Drakengard – Finding the Fun

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 over-analysis of its narrative structure and mechanics, then this is part two of that.

While part one explored the unusual delivery and nature of Drakengard’s narrative, this article aims to be an examination of its awkward, dated gameplay – what merit can be found therein and why I ended up enjoying what truly is a remarkably repetitive experience.

Credit for all images included goes to the game’s manual.

A Game of Three Modes

Primarily, Drakengard is a hack-and-slash affair most immediately reminiscent of the Dynasty Warriors series. The big gimmick, however, and probably the main thing that brought players to it before it became infamous for its bizarre final chapters, is that for almost the entire game the anti-hero, Caim, is accompanied by a red dragon. Players take the reigns of this dragon in aerial combat missions, and can even summon and ride it in ground missions – a third mode of gameplay that the manual calls ‘strafe mode’.

It may seem strange then, for me to say that this article is going to focus almost exclusively on the ground-based combat – by a great margin the least conspicuous component of the entire game. While each mode of gameplay is serviceable, often even fun, all lack a certain level of polish and refinement. For all that I came to enjoy the ground combat, it remains incredibly repetitive, so the air battles were never an unwelcome diversion, and the ability to jump into strafe mode to zip across the battlefield, roasting enemies from above, contributed greatly to the game’s playability. That said, beside their intrinsic novelty and utilisation for most of the game’s boss fights, the two modes which see you piloting the dragon don’t really offer much else to make up for their lack of polish.

To quote my earlier article on Drakengard’s narrative, “there are a lot of obstacles in the way of actually enjoying Drakengard,” but nowhere are these obstacles more apparent than in its ground combat: Before you even make it into a fight you’ll have to wrest control of the game’s archaic camera, then locate some enemies on the minimap because their render distance is dreadful. There are hundreds of enemies even in the first level, they flank you relentlessly, and working around the slow steering permitted during weapon swings to keep them all at bay can be a chore. Levels are long, typically structured around eliminating specific targets marked yellow on the minimap. There’s no immediately apparent way of recovering health, and there are no mid-mission checkpoints.

Simply charging headlong into the hordes and trying to do your best is likely to be a frustrating experience; I reckon you’d quickly get tired of retreading the same ground after every loss. But the road to getting good isn’t well signposted – it’s unorthodox, involving a small set of mechanics which, properly understood and exploited, layer together to give a monotonous experience rhythm, to give a frantic experience an unexpectedly tense and tactical feel, which I’m not entirely sure was intentional.

We need to make a quick stop to explain the basic combat mechanics before we can get to the heart of it though.

mission

Weapons And What They’re Worth

Drakengard features no less than 65 weapons in the form of swords, longswords, spears, staves, axes, poleaxes, maces, and hammers, each received as a reward for mission completion or found in chests throughout the game. Players may assign up to eight of these weapons to the ‘weapon wheel’ before entering a mission, and are then able to switch between those weapons on the fly.

Each weapon has only a singular combo – a chain of attacks executed by repeatedly pressing the attack button. Weapons of each type tend to have a similar combo, though the speed, range, and damage of their attacks varies significantly. To each weapon is attached a unique spell which can be activated at the cost of magic points (MP) – these range from fireballs, to ground waves, to swarms of guided projectiles, and more. By pressing the magic button at specific points during a combo, signified by a glowing halo emitted from the weapon, players can also perform a ‘finishing blow’. These are less varied than magic but differ from weapon to weapon, and typically take the form of a shock wave which damages and knocks most enemies prone, either in a radius around the player, or a line projecting forward.

In tense combat situations the longer-ranged finishing blows, such as the forward shockwaves, can form a critical part of your approach to combat. Available on some of the quickest weapons after only a couple of attacks, these can allow you to disable groups of enemies at range, and maintain your combo count when moving between bouts of combat. And maintaining your combo count is something you’ll want to be very conscious of.

finishingBlows

Combos Are Everything

Your current combo count, displayed prominently on screen, increases with every enemy struck by the swing of a weapon, or the shockwave of a finishing blow, and resets to zero only when a generous number of seconds elapse between such hits. Magic does not increase your combo count, and typically has a long enough casting time to break any ongoing combo.

