Saturday, July 26, 2014

+5 AWESOME! - Freedom Planet

Retro 2D Platformer. Three words that a lot of indie developers seem to be in love with. There are a LOT of retro 2d platform games out there, and more are cropping up all the time. For the more jaded amongst us it's pretty easy to dismiss all of them as not worth playing, and even for the more forgiving amongst us, a game really needs to be something special to catch our attention.

With that in mind, Freedom planet is a 2D platform game with some very heavy 90's influences. Sonic the hedgehog being the most obvious, but for older gamers who grew up with a Sega Genesis/Megadrive, you'll readily find bits of rocket Knight Adventures, Ristar, even a little Gunstar Heroes for good measure. While it may initially sound like pandering to the retro crowd. In playing the game, it's clear the Developers know their stuff, and this game comes off as more a labor of love than cheap nostalgia.
Carol is capable of throwing out some rapid fire attacks
The game sees you playing as one of three characters: Lilac, Carol or Milla, as they travel through various locations in an attempt to save their planet  from an alien invasion. There is actually a story, told through multiple somewhat lengthy cutscenes. I'm not going to devote much time to talking about the story, but I will say that while it does dip into the cheesy at points, It was fun, and given the game's heavy 90s roots said cheesyness comes off as more fitting than annoying. Still, for those who'd rather skip the talking and just get to the action. cutscenes are skippable and The game has the option for a Classic mode, which cuts it out almost completely and lets you run through the stages with minimal interruption.

One thing that quickly becomes obvious with the gameplay is that it's not as fast as you might think. While the game looks a lot like a Sonic game and there are points where you can really speed up to run through some loops or up walls. The Gameplay overall is somewhat slower, with levels somewhat more open to exploration and combat, and that's not a bad thing. In fact, the game goes to decent lengths to avoid being a Sonic knock off, even Lilac, who's very obviously inspired by Sega's speedy blue mascot, has several moves to distance herself from being a simple clone, such as her dragon boost. A single burst of speed that can send her skyward and bounce her off walls. The end result is something that feels as much a game in it's own right as it is a throwback to older titles.
Lilac's dragon boost is defiantly not a simple spindash
Stages in the game are pretty decently sized and broken into several segments. The game does a great job on level design, even in the later stages you'll be coming across new stage gimmicks, traps and enemies to deal with. There's also a good amount of variety within stages, rather than given each stage a single distinct theme, the later half of each stage takes place in a different, but related environment from the earlier parts, such as old ruins that lead into a crystal mine. or a city stage that ends inside a mall. At times it can feel like each stage is really two and it keeps things feeling fresh throughout the game.

Then there's the bosses. There's plenty of bosses and mini-bosses throughout the game, and they're as varied as the stages themselves. The bosses themselves are suitably epic, giant foes that take some honest effort to take down, especially near the end of the game. The only drawback with the bosses is that some of the bosses can be rendered trivial due to the games various shield powerups, that grant immunity to certain types of attacks. However, setting up a situation like requires knowing what shield you need ahead of time, and at least some conscious effort to both find the shield and not loose it ahead of time. so you shouldn't readily break things unless you were deliberately trying to.
There's a lot of bosses in this game.
The graphics on the game are very nice. Everything's very bright and colorful and the game's rendered everything in a pixel art style. Interestingly, unlike most games, while Freedom planet does use pixel graphics they don't appear to have constrained the art to mimic an 8 or 16-bit system, the end result is despite the gameplay being heavily influenced by genesis titles, the game's graphics look more like an old Playstation 1 or Sega Saturn game: Pixelated, but with more detail then what you normally get from "retro" graphics. It's honestly a nice change of pace and I wish more indy games would do something like this. Annoyingly however, the game runs at a fixed resolution, you can double or triple the window size, but full screen simply makes everything around it black. Depending on your monitor and screen resolution. you might have to play windowed or deal with a potentially large amount of letterboxing.

