Drakengard – A Futile Struggle

In a previous post here I explained my plan for a series of articles exploring each of the games in the NieR/Drakengard series. If you’re looking for a review of the first game in the series, Drakengard, then you may want to look elsewhere, but if you’d rather read a rambling, self-indulgent over-analysis of its mechanics and narrative structure, then this is the start of that.

Originally I intended to write only one piece per game, but working through my notes for the first game I found that there are just too many disparate parts deserving discussion to easily organise into something digestible. So, the aim now is to divide Drakengard into two meandering incoherent walls of text: the first, this one, exploring the unusual delivery and nature of its narrative, and a second examining what’s remarkable about its dated and awkward gameplay.

Taken As a Whole

There are a lot of obstacles in the way of actually enjoying Drakengard. First, you’ll have to get over the archaic camera controls, locate some enemies using the minimap because their draw distance is terrible, and then persevere with the ground combat long enough to find its virtues (tune in next time). You’ll also need to be okay with it looking like a PS2 game – and an ugly, bland one at that, despite some very interesting quirks here and there. If you stick it out for long enough you’ll likely notice that the music is cacophonous, repetitive, and unpleasant, but hopefully come to appreciate the frantic, violent atmosphere it creates. Then you’ll have to come to terms with the cast of characters offered up, which includes a mute, psychopathic protagonist, a feeble goddess, a cynical, human-hating dragon, a paedophile, a cannibalistic elf, and a fatalistic, cowardly priest.

So what’s the deal then? Why is Drakengard still worth playing – worth writing about, even? Well for one thing, whether by fluke or deliberate design, I do think that there’s a lot of depth and enjoyment to be found in the game’s ground and aerial combat mechanics. But Drakengard also offers up surprisingly offbeat narrative and world-building for a Japanese RPG, with compelling voice acting throughout (a minor miracle for an English-dub), and hints of the kind of social commentary and philosophy which becomes far more blatant by the time we get to Drakengard 3 and NieR: Automata. But by far the main reason I want to write about the original Drakengard is the innovative ways in which its narrative delivery exploits the interactive medium – something I’m not aware has been replicated in the decade and a half since its release.

World-building

Although narratively connected the Drakengard games take place in a whole other world to that where the NieR games are set – though not a different fictional ‘universe’. We’ll call this other world the ‘Dragon Sphere’ henceforth, since that’s what the ultimate ending of the first game calls it.

Despite a fairly generic high-fantasy foundation with knights and dragons, swords and sorcery, goblins, ogres, golems and fairies, Drakengard does a lot with its tone and laser focus to distinguish itself from contemporary Japanese RPGs. On the surface we see the old tropes: warring Union and Empire forces, the mortal goddess Furiae who is no only kidnapped, but is also one of the ‘Seals’ of the world, which, of course, the enemy is trying to break for… reasons? But the game doesn’t dwell on lore at all – instead it puts us behind the blade of bloodthirsty Caim, to whom the Empire soldiers are nothing more than enemies to be cut down, and the Goddess merely his sister – perhaps even just an excuse him to go on a rampage. Caim doesn’t give a damn about history, religion, or anything else, and I for one appreciate that being reflected in what we’re shown.

The majority of the game is a grim trudge through fields, forests, ruins, and thousands of human soldiers, brightened somewhat by the voice-acted musings of your grim companions playing out during gameplay – primarily spoken by the aforementioned misanthropic dragon and the fatalistic priest, Verdelet. It’s only in the final chapters that things become suddenly hellish and bizarre. Somehow the Dragon Sphere manages to be a high-magic fantasy setting with the tone of a low-magic one: It feels more akin to Berserk (the Golden Age arc of the 1997 anime) than, say Warhammer, despite having human factions operating squadrons of airships, wyverns (stupid wyverns!), and ‘gargoyle cubes’ that fire lasers at you. Verdelet and the rest of the cast help in that regard because they don’t even seem to understand anything about the ‘Watchers’, the ‘Seals’, or the ‘Seeds of Resurrection’. The dragon even indicates that the legends passed down by man are incorrect: “These are not the Seeds of Resurrection. They are the Seeds of Destruction.” “Man bends the truth for any convenience.”

