Category Archives: Platformer

South Park: The Fractured But Whole

Whole1

Wage superhero warfare across the town of South Park.

PC Release: October 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

In an age when people take offense more easily than ever before, there’s never been a greater need for South Park. Biting social satire isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but as long as programs like South Park fearlessly lampoon everything under the sun, then maybe, just maybe, a few people might remember not to take everything under that sun so damn seriously. Video games have also provided a platform for satire and absurdity, and the boys who provided so much of it in South Park: The Stick of Truth are back with another digital jab at the universe in South Park: The Fractured But Whole.

____________________

South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a role-playing adventure game set in the universe of the eponymous TV show. The game was originally slated to be released in December of 2016 but was delayed by over 10 months. To hear publisher Ubisoft put it, more time was needed to ensure that the game met “the high expectations of fans.” The title was originally going to be called South Park: The Butthole of Time, until South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker learned that retailers wouldn’t sell a product with the word “butthole” in its name. South Park: The Fractured But Whole is their workaround.

Like South Park: The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole was created with the close involvement of Parker and Stone. Television’s edgiest duo did far more than provide the main characters’ voices; they also served as executive producers and writers for the title. Such involvement is the right way to do a licensed game, and it sets The Fractured But Whole apart from so many uninspired tie-in games that also borrowed a license.

Whole2

To battle!

South Park: The Fractured But Whole picks up soon after the events of The Stick of Truth and once again casts players as the New Kid, a mute fourth grader who moved to South Park at the start of the previous game. Players can customize the New Kid with a wide variety of accessories and hairstyles. Fantastically, The Fractured But Whole also allows players to play as a female character (Stick of Truth was no-girls-allowed). Parker and Stone didn’t waste any time implementing their biting humor, as the game’s difficulty and skin tone sliders are one and the same.

The Fractured But Whole makes another big shakeup by swapping out The Stick of Truth‘s fantasy role-playing motif for the capes of South Park‘s long-running superhero subplot, Coon And Friends. When Cartman shows up with a missing cat poster promising a $100 reward, the boys quickly embark upon a quest to get that money and launch their cinematic universe. The New Kid decides to join the hunt as well, in a story that simultaneously parodies the film Captain America: Civil War and lampoons the long running Marvel-DC rivalry.

Whole3

Don’t forget Coon vs Supercraig: The Return of Tupperware!

Like The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole is a class-based RPG. After creating their character, players can also build a superhero persona from a variety of classes and powers. There’s something for every fighting style; players who like brute force can pick superhuman strength, while those who prefer a defter touch can go after psychic or cyborg powers. Players can add more powers to their arsenal as they progress through the game, but choose carefully; with great power comes great responsibility.

Also like The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole‘s combat is turn-based. Players can summon allies to their side and engage groups of foes with offensive and defensive moves just like in the last game. They can also make use of items like snacks and potions to restore health and revive fallen comrades. The one big change this system offers over The Stick of Truth is the incorporation of movement squares. Players can now move around the combat space to inflict more damage to foes or dodge attacks that take more than a turn to charge.

Whole4

This is super cereal.

The addition of movement to the South Park series’ combat is a mixed bag. While it is fun to be able to move closer to enemies and inflict more damage on them, it’s also easy for players’ teammates to get in each other’s way. Characters can’t unleash superhero moves if an ally is standing in front of them, which is made all the more problematic by the game’s small battle spaces. This also makes it easy for characters to box each other in or funnel foes through debris to pick them off one by one.

To be fair to The Fractured But Whole, the game also makes some refinements to what The Stick of Truth introduced. Just like in the last game, the New Kid can unleash devastatingly powerful farts. These fart move are far better explained and far easier to use than the ones in The Stick of Truth and require holding down only two buttons instead of executing hokey keyboard/mouse maneuvers. The New Kid’s farts are also much more powerful; ripping a big one sometimes means ripping the fabric of time.

Whole5

I can smell your fear… and your farts!

The Fractured But Whole lets players manage all this combat and chaos from a wide selection of menus. Using the New Kid’s phone, players can manage everything from their superhero’s appearance to the number of followers on Coonstagram. The Fractured But Whole is a little too eager to throw all of these menus at new players, but they’re reasonably streamlined and do an admirable job of letting players manage their character. Players can also call upon the power of the options menu to tweak the game as needed; this menu is a solid one, with plenty of toggles to play around with.

The Fractured But Whole‘s character management system is deeper and more streamlined than that of The Stick of Truth. Tethering power bonuses to clothing made sense in The Stick of Truth‘s fantasy RPG landscape, but The Fractured But Whole changes things up by chaining buffs to artifacts instead of outfits. These artifacts can be slotted to the New Kid and allow for bonuses like increased attack and hit points. This system allows players to retain a powerful character while also being free to dress them up in whatever superhero garb they find coolest.

Whole6

Phone menus! Phone menus everywhere!

When player aren’t busy customizing their character or taking on gangs of Professor Chaos’s goons, they’re busy exploring the town of South Park. Just like in The Stick of Truth, players explore the town from a side-scrolling perspective and can take a glance at everything from the boys’ neighborhood to downtown. Exploring South Park remains as fun as ever (especially for fans), but the town hasn’t changed all that much since The Stick of Truth. Indeed, with the exception of only 4-5 new buildings, the town map looks pretty much identical to that of The Stick of Truth.

Additionally, the side quests around town feel less inspired than those in The Stick of Truth. Their design seems mundane in comparison to something truly novel, like the last game’s Al Gore/Manbearpig story arc. Rather than diving headfirst into prolonged references to the TV show, players typically engage in more ho-hum tasks like finding Jimbo’s wallet. Even the funnier side quests tend to be similarly short and shallow, feeling more like the repeatable radiant quests in Skyrim than anything else.

Whole7

(yawn)

Even though The Fractured But Whole‘s side quests and world feel a bit stale, its main narrative is one hell of a lot more interesting than that of The Stick of Truth. For all the comedy gold The Stick of Truth struck, its plotline about Nazi zombies felt lazy and outdated. The TV show’s satire is known for its timeliness, so to see a 2014 game adopt a zombie meme that stopped being funny years ago was unusual (the part about Randy being the New Kid’s fart sensei was pretty funny, though).

The Fractured But Whole has a more interesting story that meshes the boys’ Coons And Friends mythos into a narrative about crime, law, and farts (what else could anyone want?). The only issue with this story is that for all its satire and potty mouth, it runs mostly on plot threads recycled from previous South Park episodes. It feels less like an original story and more like a smashup of some of the show’s most popular moments; rarely does it contrive its own comedy. The story that’s there is coherent and funny, but… it’s not very original.

Whole8

Yeah, Randy passed out drunk isn’t new story territory.

Even though The Fractured But Whole‘s story is by and large cogent, it does face the threat of being undone by one simple foe: bugs. As of writing, The Fractured But Whole suffers a wide-ranging gambit of performance issues and other problems. The game is subject to crashing (especially to the black screen of death) and freezing up on players. Cutscenes have an unfortunate tendency to freeze or stutter.

Players may also experience other bugs that are more trivial but no less frustrating. Sometimes characters’ spoken audio will cut out. Other times, the game’s text boxes contain no text at all. These issues make more sense when remembering that The Fractured But Whole was developed by a branch of Ubisoft, a company whose previous games have also exhibited problems like these. Oh Ubisoft… when will it produce a video game that only has more functions than bugs?

Whole9

This must be Ubisoft’s quality control office.

The main takeaway that fans of South Park: The Stick of Truth should bear in mind is that The Fractured But Whole represents the best and worst of video game sequels. The game’s high point is its story, which is funnier and more succinct than that of The Stick of Truth despite being built out of previous South Park story points. Less admirable, though, is the game’s cadre of uninspired side missions and little-changed world. Additionally, while The Fractured But Whole gives players more power than ever to create their own South Park character, that freedom comes at the price of too many menus and the clunky incorporation of movement into combat.

None of that is to say anything of The Fractured But Whole‘s numerous bugs, which mar the game’s core experience and may leave players quite frustrated. These bugs are more than likely a product of the game’s prolonged development. A game being delayed by a few months is one thing, but The Fractured But Whole‘s 10-month delay points to problematic development. That theory is far more believable than Ubisoft’s vague notions of ensuring only the best for South Park fans. Then again, given that all of the games Ubisoft produces these days are buggy, perhaps fandom really was the reason.

Whole10

What happened here?

Despite its deeper character customization and improved main plotline, South Park: The Fractured But Whole isn’t as good as The Stick of Truth. Fans should still at least try the title; just be ready to hit that refund button if the aforementioned bugs or the scourge that is Uplay verification prove problematic. Newcomers to the South Park game scene should first try The Stick of Truth before considering this game. Even though The Fractured But Whole provides the satire that’s so dearly needed in today’s hyper-charged climate, its numerous drawbacks preclude getting the full South Park experience.

