Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Games I've Playing Part #2: Mickey Mouse and the Curious Village

Ugh, you know what? If I give a date out, don't even bother listening to me. I feel like I've been in a daze for the past few days..

Let's get this over with.


So, the 3DS is soon to be upon us. Some are excited, some are not so welcoming to the news. Myself? I think I'm covered. The $250 price isn't a problem, friend codes aren't an issue since I'm not lazy, I realized I could just plug in the darn thing to avoid the short battery life, and the launch lineup...well, it could be better, but some of them look interesting.

Still, that doesn't mean I'm going to stop playing DS games. In fact, I'd say this motivated me to check out some titles that passed me by, notably one Professor Layton and the Curious Village.

A popular series of puzzle games that's origins originate from Japan, Professor Layton is indeed a curious title. The games have captivated all of Japan, and achieved cult status in America following a celebrity appearance in its advertisements. I've heard of the supposed brilliance of the title for several years, but only just now managed to try it.

The plot of the game features the titular character, who's an apparent master of solving puzzles. He one day receives a letter asking him to to investigate the meaning of a late baron's will, which hints at an mysterious artifact known as the Golden Apple. He accepts the challenge and takes his apprentice, Luke, to the village known as St. Mystere. However, it becomes obvious to the pair that the village is not what it seems, and mysteries upon mysteries pile upon each other, ranging from a murder, a large, mysterious tower, loud rumbling sounds, and even a supposed dislike of sweets. Just what sort of conspiracy is afoot?

It's especially difficult to balance Layton's pros and cons, considering that it's notably ambitious for a puzzle game. Witnessing a puzzle game spinning a yarn isn't so rare nowadays, but what really makes Professor Layton stand out is the use of animated cutscenes, which even have their own voiceovers. The art design for the characters is simple, but at the same time each character feels distinctive enough and the animation/voice acting is surprisingly competent.

That said, while the story does succeed in intriguing the player with its trove of mysteries, it's kind of obvious that the story serves as a backdrop to the gameplay; as in, you'll be solving random puzzles more then you will be investigating (at least where I'm at, anyway). So if you're expecting, say, an experience exactly like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, you're outta luck. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. While Layton does make a few mistakes with its central mechanic, it does enough right to engage the player.

The setup is something like this: The game is divided up into nine chapters, each one presented with an assortment of puzzles. Utilizing a point-and-click motif, you'll explore the mysterious village of St. Mystere while chasing some sort of objective; however, for the most part you'll just be solving any puzzle that comes your way. This is accomplished by talking to the eccentric residents, who can't talk for more then a minute without bringing up some sort of puzzle. As you progress through the game, you'll notice patterns that emerge in these puzzles, such as:

-Matchstick formations
-Mazes with movement limitations (Example: "What's the longest way you can move around these blocks without going through the same route twice?")
-Word problems
-Shape formations/problems
-Water pitchers
-Picking out which of the four suspects is the liar

Here's the big question: Do the puzzles work?

The game offers a mixmash of puzzles that can easily be separated into two different puzzles: word problems and interactive puzzles. You'll find the word problems are by far the game's favorite, which will no doubt stump the slow thinker crowd (read: me). The word problems have a nasty habit of tricking the player into thinking too hard, so you have calm down, try to remain one step ahead of the question, and lay out the facts and see what you can apply to them.

Then you have the interactive puzzles, which are by far the funnest ones. These can range from the simple (dividing three cups of water so that two will contain exactly eight liters) to the devious (can YOU solve incredibly difficult sliding puzzles?!?). You'll constantly find different patterns that lead to other patterns in the same puzzle, and some will end up being dead ends, so you'll eventually learn not to repeat your same tactics over and over if they're not working.

Most of these are presented with some sort of backstory, which like any good puzzle, attempt to trick the player. As such, you must read each explanation carefully and then aim to solve the puzzle. This, of course, involve thinking outside the box. You're going to have moments where, upon figuring out the problem given to you, smack yourself on the forehead and wonder why you didn't figure it out sooner. You are going to stumped, and you will have no one to blame but yourself (MOST OF THE TIME).

