Affordable Space Adventures (Wii U) Review

ASA-LogoFlat

I’d like to start with a brutal confession, a search party was required to locate the various components of my terminal Mario machine. A serious amount of time has elapsed since the release of Mario Kart 8 and this dust covered tablet and console had to be brought back to life.
So I guess the big question is what brought this mission on? The answer, is Affordable Space Adventures.

This ‘Ronseal’ titled release from KnapNok Games & Nifflas is a 2D space puzzle game released solely for the Wii U, and right from the off it’s obvious to see why.

All of the controls are handled by the tablet in one player mode and it is also possible to have 2 extra pilots join you using Wii motes, who then control certain actions of the ship which make you feel part of a working crew, as long as you can communicate and keep calm. The left and right sticks handle flying and your torchlight and the left and right shoulder buttons cover the ships scanner and flares. By the time you are done the whole gamepad will be assigned to mechanics integral to your advancement.

WelcomeToTheJungle02You start with an infomercial from a company called UExplore, who are offering you a once in a life time opportunity to explore and stake your claim in alien worlds, promising you the highest level of safety with 0% risk, how could this be turned down?

You land on planet Spectaculon and it’s safe to say UExplore’s safety record has taken a knock, communication has been lost and you find yourself alone on an alien land in hostile weather conditions in your rented craft which looks like a budget version of ‘Starbug’ from Red Dwarf.

This is where ASA makes probably the best use of the Wii U gamepad that I have experienced, your TV shows your spacecraft and the planet and the gamepad initially goes through the process of powering up the Small Crafts systems, propulsion engine, lights and thrust.

With the chugging petrol engine now on it’s possible to increase the crafts speed output, mass and stability, tapping the gamepad dials at different levels, but be careful not to raise them for too long or you could overload your delicate craft and disintegrate spectacularly in a small amount of time, and this management of systems is where the puzzle element begins.

Overgrowth02Now it wouldn’t be an alien land without aliens’ right? And I’m sure they’ll be cool with a foreign life-form idly cruising around their planet? No, they’re not…

After you grasp the basic action of movement and delicately controlling your vessel your ships scanners pick up the first sign of life, targeting displays a radius around the robotic looking alien which you assume is range as your Wii pad flashes and beeps showing limits on sound, heat and electricity.

After offering peace through a friendly handshake initially fails, it’s clear that a stealthy approach past this alien is the only way and will require careful management of the ships systems, being careful not to reach any of these levels as alerting the alien will end in aggressive action being taken, and as you’re equipped with flares as opposed to photon torpedo’s you won’t put up much of a fight, which is refreshing to have a space game where defence is the only form of offense.

As you progress more ship systems will open up and will be utilised along with the previous mechanics and all at a decent pace and relevant to your exploration through the linear levels, with the escalation of challenge increases at a good rate and there is no spike in difficulty as each puzzle encompasses what you’ve already learnt and it’s a case of multitasking with the dials and sliders and getting the balance right, and as with everything on ASA the balance is perfect.

The story as such is told through the loading screens between levels and is both charming and humorous, and in between the story the ships user manual is displayed, albeit not a great story it’s enough to keep you immersed in the experience before you fire up the engines to scope out your new surroundings. Graphically the game is both dark and very vivid and bright and works well with your torchlight beaming for you to feel your way around certain sections but ultimately this doesn’t have the wow factor of some Wii U titles. The sounds are clear and add atmosphere from the outside weather effects to the underwater acoustics and the system beeps and bops from the pad.

TheFly02In all there are 38 levels for you to navigate in search of freedom, and it should roughly take between 5 – 7 hours to complete, there is also a training level if you find it too difficult and this also helps to get the kids involved. Priced at £16.99 I feel this is excellent as you will get plenty of bang for your buck. It’s an experience that every Wii U owner should have, a title that makes full use of the game pad, and is good fun in local co-op. My only concern would be the reasons to replay, the only one that comes to mind would be to show non Wii U owners what they’re missing.

Pros:

Excellent use of the Wii U gamepad
Immersive gameplay
Fun Co-op multiplayer

Cons:

Limited scope for replay-ability.
Graphics are pretty but not ground-breaking

Score: 9 out of 10.

