Report for Basic Braining : Psychonauts

Talk to the mentally-projected hand.

Talk to the mentally-projected hand.

The last time I tried to play Psychonauts, I was immensely frustrated in the first few seconds. Not by the content of the game, mind you, but by the fact that it wasn’t recognizing the 360 controller plugged into my PC. I had heard horror stories about certain platforming sections and that playing with a mouse and keyboard was a fool’s errand, so this would not stand! That moment of excited anticipation for a game by developers I love faded pretty quickly. By the time I closed out of the program to find a method to get the controller to play nicely, distraction had already placed its icy grip firmly on my shoulder. Years passed, but that never stopped the flow of positive things said about Psychonauts, whether it was referenced for its great sense of humor or cited as a depressing example of a good game selling poorly.

Double Fine Productions is a fantastic studio and they’ve made some great products in the past couple of years. I spent a good chunk of time blowing up Tubes with a buddy in Iron Brigade (back when it was known as Trenched), and Costume Quest was very adept at delivering some killer wisecracks. Even Brutal Legend, a divisive game amongst many reviewers, is something that I still recommend that people try out despite its shortcomings. Its ambitious design makes it one of the most unique games I’ve ever played.

A few months ago, a patch came out for six-year-old Psychonauts. This was a result of the original publishing deal with Majesco expiring, which reverted the rights back to the developers at Double Fine. The patch was a whopper, adding in Steamworks support such as cloud saving and achievements, tweaking the difficulty of some levels, and putting out a Mac version of the game to boot. My interest in the game was full of renewed optimism, as I inquired to myself, “If they did all of that, then maybe, just maybe, they added in native 360 pad support!” Of course, when I put my mind to something, it will still take me several months to actually do it. Luckily, the dry spell of games this month proved to be the perfect condition to finally sit down and give Psychonauts the good old college try. Again.

Before a title screen even has the chance to come up, the game prompts you to pick a save slot. I was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of relief as my 360 controller was registering without even having to configure it. One caveat to this, however, is the fact that any action the game advised me to perform was instructed with on-screen images of keyboard prompts, not gamepad button prompts. They clearly have gamepad button graphics in the key binding options menu, so it’s not for a lack of those. After hunting around in the options for a while, I wasn’t able to find a way to fix the issue. An annoying oversight, but I’ll happily take it over some third-party workaround just to get the controller working. Now that we have a working controller, let’s journey onward to the meat of the game. And no, I don’t specifically mean the Meat Circus.

The Collective Unconscious of your mind is one of several surreal environments.

The Collective Unconscious of your mind is one of several surreal environments.

Psychonauts starts you off as Raz, one of many children sent to a summer-turned-boot camp to train to become what can only be assumed as some sort of psychic soldier. It’s your run-of-the-mill 3D platformer with a reasonable control scheme and areas full of collectible goodies. That said, it doesn’t take a psychic to see why it’s so heavily praised. The wonderfully cartoony design approach meshes well with the levity that surrounds everything you come across. You can barely go two minutes without hearing talented voicework from the cast of characters, which is as colorful as the game’s art. The narrative does a great job of putting the player in the world by maintaining a fantastic pace for the story. Overall, everything feels deliberately cohesive, and even if 3D platformers aren’t your preference (they’re definitely not my favorite thing to play), it’s easy to find yourself hungry for more.

The latest PC patch offers a bit of incentive to revisit the game for those who have already played through it, with Steam achievements for those who like to show off. The native gamepad support and Mac version help make it more accessible to people like myself who missed this beauty the first time around, though it is a slight chore to deal with on-screen keyboard prompts when you’re using a controller. However, jumping over that hurdle is more than worth it, since Psychonauts is already leaps ahead of almost every other 3D platformer I’ve ever played. I’m only a few hours in, and that’s all it took for it to me to realize that I need to see it through to the end.

It’s a shame that it originally sold as poorly as it did; critical acclaim surrounded Double Fine’s first major release left and right, but less than 100,000 copies had moved in the first eight months. Luckily, this hasn’t shaken Double Fine founder Tim Schafer, who told CVG back in late 2010 that he wouldn’t be opposed to making a sequel. According to Shafer, the main sticking point is finding a publisher who is interested in putting it out. Psychonauts has recieved a plethora of positive commentary over the years, so the name is in enough people’s heads to potentially be a big seller. With any luck, this article may just put it in a few more, so if you haven’t had the chance to pick it up yet, put on your thinking cap and grab it as soon as possible.