I mentioned earlier that there was no immediately apparent way of recovering health – sure there are boxes here and there containing glowing green spheres that restore a chunk of health when collected, but they’re finite and there’s never one around when you really need it. Thankfully though, with a little extra effort there’s a much more reliable source of those green orbs constantly near at hand. You see, those same orbs, of varying sizes, along with other coloured orbs with different effects, are dropped from enemies when striking them raises your current combo count to particular values. The first orb drops at the 17th hit, the second at the 36th, and so on. While other colours of orbs certainly add a satisfying sense of accomplishment when you’re doing well, what’s important is that when you’re missing any health at all, the orbs which appear at lower combo counts are guaranteed to be health orbs.

This sets up a very obvious risk-reward system where carefully ministered aggression is rewarded with sustainability in the form of health. This in itself is not unusual from the perspective of the modern gamer, as different mechanics exist for a similar purpose in the likes of Metal Gear Rising, DOOM 2016, and even in the skillsets of some ARPG or MOBA characters. What stands out to me in Drakengard, however, is the transformative impact this has on combat. Arguably, combos become too much the focus of the player in Drakengard. In DOOM or Metal Gear Rising, glory kills and zandatsu are just something you do here and there to top up your health, and look cool doing it. In Drakengard the drive to achieve even a 16-hit combo chain for a small health orb can affect everything from your choice of weapons, to the way you move across the whole battlefield.

In any given mission you’ll find yourself deliberately drawing the attention of multiple enemy groups in order to bring them closer together, or simply juggling one poor sod between ranks in order to sustain a long combo. It doesn’t even matter if the soldiers you hit are alive, as upon death they remain valid targets long enough for two or three more strikes prior to de-spawning, so you’ll sometimes find yourself wailing on a man as he goes down, or chasing after a body you sent flying, only to tap it once on your way to a new group of enemies. This is actually pretty in line with Caim’s character, and the wider themes of the game. Because objective enemies can be quite tough and missions don’t typically feature any kind of re-spawning mobs, it can also be helpful to think of the rank and file as resources – as something to avoid killing, only to return to when you need to top up your health.

Perhaps most significantly though, combos will influence your choice of weapon. Large, slow weapons don’t make a lot of sense when they leave you open to more attacks, and typically kill enemies in fewer blows, making building combos near impossible. Short swords, on the other hand, hit fast and do little damage, especially when they’re still at low levels. This makes short swords ideal for building combos even with only a limited number of enemies at hand, but not ideal for advancing through long, overpopulated areas at much speed. So while long swords and other weapons will likely be your mainstay through the game, short swords become a kind of bizarre healing tool you whip out when your health gets dangerously low – that’s right, when your health is low your best chance of survival might be to bring out a weapon that will take as long as possible to kill your enemies.

chainBonus

Questionable Comparisons

Exploiting the mechanics described above made my time with Drakengard a lot easier, but also a lot more enjoyable. It doesn’t feel good to do in the way that combat in something like the Devil May Cry series feels good, but it does engage your brain in a certain way. I always found myself thinking about Dark Souls while I played, but that comparison would be massively misleading taken out of context.

The Dark Souls comparison comes not just the tension of being deep into a level, low on health and with no way to go but forward, but from the way that the game forces you to concentrate, use very deliberate timing and positioning, make very deliberate decisions. It’s a lot more frantic and less punishing, but you also need to understand the speed, arc, and range of each swing of your weapons – to keep enemies at bay and rely on interrupting their attacks with your own. Dodging is very important, but mostly for escaping encircling enemies rather than avoiding individual attacks, and blocking is pretty much useless. This changes fairly dramatically in Drakengard 2 with a focus on shielded enemies, blocking, counters, and very clearly telegraphed enemy attacks, but that’s a subject for another article.

