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September 18, 2020

Ninja Pizza Girl

"Gemma Delivery Service, ready for
your next command!"
In a modestly cyberpunk future, cities have become too large to be sustainable. The ground level? Forget it; it’s all buildings and traffic jams. Several people have taken to living on rooftops. There’s room to live here. Gemma is a teenage girl with an affinity for parkour, a necessity to travel around these dangerous roofs and the construction areas on them. Her dad just quit his job to pursue his dream of opening a rooftop pizzeria, which he named PizzaRiffic, putting his mad pizzaiolo skills to use. Gemma thus becomes the business's delivery girl, aided by her wheelchair-bound brother, Tristan, telling her from his station where to deliver their father's concoctions. However, competition in the pizza market is ferocious...

Such is the (at first glance) silly concept behind Ninja Pizza Girl, a creation of the Australian family studio Disparity Games, released to Steam on September 30th, 2015. This product is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign that gathered 38,694 AUS$ on a goal of 35,000AUS$. The game was later released on other gaming consoles: PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U.

It's still safer than the streets of a megapolis.

Please wear pants... please wear pants...
please wear paOH DAMMIT
As expected of a platforming protagonist, Gemma can run, jump, wall-jump and crouch (which can also allow her to slide beneath obstacles if she was running prior to crouching). She can use that slide to kick, an attack that she can also pull while in midair to break obstacles or hit enemies. Most levels involve Gemma delivering pizzas, so there’s a timer and you must attempt to navigate the almost-labyrinthine levels in the given time, to arrive at the goal, represented by the door to a home. I say the levels are labyrinthine, yes, but they’re designed in such a way that you’ll reach your destination regardless of the path you take, if you go the right way.

The game is split in levels, which are divided into “story arcs” of sorts. Things begin on the comedic side in the “Home Neighborhood” arc, in which Gemma makes her first steps as a pizza delivery teen in the flashy and bright world of the megalopolis rooftops. However, she’s growing irritated at the number of customers who open the door without the basest decency. We’re even treated to…

September 9, 2020

Quick Review: VVVVVV

…Oh! Those look like spikes pointing down! I get it now.

The first spikes of several thousands.
A creation of Terry Cavanagh and released on September 7th, 2010, VVVVVV is about a spaceship's crew that suddenly gets lost in a mazelike dimension following a teleporter mishap. Captain Viridian is left alone to retrieve the five other members of the crew and, hopefully, escape this dimension. What might make this a little difficult is that Viridian cannot jump. What the Captain can do, however, is reverse their own gravity, therefore allowing them to walk on ceilings. And that’s how they get around this warped world.

Their main task is to explore the fairly large map, which wraps around itself horizontally and vertically, and find the five missing crew members. Those can often be found near portals. A rough location for all teleporters is indicated on the in-game map after completing the “Tutorial” of sorts, so you will have some idea of where to search. Viridian can also stumble upon shiny trinkets, 20 of them, scattered around (and necessary in order to get the best ending the game can give the player).

And now, the first of several trinkets. Expect
those to make you say all the swear words
you've ever learned.

These wires instantly change Viridian's gravity.
And those squares have spikes, of course.
Don’t expect this world to make things easy, though – it’s yet another meat grinder type of adventure game in which you don’t have a lives counter, because the world is dead-set (no pun intended) on killing you hundreds of times. Most screens aren’t too tough, but once in a while you’ll stumble on a challenge that will require several attempts. Some of the trinkets are placed in devilish locations, too – there’s at least two of those that I don’t plan on ever getting because they're too damn tough.

The game uses basic 8bit graphics and has a retro feel to it, but the world design is marvelous. The gameplay is smooth, and you can explore almost freely across the dimension. It only makes the genuine challenges more notable. Also important is how the game plays with its core concept and mechanics in each area where a crew member can be rescued. From wires that instantly swap Viridian’s gravity, even in midair, to screens that wrap around themselves, and even autoscrolling screens. 

