Preview: dʒrægɛn: A Game About a Dragon

 

Originally posted on indie-love.com

There is a dragon living in the kingdom, guarding his hoard of treasure. The king has decreed that it is time for the serpent’s reign to end. The only solution is to steal the dragon’s mate away from him and take command of the land again!

That’s the general premise of dʒrægɛn: A Game About a Dragon, which is currently in development and on Steam Greenlight. While it sounds like the most standard of fantasy tropes, dʒrægɛn has a twist. You play as the dragon and you’re pretty bummed out that the king kidnapped your girlfriend. Especially when all you want to do is watch trashy daytime television.

dʒrægɛn: A Game About a Dragon intro

I got a chance to play the demo for dʒrægɛn today. The creator describes it as being “an exploration-adventure masquerading as a platformer RPG. “It’s a cute little game with a couple of polarizing features that I suspect will ultimately make or break it.

I can’t talk about dʒrægɛn without talking about its art style, which is easily its most defining feature. It’s a hand drawn game, with levels that look as if they come from a child’s book rather than traditional game design. For the most part, the artwork is done with crayons, though I think I saw some markers and colored pencils as well. It’s a welcome change from the retro graphics that many indie platformers have, and some of the aspects of it quite well done. The character design is pretty cute. The dragon wears hippie glasses, there are revolutionary sheep, and some of the guards goof off on their phones when you’re not near them. The storytelling comes in the form of pages that look as though they could be from a kid’s book. Those pages are where the art style works the best.

dʒrægɛn: A Game About a Dragon

Where I feel the graphics become challenging is in the settings themselves. It looks more like a child’s drawing rather than being an illustration from a child’s book, and I think that’s an important distinction to make. There are games out there that pull off the children’s book illustration look, and I actually like a lot of those. In my opinion, if the aim to is create a game that could look like a children’s book, it could be helpful to draw inspiration from books in that genre. Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, and Shel Silverstein all used pretty simple illustrations, but there’s still a level of polish there that I think would be beneficial if applied to this game.

I wish the game environments had the same level of detail and finesse that the dragon illustration does. The crayon texture can be distracting and tends to lack depth since the white of the paper shows through on almost every color. And where the design of the dragon was clearly well thought out, the trees, buildings, mountains, and signs of the world feel sloppy by comparison. There’s not a lot of contrast between light and dark, which actually made my eyes tired after a while. I think if the main material used to create the art is going to be crayon, the illustration style itself needs to offset the childish nature of the medium by feeling a bit more realistic and mature. Parts of the game are super cute, but I almost feel like the unrefined nature of the graphics kept me from getting fully drawn into the world.

And that’s a shame. While the plot is quite basic and simple, the writing is good and it had me chuckling. I like the idea of a lazy dragon who watches TV shows about baby daddies and has a girlfriend who’s a bit of a feminist. I like the idea of revolutionary sheep who are pissed off that the establishment is taking their wool for unfair wages. It’s irreverent and I’d like to learn more about this strange world. I actually wish there were more of an incentive to learn about the lore of the world through exploring the levels. It’s fun to earn new abilities through exploration, but I think added story in the levels would give them depth that they’re lacking now.

dʒrægɛn: A Game About a Dragon sheep

At the moment, the levels feel very short and are not too difficult to complete. The creator of the game, T.W. Dragon, has said that he wants this to be the kind of game where you go back and replay previous levels as you grow stronger to discover additional secrets. While I like this concept, I think the initial playthrough of each level needs to offer a bit more as well. Whether this is through more lore or plot, or by additional challenges, I think it could only improve the game.

dʒrægɛn: A Game About a Dragon, shows promise, especially in the humor with which the story is told. Though I personally am not 100% sold on the art, I know others who like it. The game plays fairly well, especially when using a gamepad over a keyboard. The music is charming, and as a whole, the game is a cute diversion from the normal bloody hack and slash of many games. If you’re the type who often ends up cheering for the dragon in fantasy stories, this game will likely make you smile.