Disregarding the lack of a powerful narrative, what I think Layton's strongest appeal here is it's fair regarding its own puzzles. While I think the game could have used a better difficulty curve, most of the puzzles given to you aren't fully outrageous and won't destroy your brain unless you try too hard. The game is also careful in giving you incentive to solve these puzzles by giving you rewards, which range from pieces of a robot dog, to puzzle pieces, to furniture in Luke and Layton's hotel room. Totally pointles? Sure, but apparently they unlock something!

And that's not mentioning the score system, which is known as Picarats. The amount of Picarats you will earn will reflect your performance on solving these puzzles, which is decided by how many attempts it took you to figure out the answer. For example, if you get the right answer the first time, you'll score all of the Picarats that particular puzzle has to offer. If you get it wrong numerous times, however, the Picarats will decrease significantly. This, of course, adds to the pressure of solving these problems and will act as the main hook to further engage the player. Smart move on developer Level 5's part!

That said, there are few...undesirable types of puzzles. I gotta ask: was it really necessary to include puzzles involving math? I mean, I'm okay with doing addition for word problems and such, but if you're going to include geometry involving tile squares and such, then I'm not even going to bother. Do I really want to do this in a video game?

And then every now and then, you'll come across a puzzle that just screws with the player. Case in point: The tongue-in-cheek puzzle with a fictional monster attacking St. Mystere. You're supposed to spot the monster and stab it with a knife, but the text, let alone the illustration, gives not even the slightest indication of where the monster is. Spoiler alert: It's in the moon. How the hell was I supposed to spot that? There is some explanation hovering around that the stars/trees/roofs were supposed to create the outline of the monster with the moon being its tooth. I don't see shit. Kind of reminds me of the Goldeneye boxart and how three years ago everyone JUST noticed what was wrong with James Bond's face despite the fact I noticed it immediately in 1998 when I was SIX YEARS OLD.


...but that's a subject for another time.

In any case, at the halfway point I think I can call Layton a winner. I just wish I had more time this year to check out the rest of the titles...that'll be my new's years resolution for 2012!

And now, for something completely different: A game I was playing, but gave up on.

Now, lemme just make something clear here: For some strange reason, I possess an abnormal immunity to some of the most notorious problems in some of our favorite games. The Knuckles and Rouge levels in Sonic Adventure 2? No problem. The tripping in Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Never noticed it, and I'm of the strident opinion that anyone who tells you it ruined the game for them, along with R.O.B/reduced speed/lack of advanced techniques, is an idiot. The sailing in Zelda: The Wind Waker? Ha! I'll have you know that after I finished the Triforce hunt, I sailed in EVERY SECTION of The Great Sea and reveled in every moment.

One of the things I've learned while gaming is that people like to exaggerate...a lot. However, there are times where their complaints are well founded, and even someone as patient as me has to give in eventually. Unfortunately, there are times when multiple problems consistently spring up in a game, and it gets to the point where the player can no longer accept its shortcomings and as such the game is void of any fun. Recently, I just had to do that with Junction Point's anticipated title Epic Mickey.

When described, the game sounds like it has everything going for it. Epic Mickey's director goes by the name of Warren Spector, who has designed critically acclaimed hits such as Deus Ex. The game was assigned to his new studio after he had expressed an interest in reviving the Mickey Mouse character, which was mutual with Disney themselves. The leaked concept art showed a steampunk version of Disney World and a ZOMBIE GOOFY. Many were astounded by the supposed "dark" atmosphere of the game and hailed it as the return of Mickey Mouse.

And then there's the story. Long before his famous years, Mickey stumbled across Fantasia wizard Yensid's project of creating a world for the forgotten, which he accidentally ruined by spilling thinner on it. Years passed by, but one day an old foe by the name of the Phantom Blot, created by the thinner incident, dragged Mickey back into the forgotten world, which was now a wasteland populated by a horde of forgotten Disney characters; most notably Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the first creation of Walt Disney who, as such, resents Mickey's popularity. Faced with the consequences of his foolish youth, Mickey is tasked with either repairing the forgotten world and gaining Oswald's friendship...or annihilating it all completely.

What's not to like? Unfortunately, a lot.

Epic Mickey is a platformer filled with references to the forgotten. You remember Horace Horsecollar and Gus the Gremlin? Of course you don't, but Epic Mickey will make you remember. You will traverse abandoned Disney World rides, a futuristic space land with references to Tron, and even explore a mountain littered with forgotten Mickey Mouse merchandise. At first glance, it's an engaging premise, but one riddled with problems. For one thing, many of the environments are dark and bleak, and while this might have been appealing to the game's aesthetic sense, it's hard to see where you're going. The game supplies a map in the pause menu, but it's worthless because the legends are not named and it doesn't mark where you are.

