Tag Archives: Video Game Reviews

Dmytry and Alexey Lavrov – The Polynomial: Space of the Music

Remember that old iTunes visualizer that blew us all out of the water, all those years ago? How you could fire up your own music, hit command-T and watch those undulating shapes bend and pulse in time to your music? It ruled. Didn’t you ever imagine flying a ship through those exploding waves, spinning and diving through fractals as you hunt down ‘Nazi Robot’ Pacman-looking things? Okay, now imagine how long you could play a game like that for, and how much herbal supplement might play into the enjoyment of that experience. There: you’ve gone and written your own mental review to The Polynomial.

Yes, they really are called “Nazi robots” in-game (neon Pacmen, for all intents and purposes), and along with friendly speed-boosting Ghosts (jellyfish you can shoot or eat) and aliens, they comprise the entire cast of The Polynomial. There are powerups to augment your ship’s performance temporarily, as well as various landscape features to hide within or fly into to switch levels. There are 39 slightly-different space-scapes to pilot your first-person craft through, each of which is just as psychedelic and vast and empty as the last. There are numerous difficulty levels, ramping up to the game’s recommended ‘Insane’ mode, in which you’ll face near-instant death at the hands of your pulsating companions and their laser guns… And that’s it. That’s the entirety of whatever might pass for a campaign in The Polynomial: the pursuit of two different types of enemies, over 39 functionally-identical maps, set to an electronic soundtrack, with a minimal amount of interactive elements, and absolutely zero context. Sound like that visualizer-game we were talking about?

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, you’re right: at heart, The Polynomial isn’t about the action or the exploration. It’s very loosely concerned even about the scores it constantly tracks, and at its core it has very little to do with interaction at all. The Polynomial is about the music – yours, specifically, piped into any level and in any playlist order you please. Set to your favourite jams, it takes on a whole new life: the fractal galaxies blossom and pulse in time to the rhythm of tracks, the absolutely gorgeous 3D visuals explode with psychedelic colours and shapes, all of them available to meticulously calibrate in the extensive visual-options menu. You’ll begin to wish the enemies, unaffected by your musical choice, would just go away so that you can float and spin in peace – thankfully, there’s an option for that. When it clicks, The Polynomial takes on an ethereal, dreamlike quality. On my first play – set to “The Music Scene” by Blockhead – I was completely drawn in and disoriented and amazed; at it’s best, The Polynomial is an experience like few others, profiting from its general sense of plotlessness and spatial ambiguity to hypnotize and immerse the player.

There isn’t a whole lot of game here, it’s true. The Polynomial is at best an interactive musical toy and at worst an empty tech-demo. Your mileage with this novelty is going to vary wildly: there’s no incentive for high scores, no multiplayer and no sense of progression at all. Perhaps, like me, you’ll play this game for about half an hour, think “well that was neat”, and move on, returning to it whenever you find a particularly immersive electronic track you want to try out on the visualizer. Perhaps it’ll become a nightly ritual, a trance-inducing mind-hack for when you need to come down after a hard day of work, or for when your intoxicated friends need something to gaze into for a little while. The Polynomial sets out to do one very specific thing, and does it well, relegating everything else (like gameplay) to afterthought status. Essentially, it’s a very neat screen-saver, and whether or not it’s going to appeal to you is going to be determined largely by whether or not you’re big into majorly-psychedelic and ambient visual toys. Approached from the right angle, The Polynomial can be a very beautiful experience – just don’t expect any depth. ‘Try before you buy’ is the maxim of the day – thankfully, there’s a Steam demo available.

5.5

Full disclosure: I grabbed it on today’s Steam promotion for $2.50, and it’s compatible with a Gift-Pile achievement. That’s about the right price (normally an optimistic $10). I don’t often play The Polynomial, but when I do, I prefer The Unseen

Originally published right here, December 2011. 


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Studio Pixel & Nicalis – Cave Story+

Where do I even start with Cave Story? First and foremost, it’s an indie, freeware classic: available completely for free on the net since 2004 (be sure to grab the English language patch!), it’s an acknowledged masterpiece, the cult freeware adventure game to end all cult freeware adventure games. It’s almost ludicrous to imagine Pixel AKA Daisuke Amaya programming it over the course of five years, making the music, writing the story, and then choosing to release it for free. To any artist or aspiring game-designer, it’s an absurdly humbling work, deftly weaving its 8-bit blip-and-bleep soundtrack and minimalist pixellated artwork into one of the finest Metroidvania-style (gamer lingo for side-scrolling adventure/shooter) games you’ll ever play. Of course, that’s the freeware version, still available online, still very retro-charming and very non-HD in its soundtrack and visuals. That is, until indie-game developer Nicalis stepped up back in November (September for Macs!), re-releasing Cave Story to the PC crowd as Cave Story+, and giving it the comprehensive-overhaul collectors’ edition it always deserved.

