Birb Friends Review: Attack the Light (iOS)

Attack the Light is a light RPG for iOS and Android that’s set in the Steven Universe… universe… and has gameplay similar to the Paper Mario series. In the game, you’ll move around 5 different color themed worlds as you literally “attack the light” monsters that exist there. The game was released in 2015 by Grumpyface Studios to critical acclaim and will be followed up shortly by Save the Light, a console RPG for modern systems with similar gameplay, a wider world, and 8 characters to choose from for your party of 4. Attack the Light is available for the measly sum of $2.99.

To detail my experiences with Attack the Light, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

Available Now - Attack the Light
(Image credit to Grumpyface Studios and Cartoon Network Games, retrieved from Grumpyface Studios official blog)
Technical Proficiency: 69/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 69.5/100

Garnet's Gauntlets - Attack the Light
Garnet squishes a bug with a mighty punch. (Image credit to Grumpyface Studios and Cartoon Network Games, retrieved from Attack the Light’s official iTunes page)
  • Style Score: 40/100
  • Animation Score: 74/100
  • Purpose Score: 82/100

Steven Universe has a very particularly style. It’s hyper shaded backgrounds with their sparing diversity in color, chalked outlines, and ornate geometric texturing could only come from Steven Sugar himself… or perhaps a 90’s magical girl anime. Attack the Light takes these pieces of art, and the simpler art of Steven Universe’s character design, and throws them in the frying pan, rendering them down until all the fat is off and only the essentials remain. While we are reunited with certain locales from the early episodes of the show, it’s not enough to bolster what the art lost. In the end, while Attack the Light’s style feels remarkably true to the show design, it’s visuals are bland and fails to catch the eye or remain in the memory very long. Enemy design suffers from the same lack of detail, and falls prey to the same fate. For this reason, Attack the Light receives a 40/100 as its style score.

Attack the Light’s animations fair considerably better. Each of the Crystal Gems express themselves in a direct match with their television counterparts, giving needed character to the experience. The many attacks that the Gems can use against the light enemies are varied and interesting as well. Their timing feels just right as you tap the screen to secure bonuses for each ability. Enemies have similarly pleasing animations. Ramming beetles, stinging scorpions, puffing fish, and burrowing moles are just a few of the light creatures that make an animated appearance. While Attack the Light could always have better animations, they’re good enough to earn a 74/100 in the animation category.

With Attack the Light’s Paper Mario styled, turn based, reflex action combat it’s very important that the player can see what’s happening at all times. If they can’t see, they won’t be able to react properly to the game! Luckily, the simple style of Attack the Light means that every interaction is plain to see. What’s more, a large star that surrounds the character an attack targets appears right before the player has to reactivate their ability to clearly communicate that to the player. When characters are injured, poisoned, burning, or otherwise, they take on varied stances and colors to let the player know as well. My only misgiving in terms of visual purpose is the reused room layouts. Some room designs that previously lead to another area from certain directions may not in a different context. This can be frustrating with out a map function. That being said, the small, helpful additions (as well as the proper animations) give Attack the Light an 82/100 in the visual purpose category.

Overall Sound Score: 48.89/100

  • Music Score: 50/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 45/100
  • Variety Score: 60/100

I’ve often described Steven Universe as what Dragonball Z would have been if it was also a musical about life. You wouldn’t know that from this score, which is quite the disappointment (or reason for rejoice, depending on your viewpoint). Attack the Light has a synth heavy, standard soundtrack with no particularly outstanding tracks. Light and sweet, the music captures what made Steven Universe tick in its earlier seasons but it fails to open up towards the emotional and developmental heights the show has now reached. Aivi and Surasshu are talented composers who’s work, along with show creator Rebecca Sugar’s, has made Steven Universe one of the shows to watch for all ages. Grumpyface composer Dustin Bozovich didn’t quite pull that off for Attack the Light, but it’s a fine soundtrack all the same. For that reason, it receives a 50/100 as its music score.

While most of the sound effects in Attack the Light are not only functional but whimsically representative of Steven Universe and allusive to its mythos, many begin to grate on my nerves after playing for awhile. I can only stand to hear the words “Cheeseburger Backpack!” enthusiastically proclaimed so many times in a row before I turn the sound effects off. Quips of the same nature find there way out of each character’s mouth until, before you know it, you’re swimming in Steven Universe fan-pleasing soup and you can only eat so much. The sound effects are functional and some, such as Garnet’s punch, are even reminiscent of older, crunchier sound times when computers couldn’t handle the power characters were dishing out. For this, Attack the Light receives a 45/100 in the sound effect category. Excessively harsh? On my ears, maybe.

As for variety, most of the sound effects are fairly similar which caused a repetition issue. The music, on the other hand, has enough diversity to lift the sinking ship. Some tracks have low bass components, others have distant guitar riffs. I would have like even more variety however, but with a length of only 6 hours the game can only pack in so much. For these reasons, Attack the Light receives a 60/100 in the aural variety category.

Overall Controls Score: 87.22/100

Purple Puma Pound - Attack the Light
The Purple Puma drops a bow on an angler fish as Garnet stands shocked at his prowess. (Image credit to Grumpyface Studios and Cartoon Network Games, retrieved from Attack the Light’s official iTunes page)
  • Controller Score: 85/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 80/100

Attack the Light is a mobile game and, like most mobile games, can only be controlled by touch. From my experience with Attack the Light, the touch screen of a sixth generation iPod Touch worked well enough for the experience. On other devices, the touch screen may not be as receptive and functional a controller. I couldn’t help but think that a controller with a d-pad would have given me a cleaner experience with less input mistakes. Despite that, Attack the Light can be played to completion with the touch controls without much hassle. For this it receives an 85/100 as its controller score.

In an action oriented game like Attack the Light, its important that there’s as little lag between the player’s input and the game’s action as possible. From my experiences, any lag time between the player input and the game action is negligible and has no impact on gameplay. This may vary on less powerful devices or if you are running the Android version of the game. For these reasons, Attack the Light receives a 100/100 for its responsiveness score.

There were some issues in terms of functionality with Attack the Light’s control scheme. At some moments, I found it hard to select Pearl, in particular, because of her slender figure. The touch I meant to activate an ability on Pearl would then cancel that ability and force me to begin the procedure of choosing the ability and Pearl again. With repetition, this was frustrating but it did not impair playability as selection happens within an untimed turn selection period. Selecting the small ability buttons, especially those close to other characters or the corner of the screen, also proved more difficult that I would have liked. These issues didn’t ruin the functionality of the game for me, but they were frustrating and for that Attack the Light receives an 80/100 as its control functionality score.

Soundtrack Artwork - Attack the Light
(Image credit to Grumpyface Studios and Cartoon Network Games, retrieved from Grumpyface’s Attack the Light soundtrack Soundcloud album)
Artistic Proficiency: 67/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 70/100

Praise the Gem - Attack the Light
Steven fits a red gem into a door to open a secret path. (Image credit to Grumpyface Studios and Cartoon Network Games, retrieved from Attack the Light’s official iTunes page)
  • Agency Score: 80/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 68/100
  • Variety Score: 50/100

