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Falls Short of 'Masterpiece' Status

  • Scourge
  • 04/17/2018 03:22 AM
  • 3230 views
I wanted to love Umbral Soul. I really, really did. The game's unique premise seemed like something I would enjoy and, while I was hesitant, the glowing reviews helped swayed me to download it. Unfortunately, after playing through the game, love isn't the right word to describe my feelings. Umbral Soul is a well-made game with a lot of great moments, but there's too much at error, whether its small typos, dull boss fights, or awkward storytelling, to make it a true classic.

Writing:

I'm going to start with what I imagine will be an unpopular opinion: I don't enjoy the quality of Umbral Soul's writing.

The beginning definitely grabbed me. Going from the climatic showdown between a god of darkness and a band of heroes to the painful beginnings of a girl's journey into evil made for an intriguing introduction, but things slowly began to fizzle out from there.

On the topic of that journey to evil, characters in Umbral Soul have been through a lot of pain and they really like reminding everybody of it. I was prepared for despair; people are rarely born evil, and Umbral Soul does a decent job of showing how, exactly, ordinary folks would come to be in service to an ultimate evil. However, by the time I heard Pandora or Damien monologue about their inner turmoil, or their persecution, or how it was them against the world and nobody loves them for the 15th time, I was ready to dig my old skinny jeans out of the closet, put some eyeliner on, and skate down to Hot Topic (it's not a phase, mom!). The 'heroes' are not much better, with a great deal of dialog consisting of sappy 'anyone can be redeemed' and 'the power of friendship will save us' repeated ad infinitum. Add in some heavy-handed racism allegory (calling the mages 'darklings,' anyone?) and it's no surprise that, by the end of the game, I was praying for some out-of-context threat to show up, nuke the planet, and fly away.

However, that's not to say the writing is devoid of bright spots. The dialog between Pandora and her succubus companion, Lanith, is entertaining and sweet, while I chuckled every time the party's berserker/general/would-be-king insulted the god of darkness to his face. Debates and small acts of rebellion between and by Damien and Marcus keep some tension running in the story as well and I was anxious for the moment when one of them would make the decision to break away from evil. As to whether or not that even happens, well, no spoilers in this review!

The characters do have their moments, but what about the story itself? There are some great moments, such as an action-packed storming of an abandoned tower and, much later, a tense confrontation atop said tower, but there are many times where the plot dragged on. Going from the introduction to the event where you gain a headquarters is particularly slow-paced and there were sections later in the game, such as the infiltration of a mage's tower, that would have been exciting and tense had the gameplay not gotten in the way. But more on that later.

When all is said and done, the quality of writing in Umbral Soul is solid. There are particularly bland bits of dialog and characters who won't stop dredging up their tragic past, but there are also some legitimately well-written exchanges and fleshed out relationships. If it weren't for the typos (it's spelled their goddamnit) and some poor pacing, we would have a great story on our hands. Right now, it's just an average, or above-average, one.

Gameplay:

This is an area that I feel Umbral Soul especially excels in. All of my party members felt useful and unique and I encountered situations, whether dungeons or particular boss fights, where individuals could really shine. Some were definitely mainstays - I would have had a lot of trouble without Damien along most of the time - and others - looking at you, Samson - were lucky to come along for more than a dungeon or two, but they had still had specific niches to fill.

The summons, on the other hand, felt like an overload. Once I had a group of developed ones, including Draconus, I had a hard time caring about the other options the game gave to me. By endgame, I had access to, I believe, 12 summons. Of these 12, I used maybe 3 regularly and I'd taken maybe 6 of them out of the box for longer than a cursory random encounter. I'm a big fan of player choice and extensive options when it comes to gameplay, but it was hard to justify switching out my darkness-enhanced super dragon for a mediocre demon maid 8 hours into the game. This may just be personal preference, as I definitely play Pokemon the same way and like to have my team set within the first few hours of playing, but I felt like a lot of the summons were too little, too late, or had poor synergy with the rest of my party.

And synergy is important in Umbral Soul. There were a smattering of boss fights that required some strategy and thought to push through and the high health and large enemy presence of random encounters made quick victories a must, but there are definitely some ways to improve here.