I must have spent 20 minutes trying to get
through this screen alone. Mind you, Viridian
also needs to help their crewmember go through.

On top of it all, the game features a lot of challenges, which a daring player may attempt. Time trials, a Gravitron... The toughest one? Finish the game with a single life and no checkpoints. Yeah… I ain’t doing that one. There’s also a level design mode as well as a handful of examples of well-crafted fan levels.

It’s a pretty good game! The story is more of an afterthought, as the focus is on giving a full world to explore with a unique mechanic that the player must learn to use. There have been reports of over seven thousand spikes scattered around the game, so yep – the spike theming of VVVVVV is justified. And you’re probably going to get familiar with a handful of those spikes, too, considering how easy it is to hit one. Thankfully, checkpoints are frequent, and while the game is overall pretty tough, it’s nonetheless crafted in a way that feels very fair. You can get lost in an area, but there’s very little here that will feel insurmountable. (That said, anyone who sees this game and the words “Veni, Vidi, Vici” associated to it will feel a chill down their spine.) The end product is charming yet challenging, and even if you do beat the story, there’s more to do with side-quests and fanmade levels. The music is also great across the board, a collection of very enjoyable chiptunes.

So many Teleporters and Shiny trinkets!

I recommend this one. VVVVVV is available for 4.99$.

It’s a nice way to end this series of quick reviews. Now, there are two games that were planned in this series that I’ve skipped because I intend to give them a full review instead of a quick one. These will be published soon. I also have a full plate lately, a lot of stuff happening from a personal standpoint, so excuse me if delays happen again.

September 7, 2020

Quick Review: Tadpole Treble

(I was supposed to post this one last Friday... Oops.)

An adventure always has to start somewhere.
At the parents' place, as an example.
Early in the life of this blog, I talked about the webcomic Brawl in the Family. After that webcomic ended, its creator, Matthew Taranto, went into game design. He provided art for some indie games such as Nefarious… and also made his own game, full of the wholesomeness, adorableness, comedy, wit, and most importantly, music we’ve come to love from his work.

Developed by BitFinity, published by it and Sunken Treasure Games, and released on September 2nd, 2016, Tadpole Treble is the story of Baton, a tadpole that literally just hatched from her egg. Just as she was making her first wiggles in this watery world, she’s gobbled up by a large bird. She fights to free herself and is dropped at the top of the island’s mountain. This poor baby must find her way home!

These trouts are so big compared
to the poor little Baton!

A level paying tribute to the 8bit days?
Okay, I love this game already.
The gameplay is very musical – Baton moves on the water stream like the lines of a musical staff. Notes come in from the right as black, spiky things that the tadpole must avoid by moving up and down. She has a base attack, used by hitting the Right key or the Space bar. And as Baton progresses through the level without getting hurt, a meter raises, and when it’s full, you can hold down the attack button to turn Baton invincible for a moment, which also allows her to destroy black notes. Now, make it to the end of each level without losing all of our tadpole protagonist’s HP.

This island is HUGE! But so gorgeous!

Taranto included a handful of songs where he
sings. They're very much welcome.
The secondary goal is to collect the 100 Bubbles in every level, some of which require utmost timing and precision. Along the way, several actions Baton can do will give her points, and your score at the end of a level grants you a letter grade, all the way up to S. She can use her attack on bamboo poles, on cymbals that appear, and also use it on a few other instances. Last but not least, each level has a Challenge Fly that can be gathered by accomplishing something in that level – what must be done? The goal differs in each level. The game gives some clues. The fan-made guides will help more.

Singing along may be tempting, but focus
on guiding Baton through.
The main game only has 12 levels, but every single one of them is memorable. In design, in music, in challenge as well. My favorite level is Thunder Creek – awesome song, awesome concept for the level, awesome design all around. This is the type of game that isn’t that difficult to beat – getting to the end is doable in two hours at most. But completing it? Gathering all 1200 Bubbles, finding all the flies, completing every bonus mode? Git gud. Upon completion of the Story Mode, an extra mode opens, titled Concerto, in which you must try to finish all the levels in a single run, with only one life bar.

