Monday, March 28, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: The Swapper


The Swapper
Capsule Review!

You can get The Swapper at http://facepalmgames.com/the-swapper/

Transcript:
The Swapper is an intriguing puzzle platformer that captures the feel of a Metroidvania but without mandatory backtracking, since every puzzle is solvable when you first encounter it. You don't gain new powers - you learn new applications, though the game doesn't provide much scaffolding to help you figure them out. The trophy design is terrible (there's one each for ten impossibly-hidden text logs that add basically nothing to the story) and the game would have been far less frustrating with an undo or brief rewind function. The story is less coherent than the mechanics, contradicts them in places, and isn't nearly as interesting as what the gameplay would suggest - many puzzles involve strategically killing your clones, which has great dramatic and thematic potential that goes ignored. But the atmosphere is very compelling and the puzzle design is excellent.

Friday, March 25, 2016

DOCPLAYS: Right Click to Hack


Right Click to Hack
Let's Play!

You can get Right Click to Hack at https://mechabit.itch.io/right-click-to-hack

Transcript:

So this is Right Click to Hack. It was made by three people in less than a day for the Nordeus Hackathon 2015 where it won the Technical Complexity prize and took second place overall. The hackathon theme was "squad based puzzle platformer," and for this game, they have a robotic facility with several different bots with different abilities, and you need to make them work together to get through to the mainframe. I like it a lot, and it does some interesting things I'd like to talk about.

So, first the game has to teach you its mechanics. You can't get past the opening screen unless you hold the right mouse button to hack - and it turns out you've hacked a security camera. You can look around, but you can't move. But you can see a robot here. And if you mouse over it, a reticle pops up, indicating that it's a valid target, and a progress bar appears just like on the opening screen - so you can hack this robot. And if you do, a couple of things happen.

First, your perspective changes to the robot, and you can see its leads in your field of vision. Also, some music starts playing. It's an optimistic tune, conveying a mood that this is the little robot that could. And this robot can move around. So you can take it into the next room where you can see a large closed door and a small panel next to it. The panel uses the same click iconography that we saw in the opening screen, but this one is telling us that left click equals electricity, and that you should apply it to the panel. It's teaching you this robot's ability. By left clicking you create an electrical charge, and if you do that to the panel you can open a door.

In the next room, we can see another robot. You can tell it's a robot because it has a face and when you mouse over it you get another hacking reticle. You can also see that this robot can block lasers, which is useful since our progress forward is blocked by laser walls. So let's hack this robot.

Now, you'll notice that the music changed. This robot has a different theme song. It's much heavier and slower, which befits this robot's abilities. With the faces and the visual design of the robots, as well as their movement speed and the way their abilities and musical themes support each other, it's really easy to project personalities onto the robots despite the fact that there's no dialog and the robots only do exactly what you tell them to do. It's indirect characterization, and it's pretty effective, I think. And it also helps you remember what each robot can do and therefore what tools you have at your disposal when you're trying to solve puzzles.

Take this seesaw physics puzzle for example. You can't just take the first robot up the ramp to the door, because it just tilts down in the other direction. But the design of the other robot, the laser-blocking robot - its appearance, its music, its slow movement, and the fact that it can block lasers - those all suggest heaviness. And indeed, if you use this robot to weigh down the ramp... the first robot can now walk up it to the door.

In the next room, we find another obstacle. There's a gap in the floor and there's lasers running in there, so we probably don't want to go down there. But here there's another robot. This one's flying and holding a small crate, telegraphing its ability as an air-lifting robot. Correspondingly, its theme is very light and airy.

Now, I do want to comment a bit on the crate that this robot is holding. So far, every movable object has been important, so it's kind of confusing that this one isn't - especially since it's also the only red object that isn't either an indicator of your goal or an obstacle between you and that goal. You actually can't do anything useful with this crate - it's not big enough to bridge that gap in the floor and let the door-opening robot walk over, nor is it heavy enough to weigh down the seesaw so that the laser-blocking robot can climb up. Now, you don't actually need it for either of those things because you can just use the robot itself to airlift both of the other robots to the door. But it's a bit of a problem that the game's design so far suggests that you need the crate. In my first playthrough, I tried for a few minutes to find a use for it, and therefore didn't see the obvious solution of just airlifting the other robots. I think in a more polished version of the game, you'd need to drop the small crate somewhere obvious as part of the puzzle - maybe to activate a pressure switch or something - enough to demonstrate that the flying robot can pick up and drop objects and to move your focus off the crate since it's served its purpose.