Some bosses, including a great confrontation with a group of adventurers about 2/3s through the game, feel tense and enjoyable, while others feel like nothing more than sacks of HP waiting for a pounding. The game does an excellent job making bosses more than roadblocks for the most part, but the times it falls short in that stand out to me as some of the most boring and tedious parts of the game.

Random encounters are another source of tedium, with the encounter rate being frustratingly high in some areas (i.e. the final dungeon and the underwater temple) and a distressing lack of enemy variety. Add in the fact that healing items are hard to find and harder to afford early on and healing magic is not exactly a standard bad guy power, and you might get an idea of the early-game hell that Umbral Soul has on hand.

Despite the frustrations of the early-game, by late-game I was a steamroller. The ability to teleport home and fully heal your party from almost every location in the game made dungeons a breeze. I didn't have to worry about conserving resources outside of boss battles, which helped fix the lack of healing items a little too well. This was nice because, by the end of the game, I definitely felt like an overpowered villain, but it also sucked a lot of enjoyment out of the game. I actually started running from battles towards the end-game, not because they were difficult, but because my party was so goddamn powerful that the tiny amounts of experience and gold from enemies just weren't worth the 60 seconds it would take to beat them down.

I think there needs to be some adjustments to balance. Not huge ones, but just enough to even out the power curve and make the start of the game a little less frustrating and the end of the game a little less of a rampage.

Outside of combat, there are some basic puzzles. A few took a little more effort to solve than others, such as a musically based one in a vampire's castle, but most were simple and straightforward.

Overall, Umbral Soul offers up some excellent gameplay. There are still ample opportunities for improvement, but I definitely had more fun than I did frustration. As a side note, I also really appreciate some of the gameplay/story integration that occurs throughout the game. It was cool to see my party members using abilities in cutscenes that they also had in battle and vice versa.

Music and Sound:

There's not much to say here besides 'wow.' WheelmanZero has done a great job with music and sound design in Umbral Soul. Not every track is perfect and one or two, such as the song that plays in Reddin, are obnoxious to listen to, but the vast majority of the music is well-chosen for the scene it plays in.

Sound effects and voice clips are prevalent throughout the game as well and are effective in carrying certain scenes. There are even moments where the screen blacks out and the player is left with nothing but sound to convey events. This isn't perfect every single time it happens, but it always acts as a great addition to the scene it's in.

Mapping and World Design:


Unlike the music, this is a little more of a mixed bag.

Some areas are well-crafted, especially outdoor dungeons and a few cities, but others, especially the interiors of houses, are strangely laid-out, largely empty, and occasionally comprised of clashing assets.

Many buildings, unless my eyes deceive me, are pre-made assets from DLC like the Fantastic Buildings set. There's nothing wrong with using these, in my mind, but it definitely helps when the quality of the pre-made buildings matches the quality of the designer's work and that's not what is happening here.

While there are some RTP tiles on display, Umbral Soul is not picky about where it takes its environments from, which can lead to some really jarring clashes, the prime example being your headquarters, where the low resolution of the floors and ceilings fails to blend with the more impressive sprites moving about. Some revisions, especially in regards to bizarre height differences both inside and outside, would make areas look much better. Still, it's far from the worst mapping I've seen and stays clear of some common mistakes, but there are still enough oddities to drag the score down a little here.

In addition, the dungeons of Umbral Soul have some impressive vistas, but also some uninspired design decisions. WheelmanZero is awfully fond of maze-like interiors, with the underwater temple being an especially bad offender. When paired with a high encounter rate, this caused me a lot of frustration. Add in the fact that, generally speaking, most treasure is pretty 'meh' (there's absolutely no equipment upgrades, for one), and you have a recipe for some dull and plodding areas.

The world itself has some history behind it, but it never really feels lived in. There's not a sense of history (which I think Pandora actually lampshades at one point) and the various towns and villages don't ever feel like anything more than the next checkbox on your party's list of terror.

The mapping and world design is not what I'd call Umbral Soul's strong suit, though it's far from awful. A little improvement here would make a big difference, but there are other important areas for growth. WheelmanZero can always bring in somebody to map areas, but it's a lot harder to outsource gameplay and story.