____________________

You can buy South Park: The Fractured But Whole here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Shank 2

Shank21

Fight to save the only living person who still cares about you.

PC Release: February 7, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Side-scrolling beat ’em ups have gone out with a dang in recent years. It used to be that arcades could draw hordes of teenagers with the promise of great titles that espoused only two things: running to the right and beating up hordes of foes. The genre has made much more sporadic appearances since arcades’ heyday, with Guacamelee! and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game being two of the few popular such releases in recent years. The other series in this vein, Shank, gave re-popularizing the side-scrolling beat ’em up another attempt with 2012’s Shank 2.

____________________

Shank 2 hit stores about two years after Shank and, like its predecessor, was developed by the Canadian studio Klei. Like ShankShank 2 is a side-scrolling fighting game in which players assail hordes of anonymous foes with fists, knives, and pretty much whatever else happens to be within arm’s reach. The title’s design hearkens to the golden age of such games in everything from its simple storyline to its mechanics, while also improving upon Shank.

Shank 2 is set not long after Shank, in which the protagonist (whose name is also Shank) took out a bunch of underworld bad guys for daring to assassinate his girlfriend. Having fulfilled his quest for vengeance, Shank decides to take a bus back to his hometown and reunite with Elena, the woman who raised him as though she were his actual son. Though Shank’s homeland is better for being rid of the cartel, the military has stepped into the resulting power vacuum and declared martial law. Shank 2 begins when one such patrol of troops stops Shank’s bus on the outskirts of town.

Shank22

Did you just confiscate my booze?!

As his name implies, Shank has no problem dealing out violence at the slightest provocation; when a soldier takes his tequila, he responds by murdering the entire patrol. He makes it home in time for another round and unexpectedly reunites with Corina, a childhood friend who now leads a resistance movement against the military. Shank couldn’t care less who runs things as long as he gets his booze, but gets pulled into the rebellion after Elena gets abducted by the villainous General Magnus.

Unwilling to let Elena, the only person who cared for his well-being as a child, get carted off to a fate worse than death, Shank gets his knives (yes, knives, because this the sequel and therefore the protagonist wields two weapons) out and sets about doing the thing he does best: stabbing, shooting, and bloodily murdering his way through a literal army of foes. Though Corina is Shank’s buddy in this fight, the roguish ex-hitman spends most of the game fighting alone.

Shank23

Oh dear. This man seems to have a fatal lead allergy.

Shank 2 starts the party by borrowing a lot of Shank‘s gameplay; as Shank, players can engage enemies in combat with a wide variety of melee weapons or take out foes from afar with an arsenal of guns. Shank’s speed with knives is unmatched, but a larger, heavier weapon like a chainsaw deals much more damage. As players race to save Elena, they can unlock new and more powerful weaponry for taking out Magnus’s soldiers. Guns are great for keeping large foes at bay or for killing enemies who are perched out of reach, while grenades and molotov cocktails make effective impromptu fireworks.

From there, Shank 2 makes a few changes and refinements over its predecessor’s handiwork. Players can now only pick their weapons at the start of each mission, which makes the game more challenging at the expense of the fun that came with switching weapons on the fly in Shank. Most weapons hit about as hard as or harder than they did in Shank; the shotgun, hilariously, remains brutally OP. It beats back entire crowds of foes and reduces the reckless among them to a bloody pulp. Shank can also pick up objects in the environment, like boards and pipes, and use them as weapons.

Shank24

Yeah, that spear’s not gonna help you.

The enemies in Shank 2 are only marginally less stupid than the foes in Shank; both groups seem content to charge mindlessly into the whirlwind of knives and gunfire that is Shank. Shank 2‘s bad guys are a bit tougher, and the game does away with displaying enemy health like its predecessor did to keep players guessing how many more hits a bad guy can take. Unlike in Shank, enemies in Shank 2 are defined more by what they’re packing than their physical size (though players can still count on fighting plenty of freakishly huge dudes).

Players can also encounter a wider variety of enemies than in Shank, which gives the game more variety and keeps the hero wondering who’s around the next corner. Sure, Shank spends the bulk of Shank 2 fighting rank-and-file soldiers, but also goes up against primitive cannibals, greedy smugglers, and maybe even a witch or two during his journey to save Elena. Players can take these foes on solo, but they can also buddy up against the bad guys with Shank 2‘s co-op mode. Player twos can play as Corina, who has her own roster of weapons and a faster fighting style, but there’s also a whole slew of other characters for both players to pick from. Choose wisely.

Shank25

Death buddies!

Shank 2‘s refinements to its predecessor’s gameplay result in a smooth experience (one that’s best played with a gamepad), with fluidity and speed that make for one hell of a fighting game. The platforming is tight thanks to well-placed paths and territorial elevation, while Shank immediately responds to controls and can execute complicated moves with a few simple button presses. Shank 2‘s system performance is as agile as its protagonist, even if its options menu leaves a lot to be desired.

Though Shank 2‘s gameplay improvements are impressive, more impressive still is the game’s incorporation of environmental kills. Players can now take advantage of their surroundings to get the drop on foes, releasing cargo onto unsuspecting enemies or using machinery to creative (and bloody) ends. Whether it’s springing traps or starting fires, Shank has no problem turning a building full of enemies into a flaming death trap. Opportunities for environmental kills are plentiful, and creative players will take great joy in executing them.

Shank26

I’m so sorry that TV fell on you! What a horrible accident that I had nothing to do with!

Shank 2‘s environmental improvements go beyond great platforming and unorthodox murder opportunities. The game’s artwork represents a significant refinement over that of Shank, with hand-painted environments that look more detailed than those of the first game even as they look more dour. Shank 2‘s character animations are fantastic whether the player character is charging through bad guys or simply taking in the view. Shank 2‘s aesthetic also benefits from dramatic weather effects and much more varied environments than those of Shank.

The result of all of these artistic game changes is a world ripe for exploration. Shank 2 encompasses a dour dystopia that wouldn’t look out of place in, say, Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion novel. The game artfully blends Hispanic influences with grim industrial themes to promulgate a grim atmosphere. These motifs also result in great level variety; players will spend one mission cutting through a jungle graveyard and the next fighting in an aging seaport.

Shank27

My oh my, what a lovely piece of propertySHOOTTHATGUY!

The only facet of Shank 2‘s level design that hasn’t evolved gracefully is the storytelling. Unlike Shank, the PC version of Shank 2 does not feature a heavily censored narrative, but what little story there is is told at a breakneck pace. Shank’s transitions from one level to another are usually poorly explained; there’s one scene where Corina interrogates a random soldier for the location of the next level when she could’ve done that to any of the dozens she’d just slaughtered. Sometimes the dialogue is drowned out by other audio; a symptom of careless sound design.

Additionally, Shank’s fight to save Elena doesn’t carry the emotional weight found in Shank‘s revenge tale. Part of that might have to do with the titular character feeling like a different person. He’s rewritten to be an unthinking killer instead of a remorseful one and has a new voice actor. Both of these things make the character feel like an antecedent to the man in the first game, and thus Shank 2 feels more like a prequel than a sequel. There’s not much to be said of the game’s other characters; Corina is the stereotypical fearless freedom fighter and Magnus the scheming overlord.

Shank28

Is that falling I hear?

Fortunately for Shank 2, most brawler fans will have too much fun with its gameplay to care about its glaring plot flaws. Story problems notwithstanding, the game represents a sizable improvement over Shank and is a title that platforming and brawler enthusiasts should try. A hypothetical Shank 3a title that introduces more improvements and gives this character the full, uncensored story he deserves—might be what side scrolling beat ’em ups need to fully reclaim the glory they enjoyed in their arcade days. Until that day comes, though, fans of the genre should try Shank 2.

____________________

You can buy Shank 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

TTV2

TTV2

Dash through a deadly maze for as long as possible.

PC Release: September 11, 2017

By Ian Coppock

In this day and age, Googling “running through a hedge maze on acid” really isn’t all that unusual. If Rule 34 is a given, why not also have a rule stating that if it exists, someone has at least Googled it? Well, anyone who happens to be curious about what it’s like to run through a hedge maze on acid can stop drilling: they’ve hit oil. Welcome to a review of TTV2, a game that’s all about dashing through a maze-like fever dream that wouldn’t look out of place in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s time to start running.

____________________

TTV2 is an abbreviation for Trip to Vinelands 2, for this is the sequel to Walter Machado’s trippy maze-running title. Just like its criminally underrated predecessor, TTV2 inserts players into a terrifying world of shifting walls and challenges them to find an exit. Even if players can dodge the thorny walls and spinning machinery, escape is only temporary; the way out leads to yet another maze. The goal of the game is simply to survive for as long as possible; one brush with an obstacle and it’s game over.

