Making a Better Metroidvania: “Teslagrad” vs. “Xeodrifter”

Why must games stand in their own way? When we pay homage to classics of the past, that does not mean that we must forget the lessons of modern-day design. Xeodrifter, like Axiom Verge, looks just fine: you can slap just about any aesthetic style on a Metroidvania core and be fine with it. But almost all of its secrets are endurance trials: they’re not particularly hard to discover, they just require too much backtracking to justify. If there were a fast-travel option, that might at least reduce the frustration, but once a player has cleared an area, there’s only so many times you can ask that player to clear it again before the game becomes visibly padded. Exploration’s fine, but you should never reach a point in a game in which you know what you need to do, but lack all motivation to do so. (The lack of any story or twist in Xeodrifter may exacerbate the situation.)

Teslagrad, at least, is on more solid footing–which is ironic, since you’ll use magnetic forces to navigate its electric tower, rarely touching the ground. Each area spirals off the central spire, so while you’ll have to re-explore some of the earlier rooms, it doesn’t take all that long to do so. Moreover, each new ability can be used to cheese through earlier, potentially difficult puzzles, so while you may have to walk the same corridors, the path won’t be anywhere near as laborious. Best of all, the collectibles in Teslagrad are each tied to the plot–the scrolls are what fill in the backstory of the ruined kingdom, and players must earn at least fifteen of them to reach the finale.

In essence, then, I propose a few rules:

  • Keep the focus on the exploration, not the traveling. The goal is to have players constantly doing new things in the environment, so let the computer automatically return players to any point, with the implication being that if they’ve gotten there before, they could do so again, so why force them to do so?
  • Make the reward worth the journey. That is, don’t just hide extra health and missiles. Some of that’s fine, but Axiom Verge and later Metroid games also squirreled away lore and weapons, and that made filling in the map more of a necessity than a chore.
  • Harder doesn’t mean stronger. This one’s universal to all games, but in general, you should be doing more to make a game difficult than simply increasing the damage an enemy deals while reducing the damage it takes. The one thing Xeodrifter nails is that its boss gets increasingly difficult; the problem is that there’s only one boss, which you continually encounter in various pallets. Teslagrad, on the other hand, has encounters that change up their patterns, and each puzzle builds upon the previous one, combining tools, as opposed to Xeodrifter‘s monotonous way of using tools to simply block off new areas.
  • If you’re going to imitate, innovate. There’s nothing wrong with paying homage to classics of the form, but I can’t think of a single thing Xeodrifter does that other games haven’t. Sure, you don’t often gain the ability to swim by turning into a submarine, but using a charged shot to break down barriers or jumping in and out of the foreground? These are borrowed devices that must do more than simply exist. Again, Axiom Verge found ways to subvert expectations of classic Metroid weapons, and Teslagrad created its own magnetic mayhem.

Ultimately, keep the player experience first and foremost. If you’re going to make them work, really ask yourself why, and if it’s going to be worth it for both you and the player.

Salvage: They Don’t Call It Sleeping–ahem–Waking Mars For Nothing

Waking Mars commits to its scientific roots from the get-go. Dr. Liang has no weapons, just a trusty jetpack, and his goal is to explore a series of caverns on Mars. Instead of fighting, you spend your time navigating and dodging hazards such as acid, magma, falling stalagmites, and the testy fauna, all so that you might better map the area and perform basic experiments on the pods springing to life around you. The clever conceit here is that research is accomplished by testing out various things with each pod, and much of the game takes a hands-off, trial-and-error approach that fairly resembles the arcade equivalent of the scientific method. At first, you can only grow harmless green seeds into “Halid” stalks that contribute to your overall biomass score; later, you’ll start getting seeds that can only be planted in acidic soil (with explosive or aggressive effects), and spores that can change the soil from neutral to acidic (and back). Figuring out what eats what, which plants contribute the most biomass, and how to get the “enriched” soil is all very clever, as is the overall structure of the game, which begins quite linearly and then opens up around the fourth chapter. Like Metroid, there’s more to each zone than simply getting from A to B, and some multi-area puzzles (repairing the reservoir, caulking a hole in the atmospheric pressure, helping out an alien species) keep things from growing tedious.