One thing that playing Drakengard did for me, and this is an entirely personal observation, is clarify what it is that I enjoy in a combat system. What seems to be a majority of modern ‘tripple-A’ titles – Shadow of Mordor, Assassin’s Creed, and basically any western third-person action game since the invention of the combat style usually attributed to the Arkham series – take a lot of control away from the player: Positioning of attacks at the correct range and angle is not a thing because your character happily zips across the screen to engage with whatever you target; tactics, timing, setup  – none of this matters because a single button press in a generous window is usually all it takes to block or counter an attack from any angle.

While developers lavish astonishing graphics and animation upon such titles, for me it quickly falls into the same kind of tedium as Drakengard, but without much sense of depth to keep me engaged. I’ve always known where my preferences laid – that’s why I gravitate the the likes of Dark Souls and Devil May cry instead of more ‘mainstream’ AAA titles – but it was curious to see that preference extend to something so clearly janky and dated as Drakengard.

pact

Your Mileage

Despite being very clear about this not being a review, this kind of conclusion seems appropriate: At the end of the day, would I recommend you actually play Drakengard? Simply put, I don’t know.

It’s not going to be for everyone. For some, figuring out how to work with these mechanics will be too much like hard work, and the reward is small unless you’re perusing the series out of wider curiosity as I was. I couldn’t possibly recommend Drakengard for its gameplay alone, but if you’re in it for the experience, then there’s at least some hope that you’ll find a way to enjoy your time with it.

 

 

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Year of the… Dragon?

This year’s off to an interesting start: I have a new job (kinda – new company, tech, and projects, but same old faces and spaces), I’ve made a fairly consistent effort to pick up drawing and painting again, completed a short spell on jury duty back in January, I’ve been warming up to start running again in the spring, and now I’m writing here – something I intended to do a month ago.

The way things went at the end of last year left me with a lot of time on my hands. Besides a few job interviews, some scraps of work, brushing up on some technical areas that’d been left at the wayside, and a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, I was finally able to fiddle with a few long-standing ideas for personal projects. Between dabbling in Unity and Unreal I put together a bunch of weird game prototypes and experiments which I’d like to show off and muse upon here – I’ve been intending to since Christmas, but y’know – life.

There are other things I’d like to put into writing too, but writing takes a lot of time for someone as self-concious as me. Still, I’ve had the bug for it lately – strangely I’ve missed all of the essay writing and documentation that comes along with university projects. I think that writing can do a lot to help you put your thoughts in order, to take a step back and think about things more logically, and maybe even cement things in your memory. Moreover, I have a constant glut of ideas in my head – things I want to do and express but don’t have the time or skill to follow up on. It might be worthwhile putting those ideas into writing I suppose, however irregularly I manage it. And I might as well keep that record somewhere public, just in case it peaks someone else’s interests.

But it’s the Year of the Horse!

I’ve also gone off the deep end this year – gone off the deep end for a series of videogames in a way that I think I’ve only done once before. The first time I remember doing this was for Ys, a rather niche series of action/role-playing games by Japanese developer Nihon Falcom Corporation, dating back to the late 80s. After picking up Ys: Origin on Steam sometime in 2012 I struggled my way through its ‘Nightmare’ difficulty three times – once for each playable character. I fell so in love with that game that I proceeded to pick up every previous entry in the series, and a number of vaguely similar Falcom titles; I began with the games that played similarly to Origins – Oath in Felghana and Ark of Napishtim, then Ys I & II Chronicles+, Ys 7, Xanadu: Next, and the latest in the series that I’ve played, Memories of Celceta.