Anyway, in the next room there's a bunch of larger crates. These naturally create some apprehension or even claustrophobia. Previously, rooms have been wide open and you could easily see the paths and obstacles in front of you. But now there's a bit of a maze. But in this maze, you find another robot. So what does this one do?

Well, this robot has sawblades and an energetic, rocking musical theme. That's all it takes to telegraph that this robot can clear the room of the crates. It's not a very complex or difficult puzzle, but it's cathartic to exert some power over the environment and destroy all of the anxiety-causing obstacles.

So, once that's done, we see there's a new puzzle that combines elements of previous ones. There's another laser-filled gap and a laser running across the room after it. We're gonna have to use several bots to get across this. And this is what I really like about this game's approach to the "squad based puzzle platformer" - it's not a situation where there's just one character that's useful and fun to play as and you're using that character to clear a path for the other less useful, less interesting character. Instead, because of the hacking mechanic, you're controlling each robot in turn and they all have something interesting and useful to do. And they all have personality through their design - visually, mechanically, and musically. It's pretty cool.

Now the physics do get a bit wonky here - I'm sure that's just a result of the fact that this game was made so quickly, in less than a day. And if they'd had more time to polish, I'm sure they would have cleaned it up. Some of the jankiness here though is caused by my edits; I did cut out some pieces where I was just going back and forth but I left in enough so you could tell what I was doing to solve the puzzle at least.

Now, even though the saw bot isn't needed to destroy any more crates, it's still useful as a hacking relay since you can only hack things via line of sight. Once we use all four bots to clear this puzzle, we open the final door and access the mainframe. But we're not done quite yet - we need to use the game's signature mechanic one more time and hack the mainframe.

We won! So yeah, that's Right Click to Hack. The puzzles are decent, if a bit standard, but what I find most interesting is the way the robots themselves are handled. They're all useful and fun to play, they all have a specific ability that's telegraphed to you ahead of time, and they all have personalities expressed through their design. It's a fun little game, and I'd love to see it expanded and polished.

Thanks for watching!

Monday, March 21, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Antichamber


Antichamber
Capsule Review!

You can get Antichamber at http://www.antichamber-game.com/

Transcript:
Antichamber is a first-person puzzle exploration game with a stark aesthetic. In this sort of plot-light puzzle game, the motivation to keep playing comes from a desire to see what interesting new mechanics and surprises will come next. Most of Antichamber's surprises come from subverting expectations about the nature of space and reality, such as by having hallways rearrange themselves when you aren't looking. To me, the results are largely tedious - it's not about being clever to solve problems that follow consistent rules, it's about the game designer feeling clever by deceiving you and often wasting your time.

Monday, March 14, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Pony Island


Pony Island
Capsule Review!

You can get Pony Island at http://store.steampowered.com/app/405640

Transcript:
A runner game inside a puzzle game with some less categorizable bits in between, Pony Island is a lighthearted 2-3 hour experience that pokes fun at shady game monetization techniques. Despite casting developers who use these strategies as literally the devil, it's much gentler than, say, Little Inferno's commentary on the same topic. Even Lucifer is shown to care more about whether people like his game than whether they sell their souls to him.

While a couple of specific characters in specific contexts address the player directly, the game is usually not about the player but a canonical player character instead. Hints about this character's identity and the game's backstory can be found by solving certain optional puzzles, but they are so thoroughly hidden and provide such little concrete information that they seem to exist solely to fuel a collaborative scavenger hunt among the game's players. The game itself does not suffer if you ignore them and it's not clear that it was worth including them at the cost of contradicting the fourth wall breaks, which include the game's most memorable and best moments.

Monday, March 7, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Entwined


Entwined
Capsule Review!

You can get Entwined at https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/entwined-ps4/

Transcript:
Entwined is a beautiful but incoherent game where you steer a fish and a crane down a tunnel through targets. Hit enough targets and the animals merge into a dragon which you fly around outside the tunnel for a bit, collecting color which you then use to skywrite briefly before moving on to the next level. The levels have different gimmicks, some of which are better than others - a particularly frustrating level has the tunnel targets move unpredictably while you're heading toward them. The game seems to want to say things about separation and togetherness, love and longing, but none of the mechanics support those themes all that well. It's fun enough and pretty enough and has good enough music that it's enjoyable as long as it lasts, but since it never really adds up to anything it ends up being pretty forgettable.