Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Knytt Underground

                I usually do not play indie games all that often. I don’t have anything against them particularly, but I rarely find them worth playing for more than a few minutes, let alone sinking hours of my time into them. I’ve made exceptions, here and there – Fez, Rouge Legacy and This War of Mine to name a few, and Knytt Underground joins their ranks.
                Knytt Underground is a 2D open world platforming game, and the fourth game in the Knytt series (though it is the second full game) It follows a mute sprite (aka Human) called Mi, who is destined to ring 6 bells to prevent the end of the world. Tagging along with her are two fairies called Dora and Cillia – the former a cheerful sun fairy, the latter a bitter and sarcastic moon fairy. Mi can also turn into a ball named Bob after an accident combined the two (not that this is ever mentioned in game).
                The game’s story is split into three chapters and an interval, although there are some bonus stories scattered around. The above synopsis is actually only the story of the third, longest chapter, whilst the first two are introductions to the characters and the games controls and platforming challenges. In all honesty, the first two chapters aren’t particularly relevant beyond the tutorial, as they do very little to actually build the world or characters beyond their basic personalities.
                The gameplay is a twist on basic platforming. You can run and jump, as expected, but you can also climb objects and use your height and surroundings to gain more height, or clear more distance, by transforming into a ball. You can also get a variety of temporary upgrades that will boost jumping or help against enemies, though these can only be used once. This all makes for a surprisingly interesting puzzle-platformer as you spend time working out the correct path to get into new areas, or find new ways of getting into older ones.
                These mechanics are also combined with some basic enemies, block puzzles and death traps to create gradually harder puzzles, which usually hide rewards and items necessary to enter new areas. Since Mi can only survive one hit, you have to carefully make your way through these rooms and plan your strategy accordingly, especially if a fall will result in a lot of backtracking.
                Thankfully, the game is often rather lenient on checkpoints, often restarting you in the last safe place you were standing, and usually on the same screen where you died. This isn’t always a bonus, as it also resets enemies and puzzles, so one false move can lead to having to redo a difficult puzzle, causing some frustration.
                There are also bonus areas where this check point system is removed, which are incredibly frustrating as you will fail every time you enter a new room, only to be thrown back to the beginning of the gauntlet. These rooms test not only your platforming skills, but also your patience.
                For the most part, though, the game is never particularly challenging if you’re just playing through the main story. It is only whilst hunting the hidden items and paths that the game becomes difficult, and it’s very possible that you’ll never see most of those. In fact, I routinely walked past a great many hidden areas and items during my play through, and resorted to using a guide to working out what to do for a lot of the bonus areas.
                A big problem with Knytt is that it is a game where you will struggle to find a lot of the content unless you’re looking for it and have help.   This is especially true of the games trophies, which are all very cryptic at best, with a great many hidden from view. Almost all of the games bonus areas require more exploration and time to find than most people would be willing to give, or even have, and some are downright diabolical in nature (although it will never be as aggravating as Fez was).
                The games graphics are a mixed bag. The environments of the game are often very minimalist but incredibly beautiful, with a lot of the art assets being actual real-world objects combined with lighting effects or photo manipulation. The results are incredibly pleasing to the eye. The character art, on the other hand, is very lacklustre. All the character have unnaturally large, dead eyes, and all the graphics are poorly drawn. I understand this is an indie game, but the art looks atrocious at times.
                The games sound and music, on the other hand, more than make up for it. With the exception of the repetitive footsteps, the games sound and music is almost on par with that of major studio releases, and even better than some major titles (such as Assassin’s Creed). The lack of any voice acting, whilst mostly a practical choice (actors are expensive) lends to the games SNES era charm, and actually helps the game.
                Speaking of which, the games character writing is actually incredibly high. I had very little faith in the writers ability after the first two chapters (where dialogue is serviceable), but the quality in the third chapter took me by surprise. The main characters are actually quite well layered and likable, with Mi coming up slightly short in this regard (due to her inability to talk). Whilst a lot of the dialogue is hidden behind certain prerequisites, it is well worth hunting out a lot of it, as the game touches upon matters of religion, race, sexuality and equality, to mention a few. There are moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite match the overall tone (seeing exceptionally cartoony characters harshly swear is a little jarring), but the overall quality is very high. There are even moments where the game flat out addresses the games issues (such as the story and some character moments), and even mocks tropes that are overused in the industry.
                There is one last thing I would like to address and that is the games occasionally odd mechanics. Whilst the platforming works well enough most of the time, there were plenty of times where the controls seemed either unresponsive, over-responsive or flat out confused. Trying to jump from one wall to another, for example, does not require the jump button. Instead you push diagonally in the direction you want to go (so up/ right or up/left). Except, occasionally, just pushing left or right will make you jump. Over times it’ll make you fall. And the down button just makes you drop, unless you press down on the d-pad where you drop slightly rather than just let go. It’s all a little odd and inconsistent.
                There were also several occasions where the games collision detection glitches. There were several moments where I would entire a tunnel, only to find that I was caught in the ceiling or floor, and could not continue unless I progressed as the ball in a tunnel designed for Mi to walk through. There were times where I would land on a slope and be unable to move up the slope, only down, or I just got stuck and couldn’t move at all. This was fine in general exploration, but in sections where precision platforming is required and the game glitches preventing that precision, and a death sends you back through an insanely hard obstacle course, then this becomes a large problem.
                But, overall, I actually really enjoyed Knytt. It was a charming and interesting game, and the platforming was incredibly fun, and there was a real sense of achievement when I succeeded at something. The games writing and sense of humour made it a truly charming experience. However, I would say that, after seeing everything in the game, I would not go back.   

