Category: Done Playing

Done Playing: Trials Frontier (Android, iOS)

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It was the fourth part in one of the game’s longest string of quests. Each round requires out-racing an increasing number of real player ghosts. After numerous attempts and waiting for the timer on a few bike upgrades I was finally able to top the 26th opponent in my way. With the victory dialog finally ready to reveal something I felt like I was in for a big reward… and then the game broke.

It would be a day of force closing the app, restarting it and watching it crash on that same almost-reveal. I posted to the official forums and another day later was advised to remove the game and download it again. Booting it up didn’t find my save game until I’d replayed the introductory section again but finally, I was able to complete the quest. The reward? Another tier of 26 opponents and a tease of a further sentence of explanatory text. My other quest option was similar; another tier of endless grinding to craft top tier items in races against grueling A.I. opponents.

That was about a week ago at this point and since I haven’t had the heart to load up the game I think it’s safe to say I’m officially ‘Done PlayingTrials Frontier. It was a lot of fun and I played it for a solid two months and change; I even gave them five bucks when they had a pack of coins, gear and diamonds on sale. Those boosts helped but the quests I’m up to now require double the time, luck and energy as the ones I’d worked through in the weeks before.

Here is the apex of what I’m willing to give for some physics-y fun driving and what the game wants to take out of me to let me keep going. And like one of those impossibly steep inclines on an Extreme difficulty Trials track I just can’t throw myself at it any longer. Now, if they’d just put Trials Fusion on sale already!

Continue reading this series with Part 1Part 2, and Part 3 

Done Playing: Strider (Xbox One)

It's not sprites but the game has a really great detailed look

It’s not sprites but the game has a really great detailed look

I finished Strider 2014 last week and overall it wasn’t great. As an homage to the arcade original I suppose that makes it a pretty accurate tribute because as much as I love that wacky old Strider it’s not much of a game. You run and jump wildly, hammering the attack button as everything explodes, you and your enemies alike. Peculiar characters come and go in a blur of flashes and there’s lots of deaths caused by wonky animations. Take away the coin slot and drag those traits out for a few hours and you’ve got Strider 2014.

As a tribute to Arcade Strider it hits every point you could list.

  • Hangglider infiltration
  • Constant shing-ing sword attacks
  • Quasi-Neo-Soviet regime
  • Grandmaster Meio
  • Dipodal Saucers, robo-hawks and panthers
  • A big mechanical gorilla
  • Super awkward gravity changes
  • The ‘Tong Pooh Three Sisters’ squad
  • Cartwheel jumps and slide kicks
  • Really annoying air skiff jumps

As a modern Metroidvania game it also ticks off the major checklist boxes.

  • Big map screen that you uncover as you play
  • New abilities guarded by bosses
  • Bosses that are defeated with the last ability you unlocked
  • Backtracking
  • Color-coded doors that require abilities to unlock
  • Hidden collectibles
  • Way fewer fast travel points than you’d like
  • Loading screen hallways
  • Upgradable health and skill meters

Combining both of those lists should result in an amazing game but in the end it’s neither a great Strider or Metroidvania game. It’s just ok and only recommended at a discount price. You’ll get just enough satisfaction from the Strider trappings by the time the frequent frustrations of actually playing the game set in. For a badass future ninja, Strider gets his ass outright stopped a lot. Being shot in the air will send you reeling to the ground, resetting the charge attack you need to deal with the frequent shield wielding enemies. Later upgrades let you bypass most enemies but then a lot of doors are locked until you kill everyone in sight anyways. This cycle alone probably added an hour to my playtime and breaks the pace at which you’d love to keep moving forward.

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There are ways to counter all this stuff but the game doesn’t require more than constant button mashing

Boss fights are not only frustrating but boring and repetitive. I routinely died in order to figure out their  patterns instead of being able to dodge or counter until I could see what was going on. Seeing what’s happening in a boss fight is made even more frustrating thanks to the subtitles that fill the lower third of the screen with big banners. These usually cover up Strider and all the lasers and shockwaves flying towards him. It is astoundingly poor design and if the accompanying voice acting was recorded to be ironically bad à la Bionic Commando ReArmed, it fails.

