Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Buzz: NinjaBee Saves The World

You know NinjaBee for our games. Maybe you love Keflings, maybe you fancy Band of Bugs. But did you know that NinjaBee is actually a front for the XCOM project? Yup, tis true. Your friendly neighborhood indie developers moonlight as the elite guardians of humanity. At least they do in my first run through Firaxis’ brilliant expansion, Enemy Within. On a whim, I decided to name all my operatives after the fine men and women of NinjaBee. How did we fare? What do I think of the expansion? Read on, dear NinjaBee fan!

Even though NinjaBee is actually based in Orem, Utah, I decided that the “We Have Ways” bonus for South America was too crucial to pass up. Especially given that Dr. Vahlen seems to take her cues from Nazi war criminals, the instant interrogation and autopsies offered the best possible beginner perk. I do have to say, the good doctor becomes even more unsettling than usual when she starts wringing her hands with joy over the thought of splicing people and aliens together willy-nilly. My wariness over being alone in a room with Vahlen aside, everything at once seemed familiar and new.

My early build order was heavily disrupted by the addition of Meld. I continued to pursue my slavish devotion to early satellites, but before the first month was up I was already finding myself acutely behind the curve without MECs. By the end of March, NinjaBeeCOM was teetering on the brink of global panic, with half the world’s nations in the yellow or orange panic spectrum. I thought I was doomed for sure. It didn’t help that EXALT had started rearing its ugly head. I had to expand my dream team. Early missions were almost always conducted by myself, the devil-may-care PR Heavy not afraid to stand in the open to take a crucial shot, Cyndi the QA super Sniper, Matt, kamikaze office manager and shotgun jockey, and Jared, lead designer and walking medkit. As my roster expanded and injuries kept my A squad out for extended periods, I started to draft in more of my colleagues. Our fearless leader, Steve Taylor, stepped into the boots of the Heavy, Tara took up a rifle as Cyndi’s understudy, Brandon took on duties as point-man Assault, Art Director Brent Fox became our smoke-slinger, and Lane took a break from being CFO and started handing out the heals.

We started to push back the tide. It helped a lot that I finally squirreled away enough cash to dig all the way out to the edge of level three in my base to pursue another generator (I had really terrible steam vent placement) and plop down my Cybernetics Lab. Paul Mitchell and Peter Konneker parted with their organic limbs and stepped into their new robot bodies. That is when things really turned around. MECs are beasts! It didn’t take long for me to develop neat party tricks with both of my tin cans. Paul became our heavy ordnance. Burn it up, blow it up! For fun, try tossing a proximity mine onto a group of aliens and then detonating it with an alien grenade. 13 damage for everyone! In the meantime, Peter became my own personal rockem-sockem robot. Anything big got a taste of cybernetic fisticuffs: Cyberdiscs, Sectopods, Mechtoids, and Berserkers all the way down to stupid EXALT grunts rushing the encoder.

Speaking of EXALT agents; they almost made me lose council nations on several occasions. It seems they were eager to rouse rabble, and I soon dedicated Tara to all covert ops. I gave her the best pistol NinjaBeeCOM could build, gave her some tasty pistol perks, and sent her back out into the field repeatedly. She scratched a lot of traitorous humans, even under heavy fire. She gave her all for the team, and was critically injured twice during her ops, but she made it through. In fact, we only had one true loss the whole campaign. Lane Kiriyama ate a faceful of Muton plasma on NinjaBeeCOM’s first encounter with the brutes. He turned a corner at the wrong time. His loss will be keenly felt by all.

Stating that we suffered only one casualty makes it seem like we were never truly threatened. But I can’t tell you how many times NinjaBee operatives made it home by the barest margin. Matt spent most of the game in and out of the infirmary, throwing his body and shotgun between his coworkers and certain death. On one terror mission, Matt’s close combat perks allowed him to charge a group of Chrysalids, gun down two of them on his turn, and stop four more dead as they tried to rush through the door he blocked before taking a Cyberdisc volley on the chin. His bravery earned him nine days of medical leave and saved the lives of Steve Taylor and Jared Evans. Cyndi was the hero of Newfoundland, using her plasma sniper rifle and Archangel Armor to gun down almost two dozen X-rays to cover the team’s approach and escape. And not a single soldier left the defense of NinjaBeeCOM’s base with more than four remaining health, with Brent Fox being revived twice during combat.

