Hodge Vs. The Backlog 3

I can't find anything wrong with this picture.

Backlog’s an odd word, isn’t it? It almost a euphemism for a seedy sexual act – the kind of act you’re instinctively repulsed by AND YET you feel a bit insecure and jealous that no one’s ever offered you one. Sigh – it’s a lonely existence here at the Podge. Aaaaaand on the other side of this awkward segue you’ll find my thoughts on Costume Quest, Zenzizenjic, Fragment and Copod. A pretty good group this week, so let’s dive in shall we?

The usual disclaimer applies: Unless otherwise implied, these are first impressions rather than full reviews.

Costume Quest (Double Fine; Linux, Windows, OSX)

Bakesales are killing the industry, etc.

Back in the murky days of the 1980s, it was common practice when reviewing video games to break down the ratings into categories, so that each aspect of the game was given its own score. So the game’s graphics would get a separate rating, and so too the sound, along with more dubious categories like ‘playability’ and ‘lastability’. To be fair, this fetishization of criticism as a numbers game was a well-intentioned response to how video games had been written about previously (i.e barely at all) but it was, nevertheless, bullshit. Not only because how the fuck do you quantify lastability??, but also because the enjoyment (or lack thereof) to be had from a playing a video game rarely correlates neatly to set of predefined categories.

Costume Quest is a case in point. If I were to review it in the style of an eighties gaming magazine then it would score badly in each category. The graphics are rudimentary and largely static, overwhelmingly reminiscent of that first generation of 3D platformers from the PS1 era (somewhat surprising, given that the project lead was former – and future – Pixar animator Tasha Harris). The controls are clumsy and sometimes erratic, the turn-based battles are repetitive and overly simplistic, the menus and the interface are awkward to navigate and feel like placeholders, and sometimes the members of your party get stuck in the scenery as you wander around, becoming trapped off-screen for several seconds before suddenly teleporting back to your side.

And yet here I am recommending it to you, because I had a whale of a time with this. After finishing both the main game and the Gubbins On Ice expansion (probably around ten hours all up) I’m a bit sad that it’s all over, and I now wait impatiently for the recently announced (though sans Tasha Harris) sequel to arrive.

So you see, the eighties model of video game reviewing would be completely useless here. Maybe if I was to score it in different categories – things like PERFECTLY JUDGED UNDERSTATED HUMOUR, COLLECTIBLES WHICH AREN’T COMPLETE SHIT FOR ONCE or HEAVENS, THAT TIM SCHAFER IS A LOVELY FELLOW. It would score very highly in all of those.

I guess the most obvious criticism would be levelled at its (gasp!) ‘casualness’. It’s a JRPG made for people who don’t play JRPGs, and if the mere mention of such a thing has your inner snob boiling in righteous, hardcore juices then Costume Quest probably isn’t for you. It’s a very breezy game, in part because it’s been designed to include kids in its target demographic, but mostly because it just wants to be. You won’t get worked up or invested in it, and there’s no tilts at being ‘immersive’, either. It’s more of a feet-up, bowl-of-nibblies-within-easy-reach type of affair. You’ll probably play it with a joypad, and that joypad will spend a good amount of time resting on the crest of your shamefully engorged tum-tum. You disgusting slob.

Fragment (Team Fragment; Windows, OSX)

In the name of love!

If someone was to play Rogue for the first time in 2014, then they will almost certainly be aware (by reputation) of how seminal and important it is. They’ll bring that baggage with them as they approach it, and it will colour what they take away from it. Whereas someone playing Rogue in the 1980s wouldn’t have any clue as to how influential it will turn out to be, and so won’t give it any special regard – or may indeed disregard it completely. So one of the neat things about doing this backlog-diving is that I’m inevitably playing things years after their release and, by extension, with added context. I’m not just discovering the games themselves, but also getting a sense of the time when they were made… and the distance between now and then.

That’s never been more obvious than with Fragment, a free downloadable game made by an eponymously named group of students. Because playing this makes me feel like I’m in 2012. That’s a decidedly odd thing to say only two years later, but it’s true. This took me back to when first person puzzlers were the big trend of the day; when it seemed that every week RPS would write about an upcoming Portal-like game set in a science fiction testing facility but with a twist. I’d forgotten about all those. That time seems long-gone now, replaced by today’s crowdfunded world of Oculus VR, early access and a neverending stream of Rogue-like-like-likes.

It’s a bit like hearing Gangnam Style in a pub nowadays, you think “Wow, that was actually a thing” and it all feels a bit surreal.

None of that’s a mark against Fragment, though. For a student showcase it’s of a tremendously high standard, with the graphics, audio and level design all easily rivalling AAA fare. And while the body-switching mechanic is almost identical in practice to the portals of a certain franchise (fling a magical doohickey at an inaccessible part of the level to be able to teleport yourself there), it seems unfair to brand this as a knock-off. This is clearly the product of dedication and love, and moreover it’s free. I recommend checking it out, if only as a window into the already-forgotten recent past.

It’s just a shame that this reaffirms the truism that by pitching a work at the fashions of the day you’ll only end up prematurely dating yourself. Such is the power of prevailing trends – a game that’s barely two years old feels like could have been from from decades ago. Speaking of which…

Warcraft II (Blizzard; DOS)

Sire.

Christ, how on Earth did I end up replaying Warcraft II in the middle of 2014? Well I am. Would you believe that it’s not the game I remembered? I recall a game with stunning SVGA graphics (you can’t even make out the pixels!), dozens of funny voice samples from the in-game units and an incredibly seamless and intuitive interface (you can select multiple units and IT EVEN RECOGNIZES THE RIGHT MOUSE BUTTON HOLY FUCK WE’RE IN THE FUTURE).