Check it out on Steam Greenlight, and if you like it, give it a vote to help it eventually end up on Steam.

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Review: Anomaly Defenders

It’s the near future. Aliens have invaded Earth. The humans fought back… and won. Now they’ve launched a counterattack against the aliens where it will hurt them most; their home planet. That’s where you come in.

The Anomaly series by 11 bit Studios has always been a tower offense game where you play as human forces  attacking the aliens who have invaded their homes. Anomaly Defenders, their latest release and the final game in the series, is different. Now you play as the aliens on their home planet, and the game has switched to tower defense. It’s all about protecting the launchpads from invading human forces, so that your people can escape their onslaught. It’s an interesting take on a classic trope, and one that works well for the game.

Anomaly Defenders consists of twenty-four levels that can be played at three different difficulty settings. You start out the game with only the most basic of towers, and as you complete each level, you earn technology points. These points are invested in your Technology Tree, which gives you access to more towers, functions, and perks that help you in your defense against the humans. Fairly standard stuff, but that’s not a bad thing.

Each level consists of the launchpad you need to protect, one or more entry points for human forces, set routes that they follow, and designated spots for you to set up your defense. You spend carusaurum to build your towers, and every time you destroy an enemy unit, you earn back carusaurum. You can also build mining units that both earn you more currency and serve to distract the enemy forces from making their way straight to the launchpad. Destroying enemy units also causes them to explode into balls of energy, which you can collect and spend to use special functions on your towers, such as using a shield or repair. Each of your towers has a different function, and it’s up to you to figure out how to use them to their best ability. Once you defeat all of the waves for the enemies, you’ve won the level and you can progress on.

Anomaly Defenders Dumah Habitat

I don’t play that many tower defense games, and yet I found myself really enjoying Anomaly Defenders. The art is what drew me at the start. Each level is rendered beautifully in a way that calls to mind both the light streaked urban settings of Tron and the bioluminescent natural world of Avatar. I’ve been playing mostly retro games lately, and so this was a welcome change. The design of the towers themselves is fine. Nothing particularly special, but I don’t think it needs to be. What’s important is that the UI itself is easy to understand and user friendly. It only takes one level to understand what you’re looking at, and even if you don’t get it right away, the game gives you hints as you go along.

Gameplay is engaging and fun and the towers have different specialties that help you combat different sorts of enemies. I think that these abilities, combined with the power ups that you can use on each tower, allows for the creation of an individual playstyle that I found appealing. I found myself utilizing long ranged towers most often, and when one of my friends played, he said he prefered a completely different strategy. It’s nice that it doesn’t feel like there’s one correct way to beat a level, which adds more replay value as you experiment with different technologies. One of the helpful features of the game is the pause button, which lets you stop the action so you can build more towers or apply functions to your existing towers. On large, expansive maps, this is especially useful since you will have enemies attacking from multiple entry points that aren’t always visible on one screen. This is helpful during massive waves of enemies, or when more difficult enemies appear. The humans have many different types of units to deploy, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses, as your own towers do. Learning how to best attack them is part of the fun of the game.

Anomaly Defenders technology tree

The technology tree that you can access between levels has a nice feel to it. You choose different towers to develop, and each of those have different strength levels that you purchase as well. I found some of the towers more useful than others, and there were a few that I didn’t develop at all because I didn’t see a strong use for them. I was playing the game mostly on easy and normal though, so it’s possible these towers are more useful when playing at a higher difficulty. The same went for the different functions available. I found some of them useful but ended up completely ignoring others that I didn’t use a lot. Surprisingly, the perk branch was one of the most useful sections of the tree for me. Here was where I could spend less to build towers and hold onto more energy to defend them. Investing points in that tree made the game a lot easier for me.

