Monday, July 31, 2017

Interview with Matti Larsson of Zordix on Extreme Sports Games for Switch


Just last week it was announced that Zordix would be bringing both the aquatic racer Aqua Moto Racing Utopia and the snowmobile racer Snow Moto Racing Freedom to the Nintendo Switch. Zordix has been around for a little while and seems to be looking to corner the extreme racing market. I got a chance to talk to Matti Larsson, the CEO at Zordix, about what they have on the way and what their plans are for the future with the Switch!

As a massive fan of the Wave Race series I must say that playing Aqua Moto Racing Utopia I was a bit nervous, wondering if it would be able to live up to the hype I've had in my head wanting to see a new version of it. While not everything about it is the same I was very impressed by how much of the feel is there and that the most crucial aspect, the rough waves that have a major impact on your ability to keep your racing lines, is very much in place. How much of a challenge was it to model the waves, and to get them to behave in a somewhat inconsistent manner so they feel somewhat natural and unpredictable?

ML: It was a huge challenge in the beginning!

We’re combining GPU-based physics with shader programming on the graphics cards for water effects and interactive water simulation. The main waves, including the hight sea ones that makes the game stand out, have a mathematical wave theory foundation. Then 30 different techniques are used together for the water. For instance colouring, transparency, reflections, refractions, splashes, foam, lighting, tiny animated waves and interactive waves spreading and interacting with the watercraft. Even on-screen splashes. And so much more…. It’s crazy looking back at all the advanced implementation.

After many updates, we’ve finally nailed our own great water racing feeling, in perfect timing for the Switch.

The inclusion of the Runabout mode is an interesting one. At first glance there doesn't seem to be a large distinction but in terms of the level of contact and how much more aggressively the races tend to play out, at some cost to nimbleness, it is a nice contrast. Was it included to be more of a brawler mode or I'm just choosing to force my opponents into the buoys because I'm a terrible person?

ML: The Runabout model is the classic model we have in other games in our Aqua Moto Racing series, for instance in Aqua Moto Racing 3D on the 3DS. This is the first time we’re adding a Ski model, actually.

The Ski model was added to create a new racing style of play where you can turn quicker in the sea and in the air. It was also chosen for the new Freestyle game mode, since there are too few games where you can experiment and do fun tricks.

This way we have like three games in one, with different experiences in each Division. Since we got many different watercraft and even unique party game modes and online multiplayer, everyone will find, or eventually unlock, their favourites.


There are some race course included that are highly reminiscent of ones I loved and remember on Wave Race but none feel like copies either. Were some call-outs to Wave Race inevitable and on purpose or is it just when you're setting up a game with courses in waves you're going to have to have some overlap of some kind?

ML: We’re happy to recreate intense feelings from the past for those who remember those great times, but our main goal has been to first make really fun steering models for the watercraft, then as fun and varied tracks as possible in an arcady way. Then the water is such a fun element that makes each race different, and we wanted to explore many different types of waves.

Moving on to Snow Moto Racing Freedom it is a far different title since racing on snow isn't quite as crazy as in the water with waves everywhere. I'm also not accustomed to much to seeing Snowmobile racing as a genre, how has this title been received in general and was I just not aware of a huge snowmobile fanbase?

ML: Haha, well snowmobiling is huge! In the north of Sweden where we live, as well as in northern U.S. and Canada, there’s one snowmobile for every second car registered. In the north, many families have 3-4 snowmobiles. Snowmobile racing has a huge following in the X Games TV-series and we have some World Champions here in Sweden as well. In the south, it’s exotic to play in the snow.

There has been million-selling snowmobile games on consoles earlier, but no new one in about eigth years. All of these factors makes it a gaming niche which suits us perfectly.

There are moments on some of the tracks in Sprint League that, with their very open nature, remind me of playing Motocross Madness back in the day, where you can make some crazy choices on how to get from Point A to Point B. How much effort went into designing these environments you're racing in to encourage experimentation and make viable paths for people who want to take a chance and not take the expected route?

ML: We have deliberately created some exciting points in the landscape to discover, while trying to be true to an ordinary snowy mountain landscape. It’s up to the player to discover their own favourite spots for tricks.


Having seen some of the other developers either struggle to get online implemented at all or who've had to patch the game once or twice post-launch to work out the kinks are you setting your sights on both games launching with online play working? With the wave mechanics in Utopia did that pose any special challenges as well to get it working well, even when the waves are big and choppy? 

ML: Online is always a huge challenge. We already have fantastic technical programmers with 20 years of experience in our team, so the challenge this time will be the social aspects of creating a community around our games. So that you can eSport in them. Or just have a lot of fun with friends.

In Aqua we synchronize all big waves to be the same online as well as in time trial., while the interactive waves are spread through dynamics and physics depending on the players. Skill and persistance always pays off, and there are infinite ways to improve your racing.

You've had a pretty long relationship with Nintendo it seems, having released games for them before. What are your thoughts on now developing for the Switch? Is the ease of development a big improvement over what you've had to do before and overall would you say you've seen any change in Nintendo's approach with the Switch compared to what you've dealt with before?

ML: Yes, I would highly recommend other game developers to dive in with the Nintendo Switch, since it is Nintendo’s most powerfull device yet. Especially for competitive online and multiplayer games that can be enjoyed ”On the go”. Right now is the best time!

So, you've already got 2 extreme sports racing games coming to the Switch, is this the makings of a theme in your overall plan? Are you planning to attack some other racing events off the beaten path? Motocross since Excitebike 64 came out a long time ago? Any chance of Snowboarding since I know of no plans Nintendo has for a 1080 sequel? 

ML: That sounds like a great idea to add more winter games, actually. There is also a part of our franchise series called ”Dirt Moto Racing” with ATV:s where we could perhaps add Dirt Bikes. How about the idea of Excitebike in 3D online with friends, building your own tracks together? First and third person 3D would be a totally different experience than a 2D view from the side. We’re all up for those kind of ideas in expanding our portfolio of games.

In both games there are provisions for performing stunts and in both cases doing them seems to contribute to your boost, encouraging you to go down a risk/reward path and hoping you come out a winner. Is this something you also plan to put in your other titles moving forward as well?

ML: Yes, absolutely! The fun factor will guides us to implement arcade style gadgets combined with simulation of water, snow, dirt, and far out ideas that calls out for new indie forces to implement. Just like Nintendo we are looking for new unique gaming experiences. Sometimes they are achieved by combining features in new surprising ways. We see a lot of potential expanding our existing games with new content as well, to create a world of Moto Racing that can go on forever.

I wanted to thank Matti for taking the time to answer my questions and give us some insights into these upcoming titles. Both are intended for release this year but currently do not have announced dates.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Ultra Hyperball


One thing that has sometimes come along for the ride in the indie gaming movement, aside from retro pixel graphics, is simplified or sometimes even one-button controls. While reducing the number of buttons does, in theory, make things less complicated and more accessible that isn’t to say there still won’t be challenges to getting people up to speed. This is the first obstacle anyone playing Ultra Hyperball will face. Ultimately whether people enjoy it or not, alone or with friends, will revolve around their sense of timing, whether they can get it down, and then whether or not the rewards of doing so will sustain them.