I didn’t find myself leaning on gene-mods very hard. Matt was my only super-charged soldier, rocking a full complement of enhancements. While Cyndi got bionic eyes and a couple of key personnel received a second heart, I definitely suggest investing in MECs over mods, but that is just personal preference. By the end of the game, Steve Taylor was nominated as The Volunteer. Leading his company and his species to greatness, the head honcho himself spearheaded the final assault, competently gunning down the alien hordes as our colonels sprinted to victory. At the end of all things, the team began to wear down under increasing firepower. With the end in sight, and the team flagging, Matt manned-up one more time and made “The Play”. Popping “run and gun”, charging between two overwatched Muton Elites with no lightning reflexes and only four health left, he mounted the dais and gave the big bad two shots in the face to save humanity. Game over, NinjaBeeCOM wins!

The game was a blast, and I’m exceptionally pleased with what Firaxis has done to XCOM. It took me a little bit to get into the new flow of the game, to learn the new items and the new enemies, to adapt my strategies. In the end, it was the best XCOM I’ve played yet. Thanks guys! As you look to the stars and wonder when the aliens will come for us, remember that NinjaBee will be waiting, making awesome games and training to kick alien butt.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Friday Review: Evoland (PC)

As a gamer that grew up alongside the industry, it is sometimes difficult to remember just how far gaming has come in 30+ years. As a child, I eagerly booted up each new game, wowed by how fantastic it was, how real it all seemed. Every title was on the cutting edge, the best that gaming could ever be. And looking back, it is hard to divorce those magical experiences, those favorite memories, from the reality of the evolution of video games. Thankfully, Shiro Games built a title that helps to compress my childhood into a few charming hours. Evoland is a loving homage to Japanese RPGs that is sure to bring a smile to fans of the genre.

You start as a barely recognizable pixel being, only capable of going from left to right. In the end, you’re a running, dodging, magic using hero with a name and a purpose. Every progression toward that end comes in the form of a treasure chest. Finding those chests, and enjoying the resulting upgrades is a childish pleasure that apparently still works. They are the carrots that keep the game going, even during the frustrating parts.

And there are frustrating parts. From erratically flying bats that insta-kill with a touch, to widely spaced “save points,” there are going to be moments where the player remembers how much more challenging (or inconvenient, if you prefer) gaming used to be. Opening the chest that gives Zelda style life hearts, enabling the player to survive more than one stinking hit, is an emotional high point. It is a rare game that gets easier as it progresses, and this one definitely does.

Perhaps that’s because Evoland  isn’t really about the play mechanics. Other than one level in which you make use of a “time crystal” to devolve from an N-64 style character into an NES, thereby solving puzzles, there is little done in this game that even semi-experienced gamers haven’t already done. Instead, it’s like playing the tourist in an already well-beloved city. All the tropes are humorously represented. I especially enjoyed a Diablo II-esque dungeon dripping with useless, cleverly named loot. One piece guaranteed resurrection in the event of unicorn assault. I don’t want to spoil the jokes though. They are almost the whole game.

I say almost, because there are a couple of other gems Evoland has to offer. Not only does the world progress around you, but your own identity and story progresses as well. It’s a neat little lesson on how the purpose of games has grown over the years to include storytelling along with skill-based thrills. There’s also a little collectible card game within the game that features some pretty good art.

Evoland is not without its disappointments. It is split rather awkwardly between turn-based and real-time combat. The turn-based is so featureless and quick that it seems pointless. The levels you gain in turn-based combat do nothing to improve your real-time stats or abilities. Some upgrades you get from chests aren’t persistent (camera zooming in on opening a chest, for example), ruining the illusion of progression. Finding stars for completion collections in chests instead of new game upgrades is downright discouraging. The ending is perhaps overly abrupt, and one wonders how much further it could have gone, both gameplay and story-wise. Perhaps it’s a sign of how much I enjoyed the game that I imagined taking my character into a Kingdom Hearts style real-time, with tons of magic abilities and an interchangeable party.

