the game’s issue- most of the game’s interesting ideas don’t come into play until the first ‘real’ chapter. The first chapter is $3; the latter three are $10 each. The whole package is very pricey for an iPhone game- part of me applauds the effort to pull iOS prices up to a point where ‘full-size’ development is viable, but there’s another part of me that thinks maybe I should just buy Silversword five times instead.

I’m left a bit torn by the game. Although I’m awfully down on it above, it is still mechanically fun and there’s a part of me that really wants to like it. On the other hand, though, I just can’t justify recommending it given that steep price, particularly above the older, better games that it’s quite clearly aping. If you’re looking for a ‘full-size’ iOS RPG that doesn’t depend on using the pay-to-win, I’d recommend Silversword (linked above) over this in a heartbeat; if you’re looking for a Final Fantasy-like game that you haven’t played before, there are four or five games I’d recommend above this one.

– HC