Players who hope to be good maze runners (no, not like Maze Runner) have to have quick reflexes and an even quicker eye for detail. Most mazes in TTV2 only have an exit for a few seconds; linger too long and the chance for escape is forever lost. TTV2‘s mazes spawn in a random order, precluding a difficulty curve and making success as much a matter of luck as skill. The game’s controls are pretty simple: just use WASD or the arrow keys to move around.

TTV22

Run. RunrunrunrunRUNRUN!

TTV2‘s most alluring (and novel) design facet is its shifting obstacles. There’s no set exit point in each maze; walls and buzz saws move around, and characters simply have to touch an obstacle-free edge of the screen to continue. Players don’t spawn on the corresponding edge of the next map; usually, the game plonks the maze runner down right in the center of the next challenge. This prevents TTV2 from being too linear and lets the game immediately throw all the punches it can at the player.

The respawn mechanic is where players have to be especially careful with their reflexes. Most platformers train gamers to just keep moving in the same direction when they leave one panel of the scene and enter the next; after all, they’re usually strung together into a single level. TTV2 upends this design convention by making each scene completely disconnected. Continuing to move in one direction after escaping a maze can lead players right into the path of a buzz saw. TTV2 only gives players a few seconds to stop and pick a new direction before getting murdered, and that’s what makes it challenging.

TTV23

THE FLOOR IS BUZZ SAWS

The addicting allure of TTV2‘s endless challenge is enhanced with immediate respawns. Players who meet their fate at the thorns of a shifting wall can immediately jump back into the game at Hotline Miami speeds. Instant respawns are crucial for a game that’s all about infinite challenge; games that punish players for failure with long load screens risk making themselves frustrating. TTV2 (and other games like it) utilize this mechanic to keep themselves accessible.

TTV2‘s precise controls also help give players a chance against the ever-shifting stream of obstacles. The character (a well-dressed gent who appears to have the Eye of Sauron for a head) moves at a fast enough pace and immediately stops or turns when prompted. Thank God the controls aren’t floaty (although that could make for an interesting challenge as well).

TTV24

Right full rudder!

Half the reason that these thorn walls and buzz saws are so frightening is because they’re difficult to avoid; the other reason is their spooky appearance. TTV2 is a study in visual contrast, giving its obstacles and character dark colors while giving its backgrounds vivid, surreal colors. The backgrounds’ sickly peach color and crunchy textures help give TTV2 the same trippy vibe as Trip to Vinelands or Machado’s other games: the UBERMOSH series. These comprise a gorgeous, albeit unsettling, aesthetic.

The other artwork informing TTV2‘s rave-like vibe is its music. Machado has never shied away from making good use of head-banging electronica. TTV2 might have the best tunes of any of his titles, with pounding tracks that reinforce the game’s sense of urgency. Anyone who likes dark, grimy electronica will probably end up sticking around in TTV2 as much for the music as the gameplay.

TTV25

Crunchy drums and static and OH GOD THAT IS A WALL

If TTV2 has a flaw, it’s that the game is pretty difficult to tell apart from Trip to Vinelands. Sure, the player character has a larger head and the backgrounds look different, but the core gameplay remains little changed from that of its predecessor. Indeed, perhaps the only true change that TTV2 makes to the Vinelands formula is including more obstacles to dodge. The end result is that players have a few new traps to avoid… but only that select few.

Having said that, Machado’s design philosophy of representing incremental changes with a whole new sequel is not the sinister scheme that it sounds like. Owners of Machado’s previous games get the next title in the sequence for free if not at a very generous discount, and it’s a unique way to see how a designer’s motifs and conventions change over time. As of writing, TTV2 is only about sixty cents (not sixty dollars), so players who are reluctant to drop money on sequels can rest easy. TTV2 is an easy grab.

TTV26

Yeah… I think this is game over.

TTV2 is quick arcade action done right. It could’ve made a few more changes from Trip to Vinelands, but its cheap price and endless replayability mitigate that concern pretty soundly. Players who like arcade games should grab this title, as should reflex gamers and anyone who wants to run through a maze on acid without actually dropping acid or risking getting arrested for having dropped acid. TTV2 is one of the most fun fever dream sleeper hits to launch on Steam in a while; get it while the tripping’s good.

____________________

You can buy TTV2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Seasons After Fall

Fall1

Master the powers of the four seasons to set a friend free.

PC Release: September 2, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Part of what makes September so agonizing is waiting for fall to arrive. Autumn is empirically proven to be the best season of the year, what with its bright colors, cool temperatures, and near-complete absence of insects. Pumpkin spice lattes are an abomination, but their proliferation at Starbucks and in the media is a small price to pay for enjoying fall colors. To celebrate the onset of autumn, we’re taking a brief break from discussing brand-new games to review Seasons After Fall.

____________________

Released just over a year ago by the adorably named studio Swing Swing Submarine, Seasons After Fall is a side-scrolling platformer that’s all about taking in nature. Despite what its name implies, Seasons After Fall is about all the seasons, and all the beauty that each one has to offer. The name “Seasons After Fall” isn’t the best title for a game that espouses all four seasons, but let’s be fair; Seasons In Addition to Fall and Seasons But Also Fall don’t roll off the tongue nearly as well.

Seasons After Fall takes place in a mysterious, gorgeously painted wilderness and stars a magic fox as the player character. This little vulpine critter is no ordinary fox; it’s been imbued with the power to change the season instantaneously. It’s up to the fox to travel the world, learn how to change to new seasons, and ultimately use these abilities to free an imprisoned woodland sprite. Despite her predicament, the sprite is able to guide the player from afar and provides advice on how to progress.

Fall2

Over the river and through the woods…

Right away, Seasons After Fall impresses with its delicate artwork. Even in a genre overflowing with hand-painted visuals, the title’s gentle backdrops and intricately painted foregrounds are a cut above the rest. Each region in Seasons After Fall is a nature painting replete with bright, varied colors and thousands of details to spot. These visuals excel at giving Seasons After Fall a heavy nature vibe: that crisp, vivid feeling that comes with taking a walk in autumn woods.

What makes Seasons After Fall‘s artwork even more impressive is that the same scenes are done over in four different seasons. Because players can change between the seasons at will, each region they visit in Seasons After Fall can be presented as a delicate spring vignette or a sweeping autumnal portrait. Each season utilizes its own palette of strong colors; winter is done out in deep blue and stark white while summer is green, green, green. The result of all this painting is that each environment in Seasons After Fall packs both four times the variety and four times the beauty. They’re breathtaking.

Fall3

(swoon)

Equally breathtaking is the music that accompanies Seasons After Fall‘s autumnal vistas. Swing Swing Submarine hired a string quartet to compose the game’s music, and made damn good use of some damn talented musicians. Most scenes in Seasons After Fall are accompanied by lively string progressions, with a deep cello serving as the base and violins adding an energetic, almost merry vibe to the production. Occasionally the music is improperly balanced and drowns out the game’s other audio, but these instances are mercifully rare.

Seasons After Fall is also content to strip the music out on occasion and leave players alone with the sounds of nature, which change with the seasons. Spring brings with it a cacophony of birds chirping and the sound of rainfall, while summer retains the birdsong but swaps out rain for wind. Winter, as always, is mute. The best and most atmospheric sounds by far come during the autumn sections: leaves crunching, wind blowing… it all reinforces Seasons After Fall‘s lovely outdoor vibe.

Fall4

Quick! Use your tale as an umbrella!

So far there’s been a lot of talk about how seasons inform the art and sounds of Seasons After Fall; how do they affect the gameplay? Nearly all of Seasons After Fall‘s challenges are simple environmental puzzles, and this is where the game’s season-changing mechanic comes into play. A geyser isn’t much use to anyone in the springtime, but switch over to winter and it freezes up, making for a great platform. Conversely, a tree isn’t all that lively in winter, but come summertime its leaves make handy ramps.

Seasons After Fall‘s gameplay is easy to understand, but that’s mostly because it’s so simplistic. All the player has to to is behold an object that can produce a platform and switch over to the season that’ll make it do so. This setup leaves the title’s gameplay feeling shallow and light on challenge; inveterate platforming fans will have little trouble causing mushrooms to grow and geysers to shatter. Something more challenging, like timed puzzles requiring quick seasonal changes, would not have gone amiss.

Fall5

Hot cocoa senses tingling…

Luckily, Seasons After Fall excels at giving players silky smooth character control. The game’s jumping and running mechanics are implemented with laser precision. Switching between seasons is pretty simple too; just hover in the air for a sec and voila! Autumn awesomeness. Though Seasons After Fall allows players to run and jump with wild abandon, the camera can be a bit slow to catch up, sometimes waiting until the player is at the very edge of the scene before re-centering.

