Monthly Archives: January 2012

Zack Zero Review

Join intrepid hero Zack Zero as he fights back the alien menace Zulrog using his ability to switch between the elemental forms of fire, ice and ground! Wait, doesn’t that sound a bit familiar? Ok, lets just ignore for a moment that Zack Zero appears at a glance to be a bootlegged Ben Ten knock-off; to be honest that’s the least of this 2D platfromer’s crimes against humanity. It’s certainly very nice to look at though! The cartoony Ratchet & Clank-esque art style and colourful, busy environments made this game almost bearable for a time; truly the diamonds in the rough. It’s such a shame then that -considering they’re literally the game’s only redeeming features- the art assets have been implemented with a shocking level of ineptitude.

The awkward way the levels have been laid out makes it frustratingly difficult to tell the difference between things you can actually interact with and stuff that’s just background set dressing you can safely ignore. What’s already a pretty fundamental issue is made worse by confusing camera angles and poorly telegraphed sections where you’re required to “jump into” the background layer (à la Little Big Planet) for no apparent reason. Zack Zero is far from the only platformer to suffer from some of these issues, but in most cases it’s made up for by well polished gameplay or at the very least some kind of unique innovation. *Spoilers!* Zack Zero has neither of those things.

The game’s PR blurb promises the “playability of 2D classics” and that’s exactly what they delivered! In fact, one 2D classic in particular comes into mind: Castlevania. Ever tried actually playing Castlevania? Well, the average playthrough mostly consists of seemingly broken gameplay mechanics, untold numbers of totally unfair deaths and a fair bit of cursing on the player’s part. And in that context, Zack Zero hits everything right on the nose. The deaths come thick and fast; Zack’s diminutive health bar ensuring each one of them feels like the game has cheated you in some sinister way, especially on the occasions you die from “falling damage” of all things. Yes that’s right, in a genre almost exclusively about falling from high places then landing on things, they decided you should take damage from falling from high places then landing on things. Good call guys.

The combat side of things doesn’t fare much better either. With no real way to block incoming attacks and you myriad of elemental powers being slow and cumbersome to the point of uselessness, anything more than a small entourage of opponents is more than enough to send you back to the last all-too-distant checkpoint in no time flat. Ironically, this makes the ultra fast long range attack that comes available when your powers are turned “off” feel like the sole viable ability in your entire arsenal. As far as I can tell, the only practical uses of your elemental powers are to complete the game’s tedious puzzles and to rank up extra points during combat. Don’t care about points? Well don’t tell the developers, cus’ they were sure hoping you would!

The top portion of the screen is constantly churning out leaderboard data like “You have the highest score amongst your friends on this level!” and “KawaiiDesuDragon13 has a top score of 452,230 on this stage!” or “You are ranked 343 out of the 960 poor sods that have actually played this game!”. While it’s quite admirable that the developers would try following in the footsteps of the bigger budget titles that that go crazy for this leaderboard tracking stuff, perhaps they should’ve spent a wee bit more time on making the “Game” part a little better first?

Perchance with that extra time they could’ve made sure that almost all the 20 or so boss fights weren’t just the same 3 damn near identical ones repeated over and over? I tell you what, they weren’t much fun the first time round, and they got exponentially less fun after that. But then again, possibly their time would have been better spent ensuring that your span of invincibility after taking damage lasted for more than half a nanosecond? Without a doubt that would’ve cut down on the copious number of times I ended up stun-locked into oblivion. Or maybe, just maybe, they could’ve spent a few moments deleting that annoying cutscene that plays every single goddamn time you fall to you death. Every. Single. Time.

I guess I could use the traditional excuse of “It’s just for kids!” to brush most of these complaints under the rug, but that would imply I’m a terrible person that really hated kids. Truth is, I have no idea who this game is supposedly aimed at, all I know is that I feel deeply deeply sorry for whoever they are and whatever plane of existence they inhabit. The real tragedy here is that the individual components of Zack Zero do show at least some promise in theory. But in reality everything about this game has been handled with such an astounding lack of common sense that makes me wonder if this game saw even a smidgen of quality assurance between its initial conception and it eventually appearing it on my TV screen.