Ultra Hyperball seems to be a sport that people play by jumping in the air to hit what looks like a shuttlecock from a game of badminton with their heads to keep it aloft. The closer to the peak of your jump it is struck, the higher it will go. Care will also need to be taken to line it up horizontally as well though, since making contact at an odd angle will make it move laterally, with its speed relative to how off-center it was hit. With friends the challenge will be to see who can make contact the most times, and in general whoever does this wins! With a set of motivated and competitive friends this could provide some fun, but you’ll want to keep expectations in check. It is what it is and not much more than that.

In the name of adding value for the people who decide to take the plunge the developer has filled the game with stages that provide single-player challenges as well as unlockable characters that serve as both an incentive and reward for people who push themselves. While it all starts out very simply, with the challenge simply consisting of jumping at the right times to propel the “ball” as high as possible, without concern for lining things up side to side, each new solo mode changes things up. You’ll find out how well you can independently manage your fingers while controlling multiple characters in Solo Team mode, and then as you progress closer to the fabled Hyperball League in Ultimate mode you’ll be challenged to manage your jump timing while either moving with your analog stick or while using tilt controls.


There are similar modes you can play with a friend in parallel Co-Op modes where the challenge will be pretty heavily amplified, relying on two of you to perfect your timing and keep things aloft. As hard as it could be to do well in Solo mode, not only does a second person up the ante for you both performing well but the on-screen distractions are also amplified and I often found myself glancing at what my daughter was doing which sometimes lead to disasters. What’s nice is that this is all just somewhat icing on the cake for unlocking special characters, which are cute, and putting more meat into the package which I can respect.

Getting into the space of issues there are a few of note, though some of them will amount to the challenge of how to do it better. The biggest complaint I have, which I’d imagine will be addressed, is that the on-screen buttons you need to press in the Single-Player Team Mode are too small and fidgety and for some of the challenges I had physical challenges figuring out how best to set things up to be able to press them all. In some cases I found that taking off the JoyCon was a good move but I lost far more often because my fingers had strayed from the exact spot (a familiar problem with mobile touch games, granted) for the button than because of poor execution. Having played through the entirety of the Single-Player mode, getting gold on at least half of the challenges, I’d say another thing I don’t quite understand is the inconsistency between modes and even stages. Even in single-player some modes will have the camera moving up to follow the ball, which can be hard to get used to at first, and others won’t. Some will have you use the analog stick and others will require use of the tilt controls. I appreciate the attempt to prolong the challenge and experience in shaking things up, but as the single-player experience is roughly training for multi-player some overall consistency across the game, or options for control, would be nice. Last, I’m not quite sure if there’s random “wind” in the game or not but while the majority of the time the ball will move in a parabolic arc that you can get pretty good at predicting to position yourself sometimes on the way down it will rapidly accelerate to the side. I suppose this could keep people on their toes but perhaps having an on-screen indicator to help prepare people for that could be in order to improve the experience.


For everything it sets out to do and accomplishes relatively well Ultra Hyperball presents the same challenge in terms of recommending it that some of the other indie multiplayer games have had. If you and (probably more importantly in terms of long-term play) your friends buy into the hook of the game and will invest in getting the hang of the timing and controls there’s the makings of some fun local play. The problem, though, is that I’d consider it further in the direction of the people being key to the experience making it fun than the game itself. With simplicity can come accessibility but it doesn’t always equate to long-term challenge. At its relatively low price point people will just need to decide whether it is something that looks appealing to eat up some hours with on your own and with the other people you play with.

Score: 6.5

Pros:
  • Relatively simple one-button controls
  • A variety of single and co-op challenges add length
  • Unlockable characters help provide flavor
Cons:
  • People must “get” the timing in order to enjoy it
  • Only as fun as the people playing it together will make it
  • Some control and consistency issues

Nindie Preview: Ironcast


For people who love a challenge the Nintendo Switch has already delivered quite a lot in its growing library to satisfy. With the release of Ironcast there’ll be yet another added to the pile, but to boot it likely plays differently than anything you’ve tried before. Combining a gem-matching core with heavily strategic gameplay and quite a lot of resource management Ironcast has set itself apart from the pack and created something new well beyond its steampunk aesthetics.

While at a glance it may be reminiscent of the classic Puzzle Quest series, it is a very different animal and amps up the difficulty quite a bit. Early on, while you’re learning the nuances of the strategy and becoming familiar with how best to manage your resources, you’re simply going to lose a lot and probably relatively quickly. The good thing is that even when you lose the experience you’re gaining will slowly contribute to global unlocks that include new pilots and mechs, as well as new potential enhancements so no effort is necessarily wasted. The difference these new unlocks can make is quite substantial and as you go you should be able to find combinations that will better suit your style of playing.


For each round you’ll be given a mission screen with 3 choices to pick from. Not only will some of these missions vary in difficulty but the nature of the mission is also quite vital. To start all of your options are typically for a Battle, pitting you against another mech. If you’re strapped for “cash” you can look for a Trade mission, though you’ll likely need to make a sacrifice in troops that will come back to haunt you in the boss battle. Collection missions will introduce a new resource type to try to match as you play, all while fighting mechs along the way. Once you finally collect enough of that resource the mission will end. Salvage missions can be tricky depending on your weapons loadout since a key part of the mission will be ensuring that you don’t damage one of the enemy mech’s systems… so you’ll want to use targeted shots and weapons only! Finally, there are Survival missions which I've generally come to regard as being ones to avoid since the few I've done have been brutal, trying to simply last a fair number of rounds against formidable opposition.

Within the missions the meat and potatoes of the game is keeping your resources up and looking for either large combos to boost your XP and to clear the board or strategic plays that will set you up for a future combo. You’ll have to manage your ammo, energy, coolant, and repair bars, each of which have different maximum capacities that vary per mech. You’ll need to keep an eye on your 2 weapons systems, your shields, and your drive that lets your mech keep moving. You’ll have to decide whether to focus on getting up your defenses or trying to attack. If you’re attacking, what enemy system are you trying to focus on? If the enemy has their shields up which of your weapons is more appropriate to attack with? Battles will be won and lost by the decisions and plays you make for each turn, and often planning is crucial to success.

As you complete each mission you’ll return having hopefully leveled up (allowing you to pick one of three perks to use), you’ll want to make repairs, and then you’ll need to decide how to spend your accumulated scrap to improve your mech. Will you invest in a better weapon? But which one, a new energy weapon or that single-shot artillery weapon that can punch through shields? Will you raise the capacity on one of your resources? Again, all of the decisions that you can make here can have significant influence on what you’ll be able to do in future missions and could either help or hurt you depending on the enemies you could face.


All of these preliminary fights ultimately lead, then, to boss battles where hopefully you’ve prepared well because you’ll need every perk and advantage you can get to fight these much more formidable opponents. While, at the time, the trade you’d made on an earlier mission got you some scrap to purchase that nice new weapon the troops you’d had to give up to do so would have been helpful in reducing the boss’s often substantial health… so as always with roguelikes nothing is for “free”.

Look for Ironcast to arrive on the Nintendo Switch August 10th!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Nindie Preview: JYDGE


Though, at a glance, JYDGE looks a lot like Neon Chrome (since it is based on the same core engine that shouldn’t be surprising) when you play the two games for a while the differences jump out very quickly. Where the emphasis in Neon Chrome is working your way through floors of enemies accepting the roguelike path and choices you’re given, being expected to make the most of them, JYDGE is all about customizing to meet specific challenges.

