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.

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.

maxresdefault-2
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.

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!

Birb Friends Review: Bastion (PC)

Bastion is a hack and slash RPG (or isometric brawler) developed by Supergiant Games and released for everything from iOS and the Chrome browser to PlayStation 4. It was developed using private funds over the course of nearly two years by a small seven person team. While Bastion was shown at 2010’s Game Developers Conference, it wasn’t until its playable reveal at that same year’s Penny Arcade Expo that things took off. Since then Bastion has been a commercial success for Supergiant’s debut and paved the way for their second release, Transistor. The developers of Bastion set out to create a game in which you’d build a town similar to those present in modern RPGs. Sadly, the town building features of Bastion are unfulfilling and generally underdeveloped. Thankfully, that allowed the plot and characters of Bastion to take center stage in an intriguing piece about morality, history, race, and environmental protection. Did I mention that all of those components are left up for interpretation and that the characters alone are human enough to relate to? Bastion tells that interesting of a story, with a smooth voice to boot.

To detail my experiences with Bastion, 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 the 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.

Bastion - Logo
Bastion Logo (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
Technical Proficiency: 84/100

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: 67.75/100

  • Style Score: 87/100
  • Animation Score: 70/100
  • Purpose Score: 52/100

Bastion uses hand-drawn backgrounds with saturated, weighty colors and subtle but powerful contrasts. The fact that each locale exists upon a floating island allowed the artist to give a sort of skybox and background to the game, even though that sort of styling is normally impossible using an isometric viewpoint. Enemies and characters all look distinct, new, and interesting despite their diverse inspiration from wild west, fantasy, and eastern aesthetics. Bastion pays attention to every detail of its environments and most details of its characters. That attention does not go unnoticed. For its interesting use of deep colors, merging of familiar aesthetics, and detail oriented craftsmanship Bastion receives an 87/100 for its style score.

In many ways, Bastion’s animations are found lacking. Most if not all of its characters have no idle animation and some of the enemies lack any animation at all. That being said, what animation Bastion does have is full of character and only has fluidity with purpose. Gasfellas reel their pickaxes back with weight and rigid power, Anklegators burst from the ground with raging convulsions, and the Ura shadow across the battlefield with deadly and silent efficiency. There is, however, one huge exception to Bastion’s rule of solid animation: at times the Kid can look about as rough as the Calamity. All in all, Bastion still shows an appreciation for animation greater than what’s to be expected and for that it receives a 70/100 in the animation category.

As visually stunning as Bastion is, it can be frustratingly bad at relating what is happening to the player. From a deceptive isometric view that makes little differentiation between ground and bottomless pit, to monsters whose colored symbolism isn’t consistent throughout the whole experience, there are issues with Bastion’s visual cuing. If it weren’t for the fact that Bastion’s monsters have predictable, well animated telegraphs and the fluid way in which the limits of each weapon are represented, Bastion would score even lower. 52/100 is the final score for Supergiant Games’ debut in the visual purpose category.

Overall Sound Score: 82.78/100

  • Music Score: 88/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 79/100
  • Variety Score: 77/100

Bastion’s music is full of effective arrangements, memorable songs, and purposeful lyrics. Each area is imbued with new feelings and given context through the score which makes every song necessary to the impact of the whole experience, and impactful moments are plentiful. Instrumental pieces feature a wide variety of instruments and tone qualities, but their structure is similar enough to bring the entire soundtrack together as a single work. Vocal pieces by Ashley Lynn Barrett and Darren Korb give meaning to the personal experiences of certain characters and tie those characters’ experiences to the plot of the game. The only qualm I have about the music of Bastion is that I would have liked to see a larger contrast between the style of songs for different areas. The consistent mix of styles and contrast in terms of density of sound that Darren Korb brings to Bastion’s soundtrack give it an 88/100 for its music score.

