Itchy Thumbs

Completing games then reviewing them

Archive for July, 2008

Deadly Rooms of Death

Posted by D on July 30, 2008

Deadly Rooms of Death (DROD as it is known) is a turn based puzzle game, somewhat like a cross between Sokoban, Bombuzal, Gauntlet and Nethack (minus the procedural generation gubbins). Now before we get much further I just have to get one thing out of the way (and I’ll keep this simple for those of you who might be playing with a few cards short of the full deck ): DROD is probably the greatest game ever written and a definite shoo-in for greatest puzzle game ever written. There. I’ve said it and I’ll wrestle anyone to the death who disagrees.

DROD has a modestly interesting history. It was initially released in 1997 and sold spectacularly badly, something that was not helped by the publisher going under. Some years later the original author re-acquired the rights to his creation and set about updating it and incrementally releasing the updated versions. Eventually this process culminated in two sequels, a whole new game engine and a complete update of the original game using the new game engine. One legacy version remains free shareware while the newer versions are paid for games which retail at a modest $20. If you spend any time playing the game you’ll quickly discover that given the amount of game on offer $20 is a bargin.

The plot of the original game, as much as there is, places you in the shoes of a Beethro Budkin a warrior type charged with the task of clearing a dungeon of all it’s critters and this frames the objective of the game’s puzzles. The game is divided into 25 levels with each level consisting of around 14 rooms. Each room represents an individual puzzle, the objective of which is to kill all the monsters and exit the room.

Rooms play out on a grid with Beethro effectively occupying 2 squares; 1 for the character himself and 1 for his sword. Beethro’s sword is capable of occupying any of the 8 cardinal and intercardinal squares around him but to switch which square requires a clockwise or anti-clockwise rotation with each rotation costing a turn to perform. Beethro is also capable of moving in any of the 8 carindal or intercardinal directions, once again each step costing a turn to perform. After Beethro has taken his turn all the monsters in the room take their’s, with each monster’s movement being governed by a specific rule set. Giant roaches always move directly toward Beethro, even if that might cause them to be stuck behind a wall. Goblins can move slightly more intelligently around obstacles and will always avoid moving into a square that Beethro’s sword could occupy in the next turn.

With these rules in place the object of most of the room’s puzzles is to manoeurve Beethro into the series of postions which will allow him to use his sword to kill each monster without any monsters being able to reach and kill him (by occupying the square Beethro is on). The true genius of the game is how these simple rules are expanded into the amazing variety and depth puzzles that are found in the game. The game and level design is second to none and the difficultly curve is exceptionally well paced. Levels commonly introduce a new feature (roaches, goblins, tar mothers, snakes etc…) or type of puzzle (having to manipulate goblins to kill snakes), then each room in that level will finesse that new feature or puzzle in a variety of different ways. As the levels progress features start to be combined to build ever more elaborate puzzles and the game quickly becomes very challenging.

The game can be very hard but because everything follows the same rules the same sequence of movements will always yield the same outcome this means, you can always return a room to a state that you’re having difficulty with. This means that very hard puzzles are slightly ameanable to a brute force, combinatorial solution should you find yourself stuck and without any ideas. An alternative to trying every possibility until you strike the right one is to search the DROD fan forum for hints. Seemingly, the community prefers not to hand out solutions, so most of what you’ll find are small hints and pokes in the right direction and, to my mind, this works rather well. The handful of times I did look up hints it was gratifying that only a gentle shove or confirmation that I was going about it in the right way was enough help me to complete the puzzle myself.

Many of the rooms are put together as a discrete series of sub-puzzles and this contributes to the game’s almost unbelievable level of addictiveness. Often you’ll realise how to complete one portion and once done it opens your eyes to how to go about the next bit. You’re always on the verge of getting to a new part of the puzzle so it always appears that it will pay off to “just to have a couple more goes” at the room you’re stuck on. This reason alone was responsible for me staying up into the wee small hours, long after sensible people have gone to bed, on many an occasion. In general though I found that a level’s worth of rooms could be completed in an evening’s play so each game represents a substantial task and time sink.

The gameplay itself has a slightly odd aspect to it. As it’s turn based the game plays at whatever pace you want but you’re unlikely to need to stop and consider every key press and unlikely to want to linger over inconsequential portions of rooms. So you’ll find you strike a balance between typing speed and the need to consider what happens next. In this way the game plays out as a strange test of both logical reasoning and your typing accuracy, a Mavis Beacon dimension of the game which is rather unexpected.

If the community forum is anything to go by, DROD seems to inspire a fair amount of love from those that play it and this greatly encouraged by it authors and the website plays host to a fairly active fansite and forum. In one of the earlier iterations of the game a level designer was included and this has given rise to a very active community of DROD players. It also means that there are almost endless extra levels to be played and a large number of the better ones have been bundled into various expansion packs. You could probably spend all the rest of your game playing years playing nothing but DROD and still not see all of the available levels people have created.