Wizorb : A job title, or just a clever portmanteau?

Not pictured - awesome transformation sequence of an old man in robes mutating into that tiny blue ball.

Breakout is one of the most timeless games ever conceived. Its influence from its predecessor Pong is direct, but the transformation into a single-player puzzle game push it to this weird level where it becomes all too easy to get absorbed for hours at a time. It’s available in some variation for almost any platform in existence, including the TI-83 calculator that I used in high school to bust bricks instead of getting any actual work done. Whether you know it as Arkanoid or Brickout, or even a distant cousin such as Peggle, people around the world have been exposed to it for over 30 years. Wizorb, recently released by indie developer Tribute, is yet another permutation of the classic formula, but distinct enough with its changes that it’s worth taking a peek at.

In case you’re in the minority that hasn’t had the privilege of playing a Breakout game before, the way it works is beautiful in its simplicity. You control a paddle at the bottom of the screen above a pit, and bounce a ball back and forth from the paddle to the bricks above, breaking them on contact, and clearing a level when all of the blocks are gone. It’s not rocket science, but it doesn’t need to be in order to be incredibly addicting. Wizorb mixes this up a bit because your ball is actually a WIZARD, and you have a mana bar and spells to cast to aid you in your noble quest to rid the world of the Brick Menace. Mana potion power-ups drop from bricks you break, giving you more power to shoot out fireballs or to alter the trajectory of the wizardly sphere. Again, it’s still not rocket science, but the spell-casting adds another layer onto the basics to keep things fresh and fun.

There are plenty of other ingredients to the mixture as well. Wizorb carries some strange devices from other genres, such as an RPG-lite town to wander around, boss battles at the end of each area, and a simple world map. Bricks also have the chance to drop coins and gems, which you can use in between brick-breaking-bouts to fund the distraught town, which will give you a variety of bonuses the next time you head into the fray. Getting keys to open locked areas in the stages (usually bonus rooms, full of extra lives and other goodies) and even building a castle rampart below your paddle to protect your Wizorb from falling into the pit below are a couple more notable examples of new spins on the old formula.

The presentation is no slouch, as the game has an appealing retro look. The sound design and graphics put it somewhere in the 8-bit to 16-bit spectrum, though I’m not quite sure where exactly it falls. The animation is fluid and the color palette plucks the nostalgia strings in your brain. The “old school” style is nothing unique, but when it’s done right, it can stand out from the rest, and this is a clear example of how to do so.

Wizorb is available on Windows, Mac and Linux at Gamersgate, Desura and Gameolith (see each store for platform availability) for $2.99 USD, so the next time you’re pining to break a few bricks paddle-style, there’s a very affordable way to do it with some new flair. I mean, if you have the choice to knock out some bricks with a ball, or to do it with a WIZARD BALL that can shoot FIREBALLS, which option sounds more appealing?

4 out of 5

Opinion: Dungeons of Dredmor

Oh dear. Not again.

Another Steam Christmas sale has come and gone, and if you’re anything like me, you probably made some unorthodox purchases. I’ve owned Dungeons of Dredmor from Gaslamp Games for a couple of months now, but like so many other games, it sat ignored and uninstalled, only serving as a permanent reminder to spend less money on Steam games every single time I looked at my Steam Library. Over the winter break, the game’s DLC, Realm of the Diggle Gods, had dropped to a measly $0.74 USD, and naturally I fell for the sale-trap yet again and snapped it up. This time, I felt really dumb having purchased DLC for a game I wasn’t even sure that I liked, so the obligation to boot it up swelled within me, and I took a self-punishing plunge into this fairly recent roguelike.

The gameplay in Dungeons of Dredmor is pretty similar to any other roguelike – wander around in randomly generated dungeons, fight monsters, find loot, dodge traps, and constantly pray that you don’t die. The combat is turn-based; whenever you move your character or take an action like eating or attacking, all of the enemies on the map all get a turn to do the same. This makes the combat focused on character planning and positioning. Simple strategies like funneling six enemies into a narrow corridor instead of letting yourself get surrounded are key to not biting the dust. And, as a key staple of roguelikes, permadeath plays a solid role in making you think about the ramifications of your actions, since you can lose hours of progress with a few stupid choices. However, if you’re new to the genre, Dungeons of Dredmor has a few nice options to make the game more accessible, such as the option to turn permadeath off and a difficulty selection.