Wrap-Up:

I might not have fallen in love with Umbral Soul, but I can't help but like it. It's lacking in a few areas, but has enough strengths to make it a deeply enjoyable game. Based on comments on the game profile, WheelmanZero seems to have tested the game by himself, which might explain some of the typos or frustrating design decisions. In the future, I'd suggest reaching out to others for additional testing. While the game is both playable and a great deal of fun, an extra set or two of eyes would have made a world of difference for the quality of the game.

I'd definitely recommend Umbral Soul and I'm looking forward to whatever comes next! As of right now, I'd give it 4 stars.

Scoring scale:

0: Either not in a position to be scored (e.g. an unfinished game) or so irredeemably bad that there are no positive qualities.
.5 - 1.5: Bad. A game that suffers from frequent and serious errors and lacks any semblance of fun.
2 - 2.5: Below average. A game that struggles mightily in some areas, but shows, at the very least, potential or a bright spot mixed in with the bad.
3 - 3.5: Average. A game with some pitfalls and weaknesses, but one that has more, or at least an equal, number of good design choices, well-made maps, or intriguing and believable characters to balance out the bad.
4 - 4.5: Great. A game that does a lot of things very well and is polished and enjoyable. Might suffer from some minor issues that prevent it from being extraordinary, but is fun to play.
5: Amazing. A game that is a true joy to experience in all areas. May suffer from small issues still and isn't perfect, but any problems are so tiny that they have little to no impact on the overall experience.

Posts

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Great googly moogly, another review! Thank you Scourge, this was quite the pleasant little shocker. Actually trying my hardest not to spontaneously combust out of pure joy here. While I prize all of the reviews of this game that people have taken the time to write, it's nice to have a slightly more critical one that points out what could be improved. Please allow me to clarify some of your points. *ahem*

The "darkling" thing wasn't a reference to actual, real world racism, I just needed a derogatory term that encompassed a sense of general hatred for people that use darkness. I wasn't particularly thinking of real world issues when developing the game, I just created a story I thought was interesting. I could see how you could draw that conclusion though.

As you said, I playtested the game by myself, and boy did it come back to bite me. Fortunately many players pointed out the issues they stumbled upon, which have been fixed for the next release. The game is now 98.9% thier free! Uh...probably, I mean there were a lot of them in there and the script is probably 50 pages. Pretty sure though! Thanks to a lot of generous volunteers, I've got playtesters out the wazzoo, so the next edition of this game, as well as my future games, should be more polished with their help.


The encounter rate never seemed like an issue for me, but I realize that's probably because I knew the exact layout of every dungeon and always made a beeline for exit using the shortest possible path. I've done some tinkering with the rates in certain areas like the water maze you mentioned to make them less monstery. Thanks for the heads up. That maze could probably use a few more chests too.

Ugh, I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting something I'll undoubtedly remember later, but hey, that's what the edit button is for. I suppose I'll end this spiel by thanking you again. Really appreciate hearing your feedback bud!
Scourge
I used to make games. I still do, but I used to too.
1443
author=WheelmanZero
The "darkling" thing wasn't a reference to actual, real world racism, I just needed a derogatory term that encompassed a sense of general hatred for people that use darkness. I wasn't particularly thinking of real world issues when developing the game, I just created a story I thought was interesting. I could see how you could draw that conclusion though.


That does help clarify things. It sounds like you weren't planning it from the outset, so maybe allegory isn't the right word, but it does have some strong undertones of examining racism and it would be easy to apply that lens to the game (as I did). Honestly, it is difficult to play through the game and not draw those conclusions about events being a metaphor for racism. It does come off a little strong and ham-fisted, but I think that's because everybody, short of Serena and Luke, seems to loath dark mages. It would have been nice to see a handful of other NPCs, even inconsequential ones, express some doubts about whether all dark mages are truly evil.

author=WheelmanZero
As you said, I playtested the game by myself, and boy did it come back to bite me. Fortunately many players pointed out the issues they stumbled upon, which have been fixed for the next release. The game is now 98.9% thier free! Uh...probably, I mean there were a lot of them in there and the script is probably 50 pages. Pretty sure though! Thanks to a lot of generous volunteers, I've got playtesters out the wazzoo, so the next edition of this game, as well as my future games, should be more polished with their help.


