Friday, September 12, 2008

The Several Journeys of Reemus: Chapter 1

The somewhat-confusingly named The Several Journeys of Reemus: Chapter 1 is, despite the "1" in the title, a sequel to the original The Several Journeys of Reemus (review here); apparently, they've decided to adopt the Half-Life 2 method of naming. (In all fairness, The Several Journeys of Reemus did bill itself as "Prologue", but you still get the feeling that this could have been handled more simply.)

Anyway, there's really not too much to say about Chapter 1, since it's pretty much identical to its predecessor -- it's your standard point-and-click adventure game. The puzzles are clever, but since they're always confined to a single screen, most of their difficulty stems from the struggle in trying to find the objects on that screen which can be manipulated, rather than complex interactions among the various items. This a little frustrating, at times, but the puzzles all make sense when you solve them; there's none of the "and why did that work, anyway?" feeling that you can get when playing poorer examples of the genre.

Unlike its predecessor, Chapter 1 is not big on killing you -- in fact, I don't think there's any point when you can actually manage to get yourself killed -- you just end up stuck until you figure out what you need to do. This is definitely a step forward. Like its predecessor, there are two endings, one of which is a great deal trickier than the other; fortunately, once you've finished the game, you can go back and replay any scene that you want, so you don't have to go through the whole game just to retry the last scene (not that it would take particularly long anyway).

The graphics are still very cartoony, and a little crudely animated, but it's a good, distinctive look (although, like other Zeebarf games, it can get a little graphic with the violence at points). The music varies from scene to scene, which is very nice -- some of the tunes are good, but some will drive you crazy after a little while (especially if you happen to be stuck on the puzzle).

Anyway, overall this is an enjoyable experience, and Zeebarf does do a good job crafting puzzles within the limitations of Flash, but this isn't a game which will leave me breathlessly awaiting Chapter 2. But I will be happy to play it when it does come out.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

First, a general announcement. I've been trying to post reviews at the rate of one per day. Now, obviously, I don't actually finish one Kongregate game per day; rather, since I started playing Kongregate before I started writing these, I had a buffer to start with. Now, however, I've caught up, so I'll start writing a review when I finish a game. The advantage is that I can write the reviews quicker, since the game will still be fresh in my mind and I won't have to go back and replay it. The downside is, of course, that I won't be posting these every day. Anyway, on to today's review.

SandStorm Racing

Sandstorm Racing is, as you might be able to guess from the name, a racing game. As you might also be able to guess from the name, you're racing on sand, which means you'll be drifting like crazy. If you're already familiar with racing games which require a lot of drifting, then you'll be in good shape, but if not, you'll probably have a bit of an adjustment period. Sandstorm Racing is no Gran Turismo, though, so even if you're totally unfamiliar with the concept you should be able to win races in very little time. After all, the controls are only the four arrow keys, so that should give you an idea of how simple the game is.

The game features eight courses (plus one tutorial course), and you can play a given race (once it's been unlocked) as much as you want. In each race, you'll race usually two laps against five computer opponents. You get credits based on your finish, and finishing first or second (or possibly third? I don't think I ever finished exactly third) will unlock the next course. Credits can be used to upgrade your car, although it's not a matter of buying specific parts -- you just pay a number of credits and your car gets better, and that's that. Unfortunately, if you win a race on your first try, you won't get enough credits to upgrade your car, so you'll probably get slaughtered if you try the next race, so you'll have to repeat the race to get more credits.

The one particularly frustrating thing about the game is that, while there is a path marked, you don't have to stay on the path. Indeed, cutting corners is a very important strategy for victory. However, it's not really clear just how far you can stray from the path before your progress no longer registers, and even if you do reach this point, it's possible to go a long, long way before you get reset and put back on the track where you left. This can be very annoying -- you can be sailing along and doing great, and then just drift off the path a little bit, and by the time you've recovered, you're suddenly behind everyone.