The era of ASCII graphics in roguelikes seems to be rapidly coming to a close, for better or worse. In this case, I’ll make an argument for the better, since this game emanates style from every pore. The art direction is very reminiscent of early PC games, almost striking a resemblance to an old LucasArts point-and-click adventure. The sound effects and music also share that fantastic old-school feel, combining everything into a melting pot of warm and bubbly nostalgia, despite the game being released just last year. It even accomplishes the difficult feat of being genuinely funny, and layers a thick sense of humor on top of the whole package. The attention to detail is evident with everything from item descriptions to propaganda posters hanging up on the walls of the dungeon sponsored by the game’s end boss, smack-talking enemies (“i hope you have a terrible day” is a common expression) and a deep voice-over that praises you with a booming “HEROIC VANDALISM!” every time you smash a statue of evil. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and feels clever enough to make you happy it was included.

While the game is exponentially more accessible than most roguelikes available, it still has a steep learning curve. The stat screen has several dozen little colored icons which tell you what they do when you hover over them, but memorizing them and figuring out how they synergize will take a significantly long time. A lot of the game is made intentionally vague to help encourage player experimentation, but certain mechanics are simply TOO vague. I didn’t even learn how to sell items until I accidentally held down Shift when I was in a shop. The tutorial does an OK job of explaining the basics, but hiding things as elementary as “selling items” from the player serves no purpose. Also, certain elements of the UI are needlessly archaic, such as the lack of mouse-wheel scrolling, and a crafting menu that’s essentially a cobbled-together mess of icons instead of something well-explained and easy to use.

Despite being a great showpiece for roguelikes in general, Dungeons of Dredmor raises a few important questions. How many people are actively still looking to play a masochistic glimpse into the relics of gaming’s past? Does the lack of hand holding, the steep learning curve, or the overall classic style hold any modicum of a broader appeal, or are roguelikes strictly stuck in the hearts of a select niche? Breaking past the ASCII-graphics and making permadeath a selection seem like wide strides from the age-old formula for this type of game, but I’m stuck wondering just how many more people those choices could attract. However, I can at least tell you on a personal level that the game strikes a huge measure of positive chords with me, and I think that for $5 USD (available now on Steam), more people owe it to themselves to see if this genre might hit those same high notes within themselves.

Review: Limbo

Just me and my fun boat, going to have some good times together. What could possibly go wrong?

Wait! Don’t leave just yet, hear me out! I know, it’s crazy to think that a Limbo review is coming out in the year 2011, and while that may be the case, you should be aware that everyone has a backlog of fantastic games that they haven’t played with the excuse of, “I’ll get around to that at some point, I swear.” This just so happened to be on my list, and the purpose of this review is to tell everyone else who has this on their respective backlogs to get off their lazy cans and hop to it, since Limbo is something that deserves the attention. If you’ve already played it, then you don’t need me to tell you that it’s something special; if you haven’t yet taken the dive, then be prepared for an exquisitely-crafted foray into gloomy adventure.

You’re dropped in Limbo without any clues or concepts of what you’re supposed to be doing. It initially appears to be a simple sidescrolling platformer, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s much deeper than that. As you progress further along, there is a steady progression of puzzle-solving mechanics to get from one area to the next. It is not uncommon to die several times just trying to move on (often in a gruesome fashion) due to the diabolical hurdles that lie in wait, but the checkpointing is spot-on and the continues are infinite, so you can retry as many times as it takes for your brain to squeeze out enough theories to crack the code of each riddle. The rate at which new mechanics are showcased is fantastic, though several times you’ll have to think long and hard to work on a new and sturdy enigma with a “think outside of the box” mentality.

I’m not going to cite any examples, since I don’t want to spoil any solutions, but I can easily recall a few obstacles that had me stepping extremely far out of my personal comfort zone in order to overcome them. On top of that, Limbo occasionally subverts expectations regarding the frequency of deaths with an incredibly unique twist, where you think you’ve just encountered a new and grotesque demise. But in reality the puzzle has NOT ended, and the realization that you still have control over your character sets in. It’s beautifully executed each and every time it happens, and it’s a great example of the overarching lack of lucidity that the game presents.

There is a great sense of foreboding simply in the way the game looks and sounds. Everything is presented in silhouette without any color. The backgrounds are foggy and muddled behind a depth of field filter, leaving you to rely on the impressive lighting to figure out what’s going on. You won’t lose track of your character even if the screen is pitch black, because of his cleverly-designed white blinking eyes. The environments you go through all seem incredibly foreign, even if you can distinctly tell what they resemble. Wandering through a forest is much more frightening than it may sound, since it may be littered with lifeless bodies suspended from wooden cages, and working your way through an abandoned factory may leave you wondering, “Who designed this machine-operated labyrinthine hell?” The ambient background music constantly fluctuates between tones of relaxation and confusion, and the sound effects are all disturbingly visceral. Everything works together seamlessly to create a world that fills you with apprehension, but also the intrigue to keep pushing forward.