While the popular Hotline Miami was a very different animal, the way JYDGE currently plays out (it is still in beta, and still being tweaked before final release) feels a bit similar depending on the task you’re trying to complete. In each scenario you’ll be given 3 distinct objectives, and most of the time these have a tendency to be mutually exclusive. One will typically be to complete some master goal, like kill a specific crime boss, while the other two will be more specialized.

Whether you’re looking to rescue hostages, complete the mission without being detected, or finish everything within a brief period of time (there are others as well) these other objectives often will require you to play and gear yourself very differently. This is where the game customization and unlockable skills come heavily into play. On some missions you may want to use a Chameleon skill to help you blend in, while in others you’ll want to armor up to be able to absorb more damage as you try to plow through quickly. For additional challenge there are also missions that will require you to only use your melee attack. Thankfully there are absolutely lethal enhancements to choose that will aid you in that as well.


It is this major difference that seems set to allow Neon Chrome and JYDGE to live in very separate spaces, and perhaps even be enjoyed by different people (though both are engaging in their own way). In some ways JYDGE plays out like a puzzle strategy game layered on top of a twin-stick shooter. Execution is still certainly vital but you’ll need to carefully plan your enhancements to maximize your chances for success and to progress further into the game.

This preview is based on the current PC build of JYDGE on the PC platform. At this point it is still possible substantial changes may be made to certain aspects of the game but the overall gameplay and setup should be representative. JYDGE is intended to launch on all major platforms sometime later this year.

Nindie Preview: Xenoraid


Though there is a story sitting on top of Xenoraid to try to give the proceedings some element of flavor make no mistake, this game is all about space shooting action. You’ll be progressing through increasingly-difficult stages while encountering enemy fighters, asteroids, larger armored attack ships, and a formidable boss at the end of each chapter. In order to set itself apart from many shooters out there it also adds a strategic layer to the mix, having you work through all of this while managing 4 distinct ships.

There are at least three elements that these ships introduce to the table for you to consider. First, you’ll have to make decisions on which you either favor or think could use some earlier enhancement when you’re given the chance to spend your battle-earned credits on upgrades. You could always opt to not repair some vessels but based on experience I wouldn’t recommend that.


Second, you’ll quickly figure out what your preferred ships are in specific situations, whether for the maneuverability, their primary attack, or their limited secondary weapons that can pack a serious punch. Each has its strengths and weaknesses and you’ll want to make the best use of the tools at your disposal so switching ships tends to happen often. You’ll also need to carefully keep track of each ship’s secondary weapon situation since that ammo is limited and there’s nothing quite like switching over to another ship for a big attack and coming up empty.

Last, as things get further in and the intensity increases you’ll inevitably end up needing to carefully consider which ship you’re bringing into the action. A severely damaged ship will end up being destroyed if it takes any further damage and if you’re juggling multiple ships on critical it can lead to some tense gameplay, especially if it leaves you using a poorly-matched ship against tough enemies. There are tech enhancement choices that will help minimize the pain this will introduce but since I’m not one who likes to lose anyone over the course of a mission I’ll generally try my best to keep everyone alive.


In addition to the base story mode there is also a more arcade-style Survival mode that will give you a set amount of money to work with to outfit your ships and then set you off to last as long as you can. This leads to some potentially interesting strategic planning as you need to manage your desires for firepower or survivability with your cooldowns on your guns, as well as a dimension of whether to invest in upgrading just certain ships or choosing tech that can benefit them all. Results will likely vary as you work out how you are best equipped to last when there’s no ending other than defeat possible, just with a potentially higher score.

This preview is based off of the current PC version of the game and is likely to be ported by 10 Tons as they bring over their titles to the Nintendo Switch. The timing is currently unknown.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Nindie Preview: Neon Chrome

Long before it was announced as a Nindie, or even the Switch was fully-revealed, I was a fan of Neon Chrome on PC. It was one of the earliest roguelikes I played and once it got its hooks into me it also became one of my favorites. In this action-heavy twin-stick shooter you’ll get in a chair and inhabit the body of an avatar or sorts, always getting to choose between 3 distinct classes (each with its own enhancements and perks/deficiencies), that you’ll use to try to get further into the 30 levels of an office building, eventually facing off against the Overseer for control of Neon Chrome.

While it gets off to a very challenging start as you progress, collect money, unlock new weapons, and upgrade your abilities you’ll slowly begin to become more powerful and capable of getting further into the game. About every 5 levels you’ll additionally be challenged to defeat a boss, which typically leads to a hectic and difficult fight.

The beauty in the game is that once you get rolling and have unlocked many of the game’s perks you will end up with a substantial number of options to control the flow of the game to suit your style of play. You’ll be able to play in a more stealthy way hiding in shadows and setting up lethal ambushes, barrel into situations with your guns blazing and shooting through walls to surprise your enemies, or any number of variations in between. Since you have limited control over which power-ups will be available to you, or when, in a given run you’ll need to learn to be versatile. Regardless of your loadout you’ll be able to wreak havoc and have some fun.


What I enjoy most about the game is the tendency for well-laid plans to go to hell in a hurry, leaving you to improvise quickly to get yourself out of trouble. Floor layouts and the placement of enemies can vary substantially from run to run but one constant is the tendency for there to be periodic well-placed tanks that will explode when you shoot them to help you shake things up nicely. If you’re up for a challenge to your brain, your shooting skills, and inevitably your patience at times look for Neon Chrome to deliver them later this year on the Nintendo Switch.

This preview is based on the current PC version of the game which should be representative of the gameplay and general functionality of the version that will be ported to the Nintendo Switch.



Nindie Preview: Sparkle 2


While I got to first know the folks at 10 Tons for their excellent roguelike shooter Neon Chrome they’ve also made games that are very different. To prove that out I give you Sparkle 2, a marble shooter (think an upgraded version of PopCap’s classic Zuma Deluxe to get a good base idea) that is among their best-selling titles.


Everything starts with a pretty lengthy Story Mode of sorts that will have you progress through increasingly-difficult levels as you collect keys to save the day. As you go you’ll unlock added that you can choose between to enhance your mable thrower in a variety of ways and you’ll also unlock additional modes like Challenge and Survival that will test your skills further.

While early on things are pretty simple for veterans of games like this, that isn’t to say that at some point you won’t be challenged. The additional colors you’ll need to manage, multiple tracks, and difficult angles will eventually begin to get the better of you but it’s all in good fun. Look for Sparkle 2 to further fill out the Switch line-up and add another great potential option for something to play as a fill-in for a satisfying quick few minutes of fun.



This preview is based on the PC version of the game but should be representative of the gameplay and features that should be included in the Switch version of the title. It is expected to be released later this year.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review: Levels+


At first glance, based on the limited description and screenshots, I wasn’t quite sure what Levels+ would be like. I’d somewhat assumed it’s a variant on the popular game Threes and the many variants that are like it out in the mobile space. To a degree that assumption is correct, but there’s another layer of strategy it adds to the mix that I haven’t seen before. Getting right to the point I will say that there’s more involved in Levels+ than there has been in most of the games of this type that I’ve played and so, in that regard, it is a pretty challenging and good time if this is the sort of experience you’re seeking for the Nintendo Switch. 

