8/5/16: “headlander” needs to get its head on straight

Winters, more familiarly referred to as the Headlander, is an intelligent, jetpack-mounted head that escapes from cryogenic sleep aboard the Starcophagus to seek out its original body. That’s not far off from a description of the game Headlander itself, which is a coldly cerebral title desperately seeking a heart. Its aloof narrative is sometimes justified by the plot, which revolves around an out-of-control AI caretaker, Methuselah, that protects its wards by installing thought-suppressing Omega Gems in the robots that carry the last remnants of human consciousness. Instead, however, the game keeps insisting on a pun-filled, Hitchhiker’s Guide-like irreverence that undermines the narrative, whether it’s the psychedelic special effects that wash over the screen after each death to the disco dance moves that each hijacked (sorry, head-jacked) chrome civilian can perform for purely comic effect. The game’s stylish retro flair never enhances the setting or the stakes–it just distracts from it, as if the game’s missing “soul” might be replaced with the gaudy, flashing neon soul of laser light shows, shag carpeting, and new-age-y statues.

When Headlander is more than a series of confrontations with the homicidal Electrosux cleaning bots or the chromatic-laser toting Shepherd security forces that are but one step away from being generic G.I. Joe fodder, it’s at least a decent Metroidvania. The ability to detach and fly one’s head about on command offers some unique exploratory options, and the controls are deftly balanced between the clunkiness of the durable robotic bodies and the Headlander’s nimble yet vulnerable space-helmeted cerebrum. (The far better half of the game, however, is the one in which players must cautiously navigate the protagonist’s skull through hazard-filled ventilation shafts; not the one in which players must outlast emergency lockdowns by killing every guard in the room.) The various upgrades that allow players to turn their dispossessed bodies into auto-firing sentry guns or overcharged time bombs are fun to play with, but then again, the game rarely requires any of these abilities, and the bodies that players swap between have an uninspired sameness.

Instead of building upon clever mechanics, the game repetitiously and literally gates progress by way of the exasperatedly smug Routine Operation of Doors (i.e., ROOD, get it?), a computer program that refuses to open doors that are of a higher chromatic hierarchy than the machine players are currently possessing. A green body can access green, yellow, orange, and red doors, but not a blue one: “It’s CYAN-tifically proven this door won’t open for you.” Puzzles, then, are just shades of the same task: find a helpfully hued host and safely guide it back to a locked door. In a few rare instances, these bodies have unique functions–a wheeled sentry that can travel over electrified floors–but for the most part, each body is just a palette-swapped version of another. Each might be capable of shooting an extra laser or two, but despite all the flashy colors reflecting about a room, the game itself sometimes feels a bit monochromatic, like a missed opportunity to find a new Kid Chameleon or Kirby.

All that head-swapping seems to have gotten to the developers, too, because Headlander has an unhealthy personality disorder. The latter half of the game suffers from a sharp difficulty spike in which rooms are overcrowded with enemies (to the point of occasional skips in the frame-rate) as opposed to featuring new mechanics. Laser-splitting puzzles are increasingly complicated, not just because trigger points are occasionally hidden out of frame, but because enemies keep spawning in the middle of a player’s attempt to line up a perfectly refracted shot. Why does a gravity-warping corridor, in which controls are reversed, appear in just one room? Why are tricky mechanics, like a battle in which players must swap between white and black bodies/polarities (as in Outland), confined exclusively to one of two boss fights? Headlander has a great premise, an appealing style, and great controls–but it simply doesn’t have its head on straight.

Style and Substance: “Klaus” Wants It All

My full review of Klaus can be found over at Slant Magazine. Worth emphasizing here, however, is that despite the subtle repetition of puzzles (acid and lasers operate in the same fashion; the touchpad-assisted operation of objects never gets any more complex than in the first level), Klaus is still a worthwhile game. All that industrial filler actually works in the context of the Kafkaesque story, for Klaus is rebelling not only against his corporation, but against the Player’s control, and I’m not sure that a more immediate subversion of the game’s mechanics (which doesn’t occur in earnest until midway through the fourth of six worlds) would have been as effective.

The question, then, is a matter of pacing.  Continue reading

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.

