Author Archives: Stefan "Samurai" Terry

The Difference Between “Hard” and “Frustrating”

I would like to preface this by saying I love hard games. I love Demon’s Souls and most Atlus games. I play Touhou, though I have only beaten one of them and only on easy mode. I measure difficulty in ‘Megamans’. I do not believe those who play easier games are lesser or inferior, I just like hard games. The thing is, “hard” is an ambiguous word. A game can be hard for a lot of reasons, but as far as I am concerned, there are two kinds of difficult games: those that are “hard” and those that are “frustrating.” As a final preface note, unless stated otherwise, everything discussed in this article is set to the “normal” difficulty.

“Hard” games are deliberately hard. They are designed to be difficult, and make you work to complete a level, to get an item, to win a fight or complete a puzzle. They are games like Super Meat Boy that kill you a lot but keep death a quick thing and don’t make a big deal about it, or games like Persona or Megaman that are simply difficult. They are nothing short of challenging, and despite the difficulty I rarely find myself frustrated when playing them. Dying a lot, for example, does not have to be a source of frustration, especially when handled correctly. Demon’s Souls is a great example of this. Death is so frequent it is actually part of the narrative and, more importantly, it is quick. There is no long game over upon death. The character simply falls over and respawns at the beginning of the level. All you lose are your “souls,” the sort of all-purpose currency/experience you have on hand, and you can always go back to where you died and recollect them.

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El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Demo is as Awesome as its Title is Long

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is an action platformer whose visuals are reminiscent of Okami and whose gameplay is reminiscent of Devil May Cry. This is not surprising considering Sawaki Takeyasu, the art director for both, is the mastermind behind El Shaddai.

According to the official site, the main character, Enoch, is a scribe from heaven trying to prevent a great flood by capturing renegade, probably corrupted angels. Enoch narrates a bit to himself at the beginning, but the rest of the dialog of the demo is taken by an archangel named Lucifel (Lucifer), who speaks on the phone as you pass and is not afraid to break the fourth wall to introduce a boss to you (though you do not get to fight the boss in the demo). It is a rather Clover/Platinum Games-esque narrative, and considering their track record, I am one-hundred percent okay with this.

One can tell from the first playable moment that this game is some kind of art—the whole world looks like a negative, with black surrounding and a white protagonist surrounded by trees made of flame-like clouds or cloud-like flame. Take a few steps forward and a drawn face floats across the screen accompanied by a laughing voice. The world shifts and changes around the character and it never gets boring just to look at. I found myself wanting to rush forward just to see how the environment would shift or just to see what the next screen looked like, since despite the dark silhouette motif everything remains interesting to look at. The demo goes back and forth between 3D eight-way movement and 2D side-scrolling. Platforming exists in both, but the 3D scenes tend to be more combat-focused while the 2D were entirely jumping and moving. It is the side-scrolling segments in which the environment changes the most drastically, in some cases having swirling, wave-like clouds rise from the bottom of the screen to act as solid ground for platforming. It is nothing short of cool to look at, and makes the simple task of walking forward something more than just a way to get from one in-game event to the next. Few times during the demo did I find myself staring at a static world—there is almost always some kind of movement.

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Why Fight When You Can Run?

It is an idea that most games discourage, to say the least. Combat, hitting things, shooting things, cutting things, breaking things, slaying monsters, just fighting seems to be the big focus of most of the more well known, popular games on the market. I am not going to say “it is a bad message” or “it gives games a bad name” or any of that nonsense, because frankly doing something like cutting down massive monsters with even bigger weapons is nothing short of satisfying. The point is that fighting is the focus of too many games, so much so that even most commercially available game engines are pre-built to handle some kind of combat, and the mass media has developed the stereotype that games are inherently violent. It is a pity, really since there are so many great games I would rather play about making things or blooming flowers or running and jumping.

mirror's edge town

Best start running

I recently got my hands on a copy of Mirror’s Edge, and while not a perfect game to be sure, I found I thoroughly enjoyed it. Its name is pretty well known nowadays, but for those unacquainted with it, Mirror’s Edge is a game about running, or rather moving without stopping. While there is combat, within which you are able to take guns out of enemy hands and go FPS, the game itself discourages it. For one, it is not easy for an unarmed person to approach a group of armed gunmen and take a weapon without taking a few bullets, but more than that stopping to fight breaks your momentum. Perhaps it is because the combat is imperfect, to put it lightly, but regardless of the reason, in a game about momentum slowing down is the last thing you want to do.

It is for just this reason that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Combat exists, but in most of the game, all modes included, it is almost entirely avoidable and unnecessary. In fact, the enemies are more obstacles to your momentum than targets to eliminate. There was something refreshing about playing a game that just wants players to run. Outside of the combat bits in story mode, there is no tension from fear of death, just the desire to go keep moving and never slow down, looking for anything in the surroundings that can be used to move the next rooftop. While players do not one-man-army a swarm of baddies or topple a foe twenty times their own size, doing something like, say, running up a wall to jump across a chasm between two buildings and sprinting through, above, and below a maze of obstacles all ending with a wall-run to a zipline is just as satisfying–some of the more absurd times can be easily found on youtube and are beyond believable.  It is reminiscent of older times before plots gained complexity and graphics started mattering as much as they do now, when all you had was a goal as simple and pure as “get here and do it really fast.” No, it is not the first game with such a premise, but despite its shortcomings Mirror’s Edge is a great momentum game.

sonic screenshot

The original fast runner

In more recent times, less combat-oriented games are not as infrequent or doomed to obscurity as they used to be. If anything I can think of more games that I have played in the last week without combat than with, but when it came out Mirror’s Edge got a lot of attention because it is the first first-person parkour game, and a genuine first is a beautiful sight. I could have used Minecraft or Don’t Take it Personally or something even more detached from combat, but the inclusion and discouragement from combat in the game is one of the main things that inspired this little string of thought.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn – Review

Kirby's Epic Yarn box art

not epic, but still cute

Developers: Feel-Good and Hal Laboratories

Publisher: Nintendo

Director: Kentaro Sei

Platform: Nintendo Wii

Perhaps “epic” is not the adjective I would use to describe Kirby’s new patchwork tale. “Clever” is the first thing that comes to mind, though I suppose “Kirby’s Clever Yarn” does not quite have the same impact. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is, despite being another puzzley side-scrolling platformer starring our inflatable pink friend, is innovative enough to avoid being just another Kirby game.

