Tagged: Indie

Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love Review

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I’m conflicted. I can see the intense passion and creative drive that two-person developer Doppler Interactive put into Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love, and the simple, colorful exploration adventure initially relaxed me in a way I’d describe as “therapeutic.” But then several hours had gone by, and I didn’t feel like I had accomplished anything. Of course, accomplishment isn’t a prerequisite to enjoyment, but this game gave me a headache, and now I think I need a nap.

Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love follows a small, sponge-like cube who has been imparted with the wisdom of an older, larger cube to “fill your heart with joy” and to make the world a more colorful place. With that brief imperative, I was free to begin exploring the large, spherical and grey world as I soaked up color from various objects and spread it across the ground. As I spread my color and encountered other cubes, they gave me hints on where to find new abilities. One block described how his journey in a certain direction filled him with “passion”. Intrigued, I ventured off in this direction, and was rewarded with the ability to spread my passion across the ground, which changes the mood of various creatures and erupts structures from below. Spreading one’s passion on the ground sounds kind of gross!

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As I continued gaining abilities, little trinkets, coins and histories of previous creatures began erupting from the ground. I’m still not sure if they actually do anything besides completing a requirement to collect them, but each coin and trinket came with a cryptic note about the respective item, while the histories were written in code. I have no idea how I was supposed to break the code, and the game didn’t really seem to care if I did or not. Thankfully, I don’t.

The problem with Cube & Star is that it has any underlying goals for the player at all. They add absolutely no enjoyment to the experience, outside of the initial (and false) expectation that the items I was gathering served any real purpose. Had the game simply dropped me on the planet and given me the advice to leave the world a more colorful place than I found it, I would have been more likely to just sit back and enjoy my time transforming the grey sphere into a land of wonder and passion and joy and logic and every other attribute that the game includes. But it didn’t. It attempts to be deeper than it actually is, right down to the indecipherable nonsense spouting from the other blocks. I can see the talent in Doppler Interactive, but Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love really should have had some of the fat trimmed away. “Arbitrary,” indeed.

C-Minus

 

 

 

Guacamelee Review

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Immediately upon finishing Guacamelee, I turned my Vita off and packed it away with all the other game systems I rarely use. It wasn’t that I’d hated the game, or been embarrassed by how much time I’d wasted on it; in fact, I was ready to dive back in as soon as the credits stopped rolling! No, the truth of the matter is, I’d been so overwhelmingly impressed with the game – a game I knew next to nothing about only a few days before it launched – that I wasn’t sure my initial feelings would hold up once I sat down to write about it. So, for a week, I thought long and hard about the game, and tried to determine objectively whether it was really as good as it seemed.

More than a week later, I’m still thinking about Guacamelee. About its enigmatic opening moments. About Chivo, the sassy man-goat-wizard that threatened to go out with my mom every time I committed one of gaming’s oldest, most accepted sins (smashing stuff!). About the citizens of Pueblucho and Santa Luchita, who reminded me of my funny in-laws, and about the game’s rural guitar medleys and upbeat trumpet anthems that transformed into dusty funeral dirges whenever I swapped dimensions between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But mostly, I haven’t stopped thinking about the experience of playing Guacamelee, which is such a dead ringer for my all-time favorite game, Super Metroid, that I relished every single moment it allowed me to indulge what I’m now convinced is my most long-repressed fantasy: pursuing supernatural justice as an undead luchador. Thanks, DrinkBox!

08

As I’ve mentioned at least a few times this week, I’m of the opinion that Super Metroid is the greatest game ever made. And that’s not because I’m a Nintendo fanboy, nor because I’m blind to the many advances in game design that have developed over the past two decades. No, what makes Super Metroid so great is that it was the first game to strike a perfect balance between prescribed narrative and open exploration. In doing so, it paved the way for three generations of games that gave players the tools to tell their own stories. Grand Theft Auto III, Skyrim, Minecraft – none of these would exist without Super Metroid. It was both the pinnacle of 2D game design, and the precursor to everything that has come since.

Guacamelee takes everything great about Super Metroid, updates it with current production values, then sucks out all of the dreadful pretention to Hollywood that has come to define modern game design. The result is a superb, open-ended adventure wrapped in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek celebration of gaming for gaming’s sake. On the surface, this means the game is crammed with little references to developer DrinkBox Studios’ many influences – references like Metroid’s Chozo statues, and Zelda’s chickens, and Minecraft’s pickaxes. On a deeper level, DrinkBox isn’t afraid to poke fun at players and the games they grew up loving, because it’s a love the developer clearly shares. Yes, there’s a silly narrative about a guy with a mustache rescuing a princess from an evil so-and-so with nefarious plans for something or other, and a fun cast of supporting characters to propel it all forward, but the entirety of the game’s delightful presentation would amount to nothing if the underlying gameplay wasn’t up to snuff. Luckily, DrinkBox knows how to make a good game. And with Guacamelee, they’ve made not only the best game available for PS3 or Vita, but quite possibly the best game ever released on a PlayStation platform.

03

As farmer-turned-luchador Juan Aguacate, players are dropped into a vast, interconnected set of forests, caverns, mountains, and ruined temples, free to wander in search of hidden power-ups and enemies to wallop with the game’s highly versatile combo system. As you tread new ground, the map automatically fills in to reflect the places you’ve been, while still-dark areas tease tantalizing secrets you’ve yet to uncover. Exploration is tied organically to the abilities you discover as you maneuver the game’s various environments; for instance, you won’t be able to break through red blocks until you’ve unlocked the Rooster Uppercut. Some abilities and upgrades can be purchased with coins earned by defeating the various undead pistoleros, giant skeletons, midget demons and flying chupacabras you’ll encounter on your travels, but many others are tied to specific story beats or side quests, meaning you’ll have to be fully engaged with the game’s narrative and quirky cast of characters if you want to unlock Juan’s full potential.

While it’s totally worth taking the time to see everything Guacamelee has to offer, some of Juan’s abilities are optional, and if you’re clever enough to figure out how to get by without them (and willing to ignore most of what gives the game its color), you can access parts of the map much earlier than the narrative dictates. This so-called “sequence-breaking,” where players exploit weaknesses in a game’s programming to bypass huge chunks of gameplay, is the foundation upon which the speedrunning subculture of gaming was born, and though games aren’t typically programmed with speedrunners in mind, many modern developers will deliberately leave such exploits in a game’s final code as a way to extend replay value. The presence of an online leaderboard that tracks completion time and item collection percentage is pretty strong evidence Guacamelee caters to speedrunners, but for those hardcore players who aren’t convinced, there’s also this:

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There’s so much more to say about this game, but I’ve carried on quite enough already. Maybe the game flew under your radar because of an exceptionally strong first quarter of releases for 2013; maybe you forgot about it with all the hubbub surrounding the PlayStation 4. And maybe, like me, you had no idea the game even existed until recently. None of that matters. If you love video games, you simply cannot ignore Guacamelee. It just might be the best game you’ll ever play.

A-Plus