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Sketches 20th February - 26th February

          This week was about gradually getting over the animation loss of the week previous, and getting back to actually doing some work. Well, that was the idea, anyway. What actually happened was me becoming incredibly frustrated by Assassin's Creed and pushing through the game to see if it was worth it (spoiler alert: It wasn't). So here, have my sketches for the week. 

February 20th pt 1: Intial sketches of the elf warrior idea that was from the previous thursday. There were two inital ideas - the rectangular armour and the diamond armour. I also did a couple of sketches of trying to work out how the gauntlet would appear on the arm.

 February 20th pt2: Refined designs. I went with the diamond armour design, and spent most of these sketches working ut how it would conform to the shape of the body. I also went through a couple of pauldron (shoulder pad) designs. I still need to work out how these work in 3 dimensions.

 February 21st -Working out poses and facial expressions. Some how my face drawing skills temporarily left me with that left most image. Theres also a much stockier design here.

February 22nd: Monster designs. Trying to design more animal-like creatures, rather than my usual humnaoid monstorities... I still drew one of those anyway.

 February 23rd: Height chart of my current fantasy character roster. Notice how there is a tiatl of one mae character who isn't completely designed. I also gave up on the legs. There's a lot here that could be worked on, mostly legs and posing. Also, You can see that I've opted ot use the stockier version of the diamond armoured elf.

 February 24th: I wanted to draw a set of characters in a natural postion, ad decided on drawing some friends playing games. I really need to work on my sitting poses, especially cross-legged poses. A part of this was also trying to draw several characters with different facial shapes and features. Whilst I got the features right, I need to put more effort into altering facial shape and structure. 

February 25th pt1: Some photoshop drawing. Guide drawings of the heart-knight so I could practise colouring. 

February 25th pt2:  Colour practise. I really need to learn that it is acceptable to go to dartker shades when painting, and that I can increase highlights. I never finished this as I had to go to a job-hunting thing, and was definitely not in the mood to continue when I got home. 

 February 26th pt1: Face practise, especially focusing on angles. I struggle with drawing heads angled up, so I spent a lot of time working on that pose. Still not happy with this.

