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Through a glass, darkly

  • nhubi
  • 02/21/2015 08:36 AM
This McBacon Jam entry springs from the fertile minds of JosephSeraph, CashmereCat & Cap_H a group who in the words of one of the developers 'had never made any team games before and we're all beginners!' So with that understandable caveat ringing in my ears I approached this entry with a more forgiving mind set than I would normally. I am very glad I did. Our Desolate Planet has many problems, none of them however are game-breaking which is plus. The major issue with this game for me is clarity, or indeed the lack thereof.

The basic premise as outlined on the gamepage is simple and straightforward, generations ago an unknown cataclysmic event happened on a distant colony world leading to societal and economic collapse and forcing the survivors to return to the original colonial settlement, called the Colony (one imagines a bit like 'the old quarter' in so many established cities) from the surrounding city they had built after colonisation. The rest of the city then became home to the mutants that had been spawned by the cataclysm and the descendants of the original survivors must now eke out an existence, scavenging what they can and battling the mutants who now infest their former home.

Simple, right? Except that's not what the game portrays. In the opening sequence we are told that it was a solar eclipse that shut down the power grid, mutated some of the local fauna and turned the semi-sentient native population hostile, and it happened a single generation ago, well within living memory. A solar eclipse; not a massive solar storm which could conceivably knock out an electrical grid, or a burst of radiation that triggers mutations, nope just one celestial body passing briefly in front of the other. Plausibly the reactions of the natives is credible if their 'semi-primitive' culture considers an eclipse to be a harbinger of doom, but other than that the most that would have happened is the dogs started barking and if anyone was foolish enough to look at it they'd get retinal damage. You don't need to be an astrophysicist to get this right; Google is your friend here. If you want your players to happily pick up the baggage that goes with the big picture terms like post apocalyptic and lost colony, you need to get the details right, or at least provide something consistent, and the later explanation by Wof'J I'm sorry to say, does not.

After that opening exposition we head to the planet's surface where a group of sword-wielding guys in armour are patrolling down a ruined street when they come across a strange shiny orb and are understandable perplexed. When this orb reveals itself to actually be a floating robot they challenge it;

Updated version of 'who goes there friend or foe?' but works the same.

Except against all visual and verbal clues it appears these aren't guys in armour, they aren't bipedal or even humanoid, they are mutants, also known as bugs as is later revealed, and are in fact arthropods, with multiple appendages and body shapes. Nothing at all like the sprites that are used to represent them. I actually really like the sprites, in fact I really like the entire graphic palette but these things just don't fit. I can understand using a single sprite to represent all monster encounters in a game, it's a pretty common idea, but to use something as specific and obviously created as this one is and then not be morphically consistent is just bizarre, and creates an unwelcome dissonance.

This is especially puzzling as in regard to the rest of the graphics there is a logical consistency. The section in which you start the game, the ruined remains of the city is this mix of different building material, some stone, some wood and a little bit of metal which makes perfect sense for a colony. The original buildings would have been something that was brought from the colony ships, which is indeed seen when the protagonists return to the Hub, that aforementioned old quarter. There everything is metal, made from parts of the original ships or prefabricated for use on the new world, whilst the city that sprung from that settlement was sourced from the planet itself so it would be made from natural and available materials. That really works, it is both visually and narratively consistent which is what that makes the sprite-battler transition so jarring, and feeds back into the lack of clarity, what you see is not actually what is real. Though the mapping itself does have its share of issues with a lot of passage errors and missing or oddly activated transition points.

Still after that odd opening interaction we switch from the POV of the 'bugs' and move to our heroes; SER-37, the shiny floating ball, Tyris the slightly sarcastic leader of the group and Kent the young and somewhat cocky warrior being taught the ropes. After dispatching two of the three members of the bug patrol they decide to follow the survivor back to its nest so they can kill the rest and collect any supplies that are around, and that brings up another issue, which is again one of clarity but in this case of comprehension. The grammar is frightful. Normally I would temper that assessment with the knowledge that all the developers are not native English speakers but that isn't the case in this instance, so I'm just going to have to assume that in the rush to get this completed in time for the jam deadline this aspect wasn't looked over by the people for whom English is a primary language or a profession. I cannot stress this enough, please have a look at this, the majority of the information imparted is verbal and whilst the concepts and story are there the delivery is flawed and forces the player into a staccato playing style as they are pulled up short in order to decipher what is being told to them.