The hook in these types of games is that you’ll need to combine your like-numbered pieces to create a single piece of the next numbered rank up. With that in mind it becomes an exercise in carefully trying to control where your numbers are. Periodically you’ll then look to combine a series of pieces, buy yourself some room to work in, and roughly continue the cycle until you run out of moves. 


What Levels+ does, and I personally haven’t played a variant like this before, is add to the challenge by differentiating blue “attacker” pieces, yellow “points” pieces, and red “enemy” pieces. The blue tiles are able to both combine with other blues of the same number or overtake yellow or red pieces of the same or lower number. Yellow pieces can only be combined with other yellows in order to increase their value. Red pieces you can only remove through the use of a blue piece of a high enough level. The flow in how you choose to manage the order and execution of your moves will help determine your success. Your attacks and combinations will ultimately have less to do with “making a play” and more to do with how making that move at the right time will set up an opportunity for another piece. 

As I said this style of play, in general, is reminiscent of other games I’ve played but the twist with the colored pieces substantially alters how everything plays out and is refreshing! As you might expect there is quite a bit of strategy to the game, especially in regards to how you level up your yellow spaces. Rather than simply running them over because you can there is a strategic component to combining them first in that you’ll gain a higher score the higher the yellow tile value is when you finally take it with your blue tile. Of course the higher a level it is the higher the level your blue tile will also need to be so you’ll need to be cautious. In addition I’ve run into at least one hidden power-up that you can permanently unlock in the game once you’ve leveled a yellow piece up to 6 and consume it, so there’s an added incentive to try to get your level up for that purpose as well.


Getting past the core game there’s not too much more to discuss since there’s really not much else to offer. There is only the one game mode, though in theory you could play it endlessly and try to top your highest score. It can be played either with the controller or with the touchscreen though I will note the pace you can play in touchscreen can’t get too quick or you can either have issues executing moves or sometimes you’ll get a move you didn’t intend for. This only happened periodically and I had a hard time telling if the issue was just me not being precise with my fingers or the game having an issue but it is worth noting. I found controller play to be perfectly workable and fast so I generally stuck with that style. About the only other complaint would be that the loop on the music track is very short so over time I may recommend simply turning it off if it gets grating, I don’t believe there was an option to control the volume.

With all of that in mind Levels+ does a better job than I would have expected and provides for an engaging experience. If you’re looking for a light puzzling experience you can just pick up and play semi-thoughtfully for a while it’s probably better than any other game of its kind that I’ve played on other devices, though I just may not have seen this variant before. With its relatively inexpensive price the question ultimately becomes whether this is the kind of game you’re looking for. If it is, and you understand that the goal isn’t to “win” but to challenge yourself to continue to try to up your score, I’d say this is a worthy purchase.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • Among games of its kind this is probably the most strategic that I’ve played
  • The inclusion of an permanently-unlocked power-up based on meeting a challenging objective was a nice touch and a game-changer for future scores
  • Great for picking up and putting down randomly as you have “filler time”

Cons:
  • Ugh, the music loop is so short and gets grating
  • Some hiccups in control with the touchscreen periodically that I couldn’t nail down a cause for
  • There are no variations or multiple modes, what you see is all you get

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Shephy


When I first saw Shephy listed in the eShop I’ll admit my reaction was quite dismissive. A card game on the Switch is one thing but then with cute little sheep? Really? After playing it for quite a few hours and in different modes I can say that, yes, there is something worthwhile here for the right crowd. While Shephy can’t break away from the fundamentals of what it is that isn’t to say that people looking for some light strategic card play on the go or while doing something else won’t find consistent enjoyment from it.

Based on an actual strategic card game variant of Solitaire the goal in Shephy is to effectively use your cards to multiply the single sheep you start with into a flock of 1000 (note, as a single card) before you’ve exhausted the deck of cards 3 times. To do this you’ll need to make careful use of the array of choices you have, both helpful and destructive, trying to keep yourself from losing your whole flock or simply running out of cards before you meet your goal. The gameplay is structured, smart, and pretty engaging. The question that arises will be whether you can get sufficient mileage out of it.


That is where the variety of available alternative modes come into play and they do a pretty solid job of ensuring you won’t just drop the game out of boredom once you’ve beaten the “basic mode” a few times. These alternative modes will shift the contents of the deck in various ways as well as introduce new rules that govern how you’re allowed to play or your objectives. While the core gameplay remains the same the removal of cards that will help you avoid the use of other ones that will do damage really shakes things up and will require careful planning and execution to minimize the losses you’ll be now forced to take. It keeps things lively if you enjoy the core game but also does nothing to elevate it if card games aren’t your thing.

The final thing worth noting with these additional rule modes is the “Post Loves” mode which essentially tells a story in a few chapters. The catch is that despite the very cute appearance of the game overall (though some cards like “Plague” do show dead sheep certainly) the tone and some of the art to the story is decidedly grim and a tad bizarre. I suppose some people might not appreciate its inclusion but oddly enough I find it to be a bit comically strange so I’m compelled to try to beat the rule sets at each of the few stages just to see what shows up next.


At the end of the day, though I’ve managed to inventory the variety of ways the game can play out in order to point to the effort that has gone into it, this is just a pretty simple card game you could buy physically. Granted, in this form it may be cheaper or more convenient but what will likely first guide your purchase will be your desire to have a game like this on your Switch specifically and not in some other form. I’ll give credit where it is due, this does not feel in any way like a low-effort shovelware conversion, someone took the time to do some work on the game and make the most of the situation. All the same, it is all a relatively simple experience and if you’re not looking for a strategic solo card game nothing in the package will likely win you over. That said, I can genuinely say it is the best game of its kind that I’ve played on the Switch, noting for the moment there doesn’t happen to be any competition.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • The additional modes and rule sets help keep it from all being one-dimensional
  • At the core the strategic card game is well-planned and executed
  • For people with a bit of a twisted streak the “story mode” is a bit of a hoot


Cons:
  • In the end it is a card game in portable form, nothing more and nothing less
  • While I was able to figure out a few nuances of the game rules within a round or two the tutorial seemed to only get my understanding to 85%
  • If you somehow didn’t like the core card game mechanics they’re inescapable, everything is a variation on that foundation


Review: Death Squared


There are games that come along every once in awhile that shake their respective genres up a bit, that put a little something into them that you haven’t seen before to make things fresh. Death Squared, though many of its mechanics are a bit familiar in some way, absolutely swings for the fences, looking to change peoples’ expectations for puzzle games. The best news is that, at least in my opinion, they’ve made something special and memorable.

The closest relative to Death Squared would be the very cute and entertaining Snipperclips that launched with the Switch. It had a pretty unique hook with a team-oriented dynamic and required collaboration between 2 or 4 people to get through the various challenges it presented. Death Squared is both far more versatile, allowing you to easily (in terms of control mechanics, not necessarily in terms of challenge) play through the 80-level Story mode alone or with a friend. By extension you’re also able to play through the 40-level Party mode either with 2 players performing double duty or with 4. Whichever way you choose to play there are challenges to consider. Controlling 2 robots apiece requires some left/right brain coordination and dexterity as you move around and have to execute precise moves with each, independently of the other. Opting to use more people, only controlling 1 robot apiece, presents its own issues with keeping everyone on the same page and likely needing to cede planning to only one person at a time. That’s unless you wreck yourself or each other on many of the fiendish traps that have been set before you. Having played many levels in all possible combinations I’ll say that they’re all interesting and entertaining, so you should have a great challenge no matter which way you play!