Also noteworthy is the strangely modern-looking, ruined imperial capital, with its tall, square buildings resembling modern skyscrapers. I could try and break down why that may be based on what I know from the other games in the series, but it’s not worth dwelling on right now.

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Better Branching

Describing NieR: Automata as having numerous ‘endings’ is inaccurate – explaining to people that they need to get at least five of them to see the big picture is discouraging, and trying to explain why it shouldn’t be without spoiling the experience is a difficult task. In the case of some games with branching narratives it isn’t only the repetition of gameplay that’s off-putting, but the need to uncover often obtuse and illogical branching points.  While unlocking the final chapters of NieR: Automata does indeed involve playing the prior part of the game through twice – kind of – it doesn’t really require the player to figure out how to reach different endings, instead guiding them effortlessly from one to the next, and this lead-by-the-hand approach is something that the series hit upon in its first entry.

Reaching endings B to D in Drakengard requires only that you replay missions where the story branches, meet the objective for that branch, and complete the additional missions unlocked as a result. You can skip ahead through the story, playing only the additional missions unlocked rather than retreading unaltered ground. Tooltips on locked missions tell you exactly what is required in order to unlock them, but not the reason, and though many such requirements are a simple matter of ‘complete mission n in less than x seconds’, usually a narrative reason for this becomes clear after the fact. For example, reaching Drakengard’s ending C requires that you beat ending B’s penultimate boss so quickly as to trigger a change of heart in one particular character, preventing the creation of B’s final boss, which otherwise keeps our anti-hero so preoccupied that he doesn’t notice the world falling apart around him.

In another example, after having satisfied all the other conditions to unlock Drakengard’s penultimate ending, the game still lets you fail if you don’t manage to defeat an enemy armada quickly enough at a critical moment. Not only that, but it does so subtly, and even goes so far as to insert two additional, pointless missions, before (presumably) branching back to a previous ending where you arrive too late to save Furiae. The second of these missions is a truly disconcerting trek through a level devoid of enemies, who have already evacuated while you were outside fending off a wave of reinforcements. Here we see that even when you’ve fought hard for a reward, the game is not only happy to let you fail, but also to taunt and toy with you for it. While we’re not dealing with procedural or emergent storytelling here, and the mechanics by which the story branches may not be interesting taken out of context, these examples should begin to illustrate how they might integrate meaningfully with the narrative and the interactive experience.

Most early branching leads to the acquisition of new companion characters that are useful in gameplay, and side missions which do little to flesh out the world or events within it – though the last companion’s, Seere’s, does give a good insight into the backstory of his twin sister Manah, high priestess of the Cult of the Watchers, and main antagonist of the game. It’s only in the final chapters of the game where the branches become truly significant.

With the exception of endings B and C, I believe, endings A to E of Drakengard must be unlocked in alphabetic order. A standard trope followed by many games would see these endings, each unlocked by extra work, by extra % completion of the game’s content, grow steadily more positive or crowd-pleasing, to varying levels of actual narrative significance. In most cases we’re simply treated to a little bit of extra dialogue or a different cutscene, and you can count on some players working through a whole, near-identical game multiple times just to see that difference. Not only does it take less work to unlock the alternative endings of Drakengard, but in doing so you unlock whole chapters – new places and events which give the player fleeting glimpses into the minds of characters who might otherwise seem fully one-dimensional, and a growing understanding of just what is unfolding as their continued effort results in increasingly calamitous conclusions.

