Snap Judgements: Year On Edition

At this point, it’s been almost a year since we entered quarantine.  And it’s had its ups, times when I’ve been able to live up to my magnificent self, and its had its downs, times when I’ve been reminded that we’re still living in a dystopian future.  There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long tunnel, and we’re still a ways from the end.  So you know what?  Let’s take that time to play some games.  Here’s what I’ve been working through lately.  

Chroma Squad

So, here’s one of those games I never really knew existed, but when one of the various give-you-games services landed it into my library, it really stood out.  Chroma Squad is a Tactics-style strategy RPG in which you’re playing out battles for a Power Rangers-esque Super Sentai show.  It lets you customize a lot about your show, from team and character names to the colors of your rangers and everything in between, which gives me incredible freedom to amuse myself with the powers of my own mind in ways absolutely nobody else will find funny, probably.  From Kickass Blaster Studios, in the prime after school viewing block, hang on to your hats, boys and girls, it’s time for the totally child-appropriate show, Tooty Fruity Kill Squad!  When evil is afoot, these five heroes, with a shout of “It’s Murder Time!”, will activate their Moon Prism Magic and transform into Killer Red (because every sentai group has a red leader), Killer Black, Killer Gray, Killer White (because it amused me to have a chunk of the usually colorful sentai squads be completely monochrome), and Killer Purple (because nobody ever has a purple ranger)!  They’ll fight their way through hordes of goons, and then, when things get too hot to handle, unleash their team-based special move, the Eat Shit!  And when their might alone isn’t enough, they’ll pilot their giant robot, the Killborg 10,000, to victory!

It rather helps that there’s a pretty simple but mechanically solid gameplay system behind it too.  It’s a really basic tactics system in all, it’s grid-based and you’ve got your basic movements and attacks, a few weapons and abilities that depend on your characters classes and equipment, and an option to assist that’s really one of the things that adds a surprisingly large amount of depth to the gameplay.  By assisting, your heroes will set themselves up for others to leap off of, adding a lot of range to their movement, and will also attack in unison with other rangers targeting enemies in mutual melee range, more than doubling their attack damage.  If you pull off having all five members attack one enemy at once, they’ll do the team special move, the Eat Shit! in my case but you can call it something lamer if you’d like to in your game.  But that’s supposed to be a finishing move, and if you use it as anything but a coup de grace, the anticlimax will make for a worse episode and you’ll lose fan power for that.  Which is a thing.  You need to have built up a certain amount of fan power to be able to transform from your lame everyday forms to your Killer selves, or whatever your team is named, in the first place, and beyond that, it plays a part in your overall studio management.  That component feels a lot like a management sim, where you’re laying out and dealing with the resources for your own studio, but everything you do has a direct, in-combat effect, so it’s not really that in practice, more like just a really elaborate means of equipping your team in an RPG.

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the character of the game, it does a lot of wink-wink nudge-nudge humor that seems likes it’s just trying too hard, and a lot of the enemy design is a little lackluster.  You’ll be tired of fighting the same jobbers over and over again, but the bosses are frequent and varied, which works really well to keep things fresh.  And the visuals, in spite of me deliberately toning down over half of my team, are very vibrant and coloful, and the music is pretty nice.  Captures the old 90’s vibe really well in a primitive almost-chiptune set.  Overall, I enjoyed my time with the game quite a bit.  It moves quickly, and although it can be a little cringy or basic in parts, it’s a simple, fun time in all.

Aztez

From a very vibrant game to one that’s carefully not.  Aztez uses the old Madworld color palette of black, white, red, and nothing else.  It’s a hard game to describe.  Particularly given that I don’t especially understand it myself.  It’s half board game, half smackdown?  Something like that.  So, in a given game, you’re playing in ancient Mexico, trying to do… something.  I thought you were trying to take over cities and force out rival tribes, but then I won the game without doing that.  Anyways, you start with board game parts, managing your towns and resources and what not.  One of your resources are your warriors, and you get to do one major thing per warrior per turn.  So more warriors equals more turns.  The bulk of the things in this are combat challenges, where you get to the smackdown gameplay.  I don’t know why, but that part of the game reminds me a lot of Viewtiful Joe’s post-game challenge levels.  It has a similar feel to combat, and a lot of it is based on keeping track of enemies and making appropriate reactions to their telegraphed attack, much like Viewtiful Joe.  Except you can absorb your opponent’s blood and use that to summon your god to smack them around.  As you do.