Once you’ve settled on how you’re going to take on the puzzle gauntlet put before you, it’s important to note that while you’re dying repeatedly the game does its best to keep you entertained through the misery. As you make progress you’ll hear running dialogue between an IT worker, David, and a computer AI named Iris. If you’re a big fan of the Portal and GLaDOS, in particular, some of the humor in their interactions and discussions will provide added amusement as they discuss what’s happening on-screen at times, offering a sort of commentary on your progress (or lack thereof). There are also a number of highly corporate-looking emails and notices shared between levels that should look very familiar to anyone who has worked in an office. These sprinkles of charm and humor, as well as some other surprise elements I won’t spoil, do an excellent job of keeping the experience from being too sterile and help to take the game to the next level in terms of the overall presentation. Since you will die quite a lot there are some specific sound bites that may get repetitive but remember, in those cases you’re really the problem since you’ve obviously insisted on dying so much.

Getting on to the real meat of the game the discussion should really center on the puzzles themselves and what you should expect when you play the game. Within the first half of levels or so you’ll likely have the majority of elements and trap types exposed to you in some fashion. Among the elements you’ll contend with are spikes, lasers, trip wires, teleportation pads, and movable blocks. Not all of them are lethal but they all present their own inherent challenges in terms of how best to avoid or make use of them, often in combination with one another. Typically on the first level any one of these is added the nature of their use will be straight-forward so you’ll understand the basics. From that time on, as they’re blended into new scenarios and mixed with other elements, you can expect that in many cases you’ll learn nuances to their use that will be absolutely vital. Basically, you’ll often need to learn how to use or abuse elements at their limits in some way. Even if you’re able to get through the bulk of the puzzles without feeling terribly taxed bear in mind that in addition there are 10 secret boxes hidden in various levels to find and The Vault, a collection of much more difficult puzzles (more will apparently be added to over time) and for Switch fans there will be exclusive levels as well!


What I believe makes Death Squared special is its ability to first make you feel sneaky or smart and then slap you with the realization that you were merely doing what was expected. There are quite a number of solutions to puzzles in the game that will, in some way, revolve around you taking in the problem and trying to do things that don’t color within the lines. I found in several cases the solutions to puzzles weren’t clear to me when I applied a traditional way of thinking to them, the assumption that all pieces had to in some way fit in perfectly was what was holding me back. I would then usually find the solution by initially thinking I’d found some sort of dodge, a way around the problem, but then once the puzzle was solved on reflection I’d see there was no other solution. This sort of reminds me of elements of The Stanley Parable where you think you’re defying the game and breaking out, only to then find out your move has been very much anticipated and is even necessary. While not everyone may have this experience in the same way it is these sorts of moments in the game that made the biggest impression on me and greatly enhanced my enjoyment of it all.

Moving into the areas that could keep people from enjoying the game to the fullest we’ll begin with the fact that Death Squared can be quite challenging to play by yourself or with others. While simultaneous movements aren’t always required to solve puzzles careful coordination and patience are absolutely necessary to get through many of the levels. The limits of your own personal dexterity will be tested if you opt for single-player, while the limits of patience and good will towards one another will be put under strain the more people you add to the mix in either mode. While my wife was game to play through Story mode with me for most of its length, the number of levels we’d play per session started to drop and then at Level 65 she couldn’t take the pressure of it anymore and decided to let me complete the game by myself. In the case of Party Mode having us both control 2 robots proved problematic early since the challenges there ramp up pretty quickly. We then added my kids to the mix and that took care of the control issues but, as with 4-player Snipperclips, we had to keep the sessions to a few levels at a time to keep the stress levels down. Results will vary depending on who you’re playing with but you’ll definitely need to keep this in mind!


It has been a long time since I’ve played a puzzle game where I didn’t end up feeling like I was going through the motions as a single-player experience. From that perspective I enjoyed the mental and physical dexterity required to tackle Story mode solo. While my wife and I completed all of the challenges in Snipperclips she also said, as a more casual game-player, that she preferred the less “fidgety” nature of control and challenge in Death Squared and that’s a perspective I can agree with. With there really only being a focus on movement the puzzle experience is a bit more pure and unencumbered, leaving you only with the challenge at hand. In that regard I also think the multiplayer aspects of the game have been as well-addressed as you could ask, you just need to provide a smart and patient group for it to work. With that in mind I’d say that no matter how you choose to play the game, alone or with friends, it absolutely works and is a great time. By their nature puzzle games aren’t for everyone but as a total package, and considering all of the viable ways it can be played, Death Squared is the most satisfying one that I’ve played in a very long time. It has, appropriately, defied expectations and raised the bar beyond the previous boundaries I had put on the genre.

Score: 8.5


Pros:
  • A massive amount of challenging content
  • Viable whether playing alone or with friends
  • The light and often adaptive commentary provides levity and polish


Cons:
  • It may tip the scales to being too challenging for some, moving into being aggravating
  • There are puzzles where trial-and-error is absolutely necessary rather than the puzzles being intuitive
  • There are times where late “gotcha” deaths can be aggravating after you’ve generally figured things out


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Interview with Ashley Ringrose of SMG Studio on Death Squared


SMG Studios, started as one of 10 companies funded by Screen Australia’s Games Enterprise grant before the funding was cut in 2014, hasn't been around very long but has been steadily getting more ambitious. As a mobile developer they've made a splash with several titles, including the acclaimed and popular OTTTD (an aptly-named Over-The-Top Tower Defense game), and have used those successes to first dip their toes into the Steam ecosystem and now consoles as well.

Their newest title, Death Squared, is set to hit the Switch on July 13. For more info on this very compelling and often mind-bending multiplayer (though you can play it alone as well) puzzle game be sure to check out the Preview! Ashley Ringrose is one of the heads of the studio and took the time to answer some of my questions about Death Squared, the studio, and the state of the indie market.

Like many other indie developers out there your roots are in the mobile market. What's the transition like, moving out of the mobile ecosystem?

AR: Mobile is a much easier place to test game ideas out and iterate on a game. You can have an idea, make a game and be out in a month which is impossible on consoles.

Console side there's also a LOT more paperwork to fill out. It's like doing six months homework in one go before you even get a dev kit!

The audiences have cross over but console players demand much more value for their time.

How did the idea for Death Squared, a multiplayer puzzle game where you control robots around test areas filled with death traps and requiring constant coordination and teamwork, start out? 

AR: Pat, the main designer and creator of the game, took part in a 48hr Game Jam in 2015. The theme was "What happens next" and with that he created a game where every level would surprise you with new mechanics. We all played it after the Jam and thought "wow this is fun! we have to release this" 2 years later we did!


Was the surprisingly adaptive/responsive running commentary there from the beginning?

AR: Not for the first year actually. When we were picked for Indie Showcase at PAX AUS the story wasn’t part of the game. But we already had plans for it. It was important for us to add a story element to the game to make it more than just a series of puzzles. We wanted you to want to follow the story and also have a laugh too.
We did a lot of testing with the amount of voices. At the start there was too much. Then we pulled it right back and it wasn’t enough. We ended up top and tailing the levels + a few random elements + adaptive ones and that was the right mix.

