Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mistaken Expections: The new Kingdom Under Fire Demo

I keep trying the Kingdom Under Fire series. And for one reason or another I just can't get very excited about it. The first two games in this series were action-adventure RTS games that I found unsatisfying because the core 1:1 (or many) combat just never felt pleasing and the group/tactical controls were too cumbersome for me to ever feel like I could coordinate a large scale battle in smart/strategic ways.

The newest iteration, KUF: Circle of Doom, is more of a single player experience. I didn't realize this at first, but was pleasantly intrigued by this development. The character selection (between various archetypes) made me think a bit of Otogi 2 and got me kind of excited to get going.

Unfortunately these expectations really set me up for disappointment. I was expecting a much more viscerally exciting experience where character movement and combat felt fluid and powerful. Instead I was restricted to wander narrow paths (with occasional openings for combat encounters) and combat felt very stat driven, much like WoW or other more rule based action RPGs, and less like God of War.

As an RPG, the demo didn't really do much to get me into the story at all -- which meant that for me to be interested in playing further the core exploration/puzzle solving/combat/upgrade tree needed to be engaging. Because there was no exploration or puzzle solving to speak of, I'll deal with the combat and upgrade tree in addition to general initial experience feedback.

The game began with a short and quirky movie that featured a busty woman and not much else. It didn't really make sense to me at all.

Then I was dropped into tutorial mode. Unfortunately this erred more towards power point presentation than a true learn-as-you-play mode. Concepts were introduced and you were required to practice executing various commands -- but the structure was context-less and there was no real distribution and layering of learning. In other words several bullet points were presented and the player was required to remember these points so they could be recalled later on.

There are many problems with this approach:

  • It's boring.
  • Lack of concrete examples and feedback mean that players are less likely to deeply process, understand, and consequently remember what they were taught.
  • Packing in multiple points in a short time virtually guarantees that the player will only learn some of the points -- most likely the first and last concepts that were introduced.
  • Not layering on concepts from basic and concrete (like "jump" or "attack") to more advanced and abstract (like "double jump" or "counter attack by timing the strike exactly right") means that players are less likely to discover, remember, and then use the advanced techniques where appropriate because they will have forgotten them by the time they are required (e.g., to beat an advanced enemy or to clear a novel puzzle).
Other problems with the tutorial:
  • It fails the user in a few places because "the voice" (in this case, "the text") refers to abstract concepts when the player needs explicit instructions. For instance, it tells the player to "equip a ranged item" without telling the player how to figure out whether an item is ranged or not. This problem was exacerbated by several problems with the UI that I detail below.
  • It locks out some functionality which erroneously taught me to ignore certain buttons. The game started out with non-inverted camera. I quickly tried to use the "start" button to access options, but nothing happened. I figured that there was no way to fix this short of restarting the game (in effect, resetting the game from the dash because there was no "return to main menu" option). I suffered with this problem for quite a while before I hit the "start" button again by mistake and then was given a start menu that wasn't previously available. Whoops!
  • Related to the previous point: After the tutorial ended -- and without telling me -- the game unlocked various additional abilities and rearranged the items and abilities I had selected during the tutorial. This was disorienting and confusing at first.
I have to believe that many of these shortcuts were made because this was a demo version of the game and the developers wanted players to jump into the meat of things right away instead of layering things on over the first 20 minutes or so. This highlights the difficulty of creating an experience that will throw new players into the middle of the game (where the cool powers and HFF moments are) that is both accessible and entertaining without being overwhelming.

Combat started off fast and frenetic where I was able to mash buttons and generally feel powerful. I also enjoyed how music was used to let the player know when combat had ended (and the mop up was complete) -- something that was hard to tell visually some times because enemies often ended up off-screen.

However fighting became much less fun as the game progressed for a variety of reasons:
  • Why do treasure drops clutter the screen? Each time I walk over a drop I get a context sensitive button text message telling me to press the "Y" button right in the middle of the screen.
  • Combat doesn't feel that strategic. Yes, there are different attacks with variable recharging and SP costs. But I can't target my attacks well (when there are mixed forces attacking me and I want to single out a boss) and I don't feel like I have great control of my special attacks -- nor do they feel very powerful. I know that there is depth of choice and customization (see my notes below) but I just don't feel like I'm required to do much more than mash buttons.
  • The analog nature of my special attacks works against me. I generally mash buttons for quick attacks. However, special attacks don't seem to activate on a light, rapid press. Instead, this seems to drain the recharge meter without ANY effect, which is an unfair penalty. Light button presses should either give me a weak version of the special attack or give me some sort of grace period whereby releasing early simply fizzles the attack without draining the recharge meter (or, if truly needed for balance purposes, freezes the meter for a few seconds instead of emptying it).
  • The creature mix felt very repetitive. Basically it felt like I fought the same creature mix 4-5 times in a row, got a new creature mix, lather, rinse, repeat. I realize that this happens all the time in other games -- but it felt especially repetitive in this game, possibly because the environment was relatively static which meant that each battle felt exactly the same.
The upgrade tree seemed to be deep and offer lots of choices. The economy seemed to be relatively robust in terms of character stats, abilities, weapons, armor, items, and enhancements. There also appeared to be a fairly robust system of synthesizing found objects into new components. However, this system suffered because it seemed relatively impenetrable:
    • The UI doesn't help (I've discussed the hard to read icons and text above).
    • There isn't enough help text or game fiction to explain the economy (how I trade and combine items to get new and more powerful/customized items). My first experience of these features was after bumping into an Idol who offered to trade, store, or synthesize items without really going into why I would want to do these things.
On to the User Interface. There's lots of detail and information presented on the main inventory and status screens. However, the information is presented in ways that make it hard for users to achieve their goals efficiently and effectively.
  • Icons are way too small to be readable. I play on my projector where the image is over 80" in diagonal. Yet I still can't tell at a glance which weapons are faster/slower; which ones are ranged/melee; which ones have cool special powers; etc.
  • Currently unequipped items are needlessly buried behind extra layers of UI. I initially was unable to find items I was told to equip because there was no way to tell that I had any additional items in my inventory bag. I needed to select things I had already equipped in order to get a list of alternative items that I could possibly equip.
  • Text is hard to read because:
    • At times there is too much of it on the screen and I'm not sure where to focus.
    • Text often scrolls automatically when there is more text than can fit in a window. While I can speed up the scrolling, I can't ever pause it.
I guess the introduction to the game and choice of camera and controls left me expecting something more like Otogi 2 with its over the top, fantastical and varied combat. I wanted the game to be less "spreadsheety" (e.g., hide things like SP and recharge rates under the hood) and more action adventure-like in nature.

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