Monthly Archives: June 2012

Cardinal Quest 2 Preview

[This article was published in the July issue of Indie Game Magazine]

Just so we’re clear on this, we only have a very early alpha build of the Cardinal Quest 2 (CQ2) available to us right now; so all those screenshots you see dotted around this article? They’re mostly made up of placeholder graphics recycled from the first game. It all looks perfectly fine as-is though, so I’d say the promise of higher rez sprites in the future is a tantalising one indeed. But more importantly, even in this early build it’s already abundantly clear that CQ2 is on course to be a quantum leap over the original CQ, which was a pretty neat little title in its own right (It scored 70% on our review scale back in February!). Rest assured, It still has all those lovely Roguelike trappings that fans expect: Randomly generated dungeons, oodles of loot, plenty of stats to tweak and, of course, a rather harsh difficulty curve (my first attempted playthrough lasted oh…..about 5 minutes?). But on top of all that we’ve now got a significantly expanded feature set that adds a whole host of new and intriguing tactical possibilities.

So what’s so different then? Well, the most significant change is the level of control you have over how character evolves throughout the course of your adventure. In the original CQ, you simply chose a starting class and then…..  that was pretty much it really. The game auto-equipped any decent loot you found without asking you and leveling up just increased your health a little. CQ2 on the other hand drops the whole auto-equip thing, allows players to invest skill points into a talent tree (every RPG has to have one of those now, it’s a law or something) and provides you with shops that offer randomised selections of loot to spend your hard earned coinage on. Together these mechanics allow players to build their hero in a direction they’ve actually chosen (e.g. a flimsy but speedy Warrior or a super bulky yet slow Wizard) while still not overwhelming them with pages of unnecessary statistics and decisions like so many RPGs are wont to do.

Joining the original trio of Thief, Warrior and Wizard we’ve got at least 3 new classes on the way. First there’s the Pugilist; a macho-man brawler that refuses to even touch those wussy weapons the other classes use, instead relying his ever-reliable friends “left fist” and “right fist” to stun then toss around anyone who gets near. Next there’s the Paladin; a powerful servant of light who starts with a high faith stat and a rare healing spell by default, but must sacrifice his own HP to cast non-holy spells like fireball. And finally there’s my personal favorite: the Ranger; that iconic fantasy archer extraordinaire, now accompanied by a delightfully derpy lookin’ dog that draws away enemy’s attention while you pelt ‘em with arrows.

In addition to the original’s narrow confined dungeons, CQ2 introduces expensive outdoor environments, which include tons of lovely lovely bushes! Wait, is that “uh, why are bushes a big deal?” I hear you say? Well, they have huge effect on not only your character’s line of sight, but also that of your enemies. This allows a correctly specced hero to get the drop on unsuspecting enemies, thus granting access to those brutal backstab damage multipliers previously only available to the sneaky sneaky Thief class. But be warned, hiding in the bushes also has a drastically detrimental effect on your defences, adding yet another layer to CQ’s engaging risk/reward dynamic.

The only downside to all this extra content is that it’s made CQ2 rather less ‘snappy’ than the original, resulting in a far slower and more methodical experience that may take a little longer to get to grips with than before. That said, It’s still an exceptionally accessible title. Thanks to a simple control scheme, a smart UI and very helpful tooltips, anyone with even basic understanding of RPGs should be bustin’ monsters with the best of ‘em in no time! To sum it up, CQ2 is looking like it’ll be everything a good sequel should: bigger, deeper and more fun, all while not abandoning anything that made the original so engaging in the first place. It’s one worth looking forward to for sure.

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Cardinal Quest 2 Interview

[Interview conducted with Ido Yehieli and Ruari O’Sullivan on the topic of their new game, Cardinal Quest 2. This article was published in the July issue of Indie Game Magazine.]

IGM: Thanks for joining me today guys! Could you just give our readers a quick lowdown on who you are and the cool things that you do for a living?

Ido: I am the main developer behind Cardinal Quest 1 (CQ1), and Ruari is the main developer behind Cardinal Quest 2 (CQ2). We are both full time indie developers making a living from Cardinal Quest. Ruari joined me shortly after CQ1 was released, at about version 1.1 I believe.

Ruari: Ayup! I’m Ruari. I used to work for a major studio here in the UK and now I’m a full time indie developer. I put out a few small projects of my own last year – “Beacon” and “Fear is Vigilance” along with doing some contract work. I came onto CQ1 back in October and I’ve ended up doing a full blown sequel.

IGM: What did you guys initially set out to improve over the original Cardinal Quest? Was there any one particular thing that made you think “we can do better this time!”?