Seasons After Fall‘s PC performance is more enviable than its gameplay. The game runs well on PCs of all shapes and sizes, most likely because of its 2D setup and low-poly paint job. These factors are also probably responsible for the game’s small options menu, which lists out a few resolution sizes, audio options, and its controls. Nothing fancy, but luckily for Seasons After Fall, it has an autumn-level lack of pesky bugs.

Fall6

Aw. He’s all tuckered out by his godlike powers.

Another detail to keep an eye out for among the fall colors is Seasons After Fall‘s story. The game’s plot does a pretty good job of guiding the player through the seasonal vistas (as the fox is a mute and has no verbalized character motivations), but isn’t quite as memorable as said vistas. Players spend most of the game being guided around by a woodland sprite, whose young British voice actress lends peppy energy (and a charming accent) to the production. Later, Seasons After Fall introduces a few guardians who guide the player along at a significantly slower tempo than the sprite.

The game’s actual writing is about three fifths musing about the seasons, two fifths telling the player where to go, and just a dash of plot twist. None of it makes for exemplary exposition and there are a few grammar errors here and there, but it does provide a solid enough foundation for traversing an ever-changing world. Seasons After Fall could stand some more narrative heft, but its art, gameplay and sound design are substantial enough that the game doesn’t feel lesser for not having it.

Fall7

Climb, little buddy!

There are a lot of exciting games coming down the pipe this autumn, but make some time for Seasons After Fall. It’s a delightful little title whose atmosphere successfully captures the joy of nature, though its gameplay could stand some more depth. As an aside, this title is best enjoyed with a slice of pumpkin bread and some dark roast coffee… like really dark roast. Hell, make it a pumpkin spice latte if absolutely necessary.

____________________

You can buy Seasons After Fall here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Shank

Shank1

Slash your way through the criminals who murdered your girlfriend.

PC Release: October 26, 2010

By Ian Coppock

It’s a legit fact that September is the most boring month on the calendar. It’s the waiting period between summer and autumn; nothing really happens and it seems to stretch on much longer than necessary (just ask Green Day). In an effort to shake September up, this month’s slate of weekend reviews are all about fighting and surviving (things that students who are just now enrolling in or returning to school should also be able to relate to). With excitement and adrenaline in mind, it’s time to talk about Shank.

____________________

Developed by the fine Canadians over at Klei (the creators of Don’t Starve and Mark of the Ninja), Shank is a side-scrolling beat ’em up for which the term “gritty” seems an inadequate descriptor. This game isn’t “gritty” so much as “choked to the brim with sand, blood, and bullets.” Shank emphasizes running from left to right and killing as many dudes as possible with as many swords, guns and grenades as possible… all while chugging down bottles of tequila. Brain cells not included.

Shank begins when its titular hero walks into a bar looking for the man who killed his girlfriend; as these stories go, things quickly get bloody and Shank resolves to fight his way to the killer instead of talking. As far as games go, Shank is pretty meta; the title is named both for its protagonist and for the primary means by which that protagonist ends lives. It turns out that stabbing someone repeatedly is a great way to end a bar fight. Who knew?

Shank2

Shank (pictured left) has few compunctions about misusing tableware.

Shank‘s gameplay is reminiscent of both fighting games and old-school, side-scrolling shoot ’em ups that put arcades on the map. As Shank, players can dispatch foes with a versatile mix of knife fighting, heavy melee weapons, and guns. Shank’s shank makes for a quick-handed weapon but doesn’t do all that much damage, while heavier weapons like chainsaws make short work of enemy life bars at the expense of speed. Guns and grenades, while not as up-close and personal as a knife, are effective at beating back hordes of enemies or hitting distant foes.

In addition to his skill with a knife, Shank is quite the gymnast, able to sprint long distances and leap from rooftop to rooftop with terrifying grace. Players can also use their knife as a climbing tool to ascend buildings or wall-run from one vantage point to another. If Shank takes too much damage, players can reach for a nearby bottle of tequila to restore his health. Enemies out for Shank’s blood come in all shapes and sizes but generally consist of lightweight pugilists, attack dogs, and freakishly huge brawlers.

Shank3

Remember, kids, start your day out with a hearty bowl of steroids.

Shank‘s gameplay is much more graceful than knifing hordes of enemies might imply. The character’s movements are extremely fluid, allowing players to leap between surfaces and pounce onto foes with ease. Weapons are also made easy to switch between for on-the-fly tactical adjustments. As players progress through the game, they can upgrade Shank’s arsenal with newfound killing tools like shotguns and SMGs. The katana is particularly effective at slicing foes into sushi.

Shank‘s combat, though imperfect, is elegant. It’s not a sophisticated setup—players simply select a weapon and button-mash their way to victory—but it scores points for making it simple to switch between weapons and for its aforementioned acrobatic freedom. The one major drawback is that the shotgun is OP; so OP, in fact, that everything the game throws at Shank after he gets it (even bosses) fold like hot laundry. This doesn’t make the game un-fun, but boy does it water down the challenge. Never bring a hatchet to a shotgun fight.

Shank4

You call that a gun?! THIS is a gun!

The thing about Shank that’s not so watered down is its artwork; holy crap is this game gory. Shank is quite liberal in its portrayal of violence, with execution and fight scenes so over-the-top as to be comparable to the film 300. The game’s visceral approach to combat reinforces its violent atmosphere. Shank‘s grim vibe is further rounded out by its environments, which wrap decent albeit linear level design inside such dour backdrops as a sun-baked town and a literal city of brothels.

There is a rift between all of this violence and the art style that Klei uses to portray it. Though everything from the cutscenes to the character movements is well-animated, it’s a bit silly to see such a serious, gritty story play out in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon. Picture Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove flaying someone alive at the Dreadfort from Game of Thrones and it gives some idea of the dissonance this game’s art direction offers. It’s all well and good on a technical level, but a more mature art style might’ve suited Shank‘s theme better.

Shank5

Hehe. Haha (clears throat).

Shank is a cartoon that the kids probably shouldn’t watch, but that’s due as much to its narrative as its gore. Avenging the death of a loved one is hardly an unexplored topic in games, but Shank gives the trope unexpected depth. It’s unafraid to explore such taboo subject matter as rape, and in surprisingly blunt language. Shank also surprises as a character; he’s much softer-spoken and more thoughtful than his mindless killing implies. He’s aware of his many transgressions but is no less willing to commit them in pursuit of revenge. The character’s introspection breaks the revenge hero mold.

Of course, all of this depends on the version of Shank that players have. For some reason the PC version of this game is heavily censored; Klei edited out most mentions of Shank’s girlfriend (and thus his motivation for revenge) as well as a huge plot point that plays out at the end of the narrative. Why? Additionally, why did only the PC edition of Shank get this treatment while the console versions were left uncensored? Klei knows that PC refers to “personal computer” and not “politically correct”, right?

Shank6

*this caption has been censored due to profane language and a reference to alcohol*

It’s unfortunate that Shank‘s full story doesn’t see the light of day on PC, but its fun beat ’em up gameplay thankfully remains untouched. It’s weird to review a game whose narrative quality depends on the platform it’s being played on, but… stranger things have happened. Either way, Shank is the game to play for gamers who love platformers and brawlers, and there’s even a small co-op campaign since it’s dangerous to go alone. Take a glance at the title and the gritty, well-designed combat that it has to offer.

____________________

You can buy Shank here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Sonic Mania

Mania1

Roll around at the speed of sound in Sonic’s latest adventure.

PC Release: August 29, 2017

By Ian Coppock

If this decade’s flood of reboots and remakes has done anything besides move tickets, it’s taught that nostalgia sells. Viewers like reminders of simpler times, and those reminders often end up being the media that they consumed at those points in their lives. Films and TV shows are hardly the only offenders here; game developers are just as eager for that nostalgia dollar as the biggest bosses in Hollywood. Sometimes, though, developers are out for more than just a buck; they’re out to reminisce for themselves as much as their customers. That’s how Sonic Mania was born.

____________________

The Sonic the Hedgehog series has an… uneven history. The character was originally created by Sega to compete with Super Mario, and his 1991 debut was a smash hit. Audiences loved Sonic the Hedgehog‘s fast-paced platforming gameplay, which (at least at the time) was groundbreaking for both the genre and for video games. The franchise’s success continued throughout the early 90’s with titles like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic & Knuckles.

Sonic’s good fortune didn’t last, though. 1998’s Sonic Adventure introduced the character to a 3D format and was lukewarmly received for doing so. Over the next 20 years the franchise endured an unending cold streak, releasing mediocre title after mediocre title. Things got so bad that Sonic’s lack of success was memed online and even parodied in a successful YouTube series. It was only after suffering these embarrassments for almost two decades that Sega did what it should’ve done two decades ago: hire the fans.

