Puzzle Games – Open vs Sequential

Last week I spoke of the two categories I separate puzzle design into, those being the story driven ones, the ones with a close tie to the game’s narrative and game universe common sense, and the challenge driven, those placed in the game just to give players something meaty to bite into, often tied to the game’s plot by theme rather than adhering to the plot, the locations, the character’s common sense, etc.

With those two in mind, I’d like to talk to you today about two other categories, but these are the ones in which I separate the games that feature these puzzles. Despite the article’s title, I don’t like to call them puzzle games, as puzzles in both categories can be in a variety of genres, with the puzzles being just another challenge offered to players, without them being the core of the experience—take the Resident Evil franchise for example, the first and latest titles heavy on complex puzzles but not their defining feature.

I base these two categories on how the players interacts with the puzzles in the world. They can be Sequential or Open.

Continue reading Puzzle Games – Open vs Sequential

Halloween 2015 Highlights

This was Halloween!

Another one has come and go, full of cheers, jeers, screams and scares. Children dressed up in scary costumes, “grown children” dressed up in scary costumes and even pets did the same. There were cemeteries, haunted houses, cursed manors and so many more home decorations out there that you could feel the spirits in the air. Continue reading Halloween 2015 Highlights

Annoying Game Mechanics – Timed Sequences

Annoying Game Mechanics are those that just make you groan when you see them in a game. You’ve seen them at their best but you’ve also seen them at their worst. You can’t love them but you can’t hate them either, but you can definitely be annoyed!

This week the mechanic I’m having an issue with is Timed Sequences! I’m pulling this one from the 1001Up.com archives, as this was the last AGM to be featured on the site, and it was a video! Thankfully, there are no records of it ever existing and the world is a happier place for it. You don’t need me mumbling on video with poor audio. You already have me mumbling on video with good audio!

Sometimes games need to add a bit more pressure to your current task. Maybe they want you to hurry the hell up before the nuclear reactor blows up, or maybe they want you to hold on to dear life and withstand something unfairly difficult for a little while before something else happens! These are Timed Sequences, events or segments in a game where you have a finite time window to complete a task. Unlike other Annoying Game Mechanics, there are two types of Timed Sequences:

Timed Tasks, as their name imply mean you have a set time to go about your business. Maybe it’s escaping a room before a bomb blows up, or escape a crime-scene before the police arrive, or lock your doors before someone comes barging in. These timed sequences add tension to a sequence. The gameplay remains the same as do all the rules, but now you have that timer pressuring you.

Survival Countdown sequences are not specific tasks, not simple objectives to follow. Instead your only goal is to survive or hold on until the time runs out or some other even triggers. Real Time Strategy games are fond of this one, of giving you a five minute window until victory triggers with the difficulty ramping up the more time passes. While the previous mean to increase tension, these are frantic and meant to test your composure and reaction time.

If done properly these sequences do exactly what they’re meant to do, they add tension and make for exciting gameplay. They make you nervous enough to make mistakes as you fumble with the controls, but lenient enough that you can commit errors and still make it through. The successful ones add an incomparable adrenaline rush to your game and in doing so enhance the player’s immersion.

If they screw up, on the other hand, the only thing they’ll cause is stress and frustration, becoming tall walls the players need to overcome to move along with the rest of the game. They kill the fun and immersion they tried to enhance and make sure the player doesn’t have fond memories of the game.

The staple of an annoying mechanic is that it’s seen both good and bad days. The following are some of the best and most disappointing uses:

Good:

