Shuggy is an unfortunately-named vampire heading into a recently-inherited haunted mansion to clear out the demons within. Why does this vampire have a problem with fellow creatures of the night? Who knows. You are dropped in the dungeon of the mansion because, well, it’s as good a place to start as any, right? You find gems in each room, and upon finding all the gems you get a key. And gems form into keys because... you know what, forget it. Adventures of Shuggy is one of those games where the story just does not matter in the slightest.
That’s not always a problem --sometimes a game just needs to set a tone with its visuals and back it up with gameplay. Shuggy aims for a kid-friendly haunted mansion theme, with character designs that would fit right in with Halloween decorations and sticker sets at your local dollar store. But developer Smudged Cat Games couldn’t even stick with that theme: spiders, zombies, and other fitting enemies are joined by wasps, mosquitoes, abstract spike-balls, explosive mines, flaming fish, and robotic chickens(?). Backgrounds are fairly bland tile-sets of bricks, boards, and boxes, and when extraneous details are added for flavour, they sometimes obscure the view of the actual platforms and hazards. Shuggy and the monsters he must avoid pop out from the screen, which is handy enough for identifying hazards, but tends to look pretty ugly. Sounds aren’t any better, with an obnoxious jump effect, the annoying buzzing of mosquitoes (seriously, who thought that was a good sound to have going on so often?), and very little of use for providing gameplay cues. Music is fine, but nothing much to write about.
Okay, so story, theme, graphics, and sound are a bust. But how does it play? Thankfully, the gameplay is good. Not great, not that unique or exciting, but solidly good. B+. The conceit with Shuggy is that for the 100-plus rooms you’ll be puzzle-platforming your way through, the rules can change for any of them. Some levels have gravity pull sideways. Sometimes you can teleport. Sometimes you can fly or glide. Sometimes you can rotate the world around you. Some levels feature multiple Shuggys to control, dramatic size changes, or time-clones that re-run the path you just took. Sometimes you can use a rope to rappel around. I can’t fault it for lack of variety.
This kitchen-sink approach to feature addition helps to stave off the boredom of perpetual gem-collecting, but it creates some problems as well. The overworld screen for each section of the mansion allows you to branch off in different paths as you open adjacent doors upon completing a stage. This means that the developers lose control of what rooms to attempt next, leading to players finishing some complex level with a heretofore unseen game mechanic, then later grinding through a harmless player-training room designed to teach that same thing. Worse though is that with so many tricks up its sleeve, Shuggy never really does anything that interesting with any of them. Games like And Yet it Moves, Braid, and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom focused on exploring only one of the same mechanics found in Shuggy, and end up taking that mechanic to more interesting places as a result.
The game never really feels like a good test of skill either. Sure I died a lot, but I never felt that anything was satisfactorily challenging, it was just filled with annoyances in the way of inevitable completion. Puzzles, likewise, are typically solved just by trying stuff until something eventually works. I can’t help but wonder if Smudged Cat dropped the ball by over-simplifying the controls. As it is, a single action button handles the level-specific mechanic. If they had instead used two action buttons, they could have combined a couple gimmicks together to create something more interesting: multiple Shuggys and room rotation, rope swinging and time-slip clones, etc. etc.
This is what I hoped for when I made my purchase --taking the mechanics I had seen in other games and combining them to unique effect. As it is Adventures of Shuggy, while nicely varied, feels like an ersatz amalgam of other -better- indie games.
Adventures of Shuggy is available on XBLA and PC. This review is based on the PC version using an Xbox 360 controller.
Tower of Heaven: A Descent Into Hell
"May heaven grant you fortune." This is a common phrase repeated in various forums throughout Tower of Heaven. At first it is seemingly random, but as the game goes on you start to realize how much divine intervention you’re going to need to get through it. Tower of Heaven is centered around retro mechanics that dominated the 2D platforming era. Mario would be proud of the spot-on controls, chiptune music, and monochromatic green visuals that help create a retro Game Boy vibe. The controls are just as old school, with only two directions and jumping. However, Tower of Heaven's main hook is not the retro vibe, but rather how the game differentiates itself from the rest of the platformers out there with its unique rule set.