Attack the Light doesn’t allow for player agency to impact the story direction, but it does have a lot of options to choose from in terms of customizing and fitting the Crystal Gems into specific combat roles. At each level up, the player can choose what to upgrade for the Gems, whether it be their base stats (attack, defense, luck, and Harmony which is the health stat), one of their existing abilities, or a new ability. Players can also give Gems badges they’ve collected on the way. Badges give Gems special perks to augment their stats, give them immunity to certain conditions, increase their damage against certain enemies, and more. Beyond this, players can also find level up items that can level up a Gem without having to battle. This, along with the dialogue choice system, lets players choose which Gem they think needs to be the strongest for the task at hand. In dialogue, you make decisions on how to approach scenarios, and based on your response, certain Gems will receive experience. This a fun way to let you customize the Gems efficiently, but also to let you role play as Steven. What would he say? Overall, Attack the Light earns an 80/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Attack the Light is: warp to a world, explore the world for chests, keys, gems, and memory puzzles, run into an enemy (through ambush or attack), defend and heal with Steven while damaging with the Gems, defeat the enemy, continue exploring the world to find another warp. The smaller battle loop has you using abilities, which cost stars (Steven supplies 5 stars at the beginning of each round, and unused stars roll over), using items that either heal the Gems, give them battle buffs, or give bonus stars, and defending against enemy abilities. While attacking and defending, tapping the screen when stars appear gives extra damage or prevents more damage. It’s all fairly intuitive once you get into a rhythm, and the discovery involved in how you can chain abilities and make the most out of your stars is rewarding. Exploring the world, however, grows very stale. Despite the addition of collectables meant to reward the player for slowing down and taking the world in, their isn’t much to see in the world. Eventually, you’ll be rushing by; you’ll flick screen after screen of Attack the Light’s grid based navigation system (it reminds me of an old first person dungeon crawler or newer games like Legend of Grimrock) without actually seeing anything. Attack the Light is still engaging and fun, but it doesn’t change the Paper Mario formula much at all. For that it receives a 68/100 in the core gameplay loop category.

Variety is utterly lacking in Attack the Light, but nobody would expect a mobile game to be expansive. Regardless, I would have like to do more in the Steven Universe… universe, while I was in the game. Where’s Steven’s dad? Could he have given Steven something to help him along the way? Connie would love to help the Gems, so where is she? Helping out at the car wash, book shopping with Connie, and grabbing a doughnut from Sadie and Lars, are just a few of the activities I would have loved to undertake in game. Steven Universe is a show about life, so why shouldn’t Attack the Light be an RPG about life, too? For a standard level of variety and an engaging level of depth, Attack the Light receives a 50/100 in the gameplay variety category.

Overall Story Score: 64/100

Locked Out Beat Up - Attack the Light
Stephen makes a tough decision about how locked doors should be tackled. (Image credit to Grumpyface Studios and Cartoon Network Games, retrieved from Attack the Light’s official iTunes page)
  • Characters Score: 60/100
  • Plot Score: 32/100
  • Coherency Score: 100/100

Judging by Attack the Light’s presentation of Steven Universe’s nuanced, growing characters you’d think they’re nothing but the archetypes they originate from. In fact, it’s hard for me to judge how Attack the Light characterizes Steven, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl because, as a fan of the show, I know these characters very closely. There certainly isn’t too much character development happening over Attack the Light’s six hour run time, though, and for that I fault it. It seems material that would normal inhabit a 10 minute long episode of the show has been stretched so thin that the characters, no matter how many quirky references they make and perhaps because of those references, are cardboard cutouts of themselves because of it. For this I give Attack the Light a characters score of 60/100. Why higher than 50? Perhaps playing Attack the Light will leave you wanted more and lead you straight to the show. Then, the characters would be much better for you.

Attack the Light begins with the Gems returning from another unknown mission with a special prism that, in the hands of a powerful Gem, could spawn an entire light army! With some prodding from Amethyst, the other Gems let Steven get ahold of the prism, and, sure enough, a light army, split in different colors, flies forth and now you have to put them back. It’s a simple premise that doesn’t evolve much over the course of the game. There are no subplots, no new threads to a grand puzzle, just some punching generic baddies until Steven saves the day in the end. It’s almost non-existent and for that, Attack the Light receives a 38/100 in the plot category.

Despite the fact that the characters are underdeveloped and the plot is non-existent, Attack the Light knows that it’s just a mechanical RPG and it’s okay with that. After all, Steven wanted to play an RPG, so he got to play an RPG. It didn’t need to be complex or interesting. Nothing in the experience seemed out of place or like it shouldn’t have been included. Attack the Light is a coherent experience that seems finished, albeit empty. For this, it receives a 100/100 for its coherency score.


FINAL VERDICT

Logo - Attack the Light
(Image credit to Grumpyface Studios and Cartoon Network Games, retrieved from Attack the Light’s official Google Play page)

Grumpyface’s Steven Universe RPG isn’t the best RPG of its kind, turn to the Paper Mario games (The Thousand-Year Door would be my suggestion) for that. It isn’t the best representation of the characters or the world either, but it is a great way for fans of the show and Paper Mario-style RPGs alike to get their fix. Hopefully Save the Light, a new console game made by Grumpyface and set after Attack the Light, can rectify some of the issues and bring us the game Steven Universe deserves. With more playable characters and the setting of Beach City, Save the Light looks like it’s on the right path. Until then, get your fix with Attack the Light for $2.99 and help Steven keep the Harmony. It shouldn’t be too hard; he already keeps Beach City weird.


68/100 – Good.

Birb Friends Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the sixth 3D installment of Nintendo‘s beloved Legend of Zelda franchise and a follow up to 2011’s Skyward Sword. Releasing on the Wii U and Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, Breath of the Wild sparked the same kind of joyous fervor that every new Zelda game musters. Heralded as a return to the “open air” design sensibilities of the original Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild is an open world adventure game with environmental puzzle solving elements. Contrasting with its most recent predecessor, Breath of the Wild is almost entirely free of linearity, giving the player the freedom to approach problems however they want. That being said, the story and meaning behind the game seems ambiguous and empty because of it.

To detail my experiences with Breath of the Wild, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild Logo
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Zelda site)
Technical Proficiency: 83/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 89.25/100

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  • Style Score: 87/100
  • Animation Score: 90/100
  • Purpose Score : 90/100

Breath of the Wild’s visual style is very reminiscent of Skyward Sword albeit cel shaded and less saturated this time around. Low color saturation coupled with very basic textures and high quality lighting effects causes many areas and materials to appear claylike in game. This is far from a bad thing however, and sets the tone for many of the playful and creative interactions to come. Beyond that, Zelda’s style is faithful to the previous installments with intricate gothic designs flooding the Zora Domain with cool colors, mysterious yet utterly human adobe structures rising from the Gerudo’s sands, primitive and searing stacks of stone radiating beneath the Gorons on Death Mountain, and towering wooden huts spiraling up rock spires for the Rito. Even beyond the four races, each linked to an aspect of Hyrule through both their divine beast and specific stature (water, earth, fire, air), there are many beautiful Hyrulean vistas inspired by real life locales. Marshes, forests, snow capped mountains, plateaus, and more exist in this game. Filled with stunning lighting and particle effects that could only live in a Zelda game, Breath of the Wild receives a 87/100 for visual style.

From leaping Lizalfos to slumping Hinoxes, galloping horses to flying herons, every animation in Breath of the Wild shows an incredible attention to detail that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Many open world experiences of its magnitude have countless animation bugs and glitches but during my playthrough, I not only failed to encounter a single one but also spent far more time watching animations than I ordinarily would have. Guardians in particular entranced me with their multiple legs moving in unison and flailing as they burst in blue flames. Nothing in Breath of the Wild feels stiff or lifeless, and for that it receives a 90/100 in the animation category.

There was never a time while playing Breath of the Wild that I felt the game hadn’t told me what was about to happen. From enemies reeling back to swing, shoot, and lob, to lines of electric energy on the ground, everything the player needs to know is visually related to them. Each collectable item even has a helpful sparkle small enough not to cause frustration but visible enough to help you find every bit of loot at your disposal. Map pins and markers are also available to give extra clarity to the location of places seen easily from a height but impossibly on the ground level. Leaves, cracked rock, the classic red barrels, and lustrous metal clues the player into the options they have when approaching any given situation. For this, Breath of the Wild receives a 90/100 in the visual purpose category.