Overall, this game took me back to long lost Saturdays, kept me hopping right up to the epic boss finale, and gave me plenty of laughs along the way. If you are or were a fan of JRPG style games, and want to see a clever take on how they’ve changed over the years, you really ought to check Evoland out.  

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Friday Review: Primordia (PC)

I played a lot of point-and-click adventure games when I was younger, and they have always held a special place in my gaming heart. Primordia, and many of Wadjet Eye's other games, feel like a tribute to the old point-and-click games from Sierra and Lucas Arts, adopting the same low-resolution (8-bit) art styles that make it feel like a product of that time. Primordia has a more serious tone than many of those earlier titles, but is certainly not without its humor.

Taking place in a world where all the humans have mysteriously disappeared, leaving their robotic creations behind, Primordia is a tale of loss and self discovery that touches on some fairly serious issues without pushing them too far or attempting to achieve a certain agenda. You play as a robot named Horatio, with a rather witty companion named Crispin—who provides the majority of the humor throughout the game—on a mission to recover something taken from you.

As is normal for adventure games, you'll be doing a lot of puzzle solving. For the most part these puzzles are well engineered and figuring them out can give you a sense of reward. Unfortunately there was one puzzle early on that was so counter-intuitive that I could not figure it out without looking online for a walkthrough. When I found out what I was supposed to do I was so upset that for a while afterwards I just expected each puzzle that I couldn't immediately figure out to have some inexplicable answer. Another puzzle soon after did fit into the "inexplicable answer" category (while grease is itself sticky, it is also a lubricant; it does not make things stick, it makes them slick), which annoyed me even more. However, after this second time I never felt the need again and soon was caught back up in the universe and enjoying the experience.

The variety of puzzles was also quite refreshing for a point-and-click. It wasn't all looking for just the right spot to use a certain item, or constantly combining things together to make the object you really need. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were some puzzles with multiple solutions, with varying effects on the story. I found this out accidentally when I did something I didn't expect to work, and when it did I was somewhat horrified (at the result) and excited (that it worked)! I loaded a previous save and tried a different approach to the problem and that worked as well!

As small of an effect as those different solutions might have had on the story, it made the world feel more substantial, and my actions more impactful. Even more impressive is the fact that there are several different endings to the game, some of them quite dark. Although the feeling of each ending is different from the others, and one particular ending is clearly the "best", they are all viable endings with none of them being considered "wrong".

For an indie game I was seriously impressed with the quality of the voice acting. As soon as he spoke I recognized Horatio's voice as Logan Cunningham, well known for his work as the narrator for Bastion. With music that set the mood for each scene just right and the impressive (if 8-bit) visuals, Primordia is a solid experience all around.

Overall I would highly suggest Primordia to any fan of the genre. The level of nostalgia I felt playing this game is a serious compliment to its designers and has only made me anxious to try out more of their other titles.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Not-Quite-Friday Review: The Swapper (PC)

In the grim darkness of the… indeterminate future, there are only clones. I apologize for skipping Friday, but everyone here at NinjaBee was celebrating All Hallows’ Eve and we neglected the blog. In honor of our recently passed holiday, I bring you The Swapper. While not exactly what most would consider a horror game, The Swapper brings a kind of solemn existential terror that seems more at home with Danish cinema than Romero guts. The Swapper is a grim exploration of identity masquerading as a claymation puzzle game. As the game wears on, a sinister mystery unfolds on the oddly designed space station Theseus. There is a lot to talk about when approaching The Swapper.

The visuals are beautiful, arresting, and made of clay. The play of light and darkness, the somber mood, the forlorn architecture, and the hauntingly minimal soundtrack are designed to engender a very specific mood. It evokes an air of the unknown, the hopelessly alien. There are few familiar touchstones to rely on, instead requiring the player to immerse themselves completely within the game’s world. The only thing that pulled me out of the game was the unusual proportions and motion of the player character. It doesn’t really work for me. But given the exceptional level of character and polish to be found elsewhere, I gave it a pass.