That said, beyond that initial research, the constant testing and retesting quickly grows frustrating, especially if you’re trying to get the best ending, in which you must max out the biomass for each room. If every type of seed were available in every room, or if the world map provided a key denoting which areas you could fast travel to for some hasty seed farming, the various tests wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating. But exploiting certain late-game breeding techniques or attempting to reverse soil types so as to ensure that you’re not blowing up the biomass that you’re attempting to harvest often feels like more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve always believed that once you can map out the solution to a puzzle, you should essentially have finished in. In Waking Mars, you’ll spend precious minutes building an inventory of seeds and then several more minutes actually putting everything in motion. These solutions are also largely the same by the time you’ve gotten every seed: there are very specific steps required for maxing out the biomass in the fastest amount of time, and the execution isn’t nearly as challenging as the ingredient collecting.

At its best, Waking Mars reminds me of The Dig, minus all the point-and-click adventuring. At its worst, Waking Mars is guilty of putting the gamer to sleep, with redundant room design and tedious obstacles to clear. (If I never need to push a Ledon Zoa’s floating seeds through the air, it’ll be too soon.) If you picked this one up in a bundle, consider giving at least the innovative first half a try to see if you enjoy the mechanics. Otherwise, there are more consistent games to spend an afternoon with.


Salvage: Cargo Commander’s a Drill, Baby (Drill)

How appropriate is my “What Worked” title for game reviews, “Salvage,” when discussing the game Cargo Commander, a randomized and iterative space adventure in which you play a lonely space explorer tasked with salvaging space junk from an infinite number of sectors? The core concept of Cargo Commander is what’s worth discussing today: every day, whether it’s because you went to sleep or were cloned after dying, you’ll begin by navigating to a fresh area (selecting from popular locales, random ones, or by generating your own by typing any old word/phrase) and then using your home/ship/office’s space magnet to attracted a variety of cargo holds. Zipping out into deep space (with a limited amount of air), you’ll drill into these containers and then pillage them, fending off mutant space monsters at the same time, but you’ll have to work fast, as wormholes have a tendency to rip apart the container segments if you aren’t fast enough in hurrying back to your base. Each sector has six different types of goods, and your ultimate goal is to discover all hundred or so types, and herein lies the problem: because there’s no real variation on the arcade action beyond the first hour, doing so is work.

Perhaps that work is part of the point, as it is in the recent Papers, Please, which tasks you with the soul-crunching tedium of paperwork and reducing unique people to easily checked (and profiled) categories. Or maybe the game grows to be more than it at first appears, as with the excellent and devastating Little Inferno–but I wouldn’t know, as I can’t bring myself to continue on. The grinding is simply too visible: killing monsters earns you “caps” with which you can upgrade your gear, but it inexplicably resets at the beginning of each day, and the only way to get permanent boosts is by ranking up–done by collecting five new objects. This progression is simple at first, when you’ve barely found anything, but after a few hours, you can go entire in-game days without much of a sense of progress. Granted, if you’re simply trying to beat the game, you can zip through–after three or four waves, you’ll have probably found all the unique items a sector has to offer (and if not, there’s always the next, and the next, and the next), and you’ll have collected the sector pass that allows you to unlock a new zone to travel to. But if you get stuck trying to beat the high scores, fully upgrading your gear, the successive waves get more complex–and needlessly frustrating, especially when dead end paths with undrillable walls fence you in, or hordes of monsters that you’re ill-equipped to deal with swarm you, boxing you in. (Worst are the triangular parasites that float around in deep space, following you back into what should be the safety of your home, and killing you there.)