Overall Sound Score: 79.33/100

  • Music Score: 79/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 77/100
  • Variety Score: 90/100

After the fully orchestrated soundtrack of Skyward Sword, fans of the Legend of Zelda’s memorable and soaring themes might find themselves disappointed with Breath of the Wild’s mostly minimal piano riffs and entirely synth based soundtrack. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild’s music is full of memorable themes such as the swelling and anticipatory main theme, the frantic brass piercings of the Hinox battle theme, and the ponderous and heavy movement of the Talus battle theme. Despite this, Breath of the Wild’s musical strength comes from its sensitivity to the player’s actions. If Link is trying to keep quiet, the music will die down to add tension to the moment. If Link is approaching battle, the music will shift to a thematically appropriate theme for that enemy. Because of Breath of the Wild’s lackluster music (in comparison to previous Zelda titles), it receives a 79/100 in the music category.

Similar to the quality of animation in Breath of the Wild, sound effects abound with such a high attention to detail that I’ve yet to play a game that rivals them. From horses panting and clopping with each clop ringing in your ears at the exact moment a hoof strikes Hyrule, to shattering weapons and ticking guardian lasers, every sound effect you hear lets you know about your surroundings. Breath of the Wild develops a world so realized that each animal has a specific set of sounds as the leaves rustle and fall from the trees. Ambient and gameplay sounds are only one half of the equation though, and the voice acting is monstrous. It seems that a mostly talented voice cast working with less than direct translations received sub-par directing for their lines. Misplaced emphasis, awkward tone qualities, and much more could have been eliminated from the performance with a simple request for another take with different directions. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.

In terms of variety in sound, Breath of the Wild is on very stable footing. Short piano riffs coupled with swelling brass movements and airy flute melodies meant that newer digital styles and older traditional Japanese styles could exist side by side. Most tracks present a different theme, from pentatonic desert meanderings for the Gerudo, to ethereal and soothing piano pieces for the Zora, soundtrack variety was not relinquished from the Zelda formula this time around. Coupled with the wide variety of sound effects for any occasion, Breath of the Wild earns a variety score of 90/100.

Overall Controls Score: 80/100

Guardian Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Controller Score: 80/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 68/100

Breath of the Wild is playable with a Wii U Pro controller or the Wii U Gamepad but the Gamepad is required for some gyroscopic gameplay sections within shrines. This fact coupled with the frustration of an odd control scheme and no remapping options gave Breath of the Wild a bit of a learning curve and a pressure for the player to play on the Gamepad exclusively. I played on the Wii U Pro controller for the majority of my game, but I would suggest the Wii U Gamepad if gyroscopic aiming seems beneficial to you and you don’t want to have to switch controllers during play. Despite that, the Wii U Pro controller worked flawlessly after the initial learning curve. Breath of the Wild receives an 80/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Breath of the Wild, though this may differ if you intend to play on the Nintendo Switch with the Joy Cons disconnected from the system. Dodging, firing arrows, jump attacking, and much more all felt smooth in my playthrough. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

Breath of the Wild’s menus are odd to say the least. While most menus use a bumper systems to move between tabs, Breath of the Wild opts to force you through each page within a tab to get to the selection you want. Another frustration with Breath of the Wild’s controllers is the lack of a drop weapon button (this is particularly true for shields and bows, as melee weapons can be thrown), which forces you through the menu any time you want to pick up a new item. Receiving the notice that your inventory is full from a chest and not being given an immediate option to drop items is flabbergasting in this day and age. Another qualm with Breath of the Wild’s functionality comes from its wavering frame rates which drop for unknown reasons in many of the early areas and stutter when fighting Moblins or lighting large fires. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 68/100 in the functionality category.

Promotional Artwork Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
Artistic Proficiency: 74/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 89.67/100

Lizalfos Concept Art - Breath of the Wild
Lizalfos are one of the most common enemies in Hyrule. (Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Agency Score: 84/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 96/100
  • Variety Score: 75/100

Breath of the Wild is a game largely about exploration, but that does not necessarily mean it has a lot of choice within it, or that it gives the player agency within its parameters. In this case, the journey is far more important than the destination as “all roads lead to Rome” which for Link is the final boss, Calamity Ganon, inside Hyrule Castle. To take on the many enemies now patrolling Hyrule, Link has a variety of damaging abilities to choose from, but some, such as bombs, quickly become obsolete when enemies have higher resistances in harder areas. Collecting and seeking out the many ingredients that grow in Hyrule allows the player to explore cooking and create dishes and potions to further customize their playstyle. Player agency is at its greatest in the many shrine puzzles that line the landscape and in the four divine beasts that serve as Breath of the Wild’s main dungeons. There the player can think laterally to solve puzzles in ways the designers may not have intended, and are encouraged to do so. Sadly, the most interesting story in Breath of the Wild took place before the events of the game, so the player has little agency or interaction with it. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 84/100 in the agency category.

Breath of the Wild holds within it many separate gameplay loops that can be undertaken at any time during play. The first is the exploratory loop: find the map revealing tower, reveal a region of the map, use the Sheikah Slate sensor to find shrines in the area, find a new map revealing tower, repeat. The second is the main storyline loop: find a city belonging to one of four major races (Rito, Zora, Goron, Gerudo), complete a preliminary quest in which you are introduced to the new champion of that race, go to the divine beast, activate all the terminals in the divine beast by solving puzzles using its unique movement mechanic. There are other loops as well, such as the Great Fairy clothing upgrade loop, the cooking loop, the breakable weapons loop, et cetera, but these two are the most important. The shear scope of these intertwining loops gives Breath of the Wild an inviting, constantly changing, and rewarding gameplay cycle full of reflex/timing driven interactions and thoughtful but intuitive stat assignment. For this Breath of the Wild receives a 96/100 in the core gameplay loop category.

Games typically consist of one central gameplay theme or dabble slightly in many. Breath of the Wild is a perfect balance between those two styles. While it has fully formed puzzles as clearly presented and thoughtfully designed as (but more free than, in terms of possible solutions) those in Valve’s Portal series, it also contains rigorous combat against 18 unique enemy types complete with dodge, parry, knockback, freeze, shock, and burn mechanics that will keep the player on their toes. This is not to mention the horseback riding, gliding, climbing, and much more. Coupled with side quests of all shapes and sizes, from finding the hiding places of the forest Koroks, to recruiting people of all kinds to join together in a new village, Breath of the Wild offers a lot of variety to work with. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 75/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 58/100

Champions Wallpaper - Breath of the Wild
The former champions of Hyrule stand ready. (Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild media page)
  • Characters Score: 60/100
  • Plot Score: 50/100
  • Coherency Score: 64/100

The characters of Breath of the Wild are archetypal at best and never develop past that base level of nuance. The four previous champions, Revali the Rito, Daruk the Goron, Mipha the Zora, and Urbosa the Gerudo, are all the simple archetype of their race; in the previous order, each Champion’s primary trait would be arrogant (skillful), worried (diligent), selfless (compassionate), and controlling (vengeful). We seldom interact with them and all the meaningful interaction Link has with these characters takes place before the events of the game and out of our control. I would like to say that the defeat of each character at the hands of Calamity Ganon was due to the deficiencies of their archetypes but we are never presented with the events surrounding their demises. As for Link and Zelda, Zelda feels she is incompetent in her destined mode and so seeks her own way to contribute, eventually realizing the constraints she must work within to succeed. Link, alternatively, worked within his constraints and so is the true hero of the story, albeit a mute and blank one. Despite this each have interesting visual designs and many homages to previous games raising the character score to a 60/100.

Breath of the Wild takes place in a Hyrule that has seen Ganon rule in a pure calamitous form for 100 years. The Great Calamity, the event in which Ganon rested control of the many mechanical Guardians and the four divine beasts that were meant to defend against him, took the life of Hyrule’s King, the four Champions, and nearly took the life of Link who was put to sleep in a resurrection shrine until he could fight again. Now that he has awakened, Link must complete the shrines dotting the landscapes to increase his power, free the four divine beasts from Ganon, and recover his memories before putting an end to Ganon in a final confrontation. Link’s memories run the pre-Calamity storyline in which the Champions, Zelda, and Link prepare for the return of Ganon. Zelda struggles with envy at Link’s acceptance of his destiny until she gains her own power through protecting Link. I could break down the symbolism behind both storylines but each is a form of the hero’s journey most would be familiar with, either from old heroic tales and myths, or the religions of many cultures. No particularly nuanced or creative statement is made with the story so Breath of the Wild receives a 50/100 for its formulaic offering.