Mania2

Could it be…?!

Yes, though Sonic Mania was published by Sega, the title was developed by a team of devoted old-school Sonic fans. That certainly explains why Sonic Mania looks like it would fit snugly in a lineup of early 90’s Sonic titles, as well as why it’s the most warmly received Sonic game in 20 years. It’s sad that Sega took so long to return the series to its roots (and only after trying things like putting Sonic in a fairy tale), but let’s be fair; not every company has more than one brain cell.

As can be inferred from that pixel-coated screenshot, Sonic Mania hearkens to the early 90’s Sonic titles in every way. The game does away with 3D gameplay or one-off gimmicks in favor of simple side-scrolling platforming. As with classic Sonic games, players can zip through levels collecting rings and bopping bad guys over the head. Sonic Mania features other hallmarks of the classic Sonic era, including boss battles, mini-games, and nonverbal storytelling. Players can also count on hearing lots of chip tune music.

Mania3

This place sure is green… and hilly… WAIT A MINUTE

Sonic Mania‘s adherence to the older Sonic games goes beyond gameplay. Its story is set right after Sonic & Knuckles and follows the Blue Blur as he investigates a strange signal. The signal turns out to be the Phantom Ruby, a powerful jewel not unlike the series’s famous Chaos Emeralds, and the dastardly Dr. Eggman has sent his elite Hard-Boiled Heavy robots to retrieve it. The ruby sends Sonic and his friends Tails and Knuckles through different levels, wherein they must fight Eggman and prevent him from unlocking the ruby’s power.

Stopping Dr. Eggman from taking over the world? Check. Pixelated visuals? Check? Simple, side-scrolling gameplay? Check. No one keeping tabs on the Chaos Emeralds? Check. It seems that the fans who built Sonic Mania did their homework before building this game. Sonic Mania is indeed Sonic the Hedgehog at his simplest: running and dashing over colorful levels in pursuit of Dr. Eggman. As an added bonus, the game runs well (no surprise given its simple system requirements) and even has a decent options menu.

Mania4

Here we go!

Sonic Mania‘s running and dashing is little-changed from that of the old-school Sonic titles. As Sonic, players can run along paths and jump on enemies to destroy them. Sonic can also collect rings, but he’ll lose them all if he gets hit by an enemy. The more rings Sonic can hold onto by level’s end, the higher the player’s final score. Players can also switch over to Tails or Knuckles, or have a buddy be one of Sonic’s sidekicks with Sonic Mania‘s co-op utility. Old-school fans yearning for past Sonic games can rely on Sonic Mania to deliver the platforming that fueled Sonic’s early games.

In adhering so closely to the gameplay of older Sonic games, Sonic Mania inadvertently reintroduces that old gameplay’s flaws. For a start, the controls are floaty. It takes a while for Sonic to stop or move following controller input. Indeed, the world of Sonic Mania is riddled with the same clumsy physics, making it more difficult than necessary to move Sonic through the air or keep him on one surface. Sonic Mania succeeds in emulating older games, but that’s for better and for worse.

Mania5

Reverse. Reverse. REVERSE.

More problematic than Sonic‘s buttery running are the levels in which he rolls around. For all the acclaim afforded by the old Sonic the Hedgehog games, their levels had an unfortunate tendency to be easy to get turned around in. Sonic Mania shares these problems to a t; many levels feature little alcoves that, when combined with the slippery controls, result in players having a much harder time resuming the level than strictly necessary. This design flaw was eradicated in later platformers, but Sonic Mania has brought it back from the dead, preferring to encapsulate everything that its idols did instead of improve upon it.

Though it basically copy/pastes the Green Hill Zone from Sonic the HedgehogSonic Mania does feature a few worlds of its own design, including a scorching desert and a futuristic metropolis. Each environment in the game is gorgeously decorated with those crunchy retro pixels, which are both reminiscent of Sonic’s happier days and pretty to look at in their own right. Character animations are more sophisticated than those of the early Sonic titles as well. All of this results in an aesthetic that is less afraid to improve upon old Sonic games than virtually any other facet of this title’s design.

Mania6

Oh geez, I’m late to Dr. Eggman’s ass whoopin’, better hoof it.

Sonic Mania‘s unflinching adherence to everything good and bad about old-school Sonic games demonstrates that the title is more interested in nostalgia than innovation. The game is so keen on bringing 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog back to the forefront that it takes everything, even the aged gameplay and level design, right along with it. Fans who struggled through the original game back in the day probably won’t notice, but newcomers to the series and players used to, frankly, more refined platformer design will.

There’s an even greater danger behind Sonic Mania‘s blind fandom. In copy/pasting so much of what previous games did, Sonic Mania makes a better case for the old Sonic the Hedgehog games than it does for itself. If all this game does is repeat what older titles did decades ago, why shouldn’t players just buy the older title for a song instead of this one for a premium? Sonic Mania demonstrates the danger of hiring fans to develop a game: they may nail down the great things about a series, but their rose-tinted glasses prevent them from noticing gameplay flaws.

Mania7

SO CLUNKY

Believe it or not, Sonic Mania‘s outdated gameplay may not prove the largest headache for PC buyers. Though it wasn’t mentioned in the game’s EULA, the PC edition of Sonic Mania comes with Denuvo, a DRM software alleged by countless users and tech experts to wear down computers. Denuvo works by constantly rewriting its code so as to make itself much harder to crack, at the (alleged) expense of destroying solid state drives and leaving harmful code on hard drives. When Sonic Mania launched, it was also impossible for PC gamers to play it offline.

To be fair to Sega, the company addressed the concerns about Denuvo and released a patch making it possible to play Sonic Mania offline, but the company’s failure to mention that software’s presence in their product is an outrage. Sega is either ignorant of or uncaring about how these practices negatively affect its PC audience. Even if Denuvo isn’t actually as harmful as its detractors claim, omitting any mention of it from the game’s documentation is a farce. It certainly doesn’t give PC gamers cause to trust Sega.

Mania8

You done dropped the rings, Sega.

Sonic Mania may be the best Sonic the Hedgehog game in years, but that’s not saying much when the competition is titles like 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog or Sonic Free Riders. Old-school fans will have little trouble getting into the gameplay defining the early Sonic games, but newcomers won’t be able to so easily overlook the clumsy controls and aged level design. Sonic Mania, like nostalgia itself, is tricky. It’s so focused on the best of simpler times that it ends up overlooking the worst of those times too.

____________________

You can buy Sonic Mania here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Mark of the Ninja

Ninja1

Sneak, stab, and slice your way through hordes of unsuspecting foes.

PC Release: October 16, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Usually these reviews begin with some incoherent analogy about how a game’s subject matter impacts society; the impact of ninjas doesn’t really need to be verbalized. Parents purchase entire catalogs of ninja costumes so their kids can look badass on Halloween. Everyone knows what a throwing star is. There are even ninja-themed restaurants where waiters deliver food and then vanish in a cloud of smoke. Ninjas have infiltrated the video game world too, but which ninja-themed titles are the real deal? It’s time for Mark of the Ninja to step out of the shadows.

____________________

Ironically for a game that’s about avoiding the spotlight, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most iconic platformers of recent years. The game was developed by Klei, a Canadian outfit that most gamers probably know better as the masterminds behind Don’t Starve. Before crafting an isometric adventure game about avoiding terminal hunger, though, Klei created a game that put stealth into a side-scrolling platformer. That was a feat that few gamers and critics thought possible back in 2012.

Mark of the Ninja is set in a modern world that’s forgotten all about ninjas, which is just the way they like it. One last clan of them ekes out a secret existence in present-day Japan… until an army of mercenaries kicks down their door. Players assume the role of the Marked One, a particularly skilled ninja who beats the gun-wielding mercs back from his home. Together with his best friend Ora, the Marked One is charged by Master Azai with a new mission: kill the wealthy aristocrat who leads the mercenaries.

Ninja2

Silent but deadly.

As his name implies, the Marked One is no ordinary ninja. His body is covered in tattoos that grant him extraordinary powers, like the ability to see through walls and even pause his perception of time. The trade-off is that the ink in these tattoos will eventually seep into his brain and drive him mad. Before that happens, though, the Marked One can still use his powers to cause some good (or shed some blood, depending on who’s being asked). He can also depend on some neat-o ninja gadgets and, of course, his sword.

As previously mentioned, Mark of the Ninja is a side-scrolling platformer with a heavy emphasis on stealth. Though the Marked One’s abilities are formidable, he’ll go down in an instant if an enemy soldier shoots him. One of the game’s primary motifs is that the way of the ninja doesn’t change, even if the rest of the world does. The Marked One only has traditional ninja tools to wield against machine guns, lasers, and other modern tech.