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Every End’s a Bad End

Ending A, which you’ll see on first completion of Drakengard, is bittersweet: the seals are broken and the goddess sacrificed to plunge the world into chaos; Caim and the dragon fight through a menagerie of monsters, legions of fanatic soldiers, and a giant infant girl to save the Dragon Sphere; Caim even redeems some of his humanity as he refuses to give Manah the mercy of death, and weeps for a dragon – a creature he once despised with good reason  – as his partner sacrifices herself to become the new seal.

Reaching Ending B will net you a few more hours of hack-and-slash fun, a pretty horrific cutscene, and an conclusion which is essentially apocalyptic. Ending C is no brighter, really. This joke is carried right through to ending E, where it seems that events culminate in the wholesale termination of the Dragon Sphere and, as we learn from the continuity of the game in NieR and NieR: Automata, a magical blight upon our own universe, leading to the ruin of the Earth, and the downfall of humanity here.

If you were hoping to at least succeed in saving Furiae in one of these eventualities, you’ll be disappointed, and mocked for you naivety: In the branches where you do eventually manage to reach her before she is ritually sacrificed, her romantic feelings towards her brother are tauntingly revealed by the by mind-reading high-priestess, Manah. Our player character, Caim, proves too emotionally inert to even appear sympathetic – a facet of his character reflected in the blood of the thousands of soldiers he slew to get here, ostensibly to save her – so she plunges a dagger into her breast, this time instigating the apocalypse by her own hand.

Having progressively more miserable conclusions, although unique and interesting, isn’t especially meritorious on its own. Punishing players for their hard work and time investment with bad endings, whether you really see them as less desirable or not, seems like a strange decision at best. In a video released on YouTube through official channels, director Taro Yoko commented on his thought process during the creation of the original Drakengard:

“I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like ‘You’ve defeated 100 enemies!’ or ‘Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!’ in an almost gloating manner. But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane. That’s why I decided to have the army of the protagonist in Drakengard be one where everyone’s insane.”

From the director’s comments, and the more direct approach of later games in the series, it seems clear that his philosophy runs thick in the blood of Drakengard, and that its quirks deserve closer inspection. At the very least we can be sure that the growing unpleasantness of each ending was a very deliberate choice; in another interview, Taro reportedly comments: “any game that centres on slaughtering hundreds in war shouldn’t deserve a happy ending.”

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Mechanics Matter

Structuring the characters and the conclusion of the game game around this philosophy may be interesting, but the integration into the game’s mechanics is what’s exceptional. While the obvious approach may be to provide a pacifistic or non-lethal option, as a number of more recent games have done, Drakengard embraces violence in order to critique it within the framework of a what is strictly a hack-and-slash action game.

Caim and the dragon each has a character level which, as in many videogames, is tied to the number of enemies they have killed. Not only that, but weapons in Drakengard also level up based on the number of enemies that have been killed with them, and new weapons are often found in hidden chests which appear only when all of the enemies in an area are dead. In this way the game’s systems encourage you to kill as many soldiers as you possibly can, rather than just the marked objectives, then to return and kill them all over again in search of hidden loot. Need some friends to help you slaughter all those soldiers, and to unlock the last two endings of the game? Well, finding those companion characters will mean killing more, killing faster, and completing additional missions based around killing. One of these missions sees you hacking apart hundreds of child soldiers while listening to the protests of a particular companion (the paedophile).

The important fact is that all of this killing is ultimately pointless. Endings B and C see the world plunged into Armageddon even after the trauma of fighting bastardised versions of Caim’s nearest and dearest. After going to the trouble of finding all the companion characters to unlock ending D, they prove to be too weak-willed or deranged to be of any help – with the exception perhaps of Seere, who is appropriately the most sympathetic of the crooked bunch. But the real gut punch comes in the fifth and final ending, E, for which you must acquire every last one of the game’s 65 weapons.