That's good to hear! In my playthrough, I encountered that particular typo not just in dialog, but also in skill descriptions, which drove me a little crazy.

author=WheelmanZero
The encounter rate never seemed like an issue for me, but I realize that's probably because I knew the exact layout of every dungeon and always made a beeline for exit using the shortest possible path. I've done some tinkering with the rates in certain areas like the water maze you mentioned to make them less monstery. Thanks for the heads up. That maze could probably use a few more chests too.


Interestingly enough, this is the same problem I ran into with a high encounter rate in my first releases. Another reason I'm glad you're reaching out to beta testers!

author=WheelmanZero
Ugh, I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting something I'll undoubtedly remember later, but hey, that's what the edit button is for. I suppose I'll end this spiel by thanking you again. Really appreciate hearing your feedback bud!


You're welcome! I really am looking forward to seeing what improvements you make and the games you make from here on out. Don't hesitate to ask if you need any help!
Thanks man, I gotta get to giving you some feedback on the new version of your own game as well. My last party combination wasn't particularly ideal, but this time I am armed with foreknowledge. This time it's going to be 3 pirates. Team One Piece all the way! Alright I'm kidding, not even I'm that crazy.
I'll be honest. After 9 entire reviews, finally I can share my thoughts. Because honestly, I was afraid of putting my own thoughts here because everyone claimed it to be the shining perfect sparkle of a gem that shouldn't be touched. But now that someone looks at it with a more critical eye, I think I can freely share my thoughts on the matter. Yeah. I agreed with most of everything you said, Scourge.

I always knew that Umbral Soul had a few spots that I find... weird. (and it's not just because of the many thiers this universe concocted over the course of the game)

That being said. Let me add an addendum for my own thoughts on the subject of design. While the level design, for the most part, is pretty well polished. There's one level that irks me so much that I had to look it up in order to solve it.
The Vampire Castle. The puzzle that requires you to listen to the sounds and ensure you choose the correct order in order to pass.


If I ended up having to look up a guide because of it, then that's just really not well designed. Players are expected to figure it out without relying on external sources (unless it is part of the experience, in which case it is an exception).

I do agree that some characters get the better end of the character development treatment than others. This is more apparent at the later stages of the game. And I don't blame the developer for that. Juggling through a massive cast of characters and giving them their unique charm is an undertaking in and of itself. That being said, I hope the sequel improves on what the first one lacks. Such as the encounter rates and the pacing (and the fact that the previous version has lots of thiers, its like their is a taboo word or something).

The only thing I would say that I would play counterargument with is that the writing is very subjective to a person's experience. One person may enjoy writing where others may look at it pedantically and find gaping holes or gripes they find that loosens their immersion. And for that, it's perfectly understandable. You may not necessarily love it. But I certainly find its cheesiness to be the attempted comical factor that I find somewhat refreshing in some scenes. The hopelessness and the feelings of despair and the raw emotions sounds way too flamboyant, but it speaks to the heart in some cases and it kinda tugs a little on my end. I especially like the bonding between Pandora and Draconus even though, from a writing standpoint, it sounds like it looks a little out there. (And I used him all the way to the end because I liked him that much) But I agree that it isn't perfect.

The Baker scenario does highlight the more near exemplary example of Wheelman's writing and he claims to enjoy writing that one the most. So I'll assume that Wheelman can write incredibly well when he considers a lot of the intricacies of the world and takes the time to pay attention to a lot of the characters' developments. But considering how massive of a game this is and how the world and characters are so massive you can't keep track of everyone in your head, well.. who can blame the more less than favorable writing.


Again, for all that I harped on with my own gripes, I do enjoy this game. It's a strong showcase of an interesting premise. All I'm hoping for is that the sequel can mitigate the issues in terms of the writing for some of the characters (but considering that you have been developing that last year, I doubt there would be any major changes to the script at this point).
Hey, you don't have to feel pressured by other reviews to share your thoughts bud. I'd like to think rmn is a place where we can openly share our opinions even if they aren't in line with the majority, so long as we're civil about it. It's a little hard to judge puzzle difficulty when you're the dev of a game. "Oh it's easy, the answer is so obvious!" Yeah no kidding, because you already know the answer. That being said, I've shaved 2 notes off of the music puzzle, hopefully making it easier. Someone mentioned before that that puzzle would be a complete roadblock for deaf players, so I'm including the solution in a text file as well.