The music is catchy and upbeat and fits the graphics quite nicely, interestingly, like the graphics while it has the feel of an older game, they didn't try to mimic older systems by using chiptunes. The end result is much like the graphics: the soundtrack feels like something from a PS1 or Saturn game, the only really bad thing I can say about it is the soundtrack doesn't seem to be available for download or purchase anywhere (EDIT: A soundtrack has been made available since this review was posted, the link has been added below). The game's sound is also pretty solid, with special mention going to the voice acting, which is surprisingly solid given the game's indy background. It's rare that an indy game bothers with voice work and most only voice a narrator, or one or two characters if not that, for the developers to do full voice acting with a decently sized cast and still have it come out as well as it does like this is honestly quite impressive. Hats off to GalaxyTrail for pulling it off.
Milla has a shorter health bar, but can make shields and blocks to fight with.
While the game is mostly pretty solid, it does have a few flaws. I've encountered several minor bugs in the course of playing the game. nothing game breaking, but weird things like characters getting stuck in the level for a second or two, or some instance where the music suddenly stops. it's annoying at times, but nothing to get worked up over, and the developers are dedicated to patching these things out. The most obvious flaw however, would be the physics. Your characters are supposed to be fairly quick and will be running through loops and up walls and doing other gravity defying stunts throughout the game, however, the game is weirdly lenient with how fast you need to be going and you can readily do all of that despite not moving very fast at all. It's not a major problem, but it can be somewhat awkward to see your character almost casually jogging through a loop or along the ceiling rather than blazing along at full speed like you'd expect.

Overall, This game manages to pull off an incredible feat in being both a sendup to classic 90's platformers and a perfectly solid game in it's own right. There's plenty to see and do and while the game is released and not in any way early access, the developers aren't finished with it yet. Thanks to the booming success of the game's kickstarter campaign, they actually plan on expanding the game with a few more playable characters, including making Milla, currently playable in classic mode only as of this writing, playable in adventure mode. All as free DLC. you're definitely getting your money's worth with this, and I can't recommend the game enough.

Freedom Planet was developed by GalaxyTrail. It's available on Steam and GoG. It's homepage, along with a downloadable demo, is available here. The game's soundtrack is available on Steam and Bandcamp.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A game pad users best friend - Xbox 360 Controller Emulator

NOTICE: The latest version of the program does not work with some computers, including my own, if you encounter difficulty with the program crashing or not recognizing buttons properly, a slightly older version that should work properly can be found here.

This is not really a review, and will likely be shorter than normal. I'm just taking a quick moment to point out an insanely useful utility.

You might have noticed a lot of PC games these days recommend, or at least offer the option to use a game pad. you'll also notice a lot of these games refuse to recognize anything but an Xbox360 game pad. it's annoying situation that I've dealt with a few times myself: I have a perfectly good game pad, why can't I use it? Fortunately, for those who don't want to shell out for an Xbox pad, there's now another option.
X360ce has a very easy to use setup.
The Xbox 360 controller Emulator is a program that allows you to take any controller game pads, steering wheels, you name it. map it's buttons and analogue sticks to those off an Xbox 360 game pad, and use it to play games that might not otherwise recognize it, at least not properly.

The program is actually very easy to use, all you have to do is unzip the contents into the same directory as the executable for the game you want to use with it, run the executable to make sure everything's set up properly, save and when you next run the game? X360ce will activate on it's own to handle the rest. Or better yet, rather than performing a set up for each game, I prefer to keep a copy of the program in it's own folder, already set up so that I can simply copy its files wherever I need them.

There is a small problem in that for every game you want to use it on you need to make a new copy of the entire program, but as it's only 1.5MB large at best it's not a major issue. Also some games will refuse to play nice with it no matter what you do, though in my own experience this has been an extremely rare occurrence and the vast majority of games can use it just fine with a little tweaking at worst.
If a game doesn't work off the bat, changing some settings here tends to fix it.
If you have a non-Xbox game pad and are having trouble getting some of your games to play nice with it? Consider grabbing a copy of the program from it's official page here and throwing that at it. I've been using it for a good couple of years and outside of the newest version having issues with my PC for some strange reason, I haven't had any issues with it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I will play you the song of my people! - Crystal Towers 2

One of the reasons I started this blog was it gives me a way to point people towards games they might have overlooked, and Crystal Towers 2 is a perfect example of this. Released in 2011 and not available on Steam, GoG or any other major distributor besides Desura, it's pretty easy to miss this game, which is sad because it's really good.

Crystal Towers 2 is a retro platform game that takes a few pages from games like Super Mario 64. You have a single, massive hub where you can access all the games levels from, each level has a series of goals that you unlock one at a time, and completing these goals and finding abilities in levels allows you to open up news sections of the hub and new levels with it. Interestingly, Crystal Towers 2's levels are unlocked with three different things. Orbs, which come form beating bosses and beating levels for the first time. Rainbow gems, which you get by completing extra challenges in each stage and keys, which are hidden in some levels and each stage needs oh so many of each one.
The hub is where you access the rest of the games levels from, and it's huge.
Another thing the game does differently is it's spells. Instead of the usual ability upgrades, you gain most of your upgrades by instead finding new spells, and there's a good number of them, ranging from attacks to unlocking doors to using warps found in some levels. all of them cost varying amounts of mana that you replenish by collecting vials found in some stages, it's a unique idea but it also suffers from a little weirdness, like the fact that double jumping is now a spell that you need to cast that only lasts 30 seconds, rather than something you simply unlock. Also, while you can change your equipped spells whenever you want, you can only have 2 equipped at once, which occasionally brings the action to a halt when you need to go into the menus because you need to cast unlock on something.

