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    Nov 23rd, 2009 at 15:36:58     -    Gravitex 2 (Other)

    Summary: Gravitex 2 is a fairly simple puzzle game, available for free through such online portals as Shockwave.com. Though the premise is simple, the game itself is very enjoyable and paced very well to keep the player moving forward through the many levels of the game. Perhaps intended only to be a momentary diversion, I found myself sucked in quickly by the music and perfect challenge level of Gravitex 2.
    -------------------------------------------------------
    As noted above, Gravitex 2 is a relatively simple game. The premise is to shoot a ball from the starting point to the ending goal, not dissimilar to a round of minigolf. There are obstacles in the way, and one must navigate past or through them by varying power and angle of the shot. Some obstacles act to manipulate "gravity" by pulling the ball toward or pushing it away, hence the name. Contact with any obstacle means the player must start over. A secondary goal of the game is to collect "coins" by guiding the flightpath of the ball to contact them before it lands in the goal; indeed one cannot progress to the higher levels of the game without collecting at least some of these coins. One is allowed to repeat the level as many times as desired, and any or all of the three coins available on a level can be collected in a given pass. As long as the ball ends in the goal, these coins are added to the player's cumulated number. One can repeat the level as many times as desired, and some levels it seems very difficult if not impossibleto collect all of the coins in a single try.

    The soundtrack is a driving, techno-style beat that helps to push the player forward. It repeats frequently, which might get boring quickly -- I did not find this to be the case. Though the music is too up-tempo to be considered ambient, the repetition allows it to fade into the background periodically to avoid it being intrusive.

    One does not play online games expecting a full 3D adventure RPG or an adrenaline-pumping FPS. These are meant to be games that are easily picked up, played in idle moments in between tasks, and put down again readily. This is not to say that online games cannot or should not be engaging, and I found myself rapidly becoming sucked in by this one. In this, Gravitex 2 is an excellent example of its genre. It is a series of puzzles built around common principles, nothing more and nothing less. I enjoy these sorts of puzzles personally, and I found myself rapidly sucked in by the pace of Gravitex 2. In particular the challenge level was fantastically well balanced. Most levels take several tries to finish, but not so many it becomes frustrating. As each level is completed another one pops up, a steady increase in difficulty, or at least complexity, with each step. The game provides a steady reaffirmation of success while continually raising the bar slightly for the player and it is this pace that kept me coming back for more, not unlike a book that is a quick read yet too engaging to put down until it is finished.

    In conclusion, I found Gravitex 2 to be an excellent way to pass idle moments, and was somewhat surprised by this game's capacity to suck me in and keep me playing. The music was perfect for the pace of the game, and while repetitive it was not intrusively so. I am sure it is one I will keep coming back to for some time as I progress through the levels.

    This entry has been edited 1 time. It was last edited on Nov 23rd, 2009 at 16:42:43.

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    Nov 9th, 2009 at 17:48:21     -    The Witcher (PC)

    Summary: The Witcher is a 3D, single-player RPG set in a gothic medieval setting in which the player is a Witcher, a mostly-human bounty hunter of evil and monsters. The world is rich and immersive, and full of numerous quests, side quests, and open-ended exploration. The soundtrack is excellent, adding much to the atmosphere yet remaining in the background. The richness aof the world, while immersive, borders on needlessly complex. This is a game for mature players only.
    ----------------------------------------------------------------------
    The intro to The Witcher sets the tone for the game very well. In this intro the player is seen hunting a monster in an event that appears to predate the events in the game. It is sundown in a ruined castle, birds and small creatures flee the failing light. The soundtrack contains long, dissonant tonalities, reminiscent of a middle eastern lament. The hunt begins, the Witcher and the monster face off in the courtyard, and after a long battle the Witcher is the victor.

    The player in this game is Geralt of Rivia, one of a dying sect that calls themselves Witchers, people that have taken on the duty of hunting the evil creatures that stalk the night for the protection of the populace. Far from being celebrated, however, the general population of the game world seems to consider them one step above the creatures they hunt; indeed, the Witchers are privy to some mysterious, powerful magics that can mutate some of their members and give them slightly supra-human powers at the cost of physical alterations: in this case, slit pupils and white hair. It is these magics that become the focus of the plot.

    The game opens with an unfortunate hook: amnesia. The player, a Witcher, has been found wandering in the wilderness, fortunately by his fellow Witchers. In this way is the player able to rediscover talents and abilities he may or may not once have had, and progress through the game. Despite the suspension of disbelief required to accept the amnesia and its effects, the plot takes off quite rapidly when the player and his fellow Witchers are attacked and their mutagenic magics stolen. This "introductory" part of the first chapter is well done. Though it goes through much of the basic mechanical aspects of the game (movement, fighting, camera angles, the alchemy system, and levelling up the hero) rather quickly the information is stored in the journal for the player to refer to later if desired.

