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Tess Had a Bad Day

I played Tess as part of a Secret Santa game exchange thing. It was a nice surprise; Tess was already on my list of to-play games. This game was created for the Indie Game Maker Contest 2014. I played the update (version so that I could avoid any possible deadline-related bugs.

Tess is a run-and-gun platformer, which really isn't a genre I know much about. I played roughly an hour of Cave Story several years ago and Tess almost immediately reminded me of that experience. Not to say that they are even close to the same game, but there's a thread connecting them.

The first thing I noticed when I played was that the atmosphere was welcoming. I don't mean that it felt like mother's kitchen, warm and comfortable with freshly-baked cookies, because it's nothing like that. In fact, Tess has a much more somber tone. The titular character has a face that is a mask, her mouth stuck in a permanent frown. Her bedroom--and the surrounding level--is black, green, and the shades between. The music is soft. But it's still "welcoming" in its game-feel.

You are given command prompts and menu options on the first screen. Immediately you learn to jump, and to shoot. This is fun. This is simple. The door, promising to lead you out of Tess' bedroom and into a New Game, invites you directly into the experience. There's no fluff, no exposition, and no BS. The game welcomes you immediately into its tone, its main character, and its gameplay.

Why does Tess have a gun, though? No idea. But that's also a great part of the tone. In this strange setting of strange faces and strange coloring, it's perfectly normal for a young woman to blaze through her kitchen with a fully-loaded death weapon. Things aren't right in the world of Tess...

Tess agrees with my review so far, even if she's not stoked about it.

The mechanics start at jumping and shooting and end at jumping and shooting. This is fairly straight-forward. Shooting enemies reduces their life until they *pop* to reveal a bouncy glass shard that serves as EXP. Level up to gain health and more weapon damage.

The levels are designed well enough. There are a couple of "secrets" you can get to, but they are too few and inconsistently placed. Other than a late-game pay-off, the promise of secrets set near the beginning doesn't get adequately fulfilled. I would have liked to see more small tunnels or shifted screens leading to goodies and yum-yums.

Level one showcases some vertical climbing on scaffolding. Since there's no fall damage you can learn to perfect the running and gunning in several tight situations with the only lasting effect of a long drop being that you can now heal and save again. Well played.

"I need you to find Milly and tell her that the fall damage thing doesn't apply to her..."

The next section spikes in difficulty. You now focus primarily on the platforming as you leap across rooftops avoiding winged fly... things. Their intention isn't to damage you so much as it is to knock you off. And when they do, you die. This is where I had the most trouble and the most frustration. Eventually I bounded my way through without shooting anything just to be done with the blasted place! I'm not sure if the game actually got too hard too fast or if my console-pampered hands just aren't used to platforming with the arrow keys, but it was the only point in the game where I considered exiting out and playing later. The fact that not much happens in terms of narrative, nor ambiance, made this small section more of a needless gauntlet than anything else.

But that isn't to discredit the game's merits. Probably the best design mechanically is a hidden weapon that shoots lazor booms in a short line. The enemies in the final level turn solid and immovable upon death, creating a new and unanticipated obstacle. The short range of the hidden weapon allows you to decide the final location of the dead enemy with thought and skill. It's a very nice touch, and it rewards the player well for going out of her way to find it.

"I feel a little exposed..."

However, some level designs make no sense. There are some small portions where the level starts to feel like VVVVVV. But to what end? If it's a meaningful decision, the properties of the level are too obscure for me to comprehend. And if it's a decision just for fun it doesn't quite excite. The VVVVVV design seems like it was placed there because it's cool to make, which doesn't really detract from the game in any way, but it doesn't add much either.

"If you don't tell me what happened to the color in this level I'll shoot! I swear I will!"

The audio is a nice treat. The music has a befitting tone that really adds to the game's atmosphere, but the bigger hit for me is the SFX. All of the bleeps and bloops sound good. The characters, too, have sound effects, each a type of moan or sigh that is two parts eerie and one part character-defining. I happen to be a big fan of vocal SFX, so it's nice to hear some good ones, even if they're brief and few.

The plot is short and simple. There's really only one thing to it, which is the reveal at the end. The plot itself isn't necessarily new, but it has a good feeling throughout. My only gripe with the final reveal is that you never think, "Ohhh, that's why this and this was this way!" There isn't a sort of "ah-HA" where it all clicks together. Rather, you just think, "Okay, that's why everything's a bit weird," then smile at the character designs a little more.

Neck-hooping with a tie on is no small feat.

In the end, the game was good. It was worth playing. I finished in under an hour and survived the last boss without dying but without feeling like victory was handed to me. It's a tad too sparse, a bit under-developed, and at some points unnecessarily vague or filler-y. But beyond that, it has some subtle touches, an inviting world, and a great mood. A world like this is begging to be expanded on with more care and more properties than can be allowed within the constraints of a contest. I suggest playing.