REVIEW: JAMESTOWN / DUCK GAME / CREEPY CASTLE
Genre: Challenge // Gameplay style: Top-down shooter w/ co-op
Developer: Final Form Games // Release date: 2011 // Platform: Steam PC
This lovely arcade “shmup” centers around the exploits of an adventurer in an alternate reality version of the 1600’s who wants to clear his name by traveling to the “New World” where aliens and the Spanish have allied with each other and battles are fought with flying gunships. The key mechanic that makes this game unique is its “Vaunt” system, which creates a protective forcefield around your ship for a short time and erases all incoming projectiles that touch it, allowing you to escape certain death and turn the tide. In order to generate enough power to use this ability you need to collect gold from dead enemies, which trickles down to the bottom of the screen and often forces you to choose between being greedy and staying safe. Once the forcefield disappears you still have added benefits, such as an increased damage and score multiplier. Mastering Vaunt is a worthwhile challenge.
Rather than upgrade your ship throughout the level by collecting upgrades, you can permanently buy three different types of gunships besides your starting one with the “ducats” you earn from playing. These ships are balanced and strategically appropriate for different tasks, which makes it interesting for co-op play with friends, since you’ll each be better at different things. For example, the first ship has a good normal spread of fire on its machine gun and a secondary type of fire that launches a powerful beam forward in a straight line at the cost of movement speed. Another ship has a thin machine gun strip it fires, but constantly charges up a big deadly orb that slowly moves across the screen when you fire it. The beam ship is good for hitting lots of weak things with the machine gun and then focusing down tough enemies with the beam, but the orb ship is good for staying highly mobile while picking opportunities to launch your special attack that can cover screen space efficiently.
You unlock new stages by beating the old stages on higher difficulty settings, which is as questionable as it may sound. If you hope to play the whole game in one sitting, this turns the fun into a chore. If you embrace the idea of mastering the game on the hardest difficulty with a group of friends over a longer period of time, this won’t matter. As long as you’re unlocking new stuff and seeing new things it’s a lively and compelling experience, with beautiful visuals worthy of the arcade legacy of top-down shooters. Warm, orchestral music and a charming story told with painted pictures between levels is a smart way to avoid sensory overload. Hyper techno beats are nowhere to be found, but the soundtrack does include an epic score that kept me smiling.
Unfortunately there are a few flaws in the design. As you can see from the promotional screenshot above it can be hard to tell what’s what. The visuals are high quality, but not enough work was put into differentiating enemy projectiles from background artifacts like the bubbles in this swamp levels. Keeping track of your own character can be hard when you’re playing with three or more people. I’ll be quick to admit that I’ve got some color blindness that prevents me from easily distinguishing between blues and purples or greens and oranges, so I might be the wrong person to ask, but for myself there were many times when I died without understanding what hit me; and since this hasn’t been a problem in other shmups I’ve played, I can only deduce it’s a problem with the visual balance of this game. The choice to add more levels as DLC instead of just expanding the relatively small handful of levels available in the core game is also a bit arrogant if you ask me. This game is good and worthwhile if you enjoy this gameplay style, but for people like myself who are only casually interested and looking for a fun game to play with friends, every bit of generosity from the developers counts.
Genre: Contest // Gameplay style: Multiplayer platforming deathmatch arena
Developer: Landon Podbielski // Release date: 2015 // Platform: Steam PC
Duck Game is easily one of the best multiplayer games I’ve ever played. It’s fast, dynamic, and breezy. Basically, you and your friends get dumped on a randomly chosen level with preset weapons and gizmos laying around and then it’s up to you how to navigate the lethal combat that unfolds; the last duck standing wins the round and gets a single point. It doesn’t matter how many people you kill, what matters is that you survive to the end. You choose how many rounds you want to play in the match, and at the end somebody is given the trophy. Scores are tallied in an adorable fashion along the way by an intermission scene where each duck throws a stone with their signature hat on it down a field towards an endzone in front of bleachers filled with fans (who are also ducks). The fans in the audience will change their hats to match yours if they love your performances. At the end of the game a summary analysis is carried out by an animated broadcaster who recaps the highlights of the game and measures popularity. Presumably, getting kills and executing actions well is the key to being popular, which shifts the emphasis away from winning by camping in a safe spot and using cheesy tactics, but I don’t know and I don’t really care, either. The game is so fun and addictive that wins and losses just rush past as you constantly push for one more game to prove yourself.
Gameplay-wise, everyone dies instantly when they take damage, meaning that dodging, sliding, jumping, and hiding are invaluable skills to master. Levels are often unfair but hilarious, and the range of map designs is practically limitless thanks to the included map editor. There’s a shockingly high skill ceiling if you want to master all of the tricks, weapons and abilities available, but even if you have no idea what you’re doing it’s guaranteed to have the same moments of hilarity and tension. Holding a rock slows you down and isn’t a good weapon, but it can block bullets from small guns; laser guns travel through more objects but travel slower in general; sniper rifles blast instantly through many objects that are otherwise bulletproof, but has a long reload time and not many bullets. Running out of ammo is one of the biggest dangers if you’re not careful, but you can throw anything at another duck to cause them to drop whatever they’re holding, allowing you to dash in and pick up their weapon if they didn’t expect that. Grenades, flamethrowers, mind control ray guns, and a lot more novel weapons are done justice by the game’s robust system, balancing carnage with finesse and forethought.
