Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Visitor

(See the note below about the timing of this post.)

The Visitor is another point-and-click adventure game from Zeebarf, the oddly-named designer behind The Several Journeys of Reemus (review here). Like The Several Journeys of Reemus, it's a pretty standard point-and-click adventure game where you have to solve various puzzles. (Also, like the situation in yesterday's review, it actually came out before Reemus, but I don't think this is terribly important in this case.)

So, The Visitor follows the standard point-and-click adventure formula pretty closely. Unlike Reemus, but like the LucasArts classics I tend to think of as the archetype of the genre, you can't die or do anything that would get you permanently stuck, which is definitely welcome. The game, however, is fantastically gory and not for the squeamish -- you play an alien ... worm-thing, I guess, and as you consume various critters, you become larger and more powerful. The game isn't light on the blood when this consumption happens. Most of the puzzles just require careful thought, but there are a couple which require precision timing as well.

Anyway, most of the things I said about Reemus are pretty much true here. Because each part of the environment is only a single screen, there's simply not that much complexity or depth to the puzzles. Fortunately, I didn't have any problems finding clickable objects, which tend to be the bane of games of this genre. Also like Reemus, there are two different endings, and despite the fact that they're both worth a 15-point badge, one is much easier than the other. However, getting the harder one is kind of annoying, because should you happen to fail, then you will get the easier ending and have to watch the end credits before trying again (the game does considerately include a "replay last scene" button, so points for that, but it's still a few seconds, which gets more annoying each time).

The animation is not bad (more precisely, the drawing is decent, and the animation, while sparse, is serviceable); the first couple of screens are quiet, but then creepy background music is also added. The sound effects are solid; overall, I would say the presentation is solid, if not great.

Overall, this is not a difficult game if you're just trying to finish it, but getting the harder ending is annoying enough that I looked up the key step so I didn't have to keep retrying. While I generally enjoy this genre of game, and this is not a badly executed version of it, I did find the goriness a bit of a turnoff. Still, if you wouldn't mind, you could do a lot worse than this game.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ragdoll Avalanche 2

(If you've actually been following this blog -- and I know you haven't -- then you know that the date at the top of this post isn't actually the date it was posted. Indeed, this whole week I skipped, for obvious reasons, and I'm just backfilling it in now.)

Ragdoll Avalanche 2 marks the return of the ragdoll character that you saw in Ragdoll Invaders (review here). Well, technically, Ragdoll Avalanche 2 came first, but it's second to me, so to me, it's a return.

So, Ragdoll Avalanche 2 is a very simple game -- spikes fall from the ceiling, and you have to dodge as many of them as possible. The ragdoll nature of your character means that sometimes your limbs may go where you don't quite want them to go, but on the other hand, like in Ragdoll Invaders, your ragdoll's extremities are expendable (at least to some extent; you can lose your lower legs and forearms without any ill effects; indeed, to the extent that it makes your ragdoll smaller, it can even help a little bit, but any more than that will kill your poor ragdoll).

The graphics are very simple -- you've got a stick figure, and some spikes. The music is some techno that is not bad for lending an air of intensity to the proceedings. Since the average length of a game is so short, it doesn't really have too much time to get boring.

Anyway, it's moderately entertaining for a little bit, but the hard badge requires some really good reflexes and a lot of luck (sometimes the spikes will just come in a clump from which you can't escape, and then you're, well, out of luck), which can be kind of frustrating. It's a good diversion for a few minutes, but not something that you'd want to play for hours and hours.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Factory Balls

The somewhat-unfortunately named Factory Balls reminds me of one of my favorite Sunburst education games when I was growing up, The Factory. Like The Factory, you have to perform a sequence of simple actions in the correct order to produce a desired result, which often requires some clever thinking and backwards reasoning.

Factory Balls isn't quite as good as The Factory, though. As you might expect from the title, you're operating on spheres, which opens up a few opportunities for particularly clever actions exploiting their three-dimensionality. However, it seems like the total number of possibilities is pretty limited, and it's frustratingly unclear what some of the devices actually do (I don't think I ever did figure out what that air gizmo in level 8 actually was), since the interface is singularly unhelpful. This wouldn't be as much of a problem if it weren't for my larger complaint. Namely, experimenting is half the fun of this kind of game, but the lives system doesn't afford you much room to make mistakes -- while sometimes you can (literally) paint over your errors, sometimes you just have to throw the ball away, and if you run out of balls you'll lose.