Ending E branches off of the same part of the narrative as ending D, wherein all your companions but Seere and the dragon have proven worthless in the face giant demon sky babies. It is the most important, and perhaps the most divisive part of the entire experience. Some have accused the unlock condition of this ending of being just a cheap way to lengthen the game, which seems like a strange criticism given that the game is already long enough and developers of that era had no micro-transactions or DLC with which to profit from your extended playtime. More importantly, the extra gameplay unlocked for ending E, the final boss, uses wholly different mechanics from the rest of the game. This is a pet peeve of mine – a thing that the likes of Lost Planet, Dark Void, and the entire Sonic the Hedgehog series are guilty of; its unfair, unfun, disregards everything that the you have learned in the playing the rest of the game, and in doing so, is uniquely appropriate for Drakengard.

The final boss fight takes place in the sky above modern-day Tokyo (don’t ask), which means you’ll be riding the dragon, which means that all of those weapons you grinded for are worthless. What’s more, because the final boss takes the form of a rhythm game (don’t ask), all the offensive and defensive modifiers gained by levelling up the dragon are also worthless. All that is left at your disposal is patience and perseverance – you’ve at least demonstrated those in coming this far. But even if you grit your teeth and overcome what is by all accounts an unreasonable challenge, or if you do what I did and find ending E on YouTube rather than even bother to collect the weapons, then what you’re rewarded with is the annihilation of the two remaining characters by a pair of fighter jets, the implication that the Dragon Sphere is destroyed outright, and a roll of credits over the sounds of city traffic.

Violence Solves Nothing

What happens in each of Drakengard’s endings is, to some extent, Caim’s fault, and the player’s fault; it happens because the only way that Caim knows of interacting with the world is through violence, because the player only came for that violence, and because of these two things, violence was the only means of interaction we were provided. With that approach, Ending A was the best we could have hoped for. With only violence Caim is unable to reconcile with his wayward friend, is unable to attract worthwhile allies, and in being unable to console his sister, is unable to save her and thereby the world, even when doing so is inches from his grasp.

Thus, Drakengard adheres to one the virtues you might expect a protagonist in a typical video game to espouse, but thereafter completely disregard because gameplay: Violence solves nothing.  To put words in the game’s mouth: “What? Did you really think murdering more soldiers, gathering a party of nut jobs, and collecting weapons would make things turn out better? How?”

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Status Update 2017

I’ve been quiet here for a while now, having been officially admitted into the UK games industry after the summer of my graduation. That summer I was offered a position as a Junior Programmer at Radiant Worlds to work on their then-secret project SkySaga: Infinite Isles, which has since seen announcement, and extensive Closed Alpha Testing. Years later, having seen this project go through many changes and come so far since the time when I joined, this week brought the sad news that development is being placed on hold indefinitely.

During my time with Radiant Worlds I’ve had the opportunity to work in a wide variety of systems in a beautiful 3D game with real-time action, and great creative scope for players. It’s more than I had hoped for as a graduate programmer; I feel very lucky to have had the scope of experience I have within this project, and to have worked with such a friendly and talented team. Direct, player-facing gameplay systems have always been my favourite part of game development, and here I have had ample opportunities to work with those systems, including in character control, combat, animation and UI; but I have also worked closely with designers, ensuring that they have the knobs and levers they need, and lending a technical insight where required.

SkySaga may be on hold, but right now the company lives on, and in this time of uncertainty I, like many others here, am taking the opportunity to stretch my technical-legs a little – to investigate current technologies, and consider what skills I may need for future projects. I intend to stay on the road that I have started, remaining within the games industry come rain or shine. The team here is talented, and even if we are divided, I know that we will cross paths frequently in our professional lives.

Check out the videos below for an impression of what we have achieved over the last few years.

Portfolio Update – Game Behaviour

Hello!

I recently put up pages for two projects from the Game Behaviour module undertaken in the final year of my BScH in Computer Games Programming at the University of Derby, which I have now fully completed and received a very pleasant classification for.

