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.