Anyway, it's a cute little puzzle, but with only 14 puzzles, you'll end up feeling that there was a lot of territory that could be explored which was left vacant, in favor of introducing some devices which feel awfully gimmicky and are only used once or twice. The graphics are pretty basic, and the background music is ambient enough not to be too annoying despite its extreme repetitiveness; the sound effects are solid. A neat concept, but not quite reaching the level of a great game.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


This game provides a nice contrast to Aliens Must Die, since it also takes an old idea, but it adds enough new and interesting features to make it a joy to play again. Like Filler, it's very much like JezzBall and Barrack. In fact, it's much more like those games than Filler, and...what's that? I never actually explained what JezzBall and Barrack are? Well, let's start there.

So, JezzBall is an old Windows game. You have a playfield with a bunch of balls bouncing across it, and your cursor controls a gun which can shoot lines either horizontally or vertically. When you click your button, two lines start from your cursor's present position outwards. If a ball happens to hit your lines while they're still moving, then they're destroyed and you lose a life. If both your lines reach the wall safely, then your line becomes solid. If the space on either side of your line is empty, it gets filled in. If both sides still have balls, then your line is at least still useful as a closer wall for future lines. Your goal is to fill up a given percentage of the playfield. Barrack is a classic Ambrosia game for the Mac, with the same basic concept but a few additional twists.

Anyway, colorfill is basically the same formula as described above, with a few twists. First of all, instead of only balls (which are actually colorful triangles), there are two other kinds of enemies: gears which roll along the walls, and long-tailed snakelike objects, both of which have uncanny talents for reaching your line just as it's about to complete. Also, the playing field is not necessarily rectangular. Second, as the name might imply, your lines are brightly colored in a variety of hues; your cursor changes color after every successful shot. This might not seem like a substantial gameplay difference, but the third difference makes it important. In JezzBall, as I mentioned, the empty half of space created by your line (if there is an empty half) is filled. It is thus possible (but very difficult, of course) with a well-timed shot to fill up a very large percentage of space with one shot. In colorfill, however, it's always the smaller half of the two halves created by your line which is filled. This means that, unlike JezzBall, where balls can never be killed, only hemmed into ever-smaller regions, you can destroy enemy objects by trapping them. But wait, there's a catch! If you happen to destroy an enemy object of the same color as your current fill color, two new ones will spawn in your empty space! This can prove particularly challenging when two objects of the same color as your cursor simply insist on staying on opposite sides of the screen.

Anyway, the level design is solid -- there's enough nooks even in the more difficult levels to give you a fighting chance, and overall the game is difficult but not too difficult. The game gets many positive points for not making you replay from the beginning when you die, but allowing you to pick up where you left off. The graphics are, as mentioned earlier, brightly colored and pretty. The music is terrific -- it's bouncy, fun, and truly enjoyable to listen to.

Overall, this is a tremendously entertaining game. It shouldn't take you too long to complete the 21 basic levels, but the 3 bonus levels (where your line moves more slowly) are quite difficult. I also approve of having a badge for doing the wrong thing (intentionally duplicating shapes), which adds a cute little wrinkle.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Aliens Must Die: The Jupiter Wars

In a moment of perfect timing, I had been reading (just out of curiosity) Kongregate's information about premium sponsorship, where they talked about wanting games which weren't just tired rehashes of the same old concept, but new and innovative takes on existing genres, or new genres entirely. Then, I clicked back to the Kongregate home page, and found that this game (which is, indeed, sponsored by Kongregate, but not premium sponsorship, I would assume) was the latest to have badges. I had actually tried it earlier, but it failed to hold my interest for a couple of minutes, because it was a tired rehash of an old concept. Now, I had a reason to play it for more than a few minutes, but it didn't really impress in a longer trial, either.

