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Teslagrad is Creative, Infuriating, Maybe Great

I love finding a new gameplay mechanic that makes me think "Yes! Why aren't more games trying this?", and this week I was lucky enough to find one of those.

I received an e-mail on Monday from Eduardo of Rain Games, an indie group from Norway that makes games that are "´╗┐small, smart, simple and elegantly designed." Eduardo's message entreated me to take a look at their first offering, Teslagrad, currently up for voting on Steam Greenlight. After checking it out and finding the video enticing, I asked him whether a demo was available, and he was kind enough to provide me with an extended one. Before I talk about it, though, take a look at what got me excited in the first place.

For starters, the game is aesthetically sumptuous. The visuals are superb, evoking memories of the first time I saw Braid while easily establishing their own strong identity. The animation is clean and crisp, with lots of impressive background details, layers of parallax scrolling, etc. The trailer is a pleasure to look at, and the demo lived up to that promise nicely. Sadly the demo did not include any of the music present in the trailer, but the sound effects were well done and I expect the music will come together nicely in time for release.

As I'm sure you gathered from the video, the gameplay hook here is magentism. As described by Rain, Teslagrad is "a 2D puzzle platformer with action elements, where magnetism and other electromagnetic powers are the key to go throughout the game, and thereby discover the secrets kept in the long abandoned Tesla Tower." You can read the feature set on their Greenlight page, but it's clear that their goal is to create a seamless, challenging action-puzzle experience that engrosses the player through great looks and solid gameplay.

Does it work? ...yes and no. A few rough spots do stand out. First off, for me, I'm not sure that their "visual storytelling" is going to be sufficient to pull me through their entire game. They somewhat cheekily tout this as a feature, saying they know we're all "tired of all those words in your video games," but what's here kind of comes across as their being uninterested in telling a compelling story (or not having the resources to, which I would understand), rather than just wanting to keep it in the background. Atmospheric flavor text like "ancient Teslamancer technology" is cool and all, but aside from the game's initial motivation of "run from the people trying to kill you", I never got a sense for why I was supposed to care about this character, or how the world he inhabits works. Lots of stuff wants him dead, I'm clear on that, but that's really all they give you. Maybe that's all some folks will need, but I had lots of questions and got very few answers.

The controls, pretty critical for a platform game, could be tighter. They aren't badly designed, but proper gamepad support would go a long way towards making this a really enjoyable experience. After fiddling with the keyboard controls for awhile I ended up using Pinnacle to make a 360 controller profile, and that made things better, but still not as precise as I would have liked. Some of the puzzles, even the early ones, require tight enough timing that repeatedly failing due to what feels like imprecise input is extremely frustrating. Several sections had me re-doing even relatively simple feats of platforming 4 or 5 times because my character just wouldn't do what I wanted, when I wanted him to.

Finally, the physics engine doesn't seem like it can always keep up with the puzzle design. There was one room where magnetizing a block was supposed to push it through a short tunnel into a platform that it would raise off the ground so I could progress, and the first few times I went in there, it just didn't work. The block went down the tunnel, but maybe it didn't get close enough to the platform. Regardless, eventually I re-entered the room (each room resets when you leave), did the same steps, and that time it worked. Random reactions from games can be great, but not when they dictate your success or failure in a puzzle situation.

I'm just gonna emphasize again that this game is really gorgeous.

Despite that list of concerns, though, I want to make it clear that I come away from my time with Teslagrad really intrigued by what Rain Games has built, and hopeful that they can tighten it up and release a product that plays as nicely as it looks. I think there's reason for optimism. The gameplay premise of physics-driven magnetism as a puzzle mechanic is very clever, and even early in the game it's clear that there's a lot of promise in it. It's extremely satisfying to watch objects in the game world react to your magnetizing them, and I found myself playing with things just to see how they'd behave, which is a good sign. I'm not sure it applies terribly well to combat - like with Portal, the vast majority of gameplay is about avoiding enemies, not confronting them, and the first boss is fun while you learn his pattern, but then a bit frustrating to actually fight. But I'm willing to give the game more time to see what else it has for me, and I applaud Rain for bringing something that feels different and interesting to the somewhat crowded "2D puzzle platformer" space.

It's also clear, early on in the game, that the map is going to open itself up to the player in "Metroidvania" fashion, teasing you with areas you can't access until you have the right items or abilities. That's not uncommon for a 2D side scrolling platformer, obviously, but it is somewhat uncommon for a game with such a focus on puzzle rooms, and I find the blend refreshing.

The bottom line for me is this: Teslagrad left me wanting more, and that's the most important thing that a taste of a game can do. Again, the game is currently on Steam Greenlight, so if this all sounds interesting to you, head on over there and give them a vote so that hopefully they can end up on the service. It's also being tracked on Desura, so once they hit release I assume you'll be able to pick it up there as well.

I'm definitely going to keep an eye on this one. There's a lot of potential here, and I'd love to see it realized.


