Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Day 25: Gum Drop Celestial Frontier, Chrono Trigger (DS)

Well, it's day #25 and progress has been slow, slow, slow. I doubt I'll get to 31 in 31, but I do have some down time over the next few days so I might be able to catch up a bit.

First up: Gum Drop Celestial Frontier. I'd been watching some posts from the developer and am glad he finally got it up on the Xbox Indie Game market place. I downloaded the trial version and played for about 30 minutes.

One note: Similar to my feedback on Kodu, the Indie Game platform stacks the deck against a great user experience. Trial versions seem to have a maximum time length you can play before having to reset to the XBLA menu which is really annoying. Being able to sort by "top download" and "top rated" seems great, but they don't answer the really important questions: What's the "top purchased game?" and "top rated by people who actually bought the game?" Yes, the ones with "Zombie" in the title are going to be downloaded over and over and over again (as are ones with low rez images of cute girls). But are they great games? Do people end up buying them? Moreover, why do I care about ratings from people who haven't bothered to purchase the game? Even if the system could solicit ratings only from those folks who played the demo for 5-10 minutes it might provide more useful data to me.

Back to Gum Drop. I like the idea of the game and the core mechanic intrigued me because I've been playing a bunch of more physics based games lately (N+, Trials HD). I was curious to find out how replacing shooting with smashing was going to play out -- would it be kind of like Robotron meets N+?

As an indie game, it felt polished. The main menu attract mode was pleasing, and getting into a game was easy to do because the top menu option always advanced the player to the next menu and was always selected by default. Menus also had useful persistent help text.

As an aside, it might have been nice to have a representative screenshot and recent stats for levels that have already been completed on the mission select screen.

The initial experience, itself, was a little lacking. There's actually a lot going on with this game and it was hard to grok in terms of terminology (what does it mean to "Recall S.M.A.S.H."?) and basic game play (see comments below).
  • Billboard hints were too abstract to follow, were disassocated with controls (how do I "Grab"? "Grabbing" isn't listed in the controller scheme layout), and contained too many concepts to learn at once.
  • Moving and aiming were more confusing than they needed to be. Left stick moved the ship, right stick "pointed" the ship. What would have made more sense would be to have left stick move ship (and the ship always turns to face the direction it moves in) and right stick "aim turret" by controlling an independent turret.
  • Game feedback (visuals, audio, screen shake, and controller vibration) requires additional work. Screenshake was mostly satisfying when I took an enemy down. Bigger enemies could probably have had a longer hitpause/freeze. Vibration was kind of a let down. Mostly I noticed it when I took a big hit, but this kind of feedback is also needed when I make strong vs. weak contact against an enemy ship. Sound design is tough to do well in a game like this, but it really is essential. For instance, I should be able to tell which power up I'm using, whether my Base or my Ship is taking damage, and which enemy type has spawned in/died by sound alone. Visuals were generally pleasant, but it was hard to distinguish different ammo types from the enemies and I couldn't tell at a glance whether my ship, my base, or enemy ships were at full health, partial health, or about to die. It also would have been cooler for "healing" to have a more obvious sound and visual effect (with occasional vibration pulses) as opposed to an onscreen text tip.
  • Powerups seemed cool after I played with them for a while, but because they didn't provide clear and obvious sound and visual FX they didn't feel as exciting as they could be. It might be worth thinking about having fewer of them available, but having each one be way cooler sounding and looking (and behaving).
  • After almost an hour of game play, I was still unsure what the Left Trigger (Recall S.M.A.S.H.) did. After focussing on it for about 5 minutes, I think what it does is recall your starting wrecking ball in case you have released it (via the B button). It does NOT reattach them to your ship, but just moves them on screen and you can re-grapple them if you want to. The problem here is two-fold. First, nothing in the game play has really taught me the need to release objects that I'm already grappled on to. Second, I don't receive any feedback when I tap and then hold the Left Trigger so I'm left to wonder what it really does. Perhaps if there were a "retrieval" noise that increased as the wrecking balls got closer, it would help. It might also be nice to have some sort of pulse or ship animation activity that let me know that my ship was trying to retrieve the wrecking balls while I held the Left Trigger down.
After an hour of play, the game ended up being kind of fun as a time waster game. It didn't seem to have the strategic depth of other competitor shooters like Geometry Wars and it didn't have the visceral fun of other physics games like N+. What I'd really like to see is some refinement to the core controls and feedback -- and then I'd like to see the game figure out how to hit either the strategic fun bar (by layering on puzzles and challenges that ramp up) or the physics fun bar (by allowing the player to trigger crazy and fun chain reactions and have both enemy destruction and player failure be entertaining).

Next up: Chrono Trigger for the DS.

I don't think I'm going to count Chrono Trigger (DS) as one of my 31 reviews. I just didn't get far enough into the game in order to feel like I didn't just cop out.

Why did I quit so early? Well, I died during my first real combat encounter and there was no recent save/resume point. Yep. I had been playing for about 30 minutes, had entered custom names for various characters, had explored parts of the map, performed minor quests.

And then I lost everything and had to start all over because I lost an early combat encounter. No "continue" or "load last saved" option. Just reset to main menu where my only option was to start a "new game".

Life is, sadly, too short for this kind of experience. This kind of experience violates my sense of trust in the game that it will reward me for progressing and NOT penalize me unduly when I fail.

Usability quibbles:
  • Too many early billboards and out-of-context instructions. It's nice to have an in-game manual that you can visit whenever you want. However, it doesn't make much sense to have to make me read a bunch of information about systems that I won't be using for a while. It's boring and I forget things before I need to use them.
  • No clear indication of which response (yes or no) will provide me with MORE information or will allow me to exit a dialog tree quickly. Sometimes I was asked "would you like to know more?" and sometimes I was asked "would you like to learn more later?" Inevitably I would click the wrong response because I always assumed "saying yes" means "teach me more". A couple of ways around this: (a) be consistent and always have the "yes" option (or the "no" option) provide more detailed information; or (b) like Mass Effect, design the dialog tree so that it's clear which responses are for optional information and which ones are likely to cut the conversation short and focus only on the task at hand.
  • The real-time combat system did not provide enough feedback for me to figure out how it worked. I felt like I should have been doing turn-based combat (there was an option to do so) because there was no way for me to tell whether I was being ineffective/inefficient or whether the combat difficulty for the first couple of encounters was tweaked way too high.
As I mentioned above, I didn't get very far with the game. I may try it again during some down time, but I'll probably return it soon in order to keep plowing through my Gamefly Q.


Dzamir said...

I had the same experience with Chrono Trigger: after 30 minutes of boring intro, I died... and I throwed the DS! :-D

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