Animal Gods Pre Alpha Preview

d123dee29be54395b7d6cf2634ddea10_largeAs my first game preview, I took a look into a game from Still Games, a tiny studio of just two people. This game has reached it’s Kickstarter goal and a demo is freely available to download. It’s not a huge demo, but from what I played, this game has serious potential. The link to the demo is on their Kickstarter Page.

The game itself places you as the protagonist, Thistle, in 15th Century Europe, armed with a magical (and rather natty) cape, and a 200 year old Bronze Age sword. Two things hit me like a Spartan phalanx when I booted it up. The first, to say that this game is pre-alpha, the graphics are simply beautiful. Powerful colour combinations and bright sharp edges, mixed with shadows that resemble tribal markings, give this game a very stand out appearance. Resembling a Zelda: Link’s Awakening top down view (which was the designers intention) this game doesn’t suffer in comparison, it appears to want to build on that and make it wholly theirs. The second thing was the musical score. It was both haunting and catchy in a Halo choral choir sort of way. I found myself humming it later on and not being able to place it until I played the demo again.

9e5bf778c2134a14e0def5ed72d92c40_largeThe demo is a few short screens introducing me to a very simplistic control system (that on the personal computer formats screams for keypad support), allowing for both left and right handed people to play quickly and easily. I enjoyed the mechanics of swinging the sword, and using the magical cape to avoid pitfalls and other traps. There was an odd moment where input lag killed me, happily this only set me back to the start of the current screen. As this has already been Nintendo verified it is available on the Wii U controller, so movement will be a lot crisper than WASD/arrow keys pressed in conjunction. The end of the demo shows Thistle dropping tantalising hints as to his mission and the missing Animal Gods.

There are very few negatives that I came across, and all of them can be forgiven as pre alpha bugs/glitches. The sound dropped out once or twice, and the directionality of movement failed due to input lag. If the keyboard stays as the primary movement option then more difficult dungeons within the later game will become an exercise in absolute frustration. Saying that however, the dash effect from Thistle’s magical cloak was generous, that allowed a two or three pixel leeway when dashing across some of the larger gaps in the game preventing them from becoming anything more than a minor obstacle. Also, the movement lag wasn’t too bad as the sword swipes seemed to protect the character in a 180 degree arc, preventing you from being utterly overwhelmed (this may also be in part to a sparkle effect from the sword tip when it is swung) from all directions. Anyone who has ever played Z:LA on the NES or Gameboy will feel immediately at home.

79a2530425488de4b62a517262439da7_largeAll in all this game will be kept on my wish list for now, as the stretch goals seem rather promising, with weapon upgrades, a hard-core mode, a port to the PS4 and a bartering system all due in the near future as backers pledge more funds. I’m personally excited to see how far down the jRPG route they take this game and how they develop the adventure as a whole. You can clearly see the direction the studio want to take, and still have more than plenty of options to make it unique and yet familiar at the same time.

Developed by: Still Games.

Kickstarter And Playable Demo Can Be Found Here

Shovel Knight Review

SKlogo_black

Rest assured, if there was any part of my body that even remotely disliked Shovel Knight I would have ran with that just for the excuse of writing “Shovel Knight? More like ShovelWARE!” (Un)fortunately Yacht Club Games have opted to strip me of that minute amount of fun to instead offer a whole bucket-load more of fun within the actual game. Shovel Knight is not just an enjoyable product in of itself, but it’s turned out to be one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory and a candidate for Game of the Year 2014.

Shovel Knight comes to us from former WayForward Technologies developer Sean Velasco, who presumably left WayForward because he wanted to make games with fantastic audiovisual design AND have some actual game design in it (lol).  He claims to have been inspired by games such as Castlevania III, DuckTales and Mega Man; and in the current climate of popularised nostalgia baiting this can be where the eye-rolling begins. Often when developers start listing off old NES games as inspiration, and they seem to be mostly highly popular titles, it can translate into “my entire research for this project was the games I just happened to own when I was 8 years old.” However, the fastest way to sum up everything good about Shovel Knight is it takes all the great ideas and common sense of old Japanese developed NES games, brushes off the few scraps of dirt and presents in a lovingly polished fashion bursting with its own personality.