You can now head over to the pages for Crispis and DropCakes, and The Frozen Firepits of Generic Dungeon Name for information on these projects, or to download the source code and executables. The former is simply a 2D physics sandbox built upon Box2D and a custom Entity/Component engine, and probably isn’t or much interest to many. The latter, however, you may find interesting if you’re into game design, classic roguelikes, fantasy games, and such.

The Frozen Firepits of Generic Dungeon Name (TFFGDN) was an experimental game design implemented for an artificial intelligence (AI) assignment; it did well, though the AI isn’t too interesting in my opinion. It’s a fusion of turn-based, physics-based mechanics similar to Snooker or Pool, and classic fantasy dungeon-crawler games where a party of adventurers of traditional achetypes such as Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, etc. enter into a monster-infest labyrinth seeking treasure. In its current state it’s not too thrilling; I had intended to implement magic and special abilities for player characters and enemies, which I think would make things a lot more exciting, but I just didn’t have time. I also feel like the physics could be tightened up a lot to increase the pace of gameplay, but I had to do a lot of fiddling with Unity just to get it working in the first place.

Come next week or so I’ll try to have some more information up regarding my dissertation project which was an investigation into AI for Don Eskridge’s The Resistance. Then I can get onto undertaking some small personal projects while I look for work.

SplashDash

Ho! Another delayed post; I said I’d get to this before the semester was up, but this semester hit really hard, and I just haven’t had the time or energy for it. Well, it’s not Christmas yet, so I guess that’s something, no?

The real killer module this semester was Game Development, which consisted of a single group project with three other programmers and seven(!) 3D artists. I started to put a page together for the game we created, “SplashDash”, today; I still need to go over what I’ve written with furrowed brow and fill out the Freerunning Implementation section, but there are already download links for Windows, OSX, and Linux builds, a gameplay trailer, and lots and lots of screenshots to see!

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SplashDash is a 3D, freerunning, score attack game, drawing inspiration from games like Jet Set Radio, Tony Hawks Underground, Mirror’s Edge, and de Blob.

Robots have taken over the world and subjected it to their ideals of order and optimisation. They’ve whitewashed all the walls and broken the spirit of the human population, who now go about their daily chores like mindless drones. The player is a teenager gifted with the ability to bring colour into objects with a single touch, and must use it to paint as much of the city as possible in the given time limit to inspire a human revolution.

My main responsibility was the implementation of the player movements, including running, analogue jumps, wallruns, ledgegrabs, vertical wallruns, wallrun jumps, and wall rebounds. I also worked closely with the programmer and artist responsible for the animations to try and make sure things looked as smooth as possible, and though some animation glitches remain I’m pretty pleased with the way things turned out.

The freerunning implementation is, honestly, pretty unrefined, as I’ve never coded such complex 3D movement mechanics, nor used Unity before, and time constraints on the project meant that I could not afford a lot of research or iterate as much as I would have liked. I opted to go with a system which did not require any hints or triggers to be placed into environment, so as to minimize the workload of environment construction. Let’s just say there are a lot of raycasts and a lot of vector maths involved; you can read more about it (once I’ve written it) and my other contributions on the SplashDash page.

We’ve all learnt a lot from this project – mostly about working with Unity, its flaws, quirks, features, limitations, and best practices, but also more transferable skills. We had some communication and organisational issues (which I’ve written about at length for a post-mortem as part of the assessment, and shan’t post online yet) that I think are easily solvable once identified; some simply by picking the right tools and channels, and others by encouraging certain practices. The project was also a good insight into the importance of sorting out your methodology and workflows out early on in a group project – I feel that with time invested in the right places at the start, things would have progressed more quickly, and in a more organised fashion.

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Anyway, I think it’s pretty effective as a proof of concept – or not, as the case may be. We all agree that the movement is the most fun part, and that a linear time trial or racing mode, on maps similarly constructed to the tutorial level, would probably be more fun (especially with some nice acceleration mechanics thrown in to reward good freerunning flow). But it is quite fun, all the same, and I think the concept deserves further investigation which, if I ever find the time to experiment with a proper non block-based painting system, I might just be tempted to conduct.