  • Every Metroid game has at least one timed sequence, usually in the form of an escape. From leaving the self-destructing planet at the end of Metroid 1 and Super Metroid to the reactor core meltdown in Metroid Fusion. These sequences are exciting and tense but you have enough leeway to royally screw up and still make it out in time.
  • Warcraft III has a few of these. The most memorable one is the last mission in the Undead Campaign, where you summon the Burning Legion to Azeroth. The enemies become ever stronger and the units come out faster and it’s a frantic race to keep your defenses up until the time is done. Thankfully your new masters send you aid in the form of demonic units to help vanquish your enemies and give you some breathing space!
  • Guild of Dungeoneering has an interesting take on the timed tasks. Some dungeons will feature a “sleeping” monster. The creature will come after you in a number of turns and you have to do your best to gear and level up before it does. The best part about it is that if you manage to reach it before it wakes up, it will take a hit to its stats, making the fight considerably easier.
  • Resident Evil games also have a tendency for self-destruct escapes. Resident Evil 2 is the most memorable of them in my opinion by having a boss fight right in the middle of it. It would be stressful if not for two reasons. First, the timer is generous enough. Second, by the time you get to the boss you’ll have a massive arsenal with which to take the boss out with time to spare. So it works as a wonderfully tense situation.
  • One of the most memorable stages in StarCraft is the mission where you must hold on until evacuation comes by resisting attacks by the Protoss and Zerg. This is the mission where Kerrigan falls. It was wonderfully paced and by the end you hate to leave her behind.
  • The Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has a wonderful starting timed sequence. You have to jump out of bed and block out the entrances to your room before the villagers can come after you. From then it escalates into a chase sequence where each locked door adds a bit of time for a breather. If you’re playing on the PC version—in which the main character moves at 1/6 of the normal speed—this extra time is vital!
  • Final Fantasy VIII has a fantastic timed sequence. While fighting Seifer on the Lunatic Pandora, Odin will appear and attempt to kill him only to die in the process. You then see Odin’s sword flying through the sky and a mysterious hand grabbing it as it parts the clouds. If you then stretch the battle on, eventually Gilgamesh will show up, kill Seifer and take Odin’s place as your new summon. It’s entirely optional but very rewarding!

Bad:

  • Dracula 2 added these to the game, but they are outstandingly frustrating. With the poor resolution on its static backgrounds, finding the latch to close the door or the mirrors to move to kill a vampire is a bit of frustrating pixel hunting that will annoy you to no end.
  • Batman: Arkham Knight added VR challenges for the Batmobile, where you race from one end to another or have a limited time to do something with the clunky tank. By that last sentence you should know why this is a bad one. The Batmobile has worthless maneuverability, making each turn take so much time that completing the challenges becomes painful. It doesn’t help that time boosters are so out of the way that it’s pointless to get them.
  • Guild of Dungeoneering makes the list again but this time with its monster chase quests. In these the monster is coming after you and will get to you in a matter of turns. With the way the AI works for determining its next move, these quests can be very frustrating when your character walks straight into the monster’s path.
  • Various JRPG, including Xenoblade Chronicles, have unbeatable boss fights where you just have to hold on for a certain number of turns until something else happens. These sequences feel cheap and are insanely punishing and barely beatable. Worse still, if for some reason you out-level the content, then it feels as though you lose by plot even if you manage to defeat the monster.
  • Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness has a few of these. The first one is at an old lady’s house, where you must escape before the police get there, but not before you find a journal. The only problem is that the journal is nowhere in sight. So you look around and of course, it’s in the kitchen? What? The time you have to do this is very tight and the ridiculous location for the item just adds to the confusion.
    • Later on you need to escape from a room where someone set a bomb, but even the smallest of missteps will make the thing go boom.

Annoying Game Mechanics – Platforming

What are Annoying Game Mechanics? It’s those mechanics that when you encounter them you can’t help but groan. You’ve seen them at their best and worst, but a part of your is just, well, annoyed!

If you find the series name familiar, then you might remember it from its 1001Up days. But now, after careful and hard negotiations (not really, the 1001Up crew are lovely people), AGM has made its move to The Mental Attic. Hope you enjoy it here as much as you did before and make sure to visit AGMs former home as well!

This week the mechanic I’m having an issue with is Platforming!

I’m not talking about platformer games, not Mario, Sonic (no matter how bad some Sonic platforming gets) or even Shadow of the Colossus and Assassin’s Creed. No, what I mean is platforming in games from other genres. Most commonly, you see them in action adventures, to serve as a break from the adventure and/or action elements.

When done right, they can enhance the game’s experience by giving you an additional challenge to overcome or simply be a break from the overall gameplay and give you something fresh and exciting! The problem implementations are those that lack any form of challenge or more specifically the risk of failure. If there isn’t even a chance you might mess up, there’s no excitement possible. You’ve seen these, the obligatory climbing sequences on rails. If something bad happens it’s because you deliberately failed or it was scripted to happen, as the game attempts to use the platforming to enhance its cinematic side and not the game’s experience.