WUP-N_WKNE_gameplay_1

Let’s do the mandatory Shovel Knight review thing and unfairly break the game down into its individual parts and which NES game inspired them so everyone gets a vague idea of what they’re in for. The graphics deliberately emulate the NES (although your Nintendo would probably explode if you somehow figured out a way to play this on one), the music actually can be played on an NES and so is 100% authentic chiptune music. You play as the Shovel Knight, who can swish his shovel as a close range weapon (Castlevania) and bounce off enemies with a down thrust like he’s riding a pogo stick (DuckTales); you have to fight a renegade group of Knights in a non-linear order to reach the final castle stages (Mega Man) to defeat the evil Enchantress who has enslaved the land (Castlevania again). As you navigate the map screen (Super Mario Bros. 3)you can visit towns to buy upgrades for your health, magic , armour and Shovel (Zelda II) as well as bumping into bonus “traveller” bosses and treasure gathering extra stages (Mario 3/Bionic Commando?)

As for the actual stages themselves, Mega Man was definitely the core inspiration in terms of the game’s single room puzzle-esque level design and style of boss battles, but here’s where constantly comparing Shovel Knight to its NES counterparts misses the point. It’s easy to comment on certain similarities between Shovel Knight and an entire memory stick duo of NES games, but ultimately I’d argue the main inspiration for the game was common sense.

Here’s an example of that; the stages in Shovel Knight are significantly longer than the average NES stage, so all of them have a whole bunch of visually clear checkpoints. When you die, you get knocked back to the last checkpoint (usually no more than half a dozen screens, and probably not even that) and take a hit to the wallet as bags of your money will dangle tauntingly above where you died, if you can get back to where you died without dying again you can get all that money back and there’s no problem as there’s no lives system at all. In addition, you can break the checkpoints to get a nice treasure boost, but obviously now you’ve lost that checkpoint so you better make sure you don’t screw up getting to the next one here.

WUP-N_WKNE_gameplay_2

So what we have here is a forgiving checkpoint system that lets the less savvy player get through the game without booting them out of the stage for a couple of mistakes, that also offers motivation for the player to not die twice on one section as they’ll lose their treasure (which also encourages players to spend their treasure and engage with the game’s RPG elements regularly)…and it has an extra challenge built in there for the hardcore crowd without having to change a thing. Wow! That’s really smart! It kind of blew my mind how smart such a little feature is; it completely nullifies the frustrations that came with the lives system from the old Mega Mans, with its “throw yourself down a pit twice to restart with 3 lives” nonsense,without requiring any kind of difficulty adjustment.  I’ve always had low tolerance for games that still relied on lives systems in this era of gaming anyway but now there is literally no excuse for it. The way Shovel Knight handles it is just smarter, and that is so refreshing.

However, the true shining part of Shovel Knight is in the boss battles, which in all honesty, might be the greatest boss battles in any 2D action game. They certainly put anything in classic Mega Man to shame, and those Mega Man X bosses over there aren’t feeling too sure of themselves either. The vast majority of the bosses are against another knight or warrior with their own gimmick, as well the Black Knight who also uses a shovel effectively making him a shadow boss. Speaking of which, here’s a good test for action games, if your game has a shadow boss in it and it’s fun, then chances are your mechanics are pretty much ready to go. Boss battles in Shovel Knight do follow patterns to some extent but it definitely doesn’t feel like that most of the time. Fights against enemies like the King’s Knight almost feel like you’re playing against a second player. These fights are fast and furious, bosses don’t get stunned for too long so skilled players will be able to exchange down thrusts, side slashes and magic to get some “combos” going; but the subtlest touch that makes it near perfect is you don’t take damage from a bosses attack if you’re able to get a strike in first. This tiny little detail translates what in most games is a choreographed dance in pattern avoidance to an actual fight in your brain, if you “outwit” your opponent and get that first slash then as far as the game is concerned you deserve to be winning. It creates really challenging and engaging battles whilst at the same game communicating (through gameplay!) that the Shovel Knight is on par with these guys and is a mighty warrior in his own right.

