Monthly Archives: July 2011

Puzzle Agent 2

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

True episodic content operates on a simple concept: having a reliable core that can be systemically updated with new content for every new release. In Sam & Max’s case this was a point-and-click world that could easily be stuffed with new objects and locations, similarly for Monkey Island, and as for Half-Life… oh, yes, forget that example. The point is, between releases, it’s the code that stays the same and it’s the artists and designers that do most of the work. As it should be.

Puzzle Agent 2 seems to have taken that philosophy a little too much to heart. Whereas the narrative and art direction remain its strong suit, the quality of the catalogue of puzzles has taken a distinct step backwards. Although there was a certain amount of repetition of concept in Agent Tether’s first outing, it was only notable in the manner that with each repeat visit the challenge became steeper. In our return to Scoggins there is no such air.

Favourites such as chronologically arranging photos, bouncing Tether’s (or derivatives) around a map, and resource splitting all return in abundance. In themselves, none should be considered as being bad puzzles; they simply outstay their welcome primarily because of a lack of variety and evolution from their basic premise. By the end it felt as though none of the puzzles could surprise you, so heavily reliant as they were on certain types, which is a disappointment considering the comparative variety seen here before.

When Telltale does strike out into more traditional number or logic puzzles, they generally prove successful. The way they are dressed up cannot disguise the lack of pizzazz that accompanies such things and many will have you reaching for the hint button, but there’s a purity to them that many of the templated puzzles lack.

Stringing these conundrums together we find a plot that continues to embrace the spirit of both Twin Peaks and the X-Files. Unhappy at the resolution of his previous trip to Scoggins, Minnesota, Agent Tethers returns to the snowbound town in an effort to tie up some loose ends, seek out missing friends, and crack the secrecy over the Hidden People.

Though having played the previous Puzzle Agent is not a prerequisite, enough familiar faces return and old twists are mentioned so as to possibly alienate those unfamiliar with Tether’s prior case. Most of the town’s locations are revisited but an equal number of new neighbourhoods do open up so as not to make it feel like an exercise in asset recycling. Residing within the new districts are some of the more notable of the town’s residents, including sassy foreign puzzlers and eminent researchers, adding a touch of glamour to the otherwise archetypal townsfolk.

With each location and character, the animation style continues to bring the adventure to life in a manner that PA’s stable-mates may have lacked. Graham Annable’s newspaper-strip, raw pencil edges combined with the range of outlandish expressions that can only be achieved with sprites give greater edge to the cinematic direction. Be it the guilty expressions playing over the local hotelier’s face, or the creeping horror overtaking our chief protagonist, the subtleties and the overall effect would probably not have had the same impact if rendered in a more polygonal fashion.

The tale itself continues on apace, letting go of the handbrake on occasion to allow the writer a dip into the absurd. Despite a natural progression, the contrast from what unfolded previously is one that I can see splitting opinion. Themes are ever more reminiscent of an X-Files episode out of control but still the reins are held tightly so as not to stray too far into madness.

With such a turn the question is surely going to be asked: where will Tethers go from here? Once again the case could be considered wrapped up, although as with all good shows there’s definitely wriggle room for a sequel.

Should that happen, however, it’s clear that Scoggins is in need of rejuvenation. The stage and players may be ripe for mystery, given the dark forests and secretive community, but that aspect mostly carried Puzzle Agent this time around. If the quality levels were to continue their decline then it is doubtful whether screenplay alone will be seen as enough for number three.

It’s not uncommon for episodic gaming to take a dip in the second outing, as designers find their feet with what can and can’t be achieved, and feelers are sent out in order to find out just what the public wants from further iterations. The positive is that concerns can always be righted quickly, with the following episode already under construction and straining for a release date.

In Puzzle Agent’s case, the lessons are simple: carry on with narrative core, but next time pack in a far greater broader range of brainteasers.

6 /10

Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

What have Orks done to deserve such bad press? They are to sci-fi and fantasy what un-named Russian states are to politically-edged shooters. So they may be tinged with homicidal mania and talk with all the eloquence and proficiency of a teenager texting, but live and let live.