Anyway, Aliens Must Die: The Jupiter Wars (and let me digress for a moment to mention how awful that title is; with just the title, it has a nice camp quality, but the subtitle makes it sound overly serious and ruins the whole quality; also, as it probably won't surprise you to learn, Jupiter plays no part in the game, other than serving as the backdrop, so really, what's the point?) is a very generic space shooter, in the old classic Asteroids tradition. Actually, in some ways this game has more in common with the survival shooters I discussed in my last post, since you use the keyboard to move and the mouse to shoot, while I think of shooting in the direction that you move as a hallmark of Asteroids and Crystal Quest.

So, enemies come in (some inert, like asteroids and comets, and some which will shoot back), and, using the aforementioned control scheme, you shoot them. They release debris, which you can collect to (very gradually) upgrade your weapons. That's about it. From time to time you'll get health, which you'll need, and shields, which make you temporarily invincible. Also, in a savvy bit of marketing, the artwork prominently features a cute anime girl, who is allegedly your co-pilot. However, instead of, oh, perhaps manning the turrets while you're trying to steer, or vice-versa, or some other kind of co-piloty task, her sole duty seems to be to announce various events in a very strange voice. I can't tell whether it's synthesized, or just with a very peculiar accent, but either way it's slightly distracting.

The graphics are of good quality, and the sound effects are decent. The music I have to give props for recognizing and using the old Asteroids theme as their base, but to be honest, it does feel a little dated. Overall, though, the game feels pretty easy -- I don't consider myself particularly proficient in this genre (years of Crystal Quest notwithstanding). The hard badge requires you to defeat the alien mothership on wave 29 (although, if it's the mothership, why does the game continue after that? Oh well), which I guess is supposed to be a hard task. I had relatively little difficulty reaching wave 29, and when the mothership appeared, I happened to get a shield, so I just rammed it and that was that.

Anyway, this is not a badly produced game, but fundamentally there's nothing to add juice to what is by now a pretty old concept, so it really didn't succeed in holding my interest for any significant amount of time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Endless Zombie Rampage

The Endless Zombie Rampage is the first game that I've reviewed here that's in a genre which is quite popular on Kongregate. I don't know if that genre has an official name, so I'll call it "survival shooter". There are several minor variations on the theme, but they're all basically the same -- an endless stream of enemies comes at you, and you have to shoot them by clicking on them. Sometimes you have a movable character, and sometimes you have a fixed turret; sometimes the perspective is top-down and sometimes it's a side view; and sometimes you have to defend your base, while sometimes all you have to defend is yourself. By shooting enemies, you gain points, which you can use to upgrade the terrible pistol that you start with (and it's always, and I mean always, a pistol) to a dizzying array of increasingly powerful weaponry, usually based on real weapons and often rendered to a lovingly precise degree, and yet somehow differing only in their damage, rate of fire, ammo capacity, and reload time.

Anyway, The Endless Zombie Rampage exhibits all of the characteristics of your typical survival shooter; it's a top-down shooter where you can move around, but have to defend your base as well as yourself. And, just to make it even more unbelievably generic, your enemies are the incredibly-popular zombies. (There are also zombified...well, things; they're not human, but it's not at all clear what they are.)

I tend to not be a huge fan of this genre (or maybe it's just that all of the games in this genre are so similar); it's really just mindless clicking, and there's not that much strategy or even all that much in the way of reflexes involved, and the fact that everything in The Endless Zombie Rampage is so plain vanilla -- there's absolutely nothing which innovates on the basic formula -- means that there's really not much to make you say, "Oh yeah, I really want to play this game!"

The graphics are pretty average. Like most games of this genre, it doesn't skimp on the blood, so pretty soon most of the ground is going to be red. There's not any music, just moaning and the sounds of your trusty weapon, which I guess is supposed to make the game feel more atmospheric. Anyway, like most of the rest of the game, the presentation is pretty average.

All in all, this ended up being a very generic experience. I went through it to get the badge, but found nothing interesting in it to make the experience at all memorable.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Platform Racing

Imagine Mario Kart, which I hope we can all agree is a fine game. Now, take everything out of it that makes it a fun game. You've now got a pretty good idea of what playing Platform Racing is like. It gave me a horrible feeling that I had just wasted three hours of my life and all I got to show for it was 50 points in badges.