Then there’s Lazy Platforming, where your character does it mostly on its own, jumping over gaps and obstacles without needing your input. These aren’t necessarily bad but they are very tricky.

The staple of an annoying mechanic is that it’s seen both good and bad days. The following are some of the best and most disappointing uses:

Good:

  • Overall, the Legend of Zelda uses Lazy Platforming, but Skyward Sword gave it an interesting twist: Stamina. When you run, climb or performing any platforming you have to pay attention to your stamina. If it runs out you’re in for a long and painful fall or left out of breath and helpless, until it refills.
    • The Handheld 2D Zelda titles though have been using Active Platforming ever since Link’s Awakening, by means of a jumping item. Call it a feather or a cape, you often need to time and perfect your jumps to progress and really master them if you plan on collecting secrets.
  • Even with the Autograb feature, the LAU Tomb Raider games have amazing platforming because there is a great degree of challenge involved. You’re never just climbing, but also avoiding traps, making tricky jumps or even leaps of faith when the camera won’t do what you want it to. It keeps it exciting.
  • Even more so than the previous example are the Core Tomb Raider games, the ones developed by Core Design. In these the platforming was superb and without autograb you had to make sure the jump was spot on and collecting secrets was extremely challenging.
  • The Batman Arkham games use a mix of active and lazy platforming. Lazy for running and jumping but active for everything else, and in a game where everything is a hazard and everyone is out to kill you, the platforming damn well works. The best part of it is the gliding, a twist to platforming by giving you limited flight.
  • Speaking of limited flight, Soul Reaver invented that mechanic. Gliding as part of platforming was one of Raziel’s signature moves and possibly the hardest thing to master in these games.
  • In an already difficult game, Dark Souls keeps it going with some very tricky platforming. With varying running speeds and environmental hazards, the game will make you dread the idea of jumping a gap. But then again, Dark Souls makes you dread every other sequence as well.
  • InVerbis Virtus does platforming really well. Not only do you have your usual moving platforms but with the use of its spells, the platforming becomes another puzzle you need to solve. In this case platforming isn’t a break from the overall gameplay but it part of it.
    • Having said so, there is a degree of frustration when the voice recognition doesn’t pick up what you’re saying.

Bad:

  • Resident Evil, from the 4th installment onwards started using Lazy platforming and for what it adds to the experience they might as well have cut it out. Worst of all are the high-action chase sequences that are nothing more than quick-time events disguised as platforming.
  • Thief (not the original series but the reboot) is guilty of the worst kind of Lazy Platforming, the one that adds nothing to the experience. You’ll climb pipes and ledges in 3rd person but there are completely bland and could’ve been replaced with something a bit more exciting, maybe some grappling and climbing like they did in Far Cry 4.
  • The Castlevania Lords of Shadow series—excluding Mirror of Fate—also features plenty of worthless platforming, especially climbing sequences where you only press UP, before something big, dramatic and entirely cinematic happens.
  • Platforming in Devil May Cry is a mess and rarely works well. When it does it’s brilliant but more often than not it stumbles and just frustrates you. In this series’ case the problem mostly lies with the fixed camera, as it will often obscure the ledges or items you’re jumping towards. And as is always the case with fixed camera your directional input changes with the angles, making it even more frustrating!

Annoying Game Mechanics – Flooding Puzzles

What are Annoying Game Mechanics? They’re those that when you find them you can’t help but groan. You’ve seen them at their best and worst and now they just annoy you on principle!

If you find the series name familiar, then you might remember it from its 1001Up days. But now, after careful and hard negotiations (not really, the 1001Up crew are lovely people), AGM has made its move to The Mental Attic. Is it permanent? Who knows, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy it here as much as you did before and make sure to visit AGMs former home as well!

For this relaunch of Annoying Game Mechanics, I’ve chosen one that I’ve recently seen while on my Classic Play series: Flooding Puzzles.

You’ve seen them in almost every game imaginable. Those sequences where you have to raise or lower the water levels to open new areas or to make puzzle-related objects float. Exactly what the puzzle entails depends on the game but it’s almost become a staple of adventure games, especially action-adventures.