The graphics are pretty simple, and there's no music (except during the level select screen, where it's exceedingly annoying very quickly), only the screech of tires and the occasional bump when a couple of cars collide. Overall, this is a cute little game, and it's definitely fast-paced enough that you won't have to spend a lot of time to completely beat it, but it just lacks the depth to make it interesting enough so that you'd want to come back to it after finishing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Necronomicon

The Necronomicon is a fairly simple card game based, as you might expect, on the works of H.P. Lovecraft. It does an excellent job of making a sufficiently spooky game -- so good that you can even overlook the occasionally annoying mechanics.

The basics of the game are quite straightforward. You have a hand of five cards, and on your turn you play (or, rarely, discard) one and then draw one. Each player has a given amount of life (the starting amount of life is 40 at the beginning, but rises gradually over the course of the game), and the object is to reduce your opponent's to zero before your own does the same. Cards fulfill the general range of functions -- attack your enemy, defend or heal yourself, and so forth. Creatures do exist, but they don't behave like they do in, say, Magic -- if you summon a creature (and you may only have one in play; summoning another will simply replace your existing creature), it won't attack on its own; rather, it will counterattack whenever your enemy does damage to you. (A creature also can absorb damage from your opponent's creature, when it is activated.) This means that creatures are really not that useful overall. There are four other attributes in play. Two are Elder Defense and Arcane Power, which reduce the amount of damage taken and increase the amont of damage done by your spells, respectively. There are a fair number of cards which increase these, but there are also lots of cards which let you zap your opponent's power or defense, so don't get too attached to them. The third is Taint, which acts as poison -- it does its damage every round. Taint can be useful in the early games when characters don't start out with much life, but in the later rounds it doesn't really have enough time to do too much damage. (It also can never finish off a player -- it disappears when a player is reduced to 1 life.) The final, and most intriguing, element is your sanity. Most cards cost sanity to deploy -- in general, the more powerful and arcane the forces you're summoning, the greater the sanity cost. A few sanity-restoring cards exist, and if you discard a card, you recover an amount of sanity equal to its cost. Still, you will generally find your sanity gradually slipping away over the course of the battle. Should your sanity go to zero, you go insane. Going insane brings you one of a variety of delightful effects; these effects will generally hinder your ability to win your struggle, though they certainly do not prevent it. The pool of cards is not particularly large -- there's 36 different cards (not all of which are present at the beginning); it's not clear whether your deck contains these in differing numbers, or if there's just a certain random chance every time, though at least anecdotally some cards seem to come up more frequently than others.

While there is some strategy involved (as evidenced by the fact that the AI isn't very good at it), the game often does boil down to drawing the right card at the right time, which can be frustrating. There are two modes of play: in the main mode, you must defeat 30 enemies of gradually increasing power. Fortunately, as you defeat the enemies, your own power also increases depending on how well you do. As a result, it's often a better strategy to lose rather than eke out a close victory, since the latter will give you very few points and can leave you at a disadvantage in your next battle, while trying again to get a more overwhelming win can give you a chance to go up a rank and maybe even two, giving you an advantage. The challenge mode features 21 different challenges where the rules of the game have been altered, sometimes subtly, often grossly, and always in favor of your opponent. The challenges range from entertainingly challenging to extremely frustrating, and here especially you can see just how much the game depends on random chance. To illustrate how tooth-grinding this can be, in one challenge, you have a stipulation that you lose if you go insane. However, the opponent has in his deck a card which makes you instantly go insane. So, if this card comes up, regardless of how well or poorly you might have been doing, it's an instant loss! This gets pretty tiring pretty quickly.

Atmospherically, though, the game is fantastic. The graphics are excellent, the background music lends just the right air of eeriness to the proceedings, the sound effects, although very understated, also fit in perfectly with the game; even the typography has just the right feel. Alas, the game does have to make a few compromises -- since it can't show all five of the cards in your hand in their lovely detail, for instance, you instead have to click on a card to magnify it and then click on the Necronomicon to actually play it, which gets a little clunky once you've reached the point where you do know what every card does.