Mick (Ricepirate) who did the voices was great and also recorded a bunch of variations for many of the lines. I hate when you play games and hear the same things over and over so we wanted a play-through to not repeat anything. In some of the earlier story sections we even did variations as we knew people would see/heard them multiple times.

People are pleasantly surprised by the fact we have a story and more so that it's funny.  We also have a happy and a sad ending too 😊So make sure you watch both.

In terms of humor, and even some of the comments and phrasing used to describe the test chambers, there seems to be a heavy GLaDOS/Portal vibe. Big fans of the series?

AR: Yes, who isn’t! More so the writer Jonathon and myself the studio head. Pat didn’t have Portal in mind when he created the game.
The Stanley Parable, Portal 2 and Thomas Was Alone were influences on how a well-voiced story can really make a game shine.

Careful coordination is often required!
How did you envision most people playing the game with the single-joystick controls? You can certainly play Story mode by yourself if you can handle the left/right brain nature of things, but would any two people have the combined courage and dexterity to tackle Party mode both try to pull that off?

AR: Do you mean two people sharing the same controller? Kinky! But it can work. That's why the Switch is a great platform as it has 2 joy-cons out of the box.

The game is still fun as a single player game but with two people it really shines.  You can also play the 4 player mode with 2 people with each person controlling two bots.

At a certain point in the game there are some tormenting "mess with the player" moments that almost reminded me of Eternal Darkness back in the day. What was the inspiration for that and did you giggle at the thought of players suddenly screaming out loud as they were being punked in-game?

AR: Ohh Eternal Darkness is a good reference. It was more The Stanley Parable type thinking in which the game knows it's a game.

We just wanted to keep surprising the player with some 4th wall experiments.  Once we had the story locked in it gave us scope to do a lot of fun things. Even reading emails in the game is a time for comedy.

Don't know if this is giving anything away but my wife and I got to a level where, off in the distance we saw something and were thinking "What the heck is that?" We found the way to get to it and it told us we'd found secret cube 1 of 10. Is there anything you can say about the reward for finding them all to incentivize people?

AR: We didn’t make a big deal about calling it out at the start as we wanted people to discover them. Maybe you'd get to the end and realise you only found 3 and then have something else to do when finished.

If we called it out at the start people would play the levels differently (in a less fun methodical way) and we like to think fun first then you can go back and try to 100% it :)


In terms of Switch-exclusive content what will players be looking at on top of the 80-level Story Mode and the additional 40-levels in Party mode?

AR: We also have the 20+ Vault levels + 7 special Switch levels. We hope to add more to the Vault also. The Switch levels are very Nintendo in their design :)

Having been in the very over-saturated mobile market and then the jam-packed Steam market is it a relief to be looking to get into a much more curated and limited space even if the Switch install base is obviously currently much smaller? What are the challenges you've had being an independent and trying to get the word out about your projects?

AR: Yeah we're excited to be one of the first games on the new system. For some in the team (who are VERY big Nintendo fans) it's a dream for them. I feel like we're in a lucky position to be in this early.

Mobile is actually easier to get visibility in than Steam right now. Free mobile games have a MUCH better word of mouth element as kids go to school and talk about the game they're playing.

The 4-Player Party Mode steps it up a notch!
Any particular thoughts about the relationship with Nintendo and your experience since becoming a "Nindie"?

AR: I've probably annoyed them with the amount of emails I send a day but they have been great. All the platform holders (PS4 and Xbox) are really nice people who, no matter how small you are, are always willing to help.

Once this is in the rear view mirror do you already have your next project in mind? Any hints?

AR: We're working on a VERY big project now for release late this year which I can’t reveal.
We're also still working on our RISK game which is doing well for us.

And we hope the Switch does well for us so we can look at other games for the platform and also add more levels to the Vault!

Many thanks again to Ashley for taking the time to participate in the interview and to endure my prodding while they're trying to focus on releasing their first title on the Switch. Death Squared will debut on the console on July 13th and is already available to play on other platforms as well.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Interview with Daniel Nascimento on Rocket Fist


Working as an inspired lone developer, Daniel Nascimento has had a tough road among even other indies, tackling the challenges of learning the ropes and developing concepts on his own. As you can tell from my Preview this has hardly been a problem, and hopefully his first project to get to the Switch will be a successful one. I was fortunate enough to borrow some of his time as he's working through the final stages of the Switch certification process to get some insight into his background, the challenges he has faced, and practical reasons things players take for granted can be quite complex, among other things.

How did you get started on your indie developer journey, and what's the most important thing you've learned to this point about game development?

DN: I studied 3D Art & Animation at the Vancouver Film School and upon graduating had a hard time finding a job. I was playing a lot of an indie game called Dungeon Defenders that let players create mods for it. I started modding the game and ended up getting a freelance gig to animate a trailer for them. That kind of opened my eyes that I could actually use my knowledge to work with games. I started learn how to program and started trying to make my own games using Unity. Nowadays I work a lot more with programming than actually doing art. I'd say the most important thing is to playtest a lot, see what players actually think of the game first hand, and what confuses them. All of my games evolved a lot by watching how other people interact with them.

For example, the dash-stun of Rocket Fist was created because a friend of mine, when playtesting, used to wait for you to throw your fist, then sit on it keeping control of all the fists in the level, giving you no choice but to wait to die. It was so satisfying to see him doing that only to be dash-stunned and killed with his own fist on the next playtest. ;)

In my preview I am very clearly coming away with a classic Bomberman vibe on several levels, sadly moreso than for the current version on Switch. Where did the idea for Rocket Fist come from and what inspiration have you drawn from other games that have helped you define and refine the game since you started work on it?

DN: After making several game jam games and smaller projects over the years, I wanted to make something more complete with a longer development cycle. I was pursuing a master's degree in Digital Media and in one of the projects we were working on we were tasked with coming up with games for the PS Vita that made good use of it’s physical interface. I was working on a lot of small prototypes for the Vita and had the idea of making a 1 vs 1 game in which each player held one side of the device. It didn’t really fit the project’s premise but I wanted to try it out anyway since I haven’t seen a game doing anything like that on the PS Vita.

The original PS Vita version

And that was the first-ever version of Rocket Fist. It was just some spheres in an environment made of cubes throwing little cube missiles at one another, and even at that stage it was already pretty damn fun. Each player only had one button and one analog stick to play with, it was simple and addicting. I started playtesting with my classmates and it was a success, everyone I introduced this to would play for a long time and would have a hard time giving it back. I then decided to try it with more people, I added controller support, and made a PC-version with a bigger level and 4 players.

The original 4-Player Version
I had only spent about 5 hours working on the game and me and my friends ended up playing that version for much longer than that. At that point I was sure that was THE ONE, the project I should pursue to be a long-term commercial project. I definitely drew inspiration from Towerfall with its limited number of retrievable arrows, in Rocket Fist's case limited to only 1 at a time. Also a little inspiration from air hockey in the way you plan your bounces around the screen to hit your objective. And of course there are a lot of Bomberman inspirations in there, from the powerups to the revenge ghost/cart outside of the screen once a player dies.

While obviously Rocket Fist's primary strength would be multiplayer chaos I was pleasantly surprised by the fun I've had playing the single-player Adventure mode. Boss battles are always a plus and some of these guys take some real effort to defeat. Since there's obviously so much additional content you needed to add to support Adventure mode what was your inspiration to include it when some games will opt to go multiplayer-only?

