Tag: platformer

Game Review: Portal 2 (single-player)

Courtesy Valve Software

Oh.

It’s you.

It’s been a long time. How have you been?

I’ve been really busy being dead. You know? After you murdered me?

I didn’t feel I could open a review of Portal 2‘s single player campaign any other way. When the original game was released as a supplemtary portion of Valve Software’s Orange Box, nobody expected it would become the phenomenon of a video gaming generation. Everybody loved it, even critics notoriously hard to please. When a sequel was announced, fans were jubilant at the prospect but also feared it. Would it be a game every bit as bold as the original, or would it just be more of the same, sacrificing innovation for name recognition in the infamous tradition of Bioshock 2?

Let it not be said that Valve does not innovate. Sure, some of the levels in Portal 2 have a familiarity to them for fans of the first game. But things have definitely changed. One of Valve’s programmers said that Portal was the test bed while Portal 2 would be an actual game. It certainly feels that way. Portal 2 has a lot of depth to it, both figuratively and literally.

Courtesy Valve Software

The figurative depth comes in the aforementioned innovations. There are deadly lasers (“Thermal Discouragement Beams”), bouncy things (“Aerial Faith Plates” and “Repulsion Gel”) and new types of cubes. Some of these changes don’t alter the nature of play all that much, while others make for some truly interesting puzzles. More than once I found myself standing in a test chamber wishing I had just a little repulsion gel to work with. Instead, I had to figure out how to replicate the gel’s use or solve the puzzle a different way. And any addition that allows a player to think more critically is a good one.

As for the literal depth… well, that brings me to the subject of the campaign’s story, which I will not spoil here. Let me see if I can sum up the bullet points without giving anything away. You will learn more about Aperture Science’s history and philosophy. You will learn more about how Chell changed things in the first game. You will discover a rather chilling secret about the Enrichment Center. And you will, in fact, be reunited with GLaDOS, but not necessarily in the way you may expect.

Courtesy Valve Software

I find myself wanting to play the single player campaign again. Other than knowing I missed an achievement or two, I feel there are story points I might have missed, would like clarified or simply wish to experience again. I laughed a lot, I found myself thinking about the ramifications of what I was seeing or hearing, and I was touched, disturbed and (naturally) frustrated. When things reached the end, I was sitting back and smiling, not because I’d finished a video game, but because the ending showed me what it means to have your antagonist be more than just a final boss. I need to stop myself before I give any further spoilers.

Play the game, find out for yourself.

Stuff I Liked: The new gimmicks, gizmos and gels introduced. The spit-shine put on the environments, characters, sounds and other design elements. The fact that the story felt coherent, well-plotted and constantly building.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: It went on sale not long after my download. I could have used that money.
Stuff I Loved: Every single voice actor. The excellent use of incidental music. The characterization of GLaDOS, Wheatley and others. The religious turret. The way it left me wanting more. The way it made me laugh. The way it didn’t let me down.

Bottom Line: If you haven’t already picked the game up, even if you’re strapped for cash, find a way to add Portal 2 to your collection. Yes, the campaign is short, but the story is so good, the puzzles sufficiently challenging and the gameplay so much fun that you won’t mind the briefness of a game that still has the good taste not to wear out its welcome.

Final Note: I will cover the co-op campaign seperately once I find someone willing to plow through it with me. You can find my Steam ID under Stalking Methods.

What VVVVVV’s Music Says

Courtesy Souleye

One of the best things about indy platformer VVVVVV is its infectious chiptune music. It compliments the story of gravity-flipping Captain Veridian’s quest to rescue his crew from the 8-bit perils of the mysterious other dimension. Souleye, the composer, brilliantly uses the tools available in a minimal environment as much as the game itself does, building mood and driving the actions of the player without extraneous bombast. But more than underscoring the action, PPPPPP (the soundtrack) carries messages all its own, illustrated by the game and reaching beyond the screen into one’s life.

This sort of thing could simply be a case of me reading into things more deeply than I should, but it’s nonetheless interesting to me that this music worming into my ears has more to it than rhythms to which one taps the action button.

Pushing Onwards

As much as bits of this iconic tune of VVVVVV are borrowed from other themes, the message it conveys is clear in its title. As this music plays, the Captain is learning the ropes of the levels, flipping from floors to ceilings and back again, often running afoul of the hundreds of spikes littered throughout the corridors. Thanks to the checkpoints, however, Veridian is never stopped for long, unless you as the player pull the plug.

In other words, the only thing stopping you from pushing onwards is you.

