Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Quarters not included - Iron Fisticle

As I said before on the blog, I'm OK with games being retro or nostalgic, but I really prefer it when a game mimics something besides old 8 and 16-bit Nintendo Systems. Something I don't see done too often is surprisingly enough, arcade games. That's not to say people aren't making arcade-style games, plenty of those exist in modern gaming, at least form a gameplay standpoint. It's rare however that I see something that really tries to nail the look and feel of those old 80s and 90's coin-op arcade games.

Iron Fisticle is a twin stick shooter that feels like it belongs in an arcade. You - and optionally a buddy in local co-op, sorry, no online - fight through single screen levels, collecting random powerups and facing massive hordes of enemies and bosses in a quest to reach the #1 spot on the high scores list. There's a story told via a simple cutscene at the start of the game, But like many old arcade games, the story is simple an excuse to go run around an shoot things.
Iron Fisticle certainly looks like an old arcade game.
As an arcade game, Iron Fisticle plays quite nicely. Controls are nice and responsive, and you have a decent selection of weapons to work with. including most importantly the Iron Fisticle itself. It works like a bomb, killing all enemies near you when you use it, but you only have a few uses of it at the start of the game, and more can be tricky to find. you also have a dash, which is useful for quickly getting out of tight spaces. One small issue I had with the game was that the games controls default to using the analog sticks, It's not horrible, but the game only has 8 directional movement and firing so there's no  real advantage to analog controls. Fortunately, for those like me who'd rather use the d-pad and face buttons on their controller you can readily remap the keys. you could also play with a keyboard but this is honestly a game that works best with some form of controller.

As an arcade game, Iron Fisticle has a lot of random power ups and scoring items to collect, and this is easily one of the games best features, there's over 150 different items to collect, most are things like flowers or food that gives points, but there's also several weapons, like hammers that bounce off walls, or arrows that give you a 3-way shot. Some items even have more interesting abilites, like BONUS letters, that instantly finish a stage and drop a ton of scoring items when you get a full set, or 7 gems that can give you a powerful rainbow weapon for one room. There's even a set of hint books, that give gameplay tips you can read in the game's ledger which tracks all the items you've found, and gives a description for each of them.
occasionally, you get to play a little side scrolling mini-game to earn some extra coin.
While the game is an arcade game at it's core, there's are a couple of new ideas thrown in for good measure. one of them is randomly generated levels which unfortunately is a mixed bag. levels are mostly open, empty arenas, with maybe a wall or two to help break things up. The random generator can change the placement of these things but for the most part there's nothing to make any one stage massively different from the others. It does however, work by randomizing the location of special stages and shops or mini games on each of the game's four floors, which wile it doesn't make each playthrough massively different, is enough to keep the game at least slightly unpredictable.

The other major feature of the game is an RPG-style stat and level system which actually works. you have several stats that control things like attack strength and movement speed, and random pwoerups can give you bonuses to them that last throughout the game, you can even buy permenant upgrades from the between-stage shops that let you start the next game with higher stats. Meanwhile, as you level up, you unlock things like new weapons, or higher maximum stats. It's enough to keep things interesting, and while it doesn't take too long ot reach max level, the game allows you to keep leveling past that, dropping a set of powerups and scoring items whenever you level up again. I'll note however, that while it adds a good bit to the game and helps keep things interesting, the leveling and stat system is very simplistic. You character can get a good bit stronger and unlock some extra powerups, but you won't learn any new abilities or anything else that would drastically change the game beyond the basic running and shooting.
Between some stages, you can buy powerups and items at shops like this.
Graphically, the game uses very detailed pixel art. Backed up by some simple lighting effects, including a little colored lighting in some places. the game does a good job of looking like an old arcade game, down to the optional scanlines. There's even a bordered off area to the side of the screen for player information, along with a prompt for a second player to join in. The game's 4 floors unfortunately don't look radically different from each other, it's not a major issue, since you'll usually be too busy running and shooting to readily notice the scenery,but it would of the environments were radically different, rather than simple variations of underground dungeon.