All in DROD is a spectacularly engaging game and everyone should take the time to try it. The graphics aren’t much more than functional and some of the character art is frankly awful. The music is OK, thankfully not too inane, and the audio is quite fun when it tells you the little bits of plot. What really makes this game standout is that it is an excellent idea for a game brilliantly executed. It is pure game stripped of needless additional content, which in this day and age is a rare thing.

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The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass

Posted by D on July 23, 2008

I have a lukewarm relationship with the Zelda franchise. I quite enjoyed A Link to the Past but Ocarina of Time was rather wearing and Majora’s Mask hardly held my attention. And with that background I came to The Phantom Hourglass in a fairly neutral state of mind with little bias either way. Personally I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the game will go down in history as a deinfining moment of “the art” but it is certainly worth some time and money.

As always, you play Link and you are charged with the task of completing some quest and once more resucing Princess Zelda. Like the earlier SNES and gameboy outings the game plays from a topdown viewpoint, the initial and main portion of the game plays out in an overworld that links together a series of temples or dungeons. So it’s the usual zelda affair. The overworld consists of a series of islands that later in the game are linked together by a sailing mini-game as you island hop following the fairly linear two dimensional plot.

The game’s design displays a somewhat direct and simple philosophy, if things ever appear inaccessible you can rest assured that you’ll shortly learn the appropriate skill that allows you to reach them. Often it’s easy to find and recall where these slightly hidden bonus bits are and one results of this is that The Phantom Hourglass lacks the rambling treasure hunt feeling of many of the earlier episodes. The endless traipsing back and forth in the Ocarina of Time, just in case something was newly accessible, was nothing short of mind bendingly boring. And as far as I’m concerned it’s a good thing that it’s kept to a minimum here..

The game is spent shuttling between islands, to follow what little plot there is, and incrementally exploring more and more of the central dungeon as new abilities are granted to you. This nominally sisyphisian task is enabled by one of the single greatest inventions that the world of computer gaming has ever brought to you: ‘writing’. Yes! The near limitless opportunities afforded by ‘writing things down’ has finally been opened up to to the world of computer games. What this means in reality is that, as this is a stylus only DS title, they’ve included the ability to stop the game and scribble notes or make marks on any of the maps in the game. Strangely enough this proves to be one of the most welcome additions to any adventure/RPG game that I’ve ever seen. It means that the game and everything you need are completely self contained, no need to keep a pad of paper beside you to take notes. Especially useful given that the game is on a portable platform. The only real issue is the disturbingly low resolution that you can make notes in, the ability to zoom much further into the maps to leave slightly more detailed notes would have been nice. Instead, coupled with the somewhat low resolution of the touch screen, you usually end up scrawling what looks like the hamfisted doodlings of a neanderthal. Zog have writey stick, Zog mark here.

The core of the game itself involves exploring The Temple of The Ocean King at ever deeper levels with ever increasing complexity. This portion plays out much like a little top-down, timed, puzzly stealth game and it’s pretty great. As you explore you occassionally get to an impasse, some plot point is handed out and off you’re sent to a different temple (read: dungeon) on another island to gain which ever ability you need to progress further through the Temple of the Ocean King. Link is pilotted through these dungeons using the touch screen and almost all of his abilities use the touch screen in some manner and it works excellently. From drawing the path of the boomerang to using the grappling hook, there are plenty of neat imaginative touches when it comes to Link’s abilities. I especially appreached the way you can use the grappling hook to tether two posts together and then the rope can be used as either a tightrope or from the ground as a cartoon style catapault to send Link across gaps.

I enjoyed the main portion of the game a lot so it was quite disappointing that the game is so short and the story so brief. The dungeons/temples could have been longer and the puzzles could have got a bit harder. But perhaps the Zelda games have never been about providing hard challenges.

Beyond the game’s core dungeons there are plenty of mini-games to keep you occupied most of which are pretty good. Sailing between the islands represents the main minigame where you have to fend off pirates and jump(!?) over barriers. It’s a little work-a-day and it’s nice that teleport points are eventually introduced so that you don’t have to sail across the whole map to get places. Within this sailing section there are further mini-games where you can fight pirates and fish for items and again these aren’t really up to much once you’ve got the hang of them. More interesting are some of the other mini-games. The timed maze and the archery, shooting gallery are really rather excellent. Overall the mini-games bring some much appreciated diversity to the main dungeon crawl in the game.