The Imperium, however, does not agree. With a vast Ork Kroozer en-route to one of the Emperor’s Forge Worlds, such leniency will not be considered and an elite squad has been dispatched to intercept and neutralise the threat. They are humanities finest; genetically modified super soldiers that know no fear and defend mankind. They are the original Space Marines.

Within five minutes controlling one of these warriors, they feel like the pinnacle of human combat, too. Wave after wave of Orks will crash upon their armour, only to be beaten back with blade and bolter. Rockets will explode in the centre of hordes, spinning chainswords will cut through foes and all will fall in the name of the Emperor.

For such a futuristic feel, with large numbers of particle effects and bodies filling up the screen, Kill Team does have a very classic feel. The simple controls – left stick moving, right stick shooting – puts me in mind of Geometry Wars, or even a fresh take on Gauntlet. An unabashed dungeon crawler that has no pretences of being anything more than a platforms for power-ups and high scores. And just like that classic, four character classes offer different ways of feeling like a demi-god. A mix of firepower, brutal melee skills and psychic mastery all offer different approaches to totting up six-figure scores.

Throw in a friend for co-op and the feeling of invulnerability increases. Gone are the tricky situations of balancing trigger switches and protecting your backside, for there is enough might in two marines to smite most enemies without even flinching.

Missions will lead you through power plants, armouries and many dirty nooks in between. Though those with knowledge of the 40k universe will garner most from the innards of the Kroozer, newcomers should also be able to appreciate the character that covers every surface. Known for their talent of repurposing materials, Ork gangways are no more than shonky, cobbled together scaffolds; machinery whirrs with the appearance that only sheer stubbornness is holding it together; and trophies of valour and stolen goods adorn the corridors. It’s in stark contrast to the cold, methodical nature of the Marines.

The Ork units are similarly larger than life, with codex entries from the pintsized Gretchin to hulking Nobz, close combat Stormboyz through to psychic Wierdboyz, all putting in an appearance. Their variety however is mostly left underappreciated as genocide is carried out on such a large scale that only your bolstered kill-streak may notice their fleeting existence.

Almost aware of this, there are small sections of your trek where the camera relishes pulling in tightly to show you the destruction wrought upon the Greenskins. Whilst the repurposed Dawn of War engine handles its close-ups manfully, it does sacrifice the ability to aim reliably in order to do so. Strange camera locations introduce blindspots that are wilfully exploited, and accurate targeting turns into suppression fire, such is the unintuitive angle.

These sudden shifts often lead to failure, highlighting further issues with checkpoints and respawning: the former are too few whilst the latter often takes place directly after an unskippable cutscene. It’s easy enough to accept death when the screen is full with those wishing me dead yet jumping straight back into the fray, but at one notable point a 30-second boss introduction preceded my inevitable passing. After five repetitions in quick succession, the delay was as much an annoyance as my continual failure. Nevertheless, these niggles are infrequent enough not to blight Kill Team.

Though only five levels long (about 3 hours), it is extremely well judged. THQ Warrington (as were) crafted their final project to be a twist on the twin-stick-shooter that was not only instantly accessible but which had an experience that built to a climax only the stoniest of souls would find disappointing. It is also brave enough not to outstay its welcome, refusing to pad out the campaign for the mere sake of it and leaving each section as a well nudged nugget of carnage ripe for replay.

But let’s not leave without considering the Orks. Without them this would be another bland, cookie-cutter, corridor shooter set in space. Their willingness to embrace the absurd is what keeps your missions varied and colourful. Consider that next time you brandish a bolter at one.

7 /10

Alice: Madness Returns | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

What draws you towards a game? Is it word of mouth, stirred by those around you? Is it a follow-up to an old favourite, reimagined and rejuvenated? Or possibly a cheeky marketing campaign that means you can resist no longer?

But what about the look? Not in terms of polygon pushing or uncanny valleys, but wrapping itself up so tightly in a style that you are compelled to see what lies around each and every corner, no matter the game itself.