Once again we get this odd disparity as the conversational grammar is highlighted by those instances where the written grammar is perfect. The prime example of this is something that was mentioned on one of the screen shots, the apostrophe use in Warriors' for the Warriors' Tavern. It's correct, as it is a genitive apostrophe indicating a collective usage for a group of warriors rather than a tavern operated by a single warrior, or indeed a person called Warrior. I must admit I zero in that usage more than most because I used to work for a collective representational body and the number of times that I had to correct people to place the apostrophe after the s was phenomenal, so I notice, and appreciate, when it's done right.

Juxtaposed to that are those conversations that are specifically designed to be disjointed, as in the case of interactions with an alien species that happens later in the game, in those instances misused words, missing sentence connectors and alternate sentence order is expected and indeed is portrayed very well. It's just the regular conversation that needs work.

So after fighting through the bug nest our heroes make it to the commander's room, to overhear some important but poorly explained and oddly motivated news and to be subjected to what has to be the longest and most peculiar running joke I've seen in awhile.

What drugs are you on Spiderman?

This sequence is bizarre, this game is either a dark post apocalyptic fight for survival or it's the Three Stooges, it can't be both. Comedy in a game is great, it can be used very effectively to lighten a bleak moment, to highlight reasons for a continued struggle, or as a bonding method between characters but if the game is not a stated and obvious comedy or joke game then it has to be applied with a light brush. This sequence was slathered on.

These bugs are remarkably coherent for a species that mutated less than a generation ago, or is it possible that they are actually human/native fauna hybrids which would explain their advanced grasp of nuance. Though if the developers have taken some inspiration from District 9 they really need to make that clearer. I am however pleased to note that one of the characters seems to have an issue with their rapid advancement too, this gives me a glimmer of hope.

Still they do put up a bit more of a fight than the earlier drones, which is to be expected as this is the first boss of the game, and that brings up combat. It is classic turn based with the three characters having differing skill sets in keeping with their personae; Tyris is all offensive, Kent is the support and Ser is multipurpose. In addition their skills are powered by differing mechanism, Kent is straight MP, Tyris as evidenced by her maturity is a hybrid and Ser's blaster is fuelled by TP; I'm going to assume that some sort of kinetic transfer to power up that weapon. The balance is a little off though, as Kent has a debuff spell that lasts for 10 rounds, hits all stats and cost 1 MP to cast. It's seriously OTT and makes most of the battles a cakewalk, which once again contradicts the premise of deprivation and fighting for survival. Though there is a way that deprivation is highlighted, there is no battle music, but I'm pretty sure that is an oversight, not a conscious choice.

The only way this could be more unbalanced is it if was an all enemy effect.

So once we've 'acquired' all the supplies we can it's back to the hub for a little congratulatory backslapping from the residents, and we also find out a little more about our party. Tyris and Kent are actually siblings, which explain some of their interactions, Kent has a crush on a girl called Ara/Arra and is just a little creepy about it, and Ser is a child with mood swings. The colony has also just lost, or presumed lost one of its valuable scouts and Tyris has just been promoted to 'keeper' something I assume is a position title, though the lower case doesn't help in that regard and she's now expected to take on a raft of responsibilities for keeping (ah, there it is) the colony viable in terms of resources.

So it's off to have a look at the supply situation, perilous low, of course and devise some stratagems for survival, especially in the face of the impending doom that is arriving in 13 (that's a prime number between 11 and 17 if you missed it) days. Of course the solution to our problems is soon made apparent, but the mechanism by which we will reach it slips into the dungeon crawler territory. This is fine, it's a well worn trail for a reason, and I have no problem trudging along it. So off I head to get the various and sundry items and information needed to eventually find a way of averting disaster and incidentally keeping my friends, family and random villagers fed, clothed and safe in the process.

Along the way I noticed I wasn't advancing in stats as my levels went up which was confusing as all get out until I stumbled across an item in the menu called growthboard, which opened up something I did like, the skill tree system; but I do have to say you need to let the player know that is how they advance as my party were level 7 before I found it.

Oooh, going to aim for that one

The basic gist is each level up gives you a point to spend on your skill tree, each tile in the tree costs a point to open, but not all tiles have skills so you have to spend the points to open the way to the skill you want. However even the unskilled tiles give a stat boost as you open them, so no points are wasted. The skilled tiles are colour coded, Red is offensive, Green is support and Blue is defensive. In addition Pink adds passive abilities, all abilities fall into two camps, Magic designated by a circular colour code and Tech by a square one. If you want to see what is at the end of a particular branch of the tree pressing shift brings up the viewing mode to enable you to see what you are aiming for and if it's sensible to spend your points that way at any particular time. This offers quite a bit of customisation in character growth and direction and it is something I'm always a fan of, as long as it isn't too complex or divisive, and this is neither.