Finally, there's the rainbow gems, each level has 7 and they act as extra challenges for each of the games levels, and the challenges are quite varied, with things like beating the stage within a time limit, destroying all of a certain kind of enemy, ending with a certain amount of health or scoring a combo worth so many points. There's a lot of them and even in later stages you'll still run across new challenges.
The game has a fun little combo system, though you don't always have a chance to make large combos like this.
Graphically, the game goes for a retro look although with a slight twist. Despite the game's mechanics having some similarities to Mario, it doesn't actually mimic the the look and feel of Nintendo's old 8 and 16-bit consoles. Instead, it mimics the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Namely, here the game takes some obvious influence from the older Sonic the Hedgehog games. Levels begin with an overlay showing the level's name and levels have A, B, and C stages, much like how Sonic's zones have multiple acts. The levels cover a large variety of terrain, from volcanoes to industrial centers to jungles to ancient ruins. The graphics can feel a bit primitive at times, even when you account for the game's retro aesthetic, but it never degrades into the truly horrible.

The game makes a bit of a deal about music. The story, what little there is, is about music disappearing from the world, the hub is called the Music Castle... you even craft items using a synth! With that in mind, the soundtrack is awesome. Much like the graphics, there's some definite Sonic the Hedgehog influence here, and the music here would be right at home with a game in that series. Tunes are catchy, cover a decent rage of genres with each levels theme very distinct from the others, and sounds like something you'd hear in a Genesis game. Where the graphics might falter a little here and there, the music nails that retro Genesis/Mega Drive feel perfectly and if nothing else, I'd recommend at least giving it a listen from the bandcamp link below.
Each level starts with an overlay like this. Not pictured: catchy stage music.
While the game is mostly solid, it does have some flaws, one of the most obvious ones is that it's difficulty is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it is a proper old school challenge, and that on it's own is not a bad thing. The problem comes form the fact that it can be a little too rough at times. Some rainbow gems can have fairly exacting challenges, like completing a level without picking up any of the shards that litter the stage. Also, while levels are not massive, they're still fairly sprawling and have no checkpoints, death or failure means starting over from scratch. There will be times where you carefully navigate a hard level or challenge only to make that one little mistake near the end that immediately kills all your progress and sees you starting from square one yet again, ow. Fortunately, you have unlimited lives, so while it might get frustrating you at least have as many attempts as you need to push through it.

Another problem would be the game's hub, it's a fairly large hub and unfortunately not as well organized as I'd like. While levels might be grouped into A, B and C stages, the gates for them aren't always anywhere near each other. On the same note the hub also doesn't really theme areas much if at all. so there's nothing in the terrain to guide you towards the gates. Gates are color coded, and you do have a sort of radar that points you towards where the gate are, but it only points to a small number of the closest ones you have unlocked, and then by simply having an arrow pointed directly at them. Finally, you need to find things like new spells, health and mana upgrades to progress, but the game tends to treat these pickups like secrets meaning you have to go a bit out of your way to find them, and you can't tell if you need a particular spell or upgrade until you play a challenge and see you can't do it. The end result is it's possible to find yourself lost, with no clear idea of where you can or should be going at the moment.
There's several bosses in the game, and they can be a real challenge
Finally, I encountered an odd crash bug with the game. Apparently the game will just up and crash after you die a certain number of times. It's a large number, but with the difficulties mentioned above, the deaths tend to pile up unless you're REALLY good and I'm... not. Fortunately, I've never lost any real progress due to this bug and it doesn't seem to be damaging anything in the game or my system as a whole. Still if you decide to try this game, you might want to close and reopen the game every few levels, especially if you just completed a hard stage that took a lot of attempts to beat.

Overall. I'd Say Crystal Towers 2 is worth a look, the problems I've mentioned can be annoying or frustrating, but despite this it's still a very fun platform game, with a surprising amount of content and one hell of a soundtrack.