As I finished the game I was rather dissappointed to find that it was quite so short. Most of what’s there is fun and engaging and I was sad that there wasn’t any more to come. The level design and progression is excellent and the bosses are large, engaging and imaginative. The graphics and sound are great. And additionally I especially appreciated the general lack of incidental NPCs as it cuts down the immense amount of interminable, unreadable incidental dialogue that the Japanese feel has to be included in any RPG type game. All in I’m eager to see a sequel with a larger more developed story.

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Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

Posted by D on July 22, 2008

For me the point-and-click adventure marked a high point in games design that has seldom been equalled. At their best they combine truly great story telling with a challenging puzzle game. It’s not for no reason that people go all misty eyed, and then bore you to tears, telling you about how “games were better back in the day” at the merest mention of Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island. I’ve always thought it was a shame that Lucasarts abandoned making original and engaging games, instead prefering to produce “Yet Another Generic Starwars Game 12” (because that particular cash cow hasn’t quite been milked dry) but one consequence is that I’m always on the look out for a decent point-and-click adventure game. Yes I was that person who bought all the Myst games (incidentally, Riven was the best). So you can imagine how delighted I was to hear of Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure on the Wii. A point-click-adventure about young boy, Zack, who wants to become a pirate and to do so he must complete a range of tasks and finally face off against a dreaded ghost pirate. It’s like somebody somewhere was channelling all I loved about point-and-click adventures, so it’s rather unfortunate that the plot of Whack & Slippy is incoherant, disjointed and almost totally abritrary. As though someone swept up and kept all that was discarded when they sat down to design Monkey Island 2.

Slack & Sticky monkeys with the old point-and-click adventure format by dividing the game into levels and awarding you points for how well you complete each level. This means you can return to any given puzzle as often as you want but in turn this removes much of the continuity from the story and means that the game is more of a puzzle game than it is an adventure game. And this, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, it’s a perfectly functional and mostly diverting puzzle game. The object of each level is to solve its Rube Goldberg challenge in order to access the treasure chest at the end. Subsequent levels increase in complexity, largely by increasing the number of steps required to reach the treassure chest. That’s not especially unexpected but what is novel is that many of the puzzles or sub-parts can be solved in multiple ways, with the ideal solution scoring the greatest number of points. I’m not entirely sure what a points system brings to this game other than a mechanism whereby bonus bits can be unlocked, and what gets unlocked doesn’t appear to serve much purpose.

Crack & Drippy streamlines the point-and-click puzzle game by greatly reducing the number of item types in the game. Each item type frequently reappears between levels so the challenge lies in how you combine these parts to solve the levels. As this is a Wiimote extravaganza each item requires a particular type of demented flail to utilise. That’s mostly pretty neat until you get to the levels where you have to do something exactly right, first time, to score maximum points at which point the game will completely and utterly refuse to understand exactly what manner of demented flailing you’re trying to execute.

And speaking of flailing, that brings us onto the character of Wiki. Wiki is a magical, golden, flying monkey and by flailing the Wiimote around like a parkinsonian campanoligist Zack will ring Wiki like a bell. This causes all nearby objects to transform. All the items in the game exist in one of two forms, an animal form or as the useful item. Ringing Wiki converts them between those two states and this power of transformation underpins most of the game’s puzzles. It’s an odd game mechanic and my only real issue with it is that you can’t actually ring the life out of Wiki. Wiki is pretty close to the most nauseatingly and irritatingly cute character to be inserted into any form of children’s entertainment. Ever. His irritatingly cute voice made me long for something sharp with which to poke out my ear drums and I couldn’t skip the cutscenes fast enough. Come back Scrappy-doo all is forgiven.

The game also contains a whole load of secret treasure objects to collect. Quite why, who can say. They don’t provide anything useful nor do they change anything about the game. There is even a “minigame” (if you can call it that) where you “send” an NPC character to “visit” quadrants of a treasure map and bring back more of these items but the whole process is rather tedious and seems to have little bearing on the main game itself. What purpose it serves is anyone’s guess.

Overlooking the wholly detesable Wiki character, Slap & Spitty is mostly quite diverting and it has the appropriate level of polish. The interface is fine when it works but can be a little annoying when it just won’t do as it’s told and the story is inane to the point of stupidity. The graphics on the other hand are excellent, but then again I’m always a sucker for the clean matte stylings of cell-shaded graphics, so you may wish to take that with a pinch of salt. Fundamentally the game lacks a certain depth and as such it’s hard to draw any real level of satisfaction from completing it. The puzzles aren’t really up to much and the limited repertoire of items means that they are often amenable to a brute force combinatorial solution. Suffice to say there’s little or no replay value, except on those levels where you have to do something first time in order to do it right. All in all if you have nothing else to play you might want to give this a go but otherwise I’d save your pennies for something a little more deserving.

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