Sadly, there is a major disconnect between the story of the game and the story of Zelda’s memories. Not to say this wasn’t purposeful, but I personally would have preferred if the pre-Calamity storyline took place within a linear progression so that we could see more character progression within the champions and get to know them personally. Then whenever we are truly alone in the open world environment of the game, the feeling of freedom can be a frantic and crushing experience as well as an empowering one. That change, coupled with a less successful Calamity age Hyrule would have greatly improved the game as a coherent product. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild is slightly above par what most would expect in terms of polish and understanding of itself and for that it receives a 64/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Box Art - Breath of the Wild
(Image credit to Nintendo, retrieved from their official Breath of the Wild Wii U product page)

Despite a less than perfect storyline, lackluster music given the series’ fame, and some UI and frame rate issues, Breath of the Wild stands out on the merit of its gameplay systems  and attention to detail alone. With gorgeous visuals and sound effects, each romp in Hyrule’s vistas will be a spectacle to behold and lead the player to something new. In the future, I hope that Zelda stories can take on the mechanical and narrative complexities they’ve held in the past while retaining the benefit of the open ended design used in both Breath of the Wild and the original Legend of Zelda. For $60, Breath of the Wild may not be the best game on the market, but at $40 or less it’s a great adventure that puts the player in the role of the Hero of Hyrule as they grow in power to a satisfying end. Open your eyes… adventure awaits.


78/100 – Great!

Save When You Trade: Money in Gaming

Save When You Trade - GameStop
A short infographic displaying GameStop’s used games sales model. (Image credit to GameStop, retrieved from their official trade page)

Paying for games has always been a dilemma for developers, publishers, and consumers alike. How can developers be properly reimbursed for their hard work and investment while also moving  to bigger and better works? Can they accomplish this without hurting the consumers they depend on? Where do publishers fit into this equation? The answers have changed over the years, and with the advent of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon, we may be in the midst of a new era right now.

Developers make the games and, as consumers, we need as much of our hard spent gaming money as possible to go towards making new and improved content we love in a way that we can find and consume it. That’s where publishers would normally step in to make sure that developers create consumable, profitable, and visible video games. In a less connected age, such as when Electronic Arts began its work as a publishing company, this was not only necessary but a great way for new developers to get out there. Now that the internet is taking front stage in transforming our business world, the game industry is starting to look more and more like the music industry. In the information age, video games are adopting a service model.

Premium Plans - Star Wars: The Old Republic
Subscription services are popular for many ongoing experiences such as MMOs, for access to a library of games such as with GameFly, and for game streaming services like Playstation Now. (Image credit to EA, BioWare, Lucasfilm, and all other holders, retrieved from Star Wars: The Old Republic’s buy page)

In the past, the music industry’s record labels served to help artists record, publish, and market their work but today many successful artists handle each of those aspects themselves, collaborating with others when needed. The indie scene is flush with creators like Chance the Rapper who have found their market without any sort of affiliation with a label. Music was once a product market in which the consumer purchased an album and kept it as their own, but has since transformed into a service market with streaming competitors like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. Piracy was a huge factor in forcing the shift towards streaming services. While gaming isn’t exactly the same, the pressures impacting creators decisions in gaming are very similar.

I’m curious how this shift will impact lower income gamers specifically. GameStop is the largest source of working used games in the United States and home to a plethora of forgotten and niche games just waiting to be discovered. For lower income gamers, it presents a selection of products within their price range that no other gaming company will, or perhaps can. Sadly though, GameStop is dying as digital downloads dominate game sales and physical copies become less desirable. It’s my belief that the gaming community should want to keep physical copies and GameStop alive due to their bolstering of diversity among game consumers, aid in cataloging and providing access to games from the past, and support of the cost effective console market.

GameStop Logo and Tagline
(Image credit to GameStop, retrieved from their official Logo Site)

For gaming, consoles have an undeniable advantage over computers: they cost a fraction of a gaming computer’s cost and last about as long if not longer. This is especially true if the console you buy is a refurbished unit from GameStop, so support GameStop with trade-ins (another way GameStop can reduce costs even for high income gamers), console purchases, and by rejecting the digital download future. Where GameStop fails is supplying developers with a direct profit line from their consumers. Some publishers and developers have even called GameStop and the entirety of the used game market piracy with extra steps (which it can be, but it’s not without its benefits… which I’ve listed above). If GameStop is the game industry solution to consumer friendliness, Kickstarter is the game industry solution to developer friendliness.

Kickstarter allows higher income consumers of video games to invest their money personally into projects of their choice without having to bother with a publisher. On the flip side, it also allows established industry minds to take on projects that would never be funded by a publisher through the financial support of their fan base. While this can lead to some terrible disappointments and wasted cash (I’m looking at you, Keiji Inafune and Mighty No. 9), it can also be a huge benefit to developers and consumers alike. With a much larger portion of profits heading to developers and a guaranteed install base, losing money would require a catastrophic or intentional failure on the developers part. This means that when games succeed, everyone wins big! Projects like Shovel Knight, Yooka-Laylee, Hyper Light Drifter, Shantae: Half Genie Hero, and the innumerable and high quality CRPGs from Kickstarter prove just what a great tool it can be for the industry. Patreon is similar, but instead provides a path for service based monetization.

So the next time you buy a game, think about where your money’s going and how you can make the most out of it, not just for yourself but for the rest of us, too. Let your wallet do the talking!

Birb Friends Review: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC)

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the third installment of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise and a follow up to Daggerfall, marked the first modern Bethesda role-playing experience. When I first encountered the wastes and swamps of Vvardenfell I was enamored, but I was also a very young child. Playing on my original Xbox, I started at the yelps of a man falling from the sky in goofy blue wizard robes speckled with stars and gazed in wonder at the giant fleas that strode the rivers’ silt. It’s been 15 years since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was released, and after years of waxing, raving, and procrastinating, I’ve finally completed the base game’s main story. Nowadays there are innumerable ways to purchase Morrowind and its expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon, including Steam, GOG.com, and in physical releases of all shapes and sizes. With that in mind and regardless of the content that follows, I strongly recommend purchasing and playing this landmark title and achievement of a game.

To detail my experiences with Morrowind, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Logo (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from their official Morrowind page)
Technical Proficiency: 77/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 54/100

  • Style Score: 81/100
  • Animation Score: 35/100
  • Purpose Score: 50/100

While destined to be full of reused assets, similar areas, and bland NPCs, Morrowind succeeds in crafting a simultaneously believable and outrageous dreamscape of an island. A volcano gated by pulsating blue magics, an enormous canal city reminiscent of the Aztec’s Tenochtitlan, mushroom trees of great size and variety, and biomes of every sort make up only a small fraction of Morrowind’s intriguing sites. Coupled with the dreamlike fogging of the game’s short render distance, Morrowind’s ethereal setting springs to life. Enemy design is more inventive in Morrowind than previous Elder Scrolls games and introduces future mainstays of the series such as Hungers and Golden Saints. Armors, clothing, and weapons feature designs inspired by a multitude of cultures and, though they occasionally look silly in practice, allow for a wide amount of customization and differentiation between characters. Morrowind’s skyboxes move through night and day cycles with stunning renditions of Nirn’s moons. As for color design, textures are muted and muddled due to the limitations of the time, but deep jewel tones and a variety of lusters and roughnesses allow for many separate yet unified themes. For its imaginative source material and captivating execution, Morrowind receives an 81/100 in the category of visual style.