Good

Fun colourful graphics

Score tracking features

Bad

Almost all Zack’s abilities seem useless

Difficult for all the wrong reasons

Hard to tell the difference between foreground and background

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The Fourth Wall Review

The Fourth Wall tells the age-old story of a small child who runs away from home and……. collects a giant orb that…..  uh…… turns him into a wizard? I’ll level with you here, I don’t have even the slightest clue what this game is “about”. My guess is that it’s either referencing some kind of personal experience on the developer’s part or is meant as a near indecipherable commentary on something or the other. Perhaps both? Maybe neither? Your guess is as good as mine, cus’ there ain’t anything much resembling dialog or text in this game to tell you otherwise.

It starts off simply enough for a 2D platformer: one button makes you jump, one makes you go left, one makes you go right. So far, so Mario. But those mechanics aren’t really going to get you very far on their own, as The Fourth Wall’s worlds are full of obstacles that traditional platformer logic would render impassable. Which is why it’s rather handy that holding down the Ctrl button lets you throw traditional platformer logic out the window like a boss.

Specifically, it’ll make the “camera” freeze in place and cause the edges of the screen to wrap around on themselves similar to a good ol’ game of Asteroids. Don’t get me? Let’s put it this way: If you walk into to the far right of the screen, you’ll suddenly end up on the far left. Head up to the top and you’ll appear on the bottom, and vice versa. Still not following? Don’t worry, unlearning decades of Nintendo brand education takes a bit of getting used to, but once it “clicks” suddenly The Fourth Wall’s funky level design all starts to make sense.

In reality, every environment in The Fourth Wall is a puzzle that can only solved by strategic and precise usage of your genre defying powers. Trying to think how I would even begin to describe some of these puzzles using only the written word and not a series of scribbled diagrams makes my brain want to commit hara-kiri, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that they’re best described as “devious”. However while they’re undoubtedly very clever in their design, it’s hard to say they’re not a bit of let-down visually. The backgrounds might feature some neat looking parallax landscapes, but the foreground and the sprites that inhabit it (e.g. you) are jarringly plain and uninteresting. There isn’t much in the way of sound either, bar some (admittedly kinda rad) mellow techno beats and a couple of well-timed audio cues. Are these unfortunate blemishes or are they stylistic choices that went over my head? I suspect a bit of both.

There’s plenty of instantaneous deathtraps adding a bit of spice to each level, but Super Meat Boy this ain’t. Death is but a temporary setback, with the game almost immediately respawning you a short distance from wherever Mr Child/Wizard/Thing met his end, allowing you to focus your attention on the puzzle at hand. And goddamn do they demand that attention! Some of the latter conundrums in particular require some serious Portal 2 grade lateral thinking. Then again, I don’t mean for it to sound like average gamer is going to be yanking their hair out over The Fourth Wall. In fact, it hits the difficulty curve sweat spot almost dead-on for my liking; it lets players make steady yet satisfying progress while still managing to dish out some real head scratcher moments along the way.

With that in mind, don’t expect The Fourth Wall to be something that you keep coming back to over and over. The whole thing’s pretty damn short; easily completable in one relatively short sitting. It’s kind of a bummer really; the concept seems full of potential and the quality of the puzzles suggests the designers had a solid grasp on what kind further devilry they could pull off with it. As it stands it’s still a good little distraction that’ll give your noggin a decent work out, but the brevity of its content and its spartan visuals prevent it from leaving as much of a lasting impression as it probably deserves.

The Fourth Wall is a PC title available for free at http://thefourthwallgame.com/.

Stealth Bastard Review

Glorified flash games, purgatory, a novel form of self abuse. Call them what you will, but ultra-punishing 2D platformers are quickly becoming an emergent genre in their own right, with titles such as VVVVV and Super Meat Boy leading the vanguard. But despite what the waves of positive critical reception might lead you to think, they truly are the Marmite of gaming whatever way you look at it. You’re either a masochist who manages to thrive off the constant cruelty that these games dish out, or you’re a rational human being the sort of person who yields after the first dozen or so times in a row your avatar shuffles off the mortal coil. Nevertheless, Stealth Bastard manages to widen that rather narrow target audience by asking for a bit less in terms of split-second twitch skills, and a lot more in puzzle solving and good old-fashioned patience.