Players begin the game by watching a helpless space-suit clad individual being fired from an escape pod onto the surface of a barren celestial body. The stranded space-farer quickly comes into the possession of the eponymous Swapper device and returns to the Theseus. Given no exposition and an in media res introduction, the player is compelled only by curiosity and determination to unravel the mystery surrounding the seemingly derelict station. The story takes on a decidedly sinister character as it progresses, despite a lack of any actual evil to resist. The antagonists, if you can call them that, are a case of Lovecraftian unknowable terror from the darkness of space. They are so vastly different and removed from our frame of reference that they simply do not acknowledge us rather than actively seek to do humanity harm. There is also a decided element of “man is the real monster”. I won’t get into spoilers, but I certainly became uncomfortable with my callousness as the game wore on.

As to the actual gameplay, most of the game is accomplished by creating and swapping to various clones in order to gain access to some sort of energy core to power access gates so as to continue. Difficulty ramps up considerably, adding elements like limited numbers of clones, gravitational inequality, disallowed actions, and other complications. I’m not sure why the Theseus was designed in such a manner, but whoever approved the floor-plan should probably have been shot. It is a usability disaster. I hand-wave it as being a concession to game design; but seriously, worst architect ever.

There are wrinkles in the game. Many of the mechanics of swapping are poorly or not explained at all, and there are subtleties I did not discover until after banging my head against a puzzle for half an hour. To save everyone at home a headache, I’ll offer a handy tip. Time slows down when you are aiming with the right mouse button. That would have saved me a lot of early effort. There were exactly two puzzles that I felt were excessively finicky/exact. They pulled me out of the moment pretty badly because I understood how to accomplish what the game wanted me to do, but my aim being off by a fraction of an inch on one shot required me to redo two minutes of setup. The disruption to the flow of the game was glaring.

The game ends in a novel fashion for this age of instant gratification and “best endings”. I will avoid spoilers again, but… man. There really isn’t a good way to end this. Despite the ending being lose/lose, it was a deeply satisfying narrative that ended on a high note. A depressing high note, but high nonetheless. If you are having a bad day, I wouldn’t recommend The Swapper. But if you are resilient to despair in the darkness of the void, give this game a go. It is a puzzle experience not to be missed. Not only is it refreshingly new and brain-burning, it is a bit of claymation nihilism that will leave you with a poignant afternoon of thoughtful reflection.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Buzz: Figure Drawing

Artists may have a natural aptitude or ability. They may also have a burning desire that drives them to work hard at honing their craft. However, no great artist became great without putting in many, many hours of hard work. There is no way of getting around it. There is no shortcut. I hope that I never feel fully satisfied with my artistic ability or I might have reached a cap on my progress.

One of the best ways to become a better artist is to study the human figure. I find figure drawing can help just about any artist improve. Because of this, at NinjaBee we try to hold figure drawing sessions often. A wide variety of artists attend. Everyone, from our highly skilled professional artists or those who just want to give it a shot, is invited to our (almost) weekly figure drawing sessions. We are blessed to have a steady pool of models willing to help us develop our skills.

Being a game studio, we have plenty of unusual props and poses. Our models are kind enough to oblige our needs, and our artists have produced hundreds of sketches in their quest to master the human form. Even when creating, drawing, and animating non-human creatures, many of the same rules apply. Every character we make will benefit from the dozens of hours of development we pour into our art. And we pass the improvements on to you, our fans.

Here are some of the results from artists of varied skill levels. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Friday Review: Orcs Must Die 2

Sequels are a mixed bag. Sometimes the games improve over time, either incrementally or fundamentally. Other times, not so much. Thankfully, I can say the Orcs Must Die 2 has taken everyone’s favorite Orcish genocide-machine building game and kicked almost every dial and widget up to 11.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the franchise, Orcs Must Die places players in the role of a War Mage. The last War Mage, to be precise. The order that protects our world from the blasted and overrun world of monstrous Orcs and Trolls, defending the rifts between worlds and safeguarding the magic crucial to the “happily ever after” kingdom beyond the fortress walls, has fallen on hard times. In fact, after the last game, the order was defunct. Magic had ceased after the player closed the portals and cut the worlds apart, stranding the evil enchantress (who may have done evil dances) with her newly freed subjects and no powers.