Animation is where Morrowind’s visuals fall horribly flat. Awkward and inhuman for every humanoid in the game and animatronic for everything else, nothing breaks the immersion of a role-playing experience like an NPC float/running up a wall with elbows bent at an extreme position and clothing clipping into limbs. Despite their shortcomings, Morrowind’s animations are, at the very least, functional in relating game information to the player and expressive for its menagerie of creatures and special people. Everything considered 35/100 is Morrowind’s animation score.

Morrowind is a first/third person action RPG that intends to immerse the player in a believable world. For this to function there are some concessions made to visual cuing and mechanical clarity. Nonetheless, Morrowind delivers many visual cues to its players through the use of specially marked color coded effects that differ depending on the school of magic from which the effect originated, and telegraphed attacks. A distinct sheen on magical items also relates information to the player in a similar fashion along with unobtrusive pop-up tips that describe items available for pickup. While not perfect and often too cluttered to decipher, Morrowind’s visual purpose is completely functional to earn a 50/100.

Overall Sound Score: 80.44/100

  • Music Score: 92/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 69/100
  • Variety Score: 80/100

Morrowind was the first game in the Elder Scrolls series to enlist the aid of highly lauded composer Jeremy Soule. Contemplative and ambient with memorable melodic movements and an orchestra worth of instrumental variety and intensity, Soule’s soundtrack offers a near perfect complement to the adventurous, beautiful, foreboding, and often bewildering feeling of Vvardenfell. Tracks such as “Peaceful Waters” build slowly from dreamy harp song into emotive string crescendos and continue onward to deep ponderings and choral murmurs that resolve with the plucking at which they began. More conflictive tracks, such as “Bright Spears, Dark Blood”, recapitulate the triumphant movements of the title track “Nerevar Rising” while simultaneously washing the player with sounds of fear and apprehension. My personal favorite track still stands as “The Road Most Traveled” which never fails to conjure images of the watery shantytowns in which I first heard its bustling drum beats and swelling melodies. Where Morrowind’s music fails is in its repetition throughout the game’s potentially hundreds of hours of play time and the general lack of context sensitivity. The game’s music rotates through the selection of tracks and only changes tone to notify the player that they are being attacked. Beyond this minor criticism, the soundtrack of Morrowind is moving, fully realized, and as memorable as any John Williams score ever could be. For those reasons, Morrowind receives a 92/100 in the music category.

Screeching creatures, booming voices, shocking shouts, blustering winds, swishing weapons, clanging metals, and much more adorn Morrowind’s aural presentation at all times. The abrasive noises of Morrowind highlight the feelings of isolation and unease that characterize the entrance into Vvardenfell’s alien world. After hours of playtime, the familiar words of Morrowind’s inhabitants will ring in the players ear and work to build every thematic sense that Morrowind contains. The only noises that Morrowind fails to craft are its magic effect sounds which berate the ears unnecessarily and grow quite repetitive quite quickly. It’s for these reasons that Morrowind receives a 69/100 in the sound effects category.

From the full orchestration of the soundtrack to the diverse sounds that accompany those tracks, Morrowind isn’t afraid to show the player new and interesting things. That being said, a larger soundtrack would have been greatly welcomed and certain creature sounds (I’m looking at you, cliff racers) grow tiresome after many hours in Vvardenfell. Increasing the variety of sounds available to each creature could have alleviated this issue, though this is a relatively minor complaint. For these reasons, 80/100 is Morrowind’s aural variety score.

Overall Controls Score: 97.22/100

Dwemer Spiders
A glass axe stands ready to strike Dwemer Spider Constructs in an aged ruin. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Controller Score: 100/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 95/100

The PC edition of Morrowind does not support the use of a controller although I can’t imagine why you would choose to use one as the mouse and keyboard control setup is more than adequate. The Xbox edition’s controller usage works perfectly as well if you choose to play on that console. During my play through, I found the keyboard and mouse fit the needs of the game perfectly and for that reason Morrowind receives a 100/100 as its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Morrowind, though this may differ depending on the hardware and settings you intend to use. Because Morrowind is a 15 year old game, nearly all modern hardware can run the game smoothly with at least 30 fps. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

While criticisms can be made that Morrowind’s draggable menus are detrimental to the user interface’s functionality, I took no issue with them and at some moments even found their flexibility convenient. Beyond this, nearly all control inputs are remappable and don’t conflict in their default positions, allowing the player to control their character with ease. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 95/100 in the functionality category.

Morrowind Steam Banner
(Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
Artistic Proficiency: 72/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 59.44/100

Dwemers Touch The Sky
The Nerevarine stands amidst the ruins of the great Dwemer nation. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from Steam’s official Morrowind page)
  • Agency Score: 90/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 38/100
  • Variety Score: 75/100

Morrowind is a game about constraints and how to succeed within them through patience, hard work, and determination. It is a game about consequences and living with those consequences; there are mutually exclusive quest lines that force decisions in interesting ways. Morrowind gives the player the agency to define themselves both at the outset of the adventure and through acting and leveling skills by use within a space that reacts to player agency in novel ways. Oppressive forces like the Ordinators will beat you into line, others will halt your progress until a service has been paid them, and some won’t even notice when their conspirators are murdered miles away. There are many impactful things you can do in Morrowind; kill gods, rise through the political systems of the Dunmer (Dark Elf) Great Houses, pick mushrooms for a fledgling alchemist, but most seem as innocuous, disconnected, and unimportant to the system as our day to day actions in the real world. How wrong that assumption is. The systems of magic within the game also give way to creative agency in terms of problem solving and character building. Alchemy is an incredibly exploitable system to enhance the player character and crafted spells can specifically solve any number of problems in the game. Everything from water walking and levitation to invisibility can be applied not only to the player character but also to NPCs and monsters. With an open world design that allows the player to learn the limitations and impact of their agency and plenty of opportunities to use it, Morrowind receives a 90/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Morrowind is as follows: explore the world and stumble upon a quest bearing NPC, receive quest from that NPC, travel to the appropriate area to complete the task, complete the task or receive an addendum to the task, return to the NPC. Some tasks require dungeon crawling, others require patient talking and item collection, the best require a convoluted mix of both. Morrowind’s gameplay loop is not for the easily bored or illiterate; it requires a respect and dedication for the work and writing that went into crafting it that many other games lack. That being said, Morrowind’s gameplay loop is no better than Diablo’s gameplay loop or any other Elder Scrolls game; it is enhanced and defined solely by the pretense and context given it by the audiovisual experience of the game. For that reason, Morrowind is not a tightly designed game and relies far too heavily on its story as a means to mask its ends. There is no deep combat system here (although the level up system magnifies and builds a narrative for the impact of your decisions in interesting ways), no deep conversation system here, and no slow introduction and intuitive teaching of mechanics. Sadly, Morrowind’s core gameplay loop receives the low score of 38/100.

In terms of variety, Morrowind excels. A large selection of factions and guild allows for hours and hours of content exploration. The wide selection and application of spells, enchanted items, and potions allows for ingenious solutions to combative, social, and environmental scenarios. A small, but dense and hand crafted play world allows adventure in any direction for any reason. This being said, Morrowind’s primary concession is that it’s action will be entirely similar regardless of the new context. For these reasons, Morrowind receives a 75/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 85.33/100

Urshilaku_Camp
The Nerevarine cult resides in the Urshilaku Ashlander Camp. (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Urshilaku Camp page)
  • Characters Score: 90/100
  • Plot Score: 81/100
  • Coherency Score: 85/100

Morrowind’s central characters are the self-made gods of the Tribunal, their fallen comrade Dagoth Ur, the Daedric Prince Azura, and the long dead champion of the Dunmer people Indoril Nerevar. You play a prisoner with the right characteristics to take on the role of the Nerevarine, Indoril Nerevar’s reincarnated self, after being moved to Vvardenfell and are given your freedom in exchange for orders by the Emperor to fulfill the Nerevarine prophecy. The history that surrounds all these characters and the resulting prophecy is muddled and different in each book and description you are given. No single narrative can take into consideration every aspect of the current events and many of those who had part in the events of the past give conflicting accounts. This creates an intriguing character study of each participant that not only relates to large sociological issues in the real world but also smaller, personal issues. Fantasy is the home of symbolism and analogy, and Morrowind is full of them both. Beyond this, the characters you interact with during the main quest are much less concerned with your actions and instead busy themselves with continuing the current function of their homeland. Each have personal desires and motivations, but they are seldom revealed. Outside the main quest the world comes to live with many hastily realized characters that are endearing for their quirks alone. For this reason, Morrowind receives a 90/100 for its character score.