Granted, you’ll get e-mails from the wife you left behind, progress reports from your overseers (which are dystopic and depressing messages that continually come up with reasons why you can’t return home yet), and pictures of your daring achievements from the son whose face you’re forgetting. But these aren’t compelling reasons to continue on–and it’s not just the scarcity of story. After all, other rogue-likes, like The Binding of Isaac, encourage multiple replays (occasionally under similarly unfair conditions) for pithy “item collecting” rewards and make you start over from the beginning each time. But whereas there’s a goofy challenge in BoI in which the variety of rooms, enemies, and weapons changes each time–especially the way they all combine–Cargo Commander only gives you four weapons, an extremely limited set of upgrades, and runs out of things to show you after the first four crates that you magnetize. The controls are simple enough to keep you zipping through–the zoom feature is especially nice, “in” for close combat and headshots, “out” for deep-space diving and the discombobulated dashes back to your home–but there’s only so many times you can fire that six-shooter (six, to be exact) before the game starts firing blanks and coming up empty.

I’d love to hear that I’m wrong and that the game opens up later on, or throws some new tricks at you, but given the randomized design of the levels, I don’t really see how that’s possible. Like Symphony, the waves can only get harder and more frenetic–they can’t actually get more inventive or interesting. And that’s what this all boils down to–I’ve sunk countless hours into Dota because of the human element, in which I learn new things each time I play, but a game like Cargo Commander, having shown me the grind that it’s going to require to get to the end (or to the next set of new things) can’t shake me out of this sense of entropy. Thanks, but no thanks.


Salvage: The Many Peaks and Valleys of “God of War: Ascension”

Everything you’ve heard about God of War: Ascension is probably true–there’s enough that’s both good and bad about this title such that just about any statement regarding the design and gameplay is tautological. If you’ve enjoyed previous God of War games, you’re likely to thrill at this one: how could you not? Nobody does big set-pieces and titan-sized boss battles like God of War, even if it’s at the sake of control, with battles and wall-climbing sections both stripped to their most linear cores. At the same time, if you’ve played those previous God of War games, the combat that you’ll have to truck through in order to get to these climactic sequences is more than a chore: it’s redundant and, on the highest difficulties, too much work. With only one main weapon (and four auxiliary, but largely identical elemental properties), there are roughly three or four combos you’ll be using throughout the lengthy single player campaign. Deaths are a result not of challenging enemy types–blocking (and countering) is simple–but rather of kitchen-sink combat, in which so many enemies are thrown at you (in such small corridors) that dodging becomes as impossible as tracking your character, who blends in with many of the backgrounds and enemy pallets. (So notoriously unbalanced, in fact, that one particular segment–“The Trials of Archimedes”–was patched post-release.)

It’s a shame that lengthy series like God of War–of which this is the sixth (or seventh, if you count technicalities) installment–fall back on such basic mechanics to make up the meat of the game, because on the fringes is where this newest title really excels, with two experimental–for an AAA title–gimmicks. For one, halfway through the game, Kratos gains the ability to alter the time of select objects, either restoring or decaying them–and sometimes halting them in a stasis field between the two states. Your first encounter with a watermill is depressing–the area has long since dried up, the aqueduct shattered beyond, and the various mechanisms strewn across the arid field–but later on, after having restored the various segments of the irrigation system, you’ll be able to bring the town of Kirra back to life. More crucially, the second act of the game takes place in the various sections of Archimedes’s ode to Apollo, a titanic (and hollow) sculpture which you’ll gradually reassemble. In conjunction with the game’s other mechanic–the ability to leave behind a shadow clone of yourself (holding down pressure pads or keeping a chain pulled out)–there are even a few clever puzzles here and there.