But neatly wrapped up endings are boring, so Orcs Must Die 2 brings it all back and makes it co-op. The enchantress is back! But not as a villain. Instead, she and the protagonist of the original must team up and defend the newly-formed rifts from an even greater Orcish terror. The War Mage character plays on the worst football jock dude-bro stereotypes for plenty of laughs, complete with end-zone dances at the completion of each level. The Enchantress, meanwhile, is made out to be a morally unhinged cougar. The two characters play off each other well, and the dialogue continues to be vapid and humorous. They also play well stylistically. The War Mage brings a heavier array of traps and explodey weapons and boasts a beefy health bar to offset his terrible magic skills, while the Enchantress is equipped with a wide array of tricky spells and neat gizmos that help her control the flow of battle with a large mana pool. When played with a friend, their variable strengths mesh to create the ultimate greenskin-mulching sociopathic buddy-game duo!

In my campaign of comical mass-bloodshed, I played as the War Mage to my wife’s Enchantress. We both quickly developed a stable set of tools we defaulted to, choosing an array of traps, minions, trinkets, spells, and weapons that worked best for us. The sequel’s new skull system allowed us to specialize fairly early with our favorites. In addition to upgrading the base stats of each entry, we were able to choose specializations that complemented the devious combos we favored. My wife, for instance, took an upgrade to the ceiling dart trap that sometimes charmed enemies while I grabbed an addition to the void wall that kept us swimming in potions and coins. She primarily wielded the Stone Staff, while I felt naked without my crossbow. I felt like there were enough options to make dozens of different combos work. I personally favor two rows of tar traps backed by two rows of floor scorchers repeated down long corridors, but some call me unimaginative.

There is literally more of everything in Orcs Must Die 2. More monsters, more traps, more upgrades, more outfits, more levels, more, more, more! And yet, none of it ever felt tacked on. While there are a couple of traps or items I would never use, I am sure there are other War Mages out there that balk at my preferred load-out.  Some might prefer sprawling death-mazes where I favor compact kill-boxes. Either way, every player should find a method for brutally dismembering Orcs that satisfies without feeling compelled to take certain options.

It is hard for me to say enough good about Orcs Must Die 2. I find every element of the game satisfying. I like the graphical stylings, the exaggerated animations, the satisfying squelch of exploding kobolds, the arcade satisfaction of the combo and killing spree pop-ups, the tight control, the flow of money and progression of upgrades, everything. I am compelled to continue playing, to achieve just one more ludicrous victory dance. I am hooked. And yet, the game does have flaws. The number of skulls you can sink into each individual trap makes me wary to try a new style. I default to my proven strategy and avoid going too far out of the box. The upgrade system can be reset at any time, but spending all of my skulls again is too tedious for me to regularly shake up my style. When played solo it becomes obvious that the game was designed for two, not one. There are levels that are easily bested in co-op but require so much frantic bouncing around in solo play that I felt like I was being actively punished for trying a level before bringing my wife along.

Still, those are minor quibbles. If you are the sort of gamer who can get silly, who wants to inflict every conceivable form of death on an endless tide of humanoid grunts, please get this game. But get it with a friend. You can play alone, but it is really a two-player game. It is easily among my favorite games of the last few years, and I am sure it will be an enduring classic in my library. You will not be disappointed.

As a final addendum, I find the cartoony violence to be appropriate for my young sons. Your mileage may vary, but my two small children find the game uproariously hilarious, and insist on sitting in our laps while we mow down baddies. Watching mommy and daddy play “Morcus Die” is among their favorite things to do. That is quality family entertainment, right there!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Nutjitsu Update Available: New Levels, New Ranks, More Added

Another two weeks have come and gone, and we have more Nutjitsu content for you. We added three new handcrafted levels to the game, which you can unlock by attaining additional ranks in your ninja mastery. Teikoku no Yousai, Ushinatta Marsh, and Yugure Cemetery offer new experiences, new paths, and new visuals for the discerning burgling squirrel. Each level is tied to a new rank. Seven new ranks have been added overall, giving players new options as they continue to play and master the art of Nutjitsu.

Additionally, the new update fundamentally alters the way that players experience the game and acquire power-ups. Gone are the days when smoke bombs spawned on the game map. We saw that play quickly became an effort to dash from one smoke bomb to the next in order to stay ahead of the guards. That didn't seem very sneaky at all! As of this update, power-ups must be acquired with the new acoin currency. Acoins are acquired through play as the squirrel collects nuts. Those hard-earned coins can be spent on smoke bombs that may be used manually during play. Up to three bombs may be used in a single session. You can buy as many as you like, but you can only carry three with you (those outfits only have so many pockets).