Ninja3

Can you see him?

On the surface, it may seem grossly unfair that players have only throwing stars and smoke bombs to wield against automatic weapons (and it is), but therein lies the challenge of Mark of the Ninja. Since players can’t exactly walk up to an enemy and challenge them to fisticuffs, they have to rely on stealth and subversion to defeat foes. The most common way to dispatch an enemy is to simply stab them from behind… assuming players can get up behind them without making any noise.

Even though the Marked One’s roster of tools and equipment is a bit rustic, it’s not ineffective. Smoke bombs work wonders for cutting through laser screens, just as throwing knives can make short work of security cameras and other electronics. Players can also gain experience and level up to access more sophisticated tools: a cardboard box is great for sneaking around Metal Gear-style, while a handful of flesh-eating bugs can make enemies quite… excitable.

Ninja4

He’s in this screenshot too.

Smoke bombs and swords are all well and good, but they pale in comparison to the Marked One’s powers. As previously mentioned, players can pause their perception of time in order to pick targets for throwing knives or listen to what’s happening in nearby rooms. The further players progress, the more formidable their powers become. The Marked One is also proficient at more conventional abilities like hiding inside objects and, well, just staying out of sight.

This combination of tools, powers and gymnastics makes Mark of the Ninja a true thriller, one that challenges players’ tactical abilities as much as their reflexes. Everything from ducking out of sight to stabbing a foe is implemented with silky smoothness, making it easy for players to execute complicated maneuvers. As a result, there’s no limit to the fun that can be had with Mark of the Ninja‘s gameplay. Its stealth is not only masterfully implemented, but also allows for endless creativity.

Ninja5

Can you spot him now?

Another design element underlying Mark of the Ninja‘s skill with stealth is its level design. Each level in the game is riddled with hiding spots and secret passageways, giving players variety in how they approach their target. Does the Marked One take the front door and slip in and out of enemy patrols, or does he find a vent cover and sneak around in the air ducts? Each path has its own advantages and dangers, but they all allow for stylish stealth kills. They represent some of the most intricate platformer level design in years… perhaps even more so than Rayman Origins.

No matter if the player is a slash-happy psycho or a pure ghost, Mark of the Ninja grants points and bonuses for proficient gameplay. Players who simply sneak past foes may seem to gain more points than someone who leaves the enemy base bereft of life, but skillful kills grant points as well. Players can also gain points by completing challenges hidden in each level. Mark of the Ninja‘s points system exudes the same commitment to player freedom as its other design facets.

Ninja5

This is driving you crazy, isn’t it?

Mark of the Ninja impresses with its gameplay and level design, but the game’s artwork is what binds it all together. Like its protagonist, Mark of the Ninja dabbles in shadows, giving players a neat assortment of spooky temples and towers to sneak around in. The game’s foregrounds also explore darkness as a gameplay element; players who get caught walking around in the light will suffer the consequences, but hiding in those oily shadows leaves guards none the wiser.

Mark of the Ninja‘s backgrounds are similarly exquisite. Whether the Marked One is sneaking around Japan or Eastern Europe, the background paintings are all packed with detail and dark, strong colors. They add a grand sense of scale to the Marked One’s mission, reinforcing the notion that he is a small mouse scurrying up and down the corridors of a massive, malicious colossus. These bleak-but-beautiful backgrounds confer a dark atmosphere to the title, certainly one appropriate for a game about ninjas. The game’s soundtrack is a likewise collection of low, moody tunes.

Ninja6

Is he still eluding you?

Mark of the Ninja‘s characters and cutscenes are quite different from its intricately detailed environments. Much like Klei’s Shank games, the story is told in animated cutscenes whose style wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of Saturday morning cartoons. Though character animations don’t suffer for this style and the cutscenes are well-enough animated, their cartoony visage contrasts sharply with the more sophisticated visuals in the game’s environments. Mark of the Ninja‘s voice acting is acceptable, though the writing has an unfortunate tendency to get cheesy.

Mark of the Ninja‘s writing problem seeps beyond dialogue and into the game’s plot. Though the game excels at making players feel like a ninja, the story uniting those gameplay elements feels much less inspired. The tale is a pretty conventional revenge story; some guy trashed the temple, so get out there and kill him. Ironically for a game about stealth, Mark of the Ninja‘s plot twists can be spotted from a mile away. So yeah, don’t play this game for its plot; play it to kill guards with flesh-eating bugs.

Ninja7

You can’t see him… but he can see you.

Like some of the other platformers reviewed here recently, Mark of the Ninja‘s mediocre storytelling is not nearly bad enough to kill the game’s fun. Between its sophisticated level design and its smoothly implemented stealth gameplay, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most innovative platformers of the last five years. It’s an important title because its gameplay challenges platforming conventions, and does so with skillful design. Plus, it’s a lot of fun; it may not be the only ninja video game kicking around, but it is one of the best.

____________________

You can buy Mark of the Ninja here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Rayman Legends

Legends1

Save the Glade of Dreams from a quintet of malicious magicians.

PC Release: September 3, 2013

By Ian Coppock

This month’s platforming fun continues with a look at Rayman Legends, the much-anticipated sequel to Rayman Origins. After Origins was released to critical acclaim, series creator Michel Ancel immediately started making a follow-up: a game that seeks to preserve Origins‘ carefree fun but also makes a few formula shakeups. Rayman Legends is the result of that effort; how fun is it, and what shakeups does it make to Origins‘ platforming brilliance?

____________________

Like its predecessor, Rayman Legends is a side-scrolling platformer whose format evokes the titular character’s early years. 1995’s Rayman was a side-scroller, but the series wouldn’t see that format again until Origins launched in 2011. Rayman’s return to form was met with widespread acclaim by critics and players, who praised Origins‘ fluid gameplay and level design. No doubt giddy with excitement, Ancel returned to his gaming workshop (a building that, given the design of the Rayman games, is most likely a bubble-emitting castle or a flying pirate ship) and released Rayman Legends in 2013.

After kicking Darktoon hiney in Rayman Origins, Rayman and his buddies celebrate by taking a 100-year-long nap. They wake up (no doubt feeling quite invigorated), and discover that a gaggle of evil magicians has been corrupting the Glade of Dreams during their snooze cruise. Once again the Glade is overrun with monsters, and once again, it’s up to Rayman and his sidekicks to defeat them and save the world. Because this is a platformer, players can also bet that there’s a princess or two to save.

Legends2

LET’S DO THIS!!!

Rayman returns to center stage with the same abilities he had in Rayman Origins. Everyone’s favorite limbless hero can run and jump around, as well as punch the living daylights out of any dark beastie that stands in his way. He can also utilize his trademark helicopter hair to drift to new areas. Just like in Origins, players can choose to play as Globox or one of Rayman’s other buddies, and they too have these platforming powers. Players can also team up and fight together with Legends‘ seamless co-op function.

Like Rayman OriginsRayman Legends’ levels are set up in segments. Rayman can only take one or two hits before he’s dead, but he’ll respawn at the beginning of that segment instead of the entire level. Players can extend Rayman’s longevity by picking up hearts, which are offered as a reward for executing certain moves or for defeating the right opponent. The goal of each level is to rescue as many Teensies as possible; the more Teensies players rescue, the more levels they can unlock down the road.

Legends3

This should be fun to watch.

This entire gameplay setup is virtually identical to that of Rayman Origins, albeit with one small tweak. While Rayman Origins is fun, it’s also a challenging game, one whose later levels have the potential to drive novice platformer fans bonkers. Rayman Legends is a formidable game too, but the difficulty has been reduced just enough to make the game more accessible for newcomers. Not to worry, platformer aficionados; Legends doesn’t sacrifice the challenge that more inveterate fans relish.

A few other smidgen-sized adjustments have been made to the Rayman formula too. Whether Rayman is jumping or running, the controls are a bit more responsive than Origins‘. This makes the game’s reflex-driven challenges not only more doable, but also more fun. When it comes to gameplay, Rayman Legends does what a good sequel to a good game should do: make a few adjustments here and there without sacrificing the core mechanics that made its predecessor popular. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Legends4

Right!

Rayman Legends builds a charming world around these gameplay mechanics. Players are given five colorful worlds to liberate in pursuit of cleansing the Glade of Dreams, as well as numerous bonus levels and even a hidden sixth world (not so hidden now, is it?). Rayman Legends also includes a selection of mini-games that players can compete in in local or online co-op… the Kung Foot game is particularly lively. The game even features all of the levels from Rayman Origins re-engineered with Legends‘ gameplay, but these can only be unlocked at random by the game.