But these innovative designs are nothing more than frills–they’re the decolletage emphasizing the game’s literal cleavage, by which I mean the gory ways in which your Blades of Chaos rip apart the various mythological foes: chimeras and manticores both, this time around, plus your usual collection of witches, harpies, gorgons, etc. (For some already criticized reason, most of the enemies are female; the main bosses are the three Harpies, who never rise above shrill half-naked caricatures.) God of War still has tricks up its sleeves, but it prefers to keep them there, thinking that because the main draw to the series was once the frenetic combat, that has to continue being the end-all-be-all. The series obviously doesn’t have to be a in rut, but I fear that the next-generation God of War 4 is more likely to simply look better than feel different, limited not by technical capabilities or inventive designers but by the desire to cater to the lowest common denominator–and we’ve already got games like Blades of Time to do that. Having already scaled Olympus, Kratos’s creators must now seek to do more than simply rest him on his laurels.

Moreover, for all that God of War: Ascension looks cool–from the opening fight throughout a prison made from the titan Hecatonchires’s flesh to the finale against the shadowy aquatic behemoth that Alecto (for some reason) transforms into–it might be time to take a step back from the QTEs littered throughout this and, say, Uncharted. Compromises, ala Tomb Raider or DmC (both reboots geared for modern and more expectant audiences), are the way to go, offering players a mix of open and closed environments, with optional content and the ability to retrace one’s steps. When you first start down that funnel, you’ve got a large circumference, with plenty of space, but as you get further down, the path narrows and narrows until it’s nothing but a black hole, and the streamlining’s gone far enough.

So: (1) Ax the repetition and sharpen combat to a point where it’s not about overcoming a screen-filling horde of enemies (one step removed from Dynasty Warriors) so much as it is about careful and calculated combat against a specific set of foes. (2) Open up the world: you can keep the camera locked if that helps to make more impressive vistas, but offer some alternative paths–and the ability to return to them, should you miss them the first time around. (3) Embrace new things; don’t discard them–you don’t have to be Darksiders, but look at the innovative leaps between the two entries in that series; don’t build entire puzzle-solving mechanics (the time reversal) only to give up on them after a few hours of exposure in a single title. Mix them up and deepen their usage in the following titles: give Kratos not just a deeper arsenal of weapons, but of tools. (4) Follow the advice of your own title: ascend. Don’t plateau, ala Gears of War and Assassin’s Creed–multiplayer may be a nice touch, but that’s a separate topic. Enough with the low-hanging fruit: it’s time for the ambrosia.

Salvage: Can You Be Haunted Twenty Minutes At a Time in Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon?

Dark Moon 1I consider myself to be a huge fan of the platforming genre, from the hammer-dodging, piranha-plant-jumping, side-scrolling days of the original Mario Bros., the hidden secrets of Donkey Kong Country, surrealism of Rayman, and the transition to 3D that for me began with the uncompromisingly difficult Crash Bandicoot before extending into the annoying collect-a-thon hubs of, say, Banjo-Kazooie. But in all my gaming, I keep returning to the sheer perfection of Super Mario World, which dared to not only challenge one’s reflexes but one’s brain: this wasn’t merely about going from the left side of the screen to the right; it was about figuring out how to use enemies and tools to reach otherwise inaccessible secret pipes and alternative exits. It was about finding a key and successfully bringing it to the door that it unlocked. It was about the ghost houses, the glorious puzzle zones that not only expected you to outmaneuver spectral hordes of Boo ghosts, but to outwit them, too. Which is why, perhaps, I have such fond memories of the original 2001 Luigi’s Mansion, which, unlike other Luigi outings like the dismal Mario Is Missing, found a way to mix puzzles and action, as it required players to use the suction (and later elemental) powers of a vacuum cleaner in order to lure out the hiding ghosts, and then to battle them in one-on-one games of tug-of-war. More importantly, it’s why I was so excited to get my hands on Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, a 3DS successor to the original: it’s bigger, better, cleverer, and yet also the victim of some odd design choices.

For one, length isn’t always a blessing. In Luigi’s Mansion, you were limited to exploring one rather large and haunted estate, through which you were given limited direction (a radar) and a minimum of hints. You explored at your leisure, slowly increasing your access through the game’s various locked doors. Continue reading

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