Anyway, overall this is a well-crafted game, but unfortunately it's a little bit too long -- you will undoubtedly find yourself frustrated by the randomness more than once during the course of the game (and even more should you attempt all of the challenges, though at least you can get an impossible badge for it). Still, the game environment is good enough that you can still enjoy it, if you don't mind a little bit of creepiness.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Battalion: Nemesis

Battalion: Nemesis is not a game which is particularly coy about its origins. Indeed, the designer is quite upfront that he wanted to design a game which was very much like Advance Wars, and would hopefully improve upon it. I also enjoyed Advance Wars 2 very much, so I went in expecting to enjoy Battalion: Nemesis. While Battalion: Nemesis does deliver the fast-paced turn-based strategy action I expected, it sadly falls a little short of Advance Wars in the final analysis.

If you've played Advance Wars, you should be able to hop right in (with only a few aggravating differences to get used to); if you haven't, here's what to expect. Battalion: Nemesis is a simple turn-based strategy game, where you battle the enemy on land, at sea, and in the air with a variety of units, spanning pretty much what you would expect: some infantry, some tanks, some artillery, subs, battleships, fighters, bombers, and so forth. Most units are direct-fire units, which move next to an enemy and then attack them, after which the enemy (if it still exists) can return fire. Some units are indirect-fire units, which can attack enemies from a distance, but cannot fire and move in the same turn. Scattered across the map are oil refineries, which produce money, and factories, which produce different types of units; only infantry units (which are weak) can capture these properties, so careful coordination is required in a successful attack.

If you have played Advance Wars, you'll notice some differences right off. Many of these are simplifications: for instance, all logistic considerations (fuel and ammo) have been removed. This removes a dimension that many people find annoying, but I think is an important aspect of the game. Air power (possibly to compensate for the preceding) has been severely reduced; bombers especially are no longer close to the map-dominators they are in Advance Wars. (The elimination of fuel, though, is a great help to subs, which can now remain submerged full-time.) The COs have been eliminated, which I think is kind of a disappointment, since they're a nice touch. A bunch of unit types have been eliminated or their functions consolidated into other units, which results in a simplified but awfully sparse unit tree. There's no Fog of War, which I don't mind, since I never really liked it, although in the campaign the enemy will field stealth tanks against you (I guess they got them surplus from the Brotherhood of Nod). Finally, transport has also been simplified -- rather than requiring separate units, you can just summon a sea transport or air transport (at a cost) which will instantly appear to transport your unit. There are only a few things which aren't in Advance Wars -- there exist sea oil refineries, too, which can be captured by a new type of sea unit, there's (finally!) a sea unit which can engage in direct combat with other sea units, and you can repair units in the field rather than retreating to a city (properties don't, in fact, repair units any more). The most frustrating change, though, is that instead of moving a unit and then picking a target to attack (or undoing the move if you desire), as you do in Advance Wars, you move and attack all in one fell swoop. This resulted in a lot of missed moves for me, exacerbated by the fact that you can't undo. Probably this is less of a problem if you're not used to the Advance Wars format.

All of this combines to give the game an Advance Wars-lite feel, and the campaign just doesn't have the same sweep and scale that Advance Wars does. There's only ten missions in the campaign (plus six "boot camp" training missions and one bonus map), and since the first few of these are pretty easy, there's just not a lot of meat. Even in the later missions, the maps are still relatively small and often feel kind of cramped. (They do still take a while, though, especially since the AI runs really slowly on some of the last few missions -- sometimes it would take on the order of several minutes for the computer to move, which was really annoying.) All in all, the units just don't quite work as well together as in Advance Wars -- I found it more difficult to mount a good, large-scale assault. Maybe it's just because I didn't bother to learn the ins and outs of the different unit types as carefully (and there are a lot more things to keep track of), but it just doesn't feel quite as well-balanced as Advance Wars.