Ruari: There were a few huge things I wanted to fix. CQ1 really streamlined the whole roguelike template, down to the extent that you weren’t making choices about your character. I wanted to try and keep that accessibility but bring choice back into the game, so you get this real feeling of owning your character and making long term decisions.

Ido: Right, having more influence on long term character progression is probably the biggest thing.

Ruari: The other big thing I wanted to add was to really build up the world, so you have these functionally different spaces you’re travelling through; forests, towns, caves and so on. All to reinforce that you’re on a journey, you’re making progress, and you’re travelling to dangerous places which might surprise you rather than retreading stuff you’ve seen before.

Ido: Another big improvement is the role items play in the game. In CQ2 choosing your gear is a big part of the game, and you can further customize your character by having more possible “gear builds”, there are fewer obviously better sets as with CQ1.

IGM: Has it been difficult trying to preserve that streamlined aspect of CQ1 while still adding new content and mechanics?

Ruari: Yeah, massively! It’s not too hard to add content, but new rules that allow that content to be more varied or more meaningful can really cause trouble. It’s a matter of keeping a balance; of switching rules out for ones that are a bit more powerful wherever we can. One huge example of that balance is that we got rid of the inventory screen and management from CQ1. There was a ton of UI work done for it but it didn’t really add to the game much. By handling inventory management entirely when you find stuff, we could drop that aspect entirely, which meant it was much easier to bring the talent system in without overcomplicating the UI.

Overall, though, it’s just been a slow process of gradually refining what’s there; switching rules out for stuff that works a little better, redesigning the UI to make things clearer, bit by bit. It’s probably where most of the work’s gone so far.

Ido: Yeah, it’s not just bigger, longer, more stuff; a lot of the changes included removing or replacing things.

IGM: I noticed that auto-equipping is gone too! What was behind that decision? It’s something I found quite striking about the original Cardinal Quest.

Ruari: That’s totally about putting the player back in charge. Now that we have substantially different ways any given character can develop where they might want to focus on different strengths, it’s a lot more important to have the player involved in those decisions so they can shape things as they want. That, and the old system put items in your inventory when it wasn’t sure if you’d like them or not. Since we got rid of the inventory to make space for cooler features, we can’t rely on that anymore.

Ido: It’s also part of the fact that there are fewer obviously better and worse kits than before. They are more different than just different spots on a spectrum of quality.

IGM: Even in its very early alpha state, it already seems like there’s much more of a narrative going on than in the original Cardinal Quest. Is that an aspect you’re going to be expanding upon in a big way, or is it still low down on the priority list?

Ruari: The explicit storytelling in the alpha is a bit of an experiment. It’ll probably get cut back a bit as we add story and emergent narrative elements that can pull you in without relying so much on static text to help set the tone. So… yeah, narrative is at the heart of a lot of what we’re doing, but more in the sense of a really tangible world and potential for players to experience their own cool little stories rather than cutscenes and walls of text.

IGM: I’ve been really enjoying the more distinct playstyles that the 3 new classes bring to the table, especially the dynamic between the Ranger and his Dog! Are we going to see similar kinds of advanced mechanics extended to the original 3 classes and/or enemies as well?

Ruari: I definitely want to give the older classes some new toys. The talent trees give us some real room for expansion and there’ll definitely be some new class-specific skills you can unlock through them that’ll help expand the original classes’ playstyles and abilities. I’ve only got vague plans at the moment and I can’t promise anything before trying it out… but the Thief, for example, might get access to a skill which lets him dance around enemies and nip between them, whereas the Wizard might get the ability to use magic-casting enemies’ powers against them.

IGM: Are the new environments going to bring new possibilities too? The outdoor area from the alpha has a completely different feel from the original’s claustrophobic dungeons.

Ido: Not just feel, also different effects (e.g. the bushes increase your stealth and decrease your defence) – so tactics that might be good in one area might not be suitable to another and vice versa.

Ido: It serves as both thematic and mechanical variety.

Ruari: Yep. I mean, we have the claustrophobic dungeons too. The plan’s to explore different environments and environmental features, like rivers, and see what gameplay comes out the other end. Level design, monsters and items are places where we can add content and ideas without making the game feel any more complicated, so we get to really mix things up.

IGM: So far I’ve been really surprised how upfront the game is about its own mechanics, such as it telling me EXACTLY what effects any stat increases have on my character. What was the thought process behind opening up the game’s juicy innards like that?

Ruari: At one point there was a popup when you moused over an enemy that told you your odds to hit! That didn’t stay in.

