I had a lot of good finds this time, so let’s get the crappy games out of the way first!
Inside: Amphora, Lumini, ecotone
Amphora was a mind-numbing point-and-click with one type of puzzle you do over and over, and the only difficulty comes from the absolutely infuriating timing elements. It has to be one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever played. The only thing it had going for it was, shocker, its art gimmick, which was a shadowbox-style thing that was never really used in any interesting way. There was no narration, barely a story, barely music, barely any gameplay, and once more: if you want to make a pretty picture, make a pretty picture, don’t turn it into a damned video game for no reason. It wasn’t even trying to tell an interesting story, it was some asinine trite romance where a woman attempts suicide when her husband dies, because being single: the worst thing that can happen to women. I paid $3.50 for it and that was highway robbery. This thing retails for $14. FOURTEEN. It was two hours! And only then because of the fucking timing elements being such a nightmare! This was like a forty-five minute game if you could get everything on your first try. FOURTEEN. DOLLARS. This was everything I hate about indie games condensed into one nightmare.
Also, people who don’t know how to tell stories need to stop trying to do it without words. There’s nothing 3deep5me about no words. We have words for a reason. Use them.
Lumini is a more mediocre kind of bad. It’s a game that dares to ask the question: What if Pikmin were really, really monotonous?
Lumini has some nice elements — the visuals are evocative, the story was told with mild competency — but it, once again, fails as a game. The entire game consists of moving to the right through tunnels and sometimes opening doors. The door puzzles start simple and stay simple, even as you power up your Pikmin-sperm. After you upgrade the red ones twice, you can 1HKO any enemy, and the puzzles are never more complex than pushing buttons and twisting valves. At the end, sometimes you have to push a few buttons in a row; this is the game’s idea of a challenge. The ‘secrets’ are all hidden in plain sight, and in some cases it’s not even clear what certain pickups do — what was the point of collecting those crystals? of the green orbs? I also found the lack of control explanation really annoying. Again, not explaining the game to me isn’t clever, it’s just bad game design. The most irritating was that I only realized halfway through that the upgrade orbs weren’t set — that is, if you switched your active color Pikmin-sperm, the cube color would change. I passed a bunch of them because they were all red and it was only when I started to wonder when I’d run into the other color upgrades and started fooling around with the controls that I realized it was based on your active color.
Relatedly, I thought the game used its own mechanics poorly. You could split your Pikmin-sperm into two teams, one controlled by WASD and one the arrow keys. But the only way the game could come up with to utilize this was to have you press two switches at once. And it wasn’t even like, you had to guide the two groups through two separate mazes or anything — the switches were always right next to each other. There is so much cool stuff that you could do with that mechanic, and they opted to do next to nothing. I actually get the sense that the dev couldn’t decide if it wanted an ABZU-style experiential thing — which, frankly, could have worked here — or a puzzle game, and so kind of ended up settling for neither, the worst of both worlds.
Also, while I found the story cute, it really doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Why did the Chozo-thing die so far away from their home base? Why not bring the lumini directly to the central one instead of forcing them to make this absurd journey there? Why not forgo the lumini and have the save-the-planet system self-activate? What kind of culture can create an elaborate system to revitalize their entire planet but can’t just fix a drought directly? Why did they wait until they were all almost dead to set the lumini into motion anyway?
Ultimately, this was just a game that promised a lot more than it delivered, and felt like it lacked the confidence to go all-in on any of its aspects.
My god I hated this game. Almost disproportionately? Like it was definitely head-bangingly unfun to the max, but it made me so much angrier than even that. Maybe because it was just so stupid on top of it.
Ecotone was the most emo game I’ve ever played. Each level is prefaced by a whiny line about how put upon the PC is and how badly they want to shrivel up like dust in the wind while someone plays a song on a tiny violin. The worst part, though, is that the game tried to make the story snippets correspond to the structure of the level, and as a result they don’t make any sense as a whole, and so there’s basically no story, just a dude running around being emo and the game clearly thinks it’s being incredibly Deep. Mr. Act and I just sat there reading all the lines and laughing at how melodramatic they were, which I presume was not the intent.
The gameplay is awful. It’s the worst kind of platformer, with discrete, unforgiving timing mechanisms, vague indicators of what to do next, and no checkpoints. I should not be looking up how to beat the third level because the instructions are so unclear and the level design so bad. Basically every level was spent getting halfway through, dying, and then doing the first part over and over and over as I got a little further and died anew every time. This is why we have checkpoints. The last level was the absolute worst about this; it was a long, high-speed timing nightmare with no checkpoints, so each time I would get to a new area and die by the poorly-indicated obstacle I hadn’t seen before, I would need to start over the from the beginning, no matter how far a long I was, and this included a long section that required no input from the player. I probably spent a half an hour literally watching the game play itself because it didn’t bother to put in a fucking checkpoint.
Smallyoungerbrother, watching over my shoulder, also made a very good point: one of the reasons the game was so frustrating was that there was no build. Each level introduced completely new mechanics that had nothing to do with anything that came before or after. Instead of saying, “We want a platformer where the central mechanic is X,” the game said, “We want a platformer that uses every mechanic we can possibly come up with all at once and then you never see them again.” This is just bad game design, straight up. Gameplay should have a central thesis that it slowly but surely builds on, whether it’s a portal gun or Mario jumping on baddies’ heads. You can’t just keep throwing random shit at players and expect the game to feel like a cohesive whole, because it’s not. Part of a game being properly challenging involved giving you the tools and training you need to overcome it. New mechanics should be introduced after old ones are properly taught, and even then the new ones should follow logically from the old. Ecotone gave no fucks about that and was a nightmare to play as a result.
This game was basically the opposite of Talewind.