The graphics are not bad, employing the same slightly cartoony style as Advance Wars, although there aren't any combat animations -- just a "pow!" and a health bar decreasing, and then the same on the other side. The sound effects are not bad; at least they're nicely varied among the units. The music is decent -- there's not the variety that you see in Advance Wars, but at least you and the enemy have separate snippets to keep you from getting too bored.

In case it wasn't evident, I am a huge fan of Advance Wars, so there's no shame in falling slightly short of the target. And it may be simply a reflection of my familiarity with Advance Wars that I tend to favor it in the areas where it differs from Battalion: Nemesis. I did enjoy Battalion: Nemesis when I played it; it's just that it ends up being not quite as great as Advance Wars.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Vector Runner

Vector Runner is pretty much your classic dodger. You pilot some kind of squarish vehicle through a neverending path filled with pyramids, all rendered with the vector graphics technology that was new and exciting in 1980. Your craft can survive three hits; along the way, you can also pick up various cubes which give you points, temporary invincibility, or a shield recharge.

Um, that's pretty much all there is to say about the gameplay. The graphics are undeniably stylish, and the animation is very smooth, but this comes at a price -- unlike your typical Flash action game which is easier on slower computers, Vector Runner is best played on a faster computer -- on a slower computer, the controls become very mushy and the precision steering you need to survive just isn't attainable. The sounds fit the game well, and the music is excellent -- I especially like the way it shifts when you move into different zones of the track.

While this is a well-executed game, it's still just a dodger with nothing beyond the basic formula, so it didn't really hold my interest for a long time. (Though there was an impossible badge to get, which kept me playing for a while.)

(Since I've gone this far without mentioning a Mac game, I need to rant. How is it that my 8 MHz Mac SE can play Spectre just fine, but my current machine, which is at least three and probably closer to four orders of magnitude more powerful, still slows down in Vector Runner every time it adds a message to the chat window? I mean, OK, Spectre had the full system resources available, while Vector Runner is running as a plugin in a web browser in a very complex operating system, but still!)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy

Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy is another game by Ben Olding, creator of Achilles (review here; actually, Starfighter predates Achilles by quite a bit, but that's the order in which I played them), but the two games have essentially nothing in common -- unlike, say, a jmtb02 game, which you can pretty instantly recognize as a jmtb02 game regardless of what the game might actually be about, you'd never tell they were by the same person.

Well, enough about what Starfighter isn't, and perhaps a little more about what it is. Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy is a large-scale top-view 2D space action game, much in the tradition of classic games like Escape Velocity. You start out as a relatively minor participant in the apparently endless war between humans and aliens, flying missions throughout the galaxy and destroying enemies, which earns you money to buy more powerful weapons and ships. But, to be honest, I found myself comparing the game to Escape Velocity a lot of the time, and it definitely suffered from the comparison.

In Starfighter, the galaxy is divided into a 20x20 map of sectors. At the beginning of the game, you pick a faction to be allied with, and you will fight on that side forevermore; the factions are, functionally speaking, pretty much equivalent, so you're not going to be missing out on much regardless of which side you pick. The galaxy is, conveniently, linearly divided: the degree of human control ranges from 1 at the bottom row of the galaxy to 0 at the top row, and vice-versa for the aliens. At the beginning of the game, you'll tend to hang out at the bottom (or top), but as you get more powerful, you'll move closer to the middle. (Spending a prolonged amount of time in enemy territory is difficult, though.) Each sector is pretty sizeable. Some sectors contain friendly space stations where you can buy new weapons and upgrades, or even buy a new ship. Your ship has a certain amount of energy and shields; the former can be used to recharge the latter, and both naturally recharge over time. Combat is pretty straightforward -- you can fire your primary weapon (a laser cannon, which takes your energy) or one of your secondary weapons (how many secondary weapons you can carry depends on your ship). Some secondary weapons have a limited ammunition supply (which replenishes when you cross a sector boundary or dock at a friendly station), while others take energy to fire. Your laser cannon is a dumb weapon, but many secondary weapons have automatic targeting and need to be locked onto a target before firing. Should you die, you respawn somewhere else in your sector with full health and weapons, but minus one life. The game gives you ten lives to start with, and should you manage to lose all of them, your account will be reset. You can always buy more lives at a friendly station, though, so really only extreme carelessness can result in this happening. Overall, I kind of like this mechanic.