Ido: I would say that being pretty transparent was always a goal for CQ, even in the CQ1 days. It’s a strategic game, so it lets the players make informed decision. That goal is simply better executed in CQ2.

Ruari: Yeah. I’m a big believer in a game being a series of interesting decisions, and to really have an interesting decision you have to have some idea what’s at stake and what the effects are. We can’t just let the stats feel like arbitrary numbers or when you’re presented with a choice, you might be like… what’s the point?

Ido: In my opinion, when it comes to games that are about mechanical challenge (rather than narrative for example, or cooperation) you got 2 main paths you can follow. I’ll refer to them as chess, and the other as judo:

In chess you have perfect information, and the challenge is to be overcome by analysing your situation and coming to an informed conclusion. You become better at the game by learning about the different possibilities and getting better at analysing the different situations it gives you

In judo you don’t have exact information about your opponent, so it’s more about gaining experience and developing an intuition. You try different things, and learn what’s better and what’s worse. The ultimate mastery there is being able to develop your intuition to the point where there is no conscious thought at all.

Since CQ falls into the 1st category moving closer towards perfect information (and being turn based) makes more sense.

Ruari: Well, we don’t give away everything. You’ve still got to learn which enemies are dangerous the hard way; there’s your judo. We just give you enough of the manual to get you involved in the strategic decisions you’re making, like talents and gear, without having to check a wiki or something.

Ido: Right, it’s a spectrum. Street Fighter is closer to judo than CQ is for example, and so is Counter Strike. Whereas Desktop Dungeons is closer to chess. Generally I envision CQ to be closer to the chess side of the spectrum. Like if chess is 1 and judo is 10, then CQ is maybe 3.

Ruari: Ultimately it just fell out of giving people these choices about gear and so on. If the decision’s informed then it’s a lot more fun.

IGM: Last time IGM interviewed Ido, he talked about the awkwardness of the app/android marketplaces. Has going through getting the original Cardinal Quest out on those systems changed that perception for either of you?

Ido: Yeah, the Android Market categories are horrible; they make no sense. That’s why I put CQ in “arcade & action”. Can you BELIEVE that was actually the least wrong category? The App Store is a bit better, but still not perfect. Strangely enough, Google’s Chrome web store has much better categories! It’s got an “rpg & strategy” category for example. I don’t know why these two genres are bunched up together, but it’s certainly better than the android market’s!

Amazon’s app store for android is also pretty good too, but unfortunately it is only available in the US. I put CQ1 there, but it’s not nearly as widespread as Google’s, so it doesn’t sell quite as well. That said, we did get pretty good placements in the app store (#16 in RPGs I think was our best ranking), so people were able to find the game. It’s not the next Angry Birds but we’re getting some decent sales.

IGM: Just a quick personal question: I’ve noticed you both seem to be very keen on Game Jam projects like IRDC and Ludum Dare. What is it about these kinds of events that appeals to you guys, and have they had much of an impact on Cardinal Quest’s development?

Ido: Yes, CQ1 started from the same code base I used for my 7DRL (Seven Day Roguelike Challenge) entry Detribus in 2011. Also, just making a ton of games makes you a better game designer and developer, you get experience that helps you when making bigger games too. I think it can really grind you down to work on a single big projects for months and sometimes year on end, it gives you a breath of fresh air to take a break and do something quick and small for a change. I’ve made 6 new games this year alone and it’s only June!

Ruari: Yeah, I really dig jams as a way to try out new stuff and recharge creatively. It’s easy to fall into a slump during a longer project but doing something new over a few days, finishing it up when you’re still totally in love with the concept, can be pure awesome.

IGM: I guess I’ll finish by asking by the one question no developer ever wants to hear: when can we expect finished version of Cardinal Quest 2?

Ido: later this year?

Ruari: Yeah, this year.

Ido: Ruari has a crazy AI system thing that can predict the exact date actually, but we don’t want to ruin the surprise!

Ruari: I admit to nothing.

McPixel Review

It’s hypothetical question time! So, you’re on a plane, right, and there’s this live nuke at your feet that’ll detonate in 20 seconds. Plus, there’s a rather hungry lookin’ giant snake that’s eyeing you up for a meal. And no, there aren’t any parachutes in sight. All you’ve got at your disposal is a handy shovel and some lightning-fast reflexes. Quick MacGyver! How do you get outta this one!?!?

