Thursday, July 21, 2011

Surveying the Wreckage of a Summer Sale

It's been a week or two since the annual Steam Summer Sale. Surprisingly, I probably didn't buy as many games for myself as I did for others, but I'm okay with that. I think I'm hitting that plateau where unless some fantastic new game comes out, I'm pretty comfortable with the games I do own. Still, I did take the time to try a few new games, and I have the following report to present to you.

One of my earlier purchases of the sale was BIT.TRIP RUNNER, which claims to be "the fastest, most exhilarating music/rhythm-platformer to hit Steam!" Erm, well, I suppose it's a valid claim, but I can't think of other music/rhythm-platformers on Steam, so make of that what you will. While BEAT was a legitimately rhythm-based Pong-esque game, RUNNER takes the form of a constant-motion platformer, where you must time Commander Video's actions to dodge obstacles, break through barriers, and collect gold bars. It just happens to have a backing soundtrack.

Note that that's very much not to say that the music corresponds to the actions you're performing on screen. For one, in order to, say, jump over a hole in the ground, you've got to hit the "jump" button before you get to the hole. As you pass over the hole, you hear the associated note/sound for completing the jump. This is supposed to make you feel like you've passed the obstacle, but instead I couldn't help feeling that the awkward disconnect between the action and the consequence/confirmation made it uncomfortably arhythmic. Add to that the fact that there's even a tiny delay between when you push the button and the action appears on screen, and it's just frustrating to play. I can't help but feel that if I were to play the game with the sound turned off, I'd do better because I wouldn't be tempted to follow the rhythm of the music.

In thinking about how to describe this game, I keep coming back to Mevo and the Grooveriders, a similar music platformer from a few years back. Mevo is played with only two keys (left-shift, right-shift, and a combo of both), but it uses a scoring system similar to a Dance Dance Revolution game, where you're graded on how close you are on hitting the designated beats, gaining or losing health as you go. In RUNNER, if you slip up, you're instantly sent back to the beginning of the level. You're either perfect or you're doing it again. And again. Factor in the arhythm I described above, and this game is just not fun to play. You don't feel encouraged to keep playing, you feel hindered by the difficulty. In all the time I've spent with this game so far, I've yet to beat two levels in a row. I just can't stomach it. On the whole, I just can't recommend BIT.TRIP RUNNER.

I can, however, put up a geeky nod for Vertex Dispenser (demo available), a puzzle... shooter? Puzzle shooter, I guess. The general goal of the game is to conquer the board, a three-dimensional shape composed of a bunch of triangles and squares, with colored vertices. The vertices change colors, depending on what "activated" vertices surround it; a vertex will always be blue, unless there's already another blue vertex next to it, at which point it will become red; a vertex will be red unless there's already a red and blue next to it, at which point it's green, and so on. The rarer the color, the stronger the power-ups you can charge up. You move along the edges of the shapes, trying to break through defenses set up by opponents, trying to dominate the board and eliminate your opponents. It's not just a brainy strategy game, but it's also a fast-paced action game.

There are two complaints I have to file against this game though. At any point in time, you can have upwards of 14 power-ups available to you, each of which are activated by a key on your keyboard. That's way too many to juggle at once, especially when there are also four power-ups per slot to choose from. You need to use a diverse range of power-ups to win a game, but I find myself having to check the laundry list of options every time I want to use one, and by the time I figure out what I want, it's too late. As a result, I usually stick to only two or three power-ups for most of the game, which is a bit of a waste. The other complaint is that I can't seem to find anyone playing multiplayer matches. Or is it only multiplayer with Steam friends, and I happen to lack other friends who play this game? Despite both of these, I'd still give Vertex Dispenser a solid thumbs up.

Lume is a very beautiful point-and-click puzzler, with an artistic style of cardboard characters and settings that make the entire experience feel like an amazing children's TV show (so it must've been a European show). On the downside, some of the puzzles in it are a bit too obscure to solve without any hints (I ended up either brute-forcing or checking a walkthrough for a couple of puzzles). Plus, it's really short. Granted, it's part one of a series, but still, I'd definitely not recommend this at its regular $7 price, but I'd say give it a go if it comes up on sale again. If nothing else, add it to your list of games with good loop music for playing in the background while working on a late-night paper.

Critical Mass (demo available) looked like it should have been an equally geeky puzzle game, considering the game looks like you're attacking a neon Rubik's Cube. Unfortunately, it's just a three-dimensional match-4 game. Your goal is to clear the blocks before the mass reaches "critical mass", AKA an arbitrary time limit irrelevant to the actual size of the mass. I've only gotten the demo, but it seems like there's very little else to this game. I'll pass, thanks.

I've played all of about five minutes of Terraria and I've yet to touch Magicka, though I hear both are quite good. I also picked up Assassin's Creed: Grilled and Greed Corp, but I don't know much about either of those yet.

I also downloaded the demo for But do you want to know where my biggest regret is? I didn't buy Atom Zombie Smasher. With about an hour left in its day for an extra discount in the store, I tried out the demo. I decided not to buy it, because I'm not a huge fan of real-time strategy games. However, in the last couple of days I've found myself coming back to the demo to play its limited four levels over and over again. There's something about the chipper, surf guitar-y theme that makes this game much more lively than other RTS titles, much less zombie titles. Plus, the action is easy to get into, meaning a strategy thicko like me could get sucked in. I've not got that drum and guitar riff looping in my mind, and I tremendously crave this game. I'm seriously regretting not buying this game.

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