The change to limited smoke bombs helps to emphasize the stealth and planning aspects of Nutjitsu, as well as encouraging more "bite sized" play sessions more suitable to those spare moments in line or on the bus. If you are anything like us, you will probably still sink hours at a time into collecting ruby acorns. But we want to accommodate players with less time on their hands. If you haven't tried it already, head over to the game's page and download Nutjitsu for free! Those acorns won't liberate themselves!

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Friday Review: Surgeon Simulator 2013 (PC)

Do you really know what happens to you under general anesthesia? Who really operated on you? Were they qualified surgeons? If Surgeon Simulator 2013 is any indication, probably not. In fact, I would venture to say that protagonist, Nigel, may be a hobo with some sort of neuromuscular disorder and delusions of grandeur. He is certainly no doctor. By extension, neither is the player.

As Nigel, the player controls one hand of a decidedly dysfunctional doctor as he attempts several anatomically forgiving operations on helpless patients. By default, the A, W, E, R, and Space keys contract the individual digits of the hand, whilst the mouse controls the movement, angle, and rotation of the inept limb. The control scheme is exceptionally unsettling at the outset, which only adds to the hilarity when accidentally dropping a spinning drill into the subject’s exposed innards. I managed to master the controls after several minutes of humorous fumbling and set straight to my medically dubious butchery.

Three basic operations are available to the player: a heart transplant, a double kidney transplant, and a brain transplant. The initial operating room procedures are incredibly entertaining in their own right, but become vastly more wacky (and fatal) as Nigel is asked to perform the same operations under increasingly difficult circumstances. Having a fire extinguisher bounce off the shelf and into the patient’s lungs while operating in the back of an ambulance driven by Evil Knievil adds an extra layer of difficulty. I won’t spoil everything, but Surgeon Simulator does feature a number of additional circumstances and special stages that will keep you maiming victims, I mean patients, for plenty of hours. While not stipulated by the game itself, I found myself attempting to clear each operation without unnecessary blood loss or as quickly as possible.

There are dozens of things to mess around with in Surgeon Simulator. The game creates a need to explore, to mess around with everything in the game. From sticking a scalpel into an electrical socket to zap the controls backwards and slamming Nigel’s hand onto a syringe for a psychedelic surgery to messing with the various floppy disks in the lobby, there is plenty to do beyond the stated goals of the game. There are alternate ways to complete each surgery. A player could conceivably complete an entire surgery with the laser scalpel, or hack apart a ribcage with a hatchet. The options are multitudinous.

The game is not without fault, however. During the kidney transplant operation I often find myself unable to grab the patient’s right kidney because of the rotation limits on Nigel’s hand. I often have to poke the kidney to the side with a pencil in order to get my slippery digits on the errant organ. This seems like a specific oversight, but does give me occasional fits. Additionally, I often find myself yanking at the patient’s liver for inordinate lengths of time. It isn’t just the difficulty of dislodging it, I feel like it gets stuck, which is irritating. The same can be said of removing the dressing over the patient at the beginning of the heart and kidney transplant operations. My hand tends to clip through the cloth, leaving it stuck on my wrist and forcing me to restart the operation.

These few faults do mar an otherwise uproarious experience. I have rarely laughed more when playing a game. Having an audience to my malpractice vastly improved my experience, and I would suggest everyone try this game with a bystander on hand to enhance play. I would not suggest this game to anyone who is particularly squeamish, as the medical detail may cause discomfort. Nor would I recommend the game for anyone who is easily frustrated. Surgeon Simulator 2013 actively works against the player. If that is liable to throw you into a rage, do not play this game. Otherwise, if you are looking for a highly original experience with buckets of laughter (and organs), pick up Surgeon Simulator 2013. You will not regret it. Your patients might. But you won’t.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Buzz: Casual Connect

This week we finish up our summer retrospective with Casual Connect. Starting next week, we will have fresh new things to talk about, rather than going back in time any further.