DN: I was watching a talk by Auston Montville from Sportsball (Wii U game) and one of the warnings he gave at that talk to other games focused on local multiplayer was to not release without a single-player mode. From that day on I started working on creating a single-player mode for Rocket Fist. I tried a few different variations, and ended up landing on the current version which keeps the same gameplay of the local multiplayer version with the single camera arenas.

Uncle Knuckle Awaits!
At least in the PC version of the game I couldn't miss the Level Editor. Any chance of this making it to the Switch as well just for local use? I'd ask about sharing but would imagine setting up and trying to curate that outside of a dedicated infrastructure like Steam's Workshop would be a nightmare.

DN: The lack of Steam Workshop to assist with the sharing was the reason we decided to not port the Level Editor to the Switch. We figured a level editor in which you can't share your creations with others wouldn't be of much use. Also, it would be a lot of more potential bugs to complicate our release.

If you see some great levels come through on the PC side of things, or even if you find inspiration of your own, is there any chance the Switch version of the game could see a "best of" level pack patch or DLC potentially?

DN: I haven't looked into the process to release DLCs or updates, but that's definitely a possibility :) Maybe even some extra sectors, bosses and enemies if there is enough interest.


Another feature, very clearly still marked as beta, in the PC version is Versus Online. Since some other indie multiplayer titles have either launched already or are in progress with no support for online play I'd wager implementing that isn't nearly as simple as we gamers tend to want to make it when we just note "it would have been nice to have online multiplayer". Are there any thoughts you can share on the challenge that presents to try to implement?

DN: It definitely isn't simple. In reality each player is playing a whole different game, and the games are talking with each other trying to make it look as similar to each other as possible. In a first-person shooter, for instance, it's fairly ok to be wrong in these cases. You have a very limited field of view and if your game tells you that you got shot, sure you must have gotten shot right? In a game like Rocket Fist you're seeing the whole screen the whole time, and if in your screen you shot me, but on my screen the fist you shot actually didn't hit me because I moved before it did, your game will still tell my game that I got shot. In this case, who is right? One of those 2 players will think the game cheated them.

The more latency between players the worse this will be. Then, to complicate things even more, players pick up fists. It's entirely possible that 2 players think they have the same fist if they were close enough to it and there is enough latency to make things confusing. I ended up never managing to make a satisfactory version of Rocket Fist for online multiplayer on the PC :/ it's still beta to this day, it works well enough with 2 players with low latency, but with more players and some latency it's terrible.

What are your thoughts on the state of the industry where indie devs are concerned on the Steam platform and the challenge of getting seen in that sea of content? What have you tried to do to get the word out about your game and is there anything you wish you could see happen that would help?

DN: It is pretty worrying. I hope that good games will still be able to stand out on their own but I don't know if they will. I feel the App Store is already a huge gamble on being noticed in the sea of games being released every day and Steam seems to be going in that direction. I haven't had any experience releasing on consoles so far, I'll see soon with Rocket Fist if the console market will be a good way to avoid the potential Steam apocalypse. If that's the case I'll be focusing more on consoles in the future. The only things I did was sending press releases and posting on social media. I don't know what else I can do or what would help :(


Any thoughts on the process of getting picked up to release your game on the Switch or your interactions with Nintendo to this point as a "Nindie"?

DN: Nintendo is awesome, they have been incredibly helpful :) It feels great to be able to see a game I created on a Nintendo platform since I've been playing games on Nintendo systems my whole life.

Once you've got Rocket Fist out there (hopefully to great success) what's next on your radar? Anything you can reveal about what you have in mind moving forward?

DN: My most successful game thus far has been "What the Box?" an online multiplayer shooter in which all the players are boxes in an environment full of boxes. I'm currently working on porting it to the Xbox, but I'd like to bring it to the Switch as well if it's possible (Haven't looked much into the requirements for online multiplayer games on the Switch yet, so don't know how hard or easy it would be yet.). On the PC side of things I'll be working on a full version of a game jam game I made earlier this year called Bug Brawl, an Online Multiplayer arena battle between ladybugs.

I want to again thank Daniel for taking the time to share his thoughts on some of these interesting topics. Rocket Fist should be releasing in the coming weeks and will be another entrant in what promises to be a crowded and highly competitive space for local multiplayer games on the Switch!

Review: De Mambo


Likely having the distinction of being the first game ever developed primarily in a coffee shop, De Mambo wears its somewhat minimalist and punk rock nature proudly. Adhering to the philosophy of making the most out of a one-button control scheme, it manages to eke quite a lot of mileage successfully out of simple concepts that are generally well executed. The decision point for most gamers, however, will be whether or not De Mambo’s purist leanings are enough to remain engaging over the long haul.

The major component that will drive your level of enjoyment of the game will be in the area of this simplified control. There are a number of schemes you could choose to utilize (use of either the D-pad or joystick are possible and jumping is supported using either a button or by pressing up on the D-pad) and depending on your overall style these options are welcome. While there is only one action button, the length of time you press it will change things up between a simple poke, a spinning flurry, and a 4-way missile barrage. There are cues to help you recognize when you’ve charged to the more powerful attacks and you’ll want to use them because holding out too long will result in a burn out and you being vulnerable temporarily.



Playing with my family it seemed to take only until the second match for the general control to take hold and by the third people were already able to maneuver and attack quite effectively. In a general sense the “loose” control doesn’t seem to be an issue, though perhaps jump not being able to be suppressed when you’ve opted to use a button could present a problem. This is due to even the pro controller being prone to registering up pretty easily, especially when you’re in the heat of battle. You’re able to triple jump, so it usually isn’t much of an issue, but when every move counts and you accidentally burn a jump you didn’t mean to use it can be a bummer.

The main attraction in the game is the 4-player Mambo mode. With a pretty staggering number of unlockable stages there are quite a lot of maps for you and some friends to explore. The critical question will be whether the gameplay will hook everyone long enough to see them all. There are absolutely some differences between the stages, with some having strategically placed blocks with a variety of properties, and others having special events or environmental effects to keep you on your toes. While the controls are simple there’s a depth of strategy to De Mambo that can be surprising. Whether you choose to generally opt for the up-close game, trying to smash your opponents, or decide to go ranged and fire on everyone else from a distance with your missiles, there are a number of tactical ways to approach things. One of my daughters was actually quite successful simply staying away from the heat of battle and keeping to the periphery, waiting for the rest of us to wear each other down before coming in for the kill.


People making the most of the gameplay opportunities that are there is what makes the game work, but I will acknowledge that for some family members the simplicity ended up being an issue with questions on whether there were different modes or power-ups available. That may be De Mambo’s biggest stumbling block, that it got the inspiration for core control mechanics and their simplicity from Smash Brothers but it is missing the often transformative fun of some unpredictable power-ups dropping to turn the tide in someone else’s favor. The varied environments on many of the levels do a lot to help compensate for this but there are points where the added chaos of something like items is missed.

Not content to simply deliver a local multiplayer experience there’s some good news in that De Mambo sports both a dedicated Solo mode and a “friends are optional” Survival mode as well. The Solo mode presents you with a variety of relatively quick challenges, ranging from collecting items to simply trying to stay alive and more. For the most part these are a fine diversion and give you an opportunity to practice and refine some of your movement and attack styles. One unfortunate problem that comes along for the ride, though, is that the control that works out fine when you’re banging into friends in a fast-paced brawl doesn’t work as well when you’re trying to make more subtle movements or do things like jump between multiple narrow platforms. I’m not positive how best this could be addressed, whether through exposing a sensitivity setting for users to play with, or by simply tweaking the control in general, but it does make some Solo levels far more difficult than they have to be and may discourage some people from enjoying the mode fully.