At heart, Cave Story+ is a deeply traditional game. With every step it’s an homage to great adventure games past: Metroid’s heart containers and missiles make their appearances, the bosses are thoroughly Castlevania in their difficulty and scope, the sense of humour is utterly Japanese Gaming (as are the lovingly detailed sprites), you’ll even detect a hint of Mega Man in its more intense platforming sections. Where it breaks away from tradition is in its style: Cave Story+ is a curiously adult game with a surprisingly mature story that begins innocuously enough (amnesia!), and by its end achieves a level of metaphorical integrity and thematic density that many art-house games are still struggling to match. Humour is pervasive and quirky, but characters die, and once dead they stay that way. Balrog is adorable (and modeled after a bar of soap), but morally ambiguous. King is technically on your side, but protective and vengeful to the point of distraction. Murder happens. What begins as a very conventional critter-blaster eventually blossoms into something thought-provoking and dark, especially if you happen across one of the bad endings (of four branching endings total).

Gameplay-wise, if you love side-scrolling shooters and adventure games, you’ll more or less be in platform-gunner heaven. Controls handle well, standard 4-directional jumping and shooting applies, with a glut of different weapons (upgrade-able with experience pickups) and tools (entirely secret, you’ll get no spoilers here). Platforming and gunning sections gradually ramp up in difficulty, and with effectively no on-screen instructions at all you’ll soon be plugging enemies and jumping spike-pits with ease.. at least until you hit one of the supremely challenging later bosses. There are secrets and bonus areas and difficulty sliders, and, in Cave Story+, even bonus modes of play. Taking all of these (and the various endings they funnel you towards) into account, it’s entirely likely you’ll find yourself replaying the lengthy campaign repeatedly, later surfing the wiki only to find you’ve overlooked like a quarter of the game.

In terms of the Nicalis rerelease, what changes have been made are mechanically minimal and aesthetically tasteful. Thanks to a graphical overhaul the game now looks much sharper, while retaining the original’s charm and general bizarreness (someone’s gone and filmed a great comparison). The soundtrack has been updated as well, and is available in its entirely through the Humble Bundle download I’ll be providing below; it’s absolutely fantastic stuff, evocative and minimalist when it needs to be, jumpy and exciting when appropriate, but all the while reinforcing Cave Story’s intentional air of mystery and stylistic oddity. It works really, really well, and I’m more than happy to have it loaded into my music player, though dedicated cult fans might find it a little too ‘softened’. However, in a nod to these traditionalists – and Pixel’s freeware intentions – the entirety of Cave Story’s original soundtrack and graphics skin is only an options-menu away. Like the new Halo: Combat Evolved rerelease, longtime fans and newcomers can flip between the two, appreciating the game however they choose and co-existing in peace (though the remix really is quite effective). Mechanically, the gameplay and level-design is identical to the original save for the unlockable post-game bonus levels, designed by Pixel/Amaya himself (which again negates complaint). In releasing Cave Story+, Nicalis has provided Cave Story the opportunity for mass-exposure it’s always deserved, while tweaking its aesthetic appeal – clearly in line with Pixel’s original intentions – to draw in an even wider cult audience. A benchmark for tasteful remakes, Nicalis leaves very, very little to complain about.

As a student of the arts, I love Cave Story+’s weirdness, its vague puzzle of a storyline, the metaphorical power of its characters and branching storylines, the painstaking effort that’s been put into its graphics and sound-production. At times lonely, at times unforgiving on its ‘Normal’ difficulty (another nod to Mega Man, no doubt), for many it may prove altogether too weird and bleak to complete – and of course, for me, these count among its greatest virtues. Two more very pure gaming experiences, Cave Story and Cave Story+ are indie classics, and deserve the attention of every platforming aficionado. Indie game of the year? Very likely.

Go shoot some bats, Quote.

9.5

Part three of my series on Humble Indie Bundle #4, available here until about the 27th of December, 2011. Now featuring 12 whole games (and their soundtracks!) if you beat the currently $5.16 average, 5 great games and OSTs if you pay anywhere over a buck. You can’t go wrong here. Money goes to charity, games go to your Mac, PC or Linux machine. 

Note: All screenshots taken by me, using the enhanced graphics exclusive to Cave Story+. 

… bonus Balrog.

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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Final Form Games – Jamestown

Remember Jamestown, the first permanent Colonial settlement in the New World, the one that succeeded where Roanoke mysteriously failed? Turns out Roanoke was destroyed by a giant cyclopian plant-monster. Jamestown succeeded because men in zooming steampunk ships blew up enough tentacle aliens and aggressive Spaniards to ward off the intruders, dodging bullet-hellish laser arrays and picking up floating ducats all the way through. Sometimes they teamed up in groups of up to four with different ships, dying a whole lot because they were poor pilots and had been drinking beer. Mars can be such a cruel place.