Unlocking new hats, gameplay options (ie. low gravity, or the option to have guns explode and kill you when they run out of bullets) is something you can devote yourself to by completing challenge modes and various achievements.
Genre: Challenge // Gameplay style: Sidescrolling RPG w/ minigame fights
Developer: Dopterra // Release date: 2016 // Platform: Steam PC
[Full Disclosure: When this game was in early phases of its Kickstarter campaign I backed it for $1,000.]
Looking at the above screenshot, you may realize that about 80% of the screen is wasted empty space in Creepy Castle. This is a shame because the game’s aesthetic is so minimalistic and stripped down that it’s hard to even discern where your character is supposed to be standing at any given time. Areas very quickly blend together, with little to no decorative touches to help you remember places. It’s a sidescrolling RPG with slow plodding movement, no movement abilities, and very arbitrary level design. The titular castle is a labyrinth of corridors, ladders, steps, and turns that don’t make sense, but as long as the activities you perform along the way keep you engaged this should be fine, right? Well, that’s what I expected when I backed the Kickstarter, but it turns out that there’s practically nothing to do as you walk around either.
The strong suit of Creepy Castle is in the minigame battle system that replaces a traditional suite of actions and attacks. You walk up to an enemy and (since you can’t jump or maneuver past anything) you press a button and engage them in combat. Weak enemies might get smacked down with a single hit or two without activating a minigame, but there’s a good chance you’ll be taken to a special screen where you’ll have to overcome a puzzle or button mashing challenge related to that specific enemy type’s abilities. Tough and humanoid enemies tend to have more variety of minigames, and each one tends to be stylized to match that actual enemy, even if the minigame itself is not unique to them. Snakes squeeze you and force you to tap left and right to break free, while strikers may give you only a split-second’s notice to press the right button and counter their attack. This is what excited me about the game in the first place and convinced me to pledge so much money.
With such a sparse design and nothing else to hog development time I expected Dopterra to churn out dozens of interesting minigames and really focus on the fun of the minigames. There’s no reason Creepy Castle couldn’t include fights where you suddenly switch to a top-down racing game, or a jumping Kirby-style battle, or even a traditional 2D fighting game. By transporting the character to a sub-screen for each fight, the sky is the limit for creativity. But instead, the vast majority of the game revolves around trudging through corridors and managing one of the worst inventory systems I’ve ever seen. You can’t use the mouse to click on anything, so whether you’re using a keyboard or controller it’s a pain the ass to pick an item and use it, which is necessary for basic things like opening a locked door, recovering health, or activating a special one-time attack. If you collect too much stuff you’ll have to stash it in a bag item, forcing you to move over to the bag, open it, and then move some more to get the item inside it. There’s no excuse for such restrictive controls.
Another idea I thought would be awesome is the game’s overall structure, since it’s divided into many separate stories where you can play as different characters in different styles of game. It’s advertised as “Creepy Castle” and features the Moth character as the protagonist, but each level has a different vibe and remixes the roles of the characters in different ways that don’t need to be logical. Here the character may be a villain, but in the next level he may be a friend or a mysterious rival. It’s a shame that each level involves so much slow repetition, because the variety provided by this design direction is actually refreshing and cool. Unlocking levels is a slow process, and although some people will certainly be better at memorizing the levels and understanding where to go at any given moment, I found my mind wandering and my interest waning as I struggled to keep track of objectives and layouts. Where did all of the development time go? Why are the basics not polished or user-friendly? In the original Mario Bros. the staff said that they refused to even design maps until they had perfected the feeling of movement and made it enjoyable to just exist in an empty screen. Here, even an excited advocate for the game who has paid a thousand dollars can get burnt out by the simple tasks of moving around and opening doors.
Much of the appeal of the game is supposed to be in the writing, since characters are verbose and the story is taken somewhat seriously. Mysteries unfold, characters have arcs, and notes can be found that shed light on their motivations. But the extra-tiny screen and grating visual palette don’t lend themselves to reading all these slivers of neon colored text over and over. Dear reader, I ask you to forgive my judgment with this game. You have to understand that at the time when I backed it on Kickstarter there was no such thing as Undertale. The extremely long and delayed development process means that Creepy Castle was released after the game that would outshine it in every conceivable way. Creepy Castle is the stunted, slow little brother of Undertale; both use minigame battles and talkative characters to compensate for basic gameplay systems and meager graphics, but Undertale masters the execution perfectly while Creepy Castle drags itself along without a fundamental understanding of what people need in order to have fun.
Jamestown: +1.3 (Good League)
A charming callback that feels good, even if it doesn’t fully satisfy.
Duck Game: +3.2 (Boss League)
Pure competitive nonsense with a robust arsenal to show off.
Creepy Castle: -0.8 (Loser League)
Dawdling missteps sully the clever attempts of this simple fare.