The interface could probably do with some polish but it's easy enough to navigate once you realise the value of the shift button.

As the game progresses you do get another form of character growth, the problem is in one character at least it's not good. I originally called Kent and his relationship with his crush a little creepy, as the game progresses he moves right into disturbing territory. There is a particularly disquieting scene where the siblings are having a moment of bonding that borders on incestuous, or at least from Kent's end of the conversation. You do not have a conversation where firstly give your sister your girlfriend's love letter to read, follow that up by comparing the beauty and 'womanliness' of your girlfriend and your sister and point out that your girlfriend is lacking in that regard whilst your sister is the most beautiful of women, and then drop this one.

Dump this guy in a bug nest naked and weaponless. Do it now.

I have no idea what the developers through they were doing with this guy, but it failed. He's a creep, and given his later impassivity in the face of the death of a trusted friend and mentor, he's a sociopath too. Lock him in the infodump room until sheer boredom makes him electrocute himself.

There are a couple of mini-bosses in the game that guard items which Ezra the weaponsmith needs to create his masterpiece items, but let me tell you this once you kill the White Carrot leader which you can do at around level 6 and get the Blazing Sun the balance goes straight out the window. Almost every enemy in the game has a weakness for the fire element and Tyris's new gun adds +500 to her ATK and is, you guessed it, powered by a solar cell, so it's dishing out 4-5,000 HP damage in a single shot. Suffice to say, nothing was an issue for me once I got it, and that was just her super weapon, when you add in the ones for creep-boy and floating eyeball it's just ridiculous. The plus side is that they do keep the silent battles mercifully short.

In the end it seems like the developers set out to make two, or perhaps even three different games and they don't mesh. I think the deprivation theme was well and truly met in the lack of synergy in this offering.

Specifically to the developers, I'm not going to star this one, even though you indicated that would have been fine in the thread I created, simply because I know this is still being worked on and the score I would have given it in its current state is probably only 1 or 1.5 stars, which would burden it with some negative connotations. If this doesn't get updated any time in the next few months or so then I'll attach that rating, but I'd like to give you time to polish it because I think underneath all the dross there is potential here.


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I'm really happy with your review, and you have brought to light many issues I either sensed but didn't know how to put to words, or outright didn't notice.

We are working on a new version. I'm glad to hear you've put so much effort into your review, it's really nice. And I'm also glad you understood the Growthboard system LOL (because people seem to completely ignore the Shift button... I'm thinking on adding a "View Mode! / Active Mode!" message when you shift.

and yeah... getting the ultimate weapons was definitely NOT supposed to be that easy! I'll probably rework the Weaken spell, too... And I might add some more skills, overall I feel there are too few. So perhaps equipment-dependant skills could be interesting; adding a second layer of tactical choice which'd allow us to have more rewards to the player whilst not outright overpowering them with Lv.06 Blazing Suns or Lv.9 Boss Oneshotter.

Also, in the demo the Death spell is clearly broken. Nothing resists it, and the 50% hit rate is really high. I'll tweak it, up it to about 60% and add enemy resistances to Death. It is also Tyris' most powerful single-target skill so it'll still have its place in boss battles, provided you can keep up with the MP cost.

(I also reduced Tyris' MP costs and heightened those of Kent.)
Thanks! That's big chunk of text to read through.
I can't do too much about getting our game right at the moment and from the look of it most of the work gonna fall on Joseph's shoulders. Again.
Your problem with the logic of the eclipse, is caused by my total ignorance of facts while writing a sci-fi or fantasy. I usually write some more serious stuff and games are my way to unleash all idiotic ideas I have and I don't care about some sense-making.
You may get feel of duality from dialogues as I wrote templates and Cash finished em. Maybe he was too faithful to my broken English sometimes.

'Virgin to boot' truly is the sentence to go on killing spree for.
This is a great review, even though I don't agree with all of its points. I'm wondering whether I should write one of my own, since I'm so lost in the game I'm not sure I'm qualified to write a review yet.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
Of course you should Calunio, the more opinions and observations a developer has access to the better. The fact that you don't agree with some of my points is precisely why you should express your own for the dev team, and the players to contemplate a different outlook. I am not by any stretch of the imagination, the final word in anything.

A small query; by lost, do you mean immersed, or unsure of your next step?

Thank you however for calling it a great review, I know I write a lot of these but it is gratifying to occasionally get a word from someone other than the dev to know it has been of use.
The TM is for Totally Magical.
Not only that, no matter how observant you are, there will always be a reviewer who catches problems that you miss, or don't even consider problems, and vice versa.
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