Anyways, in my game, I spent most of my time campaigning against my rival tribes, pushing them back and stealing their territory, aiming to eradicate them as is usually the win condition in those types of strategy games.   I almost got to that point, but then the Spanish arrived, with their armor and their guns and their better equipment than me, and they started completely crushing my guys.  With clever use of items, I managed to push them back to the borders of the map, then devoted all my remaining warriors to taking them down so I could smash my rivals in peace.  They killed all but the last of my warriors, but that last one brought down the guy with the biggest feather in his helmet, and that apparently meant that I won the game, even though my rivals now were in a perfect position to retake my land after I spent all I had in fighting the Spanish.  So, I guess there’s a moral to the story.  And that moral is that the true path to victory runs through beating up the Spanish.

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The Only Thing Worse than Redoing a Bad Job is Redoing a Good One

madmoxxi

I’ve heard it said that the DLC is the best parts of Borderlands.  And I can see why.  The dev team really seemed to pick up their game when it came time for the Add-on content.  More humor and character shines through, you get a lot more variety in your enemies, the battles are more intense, and the game just seems more creative in general, like they’re trying out all the concepts they were too scared, inexperienced, or schedule-crunched to add into the vanilla game.  Really, taking all factors into account, I should be having more fun with the DLC than I was with the regular game.  But I’m not.  And that irritates me.  I was having a big, unlucky bandit-shaped blast with the regular game!  The DLC, on the other hand, is just something I’m kind of slogging through.  What I should be enjoying the most is making me stare at my screen in anguish.  And it’s all because of one simple reason.  It’s because the DLC keeps making me do the exact same thing every time I start it up.

See, in Borderlands, both base game and DLC, missions will send you all over the place.  You may have to collect 100 Bear Asses in one area, then go make some Soylent Green Brand Chunky Salsa in another area three loading screens away, then have to return to a third map in a completely different location in order to turn them all in.  In the base game, that works out just fine, thanks to the magic of Fast Travel!  You don’t have to worry about transit in between them, if that area’s already explored, you can be right there!  Not so with the DLC.  For whatever reason, there’s only one fast travel point per add-on, right at the beginning.  You’ve got to take the long way around to do anything.  Which, thanks to the amount of back and forth you go through, that enemies respawn every time you go through a loading screen, and that the simple act of loading a save takes you right back to the first area, means you spend a lot of time covering ground that’s already been tread.  With bullets.

Repetition is not engaging.  It’s not fun.  I know I can’t speak for every player, but personally, there’s few faster ways of causing me to lose interest in a game than making me do the exact same things I just freakin’ did.  In the Borderlands DLC’s case, the problem is that I every time I start a play session, I have to spend fifteen minutes to a half hour just making my way back to where I was at the end of the last session, walking in my own footprints, re-icing the guys I already killed, spending the same time I already paid last time around.  By the time I get to the content I want, I’m already bored, frustrated, and pissed off with the game.  Not exactly the feelings any game should want to instill.

Back when I was a cub, this kind of repetition was just a fact of life of gaming.  It was how almost any game punished you for losing, by making you play the whole blasted game again.  And it’s a really piss-poor way to handle it.    Video games deliver in a variety of ways.  Usually they’re fun and entertaining.  Sometimes, they may be touching and enlightening.  At other times, they may instill a feeling of triumph.  But however video games find their value, it never benefits from making the player do the same thing, over, and over, and over again.  There is nothing to gain from redoing a good job.  The task loses some of the fun factor, becoming more and more dull every time the player has to repeat it.  The story will absolutely lose its pacing and impact when the player has to go through it again.  And it’s hard to feel triumph by overcoming an enemy you’ve already beaten.  You will never be able to add to the experience by making the player re-cover the same ground.

Game designers have recognized this for a long, long time.  It’s why Super Mario Bros. had that simple  “re-start from the world you’re on” cheat I could never work out.  It’s why Mega Man gave you a password every time you ended a level, whether victorious or not.  It’s why the Legend of Zelda had the capacity to save.  And fast forwarding through the history of gaming, it’s why check/save points, fast travel, and so many other convenience features exist in games today.  As I mentioned in a recent comment over at Red Metal’s house, I think that’s one of the biggest advances the medium has made, in that games have cut down on how much it requires the player to cover the same ground.  Game designers still have plenty of hiccups in implementing the philosophy, however.  And it almost always hurts these games when it comes up.  I’ve had an excellent time with Borderlands.  The DLC should be even better.  Yet I can’t load it up without having to grind my way to the content I actually want, and it’s killing the game for me.