The plot of Morrowind is intently political in nature and explores the culture and history of Morrowind while the player finds ways to fulfill each step of the Nerevarine prophecy, join together the people of Vvardenfell against the growing diseased army of Dagoth Ur, and end Dagoth Ur’s plan to conquer all of Tamriel. It follows Morrowind’s philosophical discussions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and control and freedom in a way that mirrors the best speculative fiction and, in some cases, directly steals concepts from previous works.  Despite this, Morrowind’s plot is an engaging, interesting whole with a lot to say about the world. For that it receives an 81/100 in the plot category.

Morrowind requires the player to actively engage in seeking out lore and answers, as well as critically analyze the full implications of its design and story decisions to  understand its final product. With that being said, many players, especially those familiar with the other installments in the series, can attest to the enjoyment of experience the smaller distractions and quests can deliver alone. In this way, Morrowind’s main quest is a product reliant on and designed to integrate novel experiences with at least part of the additional game content into itself. This build an understanding of the game’s world as a system and give Morrowind an 85/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Morrowind Cover Art
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Box Art (Image credit to Bethesda Softworks, retrieved from the Elder Scrolls Wikia’s Morrowind page)

While Morrowind suffers from a number of constraints based both in failure of design and in designing for the limitations of the hardware at the time, it’s lore, characters, and plot carry a depth and applicable weight that hasn’t faltered even after 15 years. Imbalanced design adds a layer of novel discovery to play, especially in the magic aspect of the gameplay, and the breadth of experiences available increases replay value. An experience more alike to searching a library with the aid of a librarian than to participating in a great cataclysm, Morrowind is not an experience for everyone but if you enjoy deep fantasy lore, exploring an alien world, testing and playing within the limits of a complex system, and philosophical enquiry it is an enjoyable one. It is my hope that future Bethesda RPGs, and especially future Elder Scrolls installments, will take note of the triumphs and the failures of Morrowind. Voice acting in subsequent games decreased the tedium of exposition but also left exposition awkward, truncated, and discordant with purpose more often than not. Combat has not grown mechanically in any way which is an enormous disappointment as gameplay is the weakest component of the series. The creation of a new mythos that mimics real myth instead of directly lifting from it was a triumph of Morrowind that gradually fell out of favor in the recent games. At the price of $15 for Morrowind’s Game of the Year edition, which includes content not covered by this review, Morrowind is more than worth the purchase price (especially with the added value of mods from Morrowind’s vibrant and active modding community). If you’re interested in exploring an alien world, thinking on metaphysical and political issues relevant even today, and meeting and creating a multitude of wacky situations, then Vvardenfell might be your perfect escapist destination. Just be sure to speak quickly, outlander.


75/100 – Great!

The Last Thing I Do Before I Die

When Samuel Coster was diagnosed with stage 4b non-Hodgkin lymphoma, his chance of survival was clocked at around 7%. Part of Butterscotch Shenanigans, a three brothers strong game development studio that had then been working on an infinite runner game, Sam made a decision. If he was going to die, he was done waiting to live how he wanted and he was going to start now. I’m not here to tell you the rest of Crashlands’ story, Mr. Coster does a much better job of that himself, instead I want to reflect on life, games, design, and meaning. How have you designed your life?

In a lot of ways, the society we live in, the animal we are, and the world around us have designed every aspect of our existence. It’s only natural to play within those designs, its how humans learn about their environments and it feels fun, but at some point we’ll also feel the limitations. Some red tape here, a dirty look there, the lull of a salesman’s con, the pain of hunger, the faltering of our fragile shells in sickness; these limitations are real and more real for certain people. To cope with the control our existence exacts upon us, Samuel Coster took responsibility over the autonomy he was given and so should we all. In every way you can, design your life to encourage the things you believe about yourself and the future you want to bring about. Ask yourself the simple question: How would a game designer make me want to do this?

“I don’t want this to be the last game I make before I die.” Its a powerful thing to know you’re going to die, but don’t we all know it? Our mortality seems to be an emboldening aspect of our life, either creating risk aversion that maintains the status quo or dismantling that aversion in a rush towards the inevitable. Acceptance of mortality is the ultimate conquering of human psychology, if it is possible. Somewhere between YOLO and heaven lies a state of acknowledgement and transformation that Camus refers to as “confronting the Absurd” but that others have found in music, literature, and games. A pleasant rebellion from life through the escapism of simulation/reconstruction that draws its power through the separation it exacts, games in particular allow for a life that doesn’t accomplish within the confines of reality but instead wallows in the confines of itself. Artists, idealists, and theorists never design with the intent of their designs being put in place but instead design with the intent of transforming the landscape of practicality entirely. This is not to say that I suggest abandoning real work, but rather that art, literature, and language exist as part of this false creation and that Crashlands is no different.

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Crashlands, a survival RPG like many others but for entirely different reasons. (Image credit to Butterscotch Shenanigans, retrieved from TouchArcade’s review of Crashlands)

Butterscotch Shenanigans set to work on Crashlands because they wanted to change the world, and they knew the best way to do it was not to. Whether they succeeded with this Don’t Starve style RPG is entirely up to you.

What Doesn’t Make A Gamer

"Youngest gamer at Igromir 2011" by Sergey Galyonkin
The youngest gamer at Igromir 2011. (Image credit to Sergey Galyonkin, retrieved from Flickr)

I can see the gamer in your head. He’s overweight or undeniably lanky. He hasn’t showered for awhile and his breath smells like the carcinogenic additives they spray on food nowadays. His pits are stained with sweat, and his heavy $100+ headset leaves depressed indentions in his hair when he removes it to call out in response to the mother he hardly notices yet still depends on for financial stability. He shouts every time he fails, throwing his controller on the ground or pounds the bed/couch he sits on… maybe he also muffles his shouts with a pillow if he’s the repressed type. And he is a HE. You can tell by the content of his games that he is a he. There is an abundance of objectified and powerless women, muted sexual fanfare, and “masculine” repugnancy drenching the media he consumes. And how prolific his consumption is! As if Pavlov rang a bell, he preorders the next game, the next console, the old game for the next console, the expansion that exists on the new game’s disc but which he’s been told is extra content that will markedly improve the experience for such a low low price. I can see him, too. He disgusts me, but games don’t… or at least good games don’t.

I am a gamer… or at least I was until I came of age and discovered the terrific impression of gamers in this modern day. My games had existed in the numbers on the math board, how they could be manipulated and teased apart into whatever beautiful little systems I desired. I lived on the lined sheets of the college ruled spiral notebooks we bought in bulk for 10 cents a piece during school preparation. Inside them, I designed boards and named pieces and created rulesets, playing each out against myself and against other rulesets. In Windows 2000’s MS Paint, I carefully selected the moveable bits of fully playable games contained in simple image files. I found joy in the algorithms of games and in the way they could produce more solid and absorbable forms of information. I fell in love with the science of zeroes and ones and the outputs for inputs of computer function. When I learned cell biology in fifth grade, I set to work on a game of cell evolution and warfare in which players would attempt to optimize their cell and spread its population to conquer the whole system. I was enamored with the results. I was having fun, but I did it alone. Later, I mapped out fantastic, traversable worlds in measured scale complete with multiple biomes, many friends and enemies, histories all their own, and markets in which goods could move. I’d show them to my brothers and my father, but never my mother for she despised role-playing games, but they never played them with me and my games were soon forgotten.