The basic concept of Platform Racing is, hopefully, conveyed by its title -- it's like a platformer, except you have many characters racing to get to the finish first. There's not much in the way of variety -- you have ordinary blocks, arrow blocks, which give you a boost in the direction the arrow is pointing (either sideways or upwards), mines, which give your little stick figure a nasty jolt, and the obligatory item blocks, which will give you one potentially-useful item.

So, what makes this such an uninteresting game? Well, first of all is the pace. Your characters are fairly slow to begin with, and in matches with multiple players (more on this later), you're constantly being lightninged or shot at or simply stomped on; like Mario Brothers, stomping on someone's head will stun them for several seconds, which is excruciating when you have characters all grouped in an area trying to make a jump and they all end up jumping on each other. This means that, even though the individual courses are relatively short, they still take what seems like forever to complete. You can customize your racer by allotting 100 points among speed, acceleration, and traction, but even when I weighted my racer heavily towards speed, he still seemed aggravatingly slow.

But the area where this is really a spectacular letdown is the level design. As in any racing game, the quality of the tracks is really what makes or breaks the experience, and the levels are simply not interesting. Part of this is undeniably a consequence of there simply being so few elements to work with, but the game seems to have only one trick in its toolbox for adding difficulty, and that's to have you jump from single block to single block over bottomless pits. This gets tired and annoying fast. Even worse is when the single blocks are up-arrow blocks, so that you get boosted up and you can't even see the block that you're trying to land on. This results in you plummeting to your demise approximately 10 million times on average, which is simply not fun. There's nothing particularly creative or interesting in the level design; the one attempt to make an unorthodox level, in which, instead of racing, you fall down and have to avoid various obstacles as you fall, I thought was pretty clever until I realized you could just go off to one side past all of the obstacles, fall almost the whole length of the level, and then come back in just in time for the finish. Brilliant, huh?

The items are also horribly unbalanced. (One thing which I will give the game credit for -- unlike Mario Kart, where it's possible for the lead driver to hog all of the items, in Platform Racing, each player can hit each block precisely once, so everyone has a chance at items.) Some items are ridiculously powerful, and some are very weak, and unlike Mario Kart, there's no attempt to balance them with your current position, so you can easily get lightning while leading the race. In one of the levels, if you get a certain item you're basically guaranteed to beat anyone who doesn't get that item -- in fact, I don't think in all my playing, I ever managed to even finish that level within the time limit without getting the item. Other levels have similar, if not quite as serious, problems.

The graphics are very bland -- the racers themselves are stick figures, with the parts not even connected, and the animation consists solely of your feet moving back and forth. You can "customize" your appearance, which only consists of changing colors. The levels themselves are similarly uninteresting in their appearance. The music is also solidly subpar, although at least there are multiple mediocre melodies, so you don't have to listen to the same thing the whole time. The sound effects are OK.

Now, on to the multiplayer. This is a racing game, after all, so while you can race by yourself, the entire point is to race against other people, so I was unable to avoid multiplayer play, as is my preference. The game is hosted on many non-Kongregate locations, so everyone connects to one of three central servers; there's also a chat room inside the game, which is the usual cesspool of awfulness that nearly any unmoderated chat room devolves into. (It also appeared that most of the people playing the game were about 14, which made me wonder if I would enjoy the game more if I were that age. I don't think so, though. There were better games around even when I was 14.) The matchmaking system is pretty terrible (and not at all intuitive); basically, you click on an open slot and hit "play" when you're ready. The game starts 15 seconds after the first person clicks "play", or when all players currently in the game have clicked "play"; this means that oftentimes you end up waiting 15 seconds for the fourth person to hit the button, they don't, and so you end up playing with three. This is important, because the more people you beat in a race, the more rank you get, and rank is important to unlock the last levels so you can get the badge and stop playing the game already. The game is also not so good at keeping players synced -- I'll often see a player behind me jump ahead thanks to lag, and cheats are also rampant, judging by the number of players I saw with over 20000 rank who were magically able to finish any level in 10 seconds. Also, you have to wait until everyone has finished the level to get your points, which just adds insult to injury.

Anyway, if you haven't guessed yet, I found playing Platform Racing to be a thoroughly unenjoyable experience, and I was quite happy when I finally finished grinding my way up the rank ladder to unlock the last level so I could finally earn the last badge. It's not even particularly hard, just very, very tedious.