To quickly summarize the story (more depth later), the main protagonist is trying to climb the Tower of Heaven, but a deity at the top prevents him from doing so by creating laws which the protagonist must abide to while within the walls of the tower. If any of them are broken, the protagonist will be "smitten." Your job is to platform up the tower while following the rules of the so called god as he builds them up one at a time. The final book of laws eventually becomes:
(Not in the lawbook, but each level must be finished within a time limit)
1. Thou shalt not touch golden blocks.
2. Thou shalt not touch blocks or walls from the side.
3. Thou shalt not walk left.
4. Thou shalt not touch a living thing.
5. Thou shalt no longer check the rules.
The first rule gives the feel of how the game will dish out laws. Strewn throughout the levels are spikes and buzz saws which are already deadly, so this rule just gives the player something else to worry about. Mastery of most other platformers involves the ability to control the character, and Tower of Heaven forces this upon the player quite early. The second rule only reinforces this, requiring a whole new degree of precision. Rule three is when things start getting interesting.
Well, crap. Of course, there is a way around this rule, but what it does is add a level of frustration to the game. Most of the levels after this rule is introduced do not have a bunch of leftward movement, so it’s easy to forget that pressing the left arrow key to reposition the protagonist before a jump will cause death. Law four is pretty interesting as well, because now all the grass and butterflies that were just background eye candy before will kill you. The final rule doesn’t really change much in terms of gameplay, since you’ll probably die so much that it’ll be impossible to forget what the laws are, but it is a bit of a smack in the face if you end up accidentally pressing the [SHIFT] key and explode.
Something very interesting about the laws introduced in this game is that they are all tropes that gamers may have seen before, albeit in a different context. Deadly blocks are around in most platformers, but hitting the sides of blocks is oftentimes seen in side-scrolling shooters, where hitting walls meant crashing a spaceship. Walking left can also be attributed to automatic side-scrollers, and avoiding living things is something we see in tons of games, including Super Mario Bros. But, in this game the butterflies don’t kill you because they are evil, they kill you because the deity says they do. These laws in combination give Tower of Heaven a pretty unique and difficult gameplay experience.
Though these rules reflect many aspects of classic two dimensional games from the late 80s, they do so in a satirical manner. Because of the influx of ‘retro revival’ in indie games, Tower of Heaven decides to be different by taking these respected video game tropes and forcing the player to become aware of how arbitrary they can be. It leads them to think, “Why am I following these rules? Am I voluntarily following the rules or am I being forced?” And with these inquiries, the player breaks away from the any hard wired gaming ideas they may have. The game has both nostalgic and ameliorating qualities. Because of this, there so many things the player has to be careful of, that the precision platforming almost takes the backseat. In the end, this game gets hard. And you will die. A lot.
As frustrating as the game can be, there are a lot of things that it does right which help make it less grating. For one, the controls are great. When playing a lot of Flash games, sluggish and clunky controls are almost expected, but this game has none of that. It’s extremely easy to land jumps because of how tight the controls feel, which is necessary because of the type of precision the game demands in its platforming. Each level is very short, and when you die you come back very quickly. Any frustration is quickly relieved since you can get enough tries in on a particular level to finish it just as things start getting really irritating. On top of that, the game itself is very short, so the player doesn’t have to endure that kind of torture for too long. The speed run time above shows how short the game can be for a seasoned player, but the game will probably be around ten times longer the first time through because of how common death is. Also, there were only eight deaths in that speed run, but a first play though can easily tally up over 200. There is frustration abound in Tower of Heaven, but the game does everything it can to keep things feeling fair.
Instead of sobbing in a corner over the game’s difficulty, take a moment to take in the atmosphere of this game. It’s well worth it. The graphics have the same greenish hues to them as classic Game Boy titles did and some scenes have quite a bit of detail, and look amazing. The Megaman games released on the Game Boy had a very similar style, with a fairly large character compared to the world around them. This simple graphical style is also a great contrast to the gameplay, where much more is happening at once than the typical Game Boy platformer. The music too, is comprised of old school beeps and bops, but it still takes tone and ambiance into account. When platforming, a cheery (ironic), exciting tune plays. When exploring the hidden parts of the tower, there’ s great background noise and no music. Even though this kind of stuff is expected in games, the fact the the game is otherwise so simple really helps to set the mood. Of course the graphics are more than just for nostalgia, they also help to set the tone.
The artists did a lot with such a simple artstyle, and it is extremely impressive. There are eerie moments where the protagonist is exploring the shadowy, untouched areas of the tower, and the more bright but dangerous platforming sections. Including grass and butterflies does more than introduce a gameplay mechanic later on, it also makes the tower feel like it has been on earth for an eternity. Finally, the game runs these graphics very smoothly, which is also not always expected in a Flash game but makes Tower of Heaven a delight to look at and to play.