Perhaps that why I play video games, to be part of a group, but they contained their own systems, too. The cacophonous laughter of queueing every major city in the late game of Sid Meier’s Civilization II to produce multiple copies of the virtually costless Fanatics units under the Fundamentalist government and the subsequent mad march that allowed me to conquer the whole of Civ II’s world entranced me. The way cleverly assigning attribute points in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords allowed me to create a hyper intelligent, sharpshooting Jedi with a silver tongue and supportive Force powers half-cocked my smile and brightened my spirit. It seemed however, that as I began to grow, the games grew out of me. First person shooters required reflexes I didn’t have and memorization skills I couldn’t recall. The text-based adventure games I had laughed at by testing the limits, snarky responses, and idiosyncrasies of their parsing programs bloomed into visual trials of patience and repetition, dragging and dropping each item and systematically testing each pixel of the screen. Despite this, video games still gave me the intrigue of yesteryear in some small ways. Battlefront I and II allowed a strategic dance of command posts and rock/paper/scissors-esque unit selection, not to mention the lateral solutions required to best Battlefront I’s heroes. The shift of games, however, was troubling to me.

More and more I watched as video games stopped being breakable, playful systems of decision-making and transformed into Skinner boxes or movies with interactive psychological hooks. They served a different purpose now, I would think to myself, but they served the same audience. So I changed, socially, with that audience. I couldn’t collect coins as a gamer any longer or aspire to be an accountant/economist in the future. I’d instead consume and critique media en masse, learn how to tell and craft a story, play with basic animation techniques, and abandon the playful systems I fell in love with for the different, but entirely similar, systems of storytelling. In those systems I learned the joys of manipulating the English word. I purposefully crafted the longest, most cumbersome, hardest to parse, and yet grammatically correct, sentences I could imagine. I never led my stories back to tonic, their pitches ringing in the ears of those who read, baffled at the decisive jazz of a story mistold for literary reasons. It never felt like enough though. There was always something missing.

“Tell the story through gameplay,” I would say, “avoid ludonarrative dissonance at all costs.” In truth, I wanted my systems back and I wanted them to say something powerful like they had so many times before. I wanted to be the farmer on the Oregon Trail who bought more bullets than pounds of flour because of my small income and the abundance of game along the way to Willamette Valley. I wanted to be that same farmer who lost a child to disease because he was forced to push his family at a grueling pace to reach the destination before the winter turned harsh. Deep in my heart, I knew, and still know, that games were important for more than the mind numbing escapism they now provide. Their design could speak volumes, in an experiential way, about the systems we live in and the people we live in them with. I knew we could empathize through games, I only wished that gamer guy that hides in the dominant marketing demographics of the industry could see it, too.

Just like games without play fall down into a pit of commercialized media monstrosities, gamers that don’t play devour the wealth of good within gaming. The next time you think of a gamer, I want the person in your head to be any gender you want, any sexuality you want, any race you want, any weight you want, et cetera, but I want them to be a player above all. If you give them a Rubik’s cube, they should spin its every bit, smile with amusement, take notes of each algorithm they discover, and pull the bits of plastic apart to see how the puzzle works. If you give them a stick, they should note the rings within the wood in remembrance, test its buoyancy, and, with great zeal, attempt to snap it over their knee. Once gamers become more akin to scientists that learn for their own pleasure and less akin to addicts flying towards the next fix, I’ll be pleased. Until then, let’s ask more from our games than we ever have and, seeing the strength of the industry, relinquish the fear that constructive criticism might kill the thing we love. As a multibillion dollar industry, games aren’t in their fragile infancy anymore, they’ve reached their “terrible twos” and we need to give them the guidance they deserve.

Birb Friends Review: Transistor (PC)

Transistor is an isometric tactical action RPG (although this description doesn’t do its systems justice) developed by Supergiant Games and released in May of 2014 for a variety of systems including PS4, Windows, Mac, Linux, and later, in 2015, for iOS. After the success of 2011’s indie darling Bastion, a successor to the game was envisioned and began to be produced with private funds. Bastion’s team of developers, sound designers, and artists all contributed to Transistor making for a equally stunning release. Transistor’s gameplay nearly mirrors Bastion’s, but the focus on restoring a single town and maintaining centrality in that area are gone and instead replaced with a simple linear progression which, while being mildly disappointing, doesn’t detract from the experience and feels more streamlined than Bastion’s loops. Transistor’s greatest achievements lie in its aesthetics; both visually and aurally the game is stunning. That being said, there is a depth to the symbolism present in Transistor’s world, a symbolism that is easily lost amidst the insufficiently exposited narrative of the game.

To detail my experiences with Transistor, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

Transistor Logo - Transistor
Transistor Logo (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Technical Proficiency: 82/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 75.75/100

  • Style Score: 69/100
  • Animation Score: 80/100
  • Purpose Score: 77/100

Transistor follows in the tradition of Bastion in its use of highly saturated colors but the application of these colors is just slightly more selective than in Bastion. Reds, oranges, greens, and yellows dominate Transistor’s cyberpunk landscape. Dramatic shifts to warmer colors and brighter surroundings almost always worked to increase tension in dangerous or climactic situations. Loading screens between areas take the form of side scrolling rides on a motorbike full of context cementing buildings and background landscapes. Enemies are all entirely similar in aesthetic which serves narrative excellently but isn’t an interesting or engaging visual choice. Characters, however, have color themed designs expressive of their profession and personality; it’s a necessary expression in the face of an utter lack of interaction or exposition for most characters. For its selective and dynamic color palette, uniform enemies, and replication of a well established style Transistor receives a 69/100 for its style score.

The animations of Transistor are many times cleaner than Bastion’s animations. Cluckers bounce about on the spindles of their feet, Fetches prowl and leap, and Jerks rumble with enraged energy. Shifting perspectives during transitional pieces and areas is also seamless and smooth, displaying a three dimensional space despite the two dimensional engine. Red’s animations, from her deft flourish to her simple hum, are all sleek, expressive, and proper improvements to Bastion’s Kid. All that being said, a larger degree of variation in animation would have been appreciated. Transistor earns a 80/100 in the animation category.

Transistor doesn’t give perfect indications of where the player is in the world and whether their attacks and abilities will work as the player intends. That is to say, Transistor’s isometric view lacks clarity until the turn function is active. Once the player is planning their turn, the game takes on a whole new perspective, rather appropriately, and dots cleanly explain every obstacle in the main character Red’s way and the effect of every possible approach. Indicators for enemy attacks and movements aren’t as telegraphed as they were in Bastion, but the lack of awareness that the turn function’s clarity can bring is interesting in narrative sense and brings Red’s focus to clear relief. For these reasons, Supergiant Games’ sophomore effort receives an 77/100 for its visual purpose score.

Overall Sound Score: 77/100

  • Music Score: 80/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 77/100
  • Variety Score: 65/100

Transistor’s music almost entirely consists of light, thoughtful guitar and relatively uniform percussive elements that periodically crack into the sound. Thematically melding the humanity and physicality of the guitar’s expression with the digital and rhythmic precision of the percussion directly matches the game’s overarching message on the integration of technology into our very identities. Similarly, the way each area is given a nearly identical arrangement that only receives slight variations dependent on the enemies present in that area mirrors the plot of the game’s Cloudbank city. Vocal pieces, performed by two time collaborator Ashley Barrett, give incredible amounts of foreshadowing and understanding to those that listen as well as being pleasing to the ear. Sadly, they are placed at odd instances in the game that don’t always seem logical in reference to their content. I look forward to seeing more diversity in Barrett’s performance, especially in terms of vocal technique, as she explores artistic territory in the future. Hopefully some of that exploration will be in conjunction with Supergiant Games, but for now Transistor receives a score of 80/100 for its music score.