The game has a chiptune soundtrack that fits the game nicely enough. It does a good job of setting the mood though suffers form being fairly small. you'll be hearing a lot of the same music over and over again. The games sound design is equally minimal, The only sounds you'll hear for the most part are picking up items and firing your weapon. Beyond that there's not much. Surprisingly, there's no sound for when enemies fire at you. Shooting enemies are pretty rare and the bullets large and bright enough that it's not a massive issue, but the lack of audio cue is strange.
In an emergency, the Iron Fisticle can punch a good hole in the crowd.
The game doesn't suffer from any major bugs, outside of one weird issue I encountered. The game doesn't do anything to stop my PC's screensaver from activating. But it doesn't show the screensaver, instead, the game freezes and the sound stops until I move the mouse. If you try the game for yourself, I'd recommend giving the mouse the occasional wiggle between stages, and if the game seems to freeze remember to try the mouse first, in case it's just the screensaver activating.

Overall, this game is maybe a bit rough around the edges. The leveling system doesn't last too long, random levels aren't all that random and with only four floors, there's only 4 bosses to fight. But what the game does right it does really well. This is a really good throwback to old arcade games like Gauntlet or Smash TV an is well worth a look if you like those classic arcade games.

Iron Fisticle was developed by Confused Pelican and published by Curve Digital. It is available on Steam. It's homepage is available here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

This is an RPG sequel! - Cladun X2

Here's a game that caught me off guard. The original Cladun: This is an RPG! was a game for the Playstation Portable. A dungeon crawling action RPG, it did well enough to get a sequel in the form of Cladun X2, also on the PSP. Then it just popped up on Steam one day in August of 2012. There were no announcements it was getting ported or even any fanfare over it getting released. It just showed up seemingly out of nowhere and I happened to see it on Steam's front page that day.

Cladun X2 sees your character arriving in a strange world called Arcanus Cella, a small island with seemingly no way in or out save for a strange door that leads to various dungeons. While the basic setup is mostly just an excuse to go into random dungeons in search of loot and experience, and to be honest this is not a game that relies on it's story, there's actually more too it than an excuse plot, as the game slowly reveals information about what the island is and why you and it's inhabitants are there. It's interesting, but can be hard to follow as the story relies on keeping the player somewhat in the dark and there's no way to recap the information that depending on how you play, can end up very slowly drip-fed to you.
The world of Arcanus Cella is full of mysteries, why the toilet has no door is one of them.
At it's core, Cladun X2 is a dungeon crawling action RPG, you make a character, send them into various dungeons, where they can readily run around, attacking enemies, casting spells, and occasionally gathering bits of randomized equipment or avoiding traps. The game comes with a very long campaign that consists of a series of static dungeons to clear. Beyond that though are Ran-geons and Tri-geons. Randomly generated 100 floor dungeons mostly used as a good way to grind, but big enough to be a game in themselves. There's plenty of content here, and while the default gamepad controls seemed a bit oddly laid out and tricky to use, the game does let you rebind buttons and after a little tinkering to find a setup I was comfortable with, I encountered no problems with running and hacking my way through the dungeons.

You have to make your own characters in Cladun X2. For doing that there's a good number of classes to pick from and some options for customizing their appearance, but it's less in making character and more how you can use them where the game starts to show off how unique it is. In Cladun X2 you only control one character at a time, but can assign other characters as support characters. These support characters can't help directly in dungeons but instead act like armor, taking damage in place of your main character while sharing XP with them. Outside of simply being armor however, they can also improve the stats and abilities of the main character through magic circles.
Magic circles are a big part of the game, and you'll spend a lot of time tinkering with them.
Magic Circles are probably the games biggest feature. Each character has a magic circle that you can place support characters on, these spaces then have artifact spaces, where you can place artifacts to increase stats or improve spells and abilities. These artifacts are then activated using the support character's mana. Making things more complicated, Magic circles can grant benefits to subcharacters like earning more XP, or growth spots where you can place artifacts to help strength a subcharacter as they level up. There could also be spots that have penalties, like lowering a subchar's HP or fatemate, where if one character with fatemate dies, everyone else with fatemate dies with them. Each class can unlock several different magic circles as they level up. It's a very large, very complicated system which is both good and bad. You'll be spending a lot of time tweaking Magic circles and for those who like min/maxing characters or tinkering with systems like this, there's plenty of that to do, but while the basics of placing characters and artifacts are easy enough to grasp, there's a lot of information to track and it can be hard to tell just what all of your work, as the game spreads that information out over several screens.