Edit: P.S: Mute the game and go listen to the Jet Set Radio OST while you play :P

A Note of Intent

Aaargh.

I decided I wasn’t going to bother posting another update here until I’d settled back into uni and sunken my teeth into some fresh projects I could write about. I suddenly find myself almost two-months into the final year of my degree and I’ve been rather too busy to give it a second thought.

So here’s a note of intent: I will, sooner or later, make a proper post about this semester’s projects, before the semester is concluded, including my dissertation project, which was signed off by my supervisor last week and is now awaiting my full attention…after two more urgent deadlines. For now, I’ll just leave a brief list of what I’m currently working on:

1. An essay on the sufficiency of services provided by modern operating systems for accessing detailed information about gaming peripherals [due two weeks from now – yikes!].

2. A Unity game about parkour and painting. Think Jet Set Radio meets Mirror’s Edge meets Tony Hawks Underground. This is a team project with three other programmers from my course, and seven artists from the University of Derby’s Computer Games Modelling and Animation course [due sometime around the end of the semester].

3. For my dissertation project I am to be investigating the posibility of applying various AI techniques to the board/card game The Resistance. This may include search trees and evolutionary techniques, and I will be using the competition framework and bots provided by AiGameDev.com last year.

These are the things I’ll be posting about and/or creating new pages for here when I get chance. All the other stuff I do I’ll likely post about elsewhere if I even have the time to continue doing things other than eat, sleep, and code.

I cook some nowadays, and bake a little; I still study Korean, and I’m trying to snatch back the graphic design and art skills I used to have. But I’d like to keep this blog focussed more on programming, and the larger projects I undertake.

What a Pitch!

If you’ve dabbled in games development  at all, chances are you’ve come across Game Maker. Depending on the circles you run in you may have heard good or bad things about it – you may even have tried it yourself and formed your own opinion. Personally, like anyone else I ever remember talking to about it, my opinion on Game Maker is largely negative, and while I could see it being viable prototyping tool, I would always prefer to use something like XNA or LWJGL with a simple, ready-implemented framework.

I’ve also seen many a terrible Mario clone and other poor Game Maker game – probably a result of the application’s ease of use making it attractive to young or unskilled creatives. But I’m not spending my time typing this just to beat a dead horse, no. I’m here to introduce you to a shining example of what any tool can produce in the right hands.

Hyper Princess Pitch Review
Daughter of the Goddess of Explosions, cannon in hand and an unending supply of explosive bricks as ammunition, Pitch sets off to the North Pole with her flying, legless companion Cat Strike to give the good Mecha Santa and his robotic elves what for. What for? For not giving her any presents, that’s what.

Hyper Princess Pitch is a top-down arcade shoot-em-up in the vein of Smash TV and Operation Carnage, created by Daniel Remar and distributed for free alongside his other work, including Iji, and the fantastic Hero Core. It, like most of his games, was created using Game Maker, but you’ll see no shabby handiwork here.

As you probably guessed a paragraph ago (unless you’re skip-reading) the setting, and general wackiness of the characters play a big part in making the game so entertaining. Pitch is a likable anti-hero – even if her motivation is somewhat disagreeable – and her mother, who resides in a secret place, is an absolute riot. Pitch makes vocal remarks during gameplay of just the right frequency and variety to be entertaining rather than annoying, while her mother… uh – things explode when she talks. Mecha Santa is also pretty rad.