While I generally love this genre of game (the Escape Velocity series is one of my favorite series of games of all time), Starfighter has a few flaws that readily become apparent. The first is that the universe is a relatively boring place. All space stations are the same -- they've got some weapons, they've got some missions (which are always randomly generated), and that's about it. There's no flavor to any of the missions or locations. All of the missions are basically the same -- either transport some stuff to another station, kill a number of an enemy ship type, or kill all enemies in a given sector. As you advance along the game, some more types of missions become available, but they're all basically cut from the same cloth. There's no particular overarching plot behind any of the missions, nor do they ever really change. In fact, there's no particular plot at all. You're just a human and you destroy aliens, or vice versa, and that's just the way it is.

The second problem is that getting around is kind of slow. A sector is large, and getting from one end of it to another can take a while, even if there aren't any enemies to slow you down. Getting from sector to sector, then, is even slower, since you have to fly across the entirety of a sector. You can buy hyperspace capability, but it costs a lot of money for a single charge, so it's not really profitable, especially if you're just doing a dinky courier mission anyway. (There does exist an engine upgrade which gives you free hyperspaces, which is very convenient, but it's extremely expensive, and it means you can't buy the other engine upgrades which speed up your intra-sector travel, so it definitely comes at a cost.) So, ultimately, you'll spend a lot of time flying through space with nothing in particular to do.

The third problem is that the combat isn't well-balanced. First of all, there just isn't that much differentiation in ship quality. In Escape Velocity (sorry for repeatedly mentioning EV, but it really is my gold standard here -- I promise this is the last time), when you get a capital ship, you can feel the difference. Here, though, even the supposedly weaker ships can take down the ostensibly most powerful enemies without too much difficulty, given a little bit of skill, patience, and luck. Also, the secondary weapons are not at all equal in power, and the enemies seem to have them randomly, so oftentimes a combat will not be anywhere near as difficult as you thought it was. This just kind of reduces the rewards of getting one of the bigger ships, especially since, as you might expect, the bigger ships are slower, thus exacerbating the second problem.

I would be remiss not to mention the multiplayer, since this is one of the big selling points of Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy. I like the approach to multiplayer very much -- it's very simple and elegant. Certain sectors are multiplayer sectors, where you can enter and fight against enemies played by other players. There are also co-op multiplayer sectors, where your allies are other players but the enemies are still computer players, as normal. This allows people to easily avoid the multiplayer, if they prefer a solitary experience, or seek it out if they want to test their skills, and I like the co-op option as well. Well, at least I do in theory. The one big asterisk is that multiplayer doesn't work with the latest version of Flash, so I didn't actually have a chance to try it out firsthand.

The graphics are OK -- each ship has a very distinctive look, which is definitely a nice feature, but they're all pretty flat and 2D. The sounds are pretty standard, too. There are several different snippets of music, which appear to play on different occasions (returning to a station, getting caught in an ambush, etc.); the music is definitely nice, but it's not continuous, so most of the game you'll be playing in silence (except for weapons firing).

Overall Starfighter is a well-crafted game, and it's clearly the work of a competent programmer (despite its complexity, the game always ran smoothly and glitch-free), but the environment just isn't interesting enough. The fact that the only way to progress in the game is to just go around and kill a lot of enemies, and you don't even get all that much interesting stuff for reaching the various thresholds of killing, means that reaching the requisite 801 kills to receive the badge is kind of a dreary slog. It would be a lot better if there were more of a plot and interesting variety in the galaxy, but as it stands, it's just a game with unrealized potential.

(Footnote: After playing Starfighter and thinking how much better EV was, I realized that I had never actually gotten EV Nova, the third installment in the series, so I went out and bought it and played it. It really was much better.)