The game also includes: A Composition mode allowing you to create your own songs, your own levels, with a few fanmade examples available in the game’s Steam Workshop; multiple extras that can be unlocked by reaching a certain threshold of Bubbles brought to Etude, the giant bullfrog requesting them; and plenty of secrets, Easter Eggs, and references to famous video games. All of which is to be expected from this game’s creator, really.

If a battle was to happen between Etude the giant bullfrog
and a bear, I would have to think long before placing a bet.

I'd better brush up on my vomposition skills.
I loved, loved playing this one. I had some idea of what to expect – it’s a tadpole moving on a staff, avoiding obstacles to the music. But beyond expectations, playing it is a whole other thing. It’s definitely a game to try out. You’ll be wowed, you’ll be surprised, and you’ll most likely find yourself looking up the songs online to hear them again. It’s cheerful, it’s gorgeous, and it’s a treat to play, get it, get it now, and play it. If you like music and rhythm games, you’re going to love it.

Tadpole Treble is available for 4.99$.

September 2, 2020

Quick Review: The Stanley Parable

I’ve already sung the praises of postmodernist game developer Davey Wreden on this blog, I’ll gladly do it again – this time, with the first game that made him famous.

(Guess I need to do this again; what follows contains spoilers. You have been warned. But the game’s pretty famous; chances are, you already know many of the details.)

Nicolas realized that it would be tricky to
show anything from this game without
spoiling any of it.

The Stanley Parable was published by Galactic Cafe and released on October 17th, 2013. Stanley is an office worker who is at work one day only to find the place suddenly empty. Stanley can choose to investigate, or he can do whatever the Hell he feels like doing, and there’s nothing the narrator can do to stop him!

At that moment, Nicolas realized that it was
difficult to convey a game about narration
with still images.
About as meta as a game can get, The Stanley Parable starts from a simple base story that branches out into multiple possible paths. It’s like a book where you are the hero. Or a guy trying to tell a tale, only to be interrupted at every turn by someone taking the plot where it wasn’t supposed to go. The narrator tries to point you, the first-person protagonist of this environmental narrative, into the right direction, but you can choose to ignore him. This may lead to twists you hadn’t seen before. Or it may lead to the narrator getting increasingly snippy and sarcastic at you.

Nicolas could have turned on the game's
subtitles to at least highlight the narration,
but the thought never crossed his mind.
The game strongly encourages multiple replays; going through a path may take 10-15 minutes at best, and then restart the game and try something different. The narrator may comment on your haste if you attempt to speedrun a section; he may mock the choices you make; he may grow desperate as you stick in one place instead of moving forward; he may even change the game sometimes to cut down on annoying segments. I won’t spoil how it happens, but I’ve had one of my biggest laughs in recent memory thanks to this game, in a sequence involving the broom closet.

Although there was no reason to do so,
the reviewer read through the entire
presentation in the Meeting Room, perhaps
hoping for something special. All he got
was confusion and nonsense.
What else is made fun of in this game? Uh… Damn near every single video game convention imaginable. The game pokes fun at the concept of achievements, at the elements of an environmental narrative, at most details of game design you can think of. Whereas The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden’s project that followed The Stanley Parable, is a lot more sober and serious in tone, this one is balls-to-the-wall crazy and hilarious. Two extremely different takes on, yes, that word again, postmodernism in video games. It’s all about calling attention to the medium used to present the oeuvre. It’s the gaming equivalent of Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Although perhaps beyond that, both of Wreden’s games focus on the way a story is told through the medium of video games, in a manner that would be impossible in almost any other form of artistic medium. Both games use the concept of a narrator in new and creative ways, as well. On that, I can't forget to mention the very great performance of Kevan Brighting as said narrator.