Outside of the magic circles, there's also some other things to tinker with, the most important of which would be entitling. Equipment can come with random titles that increase or decrease stats, and by sacrificing equipment, you can take their titles, and then place them on other pieces of equipment to customize it. Beyond that, you can edit sprites to change how things look in game, make music in MML and even set up relationship diagrams between all of your characters. You can even give character a personality, which in this case is a text message they say when you talk to them in the tavern. All of this stuff is ultimately pointless from a gameplay perspective, as there's no benefit to be gained from making your own music or setting up a diagram, but it can be fun to mess with and it's neat they they included all of it.
You have a lot of options in making your character. Case in point: Catgirl ranger.
Unfortunately, I did encounter some flaws with the game, the first being the games graphics, I experienced heavy flickering until I turned vsync off, and the games oldschool dot-matrix font was unreadable, though fortunately there was a much better smooth font in the options screen. Also configuring my controls was a bit of a mess, as there's two different screens for configuring different parts of the controls and the game doesn't like some functions overlapping but won't tell you what those are. I had to spend several minuets moving between both configuration screens and gameplay to tweak things until I had something that I was comfortable with. though once I got past these hurdles, it was smooth sailing. Finally, the game has a feature for sharing data that when I accessed it, tried to open a wireless connection to receive data. Obviously this was originally meant for sharing data between PSPs and I have no idea if this feature actually works on PC, or is some dead weight they should have removed or altered for the port.

In the end, I'd recommend the game but with a small catch. I'll admit from the problems described above that this game is a bit of a rough port, and if you have a PSP or access to the Playstation store, you'd be better getting this game from there. Failing that though, The port isn't outright broken and is still a perfectly valid way to play the game. If you're willing to spend a little time tinkering in the options menu, You've got an massive, complex action RPG that you can readily sink a few hundred hours into.

Cladun X2 was developed by System Prisma and published by NIS America. It is available with a demo on Steam. It's homepage, which is mostly for the PSP version is available here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

You can't kill the metal! - Brütal Legend

So here's a game with a bit of a weird history. Brütal Legend - yes, with the umlaut, so you know they mean business, originally came out on the Playstation 3 and XBox 360 in 2009, it billed itself as an open world action game, though in truth when people finally played it, it turned out to actually be an action/strategy game. I've also heard, though I have nothing concrete on this, that the game had something of a troubled development, which is a big part of why it's developer Double Fine's last games before becoming a full independent developer. Despite these troubles though, the game managed to become something of a cult hit and in 2013, about 4 years after it's initial release, the game got a PC port.

Brütal Legend tells the story of the roadie Eddie Riggs as he gets sucked into an alternate world that looks like something off the cover of a heavy metal album. Just from that sentwnce, it should be obvious that the game's story is going to be pretty crazy, and it is. The story also does a good job of integrating itself into the gameplay: a lot of stuff in game, from your weapons to the various units in your army are explained at some point in story, it's a nice touch. Unfortunately, while the story is fun to follow and generally well done, it's also pretty rushed, at least in the final act. While I can't give details due to spoilers, I can say that later game, the story goes from dropping some major plot points to the final battle in what feels like only a few short moments. part of me suspects that there was supposed to be more to the story but it apparently got cut.
The game actually opens with a live action video, leading up to this record sleeve/main menu.
Gameplay in Brütal Legend can be broken down into two parts, there's the open world action gameplay, and Real Time Strategy. As an open world action game, The world itself is decently sized, covered in landmarks, hidden collectibles, roaming enemies to deal with and plenty of side missions. It should be noted that compared to a lot of games like this, where the main character generally fights with a selection of guns and explosives, Eddie Riggs is more of a brawler, fighting with an axe... as in an actual axe, not a guitar, while backed by special moves that use his axe... as in a guitar, not an actual axe. While you do have some ranged options, mostly by putting guns on your car, combat is very melee focused, and while as a brawler this isn't a very technical game, there's not a lot in the way of complicated moves or combos to perform, hacking and bashing your way through enemies is still a lot of fun.