From the lighting strike of a perfect hit, to the subtle noises that surround the Kid throughout his journey, Bastion provides ample feedback for the player and does so without assaulting the ears too terribly much. The most interesting component of Bastion’s sound effects is the narrator that constantly provides you with information as you progress through each level. In an awkward turn of events, that component was also the most problematic during my playthrough. The voice, delivery, and writing of the narrator’s speech are not the issue, in fact they’re quite good and contributed to the story of Bastion in a nuanced and interesting way. What I take issue with is the massive amount of information the player is required to take in at once. Fighting enemies, dodging attacks, judging whether I can stand on a dubious piece of the environment, AND listening to a narrator is often too much. It wouldn’t be near as much of a problem if the narrator’s speech wasn’t our only source of information, but many times it is. For that, Bastion’s sound effects score is a 79/100.

Aural variety is a tricky thing for video game scores because of the thematic requirements of the entire experience and of the soundtrack itself. Bastion runs headfirst into these issues by mixing a variety of styles and experiences into almost every instrumental track. Wide instrumentation and varying composition means you won’t exactly get bored with the way the game sounds even if you’re particularly interested in music. That being said, it does mean that Bastion almost always sounds the same. Despite the relief that the vocal tracks provide in this regard, Bastion receives a 77/100 in the sound variety category.

Overall Controls Score: 100/100

Bastion - Scumbags Loom Like The Moon
A scumbag and a collection of squirts prepare to assault the Kid. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
  • Controller Score: 100/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 100/100
  • Functionality Score: 100/100

Bastion supports many different controls across a variety of systems. I chose to use a keyboard and mouse during my playthrough. The keyboard and mouse controls felt very comfortable and no compromises were made to their functionality. The fast movements required by the game were easily facilitated by the keyboard and mouse set up and I required no changes to the default settings in order to comfortably play through the whole game. For that reason, Bastion receives a 100/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, incorrect responses, and other annoyances with responsiveness were absent from my experience with Bastion. My personal laptop, not a behemoth of a gaming rig at all, ran the whole experience flawlessly and without any sort of stutter or freezing. Bastion’s controls are fluid, quick, and decisive. The Kid does exactly what you tell him to and for that reason Bastion receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.

The Kid could roll, dodge, shoot, talk, run, and whack like no other. Supergiant Games presented a very functional set of controls with everything included in set buttons and nothing relegated to a hefty interface. Too often the gaming industry is presented with games that are so complex they require a hefty amount of hotkeys and manual restructuring to be playable. Bastion has the luxury of being simple enough in its design not to merit that. In functionality, Bastion receives a perfect 100/100 score.

Bastion - Springtime In Ura Territory Banner
The Kid plots revenge against the Ura for personal greivances or justice for all that died in the Calamity. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
Artistic Proficiency: 77/100

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: 68.44/100

Bastion - The Wild
Anklegators burrow and strike beneath the floating islands of the Wild. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
  • Agency Score: 77/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 67/100
  • Variety Score: 50/100

Bastion doesn’t give the player very many valuable choices within its core gameplay loop which is disappointing when confronted by the massive value of the narrative choices you are allowed. The weapons, upgrades, and building choices in Bastion have a way of compounding like interest so that most players will make an early choice and never experiment beyond it until they are forced to, a frustration I’ll detail in the variety section of this analysis. Bastion’s narrative choices, while important and impactful to the player, aren’t the bread and butter of its game design, don’t drastically change the player’s experience of the narrative, and fail to weave into the gameplay. These mistakes leave Bastion only a bit of value above the average with an agency score of 77/100.