The best I can say is that the game does capture the Strider vibe…  and that it isn’t very long. Sometimes a game being short is a great thing; it sets the stage and lets you play with its systems just long enough to keep you enthralled. Strider offers a few encounters that feel really strategic and fun but mindlessly wailing on the attack button is the order of the day. A few thousand button presses and a minimum of concentration is all it takes to blaze through in 4 or 5 hours. It’s all flashes, explosions and wonky mechanics and while that is Strider in a nutshell, this 2014 edition isn’t as memorable as either a Strider game or a Metroidvania game.

Done Playing: Open Me! (Vita)

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The concept of Augmented Reality games always grabs me but seeing sharp 3D visuals overlaid on grainy, laggy camera feeds usually proves too jarring to be fun. Open Me! has had to fight those expectations as well as coming out of the PlayStation C.A.M.P. program whose past efforts disappointed me. Knowing this going in I tried to ease that expectant sting by grabbing the game on sale and promising to play just a little bit at a time. It worked, and I’ve come out the other side wishing there were more boxes to open and more people who gave this game a chance.

AR comes with a lot of caveats before you even get to the game itself. The Vita’s camera just isn’t that good and you have to search for your own personal space for it to work well. Having played through it I picture the ideal location as a bright, empty art gallery with the AR card attached to a black, waist-high pedestal. My best bet was our chest-high kitchen counter under a heavy fluorescent light. The brightness kept the lag at bay but the glare on the glazed surface frequently made the Vita lose track of the card. The kitchen also made it hard to get all the way around the boxes and there were plenty of times I was leaning over the sink or past the drying rack to find a crucial, hidden clue.

But again, Open Me’s charms won out. Presented with only a screen or two of explanation you’re flung at 51 puzzle cubes and expected to figure them out on your own. A sense of exploration and experimentation will do you well here as you poke and swipe while skittering around; one hand holding the Vita, the other scratching your head. Here’s a hot tip from me: sometimes you just need to move on. By figuring out other boxes — some are tricky while others require more logical thinking — you will come to discover things that will help you progress. The Vita, it turns out, can track way more than just two fingers.

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It’s one of those games where you don’t want to say too much because the fun is in discovering the solution, but I’ll go ahead and spoil a few of my favorites. The Super Stealth Box is covered in spikes that are tough to discern from the one random button as the whole thing is Predator-style transparent. I ended up moving a pair of cards that were sitting on the counter in and out of view, looking at the distortion until I spotted the smooth, curved button. The Surveillance Box is equipped with a motion tracking camera that won’t let you sneak behind it to pull the shiny handle. I tried to figure it out for ten minutes when, in frustration, I smashed my fat thumb over the stupid camera and… oh come on, I can’t believe that was the solution! Late in the game there’s a fantastically complex washing machine that needs three cycles run just to find the owner’s manual.

Opening a few boxes each day and taking a break when I got to the really fiendish ones, I’d say I had a few weeks of fun with Open Me!. There are multiplayer boxes to open and a system to design and send puzzles to friends but both require knowing someone (in real life) who owns a Vita and the game. Needless to say, I didn’t get to try out either mode. You can get a feel for the game in the free version and buy individual packs for $0.99 but if you’ve read this far and are still intrigued you should buy the Full Game. It’s not as mysterious and chic as The Room but Open Me! has just as many ah-ha moments of rewarding discovery. It’s got that quirky design sensibility you only get from the Japanese on top of the (tolerably janky) novelty of using your AR cards again.