Since I hail from the great white frozen north, my American history is a bit shaky, to say the least. I don’t know a thing about Jamestown, Virginia or the mysterious disappearance of Roanoke, which in turn makes Jamestown’s Colonial fanfic that much more intriguing; its skeletal storyline is historically reverential, but its gameplay pays homage to Cave Co. shoot-’em-ups (“shmups”) and bullet-hell fliers just as much as it owes its alt-history storyline to every cheesy Space-Opera you’ve ever secretly loved. Final Form Games’s shooter is epic stuff: as Walter Raleigh, escapee to the New World (literally, Mars), you find yourself in the new colony of Jamestown, seeking to prove your merit to your King and absolve the charges of murder brought against you. What follows is pure action, a Neo-Colonial fanfic for the ages, leading you from the steampunk Spaniard frontlines all the way into the Lovecraftian heart of Mars itself.

None of this ambitious setup would matter if it didn’t play like a dream: selecting from one of four unlockable ships (bought with ducats, from the “shoppe”), up to four players can collaborate on local multiplayer, flying their steampunk-y ships with keyboards, mice, and as many gamepads as you can cram into your PC (or Mac!). Keyboard control is my personal favourite as Jamestown’s overwhelming bullet-arrays frequently call for precise movement, but the mouse option is certainly appealing, and I can only imagine that play with a gamepad would be nearly sublime. In classic top-down-shooter style you’ll spend the whole game progressing upwards, firing each craft’s signature special weapon while dodging enemies and gathering ducats to activate your score and shield-multiplying “Vaunt” mode. You might even manage to figure out the proper order of destruction that causes each(!) enemy in the game to drop its ‘Special’ bonus points, a trick I still haven’t been able to riddle out for the good majority of Martians and Spaniards. Jamestown is a top-down shooter in the classic shmup tradition: it’s got screen-filling bosses, multiplayer action and more than enough difficulty levels (from Beginner to Divine) to ease anyone into the action – even though the endgame’s minimum difficulty ramps up to (hard-mode) Legendary, making the final level a true bullet-riddled challenge.

Speaking of classic traditions, Jamestown’s soundtrack is easily worth the asking price (usually $10). An epic symphonic arrangement of synthesizers and perfectly Sci-Fi blips and bleeps, at its best Francisco Cerda’s music evokes Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s legendary work, while installing a pumping, electronic style all its own. The OST perfectly complements the graphics, which will have 16-bit fetishists (you’re reading one now) cheering with glee whenever the beautifully-detailed backgrounds evoke Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy. As a shoot-’em-up, each level is on rails, meaning the music has the opportunity to shift dynamically with the appearance of bosses, the entrance into tunnels and chasms and, of course, your multitude deaths. This musical accompaniment is fantastic and compliments the action perfectly. In terms of sheer presentation, Jamestown is an A+, no doubt – it sells itself so well that I was on the verge of impulse-buying it even before it appeared in this month’s Humble Indie Bundle (close one!).

Jamestown is hands-down my favourite recent shoot-’em-up, and one of the best indie games of the year, but like all shmups  there are limitations (yes, it’s a word). For one, Jamestown is a short thrill-ride: if you’re playing on Legendary mode (as experienced players will want to), you’ll be through the story in a clean hour and a half or so. I’m no pro, so it took me about four hours, including liberal level-replays to farm ducats for unlockables (of which there are new ships, bonus levels and an alternate, farcical story mode). The multiplayer component of Jamestown is clearly designed to encourage players into the same room as one another, for that additional excitement-factor, but it’s certainly a game that would profit enormously from online play. Jamestown’s shortness is mitigated by its density, including Farce story mode, Gauntlet, Hardcore mode and multiplayer – for many, simply the pursuit of online high-score boards will last them for weeks to come. There’s also the Gunpowder, Treason and Plot DLC ($3) to extend your playtime, which I fully intend to purchase down the line. All in all, Jamestown’s weaknesses are few: if you love shmups, and you don’t mind the brevity of the campaign narrative, there’s a lot to love here, and a whole lot of difficulty levels (and nigh-impossible bonus challenge levels) to chew on.

Jamestown is one of those games whose gameplay is such an arcadey joy to play, and whose presentation (both musically and visually) is so vibrant and pitch-perfect, that I know I’ll be coming back to it for midnight play-sessions for months to come. It’s a blast, it’s hilarious, and it threatens to teach you a bit of American history. I love Jamestown, I think you will too. Grab some friends and shoot some martian squids, it’s ten dollars very well-spent.

9.0

Part 2 of my series on Humble Indie Bundle #4, available here until about a day after Christmas. Re-route that ten bucks to charity, or pay whatever other amount you want for five great games and their soundtracks, DRM-free. Beat the average (about $6) for two more games and soundtracks. Money goes to charity, everybody wins, I get to keep writing reviews. Whee!

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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