February 26th pt2 - pose practise for action shots. Not much to say about this, but there was one guy dressed as scarlet spider, whcih was kinda cool.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Assassin’s Creed

               Assassin’s Creed is one of the most popular videogame franchise currently on the market. With eight core entries in the series, as well as another coming this year, and about as many spin offs, novels and a movie in production, it is almost impossible to ignore. Hell, it was hard to ignore upon its initial release, with the first game being hyped up to be the greatest open world game in history where you can climb everything in sight and stealthily assassinate your targets however you chose, all combined in a thrilling, emotional storyline that weaved between past and present.
                I brought this game from a friend about five years ago for about £4, as he wanted to get rid of his least liked games (I also got the Turok remake from him as well). Eagerly, I went home to play it, ignoring the school work I was supposed to do. I turned it off after an hour. My experience in that hour made me never want to touch the game again. I played it again, a few years later when my brother tried to get me into the series. I made it further that time, but still not all that far. I only played it to completion this week as a way of procrastinating from animating, lest I suffer another heartbreak of losing footage.
                This was to be the wrong choice.
                Assassin’s Creed is a 2007 game from Ubisoft, and follows the assassin Altair (Philip Shanbaz) after he hastily breaks cover during a mission in an idiotic attempt to kill Templar Robert De Sable (Jean-Philippe Dandenaud) and steal a strange artefact from him. This results in the death of a fellow assassin and another losing his arm, as well as Sable leading an army in a failed attempt to kill the assassins. As punishment, Altair is punished by being demoted and forced to kill nine targets, doing his own legwork, so that he can once more become a full-fledged assassin.
                 Except the fact that the plot is actually about Desmond (Nolan North), who has been kidnapped by the company Asbtergo and placed in a machine called the animus so that Warren Vidic (Phil Proctor) and Lucy Stillman (Kirsten Bell) can read his genetic memory and find out where the Templar’s treasure was hidden and how to use it.  You are simply controlling a memory of Altair.
                Here-in lies one of my biggest problems with Assassin’s Creed – it’s too serious. The plot synopsis above is laughable, but is treated with the utmost seriousness and leads to several boring sections of the game where you have to play as Desmond be monologue at with pseudo-intellectual bullshit which is groan worthy at best and honestly feels like it belongs in bad sci-fi comic. An instant way of improving the game would be to simply remove the entire sci-fi element, or at least acknowledge that the entire thing is a little silly.
                The game is, as mentioned above, an ‘open world’ game where you can climb anything. Except that you’re limited to certain parts of certain cities and a relatively boring and empty hub world for most of the game, as you have to progress in the story to unlock new areas. As for the climbing mechanic, it holds true unless you’re intending to climb trees, rock faces or certain buildings which are, for no reason, not climbable. It also depends on if the game is willing to let you climb things.
                The game divides its controls into 3 sections. The basic controls feature an attack, a first-person view if you’re standing still (therefore it is never used), an option to gentle push people aside whilst walking and an option to ‘blend’ into the crowd. By holding down the R1/ RB button, you enter into the running mode which is basically the same, but the blend button now acts as either a jump, or, if held down, activates free running, allowing you to climb things. The controls also change if you’re locked onto an enemy, with most of the button commands now being attacked based.
                This is all needlessly complex, and simply makes the game harder to play. With several buttons on the controller not being used, it would make sense to simply change the control scheme around to make the game feel more natural and play better. Unfortunately, you cannot change controller settings, and the game insists you use its stupid button layout and three tier system.
                The basic mechanics of all of this are severely hampered by the game having inconsistent logic. Free-running and climbing will occasionally no longer function as intended, with Altair often unable to grab onto ledges or objects, and occasional catapulting himself off in the complete wrong direction. The Jumping will switch from being the direction the control stick is pointed in to the direction the camera is pointed, and then switch back at random, making it infuriating to make precise jumps. This is made worse by the occasional moment where the game will launch you in an almost random direction instead of the one you have chosen. Platforming also often demands pixel perfect placement in order to grab onto a specific ledge, which is nigh-impossible to do, especially in situations where you’re trying to outrun guards.
                The combat mechanics are equally as flawed, with the block switching between being held down and needing to be perfectly timed, combined with a counter system that has no distinct timing involved in parrying and countering attacks. Combo and counter attacks are never guaranteed to be fatal to opponents, and more often will simply push them away from you. I actually spent a while trying to work out the mechanics of the counter attacks, and nothing made sense as to whether it would kill or push the enemy away.   