    As noted above, the game takes place in a gothic, medieval setting that is wholly supported by the environment and soundtrack. The opening portion of the game is set in a ruined castle and then a haunted village in the middle of a pine forest, with dark clouds roiling overhead. It moves then to a city as he hero tracks the thieves, complete with an infested sewer and close overhanging buildings, giving the place a somewhat claustrophobic feel at first. The haunted swamp location also helps to convey the gloomy atmosphere; the sun rises and sets, but at night danger is increased and during the day the sun is muted by fog or mist. The transition between these areas and the more well-to-do districts of the city is obvious, where there is a more open, airy, sunny feel. In each case the muted colors, voice acting, and well-developed soundtrack bring constant, low-grade tension and unease to the player.

    Danger abounds throughout the game, and the player is expected to wade through veritable armies of monsters in pursuit of information about the stolen magics. Depending on how efficient the player is in organizing quest-driven trips through the swamp and other dangerous areas, this can get repetitive; on the other hand the player is a Witcher, and Witchers exist to kill monsters. The combat system is fairly simple, and there is clear progression in the character's abilities as he progresses in power; monsters at the beginning of the chapter that are almost impossibly challenging are much more easily defeated later on.

    The Witcher is very complex. Indeed, the game is based upon a novel, "The Last Wish" by Andrzej Sapkowski, and the vast backstory and repository of lore that comes with a novel is hinted at in the game. There are two main quests, tracking down what was stolen as well as the hero recapturing his memories. There are also innumerable side quests that range from simple bounties (kill x number of creature y) to becoming embroiled in a gradually brewing war between two of the factions in the game. There are hints of political intrigue as well, though I was unable to progress far enough to determine whether this was more than a hint or not. The array of "things to do" make the game very open-ended. While this generally would be considered a benefit, The Witcher almost suffers from an embarrassment of riches in this way. It is very easy to become distracted by the criss-crossing paths of many of the quests and lose sight of the main plot, despite the main quests being -- or being made to feel -- time-sensitive. There are also some quests that seem to be halted arbitrarily until other quests are completed or progressed, and there is no explanation for this in game. While this is a bit frustrating at first, one simply learns to recognize what is going on and change focus to a different quest. Alchemy is a major part of the game, which the player may choose to explore or not; it is a useful, if not necessary, aspect of the game. There are hints that suggest experimentation on the part of the player may allow even greater benefits than the recipes that are encountered in-game.

    The interface is fairly simple, with relatively few things cluttering to be on the HUD. Because it is a single-player game, the game can be paused anytime one is accessing the inventory, journal, map, or other screens, which allows them to remain hidden unless they are actively used. Animation of the main character's walking is a bit choppy, though otherwise there are few complaints.

    Lastly, The Witcher is a game designed for mature players. Much of the sidequests involve development of physical encounters between the hero and a number of NPCs. The game stops short of actual nudity, though it difficult to call these "romantic" encounters. It is a matter of personal taste as to whether this is an enjoyable aspect of a game or not, and as such it is difficult to pass judgment on this facet of The Witcher. Nevertheless it has been given significant attention in this game, for good or ill.

    In conclusion, overall I am finding the Witcher a very enjoyable game. The somewhat choppy animation and interrelated and complex side plots, while slightly disappointing, are far from game-breaking and the main plots are engaging enough to see it through. The magic and alchemy systems in the game are, while perhaps not strictly innovative, add a level of interest that give a definite feel of strategy to combats and game play.

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    Nov 2nd, 2009 at 17:48:51     -    Spelunky (PC)

    Summary: Spelunky is on its surface a simple platformer, a "retro" throwback to old Nintendo games. The engine however generates a completely unique level every time the game is played, which helps to keep the experience interesting. The game takes several playthroughs to get the feel of the controls, some of which must be learned by trial and error despite the brief built-in tutorial. Overall, however, Spelunky enjoyably provides the "fast-paced platform game" that the designer intends.
    _______________________________________________________
    The first few playthroughs of Spelunky reveal a retro-style platform game that pays homage to the original 8-bit console games (e.g., Nintendo), but with a twist. The player is a cave explorer, collecting valuables and dodging creatures to make his fortune; the premise is no more complicated than that, or at least no more described. In a nutshell, Spelunky might be described as Indiana-Jones-meets-Mario-Brothers. This in itself is a throwback to the game's inspiration -- many popular titles from the archives had little more plot than this and were no less enjoyable to play. During the hero's explorations he encounters not only enemies but also Damsels to rescue and shopkeepers. The overall goal of the game seems just as straightforward as the premise: explore caves and accumulate treasure. There are game elements to suggest there may be more, but this is not laid out for the player at the beginning. Some may find that frustrating, others may see it as one more aspect within the game to explore.

    The truly engaging part of Spelunky is the "twist": levels are not pre-written -- each time the game is played the level is completely different. This definitely keeps the player on their toes as the game is much less predictable. In effect, this makes the game a bit harder than it otherwise might be, but also much more engaging -- one cannot rely on pattern recognition from one play to another.