My problem with the mechanic is there are so many things you can do with water: you can alter its states, shifting from gas to ice and back to liquid in a fantastic chemical puzzle; you can use water levels to fill containers for weight-puzzles; you can have a fire & water puzzle, where you use one against the other; piping puzzles to direct the flow of water in the direction you want, among others.

Yet despite those examples, and the many more I can’t even begin to imagine, the implementation we most often see in video games is using flooding. Now every time I see this mechanic, I instinctively sigh and think “not this again.”

The staple of an annoying mechanic is that it’s seen both good and bad days. The following are some of the best and most disappointing uses:

Good:

  • The Water Temple from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time defined this puzzle for the modern era. A sprawling labyrinthine dungeon where you must raise and lower the water to open new areas, reveal treasures and gain access to previously impossible to reach ledges and doors. The Water Temple is famous—or infamous depending on whom you ask—and is one of the hardest Zelda dungeons to date.
    • A close second is the 2nd Dark World dungeon in A Link to The Past, which also featured levers to raise water levels.
  • The Tomb Raider series loves this mechanic, but no other game does it more often than Tomb Raider Anniversary, with almost back-to-back water-level puzzles.
    • The first one is in Greece in the Poseidon room. A vertical shaft where you must raise and lower the water a few times to get a raft to the exact place you need it to reach a ledge. This one also involves a fair dose of box pushing, pulling and underwater levers.
    • The second one is the previous example on steroids, this time not a vertical room but an entire ancient sewer/waterway. With long drops that will instantly kill you and checkpoints at the most inconvenient locations and times, this is a pain in the arse to play to be honest, but it is well designed and has a right way to do it…and the way I did it the first time around.
    • The third one involves flooding an entire room, then lowering the water to shoot some scarabs to open grates and then re-flood the area to escape. It’s not really complex but flooding plus platforming make it interesting.

Bad:

  • The Resident Evil series is famous for using these,notasbrainteasers but time-wasters. Simple crank puzzles to flood or drain areas.
    • Resident Evil 2 has the perfect example: Go into a canal, arrange boxes in a straight line, raise water level and go through.
    • Resident Evil 4 is another perfect example. The sewers under Salazar’s castle have a flooded section and the challenge of it all is making it through the area and its many one-hit-kill enemies to the crank you need to drain the water.
  • Wet-Dry World in Super Mario 64 is not one of my favourites. The initial height of the water depends on how high you jumped into the level and you raise or lower the water with coloured crystals, seven of them in total and spread throughout the environment. It’s a pain to find the exact one you’re looking for and if the water level’s high enough, it’s going to be a long swim down to the crystal you need. Hope you don’t drown!

There are many more examples of this annoying mechanic at work, but I can’t list them all. Do you have a favourite flood puzzle, or one you just can’t stand? Let me know in the comments and be sure to come back in two weeks for another issue of Annoying Game Mechanics!

Gallery

Review: Resident Evil: Revelations 2

Resident Evil: Revelations 2 puts you in control of four characters, searching for answers in a hostile island and a way out, before fear consumes and changes them—literally so.

Genre(s): Survival Horror

Developer: Capcom

Publisher: Capcom

Release Date: February-March 2015

Played: Full Season + 4 hours Raid Mode

Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox360, Xbox One

Purchase At: Steam

Good:

  • Terrific characterization.

  • Strong survival-focused gameplay.

  • Strong Japanese voice cast.

Bad:

  • Bad environmental design.

  • Repetitive documents.

  • Uneven plot pacing.

 

Review

I still remember the announcement for RER2. It came during a week when female members of our community were under fire and the women’s role and portrayal in games were under debate. When they announced Clare was coming back, I honestly thought, “This is what we need, one of the original female badasses, Clare Redfield!” Capcom definitely nailed the timing for their announcement.

And that is one thing Resident Evil: Revelations 2 does right: character portrayals. Clare isn’t the same girl we met in Resident Evil 2 but one of the senior Terra Save agents. She’s strong, decisive and courageous, but without losing her humanity, which is harder to do than you’d expect—most of the times writers just cross the line into Impossible Hardass.