Despite the twist of being about aliens whose world is being invaded by humans, the story for Anomaly Defenders is pretty basic. There’s not actually that much in the way of storytelling at all, outside of the short intro movie and the bit of detail you receive about each level. In a way, this is okay. It’s a tower defense game, so the story probably doesn’t need to be too involved. Still, because the world itself looks cool, I found myself wishing I knew more about it. Why is the world dying? Why do the plants glow? What’s some of the history of the alien people? I actually found myself making up my own answers to these questions, so in a way perhaps it was better that the game doesn’t really spell these things out. I do think it would have been fun to get a little more lore about the various levels you’re defending, especially since they went to the trouble to name them, but ultimately it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the game at all.

anomaly defenders

I’m really surprised by how much I enjoyed Anomaly Defenders. It’s an engaging game that’s fun to play, and it has a decent amount of replay value as well. Between the beautiful art and the enjoyable play, I can highly recommend the game (and already have to a few friends), even to those who don’t normally enjoy the genre. Definitely one of the more fun games I’ve played in awhile.

Anomaly Defenders is on PC, Mac, and Linux for $9.99 and is available on Steam and Games Republic.

 

Review: Little Walker

 

Originally posted on indie-love.com

As a child of the 80s, classic platformer games represent my early years just as much as Star Wars, Big Wheels, and acid washed jeans do. And since I’m generally happy to relive these bits of my childhood (other than acid washed jeans), I was excited when I got a copy of a modern take on the classic 80s platformer to review.

Little Walker is the first game by InvincibleTime, the one man studio of Blake Fix. Described as being “a platformer taken from 1986 the next universe over,” the game immediately recalls the decade when video games cemented their place in homes across the world and countless kids agonized over Super Mario Bros, Castlevania, and other happily frustrating memories. The controls are super simple: hitting “Z” makes you jump. And…that’s it. By default, the game has your character autowalking, but after playing for a few moments, I decided I’m not good enough at platformers to deal with that. So I turned it off and used the arrow keys to control my movement instead.

With such simple controls, it’s easy to think the game could be a little dull to play, but there are some nuances there that make it fun. The jump is variable, so the longer you hold down Z, the higher and further you jump. You can double jump off walls, and use objects and enemies to bounce off of to make longer jumps. Throughout the game, you can put different objects on your head to change the way your character functions. So when you come across a winged boot and put it on your head, you can make much longer jumps and double jump in the air. Putting a boulder on your head allows you to sink below the surface of water (which you normally just walk across), giving you access to underwater levels. These little twists add some interest to what could otherwise be a very basic game. The levels are challenging, throwing multiple obstacles at you right from the start and not babying you with a “warm up” level to teach mechanics while you play. It took dying a few times, but I eventually got the hang of it.

little_walker_snow

The art for this game is dripping with nostalgia. I’m not sure what the main character is supposed to be, but he’s cute enough to want to follow on his adventure. The colors and style of the settings and characters screams 80s gaming. Instead of retaining a simplistic 8-bit look, the backgrounds are actually rendered in a lovely way, adding a bit more visual interest to the game. Some of the levels have really nice color pallets that manage to capture the feel of 1986 while modernizing it. These were some of my favorite touches in the game.

As the studio’s first game, it’s not a surprise that Little Walker has some flaws. The game is buggy, which is frustrating and occasionally completely rage-inducing. I couldn’t complete the first level; My character walked off the screen, but nothing else happened. Confused, I thought perhaps the level just didn’t have an ending, so I went back out to the main menu and selected the second level, which didn’t load properly. I quit the game and went back in, and now when I hit “continue” it loaded me into the second level normally. Not completely game breaking, but it was a little annoying.