    All in all during my first dozen or so playthroughs of Spelunky I found some of the features to be somewhat frustrating. Firstly, there is no way to save progress, or even checkpoints that a player can reach to signify progress made. Death comes quickly and easily in the world of Spelunky, and when it does the only thing the player can do is start over from the beginning. Secondly, the controls are simple to learn, but difficult to master; some actions require a very specific set of keystrokes that if executed incorrectly lead to death. There is a tutorial that explains the very basic elements, but there are many things the tutorial does not explain. For example, the "Damsels in Distress" are clearly there to be rescued. Is the player meant to take them back to the entry point, or to the exit? There is a large gold statue that the player picks up, which sets of a trap. This trap kills the hero instantly if he is in the way. What is one supposed to do with the statue? Is this the "MacGuffin" that the hero is looking for to finish the level, or is it just another treasure? Combined with the absolute unpredictability of the levels, it felt very difficult to make progress in the game at first and I felt the initial learning curve was perhaps a bit steep.

    Perhaps these features went intentionally unexplained, to spur the player forward to answer these questions. Another several plays later, these mysteries had been solved. The golden statue is indeed only a treasure, albeit one that is worth in value/points the risk to obtain. The Damsel is rescued by taking her to the exit from the level, rather than the entrance. Other mysteries remained to be explored, such as the stores -- in roughly two dozen playthroughs I was unable to reach these more than once. Touching the "action" key to speak with the proprietor, I was attacked and immediately died. I only discovered later when remapping the controls that there is another function not referred to anywhere, the "purchase" function.

    Solving these minor mysteries did ultimately provide a sense of accomplishment, enough to keep playing for some time in an effort to get further into the game. There was some gratification in realizing that experience did make the game a bit easier, and the game considerably more playable as time went on. With that in mind, I can see how this game might be moderately addicting to those 1) looking for a bit of nostalgia; and/or 2) intrigued by the infinitely-varied level maps. While the initial learning curve may have been a bit steep, a bit of perseverance seems to pay off.

    Having said that, however, I did not see any particular progression in difficulty of the game from one level to another. Level two was essentially the same as level one, but with a feature that appeared to be a store where one might presumably purchase items with the valuables one had accumulated. In this the reward system progressed somewhat in that the store gave an additional point of interest, though I was unable to fully explore this feature in the time I played this game. Perhaps with enough time and further level advancement other features would have been apparent, so I feel I must withhold judgement on this to some degree.

    In conclusion, I would say that Spelunky was generally enjoyable once the initial frustrations were overcome. It is a fast-paced, arcade-type game, one that expects the player to fail several times in trial-and-error before seeing any indication of advancement. Each level map is unique and randomly generated, which while an intriguing and to some degree enjoyable feature does add to the difficulty of the game. The retro console style is nostalgic and though the graphics are hardly the pinnacle of modern 2D platforming games this does not detract from the experience.

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    Nov 2nd, 2009 at 15:08:39     -    Spelunky (PC)

    Summary: Spelunky is on its surface a simple platformer, a "retro" throwback to old Nintendo games. The engine however generates a completely unique level every time the game is played, which helps to keep the experience interesting. The game takes several playthroughs to get the feel of the controls, some of which must be learned by trial and error despite the brief built-in tutorial. Overall, however, Spelunky enjoyably provides the "fast-paced platform game" that the designer intends.
    _______________________________________________________
    The first few playthroughs of Spelunky reveal a retro-style platform game that pays homage to the original 8-bit console games (e.g., Nintendo), but with a twist. The player is a cave explorer, collecting valuables and dodging creatures to make his fortune; the premise is no more complicated than that, or at least no more described. In a nutshell, Spelunky might be described as Indiana-Jones-meets-Mario-Brothers. This in itself is a throwback to the game's inspiration -- many popular titles from the archives had little more plot than this and were no less enjoyable to play. During the hero's explorations he encounters not only enemies but also Damsels to rescue and shopkeepers. The overall goal of the game seems just as straightforward as the premise: explore caves and accumulate treasure. There are game elements to suggest there may be more, but this is not laid out for the player at the beginning. Some may find that frustrating, others may see it as one more aspect within the game to explore.

    The truly engaging part of Spelunky is the "twist": levels are not pre-written -- each time the game is played the level is completely different. This definitely keeps the player on their toes as the game is much less predictable. In effect, this makes the game a bit harder than it otherwise might be, but also much more engaging -- one cannot rely on pattern recognition from one play to another.

    All in all during my first dozen or so playthroughs of Spelunky I found some of the features to be somewhat frustrating. The controls are simple to learn, but difficult to master; some actions require a very specific set of keystrokes that if executed incorrectly lead to death. There is a tutorial that explains the very basic elements, but there are many things the tutorial does not explain. For example, the "Damsels in Distress" are clearly there to be rescued. Is the player meant to take them back to the entry point, or to the exit? There is a large gold statue that the player picks up, which sets of a trap. This trap kills the hero instantly if he is in the way. What is one supposed to do with the statue? Is this the "MacGuffin" that the hero is looking for to finish the level, or is it just another treasure? Combined with the absolute unpredictability of the levels, it felt very difficult to make progress in the game at first and I felt the initial learning curve was perhaps a bit steep.

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