I loved Ys for its unusual mix of platforming, bullet hell, roleplaying, and hack-and-slash gameplay, for its tight controls, hardcore difficulty, and generally firm emphasis of gameplay over graphics and narrative. The characters and story in Ys games is typically cliche, simple, bright, colourful, and all you really need to support great gameplay. Only as I write this I’m remembering how the first gameplay footage I saw from NieR: Automata reminded me of Ys and its strange hybrid of genres – bullet hell, action, platformer, rpg – but that’s one aspect that’s not reflected in the majority of its lineage, the series I’m currently obsessed with.

My Current Obsession: Drakengard

Since Christmas I have played and completed (with some caveats) all three games in the Drakengard series, which likely has garnered a lot of attention of late through its frankly bizarre relation to the successful and brilliant NieR: Automata.

This bears some explanation for those who, like myself, weren’t paying attention until just recently: NieR: Automata released in 2017, developed by renowned Japanese game studio studio Platinum Games,  and is a sequel to the 2010 release NieR, set many thousands of years in the future, ostensibly (I haven’t played NieR yet) following from its Ending E. Likewise, NieR itself was a spin-off or sequel to Ending E of a the original 2003 release, Drakengard, set about a thousand years later on. Multiple ‘endings’ are a staple of the series, and their implementation is one of its most interesting facets. Drakengard saw two other ‘sequels’ in Drakengard 2 (2005) and Drakengard 3 (2013).

Unlike NieR: Automata, NieR and the three Drakengard games were not developed by a studio so respected for their stellar combat systems, and were not, by all accounts, well regarded either technically or from a gameplay perspective, even at the time of their release. Certainly, unlike the Ys series, the gameplay takes a back seat here, and that’s not the only difference. In every NieR and Drakengard game the characters are deeply flawed, damaged, difficult to read, and the story is a dark, complex mess that barely manages to make sense even when its not dabbling in social commentary or well-restrained fourth wall breaking. It’s not even the story necessarily that’s had me so captivated, but rather the manner of its delivery.

Despite all their rough edges (some would say near-unplayability by modern standards) I believe there is a lot worth discussing in these old games – as a game designer, as a storyteller, and as a human. I’ve been taking notes and thinking thoughts as I’ve played, and hope to write some of that chaos up into something palatable in the coming weeks – or perhaps a series of rambling articles like this one.

I still haven’t played Nier, and I’m going to take a break from the series as I ruminate on the journey so far, so it’ll be conspicuously absent from anything I write initially. I had considered continuing to play games focussed on dragons for the rest of the year, hence the title, but quickly realised that there are surprisingly few, and the obvious choices – the likes of Skyrim and Dragon Age – would eat up a lot of my time. I am going to dabble in some other games in the meantime though; I just started up Shadow of the Colossus this weekend, on the PS3, because I live in the past and the PS2 version is too expensive.

There’ll probably also be a conspicuous lack of an article dedicated to NieR: Automata, for a multitude of reasons: Nier: Automata is likely to get plenty of mentions as I cover the other games in the series, and desperately struggle to avoid mentioning any connections which might be considered spoilers for it. I’m happy to discuss the Drakengard series in depth not only because its age and flawed nature will likely prevent many people from experiencing it first-hand anyway, but because I simply don’t think ithat the nteresting parts of the other games is tied to the personal experience in the same way it is with NieR: Automata. It’s entirely possible, however, that I simply played NieR: Automata at a time when I was feeling particularly sentimental, and so was affected by it to a greater extent than is usual, but I know I’m not alone in having strong feelings about that game. And besides, lots of people are already over-hyping NieR: Automata; while I love it, I don’t want to contribute to that. Just go play it, and don’t stop till Ending E.

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.

London Posting

So a couple of months ago I made this post about what I planned to do with my summer. Well, summer was shorter and busier than I thought it might be, so my best laid plans kind of fell to pieces. I don’t mind of course – I found a decent placement for the year after all – but the chaos that’s dominated the last month or so has left me kind of disorientated.