The graphics portray everything aptly with a bright, pixely style and no visible flaws. They’re not ground breaking by any means but they’re certainly attractive, and never bland. Explosions are very nicely drawn and animated, which is good since they’re a central feature. I don’t think I really want to play a game ever again unless re-spawning after death causes an explosion. There are rainbows, sparks, varied projectiles, colourful props and different tile-sets per level. Overall there’s a lot going on; over-the-top is the name of the game, but it never seems out-of-place

Enemies are also colourful, varied, and a little more creative than might be expected from a Christmas-themed game: shiny baubles, trains, UFOs, gun-turrets, tanks, sleds and insane, metal doppelgangers to name but a few. In some rooms you are assaulted by swarms of elves, while others contain only three or four larger enemies. Bosses are especially impressive; they’re the standard, room-filling fare, but their attack patterns are well-refined, inventive, and very interesting – more-so when final attacks are enabled for the hardest two difficulty settings. The third boss – whatever the hell it is – makes good use of the environment, advancing on you constantly and occasionally blasting the central platform with a massive laser, forcing you onto the sidelines.

That is, unless you make use of a special trick. Pitch may be all for explosions and general, long-ranged carnage, but she’s not above wrestling moves when the situation calls for them. Your main arsenal consists of an explosive-brick machine-gun, an ice-thrower (which also destroys yellow projectiles), and a slow-firing gun that fires little, bouncing bits of rainbow. These are all useful under different circumstances, but if you get in a pinch you can also hit up-down-left-right or up-down-right-left quickly to execute a block. Projectiles that hit you during a block won’t hurt, but large enemies will. Interestingly though, if a smaller enemy touches you, you’ll execute a pile-driver on it, culminating in a powerful explosion when you and your foe impact the ground. Various power-ups will aid you along the way, including obvious candidates such as power, triple and speed, hyper, and the super-rare x, y,z power-ups. Some of these override your main weapon completely, while others differ based on what weapon you have equipped. All of this can lead to a very tactical form of play, or just a whole lot of awesome-looking fun.

At this point I’d like to say that Pitch even controls well, but that’d be pushing it. Instead I’ll emphasize that she doesn’t control badly. You move her using the arrow keys on your keyboard, fire with x and cycle weapons with z. Your weapons fire in the direction you last walked in, but by switching direction while firing you can continue to fire while back-pedaling or side-stepping. This is a bit strange at first, but something I’m familiar with from some older games (don’t ask me to name any). Although it takes a while, this actually feels quite natural once you get used to it, but I still haven’t gotten the hang of the key combination for a pile-driver. Up-down-left-right, up-down-left-right. I actually like the fact that it’s difficult to execute this powerful move, but it is endlessly frustrating when you fail, especially since you have to be right next to enemies already in order for it to be effective. Wielding a hyper power-up actually enables you to perform a pile-driver at the touch of a button, but it isn’t often useful once you have a golden bricks or a rainbow laser.

Actually, that’s my only minor gripe with Hyper Princess Pitch, and it hasn’t hindered my enjoyment of the game past the first five minutes or so. There’s enough variety, challenge, humour and content here to keep you busy for quite a long time, and it’s all delivered for free, not even requiring an installation. Level design is solid, and non-linear, as you usually have two doors to choose from at the end of each room. The difficulty curve is perfect, and the game comes with a large selection of difficulty settings, each of which unlocks a new pro tip upon completion. I can almost complete the last regular difficulty setting, and I’ll probably still draw enjoyment from the game until I can complete it fully. There is a hidden difficulty setting harder than that, but you need to have some pretty l337 skills to even get through the front door.

I highly recommend Hyper Princess Pitch. It’s hard not to recommend free games, I know, but if you remember Smash TV, enjoy retro arcade shoot-em-ups, or just want to cause a lot of cool explosions without any complicated premise, you should check this out. If you want a simple, challenging arcade experience, and have fond memories of limited lives and real GAME OVERs, you have to check this out.

I’m a Night Owl

Can I cram the third of my Humble Bundle Reviews into that last thirty-six minutes of Boxing Day? Probably not – I’m too much of a perfectionist. But that won’t stop me. I have other things to do too, and the night is young.

NightSky Review
Physics-based action-platformer NightSky by NICALiS (awesome website) will test your reflexes, your mind, your skill, and your determination in ways you would never imagine possible, while constantly luring you further into its dreamlike world of silhouettes and ambient music. The gameplay ranges from supremely relaxing to incredibly frustrating, but is always satisfying whichever the case.