My bigger issue was later on. While playing the desert level, I died during a sandstorm, and when I restarted, I had a weird graphic glitch where it looked like the sandstorm animation was moving over the ground but nowhere else. Again, not game breaking, but annoying enough to make me need a break. Since I needed to take screenshots for this review, I decided to go back to earlier levels and return to the desert later. However when I tried, I wasn’t able to select the desert level, or the level before it. Instead, I was forced to play through two levels again before I could get back to where I had been. That was enough to get me to shut down the game and lose a lot of interest in it. There are enough bugs that the game feels unfinished. It’s free so I can’t complain much, but it’s still not a great experience.

Bugs aside, there’s room for improvement in other areas of the game. There’s not much of a story to speak of, just the little guy walking and navigating difficult obstacles. While I don’t think a retro platformer needs a deep story on level with a modern RPG, I do think it needs to have some sort of plot to give your character a purpose. A story as weird and simple as “on a quest to save kumquats from extinction,” would be enough. You meet other characters along the way who occasionally give you helpful hints or just say something completely esoteric that makes no sense. The random dialogue didn’t bother me that much, since it did feel very 80s, but I think it needed to be balanced by just a little bit of story.

little_walker_text_box

The biggest issue with this game is that it just doesn’t stand out amid the many retro platformers that have been released in the past few years. If the tagline for the game is that it’s “1986 the next universe over,” it can’t just feel like a slightly polished version of the games that I grew up playing on my Sega Master System. It would have been fun if there were some sort of mechanic in the game to play off the idea of modernizing 1986 gaming, Maybe the main character needs to bridge the gap between his present and the future, or maybe there could be something to switch between completely retro and the more modern graphics of the game. I think with a little more creativity, this game would have held my interest better.

In the end, Little Walker is cute and has fun moments, but it doesn’t offer a play experience that stands out as being unique. I probably would have enjoyed this more as a portable game for my phone or tablet that I could play when I had a spare moment, rather than being tied to my computer to play something that is just a bit too simplistic. On the positive side, the level design is challenging and it feels good to finally get past a difficult set of obstacles. I think there’s promise there for some strong games from this developer, and I hope to see more from InvincibleTime in the future.

Little Walker is free and can be downloaded from GameJolt.

Friendship lego

Friendship is a beautiful thing.

Friendship is an especially beautiful thing when someone presents you with a Lego nyan cat that they created from scratch because they know you like Lego and cats and nerdy internet stuff, all because you took the time to listen to them when they were having a bad day.

Pay it forward, folks.

A New Year’s Resolution

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On New Year’s Eve this year, I thought about the resolutions that I wanted to make (and most likely not keep). There were the typical resolutions like, “Man, I would really like to look the way I did for my wedding again,” and offbeat resolutions like, “This is the year I will learn how to ride a horse!” But there was one resolution that I decided to make that is probably the one that I care most about (yes, even over the mythical “getting in shape”) is getting back into blogging again.

I’ve been blogging since I was in college, over a decade (eesh) ago. Back then, we mostly used livejournal. Mine still exists, and I occasionally read it when I feel the need to cringe. More recently, I had a blog about World of Warcraft called The Dancing Tree, but as I haven’t been playing WoW a ton, I don’t have as much to say about the game. And so for the past year, I’ve been trying to think about what I would like to write about that might actually have some sort of audience.

As I’ve gotten older, I find it more and more difficult to define myself by any of the labels that the internet likes to fit people into. Am I still a geek, a gamer, a punk, or a graphic designer? Sure, but those things aren’t all that I am. And so my  blog isn’t only about that either. I plan to talk about gaming (even WoW) and cool little design things I find and fun apps or phone accessories or neat online companies that I enjoy or writing (I have dreams of being an author). I’ll probably also talk about my cats, because cats.

2013-09-02 22.41.37

The title of the blog comes from a song called “Mass Romantic” by the band New Pornographers, and I’ve used it back in the day on my old livejournal as well. I like the title, and I’ve always thought it was a good one to tell a story about a life online. I also like the idea of returning to my blogging roots after all this time.

I’m looking forward to writing again, and I can’t wait to see where this goes. Thanks for checking in!

-Faye