Epic Yarn‘s textile aesthetic is the first thing anyone will notice. It is, frankly beautiful, with anything and everything being made of stitched-down cloth, loose thread, yarn, buttons, zippers, anything one might find on their clothes. It is colorful and bright and does it without being gaudy, which is a nice break from all the brown and grey “realism” so popular these days. Of course, the idea of a textile-themed platformer brings Little Big Planet to mind, but playing the game I never once found myself comparing the two. Kirby is much brighter and more animated looking. Instead of having the world look like an actual construction of random objects and cloth, Kirby does not try to look at all realistic. It looks more like, well, a game. Also unlike Little Big Planet, Kirby’‘s textile look is not just a look—it is the whole game. Instead of Kirby’s trademark inhale-eat-transform trick, he tosses out a loose piece of his own yarn body and winds his yarn foes up with it. Instead of transforming for powers he can transform at will by warping his outline into things like a small car, a parachute, and submarine, among other things. He can even unwind himself to fit through narrow crevasses.

Kirby's Epic Yarn boss screenshot

if you couldn't tell, it's a squid with a knit hat texture on his head

It’s not just Kirby, either—the levels also embrace the cloth theme. Instead of filling levels with swarms of enemies to avoid, the world is filled with little platforming puzzles based around unwinding things, swinging from buttons, undoing zippers, pulling loose thread, you get the picture. Of course, being a Kirby game there are still transformation puzzles like drifting on air currents as a parachute, but they are the clear minority and even they rely on yarn transformations. As mentioned before, the fabric visual style is more than just the graphics and visuals, they are the entire game. It is great integration of graphics and gameplay, which is for some reason absent in too many titles. There is not much in the way of plot, but even that is all about the game’s theme. An evil yarn-made wizard is turning everything into yarn and cloth, and at the end of each level Kirby is awarded a piece of magic yarn that is literally the thread that holds the fabric of the world together. The cinematics are little more than an excuse to make sewing puns, though Kirby games have never exactly been plot-heavy, so we can excuse that. It does not really even need it to push you along—I was interested enough in just seeing what the next level would look like, for throughout the game there is not a single stage theme that gets repeated. Every level is noticeably unique, which another thing done right on the design front.

Though the sewing motif lends the game its unique feel, the lack of real challenge strips the mechanics of their depth. There is literally nothing standing between the player and success. You cannot lose in Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Once you start a level, the only way to fail is to give up, and this is unlikely considering they are not all that difficult to get through. The only penalty for “taking damage” or falling in a hole is loss of beads, which are collected throughout the level for a grade of either nothing, bronze, silver, or gold. It is almost instinctive to aim for a gold even knowing there is no punishment for not getting it, but even that is not too difficult, for whenever beads are lost they can be reclaimed again unless they fall into a hole or disappear after about thirty seconds. The removal of lives is interesting and a little appreciated, but without a way to fail they might as well stay. If levels could be failed based on score, so only gold or silver medals would advance, Yarn would be a much better game—still pretty easy, but at least there would be incentive beyond that which the player creates. Kirby has always been aimed at younger audiences, who I am sure find no objection to an easier difficulty, but it will ruin the game for most players.

The no-fail aspect of Kirby’s Epic Yarn is reminiscent of many art games, actually, where players are practically carted through to see everything in between. It makes me think a little of Limbo, since in both Kirby and Limbo the player is pushed to the right, stopped almost exclusively by puzzles (seeing as you have no health to lose in Kirby, enemies are usually little more than puzzles or the answers to puzzles themselves) and advancing by solving them.

Kirby's Epic Yarn multiplayer screenshot

The other guy's up top

There is also a two-player mode, much like a few older Kirby titles, wherein player two plays as the scowling, blue, crowned Prince Fluff, who shares Kirby’s shape and yarn powers. There were segments within the game that I was glad to have a partner to get or give a boost to where I could not easily find a way onto a platform with some beads or a collectible on it. On the other hand, there were some parts, usually more platform-ey bits, where we would find ourselves trying to be in the same place at the same time so as not to drag the camera behind and make advancing difficult for whoever decided to go first, which almost always ended with both players falling to their doom. It is much better than, say,New Super Mario Bros. Wii where you can footstool each other and have no real way of aiding one another at all. Players can pick each other up, but it is easy to escape and this mechanic proved to be quite helpful after we had beaten all of the enemies in an area and only after the fact found that we needed a projectile to break a certain type of block. The players can also stand on each other without interfering with each other, allowing two players to double their total jump distance. Players can also teleport to their partner at will, which allows for some useful cooperation.

Overall, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a charming game. It is not great—it leaves no lasting impression, it does not take much effort to get through it, and it won’t last all that long, but it is cute and pretty and I would not go so far as to call it a bad game. It is a game for Kirby fans, or a nice pick-me-up, or an easy transition for new gamers, but not something I would recommend to most players.