Alice: Madness Returns did that to me. Early screenshots depicted dank Victorian streets, brightly coloured Wonderlands and the ruin which Alice’s mind had since wrought upon them. They were packed with detail and subtleties that drew my eye, and the final product’s artistic direction easily meets my expectations.

The London street you initially wander through does the Unreal Engine on which it runs proud. Not a drop of colour can be seen, with dirt and squalor positively exuding from the screen. Citizens chatter as you pass, road workers replace cobbles and streetwalkers ply their trade. It’s a bustling recreation of yesteryear with smoky chimneys filling the skyline for as far as the eye can see.

As you pass into Wonderland for first time, the contrast could not be more striking, as bright greens and blues replace the sober palette as plant life towers above you. Though what captivates the vision most are the hosts of extra features that make it more than any other rendered forests you may have seen. Giant snails peer through the foliage, waving their eyestalks as you pass; autumnal glades are visible through the trunks of trees; and towering stone statues of Alice herself cry into being distant streams. In amongst the dominos and marbles that clutter her mind, the local fauna even plays a part with cowbirds and insects filling the air.

It’s a visual treat that continues throughout your exploration of Wonderland. Taking in the industrial floating teapot industries that are the domain of the Hatter, through to the rather literal interpretation of the Queen of Hearts, each region allows the artists new scope to pack the surroundings with treats.

Part of the spectacle comes from the floating nature of the land, made up of countless islands apparently quite content to hang in space. With the world stretching out not only in front but underneath you, the sense of scale is vast and does call in to question whether Alice has permanently succumbed to the “Drink Me” bottle.

These platforms also handily help form half of game’s main compulsion. Being a nimble girl, Alice catapults off spring-loaded toadstools and slowly glides down, using her skirt as a makeshift parachute, allowing her to cross wide gaps and scale heights normally beyond the capacity of someone dressed in a blue pinny.

Although a simple trick, her ability to float such distances always left that margin for error that caused even the most simple of traversals could end horribly. Indeed, even without consideration for floating islands, including the large gushing vents offering columns of steam to ride on and precarious moving bridges, most of your time is spent centimetres from a very large drop.

Though not unenjoyable, the repetitive nature of the platforming is its downfall. Most elements are introduced exceedingly early, leading to weariness several hours in. Long sections of unchallenging floating and bouncing seems injected for nothing more than padding to expand the game’s duration. At times neither challenge, variety nor enthusiasm met me, leading to only the hope of spying something incredible around the corner to push me on.

Combat does go some way to break up the monotony as Wonderland turns against its creator. From small, disturbing creatures covered in dolls heads, to zombie playing cards and samurai wasps, your opponents are as varied as they levels they inhabit. Armed with a mix of ranged and close-combat weaponry, tussles can be what you want to make of them, although each enemy tends to have its own pattern and weakness to exploit.

Continuing the artist merit, even Alice’s dodge sees her evaporate into a cloud of butterflies before reforming a safe distance away. Using this move to dash towards and slice a giant doll with your Vorpal blade, before dodging her hammer blow only to shell her with a mortar made from the finest Darjeeling, adds a certain amount of elegance to the brutality.

Battles are no picnic, and so frustratingly the aspect that has the greatest habit of turning the tide against you is the camera. Locking on to focus on a single enemy is a common feature but here the focal point is far too close, and the insistence on creating a dramatic one-on-one view over any semblance of peripheral vision sees you at greater risk of being picked off by secondary concerns rather than your main target.

Though certain aspects of design show signs of being out of touch with current ideals of gaming, Alice’s ability to shrink at will offers the game a level of redemption. Whilst tiny she can she platforms that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye and Wonderland graffiti offering pointers to the numerous collectibles scattered throughout the land.

Mixing the standard sections with these hidden pink walkways adds a degree of variety and challenge that isn’t touched upon until the closing stages. Certainly, they and the stylings of the final level bring Madness Returns back from what had been several hours of tedium. That midpoint is punctuated with a series of 2D platforming, rhythm action and bizarre Marble Madness tributes, but their inclusion is almost baffling at times and most outstay their welcome. The injection of such mismatched distractions is apparent proof alone that Spicy Horse knew that the core platforming element was repetitive and derivative and yet wanted any way to break that experience up.