It is unfortunate that the story is not quite as fleshed out as the gameplay, art, and music. As was mentioned before, the protagonist is a traveller seeking to get to the top of the Tower of Heaven, a tower which is so tall it seemed to be, “...an open seam before heaven and earth that eluded the eye of God”. When the traveller enters the tower he is spoken to by some kind of deity, which thinks that the traveller is just another young adventurer seeking the tower’s reward. Classically, the deity gets angrier and angrier as the protagonist ascends the tower against all odds. Moreover, the deity has the power to alter the fundamental laws of the physical world in a single second. This authoritative relationship is similar to the interaction between the GLaDOS and Chell seen in the Portal games, and it works just as well here as it did there.
Most of this exposition is gathered from textboxes (seen in the majority of screenshots so far) of the deity talking to the protagonist. The gameplay also has a unique role in the narrative in that it both helps, and hurts it. Dying so much in the journey up the Tower of Heaven acts as a trial, and rising up through the deity’s torment and disapproval can represent the protagonist’s faith in the heavens above. The deity says, “May heaven grant you fortune”, before almost every level starts. Ironically, the game is about the struggles of climbing the tower through trial and error... very little fortune is involved. The difficulty symbolizes the intense struggles which fill the lives of every human being, and the Tower of Heaven is a manifestation of them. However, the narrative starts to break down because of all the death and difficulty. You die a whole bunch in this game, so when the deity starts fuming over why the protagonist is still alive it’s pretty inconsistent. Hundreds of deaths have already been tallied up, so why is the deity so angry? It’s pretty strange, and would make a bit more sense if the deity were talking directly to the player - asking them why they’re still playing such a masochistic game. Though, that concept isn’t ever expanded on in the storytelling, so it is hard to believe that it was what the writers were going for.
Another place where the narrative falls apart is the ending. Plenty of games have multiple endings, but most serve as a ‘true’ ending and a ‘normal’ ending. One is generally more satisfying than the other, but requires much more effort to obtain. Tower of Heaven is a bit different. There are two different endings depending on whether a secret was collected or not, and each ending gives the story a different meaning. The ending where the protagonist has collected some secrets is fairly straightforward, while the ‘normal’ ending is much more philosophical. This inconsistency is very irritating because it makes it hard to recognize what the unknown traveller’s motives really are. Though there are some contradicting qualities, the narrative still gives an interesting tale about the struggles of the protagonist, and it is much more than what is expected from a short platformer.
Tower of Heaven an outstanding game for what it is. Though it is often seen as a simple platformer, it has many hidden quirks that make it quite charming, and a difficulty that is unforgiving and addictive. But in the end, the game challenges many preconceived notions that push the player to question the nature of games while also giving difficulties that portrays the very idea of a tower to heaven. Overall, this game is too good to pass up. The gameplay is great, the art fantastic, the music addicting, and a story that will... make you think about it at least. Thanks for reading, and may heaven grant you fortune in your adventure through akiisoft’s Tower of Heaven.
Tower of Heaven is an indie game made in 2009 by askiisoft, and re-released in Flash in 2010. The Flash version of the game can be found on Newgrounds here:
Set in the city of Midgård, Magicka places you in the middle of fantasy land that is wrought with evil you must fight. Your goal in this game is to reach the capitol city of Havindr, and to support the king in the fight.
The game introduces you to the controls very well. In the tutorial, filled with the humorous but derpy dialogue, you learn the controls for the game, which consist of keyboard commands to mix various elements, and a click and follow method of moving the character around. There is an option to skip the tutorial if you are one of those people that just starts a game. You are able to mix and match up to five spells at a time, however the downside is that with a full spell bar, your character is significantly slower than without any spells. Your character also moves at a slower rate if he has an elemental shield casted on himself.
The gameplay itself is basically an action and tactic based game, where you are forced to fight enemies by mixing together various elements to create spells that are advantageous to your specific fight. Whether it be creating rain so you can electrocute your enemies, or combining arcane and fire to create a beam, you have to utilize your resources in such a way that helps you. There are also quite a few utility spells you can cast for defense, such as health landmines that will any character, enemies included, in the blast radius. In order to keep people from using the same spells the entire time, the developers of the game made it so in some situations, using spells would not only be useless, but counterproductive to your objective (such as water healing certain enemies instead of hurting them). This keeps you thinking about your actions rather than just mindlessly spamming an element.
The camera views are top down with a third person view. This allows for a much wider view of the area you are moving in, and prepares you to confront the enemies you are going to face in advance. Visually, the graphics are similar to what you see in Crystal Chronicles or Ocarina of Time, which is a coincidental comparison since you have a fairy like Navi aiding (with consistently useless advice just as well) you in Magicka too. The camera centers on your character though, preventing you from scrolling the map to see upcoming terrain.