Considering this is the first tune we hear in VVVVVV following the accident that strands Veridian and his crew, it has to immediately set the mood, as we don’t have voice acting or deep sound effect design. More than just creating atmosphere, however, Pushing Onwards gets us into the groove. It dares us to live up to its soars, to defy its lows, to overcome the obstacles before us and go further than we have before. Who couldn’t use a little bit of that sort of motivation in their daily lives?

Potential for Anything

The tools that produce this tune may be the same as those used throughout the game, but Potential for Anything moves at a slightly different pace, a more lyrical lilt than the straightforward grooviness of Pushing Onwards. It’s a bit more mysterious, a little esoteric. Like Pushing Onwards, the reasons are there in its title.

In the context of the game, it’s difficult to say what to expect as the player moves Captain Veridian from one screen to the next. It could be a straighforward dodge-the-spikes setup, or a wrinkle could be thrown in with disappearing platforms, or the word LIES may get in our way. It’s clear that Terry Cavanaugh saw this dimension as one full of potential, and he used it to create just about anything he could to present us with new mind-bending challenges. But again, I feel the music transcends its origins.

The fantasy bookstopper novel, the hand-drawn masterpiece, the epic hero on a harrowing quest – they all begin with a blank page. The same pulpy construct used to generate TPS reports, account audits and letters of termination also yeild escapes to our dearest fantasies or exploration of our darkest fears. A blank page holds, quite literally, a potential for anything.

These are just two examples from this surprisingly deep soundtrack, and both tracks are audible in the free demo of VVVVVV available on Kongregate & Steam. Check out the game, listen to the music, and make up your own mind.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Prince of Persia

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/pop.mp3]

Translating a story from one medium to another can be a tricky prospect. Video games in particular have had a rough time getting comfortably adapted from their interactive medium to non-interactive means of storytelling such as book or movies. Some seem more inclined for this sort of translation than others on concept alone – fighting games, hack-and-slashers, etc. Platforming games seem an unlikely candidate for adaptation, probably because most people remember how awful the Super Mario Brothers movie was. And yet, that’s how we got Prince of Persia. A PS2 platformer that was arguably the best in its series, Sands of Time, has become a major motion picture.

Courtesy Disney

The eponymous prince, Dastan, is a former street urchin adopted by the old king due to his uncharacteristic sense of fair play and justice. Circumstances throw his lot in with the princess of a blessed kingdom who has the charge of defending a magical artifact with powers over time itself. The king’s brother and vizier, whom nobody seems to think might be a bad influence despite the nature of the advice he gives, wants the artifact for himself. What follows is an adventure story that looks to tap the same vein as successful and even classic flicks like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Mummy, and for the most part pulls it off.

What sets Prince of Persia apart from its video-game predecessors is the basic building blocks of its storytelling. While it is unashamedly playing in the same sandbox as Theif of Baghdad or Disney’s Aladdin, the game pretty much did the same thing so the aesthetic is instantly familiar. There’s also the fact that the game itself, Sands of Time, had a solid narrative, an interesting and well-rounded main character, real chemistry between its leads and lots of fun gameplay underscoring the story points. This being a film, we need to swap out the game play for something else, and Prince of Persia wisely adds more characters rather than relying on special effects, gimmickry or blatant sex appeal.

Courtesy Disney
It’s not overly blatant

Which isn’t to say Jake Gyllenhaal or Gemma Arterton aren’t sexy. Because they are both damn sexy. I mean… damn. On top of the hotness factor, though, is some careful characterisation and really cracking dialog which keeps it right in line with its source material, even if it goes in an entirely different direction in terms of what the MacGuffin ultimately does and where it came from. Ben Kingsley as the vizier does a good job in not only being menacing but at times pulling off a few moments where you can start to understand how he’s pulling the wool over the eyes of the other characters, even as we with our thousand-foot view of things can see his villainy as being a tad obvious. And isn’t it always cool to see Alfred Molina in something? I mean, let’s put it in troper terms: we’ve got Donnie Darko and Io on the run from Ghandi, and the only person who might kind of be on their side is Doc Ock. How is that not a winning combination?