                Combat in general is actually very boring, which is unfortunate giving how many times the game forces it upon you. There’s only two enemy types in the game – archers and swordsman – but all inevitably result in a sword dual which involves a lot of waiting. Since enemies have the same moveset as you, much of a battle is waiting for a guard to attack so you can counter, or hoping that they lower their guard.
                You can also try to outrun guards, but this is often fruitless. Guards all seem to be expert climbers and impossibly good shots, always managing to knock you off of buildings you’re trying to climb or reach the same location as fast as you can. It is also far too hard to break their sight and hide, and I often grew bored and decided to simply kill them all.
                The Guards are also very odd when it comes to recognising you. Sometimes they will chase you regardless of whether you’ve raised suspicion or if you’re blending, other time I murdered people right in front of them and walked away without them noticing. Guards will occasionally attack you simply for running, other times will ignore it. Several times I was caught by a guard in a stealth mission by being attacked by drunk/ crazy people, which is apparently enough to warrant Altair’s death.
                The missions to gather Intel are all dull, and all are repeated several times with little additional challenge. These including eavesdropping, pickpocketing, beating people up, the occasional assassination mission and collecting flags. These are interesting the first time you do them (except the collecting flags, that was never fun), but are repeated far too often.
                Side quests exist in the form of saving citizens from guards (which, for some reason, you cannot do if you’re being chased by guards), climbing viewpoints, collecting flags or killing Templars. There is no reward for doing the last two, and the first two give you 1/15th of a new health bar. The can be easily ignored with no problem.
                The actual assassination missions – the big draw of the game – are the most disappointing. All too often, these are simply prolonged combat missions or dull chases, and there is very little in the way of planning and preparation that goes into them. You are not punished for being obvious and rushing you’re target, and too many missions involve exactly that. This isn’t helped by the unstable Guard AI, as they will often detect you the moment the game gives you control, forcing you into the bad combat sequences. These missions are disappointing, bland, boring and often frustrating as you wrestle with the controls whilst trying to stab with your hidden blade.
                It is here where I get to talk about my least favourite part of the game. All of the assassination targets are one-note characters that appear for about a minute before you kill them, and then proceed to monologue after you stab them in the neck. The monologues themselves are all dull and attempt to raise moral questions (often pointing out the hypocrisy of your actions), but the problem here is that most of their crimes are simply informed attributes, or introduced in a single sequence then forgotten. Hell, half of them don’t actually have anything of worth to say and simply ramble for a few minutes, and they all say more or less the same thing.
                This all threads into the overall story, a story in which you play no part. Too much of the plot revolves around a character appearing and saying ‘hey, I just found this piece of information that explains the story’, and Altair’s actions have almost no influence on what happens. This is ignoring the obvious gaping plotholes that are littered throughout the games long runtime, and the fact that the dialogue is so stilted and forced that most of the actors seem to be struggling not to laugh.
                Speaking of, the voice acting in the game is terrible. Too much of it sounds as though it was ripped from a worn VHS from the early 90s, and too many actors seem to be sleep walking through their roles. This is especially apparent with Shanbaz, who gives a dull, lifeless performance for Altair, and is never given enough material to flesh out the character’s personality.  This is all topped off with lacklustre and lifeless character animations that loop too often and seem to have been motion capped from an amateur theatre troop that enjoys eating too much scenery. None of the dialogue ever matches the characters movements, and every dying monologue is spoken as though the character were in the best of health.
                The only thing I can really praise the game on is that the environments look nice. Well, the cities look nice, though the games colour palettes and many filters tend to render everything as a dull brown or grey. Character models look as though they were taken from a late generation PS2 game, and the animations are often stiff and awkward, with too much clipping and body distortions. Of course, at least the models bother to appear, unlike Assassin’s Creed Unity’s.
                I do not understand why people like this game, how they can claim it to be good. This game is boring, bland, repetitive, broken and badly written. The idea behind the game was interesting, but the execution is poor. When my only compliments are that the game is stable and looks pretty, there is something seriously at fault with the game. Assassin’s Creed is a game that should be skipped over and forgotten about.