In a clever twist, the game employs a number of portals, via projector screens, that lead Mickey from hub to hub by making him travel through 2D sidescrolling versions of his black-and-white adventures. It's a great idea, but not one well executed. While it may be fun to hop around on various cartoon props, most of these levels are far too simple and bland, as they only rely on the antiquated look to impress the player. They do not impress in the slightest from a gameplay perspective and they leave no impact on the player, aside from the fact that you have to play through them multiple times. If they didn't rely so much on nostalgia and instead focused on creative gameplay techniques, we might have a winner here.

As you might have guessed from the plot summary above, Epic Mickey revolves around a morality system that revolves around being good or bad, which is completely up to the player. If the player wishes to fix the heaps of trouble the Wasteland faces, then they can. If the player wants to contribute to those problems, well, they can. This is all done by choosing between blue paint and green thinner, both employed by Mickey's magical paintbrush. For example, you can restore a missing bridge by spreading paint on it, or destroy a building by splashing it with thinner.

Despite being the main attraction of the game, this is where the game falters the most. Epic Mickey provides an extraordinary wealth of quests for Mickey to embark on, most of which are based upon the various whims/favors of townspeople. One of the main problems here is that there are so many of these fetch quests that it's nearly impossible to keep track of them all, and this unfortunately conflicts with the game's usage of "points of no return"; in other words, excluding the hub areas, once you enter a new area, you can't go back a previous one. So if this means you slipped up and couldn't find a vital item for a quest, then you're out of luck.

What is perhaps the biggest flaw here is how the game balances the good/evil acts. Despite being told by the game that thinner is bad, why is it that in order to make a bouquet I have to destroy gardens with thinner so that I can dive underground and grab a white flower, despite aiming for a good profile? There are no hints given by the game's missions that the player must suddenly switch between using paint and thinner, which is incredibly irritating for both sides. By far the worst culprit was something I encountered early on.

In a replica of Mickey's house, a talking phone (roll with me here) requests you to set up a phone network in Mickeyjunk Mountain. Upon entering a factory in said mountain, I come across a machine that can take in either paint or thinner. Since I was aiming for a good file, I naturally filled it up with paint. As I left the factory, I was told that I failed the quest. Surprised, I looked it up online and found out I had to fill the machine with THINNER so I could open another pathway to a character who would fix the network for me. This wouldn't have been possible if I chose paint.

But can you blame me? There was absolutely zero indication that I had to fill the machine with thinner. Why on earth would I have bothered with thinner when I knew doing so would've created a mark of infamy? It makes no sense and was without question the most aggravating game element I have encountered in a long time.

Believe it or not, that wasn't what made me gave up on the game. It was the combat. While the game employs a neat tactic of having the Phantom Blot's minions join your side by splattering them with paint, it doesn't change the fact that the combat in this game is dreadfully boring. The game forces you to use elaborate tactics on what are supposed to be minor enemies (such as, say, spraying thinner on robotic enemies and smacking 'em with your spinning move), and as such it feels like you're spending too much time on them, and that's not to mention how difficult they are. The worst were by far the robotic pirates of Venture Land, who swerved around EVERY time I reached their weakpoint and killed me five times before I called it quits. There's a difference between fighting a challenging enemy or failing against one who use cheap tactics.

What makes this hurt is the game occasionally flickers with moments of brilliance; most notably the story itself, which is eased along by animated cutscenes. Despite being in only 1-2 minute bursts and not even voiced, they're incredibly charming, full of wit and at times even touching. The plights of forgotten characters, such as Horace Horsecollar slumping at Mickey not being able to remember him, are perhaps the most effective. It's moments like this that show the amount of depth this game could have had, both in storytelling AND gameplay, if given several more months of development. Instead, the abundance of faulty level design and repetitive fetch quests result in what is a mediocre package.

The unfortunate lesson here is that not even a compelling concept can hold a game together if it's not adequately designed, and I hope Warren Spector and the rest of Junction Point can take the game's criticism to heart.

At least it's selling well.


...man, I feel like I rushed that one.

See you soon.

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