Tales of PAX East: Delver's Drop

I went to PAX East a week ago, and came back with all sorts of games I want to write about, but also came back sick and tired. So dragging myself to and from work all week was about all I could manage, and I took this last weekend to recover. (And to beat Bioshock Infinite. You really, really need to play Bioshock Infinite.) Having gotten back to a place of feeling relatively human, there are some things I think you might enjoy, if your tastes run similar to mine.

The first of these, and the most exciting thing that I personally played on the show floor, is Delver's Drop.

The product of a Kickstarter project I was proud to help fund, Delver's Drop has been described by its creators (a small and ambitious team calling themselves Pixelscopic) as "a sexy HD Zelda roguelike", which is (1) just about the best 5-word pitch for a game I've ever heard, and (2) pretty much entirely accurate, based on my time with the game at PAX.

What does it mean? Well, in their own words,

Delver's Drop is a 2D Action RPG with fluid physics-based movement, snappy combat, shifting dungeons, and a rogue's gallery of individually leveled character classes. With an emphasis on mystery and dynamic gameplay experiences, the game features randomization for infinite replay, enigmatic puzzle permutations to unravel, multiple narrative paths, customizable character growth, and layers of secrets to unearth. 

I spent probably 30 - 40 minutes with the game over the course of three days (I kept going back, to the point where the team was pretty familiar with me by the end of the weekend), and as one of the many people who believe that The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is one of the finest games ever made, I'm happy to report that Pixelscopic clearly thinks so, too, and they've built a game that wears that opinion proudly on its sleeve.

Everything about Delver's Drop looks and feels like a validation of the assumptions we might have made about the future of gaming back in 1992, based on what we were playing on the SNES. The combat, the items, the puzzles, the movement and physics... they all feel deliciously familiar, but modernized and made incredibly pretty. Before I talk about what I played, just take a look at this thing in motion.

Look at the colored lighting bouncing off of every surface, and the shadows being tossed around by that lighting, and the parallax that's being used on the walls to give the illusion of depth as Link (he's not Link, but I'm just going to call him Link) moves around the room. Look at the sliding block puzzles, and the bombs being tossed and the arrows being fired, and the rupees (they're not rupees, but--) spilling out of crates and jars. Look at the sheer number of enemies being rendered and how smoothly it all moves. Look at the not-at-all-subtle Triforce reference in the logo! (That last part doesn't matter for the gameplay, but I'm not ashamed to say it made me happy.)

Different gameplay modes are promised, one a story-driven campaign and the other likely more of a "challenge mode" where players compete to dive as deep as they can into a (presumably) endless dungeon. Something like the latter was on display at PAX, with 60 randomized floors on offer. I managed to make it 21 rooms down, only two shy of the PAX East High Score of 23. The final game will have multiple character classes, a bevy of items and upgrades to find or purchase, and all sorts of other fancy stuff, but really, it all boils down to "Sexy HD Zelda Roguelike," and my answer to that is, "yes."

It's still in an early state, and of course things are being tweaked. The hit detection on some things is a little off, and the bottomless pits are a little too eager to suck Link into an instant, demoralizing death. The timing on bombs might be changed. Obviously they've got lots more content to build. But I didn't want to stop playing what they already have - navigating the environment and swinging the sword into enemies feels great, the level and enemy designs are fun and clever, the roguelike-inspired tension of permadeath is palpable, and the whole thing just looks stupendously attractive.

My hope is to get someone from Pixelscopic on Skype for an interview in the near future, and if that happens I'll certainly link it here. In the meantime, if you have any love for the Zelda series, action RPG's, roguelikes, 16-bit game design, or a combination of the preceding, keep your eyes peeled for Delver's Drop. It's slated to come out late this year for PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, and OUYA (vote for it on Greenlight right here so it'll end up on Steam), so you're pretty much guaranteed to have something that will play it. For my money, if re-imagining SNES classics in HD is going to be Pixelscopic's bag, a proper 2D Super Metroid-style game next sure wouldn't go amiss.


Wherein Zelda Saves Link For a Change

Thanks to Owen Good over at Kotaku for this one. While I've been a fan of the Legend of Zelda series almost my entire life, there's no question that most of the series has been very heavily focused on male power fantasy. Beat the evil guy, save the helpless girl. Zelda's gotten some good moments in the series proper, but never an unambiguously powerful role, and certainly never her own game. (For more on this, see the recent and very good Tropes vs Women in Video Games video series.)

So somebody fixed it. Zelda Starring Zelda is a patch for the original NES Legend of Zelda that simply swaps the roles; you'll play as Zelda now, saving Link. It's a small thing, just a sprite swap and some modified text, but it was remarkable to me how much this video made me think, "Why the hell hasn't Nintendo done this by now?" See if you agree.

Says Kenna, the author of the patch:

Earlier this week, I read about that awesome dad who edited Donkey Kong to let his daughter play as the Princess. I wished I had someone who could have done that for me. Then I remembered. I'm an adult now. If he could work it out, I could too.