So where do I stand? I’m in London now, working full-time for a company named ‘Feral Interactive‘, and have just come off of a three-week stint without internet, during which I’ve walked too many miles, watched too many TV series, and played too much Ys. Before that, and before all of the effort that went into arranging the move, I did manage to get through those WebGL tutorials, read a good deal of the Python documentation, and dig through the internet in search of information about network programming for games (without much luck). Mostly though, I just studied Korean and house-hunted. I also bought a small graphics tablet – a Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch – but I’ve had no time to look into digital art, so I’ve barely gotten used to controlling the thing.

The apartment I have here is small, but nice. It’s essentially two rooms with an entrance down a back-alley – what would be the kitchen-bathroom extension on a terraced. I don’t really spend much time here, what with my working hours, but what I do spend here is comfortable. Once I’m settled I want to get to work on the things that got put off this summer. I’m four chapters in on this maths book, but I’ve yet to get around to doing any OpenGL programming and still haven’t regained any confidence in drawing. To be honest I’ve also considered just taking advantage of the Korean presence down here in London – making language study my extra-curricular priority for the year. Work is tiring, life is complicated. Time will tell.

Right now, I’m watching 원스 어폰 어 타임 임 생초리 (Once Upon a Time in Saengchori). Next? Maybe I’ll hammer out another chapter of this maths book.

Something smells good. I think I live next door to a takeaway.

MIPS code, 저는 너무 바빠요!

I’m so busy this semester. Five modules at once, lots of assignments, and we’re already so far into the second semester. I want to post a few updates on what I’m up to, I just need to tie up a few loose ends before I have anything decent to show to…whoever is reading this.

Anyhow, I thought it was about time I uploaded the MIPS assembly code for the first console development assignment from last semester, so I’ll be dropping in a link below and amending this page with one too.

Check out that page if you want any information about the project, or click here to see the assembly code. If you have MARS then you’ll be able to run the demo, unlike my snake game which crashed unless you could be bothered to look up the threading issue in the Keyboard and Display Simulator included with MARS, and fix it, like me and my friend did one fateful night.

While the demo may not be too impressive, and there aren’t many drawing functions, writing PrimLib was great challenge. I really enjoyed my time spent with assembly programming – optimizing things at such a low level is surprisingly compelling, implementation of the logic forces concentration, and I generally found the whole experience quite relaxing (except for the debugging – that was horrifying, but still kind of fun).

The greatest thing about my work in MIPS was that it was directly relevant to my work in Introduction to 3D Graphics at the time, where I also had to write Cohen-Sutherland line clipping and Bresenham’s algorithms in C++. It may surprise you to know that I wrote the Cohen Sutherland algorithm in MIPS first, then converted it to C++. Honestly, I might not mind working in assembly professionally if the opportunity ever arose, and my desire to throw down some 6502 for the NES is still as strong as ever.

[Assembly Code]

Enough about that though. I want to give a quick shout out to one of my current time-holes and then head back to more important matters.

Ever heard of Lang-8? If you’re learning a language at an intermediate or advanced level, Lang-8 could be an incredible way to boost your motivation, confidence, and get accurate corrections for real, native speakers. The site is free to use, and relies solely on the kindness of others. Simply put, you make an account, tell it what language you speak, and what you’re learning, then post entries about whatever you like in the language you’re learning. Random strangers from around the globe (preferably native speakers) then post corrections and comments on your entry, and the site even attempts to match you with your language counterparts and suggest friends.

I’ve been using Lang-8 to practice my Korean, even though I’m at a very basic level. There are a lot of Korean people on there learning English and, it seems, not many the other way round, so I’ve been inundated with friend requests. Although I’ve only found time and energy to post three entries of my own, I’ve found crawling and correcting other people’s entries to be almost as addictive as crawling YouTube – albeit in a more altruistic way…

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!

What Grinds My Gears

If there’s one aspect of the games industry that’s always annoyed me it’s the endless parade of rehashed puzzle games with polished graphics and un-inventive themes being sold on the internet for only £14.97! Usually it’s a company pushing these things out, be they publisher or be they developer, and while they’re always well made, and occasionally a lot of fun, I just wish that these same people were putting their time and creativity into more original games.