One more parting shot

One more parting shot

Done Playing: Crash City Mayhem (3DS)

crashcity2  crashcity1

Across five releases over the last sixteen years Climax’s Runabout series has stuck to its own inexplicable genre. Wacky Mission-Based Arcade Racer? Multi-Objective Driving Adventure? Vaguely Open-World Pedestrian Criticism Simulator? Stylistically it embodies everything a boy could love about 90’s anime: absurd and thin plots that require lots of fast driving, ridiculous stunts and millions of dollars in property damage. Crash City Mayhem definitely holds true to the series style but it also sticks to its gameplay at the risk of completely confounding modern players.

Unrelated to anything in the previous games, you play as an ex-spy-turned-courier who gets mixed up in a plot to steal an outlandish spy car. Across six missions you find intel on the car, wind up stealing it, tail a female spy who’s after it herself and ultimately save the day and get the girl. The plotline is only slightly more nuanced than a “three guys walk into a bar” joke but it’s all the setup the game needs.

Once the mission starts you’re off on a high speed race to reach whatever objective markers the stage prescribes. All six missions are set in the same world with barricades and starting points that keep it feeling different but familiar. It’s a good thing, really, as there are loads of shortcuts and alternate routes that only make sense on certain missions. It’s far from an open world but there’s enough breadth to keep you wondering if each side street offers a faster path to your destination.

Many of the 15 vehicles you unlock are novelties like the tank and scooter but all handle uniquely enough to suit your driving/crashing style. In a particularly specific callback to the original game you can even fine tune handling, downforce and brakes to tailor each vehicle’s performance. You steer with the circle pad or D-pad and pretty much every button can be remapped for manual shifting, rear view, gas, brakes and handbrake. There’s a good sense of speed that sometimes hitches the framerate and physics as realistic as you’d like for a game where an F1 car can plow into a city bus and send the wreckage flying.

crashcity4  crashcity3

Playing all six missions in a row would take less than hour so the game abruptly reveals its dark secret to meter your progress: missions are unlocked as you complete old ones on harder difficulty levels. There are five difficulties for each mission, the first three giving you slightly less time or requiring more targets to be found. Finding hidden bonus icons and breaking jump, speed and property damage records help unlock new missions and difficulties. You’ll also unlock 20 items to equip that add goofy trinkets like a musical horn to your car or really useful things like a jump or nitro. The combination of vehicles and items add just enough variety to deaden the sting of grinding missions. Who wouldn’t crack up at the sight of a guy on an “H-David” motorcycle wearing a panda hat that conceals a smaller panda hat underneath? The engrish, the screams of overly-critical pedestrians and the unyielding surf rock tunes are hallmarks of the series and great at defusing your frustrations.

Those frustrations run highest on the Impossible and Legendary difficulties requiring you to complete the mission objectives while also causing $1,000,000 in damage or no damage whatsoever. Causing damage is like a vehicular Price is Right game; managing your damage versus dollars, looking for just the right things to hit without going over. Causing no damage at all is definitely the game’s most punishing challenge. The H-David bike is required for this one but even with its slimmer frame the 3DS’ tiny screen and the game’s draw-in cause some unfair failures. Sitting through a drawn out loading screen and mission intro every time you restart doesn’t help either.

Climax’s adherence to the Runabout style is appreciable as a fan but sixteen years on it isn’t making itself very approachable to anyone else. The peculiar genre is unlike anything in recent memory to draw comparisons to and the slapdash feel of the series — which was tolerable, even endearing in the 90’s — looks shoddy nowadays. Even I had a hard time getting back into the groove of things but I wound up having about sixteen hours of fun, frustration and nostalgia with Crash City Mayhem. I’d rather have played it on a console but the portable platform and $20 price (at retail or on the eShop) seems like the best way to dip a curious toe into this long-running and obscure series.

I don’t think I’ll record much more but I posted a few videos of the game on YouTube if this text still doesn’t explain well enough.