                Spoiler warning: The paragraph below talks about the end of the game. You are warned.

                As much as I have ranted above how much I hate this game, the biggest kick in the teeth emerges at the end of the game. After a last minute declaration that the obviously evil leader of the Assassins is, well, evil, the game forces you into a very frustrating final encounter. The final level of the game is almost in black and white, and you have to fight an enemy that teleports around every time you hit him. This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that he also robs you of all your health when he teleports away, and the only way to regain health is by hitting him, leading to an annoying sequence where you are instantly killed by a boss that has your moveset and doesn’t have to deal with the terrible controls and inconsistent game engine.
                Killing the boss causes him to drop the piece of Eden, the cause of this entire mess of a game, which is a glowing ball that does… something, and reveals a world map with glowing dots. You are then forced back to Desmond, where the game just ends with the promise that Vidic will be back to probe your mind some other time. There is no ending. There is no emotional climax. There is no conclusion, or even a cliffhanger. There is no drama here. The game just stops.
                This is the worst thing any story can do. No story should just stop at random, no game should force you to spend hours playing through a dismal collection of stories for no reward. This is the worst possibly way the game could have ended. It is akin to Ubisoft saying ‘you want more, give us more money!’. This is an insult to gamers, and insult to consumers and an insult to anyone with half a damn brain. No, Ubisoft, you do not get my money. You had the gall to create a bad game, and the sheer nerve to end it by demanding more money. Fuck you Ubisoft. Fuck you.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Sketches February 13th - February 19th

          Oops! I thought I'd posted this, but apparently I'd only saved the post. I'm an Idiot.

          Okay, so this week was a bad week. At 23:42 on Sunday, Adobe Flash crashed whilst it was saving the most recent version of my animation. Usually this would mean I would lose just one version ofmy projectand could simply go back to the previous edition. Unfortunately, it corrupted a seperate file that was in several versions of the project, and caused all of them to corrupt as well. This resulted in me losing a weeks worth of work. The damage to the project was 27 seconds of footage lost.
          Needless to say, not much was done this week.

 February 13th: The plan was to spend the week working on images that had settings and themes, adding to the personality of the characters. This is only present in the firt two images of the week.

February 14th

 February 15th: The graveyard of data lost to adobe flash crashing.

 February 16th: The idea here was to draw a phoenix as a representation of me striving to get other the loss from Sunday. It didn't work, as I grew frustrated and left before really getting started.

February 17th: Mutations.

February 18th: Face sketches for some old characters.

February 19th: intial roughs for warrior character for planned animation.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Infamous: Festival Of Blood