The simple solution would have not being so intent on creating such a lengthy game. With chapters taking almost three hours to complete, their ideas become stale. In shorter bursts I have no doubt that my apathy towards navigating yet another set of floating islands via steam pipes wouldn’t have surfaced so readily. The shame of all this is that, as hinted, the final couple of chapters are among the best but are so far in that they will be lost to most.

And so we come do a verdict of, for the most part, style over substance. As talented as the art department may have been in producing some elegant cinematics and the most wondrous settings for an adventure that has graced my television, they have been let down by a game director that lacked pacing.

6 /10

Puzzle Agent | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Let’s get his name out of the way quickly. Whenever puzzle games surface in conversation, the elephant in the room is Professor Layton. The ever-so-English academic brought a hither too unexplored type of adventure to the masses. Since his arrival Blue Toad Murder Files and others have trodden similar paths, though none have toppled his top hat as the benchmark, most lacking the charm, depth and variety.

Step forward Agent Nelson Tethers, an employee of the FBI’s Department of Puzzle Research. If there’s a man out there who can put that DS-residing toff through his paces, it’s him.

Drawn to the snowy Minnesota town of Scoggins, this lawman finds a community obsessed with puzzles, drawn to secret societies, and still tied to their Nordic roots. In amongst it all Tethers must investigate why the President’s eraser factory has been taken out of commission; a man of such seniority cannot be seen with Tipp-ex.

Moving around the town you’ll meet the locals, from worried wives to shirty sheriffs, all with a tale to tell about the factory. More often than not they’ll also offer up a brainteaser too, loosely based on the topic of conversation. Some links may be tenuous – one sudden shift in conversation saw the topic of bird couriers appear from nowhere – though they generally stay within sensible boundaries.

The variety of teasers posed to Tethers is broad indeed. Although all essentially logical, path finding, picture recognition, wordplay and some number crunching will all get you scratching your head. The majority are of an impressive standard, both in terms of pitching and their general composition. A handful of puzzles do recur, but not so much as to appear to be there purely for padding. With each occurrence they push you that little further, taking their basic concept and slowly ratcheting up the difficulty.

Only very rarely does the phrasing of a puzzle become an issue, but even then a quick hint can easily clear up confusion. Indeed, with the majority of the puzzles the clarity of the task at hand is exceptionally clear; the problems lie elsewhere.

Navigating with the PS3 controller is clunky to say the least. The premise of holding down a shoulder button to bring up selectable options and menus is a sensible one, leaving the screen uncluttered. Actually selecting items in puzzles and on maps however is a minefield; unintuitively, any item selected goes mildly transparent, something that isn’t always noticeable on certain backgrounds. Cycling through multiple objects, especially those arranged in anything but a grid formation, is similarly irksome. One can only assume the PC and iPad versions suffer far less from these problems.

Although worth noting, navigation is not going to condemn Puzzle Agent. The leverage it has over its rivals comes not from the UI but from the cinematic edge that it is presented in. Alongside the humour, there is a darker side promoting suspense and intrigue, as if it were a full-blown cable TV movie. With dramatic cutscenes, tension building music and a plot that could pass for an X-Files script, Telltale have done a superb job of creating a story that you actually want to see through to the end. Quite a change from most puzzleathons who think any old tosh can be used to segue the brain teasers.

In part this comes from cartoonist Graham Annable, whose creative direction has brought about such a unique style. Each character brims with personality, and seeing the changing emotions play across our Agent’s face as he moves between rock and hard-place is wonderful. With an aesthetic mixed between newspaper strip and Looney Tunes of the 50s, the pencil lined art could have come straight from his sketch pad whilst his occasionally twisted sense of humour sits well within Telltale’s catalogue.

I’d like to bring the pachyderm back in for one final mention. Puzzle Agent has something that Layton sorely lacks, and that’s edge. Not in a swearing or violence sort of way, but in presenting an episode that is as much drama and intrigue as it is game. Riddles and story will draw you on. Not to mention The Hidden People.

8 /10