Survival mode is generally quite simple, tasking you with destroying waves of incoming invaders while trying not to let them destroy the parts of the platform you’re trying to stand on. Your protection of the squares of your platform is vital because each one that gets slowly taken from you leaves another gap for you to be sure not to fall into. For me this mode in particular had some sentimental value, with elements of it reminding me of one of the first arcade titles I remember playing called King and Balloon. While it isn’t very complex in how it is set up if you enjoy classic arcade-style games, like I do, it is worth spending some time with for something a bit different. It is also important to note that this mode can be played with multiple people as well, hopefully allowing you to survive longer and not having them instead be an added distraction.


As a freshman effort De Mambo does an excellent job of putting The Dangerous Kitchen on the map. It is clear that they’ve taken the philosophy of simplicity, have spent time carefully defining and refining each aspect of their creation, and have delivered an experience that makes the most of everything they’ve provided for. With a group of friends who are down for smashing into each other and having a raucous time the Mambo mode will absolutely deliver, at least for a while. The question for group play will come down to whether everyone will invest in mastering the tools they’ve been given and will make the most of them or whether they’re looking to the game itself to provide more consistent opportunities. As I’d said the variety in stages does help greatly in this area but there can be levels or just passages of action where only the core move set is in play and that can lose people over time. The inclusion of two additional modes is also admirable and does provide for added value. Their mileage will vary for people, depending on tastes, as they are add-ons and the focus is clearly the main Mambo mode. In the end the effort and love are all there but while the control simplicity worked out well there’s room for peoples’ expectations for more interfering with their appreciation for it over the long haul. In what is looking to become a very competitive space on the Switch in the coming months I’m not sure De Mambo will be able to clearly break away from the pack, though it will undoubtedly be right in the thick of things.

Score: 7

Pros:
  • The controls are simple and easy to understand for new players
  • A wide selection of maps provide for variety to keep things interesting
  • Additional modes add flavor and value


Cons:
  • Game-changing items are missed at times
  • Not everyone may dig on the minimalist look and feel
  • “Loose” movement controls can be aggravating in some stages of the Solo mode that require precision


Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: Vaccine



The central question that should be posed by Vaccine is whether or not you can go back to the “good old days” of the original Resident Evil that it very closely emulates (perhaps to a fault). Unfortunately, after having spent quite a lot of time with the game, I don’t think Vaccine executes on its goals well enough to take the focus away from its flaws. There will, no doubt, be a subset of gamers who will enjoy the throwback experience. But, a combination of outdated mechanics and an overly wide swing in random factors that influence every run will create substantial stumbling blocks for the average gamer.

While I’ve seen a fair amount of complaint leveled at control in the game, when considering its goals of what it wanted to emulate, I found it reasonably workable while also being authentic. For those unfamiliar the controls are a bit tank-like in that your rotation is distinct from your forward and backward movement. There are a few control configurations available as well so I’d wager most people should be able to find a control style that suits them, though nothing will change the clunkiness of the classic scheme. Removing how you physically will control the action I will note that it at least feels a little faster than RE’s traditional sluggish movement that always aggravated me as well.

Welcome to Handheld Mode Hell...

Exploring the visuals is where some of the problems begin to show themselves, especially when considering people use the Switch in handheld mode as well as docked. I can respect sticking to the very polygonal models and low-quality textures that were very much a part of the original Resident Evil experience. Unfortunately, that won’t change the fact that in these environments finding some of the objects you’ll need to survive outright sucks. Consider that aside from larger items like a health pack there are also things like keys that you’ll need to progress and even on my monitor these can look like a single silver dot on a muddy texture that represents the floor. Now take it out of the dock and try to find the key and everything gets much worse. There are shimmers of light at times to help people find items but when you then throw in the various fixed camera angles (also authentic to the original game) distances from the camera to the object further add to the problem. In reality what you’ll find yourself doing is working from memory for what given environments look like, scan for anomalies, and then simply walk around everywhere tapping the action button “just in case”. I’ll additionally note that in handheld mode you’ll have to adjust the in-game brightness or there will be rooms that will look completely dark. There’s a slider to adjust this but it is worth giving fair warning about.

Given my love of roguelikes, and the fact that I’ve often come to their defense in terms of difficulty, that’s another area that deserves exploration. The problem isn’t necessarily that the game is “too hard” in a uniform sense. Yes, it can be aggravating that I’ve had runs where I was unable to find a gun, no matter how much I checked everywhere, but I had a pack full of ammo and then would run into 2 crawlers in quick succession, pretty much guaranteeing death and failure. The bigger problem is that I’ve had runs that are pretty well in the opposite direction, where I’ve found the gun, multiple health packs, and essentially an embarrassment of riches. This means the pendulum overall isn’t being constrained with a formula to keep the game within a defined “sweet spot” and it harms the experience.


In addition I wonder if having to find the gun is even necessary when conceptually without bullets it is functionally useless anyway and if you need to manage your resources it isn’t like that would break anything. What concerns me is that all of this difficulty, I believe, is serving to mask how little content there actually is in the game though. Once you count up the rooms, handful of monster types, and items you may encounter in your first completed run you’ll find you’ve been thrown back in with a new randomized map to see all of the same things again, just having kept your stats and inventory and the timer is shorter. Nothing fundamentally changes. While all roguelikes do essentially the same things, remixing a set amount of content through repeated play, the issue I have with Vaccine in this case is that there is so little you ultimately do. Explore, collect, encounter danger, either die or kill or evade danger, get vaccine, get back to your friend and repeat. There is the element with the laser generators that change for each pass and will have something happen if you manage to disable all 3 but it’s not enough of a hook most likely to keep an average person enduring the same loop that isn’t really that engaging the 20th or so time through.

As I said, I appreciate the fact that some elements of this game are purposely set up to be true to the vision of Resident Evil, which this is obviously inspired by. I also get that there will be people who, despite the game’s failings, will thoroughly enjoy it and be engaged by the action loop it offers. However, given the wildly inconsistent nature of it (even by roguelike standards), the issues with items being so critical and yet so complicated at times, and the fact that handheld mode is likely not going to be a great idea overall it’s hard to recommend without a substantial number of qualifiers. As noted, I think with some balancing and changing up pieces of the formula the overall experience could improve if tweaks are made but not knowing what the plans are I can only score the game based on what was provided.

Score: 3.5

Pros:
  • A mostly authentic retro Resident Evil experience
  • Some fun enhancements like CRT mode to go even further retro
  • The attempts at an overall story you may be compelled to try to see through to the end


Cons:
  • Handheld mode poses multiple issues due to scale and level of detail
  • While they’re implemented well the classic tank-like control scheme may turn modern gamers off immediately
  • As critical as items are to having successful runs finding them can be unnecessarily challenging
  • The roguelike formula isn’t as well implemented as it should be, swinging from too hard to too easy quite often and unpredictably
  • Once you’ve gotten the vaccine and brought it back to your partner once you’ve likely already seen the majority of things the game has to offer