In some foreign country, "their" is actually an extremely vulgar expression that- Oh fine, it was a misspelling, I admit it. But I've eliminated all the ones I could find, so it should be a thing of the past come next version. Like you said, the script hasn't changed much beyond some spelling fixes and minor rewrites, but I'm not comfortable with walking away from this game until I've addressed several glitches and issues. They haunt me a little too much. But hey, I'm thrilled the both of you had fun with it in spite of the issues you found, that's why I made it after all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts guys.
author=Scourge
That does help clarify things. It sounds like you weren't planning it from the outset, so maybe allegory isn't the right word, but it does have some strong undertones of examining racism and it would be easy to apply that lens to the game (as I did). Honestly, it is difficult to play through the game and not draw those conclusions about events being a metaphor for racism. It does come off a little strong and ham-fisted, but I think that's because everybody, short of Serena and Luke, seems to loath dark mages. It would have been nice to see a handful of other NPCs, even inconsequential ones, express some doubts about whether all dark mages are truly evil.

Personally, I never had a hard time buying the discrimination against dark mages in-story, in large part because if a group of people actually did draw magical powers, which tended to be dangerous and destructive in nature, from emotions like hatred and grief and rage, so that they became more and more powerful the more antisocial they were, I think viewing them with distrust would be an entirely reasonable reaction.

I generally find fictional allegories for racism tired and overplayed, but as a result, if a story looks like it might be trying to do something different, I'll give it the credit of trying to look at it from that other perspective rather than trying to frame it as another allegory about racism.

What I thought was particularly interesting in Umbral Soul was that, unlike all the stories with some pat moral about how love and understanding can overcome hatred, Umbral Soul puts together a setting where it's clear that the hatred underlying the conflict is self-reinforcing. People who try to show dark mages compassion and understanding almost always come to bad ends, because they can't just unilaterally withdraw from the conflict. That means that ordinary people have little incentive to show compassion and understanding for dark mages (because it'll probably come back to bite them,) which means that dark mages have little reason to expect understanding or compassion from ordinary people.

The whole narrative presents a much more interesting and nuanced concept of a balance between good and evil than most works, in my opinion. Both good and evil are at once self-reinforcing and inherently unstable.

Good is self-reinforcing because doing good, and living among good people, is rewarding and makes people happier and more inclined to do good things. It's inherently vulnerable because the more a community runs on goodness, the more vulnerable it becomes to bad actors. The more easily people trust, offer forgiveness and second chances, and assume the best of others, the easier they are to take advantage of.

Evil is self-reinforcing because the more people treat each other badly, the less anyone can afford to unilaterally stop treating others badly. It turns altruism into a coordination problem where it's in nobody's interests to make the first move of showing trust or kindness. It's inherently vulnerable because the more a community runs on evil, the more miserable everyone is and the more they want things to change so they can stop spending all their time being unhappy. Give enough people at once a guarantee that they'll back each other up in a bid to get rid of the evil status quo and they'll probably take it.

In a way, Umbral Soul kind of ends up as an emotional and character driven story about Decision Theory. Which is a lot more novel and interesting in my opinion than another story about how Racism Is Bad.

Of course, I don't expect everyone else to enjoy that aspect of it as much as I did. I gave it a five star review because my reviews aren't averages of everything a game did right or wrong, they're summaries of how much I enjoyed the strongest elements minus how much I felt the weakest ones detracted from the experience. I wasn't really expecting when I wrote it that there would be so many other full-score reviews following it up.
author=Desertopa
author=Scourge
I generally find fictional allegories for racism tired and overplayed, but as a result, if a story looks like it might be trying to do something different, I'll give it the credit of trying to look at it from that other perspective rather than trying to frame it as another allegory about racism.
I wish there was a like button or something so I could just show that I agree without adding an entire message to the forum that adds nothing to the conversation.
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