Right at the end of July, some intrepid explorers from NinjaBee flew out to beautiful San Francisco to attend Casual Connect, a conference designed primarily for mobile game developers and their business partners. We enjoyed three days of panels and talks designed to help mobile veterans as well as scrappy newcomers. Coming from a different sphere of the industry, the whole experience was very new for us. The aims, metrics, and practices of traditional and mobile development are very distinct. Having primarily developed for traditional consoles, many of the values and models seemed very new and different.

Nutjitsu wasn't ready for release at the time, and we hoped to get some really great input on how to make our thieving little squirrel a true standout. We learned wisdom from top people behind mobile titans like Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja, and Royal Revolt. It was an awesome look behind the curtain at games played by millions of people every day on platforms we have not yet fully explored. We learned a lot, and we will continue to put the ideas and techniques we learned to good use in Nutjitsu as well as any other mobile titles we may create in the future.

Of course, we would be remiss in our tourist duty if we didn't hit the sights of San Francisco. We rode the trolley, ate crab in the shadow of Alcatraz, and took a gander at Lombard Street with the best of them. Business by day, tourism by night! After all that learning we flew merrily back home with dreams of app stores dancing in our heads. Casual Connect was a great experience that will help to shape our games for the better as we explore the mobile space with you.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Friday Review: Gunpoint (PC)

The relationship between a man and his pants is a special one. Especially when those pants are electric pants. Like, leap over tall buildings in a single bound electric pants. Hurl a man out of a fourth story window and walk away unscathed electric pants. Yes, these pants are very special indeed. And they belong to one Richard Conway, a freelance agent who gets wrapped up in a good old fashioned mystery when his most recent contact is immediately murdered. The player, as Conway, must get to the bottom of her murder through a series of side-scrolling stealth puzzle jobs utilizing an array of fancy gadgets.

The meat of Gunpoint lies in solving puzzles using Crosslink, an overlay that allows Conway to rewire almost every device in each of the building cross-sections that make up the game’s levels. As long as the player can access the correct circuit, Conway can make a light switch open a door, make a camera cause an outlet surge, or even make a sound detector discharge a guard’s gun.

One of the chief delights Gunpoint offers is the unexpected behavior that emerges as a result of player tinkering in Crosslink. In one particularly interesting serendipity, my linking caused trap doors to open on two floors simultaneously, which promptly dumped two guards to their death. Of course, I was only trying to rig the circuits so that I could jump through the trapdoors when no one was looking. Thankfully, I am not the sort of person to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The other major gameplay element is leaping around in the aforementioned Bullfrog electric pants. They give Conway the ability to spring vast distances, leap to the ceiling, and survive ludicrous falls. These pants give you a fantastic toolkit to tackle (sometimes literally) every obstacle your electrical jiggery pokery does not solve. There is a trick to the pants, though. The aiming and power of your jumps can be a bit hard to master at first. After the first couple of outings though, you feel right at home in your bionic trousers.

The physical element of the Bullfrog device and the cerebral planning stage of Crosslink work well together, creating a satisfying flow between thoughtful manipulation and twitchy execution. Gunpoint gives players a variety of ways to approach each level, though certain upgrades are required to complete some missions. I felt like I often detected a “correct” way to solve the level, but never felt punished for avoiding it. I also never felt locked into a particular approach to the game as a whole. On some levels I would kick down doors and throw guards out of windows, while in others I would silently bypass all challenges without alerting security to my presence at all.

While I am thrilled overall by my experience with Gunpoint, there are a couple of criticisms I have for the game. There wasn’t enough of it. In one sense, that isn’t really a criticism at all. I clearly enjoyed the game and wanted more. But I feel like I didn’t have enough puzzles to throw myself at. Maybe five more missions would have rounded it out, I don’t know. But it was over too quickly. The second isn’t much more severe. After each mission, your employer evaluates you based on your performance. They have criteria which they emphasize. On some missions it wasn’t very clear what my optional objective was until I reached that evaluation screen. A touch more clarity might have rounded things out nicely. These are barely nitpicks, however, and do not detract for a fantastic core experience.

Final Thoughts

I wholehearted recommend Gunpoint to anyone who is a fan of puzzles, platformers, clever writing, detective stories… pretty much everyone. If you haven’t already picked it up, I would advise doing so. The trip may be short, but it is fantastic. The same might be said of a majestic fourth-floor leap in electric pants, and I can hardly think of a more ringing endorsement than that.