But what happens when an indie studio like Lazy 8 Studios decides to show them how it’s done? Time to get started on the second of my Humble Bundle reviews.

Cogs Review
Remember those sliding tile puzzles? I’m sure you’ve seen them before, but probably not recently (unless you’ve already played Cogs, in which case I wonder why you’re reading this). Well I hate those things. They’re hard, pointless, and you’ve usually already got the finished picture in a little panel on the right, or a piece of paper, so what’s the point? The whole thing’s a bit too much like jig-saws. However, Lazy 8 Studios somehow managed to make the damn things fun, compelling, satisfying, and rather pretty.

Cogs is an original, though decidedly steam punk take on the sliding tile puzzle. When making the transition into 3D the obvious concept would be to use a 3D model divided up into cubes. Obvious, boring, and ugly. Cogs takes a unique approach: The surfaces upon which your tiles exist are the sides of contraptions like rockets, tricycles, and other steam punk machinations. Your goal in most of these is not to create specific arrangements of tiles, but rather to make the contraption function by linking up the gears and pipes which are attached to the tiles. This makes the game fresh. This adds immense depth, and ensures from the get go that this is not just another rehashed puzzle game.

In the level above, for instance, you have, I think, only one source of gas, and you need to link it to every booster on the bottom of the rocket. Each side of the rocket has only a 2×5 grid for you to manoeuvre your tiles on, and in that space you must not only power that side’s booster, but also pass the gas on to the next side using the t-junction pipe. Don’t worry: this is one of the later levels; the early ones are much, much easier.

I can’t really comment on the learning curve personally – I took to the idea like a squirrel to nuts (…), but elements like pipes, chimes, and cogs of different heights and sizes are introduced gradually so as not to overwhelm the newcomer. I’ve gotten my parents and aunt to try the game out – they all loved it by the way – and while it took them longer to get used to the idea than me, once they got past the first few puzzles, new tiles and ideas didn’t seem to faze them at all.

I feel I should probably explain this second picture also. Here you have to coerce the device into playing a specific tune, which you can preview by clicking the bottom-left button. You do this by aligning gears with different arrangements of notches on them with the bells’ hammers, then switching them in and out to sort out the timings.

It should be emphasised here that puzzle games really aren’t my forte, and yet I really enjoyed the time I’ve spent playing this game. There’s something much more compelling here that other puzzle games should take note of. You’re not just completing puzzles on the same, bland, 2D board over and over for points, you’re making something that does something. There’s no set goal, you need to figure it out for yourself. That’s the magic here.

You’ve probably got the idea by now, so I won’t explain this one. Instead I’ll talk about the graphics. You can judge for yourself, but I think they complement this game well. They aren’t stunning, there’s no real flair in the design or execution, and some of the contraptions could have been more interesting, but the graphics are functional, pretty, and will run on a pretty low-end PC. I certainly can’t fault them, and don’t get me wrong, they may not be thrilling, but they are nice: pipes shine, wood is dull, brass looks polished, and steam looks like steam. One thing I would have liked to have seen are more interesting backdrops, though I think this might have detracted from the game’s aesthetic unless properly executed, and it would certainly have pushed back performance on low-end machines.

As I hinted just now, not all of the contraptions are as interesting as those described above. Many of them are simple shapes with devices planted around them, or even flat panels with items on one or both sides. I really would have liked to have seen more rockets, flying machines, trains and cars. Larger devices would also have been very interesting – perhaps multi-level devices that you can see materializing as you construct them in intricate detail. Hey Lazy 8 – Cogs 2?

Still, this was a very interesting game, and well worthwhile playing. Just to feel that way about a puzzle game is a novel experience, and I highly recommend you pick this up if you have any taste in games – be you casual, hardcore, mainstream or hipster. C’mon, you can pay whatever you like if you go for it within the next couple of days. Don’t miss out.