Re-Review: Art Style PiCTOBiTS (DSiWare)

Back in the days when I was writing for that other site I would post snippets of reviews here and link to them. As they’ve disavowed any knowledge of me I figured it’s fair game and since I just transferred PiCTOBiTS to the 3DS and reminded myself of this review, here ya go:

For a simple downloadable title there’s a lot of history behind Art Style: PiCTOBiTS. Developer skip started things on the Game Boy Advance with the ‘bit Generations’ series and have evolved the hallmark of simple gameplay coupled with arresting visuals into the Art Style series for the WiiWare and DSiWare stores. To date PiCTOBiTS is the most original and worthwhile investment on the fledgling DSi downloadable service, but it’s not quite enough to warrant upgrading from a DS Lite on its own.

That’s not to say it isn’t mind bending, puzzle game fun because this is some of the most frantic, perplexing and rewarding action I’ve yet encountered at the end of a stylus. In traditional fashion big colorful pieces come marching down the screen and it’s your job to turn their pokey angles into squares, rectangles and lines to clear them before they reach the bottom. You do this by touching a colored block at the bottom of the screen and then placing it along the downward path of the larger megabit pieces. Each stage starts you out with a few rows of blocks to work with but once they’re gone you’ll have to decide which megabits you clear and which ones you let fall down the screen to provide more color coded ammunition.

Clearing the megabits as fast as possible is challenging enough but to play the game well takes incredibly quick hands, and an even quicker intuition. Once you take out part of a megabit the game freezes while the pieces fly up to the top screen, giving you only seconds to line up more blocks underneath before the remainder of the megabit plummets to the ground. The quicker you clear megabits the higher your multiplier climbs, doling out more golden Super Mario coins in the process. Using the megabits strategically combined with the ability to place blocks anywhere on the screen (instead of simply stacking them up as in most other puzzle games) is half of what makesPiCTOBiTS so unique.

Holding true to the Art Style formula, the retro presentation is the other half of the package. With a cartoon cast or uninspired visuals the game would be little more than a forgettable knock off of 1989’s Quarth, but PiCTOBiTS packs as much Nintendo fan service as Super Smash Bros., both in its visuals and soundtrack. Each of the fifteen stages is based on an NES game, ranging from the ubiquitous Super Mario Bros. and Zelda to the more obscure Devil World, Baseball, and Wrecking Crew. The colored blocks that fill the screen represent little chunks of a pixel image from the game and also serve as your goal. Unlike the never ending flow of Tetris, once you’ve cleared enough megabits to fill in the image on the top screen you’re done. Colored blocks and a gray backdrop are all the graphics you get but combined with the music each stage inexplicably becomes the game it represents.

Remixing a song is a delicate balancing act; maintaining the sound that made the tune memorable in the first place while adding elements to make it a standalone piece. Japan’s chiptune group, YMCK, has done it perfectly here inPiCTOBiTS, adding nothing but equal parts 8-bit “blips” that fall right in line with the source material. It’s also interactive and as you progress through each stage new layers of melody build over the basic beat until the tune is in full swing, ratcheting up the excitement and drawing you beyond the puzzle game. On one of the final stages I found myself thinking of the massive green, white, and yellow megabits as Koopa himself, not just parts of the image I was creating. I was right there with Mario, jumping over fireballs and hammers even as my hand was moving colored blocks around the touch screen. It’s a sense of immersion that you very rarely ever get from a puzzle game and totally justified the $5 price tag for me, even if it’s not the most content-rich experience on the DS.

As good as it is, Art Style: PiCTOBiTS isn’t going to drive anyone to spend $170 on another Nintendo DS system. Playing straight through the fifteen stages is only going to take a few days of bite-sized play sessions and though there’s a lot of unlockable stuff, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. The music player, with seventeen tracks to unlock (each with alternate renditions) is only for the truly geeky and the Dark versions of each stage are so frantic and challenging that most players are unlikely to struggle through more than one or two. However, it’s pretty much inevitable that we’re all going to upgrade to a DSi at some point and no matter what has hit the service in the meantime, Art Style: PiCTOBiTS will always be one of my top recommendations on the DSiWare store.