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.

Sonic CD is a nostalgic glimpse into the past

Sonic awaits his just deserts.

Sonic awaits his just deserts.

Sonic CD is my least favorite of the Genesis-era 2D Sonic games. I always preferred the speedier pace and flow of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 3 and Knuckles, as well as the relatively muted, warmer color palettes of those games. The denser and chaotic design of Sonic CD‘s zones demands more precise platforming prowess that at times results in a ponderously paced game, at least when compared to the canon entries of the series.

Despite this, the recent re-release of Sonic CD (on PSNXBLASteamiOSAndroid, and Windows Phone) is the most fun I’ve had with the speedy spinster since the Dreamcast, though this isn’t the first time I’ve played Sonic CD legally and officially on a computer. It was originally ported to Windows in 1996, and was Sonic’s official debut on the home computer. (This was a big deal at a time before the poor blue bugger had been prostituted out to practically every device and platform with a microprocessor inside it.) I recall my brother and I buying the 1996 CD-ROM game with some hard-earned allowance money at an Office Depot during one of our mother’s regular business-related trips to the store. It was probably both the first and last time I was ever excited to go to that depressing place.

Oh, chibi Sonic, you're so cute!

Oh, chibi Sonic, you’re so cute!

I had never played the game before the first PC version, since we didn’t have a Sega CD. While I never did grow to like Sonic CD as much as the other Sonic games I’d played on the Genesis – which is not very unexpected considering the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles is easily one of my favorite platformers ever – I never regretted buying Sonic CD for Windows, and the game’s box probably still lives in a bigger box full of other fellow game boxes somewhere in my parents’ garage. I loved the soundtrack – the American version, as I wasn’t even aware of the Japanese version until years later – but I did not like the static spin dash that couldn’t be “charged up” by mashing on the jump button. (My dad’s computer’s poor space bar took the abuse for this game and many others.) I also didn’t like the conceptually cool but mechanically cumbersome time-traveling mechanic, and I disliked the “three-dimensional” special stages, which paled next to those found in Sonic 2 and 3.

I don’t remember if I ever did obtain all the Time Stones or all the Robotnik machines in the past timeline, although I distinctly remember finding the animated FMVs for the intro and both endings on the disc and watching them repeatedly. In the years since, I haven’t given Sonic CD much thought after it was eventually uninstalled, or lost in an OS reinstall, or whatever its fate ended up being.

On your marks, gentlemen.

On your marks, gentlemen.

So kind of Sega, then, to re-re-release this game on almost every modern platform imaginable and to lurch it suddenly to the forefront of my adolescent gaming memories. Sega’s ports of other classic games have thus far been disappointing affairs mired in ugly menu presentation and shabby emulation. (Of the Genesis? Today? Really?) How fortunate it is that Sega allowed the multi-talented Australian bloke Christian Whitehead to craft this adoring love letter to this rough gem of a game.

As I said at the beginning of this post, Sonic CD is my least favorite of the Genesis 2D Sonic games, and easily at that. The level design is very busy and ofttimes downright contradictory to speedy gameplay. Indeed, bothering to hunt down Dr. Robotnik’s Marvelous MacGuffins is an exercise in annoyance that slows the game down even more. The time traveling mechanic, while interesting in concept, only serves to hinder you further, and there’s really no reason to visit the future aside from curiosity. Collecting the Time Stones, the other method for attaining the “good ending,” is comparatively frustrating as the special stages can become quite difficult both to enter and clear. Either way you decide to approach it, getting the good ending will likely require quite a bit of save scumming, since beating the game does not allow you to revisit old stages to rescue the future on your save file.

While the game itself might be somewhat rough around the edges, Mr. Whitehead’s love letter is anything but. The menus are super slick, multiple save files are supported, and the Steam version runs in almost any resolution you could desire, windowed or full-screen (though you do have to awkwardly launch an external tool to change these options). There are three different settings for filtering the graphics, two of which are provided in case you’re a philistine and happen to hate pixels. The “sharp” and “smooth” options both look like warm vomit expelled directly onto your monitor at such a velocity that its blurry splotches spatter across your face. “Nostalgia” proudly flaunts its serrated corners and is the selection of true scholars and gentlemen (and gentlewomen), and if you choose anything else you are literally worse than a serial murderer. This option is stupidly not set by default, so make sure and switch to “nostalgia” immediately. I’ve included full-size screenshots below so you can see the difference between the three modes for yourself.