Well, the Warcraft II that I’m playing now still looks pretty good, but those voice samples seem to be the same two or three phrases repeated over and over and they’re not really that funny. The interface is a bit of a nightmare – how many times do I need to click on different things just to build a sodding footman? And the pathfinding is absolutely atrocious, with your little gold-collecting peons frequently abandoning their posts after getting deadlocked trying to pass each other. Also, the inter-level presentation screens look like this:

Seriously, what's going on with that flag?

Of course, at the time it was pretty groundbreaking and a big leap ahead from Dune II which was the previous standard-bearer. Things like the menus were well ahead of their time – even including an option to quit straight to the desktop from within the game, which is outstanding and still (bafflingly) rare today. You can see the beginning of Blizzard’s quest to make the perfectly accessible skinner-box here, though in 1994 it was more about paying due attention to the mechanics and interface than the Orwellian DRM/auction house nonsense they’re peddling now.

Still, twenty years on it’s easy to see which parts don’t work. Laboriously having to construct your base from scratch with each new level is a pain, and razing enemy settlements is similarly dull (even after completely eradicating your opponent with genocidal precision you’ll still need to destroy all of their now-abandoned buildings before claiming victory). It seems obvious now that shaving those empty rituals off the game’s design would leave something much more compelling, as the current glut of DOTA-alikes belatedly confirms.

Still, it’s been fun revisiting this, even if the experience does need the added bouyancy of nostalgia to keep it afloat.

Copod (Ben Perry; Linux, Windows, OSX)

Oh, fishy fishy fishy fish.

And now for something completely different. From everything.

My very first impression of the still-in-development Copod was that I was playing the first level of Spore. Then I moved around a bit and it felt more like Aquaria or The Undergarden. It was only after I’d cleared a few screens that I realized I was playing The Binding Of Isaac: Undersea Edition. Though that’s doing Copod a huge disservice, as it doesn’t really look or feel like Isaac at all.

The other thing that struck me was how staggeringly beautiful it looks. Its stylized, flat vector visuals recall both Kentucky Route Zero and Another World, and like those games the magic is in how the graphics move rather than how they look. Your little eel-like creature and the various sea creatures you battle against are all beautifully animated and the layered parallax effect in the background is stunning, especially when things interact with it. There’s one screen where you need to avoid streams of bubbles rising up from the ocean floor and it looks phenomenal.

*love*

The feel of the game is perfectly matched to the visuals, all serene and floaty. You could fall asleep playing this, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. It’s like a nice, relaxing holiday. Good book and the Pacific Ocean lapping at your feet. Why aren’t there more games that feel like relaxing holidays?

The only snag is that the combat doesn’t quite work yet – the game’s slow, dreamy pace doesn’t really lend itself to twitchy fishbiff, so the encounters are a bit unsatisfying at the moment. That will no doubt be addressed as development continues, but in the meantime this is still a beautiful world to lose yourself in for an afternoon or two.

It currently costs $5 to get access to the beta and I reckon you’d be mad not to give it a go at that price.

Zenzizenzic (Ruud Koorevaar; Linux, Windows, OSX)

Yeah, so I still can't get off the first screen.

Remember when crowdfunding first became a thing and we rejoiced, for we imagined a gaming landscape full of small, heartfelt, personal projects, freed from the meddling interference of the ugly-suited publishers? Then in reality it became a hotbed for starry-eyed greenhorns hoping to Kickstart their gravy train to fame and fortune punctuated by the odd franchise sequel and reheated IP from decades back?

Zenzizenjic is a game from an opposite world where our hopes were fulfilled – a solo developer asking for a pittance to create the game he loves. Holy shit, maybe games can still be art after all.

If you’ve played Everyday Shooter (and if you haven’t, I reserve the right to regard you as a terrible person) you’ll have a good idea of where this one parks its caboose. Tiny pixel protagonist. Slow, gliding pace. Abstract geometric shapes as enemies. It’s not a straight-up clone but the influence is worn proudly on its sleeve.

So, nothing really new then; it’s more a love letter than a grand upheaval of the genre. Zenzizenjic gets away with it – partly because it’s been years since Everyday Shooter came out and there’s been nothing like it since, making this feel like a welcome return to an abandoned genre (much like Legend Of Grimrock did when it paid tribute to Dungeon Master decades after the fact). But mainly it gets away with it by being really good.

For a game developed by a single developer on a barely-existent budget, this is impressive stuff. There’s five lengthy levels each with three difficulty levels and an online leaderboard for each, as well as weapon unlocks and achievements to shoot for. All accessible via one of the best menu interfaces I’ve ever seen – all of the options are crammed onto the one screen, but it’s been cannily laid out so that everything remains clear and functional. It’s a masterstroke of form and function and I tip my hat to it.

That all adds up to a fairly solid recommendation from me. Zenzizenjic recently finished a successful round of crowdfunding and is due for proper release in July, but in the meantime you can grab a free copy of the beta demo from the website.

(I’d suggest that Koorevaar change the game’s title to something more pronounceable, but I suspect that would just end in a Wadget Eye-style digging in of the heels. So I won’t.)

All logged out.

And that’s it for for this week. I’m thinking about splitting these up into a separate blog post for each game, as they’re getting quite long. Not that splitting them will make them any shorter, but it might be easier to read them that way – less imposing. We’ll see.

Till then, may all your backlogs remain manageable.