What, you got nothing? Really? But the solution is so obvious! First, you kick the nuke into the snake’s gaping mouth, whack it rest of the way down the poor bugger’s digestive system using the shovel, and then hold his mouth closed. That way, the entire explosive force of the nuke will be contained within the snake’s body! And that my friends, is how you protect yourself from a nuclear explosion AND defeat a giant snake at the same time! Oh, wait. I should’ve probably mentioned that this is all happening inside a point ‘n click adventure game, a genre in which just about any problem can be solved, provided the solution makes absolutely zero goddamn sense.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration really. As much as a lot of us (e.g. me) like to remember all adventure games as being complete and utter nonsense, many of the puzzle solutions from classics like Loom and Monkey Island did follow at least some semblance of logic (even if they did get a little crazy at times….). But with McPixel, there’s no chance of any hyperbole going on. Indeed, I’d say it’s almost impossible to overstate the madness this game brings to the table anyway. Yes, it’s quite literally balls to the walls insane 110% of the time without fail.

The comically absurd “puzzle” I opened this review with? That’s not even close to the craziest thing this game’s thrown at me so far (although it is perhaps the funniest). It’s almost like the developer somehow collected every single silly adventure game puzzle ever, made them even more ridiculous, and then plonked an arbitrary 20 second time limit on ‘em out of pure malice. To put it simply, this game has all the frustration of a nightmarishly awkward pixel hunter, mixed in with the unrelenting pace of Wario Ware. Also, it’s……. fun? Go figure.

Alright, let’s get this bit over with. Visuals: 8-bit pixel art, yadda yadda yadda harkens back to the day when blah blah blah RETRO herp derp derp. Look, if you’re reading an Indie game blog then you’ve seen this stuff a million times before, so I’ll try and spare you the needless nostalgic reminiscing this time around. All you need to know is that the old-school aesthetics in McPixel are about as spot-on as they could possibly be; no elaboration needed. I would, however, like to give special mention to the kick-ass music. While some of the tracks might loop a little bit too often for my taste, it’s still by far the most impressive attempt at making an authentic adventure game soundtrack that ever I’ve heard! Why, it reminds me of back in the day when I played The Curse of Monkey Island and……BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. Moving on.

The core game mode in McPixel is broken up into rounds, and each round contains 6 wacky scenarios, all of which contain a non-descript bomb of some kind that’ll detonate in exactly 20 seconds. Within that very limited time frame you must partake in the time-honoured tradition of clicking random stuff like a madman in order to find some kind of insane solution to your impending doom. More often than not, however, you’ll instead stumble upon one of the many “easter egg” endings which, while suitably hilarious, will still bring you to an untimely end. Either way, the game’ll chuck you into the next balmy predicament on the list until you’ve found all the non-fatal endings in that round.

The fact the game runs at such a breakneck pace is probably what saves it from being anywhere near as frustrating as the old school puzzles it’s trying to parody. The reason those kinds of mind-bogglers got annoying in “real” adventure games was that they made any kind of smooth progression totally impossible, often leaving you trapped in the same area for hours on end. But if you can’t figure something out in McPixel, then no worries, ‘c0s you’ll be dead in 20 seconds and then thrown into the next puzzle anyway. Even then, it rarely takes more than two or three attempts to learn the ins and outs of each scenario pretty thoroughly (near-incomprehensible bonus levels aside). At the very most, you’re looking about two clicks per solution, none of which require any sense timing or skill.

In fact, almost every solution is so goddamn surreal that there’s no possible way you’d find them other than just brute-forcing every possible combination until you get lucky. The very few solutions that aren’t completely insane are instead laughably straightforward, as if to toy with what little comprehension you thought you had of McPixel‘s warped reality. I guess the lack of real “gameplay” here should make me angry or something, but it really doesn’t. If anything, its sheer absurdity and unpredictability makes McPixel an extremely appealing “turn-off brain” experience. If it wasn’t for the harsh time constraints, constant explosions and chuckle-worthy humour, I’d almost call it relaxing!

Eventually, though, the joke does being to wear a little thin. While the extensive variety of levels in McPixel keeps things interesting for way longer than you might expect, at the end of the day all it’s doing (albeit masterfully) is pulling off the same gag over and over again in little 20 second chunks. For some, I think that’s going to make the price tag of $9.99 a bit of a hard sell. But hey, it made me laugh more than I’ve laughed in a long while; can you really put a price on that?

McPixel will be available 26th of June and can currently be preordered via the official site for $9.99 (~£6.50) with an additional $1/$2.50 discount available if you also submit a piece of fan-art/video content with your order. Preordering will net you a free copy of Super Office Stress and the McPixel OST!

Good
Absurdist humour
Spot-on retro graphics
Unpredictable
Excellent music
Tons of levels

Bad
No real depth
Only has one joke