Continuing the theme of hazy confusion, there seems to be a plot buried somewhere, but it’s never inherently clear what exactly is going on, nor the motivations of the character. Even after beating the game, I had more questions than answers about everything I had gone through. It seems to be a deliberate choice to leave it open to interpretation and letting the player fill in the blanks of the story, which fits perfectly. I wouldn’t say that the lack of narration is intensely compelling, but it’s also hard to completely write off what appears to be yet another jigsaw piece of the Limbo puzzle.

My main negative takeaway from the whole experience is just how short Limbo is. Within a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the entirety of the game came and went, and I had seen everything it had to offer – with the exception of collecting all of the hidden “eggs” which don’t seem to do anything other than gift achievement points. There isn’t much reason to replay it beyond achievement incentive, since you’ve already seen all of the tricks it has to play on you, and you’ve already labored out in your head how to do most of the puzzles. The extras are there for the completionists and perfectionists, but don’t do much to add to the high points of the experience.

Replayability aside, Limbo succeeds in just about every other way. The oppressive-yet-uncertain atmosphere, the creative puzzles (combined with the rush you get from solving said puzzles), and the palpable tension from the whole package delivers a very unique and fresh gameplay experience. It’s a bit short, but also in a league of its own, and its uncommon approach has something great that is easily worth the asking price from whichever platform you decide to pick it up on. It’s worth mentioning that at the time of this writing, it is only $9.99 on Steam, which is five buckazoids cheaper than on PSN or 360 at $14.99/1200 MS Points respectively.

4 out of 5

Review: The Binding of Isaac

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

In the biblical account of the binding of Isaac, Isaac is not so much a character as he is a plot device. He accompanies his father Abraham on a test of faith – God wants Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove he fears God. Isaac remains passive throughout, even as his own dad ties him up and raises a knife over his helpless body. The Isaac of Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl’s account is a little bit more proactive.

Your quest in The Binding of Isaac is to guide Isaac as he attempts to escape the misguided zealotry of his mother. You’ll travel through his house’s basement, which seems to be connected to hell itself. Along the way you’ll encounter numerous terrifying creatures and other oddities that can help or hamper you in your quest for freedom.

The game plays like Robotron: 2084 mixed with a Zelda adventure. You can only shoot in the four cardinal directions, and your projectiles and stats can be upgraded through items found in the dungeons. You’ll never quite have the same game twice, as enemy placement, room layouts, item drops and secrets are all randomized heavily. With so many variables in play, conquering the game is as much a game of luck as it is skill. Finding the right gifts out of dozens of possible items will definitely factor heavily in a successful run, with each new item appearing on poor Isaac’s horrified face and body. After several such upgrades, Isaac usually bears closer resemblance to the antagonistic grotesqueries of the depths than the innocent child he began as.

With its roguelike influences so readily apparent, you can expect to fail – a lot. No save system exists here, which is fine since a complete run through Isaac’s basement is not very long. The Binding of Isaac delivers a compact experience in about half-hour bite-size chunks, making it the perfect length as the curious diversion it is.

The art looks like something out of a Flash game, because it is. It might not be much to look at it in still screenshots, but in motion everything comes alive with the sick creativity of McMillen’s imagination. Horrors lurk in every room, and the disgusting creatures within the hellish atmosphere are simultaneously gross and amusing. This is not a game for the kids. The excellent soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky adds to the uneasy tone.

One of the disadvantages of the Flash technology powering the game is that everything runs off the CPU rather than a dedicated graphics device. This means that even with an above-average system, you may run into a lot of slowdown in some of the busier rooms. Ironically, this actually tends to work to your advantage as the dozens of flying projectiles become much easier to dodge in slow motion.

I’m not sure what statement if any McMillen was attempting to make with The Binding of Isaac, or if the source material was merely inspiration for his own twisted vision. It’s an endearing game, as odd as that may seem, and a great value at its $5 asking price. You may find yourself coming back to it again and again, because surprises still remain in abundance even after you’ve seen one of the endings. It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily frustrated, but those who persevere will be rewarded with a unique and unforgettable experience.

4 out of 5