April 26th, 2013
I’ve only just started the 15×15 puzzles, but I thought that I’d jot down a few ideas about Picross DS.
- Although Picross can sometimes seem impenetrable, the player can never get stuck, it’s all a matter of looking at the numbers and figuring things out logically.
- Hidden behind the simple premise are a range of deduction techniques that the player internalises through play. One of the game’s strengths is how these techniques organically emerge from the basic set of rules. You can read about them here.
- Because the player makes deductions by adding information to the board and deductions are made based on the current available information, every time a deduction is made, the nature of the puzzle is fundamentally altered. So in order to solve a puzzle, the player must continually re-adjust their mental orientation.
- The player can often make more than one deduction at the one time, so two players can solve a puzzle in two entirely different ways.
- Picross is about the way small actions build to a greater whole.
- Because information is Picross’s currency, filled squares are just as important as crossed squares, even though crossed squares don’t etch out the image. This is why punctuation is so critical.
- There should be a third camera control option for 15×15 puzzles, where the grid is large enough that the player must manually control the camera, that allows the player to move the camera with the d-pad and fill in squares with the stylus. This would prevent the player from having to manually switch back and forth between the scrolling and input functions.
Like Crosswords DS, which I’ve been playing semi-regularly for 3 years now, I guess it’ll take me a long time to finish Picross DS.
April 13th, 2013
Although Star Ocean: Second Evolution‘s narrative is pretty run-of-the-mill, one minor narrative arc did catch me off guard. Early on in the game, Claude (blonde-haired hero archetype) and Rena (blue-haired introvert archetype) run into the seductive Celine (purple-haired extrovert archetype), who shows the duo a treasure map and sends them off to Krosse Cave to track down the reward. After claiming the “ancient text” and defeating a pair of gargoyles, Claude and Rena find Celine waiting for them at the cave’s exit. She asks Claude if she can join the party. Rena expresses her discomfort for the unreserved Celine to Claude, and the player’s left to make a judgement call. Having grown sick of Rena’s pathetic “I’m a shy country girl” act hours ago, I leapt at the opportunity of adding a little verve to the narrative. Rena expressed her discontent, but I wasn’t all that fazed
Later, the crew arrive in Marze and quickly discover that all the children in the town were stolen by a gang of thieves. Our buddying heroes decide to go after the crooks, but Rena, possibly as a result of my earlier decision, split from the group and joined her big-brother friend, Dias. Claude was a bit upset over the matter, given his not-so-secret crush on Rena, but, again, I wasn’t fazed, after all, Celine seemed like a more than adequate replacement for Rena.
The difficulty spikes a little in the forrest on the way to the thieves’ hideout, but unlike before, Rena wasn’t there to heal the party out of every bad situation, and Celine could only cast attack magic. I ended up exhausting my stash of healing items and barely making it out the forrest alive, all the while feeling guilty that I’d, quite maliciously, given Rena the cold shoulder. The forrest and its onslaught of thief soldiers did something which up to that point the game’s copious amount of text dialogue failed to do: it gave me a reason to care about Rena. There’s a moral to this story and I’m sure that you’ve figured it out already: the only way to affect the player is through play itself.
April 7th, 2013
My discussion on Wario Land: Shake Dimension‘s mechanics can be found here. You should read that first.
Shake Dimension has a scarce selection of enemies, most of which do a pretty feeble job at engaging the player. The ubiquitous pawn enemies, Bandineros, have less interplay than a Marumen and basically act as walking health refills. The rest are mostly simple variations on the same walk-left-to-right formula. None of the enemies drop spoils, so their interplay is one cycle shallower than Wario Land 4‘s foes and there’s no undercurrent of psychological stringing-along. If Wario grabs an enemy and shakes them, they may drop a clove of garlic or some coins. I guess the developers wanted to find a way to encourage the player to use the accelerometer-controlled mechanic, even though it interrupts the game’s flow (Wario can’t move and shake) and isn’t very interesting. The enemies all make the same strange monkey noise when you defeat them. Not only does the sound effect not suit their visual form, it doesn’t make sense that the individual enemies all make the same noise.
Most of the game’s rewards come in the form of money bags. Wario can shake these sacks to clear out the coins inside, causing a flurry of them to fill the surrounding area. The coins disappear shortly after they leave the bag, so the process of spreading them around only leads to frustration as there’s usually a few coins that fall either out of reach or too far from Wario to retrieve them in time. Holding the sack while claiming the coins is a bit cumbersome, so it’s preferable to find a quiet corner and let loose. If I were to repair Shake Dimension, I would drastically overhaul the money sacks, if not remove them completely.
Level Design and Game Progression
Where Shake Dimension goes from being good and reasonable to bad and frustrating is in its level design. Having spent 2 years analysing Wario Land 4 and its levels, the issues with Shake Dimension‘s set of stages became apparent almost immediately. They are:
The difficulty level in each world slowly rises before it’s reset at the start of the next world. Wario Land 4 does this too (as with Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins), but avoids the issue of the difficulty falling off a cliff every few stages by 1) making that cliff relatively short and 2) specialising each of the four passages around a different part of the game system. In Shake Dimension, the cliff is not only relatively high, but the worlds are relatively unspecialised.
Because of the dash attack’s new-found flexibility and how it’s deeply embedded into the post-fold by way of level design and side objectives, all of the post-folds, regardless of the type of folding, are about speed running. In Wario Land 4, the post-fold is—aside from a few levels—used as a time-pressured way of continuing the exploration of the game idea. Because Shake Dimension‘s game ideas are restricted to half a level, they tend to be shallower than they could be. To combat this, certain concepts are started in some levels and picked up in others, usually not sequentially. It’s this mixing and matching of odds and ends, combined with occasional Subwarine diversions, that makes the game’s narrative so incoherent.
The restricted-to-freer practice that defines Wario Land 4‘s education and variation isn’t as tight in Shake Dimension, so the game has a harder time of leading the player through the rigours of the level arrangements.
The level design and optional objectives work in tandem to offer the player a multitude of ways to scale the difficulty. There are two problems, though. Firstly, the player is usually only given one shot at accessing each of the secret areas and routes needed to fulfil the objectives. Given that, on their first go, the player doesn’t know what to expect from a level, it’s easy for them to overlook the indicators that lead to said secret routes and areas. Not being able to immediately retry therefore encourages them to manually restart the level every time they miss one of the many secret hidey holes. (Incidentally, the designers included such an option in the pause menu). Furthermore, Wario Land 4‘s “try again at the expense of more time” dynamic (that makes deciding what to do after failing an optional arrangement post-fold engaging) is lost. In Shake Dimension, when the player fails, they only have one option: press on. Secondly, most of the side objectives are set high enough that the only way to beat them is to access ALL the secret areas. Yet, since the player only gets one chance at reaching each individual area, reaching them all more often than not requires the player replay a completed level multiple times. This process of making the perfect run is heavily steeped in memorisation and trial and error
Since I started the first post summarising everything I’ve subsequently said, I guess I should end this final post with an introduction (there’s an allusion here to folded level design, I’m sure of it), or maybe just a mini-announcement. I’m nearing the end of my stockpile of notes, so that means I can start work on book #2. It’s a bit of a relief, actually. Although I think I’ve made a few good points over the past 2 months, writing short-form comments based on notes of games I finished months, even years ago is a real drag. I can’t wait to move onto something newer and more meaty, where I can really flex my skills. Of course, I’m always playing new games, so I’ll still be updating the blog with short-form observations. I’m aiming for a frequency of one or two articles a week, so actually not much will change, will it? Besides some “fresher” writing, I hope.