The best thing about all of this content is how fluidly it’s organized. Players can access these worlds and challenges via a series of paintings, and moving from gallery to gallery is a cinch. Rayman Legends aptly categorizes an otherwise bewildering array of levels, challenges and minigames to make it as simple as possible for players to find what they want to do next. It’s one thing for a game to simply have a lot of content, and quite another for all of that content to  be easy to find. Legends succeeds on both counts.

Legends5

This is the liveliest gallery stroll of all time!

While on the subject of menus and choices, let’s go over Rayman Legends‘ options menu. The game runs mostly on 2D visuals, so it’s not a huge surprise that the menu is as small as it is. Players can expect to find the usual roster of basic resolution and sound options, but there’s not a whole lot more to this title’s roster of toggles. Since Rayman Legends does contain 3D objects, more in-depth options for visual fidelity are called for with this title.

Then again, all of this seems like nit-picking in the face of how well Rayman Legends runs on PC. Thanks mostly to its 2D presentation, Rayman Legends runs brilliantly on potato laptops and monster rigs alike. As with most platformers ported to PC, Legends‘ keyboard & mouse controls are serviceable, but a gamepad works much grander wonders. Gamers weary of glitching, freezing, and crashing rejoice; Legends produces no such performance issues.

Legends6

This skeleton’s only options are punching and kicking! Hi-ya!

What was all of that hullabaloo about 2D visuals? Well, Rayman Legends has tons of them, and they’re significantly more sophisticated than those of Rayman Origins. Make no mistake, Origins is a beautiful game, but Legends displays noticeable improvement in object and character detail, coloring, and textures. Michel Ancel and his team succeeded in giving Rayman and his buddies more realized character models without sacrificing their cartoon-like veneer.

The worlds of Rayman Legends display similar improvements, with much sharper backgrounds and foregrounds than Origins had in its worlds (again, not to say that Origins didn’t also look jaw-droppingly awesome). Legends’ biggest break with its predecessor is the use of 3D models, which are seamlessly integrated into the 2D world. Legends tops all of this off by avoiding sexualizing its female characters as Origins did, which makes them more visually consistent with the world.

Legends7

Girls can defeat bad guys too!

Rayman Legends‘ enthusiasm for good art extends beyond the visual department and into sound and music. The game’s score is a lively mix of string-driven songs that sound right out of a lighthearted adventure film, as well as some grander horn-driven tunes that play during the game’s most intense sequences. Rayman Legends also includes some not-so-subtle adaptations of classic rock songs that play in certain levels, including a goblin-sung rendition of Ram Jam’s Black Betty.

With a gameplay and art arrangement this solid, Rayman Legends doesn’t quite need a heavy-hitting narrative. The game’s story is told non-verbally and is essentially the same as Origins‘: a group of monsters are out to conquer the Glade of Dreams, and oh boy, Rayman comes out swinging. In spite of not tapping into deeper narrative territory, Legends still benefits from cutesy presentation and laugh-out-loud nonverbal humor. Gamers of all ages can giggle at watching a bad guy get shot into space.

Legends8

Wheeee!

Rayman Legends‘ art, gameplay and humor culminates in a great title, one that is both a loving improvement upon Rayman Origins and also one of the greatest platformers of all time. It may not have sold quite enough copies to warrant a proper sequel, but Legends stands unchallenged as perhaps the best platformer of the decade four years after release. It’s for that reason that gamers everywhere (platforming fans and otherwise) should immediately buy this game. Rayman Legends is a fluid, feel-good romp through a colorful world, and damn if it isn’t a ton of fun.

____________________

You can buy Rayman Legends here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Deadlight

Deadlight1

Search for your wife and daughter in a Soviet-era zombie apocalypse.

PC Release: October 25, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Zombies have oversaturated pop culture to such an extent that musings about this fact have themselves become oversaturated. The shambling undead are everywhere: on TV, in video games, even tattooed on people’s bodies. Zombies have become so popular that people can now go to Singapore and LARP in a zombie apocalypse. Separating the good zombie media from the bad has become quite a meaty responsibility, which is why Deadlight is getting a turn in the review spotlight this evening.

____________________

Deadlight is a side-scrolling horror platformer created by Tequila Works, the Spanish studio behind two of 2017’s biggest indie hits: Rime and The Sexy Brutale. Before making games about exploring islands or solving murder mysteries, Tequila Works debuted a very different game back in 2012: a side-scrolling platformer about fighting zombies and exploring the ruins of civilization. Despite receiving generally positive reviews, Deadlight couldn’t compete with the likes of Dead Island and State of Decay. 

Deadlight‘s narrative is set in the 1980’s and follows Randall Wayne, a Canadian park ranger toughing it out with a group of other zombie apocalypse survivors in the ruins of Seattle. Randall came to Seattle in the hopes of finding his wife and daughter at the Safe Point, a rumored refuge at the heart of the city. The game begins as Randall becomes separated from his group by a zombie attack and is forced to strike out on his own.

Deadlight2

Time to get choppy.

Deadlight‘s gameplay is pretty standard fare for a side-scrolling platformer: just keep walking right until the game says “stop.” Randall can also leap up to high ledges and crouch into tunnels to find hidden areas and items. Despite shouldering heavy gear during the entire game, Randall has near-superhuman acrobatic abilities; few ledges and items are beyond this spry Canadian’s reach. Though Randall has an Olympian physique, his health is far more finite, so jump and roll with care.

Deadlight also throws the occasional environmental puzzle at players. Most of them, like pushing a box to be able to clamber up to a high ledge, have been done a million times in other games. Since Deadlight is a zombie game, players can also expect to find a few of those puzzles where the power box has to be shut off to de-electrify an inconveniently placed puddle. Players can also use objects in the environment to kill zombies; the best way to pass time in the zombie apocalypse is by flattening walkers with suspended cars.

Deadlight3

Kaboom!

Deadlight‘s mix of running, jumping and puzzling is perfectly serviceable… until the game introduces combat. Although Randall starts things out with no weapons (forcing him to either sneak around zombies or use environmental kills), he eventually finds a fire ax! Surely, such a mighty weapon can fell many a flesh-eater, right? Wrong. Combat in Deadlight is a joke. It’s hard to tell if the zombies even have hitboxes, meaning that players have to keep taking swings at zombies until they happen to take its head off.

Additionally, even though Randall can parkour across Seattle until the cows come home, taking 1-2 swings with the ax completely tuckers him out. Given that Randall can run, jump, and roll to his heart’s content, it’s a bit weird that swinging the fire ax once takes out half his stamina (that’s what he gets for skipping arm day). This problem becomes somewhat nullified once Randall finds a gun, but ammo is quite scarce, so don’t count out still having to use the fire ax throughout the game.

Deadlight4

I’m gonna… (huff) kick… (puff) the crap outta you!

For players who are up for braving subpar combat or skilled at avoiding it altogether, Deadlight‘s world has a lot to offer. The game’s visuals have aged well for being a half-decade old; character animations are fluid and textures look quite sharp. Deadlight also makes fantastic use of muted light and atmospheric effects to really bring the creepiness out of the zombie apocalypse. Additionally, the backdrop vistas of post-apocalyptic Seattle are absolutely stunning and give players plenty to look at as Randall wanders the landscape. None of this is to say that the game’s foregrounds aren’t intricately detailed as well.

Deadlight‘s sound design is a win, too. Every sound is designed to keep players on their toes: objects break with frightful force and rain patters on dilapidated rooftops with a tense tempo. The zombies carry the same cadre of hisses and growls that all zombies in other media do, but this doesn’t make them any less creepy. Deadlight‘s soundtrack is similarly morose, with somber piano melodies and deep, dark strings. Deadlight even samples symphonic metal, playing a bit of Mechina’s Cryostasis Simulation 2632 01 during a level set in an abandoned hospital. Creeeeeeepy stuff.

Deadlight5

Terrifying, but also what was that noise?

Deadlight‘s spooky design decisions make for a more open world than some players might think possible of a side-scrolling platformer. The game’s backdrops make the world feel a lot bigger than it actually is, which also makes roaming across the landscape all the more engrossing. Deadlight has a Rayman Origins-esque penchant for hidden areas, so players up for some exploring and zombie fans looking for show-don’t tell environmental storytelling (why does that wall have blood on it?) can rejoice.

Deadlight‘s atmosphere is also reinforced by tidbits of written exposition hidden throughout the game. Players can unlock pages of Randall’s diary as they advance through the story; most of it doesn’t stand out from other zombie fiction writing, but it’s a great option for players who crave backstory. Explorers may also stumble upon ID cards that belong to famous serial killers, just in case the zombie apocalypse didn’t already give this game a morbid enough atmosphere.

Deadlight6

Apparently Ted Bundy lived in this apartment. I know it’s true because I saw it in a video game.