It's all about Kafka!
It’s all about Kafka!

With Clare is Moira Burton, Barry’s daughter and the most foul-mouthed character in all of Resident Evil. What I like most about Moira is she shows significant growth during the story. At the start she refuses to even hold a gun because of a childhood trauma, but by the end she manages to push herself beyond it. I liked that development and it feels real and believable…you know, even with the crazy genetic monstrosities.

The rest of the main cast consists of Barry himself, coming to the island where the plot takes place (I’ll get on that in a bit) a few months later than Clare and his daughter, hoping to find answers to her fate. Barry is a rock of a character, acting as the strong and collected one to his companion, Natalia, an 11-year-old-ish girl. Where she falters he’s there to offer support and as such he doesn’t evolve as much as the rest, but is instrumental in the other character’s development.

The nonsensical skill tree
The nonsensical skill tree

RER2 doesn’t waste time in setting up its premise. During the opening cinematic, an assault team attacks and captures all Terra Save workers at their yearly corporate party. When Clare wakes she’s in a mysterious prison with Moira and fitted with a strange metal bracelet. The bracelets change colour depending on the person’s state of mind, going from green to a deep red the more frightened they become. The island is home to savage mutants like those found in Resident Evil 4 and 5 and there’s a woman, The Overseer, constantly taunting them and driving them closer to fear and despair.

Clare and Moira’s half is all about survival and finding out and stopping The Overseer’s plans. Barry’s half is about finding his daughter, arriving on the island 6 months after Clare’s initial chapter, following an SOS. He meets Natalia, a young girl surviving on her own, and with the mysterious ability to sense monsters and even their weak spots. She met Moira & Clare in the past and guides Barry to where they last saw each other.

Tourniquets are the way to go...unless you're out of herbs!
Tourniquets are the way to go…unless you’re out of herbs!

The story itself is the usual Resident Evil fare of crazy viruses and deranged genetic experimentation that ultimately becomes so out there you lose all interest in it. But in its episodic storytelling, RER2 splits the reveals very well between its two story arcs, keeping you interested and asking questions until it finally shows its hand. The works of Franz Kafka, The Metamophosis in particular, are at the core of the plot, just taken literal and to the extreme. This game’s writers don’t believe in subtlety.

The narrative split might be good but the pacing is uneven between the Clare and Barry segments—some are plot-heavy while others are combat-centric—and it doesn’t take long for you to learn or figure out everything about the story, making some of the last episode’s climaxes fall terribly short.

Resident Evils have always supported their narrative with documents strewn around the environment and RER2 continues this tradition but there are too repetitive and useless documents. I don’t mind backstory if it adds to the experience, but it feels as though they enough documents to make sure that you’d pick up at least one. It’s even worse considering much of what the documents tell you the characters later mention in cutscenes.

In terms of visuals, they’re around the same quality as Resident Evil 6’s, which isn’t surprising considering they both use the same engine. For this game, it’s not graphical quality that I look for, because I know it’ll be good. What I care about is the little details and the overall environment and creature design, which are some of the elements the horror will hang on. One thing in particular that stood out for me was how bad the lip-synching was. I played the game originally with Japanese audio (more on that later) and even switching to English didn’t make the lips sync-up with the words. In fact, the lips barely move.

Monster design differs greatly between Clare and Barry’s segments. Clare’s enemies are more akin to the wild enemies from The Evil Within, self-mutilated and with heavy body modifications, while Barry’s are more traditional RE monstrosities and desiccated zombies. Clare’s work very well the first time they show up, but lose their effectiveness as a visual fear stimulus very quickly. Barry’s on the other hand remain effective for much longer, especially since they are very difficult to kill if you don’t target their Ouroboros core.

Bleeding is extremely dangerous in RER2
Bleeding is extremely dangerous in RER2

Sadly, the environments themselves are dull, drab and lack any form of atmosphere and rehash locations from previous titles—prison facilities, derelict villages and ruined buildings. There’s even a moment in Episdoe 2 where you must survive an assault from enemies while inside a building, killing enemies before they jump inside. Sound familiar? Setting the game in a wider open area presents challenges, that I understand, but I do wish they had done a better job, made them much more interesting. The environments also clashed with the accounts from the documents—you should have seen more remnants of the previous occupants, more signs of violence. Instead of helping the immersion, this clash countered it.