         Finishing up the PS3 Infamous games, Infamous: Festival Of Blood is an odd note in the series. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a canonical game and exists as a small joke and isolated gameplay experience without any bearing on the Infamous universe, and it’s very easy to see why this is the case within a few minutes of playing the game.
                Festival Of Blood is a tall tale told by Zeke (Caleb Moody) in order to impress a woman at a bar who was mocking him for reading comics. The story follows Cole (Eric Laden), the electric powered protagonist, as he attempts to kill the vampire Mistress Bloody Mary (April Stewart), who has turned him into a vampire and plans to kill all of humanity. Cole has a single night to find a way to kill the Vampire Mistress, or else he’ll lose all free will.
                Festival of Blood is made using the same engine as Infamous 2, so all of the gameplay, graphics etc are almost identical to that game, so I’m not going to go over them again here. The major changes to the game are mostly cosmetic in nature and a few new mechanics as a result of vampirism. The biggest of these is the ability to fly for a short period of time, allowing you to easily traverse the half of New Marias you have access to. It’s actually a little awkward to do at first, as it requires you to hold the up arrow on the D-Pad and move with the right stick, inverting usual movement controls (although you’re technically controlling the camera at that point, so this may be me being stupid).
                The other major change is the addition of a new meter. All of Cole’s vampire abilities (except Vampire sight, which is used to track hidden objects and enemies) drain a ‘corruption meter’, which you have to replenish by either biting civilians or staking vampires. It can also be expanded by tracking down blood bottles and drinking them (by breaking them). Unfortunately, there’s no real punishment or reward for making the choice, as the games morality system has been removed because, well, you’re a vampire. You’re evil by default here.
                The game has also been given a graphical overhaul. The game takes place during Pyre Night, where New Marais celebrates the ‘death’ of Bloody Mary, and the game has been given a suitable makeover, with civilians wearing vampire and undead themed clothes and costumes, and all manner of spooky decorations have been placed around the city. It’s a nice little change that adds plenty to the atmosphere and gives the game a little more life.
                The game places a much greater focus on close combat than the previous games, with a charged melee gauge offering instant staking of enemies, filling your corruption meter. You can also instantly kill some enemies with melee attacks, especially near the end of the games short campaign, as well as sneak attacking the more powerful firstborn vampires whilst they’re disguised as civilians. Again, not much has changed, but it’s still very satisfying to beat down a load of enemies in melee. A side note – Cole’s weapon has been changed from the amplifier in Infamous 2 to a Cross. This changes nothing but the appearance, but is a nice visual change and, again, quite fitting.
                Speaking of enemies, the game doesn’t borrow from the previous entries. Rather, all of the enemies are new and act differently from those in Infamous 2. Some of them are quite surprising for the game, such as the Firstborn which are giant bat/man hybrids are were quite unexpected. Since all the enemies also use different tactics, you have to constantly switch up playstyles in order to survive. Mary is also present throughout the game, and chasing her is generally a bad idea.
                 The games story is really quite short, but is treated with the shame respect that Infamous 2 got, despite its very tongue in cheek nature. It’s decently written and pokes fun at vampire clichés (especially Twilight), whilst also adapting myths to fit in with the games aesthetics. The story is fleshed out through Mary’s hidden teachings, all of which are darkly humorous in their own regard, and some of which are almost terrifying in how blasé Mary is in killing people.
                There’s not a whole lot to do in terms of side missions here. The only noticeable side content is finding all the blood jars and all of Mary’s teachings, with the only other diversions having no effect on the game other than possible upgrades. These take the form of hunting hidden firstborns or defeating Vampire gangs. Whilst both are fun asides at first, they have no effect on the overall game, making them feel slightly pointless. Had they cleared areas of enemies, like the side missions in previous games, there would have been a much greater sense of accomplishment.
                That being said, almost every action you perform goes some way to unlocking new abilities or trophies (should you care about those). This ranges from upgrading your basic attack to unlocking grenades and rocket attacks, or even making it easier to find the (many) hidden collectibles. Even playing the User generated content unlocks more features. On that note, there are a couple of UGC levels by Sucker Punch that have to be played to continue you’re story, and show you what the level creator can do. Unfortunately, my internet cut out before I could play the second mission, so I never got to see it, the game simply deciding to let me continue the main story.
                There’s little here in terms of new content, with their being only a single new area to explore, but the game is different enough to mark itself as something that was worked on excessively, and was made out of a desire to have fun rather than a cheap cash-in. It’s a nice aside, but the lack of the morality system or any real reward from side missions makes it less interesting. It is, however, an enjoyable ride. Also, you get to play as a vampire superhero – how many other games can boast that?