Crystal towers 2 was developed by DavidN, it's available on Desura, and directly from the developer, along with a demo here. It's soundtrack is available on Bandcamp, and it's homepage is available here. Finally, you can vote for Crystal Towers 2 on Steam Greenlight here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Versimos School for Witchcraft and Weirdos - Magicians & Looters

At first glance, Magicians & Looters is a very unassuming game, a 2d metroidvania in a fantasy setting, full of fantasy and rpg tropes. Even it's name is unassuming: it's a game about Magicians and Looters. Straight, too the point, nothing too eye-catching. It's really a shame because past the unassuming exterior is a really good game.

While a metroidvania at it's core, Magicians & Looters does have some interesting ideas going for it. The first and most obvious is that you have to control three characters: Sword and shield wielding Brent, martial artist Vienna, and dual sword wielding Nyn. Each character has their own set of abilities needed to progress through the game, and each plays at least a little different from the others. and the game does a very good job of giving you good reasons to use each one, nobody feels too useless or overpowered.
Characters will gain plenty of abilities throughout their adventure.
The game also has an interesting approach to both leveling and equipment. You don't get experience from kills, instead, you level up by finding experience orbs scattered around the game world, as a result there's virtually no grinding in the game. There is however, no stat or skill points in the game, instead, every character gains some sort of bonus when they level up, like extra spell damage or attack speed.

Equipment in the game is based mostly around trade offs. Almost all of the equipment in the game has some sort of drawback on top of their bonuses, form something as simple to slightly less health or slower attack speed, to big things like no enemy item drops or disabling magic. The idea is that equipment is less about straight upgrades, and more about tweaking things around a certain stat or play style. While you will get stronger during the game thanks to leveling and ability unlocks, for the most part the game is less about linear upgrading, and more about opening up new options, it's an interesting approach and keeps the game form revolving around powerleveling or finding the definite "best" equipment.
Amusingly, death results in all of your hard earned loot being thrown around the room.

It's also worth noting that the game is funny, and I actually mean funny. While some games like to shotgun random internet memes and pop culture references everywhere and call it funny. Magicians & Looters, white not completely free of references, doesn't strictly rely on this and instead tries to be funny by, in a surprise twist, actually being funny. Characters play nicely off each other, the story takes more than a few silly turns and there's a few moments in the game that honestly made me laugh. I've beaten the game and even now I can still recall some of the funnier moments in it. it's a comedic game with some actual comedy in it and it's kind of sad that I have to make that distinction here.

The game has a decently sized map that goes through multiple areas, from valleys to caves to inside a castle. The world, like any good metroidvania, also has lots of little secrets and hidden areas, I managed to find all the items in the game on my own and doing it felt like an honest accomplishment. The game is also fairly challenging. There's some tricky platforming and combat sequences set in several of the rooms in the game. Boss battles are particularly hard as bosses can pull out some surprisingly nasty, hard to dodge attacks. Fortunately death doesn't cost much in game progress outside of losing some gold and being sent to the last camp you visited, camps acting as the game's save points.
Camps like this act as the games save points and are where you can change characters.
Graphically the game is nice, most of the level graphics are pretty solid, and the backgrounds in some rooms are quite beautiful, though it has a few problems. Items like gold or experience orbs are bit on the small size and can be a bit hard to see, though fortunately all of the really important stuff if it isn't simply given to you will basically drop into your hands from destroyed chests, so there's no really worries about missing important items, the sparkle effect on pickups also tends to help with this somewhat.

Sound and music in the game are also solid. The games sound has a nice, solid feel to them, weapons hit with a loud clang, spells impact with a nice loud thud, everything comes through loud and clear and sounds exactly like you'd expect it to. The music is also good. Every area has it's own distinct music and several tracks are actually very catchy, castle looter most immediately comes to mind, and worth listening too on their own.
Backgrounds in the game can be surprisingly beautiful
The game unfortunate has a handful of flaws. To start, you have three characters and can only change them at save points. Save points are usually frequent enough that it's not a major problem, but it's still a little annoying when you reach an area, then immediately have to turn back because you need a different character to handle it. The game is also a little on the short side. I beat it in just under 7 hours, I don't think that's horrible and the game makes good use of this time, but it almost feels like the game wanted to be just a little bigger.

Overall I'd recommend Magicians & looters to anyone who's a fan of Metroidvanias, especially if they want a decent challenge. The game offers a lot more than it initially seems, and is definitely worth a full playthrough.

Magicians & Looters was developed by Morgopolis Studios, it's available on Desura and Steam. It's soundtrack is available on Bandcamp.