The core gameplay loop of Bastion goes about like this: enter level, fight monsters with your current equipment until a new piece of equipment is offered to you, accept new equipment, regret your decision, swap back to the leveled up equipment you were already using at the first possible chance, maybe learn a new fighting mechanic against a new enemy, proceed along a linear path until the level is finished, return to the Bastion, upgrade and ponder, repeat. This is, as it stands, a stale, boring, and mundane gameplay loop. MMORPGs and multiplayer experiences like the Diablo series use this sort of design because there’s an inherently dynamic and interesting social aspect to their games that lets them get away with it. Perhaps that social aspect is what the narrator of Bastion was attempting to mimic, but, at least for me, it didn’t suffice. Even the collectible items scattered throughout Bastion’s world are inconsequential because you can retrieve them from a building in the town, making exploration pointless. I assume that the retrieval feature was added in to avoid annoying players, like myself, who missed a collectible because they traveled the wrong path when the story barred the way back. That being said, the gameplay is engaging and challenging, and the new world-building information you receive from the collectibles is rewarding. Rewarding enough to warrant a 67/100 as Bastion’s core gameplay loop score.

Variety has a lot of meanings. To score variety, the depth of each experience is considered and the mechanical difference between each experience is considered as well. In this sense, Bastion doesn’t provide much in the way of variety. What changes it does have to its formula are small… inconsequential even, and the side missions seldom rely on anything besides persistence and reflexes. That’s all not to mention the fact that Bastion feels like a truncated experience, shorter than its base material merited. 50/100 is the score Bastion receives in the Variety category.

Overall Story Score: 86.33/100

Bastion - I Dig My Hole
The Kid en route to meet another survivor of the Calamity. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Bastion page)
  • Characters Score: 86/100
  • Plot Score: 88/100
  • Coherency Score: 85/100

The characters of Bastion, except the central character, feel like fully realized people despite the far too short period of time the player gets to know them. In fact, the short time in which characterization is allowed to happen is the largest issue with Bastion’s characters. Holding their own grudges, ambitions, desires, pains, and personal connections, they all impact the story in a meaningful and morally ambiguous way. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, not much can be said about the individual characters but suffice it to say that issues as pertinent to the modern day as racial injustice, suicide, grief, bullying, and society are all confronted personally inside each character. That along with memorable character design and interesting albeit incomplete voice acting leaves Bastion with a character score of 86/100.

Bastion’s plot unfolds in a painfully slow and methodical way as the narrator dodges questions, avoiding telling the whole story, and leaves the player in the dark. The farther the player gets in the narrative of Bastion, the more the narrator reveals and the greater the player’s understanding of his motives and their current position becomes. By the end of Bastion, allegories have been made between big real world issues and the fantasy trappings of its world in an impactful, important, and meaningful way. Unlike a novel or film, which are too frequently brought to an authoritative conclusion without the input of the consumer, the player of Bastion is allowed to decide from right and wrong in a cohesive and logical manner. That uniquely settled ambiguity is the power of Bastion’s plot and why it receives the score of 88/100 in the plot category.

For me, Bastion never came together as a brilliant, cohesive product. Its gameplay was too aged and drab, its plot was drip fed to the player over far too long a time, and its climax didn’t seem as impactful as it should have. That being said it’s plot and characters worked to a wonderful harmony, diverting familiar video game tropes and giving the player a reason to continue beyond the joy of the game. In the first few hours, I didn’t like Bastion, but by the conclusion of its eight hour storyline I felt accomplished and more knowledgeable than I began. That’s why Bastion’s coherency score is an 85/100.


FINAL VERDICT

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

Above the surface, Bastion is a run of the mill hack and slash RPG with an odd amount of buzz surrounding it. Below the surface, Bastion is a beehive full of sweet and nonperishable  commentary on nigh unsolvable problems still present in the modern day. What Bastion lacks in interesting and innovative gameplay it makes up for with intriguing storytelling, deep characters, and personal purpose. It’s my hope that Supergiant Games’ future endeavors, such as Transistor, pay more attention to gameplay design without sparing the critical and artistic attention they give to everything else. At the Steam Sale price of $4, Bastion more than deserved its share of my gaming budget. If you are at all interested in smooth talking narrators, philosophical ethics, fast paced gameplay that isn’t too difficult, and interesting and memorable music, Bastion is the right game for you. The Bastion is where everyone agreed to meet, and the Kid is heading there now.


81/100 – Wonderful!