On Being Invited to Play: Media Molecule’s “Tearaway Unfolded”

I don’t often give perfect scores, and in all honesty, I probably could’ve docked a few points for the occasionally wonky camera in Tearaway Unfolded. But sometimes you have to go with your gut, and the consistently charming, always inventive, and mass accumulation of cuteness of this title absolutely won me over. There are no game-changing moral decisions here, but the ability to craft your own paper collages for inclusion within the game leaves a personal impact, and shows the developer’s choice to play hand-in-hand with you, rather than to consistently wrestle for control. The overall worlds are entirely Media Molecule’s, and there’s no world-building kit, as in their other big title, LittleBigPlanet. But the decorations and design of objects within them is yours. You’ll have to follow their rules when interacting with objects, swiping the touchpad so that the wind can peel away ribbons of glue-y paper on which to walk across, or shining the light bar onto the screen to act as a flashlight, but there’s also plenty of time to just fool around, and I’ve never found myself using the in-game camera (which has a variety of filters, including one that uses the Playstation Camera to take fourth-wall breaking shots) so often.

Above all else, as I write about in my full review for Slant, the game is focused on putting creative power into the hands of the players. The in-game collectibles are printable blueprints that allow you to recreate your favorite characters and objects in the real-world, and the whole package consistently blurs the line between active creation and passive play. Unlike Minecraft or Disney Infinity, though, it’s a celebratory and inventive game first and foremost, aimed at sparking one’s curiosity. Between this and Mario Maker, the future looks bright for developers and players alike.

A Knack Is A Natural Talent . . . So Why Does “Knack” Feel So Unnatural?

Knack is basically Katamari Bandicoot, which is to say, it’s a demanding, cutesy, combat-centered adventure title in which the central character, Knack, goes around absorbing relics and growing ever bigger. While our hero at first has to content himself with dodging miniature robots, baby spiders, and goblin grunts, he’ll soon be facing off against tanks, relic monsters, and goblin cyborgs, and that’s pretty neat. That said, beyond learning how to dodge the various enemy combinations, there’s very little to do.

As the debut title for the PS4, and the first entry in a new intellectual property, I can forgive some of Knack‘s missteps–it is, after all, exceedingly pretty and showcases the depth of field, particle effects, and lighting that the new system can do. But it often seems more interested in showing off the ways in which the system can render Knack’s wooden form once it’s lit on fire than in exploring the sorts of puzzles that this might provoke.There’s a clever scene in which Knack bulks up with ice crystals and then has a limited amount of time to use his massive size to power through a series of defenses before the sun literally melts him back down to normal size, and that’s about it. Knack gains the ability to shift between his normal and ultra-fragile, laser-reflecting “Stealth” state in just two of the nearly seventy levels. When Knack’s absorbed steel, he has to watch out for magnets; when he’s poisoned, he needs to make sure he collects all the relics on his path, lest he run out of energy: it’s a shame these novel abilities show up in less than 5% of the game. Everything else is just a melange of combat scenarios, whether in the middle of a besieged metropolis or in the bowels of a volcano. Sure, there’s the occasional bit of platforming–an incomplete airship is literally full of holes, and there’s a trap-filled labyrinth–but this rare exceptions only serve to highlight how few and far between they are.

Knack isn’t a bad game by any measure–but it’s not particularly impressive, either, and some of the aesthetic choices are downright frustrating. Somewhat unresponsive controls, especially as Knack grows bigger, make it unfairly hard to dodge enemies. Spamming Knack’s special moves can help, but because energy is rare and your stockpile–or lack thereof–is carried over when restoring a checkpoint (i.e., if you spend it unwisely and die, it’ll be even harder to make it through the section you’re stuck on), you’ll most likely end up hoarding it. Special items also improve Knack’s chances of survival, but in addition to being squirreled away in secret rooms, they’re also randomly awarded, which means that you may not get the gadgets (or alternative forms) you’re looking for until a second playthrough, if even. And while you can use social media to gain additional drops–you can swap items you don’t want for items that your friends have found, and there’s a companion match-three puzzle app–it’s annoying that this side content is practically mandatory when playing on the higher difficulties.

Very Hard, Time Trial, Arena Challenges, and a Chapter Select all unlock once you’ve completed the game, and it’s a testament to Knack‘s mediocrity (especially in the cliched story department) that most players won’t even bother with them. Once through is more than enough time to see everything Knack has to offer.

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