The thick, mysterious atmosphere clouding Deadlight is by far the game’s most compelling feature, more so than the narrative. While the story that Deadlight presents isn’t bad, it doesn’t tread any new ground for zombie fiction. How many zombie apocalypse stories star a grizzled man looking for his family? How many of these narratives feature the trope of the rumored safe zone? Deadlight‘s dalliances in these conventions are given weight thanks to some decent, if occasionally overly poetic, writing, but that doesn’t stop them from being devices that no zombie fan is a stranger to.

Deadlight‘s preference for well-trod notions of the zombie apocalypse is consistent from the game’s beginning until its end. In addition to the aforementioned tired premises of finding family and a safe zone, the game features the token group of good humans-gone-bad. Each member of Randall’s group also draws clear inspiration from past zombie fiction: there’s the hyperventilating young girl, the increasingly cynical police officer, and even an old man who owns an RV (*cough*Walking Dead*cough*). Even the game’s ending can be spotted from a mile away.

Deadlight7

Watcha doin’, Dale—I mean—Kale.

Deadlight‘s narrative—derivative of past works though it may be—is saved from total irrelevance by presenting itself at an even pace and making good use of cogent voice acting. Even though Deadlight tells the same story that a dozen other pieces of zombie media have already told, it’s presented with convincing emotion by the game’s voice cast. Some of the dialogue writing is strange, especially the part when Randall claims that some girl’s saliva is “all we have left” (???), but it’s otherwise serviceable.

Deadlight also scores some originality points for presenting the zombie apocalypse as a side-scrolling platformer, something that few other games do. Even if Randall’s story to find his family has been overdone, presenting that story as a platformer does give the whole production some freshness. It also provides a way for players to see and experience that narrative in a format other than a shooter or an open-world game, which is the structure that most zombie games rely on.

Deadlight8

Welp, the housing market has literally gone to hell.

Zombie and platforming fans should consider giving Deadlight a try. The weariness of its narrative is largely cancelled out by its presentation; as a result, the game fits into the “good” side of zombie media. The game’s combat isn’t great, but its cadre of platforming and parkour is otherwise pretty sturdy. Just one bit of advice: do not get the Director’s Cut edition of Deadlight that Tequila Works put out last year. It’s buggy, it’s glitchy, and it only features an endless survival mode as its chief upgrade. Stick to the original version to get the 80’s Seattle zombie experience in all its gory glory.

____________________

You can buy Deadlight here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Rayman Origins

Origins1

Stop an army of monsters from fouling up the world.

PC Release: November 15, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Ah, it’s nice to finally return to the fold of everyone’s favorite limbless hero. It’s been a while since a Rayman game was reviewed on this page; Rayman 2: The Great Escape and Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc were both covered in… what, January of 2016? So yeah… it’s been a while. The time is ripe, though, to turn to one of video gaming’s zaniest worlds: a world where the colors are as bright as the prettiest summer days and fun platforming is in abundance. Obviously, we’re talking about Rayman Origins.

____________________

The Rayman series has had a strange journey. The franchise debuted in 1995 with a self-titled 2D platformer before swapping over to a 3D action-adventure format in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. After that, the property got lost in the weeds, with Rayman hanging up his platforming chops to go party with a bunch of goggly-eyed bunnies in 2006’s Rayman Raving Rabbids. Rayman went dormant for the next five years (sans the occasional handheld game) before roaring back to life with Rayman Origins in 2011.

As its name implies, Rayman Origins is a reboot that takes the series back to its original side-scrolling roots (though it doesn’t disclose the actual origins of everyone’s favorite limbless hero). The title also marks the return of series creator Michel Ancel, who hadn’t directed a Rayman game since 1999’s Rayman 2: The Great Escape and played only minor (if any) role in the development of subsequent Rayman titles.

Origins2

This way to the adventure!

Rayman Origins begins with the titular hero soaking up some peace and quiet… until his buddy Globox’s snoring wakes up an army of evil Darktoons. Because snoring is apparently a felony in the underworld, they put Rayman & co. behind bars and start trashing the Glade of Dreams. To make matters worse, they lock up all of the cutesy little Electoons and give one of Rayman’s friends nightmares about becoming a chicken (oh the horror). Once again, it’s up to Rayman to save his friends and the world.

As Rayman, players can save the Glade of Dreams by journeying to each of its eight eye-popping worlds and rescuing the Electoons from the monsters. Electoons can be found in cages hidden throughout each level and are also given out as prizes for scoring enough points. The more Electoons Rayman collects, the more worlds he can unlock. Rayman Origins also features co-op, in which teams of up to four players can seek out Electoons together. Origins‘ gallery of sidekicks includes Rayman’s best friend Globox, a couple of Teensies, and various re-skins of all four heroes.

Origins3

Whee!

Rayman Origins‘ gameplay is pure side-scrolling platformer, and damn if it doesn’t run on a hardy diet of running, jumping, and punching. Players can sprint through levels punching foes and discovering secrets, or use Rayman’s trademark helicopter hair to hover to hard-to-reach areas. Rejoice, classic platforming fans; there’s a whole lot of jumping around on floating platforms and kicking the crap out of cartoony foes to be had in Rayman Origins (not to mention lots of hidden treasure).

Origins also benefits from intricate level design. Though each level in Rayman Origins is played from left to right, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of hidden alcoves and alternate paths to find. As Rayman, players can venture into dark caves and through curtains of vegetation in search of more treasure. Indeed, being up for some exploring is a must in Rayman Origins, as the amount of Electoons needed to get to the next area is usually too high for players to obtain by just by speeding through stages. The game’s level design varies from world to world; players can expect to spend one world swinging through trees and the next swimming to the deepest depths.

Origins4

Running and jumping and running and jumping and running and jumping…

Rayman Origins‘ apt combination of fluid gameplay and multilayered level design is what gives the game its platforming punch. The fact that it took the platforming world by storm in 2011 is evidence that, while platformers hadn’t necessarily forgotten how to do good platforming, they’d still simplified their level design and removed the intricacy once endemic to the genre. Most Mario games, for example, feature only a single path forward in their levels while Rayman Origins has several.

The other gameplay element that Rayman Origins recaptures from the golden days of platforming is its high difficulty level. Rayman can only take a single blow before it’s back to the beginning of that segment of the level (though he can sustain two hits if he finds an extra heart). Couple Rayman’s fragility with Rayman Origins‘ plethora of enemies and obstacles, and it makes for a challenging game. Its high learning curve won’t suit everyone, but old-school platforming fans looking for a new challenge will absolutely relish this design element. 

Origins5

More friends equals more adventures.

Before anything else can be said about Rayman Origins, hows about that eye-popping artwork? If Rayman Origins wasn’t celebrated for its fluid gameplay or back-to-basics design philosophy, it won gamers’ hearts with its colorful aesthetic. Comprising hundreds of in-game objects and thousands of shades of color, Rayman Origins‘ take on the Glade of Dreams is one of the most vibrant platforming landscapes of the decade. The game is unafraid to use bright colors in every environment from jungles to giant Mexican kitchens. Rayman Origins also has fun with a wide palette of textures.

Additionally, Rayman Origins features fantastic character animation. Everything from Rayman’s punching to his running is fluidly animated, as are the movements of the worlds’ flora and characters. The only problematic element of Origins‘ character design is how sexualized the Glade of Dreams’ nymphs are. Not only is this an obnoxious design choice on its own, but these busty fairies draw a conspicuous contrast with how cute and innocent the rest of the game looks.

Origins6

Suddenly this game feels dirty..

Even though Rayman Origins‘ world is visually and musically complex, the game’s 2.5D setup and visuals means that it has little trouble running on PC. The options menu could stand to be better (as always) but players should have no problem running Rayman Origins on monster rig desktops or little potato laptops. As is common with platformers ported to PC, the game’s keyboard & mouse controls are a little… unrefined; not so much as to make the game unplayable, but just enough to warrant using a gamepad if possible.

If Rayman Origins has a flaw, it’s that Michel Ancel invested much more effort into the game’s art and music than he did the story. Sure, each character has some cutesy dialogue, but the game is much more about completing levels than following along with a narrative. That’s not a bad thing for a game to do if it’s fun enough (and Rayman Origins certainly is) but the property has proven to be an ample storytelling franchise in games past, especially Rayman 2. Players shouldn’t come to Rayman Origins for an involved narrative, but they should stay for how fun and funny the characters are despite the lack of one.

Origins7

Swim away, swim away!

Rayman Origins is a fun game; it’s a challenging title, but it’ll love players that brave depths and heights to find those Electoons. The game is solid evidence that love for old-school platformers is still alive and well today, even though most modern platformers have moved away from difficulty and intricate level design. Rayman Origins espouses both of those things, though, and players who do the same should pick this title up and give those nasty Darktoons a (literal) run for their money.

____________________

You can buy Rayman Origins here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.