In NightSky you play a ball. I won’t go into the specifics of how you control this ball in case you, like me, decide to play Alternative mode from the get go. In Alternative mode you are dropped into the world with a list of the buttons required to play, and are given no further instruction. Since getting to grips with the game I have given it to my mother to try out the normal game mode, which spaces tutorials throughout the first few levels in the form of helpful hints at the bottom of the screen, and features less challenging obstacles throughout.

For the first few screens you’ll simply roll to the right, then you’ll encounter your first jumps. Dropping off the bottom of the screen resets you to the last checkpoint you passed; these are generally every three or so screens and are indicated by a simple fade-to-black. It’s a little while before the physics puzzles are introduced, and this is done very gradually. The most important thing to me though, is that the physics never become the definitive aspect of the game, your concentration is almost always squarely on controlling the ball.

The physics are, however, what separates NightSky from other platformers. Without the physics the game would not be what it is, and it’s actually quite unusual for me to like a game so dependant on its physics engine. Puzzles are worked expertly into the incredible level design in a way that, sadly, checkpoints are not. There were a particular sequence of levels that seemed to have been designed specifically to follow-up a time-consuming or pure-chance obstacle with a difficult, skill-based jump, only to throw you back to the beginning every time you failed the jump, and these really got on my nerves. Still, far from the frustrating grind of Super Meat Boy, NightSky somehow always makes me feel like I’m heading somewhere, and I’m still compelled to complete the game after already pushing through some really hellish levels. Perhaps it’s the reward system? NightSky usually rewards you after each challenge with a peaceful section, something new and creative, or a different type of challenge. Meanwhile, Super Meat Boy rewards you after each level with another incredibly difficult challenge of the same type, using the same tired obstacles (there’s only so long before I’m not impressed by saws and fire, okay?).

No really, NightSky constantly surprises you with things you just weren’t expecting? Did I expect to begin this level in a balloon with fans powered by my rolling? No. Did I expect this entire room to rotate with my weight? No. Did I expect to have to balance atop a log while it rolled through those obstacles in the first bloody level? No! I’ve been constantly amazed at the amount of creative and original obstacles I’ve encountered in this game, and these are interspersed with standard jumps and old obstacles in such a way that it’s never even overwhelmed me.

One thing I’ve barely touched on so far is the graphics. These are in a sort of silhouette with minimalist use of colour, so you don’t always know what something is until you roll into it. Backgrounds are usually all you get colour-wise, and they’re pretty enough to stop the game being bland. There are moving critters in some worlds (which I’m not too fond of), trees and grass that blow in the wind (lovely) and various other features. Overall the game is pretty, not stunning, but its aesthetics compliment the atmosphere well.

The atmosphere is one of peace, mystique, and a little danger, perhaps. This is enforced by the high black content and subtle use of colour; the experimental soundtrack provided by Chris Schlarb; and crisp, lifelike sound effects. The sound effects were my second surprise in this game. Knock on wood, rattle chains, move something heavy and large, or fall onto some rocks, and you’ll hear the purest incarnation of the sound you’d expect. This can be useful for identifying objects, but it also lends the world some living quality, and emphasises the lonely atmosphere, as the loudest, sharpest sounds in the world come from your interactions with it.

I don’t have any criticisms for the game really, apart from some of the cruel checkpoint spacing, so I’ll spend this paragraph talking about The Void, my favourite level so far in NightSky. The Void is beautiful, features some of the most satisfying (though by no means hardest) puzzles in the game, and no less than two fantastic vehicles for you to master. I really enjoyed playing through this level, and I hope that you will too.

Positive thoughts for this one then; well done NICALiS. This is probably my favourite of the Humble Bundle so far, so now I’m off to play some more NightSky. At night.

Goodnight!