Clare's enemies are fast and strong!
Clare’s enemies are fast and strong!

Music is largely absent from the game, coming in during high-stress sequences with the appropriate tense music and almost at random during investigative and exploration segments. These pieces are moodier and eerie but the volume is low, almost like background noise and often drowned out by other sounds. It left me to wonder what the point was. The moody bits are very good but with the bland environments, there’s not much they can do to help the immersion opportunities the visual side already squandered.

I played the game in Japanese first, as I often do with Japanese games. I still used English text for subtitles. I have a less than rudimentary grasp on the Japanese tongue but I can tell right away when the English script is departing radically from the Japanese one. For example, Moira doesn’t curse in the Japanese version, not as much, but instead says “Saiyaku,” which literall means Disaster but you can take it—transliterated—as “This is the worst!” which is also Barry’s common catchphrase, a shared mannerism between parent and child. The voice acting is generally good but I find the Japanese to be superior, as there’s a lot more strength put into the performances. The American cast falters during emotional sequences. Pedro’s actor in Japanese sounds genuinely terrified and panicky during the Episode 2 village sequence, while the American doesn’t and the emotion he portrays doesn’t match up with the character’s body language.

Natalia can sense monsters, even through walls. Pretty handy for stealth-kills!
Natalia can sense monsters, even through walls. Pretty handy for stealth-kills!

The gameplay remains very much like Resident Evils after the 4th instalment, with the over the shoulder camera and aiming. It’s a style I like very much and allows me to headshot enemies as much as I want to, which I enjoy doing, just to test my accuracy. You can instantly switch from the main characters (Clare & Barry) to their partners and you’ll need to as most of the ‘puzzles’ revolve around doing two things almost at once with the characters, such as pulling levers in separate rooms. Only your main characters carry weapons, the secondary ones have melee attacks and are just there for support really. Though the AI partner did finish off a few enemies for me when I was out of ammo.

Battle Points (BP) are back, used to upgrade your characters with the obligatory skill system, increasing some of your base abilities and the effectiveness of items. Some of the upgrades are pretty useful but most are worthless. For example, one of them increases how effective Green Herbs are, but even without it they already heal you completely. The only point in getting that ability is unlocking the one further down the tree. The tree itself makes no sense, with abilities having thematically unrelated ones as prerequisites. The previous Green Herb skill is a prerequisite for the Charged Melee attack skill, for example.

RER2 gives you a dedicated “Pick-up” button that works well for consumables but the game then alternates between it and the “Use” button so many times I found myself shouting “Make up your mind!” at the screen. At some points it prompted me to pick up items with one button then with the other, leaving me irritated and confused.

Speaking of weapons, RER2 features a crafting system for secondary items. You can use bottles to make up to four kinds of bombs—Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs for example– and cloth for tourniquets, as a minor healing kit and to stop the bleeding effect, and disinfectants, for clearing your HUD of monster goop. The latter isn’t really useful due to the very small number of blinding monsters. Weapon upgrades return from the previous game and they work exactly the same, providing mostly passive bonuses such as increased damage, capacity or reduced recoil. Golden Upgrades give your weapons new powers. They aren’t necessary but they do help, especially the rare ones, and I found myself exploring the dreadfully bland environments looking for secret chests.

In terms of enemies and combat, Clare’s are much closer to the original RE series’ bullet sponges, taking in tons of damage before falling—though headshots help and it’s why I go for them. Barry’s on the other hand are much closer to the Resident Evil 4+ style of enemies with weak points. Bosses, for either character, fall into this latter category, with a single weak point you first need to reveal before actually damaging the boss.

Language Moira!
Language Moira!

Conclusion

Resident Evil: Revelations 2’s gameplay and characterization make up for some of its design and narrative flaws, and while it’s not the deepest of stories it will keep you hooked until the end and beyond if you like to indulge in the RPG-esque raid mode. It’s a flawed game, definitely, but worth a shot, even if it fails at the horror half of Survival Horror.

TMA SCORE:

4/5 – Exceptional