"Sharp"

“Sharp”

"Smooth"

“Smooth”

"Nostalgia"

“Nostalgia”

 

On top of running and feeling like a modern PC game, Mr. Whitehead deemed it worthwhile to add Tails as a playable character, only available after beating the game once as Sonic. You can also change to the Sonic 2 style of spin-dashing and mash buttons to your heart’s content. Brilliant!

In spite of these excellent additions, possibly the best part is that Sega was amazingly able to work out whatever licensing issues were required to include both the Japanese and American soundtracks in this release, which you can switch between at any time on the main menu. (It should be noted that they weren’t able to work out every single licensing issue, which means that the Japanese vocal songs are remixed sans lyrics. No toot tooting for this Sonic warrior, sadly.) I played through the game with the Japanese soundtrack for the first time and definitely enjoyed the experience. The Japanese soundtrack feels more thematically cohesive, since the songs for the past timeline were composed specifically for the Japanese soundtrack and weren’t replaced in the American version. That said, I do like both versions of the soundtrack about equally.

That's gross, Tails. Stop that.

That’s gross, Tails. Stop that.

This release of Sonic CD is a revelation: the revelation that modern ports of classic games don’t have to merely settle for ROMs thrown slipshod into a subpar emulator, but can ascend – nay, soar – to loftier heights. The two versions I tried, Steam and iOS, both run fantastically and nothing is lost in the translation to either platform. I imagine the other versions glimmer similarly. At a paltry $5 on all platforms, Sega seems to be making all the right decisions with Sonic CD, and I hope they continue this trend with future games. This release is an essential experience not just for fans of the game or series, but also for anyone who’s played a 2D platformer and liked it.

5 out of 5

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

GameFly Unlimited PC Play – Worth it or not?

Batman watches over the GameFly PC Client News Screen.

Batman watches over the GameFly PC Client News Screen.

GameFly, the video game rental service that is often described as the “Netflix of video games” is making moves into the PC game digital distribution space (often described as “Steam and its competitors”). With GameFly’s purchase of Direct2Drive in May 2011 and the launch of its beta PC client in September 2011, the company is taking big but slow steps into the market dominated largely by Steam. Not that there isn’t room for more competition, but is GameFly’s effort worthy of note?

I’ve been a GameFly member for quite a while, and the shipping facility in my city makes the mail service snappy and efficient for me. I received a beta invitation to the GameFly Client as they call it, so I gladly installed the application to check it out for myself. As an avid and possibly addicted member of Valve’s Steam, I was curious to see how a competitor approached the PC digital distribution game.

GameFly’s big selling point is the “unlimited PC play” for members of their mail service. This new service gives members unlimited access to a large library of PC games, and you can install and play as many as you want, whenever you want, so long as you’re still an active member of GameFly. Sounds awesome, right?

No, Battlefield 3 is not available for free unlimited play.

No, Battlefield 3 is not available for free unlimited play.

Well, the selection of “unlimited play” PC games is definitely substantial, but is unfortunately not very interesting. Pretty much all the available titles fall into one of two categories: games that are several years old, or crappy games that you’ve probably never heard of. Not that those are necessarily bad things, but if you think you’ll get to play some recent big-budget release without buying it at full price, don’t get your hopes up.

The actual process of installing and playing an “unlimited play” game is overly involved and complicated compared to the relative simplicity of Steam’s. These are the steps you have to take before you can start playing your game:

  1. Click “Download Now” to initiate the game download
  2. Verify your account by entering your GameFly password
  3. After waiting for the game to download, click “Install Now” to install the game
  4. Click “Play Now” to activate the game before being allowed to play

It’s kind of a pain in the butt. The upsides are the ability to play the games even when the GameFly client isn’t running (which can’t be done in Steam), and uninstalling the games is not nearly so laborious.

I ended up playing this game longer than I intended while testing the client.

I ended up playing this game longer than I intended while testing the client.

The GameFly PC client has features for buying games from the GameFly store and for managing your GameQ, where you add games to receive in the mail. You can also watch videos and read video game news from Shacknews, which is owned by GameFly. The whole client looks slick and attractive, which isn’t surprising as it’s an Adobe AIR application. This also means it’s quite the resource hog for the minimal amount of functionality it actually provides. Since the GameFly website can perform every action that the PC client can except for downloading the unlimited PC play games, the PC client feels kind of unnecessary and mostly redundant. The selection of unlimited play PC games is unfortunately not interesting enough to make this a recommendation, unless you happen to be particularly interested in a certain PC game that is available in the program.

Maybe the GameFly PC client will be worth another look in the future when GameFly can work out deals with publishers to get more interesting PC titles in the unlimited play program. For now, I’m uninstalling it from my computer.

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.