There are also a number of different modes you can complete, including challenge, versus and online play. The online play allows for some fun multiplayer, but the great part is that multiplayer is not restricted to only online play. If you have the resources, you can hook up an Xbox 360 or PS3 controller to allow for local multiplayer. Mixing spells on a remote control though is a bit more tedious, seeing as how you use the right stick to select spells, as compared to just the QWER and ASDF keys on the keyboard. In multiplayer you can either play alongside a partner in the various levels, or you can battle against each other to see who can rack up the most kills.
Some irksome aspects:
Looking at areas of improvement, the game seemed to have a number of glitches during the gameplay. Specifically, multiplayer could use some work. Only occasionally could you actually heal your partner or yourself (if you were player two), which made the job of player one a lot more difficult to do. You also can’t change around the controls. Whether it be self-casting by the mouse or the locations of the spells on the keyboard, you are forced to stick to using the locations of the commands as the developers intended them. While this critique is a bit nitpicky, it would be nice to allow for this customization.
On the whole though, this is a great PC game. The game has a huge number of possible spells and actions to take in each particular situation, which keeps the game exciting the entire time. Although multiplayer could use a couple tweaks, it still allows for a great gaming experience. For $10, this game alone is a great buy. While I haven’t played the game with any downloadable content, you can buy the entire package with the game for only $25. The developers definitely deserve kudos for their unique design.
FEZ review read-along:
Think of FEZ as a puppy: adorable, approachable, simple to get along with, makes cute noises, and you can easily have an enjoyable time with it because it is so small and simple and new to the world. Aww look, the puppy gave you a hat and now it will let you flip it over onto its back to rub its tummy! You can rub all the sides of the soft puppy if you'd like! Wait, what is this on your tummy hidden between the folds of puppy skin? What are these symbols? Who put them here and why are they here? I downloaded this puppy over my Xbox for $10, did the makers embellish this puppy without telling me on purpose? There are more markings behind the ears! In fact, if I pet it backwards a keyboard extends out of the puppy's mouth asking for the input code! What does any of this mean?
Now I as the participator am left with a few options. I can either enjoy my puppy as the puppy I paid $10 for, or I can figure out what the hell any of the mad gibberish that some being of intelligent design has brought to me.
FEZ is not a puppy. It is more like one of those AIBO robot dogs as designed by Mark Z. Danielewski. It looks like a normal puppy at first but then it spirals down into a schizophrenic yet thoroughly planned out cybernetic puzzle cube in the shape of a dog.
FEZ is the first production of French-Canadian indie game developers Polytron. It was in production for about six years, which is a very important detail as it defines the intense level of detail of the virtually hand-crafted game. It is obvious that each pixel was handcrafted, each tone in the soundscape selected, and most importantly each puzzle within a puzzle delivered by lead designer Phil Fish. Unlike other games, especially indie games, that are restrained by time and resources, this has six long and painful years of development underneath it. As it is referenced within Indie Game: The Movie where FEZ's designer Phil Fish is one of the focuses of the documentary, Fish says, "It is hard when you are looking at it like THIS CLOSE!" As he mimes a screen really close to his face, "You can't see anything else. You can't even see the mistakes." So this holds a very special place in gaming culture for many reasons, the biggest being the level of depth applied to the game.
FEZ is a classic platformer ala the original Donkey Kong. However, this simplicity is complicated by a fez which gives Gomez, the main character, the power to rotate the world like a cube revealing three other 'faces' to interact with within the realm of a platformer.
HOWEVER, this depth is complicated by understanding the relations in space where two platforms may line up in one perspective, but then once the world is flipped they line up in a different orientation altogether allowing access to brand new areas.
HOWEVER, this application is complicated by cryptic symbols stapled all over the faces of the walls and structures that make up the FEZ world that create messages that can only be understood by fully discovering the world around the player.
HOWEVER, this discovery is further complicated by developing the cryptic symbols into language, thus completing the communication between the game and the player which finally manifests itself into a solution to a secret puzzle awarding you a secret prize and maybe even an achievement.
However… to achieve a %100 completion of the game as defined by the game's in-game percentage, none of this is necessary, instead the player is allowed to jump and spin to their hearts content without noticing any of these secret puzzles hidden throughout the game.
The beauty of FEZ is how it accommodates the player. There is no pressure to solve every puzzle or do every part of the game, but if you get swept up in decoding secret messages and decide to develop that full rapport with the game, there is enough to fully satisfy any cryptologist and computer scientist out there looking for a challenge.
Here is the bottom line:
FEZ, Phil Fish, and Polytron are delivering a gaming parfait. a light, cheap, deep, and sweet delight that anyone can enjoy without judgment nor exception and it doesn't come with any of that icky regret that an ice cream sundae or any other metaphorical frozen treat may come with.