As a real time strategy game, Brütal Legend takes a somewhat simplistic approach, There's no base building, and only one resource: your fans. instead, matches focus on capturing and holding control points, building up an army until you have one big enough to take down the enemy's stage. The big twist here is that you still control your character and can readily fight alongside your army using all of your usual attacks and abilities, even gaining access to new special moves by teaming up with your units. A lot of the challenge in matches actually comes from the fact that you still control a character, as you not only need to keep yourself alive, but quickly zoom from place to place to direct the troops and keep a watch on the map, though the game fortunately gives you the ability to fly to help with this. While those who played a more traditional RTS might find this a bit too simplistic, I honestly liked how the game mixed action and strategy.
Instead of building a base, you summon units from a stage like this one.
In both modes of play, you have access to two special tools: your car, called the Deuce or Druid plow, and a guitar named clementine. The Plow is a perfectly serviceable car, fun to drive, looks nice, though outside of some optional weapons like machine guns or homing missiles it isn't anything super special. Clementine on the other hand is pretty unique, you use clementine to use various super moves and special abilities, most of which require you to play a small quick time event called a guitar solo. There's solos for all sorts of stuff, capturing control points, buffing your units, There's even one that literally melts people's faces. The catch is that solos take a few seconds to complete and you're still vulnerable while playing them, also your guitar needs to occasionally cool down after several attacks or solos in a row. This gives some strategy to using the guitar as you can't just spam stuff, and when you see an enemy start a solo you can attack them for a lot of damage and possibly a free kill, or at least force them cancel their solo.

I said earlier that the game takes place in a wold that looks like something off the cover of a heavy metal album and that wasn't a joke. Walls made of electric amps and speakers? Amazon warriors in king diamond makeup? Demonic imps riding flaming motorcycles? Even your base in RTS matches is designed to look like a concert stage, and you capture control points on the map by building merchandise booths. Everything about this game screams of something from heavy metal. There's even a boss that's a giant chrome spider with an engine block for a body in a lair filled with webs made of bass guitar strings. Design wise, this is a very inventive game that has a lot of fun with the things that influenced it..
Tying into the concert theme, you even track information in a tour book.
Almost all of the music in Brütal Legend is licensed and it's amazing. the tracklist is basically a best of metal album with dozens of songs covering everything from 80's hair metal to power metal to growling, screaming black metal. There's plenty of great songs and artists covered here. Kiss' Dr. Feelgood, Black Sabbath's children of the Grave, Manowar's Die for Metal... I'm barely scratching the surface. if you like Metal, you are going to love this soundtrack. While the music is great and the perfect sountrack to shred your way through a heavy metal word to, there is one major drawback. While the game has a soundtrack available for purchase, it only contains the original music made by Double Fine, so those hoping to get this music for their MP3 player will just have to hope they can find it all on iTunes.

Awesome soundtrack aside, another big part of the game is the voicework, on top of some big names like Jack Black voicing Eddy, and Tim Curry gloriously hamming it up as a demon named Doviculus, There's also some music stars in the games voice cast. Rob Halford, lead signer of Judas Priest voices voices a hair metal-themed villian General Lionwhyte, and Ozzy Ozborne as the Guardian Of Metal. The voice work overall is really good, characters, both the big characters like Eddie down to generic Headbangers, are full of personality and the voices fit the characters nicely. Considering how much trouble the game's development went through, it's good that the music and voice acting came out so well.
This game is full of cameos, some more obvious than others.
I said earlier that part of the story felt rushed, and unfortunately this also leads to a major flaw in the gameplay. The game has three major factions in it: Ironheade, yes with an E at the end. Drowning Doom, and Tainted Coil. You play as Ironheade in single player and fight against all three factions in turn, but the factions aren't handled very well, namely the story starts to rush itself at about the same time you start fighting Drowning Doom. The end result is you spend the vast majority of the game fighting Ironheade backed up by a couple of Tainted Coil units and see almost nothing of the other two factions. In fact you only really get to directly fight Tainted coil, the faction presented as the main villains of the game and you're spending the entire game working towards bringing down, once. I realize that the game had a troubled development and it was likely this or no game at all, but to have the main villains almost sidelined until the very last second is pretty terrible.

Despite it's troubles however, I'd say the game is very much worth playing. While it's somewhat obvious that things had been cut or the developers had to hurry things in places, the story and gameplay that managed to see release is still really good. Also, it's setting and mix of action and strategy gameplay are fairly unique, there's honestly not many games like this out there, and I'd say the game is worth it on that uniqueness alone.

Brütal Legend was developed and published by Double Fine Productions. It is available on Steam, GoG, and Desura. It's soundtrack is available on Steam and It's homepage is available here.