WUP-N_WKNE_gameplay_3

Before I briefly touch on things I didn’t like so much in the game, let’s just dedicate a small paragraph to the ridiculously fantastic soundtrack Shovel Knight has, which comes to us from Jake “virt” Kaufman with two tracks done by Mega Man 1 composer Manami Matsumae. Let’s just shovel this in here; because everyone will probably be saying this in five years and I want it on record, Jake Kaufman is the best Western videogame composer working today. He’s also possibly clinically insane, since he’s provided full lossless audio downloads of both the official Shovel Knight soundtrack and an arrangement album on his Bandcamp so you should probably check that out.

So regarding what I don’t like…there’s just kind of too much stuff which contradicts the simplistic nature of the mechanics and level design. You can explore the levels by breaking blocks to reveal hidden pathways and passages where you can find extra treasure and usable items. Treasure is predominately used for buying upgrades, but it’s not difficult at all to find enough treasure to max out the really useful things like shovel abilities and magic points. Other than that you just have items and armour upgrades, and in the case of armour I pretty much just bought them all for the sake of buying something and then only ever used one of them. There’s just too much of this stuff for a game this short, half of the weapons I used once to see what they do and then never picked them up again. Then on top of that there’s potions you can use, but to do that you have to buy a chalice, then you have to go to the lake and talk to apple fish king thing (don’t worry about it) who does a nice song and dance for about 2 minutes to give you a one use potion (things like invincibility and health etc.). But because it’s one use only you just end up putting off using it forever and accidentally beat the game with it sitting in your lap, it’s just a load of fluff for something basically pointless.

It’s not a massive issue or anything, but the problem is the game focuses a lot on the act of gathering treasure (note the paragraph earlier about losing treasure being used instead of a lives system) as its inspiration for exploring levels and completing extra stages on the map, so it feels like all this extra stuff is just there to justify having so much treasure in the game in the first place. The game could have used a bit more balancing in how you buy new magic and how you spend your treasure, because honestly by the end of my playthrough I started not caring about treasure at all when I realised I already had everything worth having and that made me far lazier in terms of exploring the levels.

Also, the level design is consistently tight throughout the game with every stage having its own bag of tricks that stays consistent with the game’s mechanics and basic rules, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t weaken towards the end. The final castle stages, probably in an attempt to be more “challenging” start relying less on clever tightly designed rooms and more on gimmicky instadeath traps that punish you for the slightest mistake. The worst part is the room where the walls move up and down, crushing you if a pixel of your shovelly body is caught under it. I died on this part about 50 billion times, initially out of sheer carelessness but eventually just out of boredom-fuelled impatience.

These are all little niggles, but Shovel Knight definitely needed to be a little more tight in its extra bits to be a true classic, but nothing mentioned above stops it from being a fantastic videogame. The soundtrack and the pixel art come from a place of artistic confidence and not just nostalgic baiting, the level design is fuelled predominately by common sense and everything is presented with a lot of care and love and a cute little story which ends the experience with a satisfied sigh. Yacht Club Games have proven themselves with Shovel Knight and the industry should look forward to their future projects.

WUP-N_WKNE_gameplay_4

In closing; in the opening paragraph I described Shovel Knight as “one of the most encouraging projects in recent memory” and I’d like to end this review by clarifying that. Shovel Knight is encouraging in both its style of design and the future of the videogame industry in general. A bunch of cool people who knew what they were doing got together and had a great idea for a game, they pitched that idea to the public through Kickstarter who liked it and supported it. This gave them a comfortable budget to work with for the kind of the game they wanted to make, but not requiring 10s of millions of corporate dollars in an unsustainable five year developmental cycle. The product of this is a wonderful little game that the developers can be proud of and that players can love. We need more games like Shovel Knight, and you dear reader, need Shovel Knight in your Steam library.

The pressure’s on you now, Mighty No. 9,Inafune and his team better up their game to follow this.

Score:8/10

Developer: Yacht Club Games

Publisher: Yacht Club Games 

Platform: Steam, Wii U and 3DS in North America, other platforms to follow