In my review of Bastion, I bemoaned the massive amount of information being relayed to the user as they try to decipher the plot information given to them aurally by the narrator. In Transistor, this issue seems to be inverted, though not entirely reversed. Not only is the narrator put to little use in relaying pertinent plot information, (more often than not that information comes from the music, text-based terminals, or function ability mechanic) but no resolution was made to resolve the issue of the narrator’s voice becoming drenched in other sound effects to the point of losing recognition. A perfect opportunity to resolve this would have been within the Turn() function, an ability that allows Red to plan out her next moves using the eponymous Transistor that houses the narrator, but instead the narrator’s voice fizzles out with the rest of the background noise when using Turn(). Regardless, sound effects are still functional in relating game happenings to the player and pleasant to hear. In total, Transistor receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.

Transistor’s score has variety of a certain kind. It bounces between vocal tracks and instrumentals frequently enough, but the lack of ingenuity in variety is its main failure. While Bastion’s tracks frequently mixed the different styles present in its many inspirations, Transistor is a singularly focused affair that doesn’t incorporate facets of its inspiration, or rather the facets of its inspiration’s inspiration. I would have liked to see wider instrumentation and perhaps some tracks with jazz influence. If anything can be said to be lacking from Transistor’s aural landscape, it is variety. For this reason, Transistor receives a 65/100 in the sound variety category.

Overall Controls Score: 92.22/100

Wallpaper - Transistor

  • Controller Score: 95/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 95/100
  • Functionality Score: 90/100

Transistor supports many different controllers across many different platforms. I chose to use a keyboard and mouse during my playthrough. Initially, keyboard and mouse controls felt as if they weren’t the intended method of control, but after modifying the key mappings to match the control scheme of League of Legends, they felt right at home. Controllers, especially Xbox 360 controllers, are also usable on the PC platform, but I didn’t use them for my playthrough. Transistor receives a 95/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Transistor. The only issue of responsiveness I had during my playthrough was screen tearing that at times made it difficult to judge motion correctly or generally distracted from the experience. After changing setting in accordance to troubleshooting instruction found online, my screen tearing was greatly diminished but never removed. That being said, Transistor is nearly perfect in responsiveness on almost all counts and for that it receives a 95/100 in the responsiveness category.

While there was ease in action during gameplay, the main issue of functionality comes in the needlessly convoluted function selection system. Consolidating this system to a single screen would have significantly streamlined my experience as most of my time was spent contemplating the uses of Red’s function in the selection system. Despite this, the controls allowed Red to crash, jaunt, shock, mask, flourish, and more with grace. For this it receives a 90/100 in the functionality category.

Process - Transistor
A collection of Process cells glance at an engraved Transistor marking. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Artistic Proficiency: 84/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 85.67/100

Snapshot - Transistor
Red crashes the ground as a Snapshot glares. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Agency Score: 100/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 85/100
  • Variety Score: 46/100

Transistor is ultimately a game about the loss of personal power and, in a large sense, what power is in and of itself. The different ways the game allows, and disallows, you to enact your own will fits these themes. A passive, active, and secondary slot is available to place any function, the game’s term for ability, into. Experimenting with these slots not only allows you to diversify the experiences you’ll have in the game but also allows you to customize your skillset not just to your personal taste, but to the road ahead. These are all very personal effects, they have an impact upon yourself and so, in a very limited way, also have an impact upon the structure that supports the outside world, in this game that structure is exemplified by the robotic enemies known as the Process and further confirmed by the Spine of the World. Furthermore, seeking out information about the practical uses of each ability simultaneously brings understanding of the personal history of those who the ability belonged to. If you fail to use this understanding, the function is lost for a time until the integrity of your authority over it is reestablished. Transistor’s ludic representation and dissection of the interweaving systems we come to know and understand in our own lives is brilliantly spoken with the game itself. For this reason, I give Transistor a perfect score of 100/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Transistor is as follows: prepare to enter area by assigning functions and limiters, sight enemies and enter the ()Turn function to plan, set out a path of functions to use during the turn, allow the functions to take place, dodge and protect yourself during the vulnerable cooldown period after using ()Turn, repeat until the enemies are defeated, continue to the next area, and repeat (probably by swapping functions and limiters in order to receive the interesting exposition contained within usage unlockables). Transistor’s core gameplay loop is much closer to proper alignment than Bastion’s. Transistor never forces you to use a function unless you’ve made a mistake or are attempted a formulated challenge, and its rewards for doing so are much more incentivizing and purposeful. All that being said, ()Turn tended to allow me to dissociate from the actual happenings of the game (which I believe to be intended) in a way that diminished my enjoyment of the active experience, and the formulated challenges of Transistor seemed far more superfluous than those in Bastion. For these reasons I give Transistor an 85/100 as its core gameplay loop score.

In scoring the variety of Transistor, the fact that it only holds two separate modes of play is definitely considered. Transistor is truly a linear and singular experience. Perhaps more prominently, and importantly, is the fact that Transistor seems painfully unfinished. Relationships are told instead of shown and developed (although some of this seems deliberate in light of the story, not all of it does), boss battles are relatively inconsequential or significantly mismatched to their rising action, and a single playthrough left me considerably bewildered and discontent by the lack of closure and information. For those reasons, Transistor receives a 46/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 82/100

Red and Cloudbank - Transistor
The Transistor’s User speaks to Red with a powerful blue glow as Cloudbank hangs in the balance. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Characters Score: 83/100
  • Plot Score: 80/100
  • Coherency Score: 83/100

Where Bastion’s characters wrestled personally with their identities, thoughts, desires, guilts, and actions, Transistor’s characters are devoid of deep thought and moving development. The only epiphany Transistor holds for its characters is the bleakest one imaginable, which is perhaps symbolic of the greater realization Supergiant intends for us to learn about technology, power, and individualism. Regardless, the voice acting and design of the villains of Transistor’s Cloudbank city leaves something to be desired. As with Bastion, I wish a longer amount of time was dedicated to learning about these characters. All this considered, Transistor receives an 83/100 as its character score.

The plot of Transistor is ripe with symbolism of many sorts and pulls out all the stops in terms of exploring its main themes. That being said, many players of Transistor will find it hard to understand just why or how anything is happening within Transistor’s world of Cloudbank. The greatest obstacle to understanding the meaning of Transistor is the self imposed ambiguity that surrounds the game. In Bastion this ambiguity is to a much lesser extent and allows the player to enjoy the game as both a base level experience and as something greater, but Transistor’s ambiguity reduces the experience to its most contemplative and philosophical parts, disallowing the consumption of the game as a traditional, surface level experience. All that being said, the plot of Transistor is interesting, integrated to gameplay, and complete which is why it receives an 80/100 in the plot category.

Transistor never struck me as a powerful experience and, in retrospect, I don’t think it truly was. The coherency of Transistor as an experience came to me in the analysis and thought I devoted to the game after its completion. Plot and characters in Transistor that seemed discordant or out of place at first were revealed to be purposefully so when viewed in light of the experience as a whole. It is my personal hypothesis that Transistor takes on its greatest value in replay sessions and with the real-life application of what can be learned within the game in mind. For these reasons Transistor receives an 83/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Box Art - Transistor
(Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)

Above the surface, Transistor is a confusing blur of beautiful art accompanied by pleasant music and engaging gameplay. Below the surface, Transistor is a nuanced statement on the modern notions of control, technology, autonomy, power, change, democracy, and the individual. Transistor’s downfalls lie in its presentation of concepts and failure to teach its players about the story they are acting within. What it lacks in character development, it makes up for in thematic perfection, beautiful art, and solid gameplay. It’s my hope that Supergiant Games’ future endeavors, such as Pyre, are able to present a cohesive story of longer length while maintaining the great attributes of previous endeavors. Diversity in game design would also be a welcome addition to Pyre, as Bastion and Transistor are, in their most basic components, comparable experiences. At the Steam Sale price of $4, Transistor definitely earned its purchase. If you’re interested in strategizing with a variety of self explanatory tools, analyzing deep works of symbolic fiction, seeing beautiful things, and hearing gorgeous performances, Transistor is the right game for you. I’ll see you in the Country.


83/100 – Wonderful!