As much as I would have liked to have seen Oded Fehr or Omar Sharif in this, the cast does acquit itself quite well. A lot of criticism has been levied at this movie for ‘whitewashing’ the setting and while a more diverse cast more in line with the ethnicities of the area would admittedly lend the tale more weight, at the same time I can’t fault the movie for going for a lightness of tone. This is an adventure romp based on a puzzle-platformer video game, not an epic looking to become the next Lawrence of Arabia. It certainly doesn’t take the liberties 300 did with how Persians look and act, and the accents sounded somewhat consistent (if vaguely British for some reason) instead of the situation we had in The 13th Warrior where Omar Sharif’s legitimate accent is supposed to sound like Antonio Banderas’ Spanish accent. The nature of the cast doesn’t cripple the movie, as it relies less on authenticity than it does the cast’s chemistry, combined talent and attractiveness. Because… damn.

Courtesy Disney
Yeah. I’m down with this.

Video game movies have had a rough time. They’ve ranged from vaguely mediocre to downright abyssmal. Prince of Persia is the first adaptation of a video game in recent memory, and perhaps ever, to ascend beyond the level mediocrity to something that’s legitimately good. The adventure feeling is consistent, the storytelling’s decent, it moves at a good pace and it goes some places you may not quite expect, making it a refreshing change from the likes of Uwe Boll and even Michael Bay. I’m not going to say anything about the ending, which some people may not have appreciated, but I felt it was in keeping with the nature of the story and it took me by surprise, so I have to give the movie props for that. It’s a good time, a fun little yarn, and I say you could do a lot worse by queueing it up. And even if you’re not glad to see a good video game movie or interested in a story of an urchin prince working with a snarky princess to keep a magical item from the clutches of an evil mastermind, you’ve got Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton to look at for about two hours, and, well… DAMN.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Meaty Goodness

meatface.jpg

It seems simple at first. You’re a boy made of meat, and you’re in love with Bandage Girl. The good news is, Bandage Girl loves you too. The bad news is, Dr. Fetus hates everybody and YOU especially, so he beats you up and kidnaps Bandage Girl. Your quest to rescue her is a side-scrolling platforming affair. And despite the slick digital controls and polished graphics, it’s devastatingly old-school.

I say ‘old-school’ because side-scrolling platforming has been around since the old console wars. Mario did it on the NES, Sonic did it on the Genesis. And it’s a type of game that does something that is somewhat missing from open world games, first-person shooters and MMOs: its challenges are static and structured. As Chris Plante writes in his Escapist article ‘Hard-Earned Victories,’ when you manage to complete a level, that completion is a reward in and of itself. Which ties into the ‘devastating’ part of my description.

Watch TotalBiscuit’s Wipe-A-Thon 3000 to see just how blood-curdlingly frustrating this game can be. Plante describes this as the game ‘pushing back’ against our efforts to beat it. It doesn’t guide us with arrows, objectives, waypoints or NPCs. It presents us with the challenge, sits back and watches us try to overcome it. And when the player does pull it off, after “lots of trial and even more error”, he or she feels like a million bucks, like a superstar. The boss levels seem especially geared for this.

Now, I’ve only beaten the first chapter and its boss, but I can say with confidence that if this trend keeps up, I’m going to end up with more raised heart rates, cramped fingers and victorious cries that earn me funny looks from my wife. The combination of the established challenges, an incoming death machine driven by a maladjusted genius fetus in a jar and the kickass soundtrack pushed me to overcome the scenario. I refused to give up. I took breaks, shook out cramps, grabbed some water. And when the Li’l Slugger finally exploded, I cheered.

Super Meat Boy took me to a very interesting and unexpected place.

It tapped a reservoir of resolve that, in my everyday life, often goes untapped. I don’t often see my daily challenges as that immediate, that insurmountable. But in this case, I did, and I took each of my failures in stride (and trust me, there were a LOT of failures) only to shake them off and try again. I learned from every mincing, grew more determined with every red splatter. Why do I not do this more often? Am I not challenged enough? Did I specifically grab this on Steam during the sale for a bargain-basement $3 instead of waiting to get Microsoft points because I knew using the keyboard would increase the challenge?

I’m not entirely sure what the answers are, but I do know that facing down a new year with a finished manuscript, a renewed resolve to improve my situation and new ideas for projects to undertake, I’m going to need to come back to that place Super Meat Boy unlocks more often. I probably won’t be adding an X-Box game pad adapter to my PC any time soon, because in addition to needing that money elsewhere, I feel slightly more accomplished pulling off mind-blowing maneuvers with the keyboard.

I really can’t call this a review, since I haven’t played the entire game through, and it will be some time before I collect enough bandages and A+ ratings to render a ‘professional’ verdict. I can, however, offer this recommendation:

Super Meat Boy is available on Steam, XBLA and will soon be available on the Wii. Get it. You won’t be disappointed, but as TB says, “You may break yourself.”

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