If you only saw it at a glance though, I wouldn’t blame you for passing it over. These days It’s pretty hard for any Indi game that uses pixel art for its visuals to stand out from the crowd, especially when everyone and his dog has “referenced” that art form into oblivion the past couple of years. But Stealth Bastard tackles a unique and interesting element of the style that’s seldom utilised, if not ignored entirely: lighting. Rather than just having static illumination that’s already “drawn into” the background, this game has a fully fledged real-time lighting system that constantly changes in a mostly realistic and understandable way. It fills the gameworld full of broad shadows and gentle auras, creating environments that would have otherwise looked somewhat bland and generic. But it’s not all just to look pretty; correct usage of those shadows is integral to the titular Stealth Bastard not being burnt, crushed, vaporised, grinded or whatever else the current level’s manifold devices have in store for the little guy.

The gruesome ways your little homie can die in Stealth Bastard are endless.

Patrolling guards and security cameras all need a clear line of sight on Mr Bastard before they can bring him to an untimely end, forcing you to sneak around in the (relatively) secure shadows if you literally want to stay in one piece. This allows for a much slower and far more accessible pace of play than you often see in similar games, one that rewards you (i.e. doesn’t murder you quite so quickly) for progressing slowly and carefully instead of just running in all guns a blazin’. You’re still expected to show a bit of platforming chops on-top of all this, but it never really descends into a Castlevania style pixel perfect jump challenge apocalypse like you might expect.

Your main objective on each level, other than staying alive for more than a few nanoseconds, is to activate a number of specific terminals in order to open up the level’s exit. Reaching this objective in turn requires all manner of secondary terminals to be flipped and couple of block puzzles to be solved, often with the looming threat of instantaneous death from any number of sources. As much as that might all sound rather formulaic on paper, Stealth Bastard’s continually evolving environment keeps things interesting by regularly revealing hidden passageways, completely rearranging the lighting scheme, spawning new hazards and other such potentially fatal tomfoolery. It gives each moment within Stealth Bastard an air of slightly unnerving unpredictability; a breath of fresh air in an age where, seemingly by law, every scripted event has to be neatly telegraphed to the player beforehand in order not to offend their delicate senses.

The game knows full well that you expect to meet your end at every turn.

However, this in itself goes a long way to undo much of the game’s accessibility factor by requiring the player rely on a huge amount of trial and error in order to make even the slightest hint of progress. You never really know what kind of crazy shenanigans are about to unfold until they already have, at which point you have approximately zero seconds to figure it all out before you end up as a pile of meaty chunks beneath whatever hellish scenario was just set into motion. And then you have to do it again. And again, and again. Until you finally last long enough to trigger the next deathtrap and start the process all over again.

I can’t really say for sure whether such a recipe is “good” or “bad” game design; some people seriously dig games treating them like dirt, but for others it’s just going to generate major aggro even with Stealth Bastard’s forgiving pace. This isn’t exactly helped by the game’s checkpoint system. Admittedly the fact it even has checkpoints at all lowers the difficulty significantly over stuff like Super Meat Boy, however more often than not their rather haphazard placement sees you repeating the same menial tasks multiple times in order to get the the actual bit that was giving you strife.

Even if you’re not too taken with the game itself, its techno reimagings of retro 8-bit style melodies are still worth listening to.

Even if/when you do manage to succeed at whatever seemingly insurmountable task had been irking you, the game only offers 28 (21 not including semi-tutorials) levels and no narrative to speak of, therefor you have to REALLY want to go back and beat your best completion times in order to get the most out of the experience Stealth Bastard offers. You can add a bit of extra longevity by playing fan-made levels (or building your own with the fairly robust level editor) although rather predictably most users have elected to construct nearly impossible stages that require godly amounts of precision and timing that few players will be able to muster.

I don’t mean to understate how enjoyable this game can be; in spite of its simplistic mechanics it provides a diverse set of challenges that constantly keep you on your toes in a way that few modern games can. I do however wish to give ample warning that, man, this still be some pretty hardcore stuff goin’ on here. With that in mind, at a respectable price of ZERO Pounds Sterling/U.S Dollars it’s hard to argue that Stealth Bastard isn’t at least worth a casual peek. Even more so if you’ve found its cousins slightly beyond your skill level, but still want to get in on the action.

Stealth Bastard is currently available for PC and can be downloaded for free from the official site.