Wanting to keep his article spoiler-free, Nicolas
only selected screenshots that revealed as
little as -
Narrator? What the fuck are you
doing here? Go back into The Stanley Parable!
For the record, I played this game for a few hours, and I am fairly certain I haven't seen nor heard everything. There are so many secrets and endings that, as long as you can think of new ways the plot can unravel, you'll keep finding new content. From what I've heard, the demo is also worth trying.

If you like this type of meta-commentary, you’ll love this game. Hell, even if you’re not looking specifically for that in a game, you’ll likely enjoy this one regardless, as it has enough hilarious moments to get someone laughing. To be fair, this one is pretty famous; it’s possible that you already knew most of what I said here, by this title’s reputation alone. It’s worth trying, definitely. The Stanley Parable is available for 14.99$.

August 31, 2020

Quick Review: Secrets of Raetikon

A bird lost in the mountains explores the ruins of an ancient civilization and discovers its secrets… and the other animals are none too pleased about it.

Playing a bird in the forest.
Feels natural enough.
Secrets of Rætikon is a creation of the studio Broken Rules and was released on January 7th, 2014 in Early Access, with full release in April of that year. It’s a combination of puzzle and exploration. Your protagonist? The aforementioned bird, which finds itself in an unknown area. You’re taught the important mechanics of the game: Fly with the arrows. Flap your wings with the Spacebar, and press E to dive down. Use Q to grab on to an item that you can then carry around as you fly. Your task is to collect little white triangles (known as slivers) scattered around the areas, which you can find by letting out a detecting bird cry with S; the slivers are later dropped into ruins with W. Still no clue how to attack any of the antagonistic wildlife.

Holy crap, this thing is huge!
Soon, the bird finds a giant construct with seven locked cages. Your task is to find idols that will open the seven cages, which themselves are locked into machines that must be opened with a certain number of slivers. On top of the white ones, your aviary protagonist can also collect blue slivers that indicate some sort of progress in the game, and red slivers that let it regain health. Where do you have to go next? You choose. This is basically a 2D open world. Explore, solve the little puzzles involving the ruins, find the idols, and open the cages. 

A puzzle so simple, even a bird can solve it!
The positive aspect is that you can explore to your heart’s content, discover things as you go. The problem is that it becomes quite easy to get lost. Looking for your way back to the big machine so you can stick an idol into it? Don’t lose the idol, don’t die on the way back either… The local wildlife HAAAAATES you. The worst part is that I’ve never really figured out how to fight back against these threats.

The game has a lush art style. The nature around our bird, and the remnants of a civilization, everything’s vibrant. The music is also pretty good. The resulting world is actually quite enjoyable to explore, but it would be a lot better if you weren’t fearing for your life, defenseless, on every screen.

I felt myself wince just looking at this
part of the game again.
I struggled to bring more than one idol back, because I couldn’t find my way around. Open worlds usually have maps for that reason. That’s not even getting into some of the challenges that await your bird as it tries to get the idols. I distinctly remember one of those: The idol appears between two tall trees. Another bird keeps trying to steal it from you. The trees are alive, and they try to catch your bird and steal back the idol every time you try to fly away. I hated that section.

I think I can read that, even without the code.
You can also find symbols that are code for letters of the alphabet, which you can then use to decipher the text on some of the steles you see on your way. But, to be fair, most of the letters were transformed only a little, so you could theoretically read the text even without knowing the code. An interesting idea, but it doesn’t add much to the game.

I tried to play this game some more, but no – I can’t. It annoyed me too much. The difficulty is unfair and the world, which they tried to make pleasant to observe, is anything but pleasant to visit. If you had a means of defense, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but too many things can kill you and there’s nothing you can do against them. A map would have helped, more health would have helped. Speaking of health, the worst thing may be the pounding heartbeat sounds that never cease when your health is low. There is no fairness here. I really, really didn’t like it. Not even a recommendation, to be honest. But if you do feel like trying it, head over to Steam and get it for 9.99$.