...For me, I played my first Zelda game when I was pretty young, and at the time, I thought the game did star Princess Zelda. I figured I'd get to play as a magical battle princess that saved her kingdom. The game was fun, but I was bummed out that I never got to play as Zelda. But like I said, I'm an adult now. There's no one to stop me from eating candy before bed and there's nothing standing in the way of me creating the games I want to play.

Hear, hear. She talks more about the technical details of making the patch in the post, and it's a good read.

In terms of playing the modified game, setting it up seems fairly trivial. It does require finding yourself a ROM of the original NES Legend of Zelda, which for copyright reasons I can't provide for you, but a little searching will help you out there if you want to try this out. Kenna links you to a good emulator, and the patch, and the instructions are simple.

It's about time.

This is really cool. I'm glad somebody did it, and I'm absolutely going to try it out. It's been awhile since I played the original Legend of Zelda and this is a great reason to go back.


Proteus is Painfully Lovely.

I wrote about Proteus about a year ago, back when you could only buy it as a beta product directly from its website, but haven't said anything about it since it got released as a finished game this January.

A lot of stuff has been added to the game since I wrote about it - it has a cycle of seasons now, and many more objects and creatures to interact with, and a definitive ending. I've played through it several times, and just finished another playthrough tonight, and felt compelled to post the following to Twitter.

"Proteus is such a special and unique experience. For me, it's always about finding the house."

"On every island, in every season, I have to find that house."

"And then I cling to it until the game takes me away."

That might not make sense to you if you didn't read my previous article and/or don't know what Proteus is (in which case, you know, go fix that), but that's pretty much how I feel about it as a final product. It's lovely, people should play it, and I'm really glad I have it on my laptop to make me feel this way whenever I want / need to.

But that's what it's come to be about for me. Maybe for you it'll be about something totally different. It's on Steam now, for $10, and it has my strong recommendation.


Friday Night Bytes: The Button Affair

It just so happens, it's Friday again, and I played another sweet free game that I think you should check out. Serendipitous! And so Friday Night Bytes returns.

I have a fascination with the "runner" genre. I've written about it before with games like Solipskier, how a game that allows me to feel fast and graceful almost always captures my imagination. Tonight's game doesn't nail quite everything about that, but it gets enough right that I still strongly recommend you check it out.

"The Button Affair is the story of Enzo Gabriel. His quest. To steal the priceless Button Jewel from the infinitely wealthy business tycoon Victor Meirelles." The product of The Button Experiment (4 fine folks you can read about right here, if you like), The Button Affair is an automatic runner in the style of Canabalt or Solipskier, in that you're stuck constantly moving one direction and the gameplay primarily consists of avoiding obstacles. It is not, however, "endless", comprised of three distinct and fairly short levels. BIT.TRIP Runner might be the better parallel, actually, though there's no rhythm component to the gameplay here.

Oh, those look bad for your health.

The game's strongest element is its style, without question. Lighthearted and self-aware, it hearkens to all sorts of pleasant influences from across entertainment media: James Bond, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Prince of Persia, Flashback, Mad Men. It's self-assured and playful, knowing just what it wants to be and communicating it to the player extremely well. Video is going to convey this better than I can in words:

So, yeah. It looks and sounds great, and you should download it for that reason alone.

Whether The Button Affair's gameplay holds up to its aesthetic is going to depend strongly on how well you tolerate trial and error. Controls are simple and tight - the arrow keys are all you need - so there's no problem there, and I rarely had any issues with the game being "unfair" in terms of not respecting my input. The level design, though, essentially boils down to pattern memorization. Jump, roll, roll, jump, jump, roll. The quicker you can do it, the higher your score will be, but you'll never see a Game Over screen here; failure leads to a death animation and a return to the most recent checkpoint, and you can repeat that as many times as you need to.

A couple of clever variations are scattered throughout - each checkpoint has a quick code entry minigame that determines whether or not the checkpoint will "register", for instance, and one late section introduces a start/stop mechanic in short bursts. But on the whole, we're talking about a very one-note game. It'll probably take you 20 minutes to finish your first time through, and I imagine you can do it in half that once you've practiced, if you want to try for a higer score.

For being as short as it is, though, the game contained a little more frustration than I expected. Obstacles sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, to the point where failure is the only way to learn, and even on repeat trials I found some sections to be maddeningly difficult. Not "cheap", necessarily, but sometimes you can hear the designer laughing at your failure. If that bothers you, be forewarned.

Still, for a free game made by a team of four, I think The Button Affair is pretty great. It's slick and polished, challenging without restricting your progress, and while it doesn't have a lot of tricks up its sleeve, it doesn't overstay its welcome either. So get in there. Get that diamond. Or don't. I'm not giving away the ending.

The Button Affair is a free download for PC and Mac. If you like it, the team asks that you donate to a charity for disabled gamers. That's a pretty stand up thing, in my opinion. Bravo.