The Games of TOJam 4: Part 4

Go viral in Flock U!

Go viral in Flock U!

Continuing the series of TOJam review — today we have the second half of last week’s releases: Enthrapagatia, Happy Happy Mouseland, Pond Scum, and the  Silver People’s Choice Award winner Flock U!

If you’re new to the series, catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3!

Here we go!

Pond Scum

Pond Scum

Pond Scum is a pretty awesome entry about a scum-eat-scum world. It’s a simple, arcade style venture from Steven Hill. (And it has it’s own website at www.pondscum.ca!) It both easy to grasp and easy to play, with a nice amount of polish, making it feel quite finished.

Pond Scum‘s premise is simple one — you are scum in a pond, eat smaller scum and avoid bigger scum. Win by being the only Scum left. It’s a formula that’s worked in the past and works again here — Pond Scum works well, but doesn’t really bring anything new to the table in this regard.

Visually, there’s a lot of polish — the game has a unique look and sound that’s charming and fun to play with. It’s not overwhelming, though it could use a little more contrast ot highlight the scums in the pond — in some of the darker portions it’s easy to miss them. Additionally, the game has a zooming camera which is nice, though I found it was really uncentered and wasn’t always useful. The game also features lots of onscreen action with lots of scums appearing at the beginning of each round, making the board feel hectic.

This brings us to the balance problems in Pond Scum, though. Round in the game generally fall in to ‘really easy’ or ‘nearly impossible’ without very much middle ground, and it’s very random which one you’ll get. Scums are generated randomly of varying sizes and most of the small ones are absorbed very quickly in the match. Sometimes you’ll get most of them, sometimes not, and when you don’t you remain small for a very long time, waiting for more scums or powerups to spawn. When you do, the match is over almost immediately as you devour your competition.

While Pond Scum has a very standard formula, it feels like it could use perhaps one more level of complexity simply to even out the randomness; some additional mechanic to make it a little more than luck.

Happy Happy Mouseland

Happy Happy Mouseland

Happy Happy Mouseland is an ambitious little 2D platformer done in 3D (not unlike the New Super Mario Brothers) by Blendiac, Andrei Betlen, Luca Duran. It’s a strange two part adventure of a mouse, evading and confronting the forces that want to keep him from his dreams (cheese). Incredible, the whole thing was assembled in Blender, which… I didn’t know what even possible. So, that’s intense.

The game features two short levels — one where you control the mouse inside a home while looking for cheese, the other as a giant godzilla-inspired giant mouse stomping the city. Both are effectively different games; the first a standard platformer, the second a sort of 2D tank game.

The first level I found more compelling. While the game has a number of oddities with it’s level design and graphics (including some strange clipping and disappearing polygons), I found the idea of this level really captivating, particularly with the cat claw popping out of the background and with some giant scale objects. While the execution doesn’t really seem to lock down the ideas brought forward in the game, but it does illustrate them fairly well. I get the impression that with a bit more planning this could be expanded in to a singular great game; all it just needs some more coherent level design and art direction.

The second level was a little less compelling. While fun to roam a city as a mouse with laser vision and to crush building as you pas, I didn’t find that I was that engaged with what was happening — stomping buildings is automatic, and shooting down the helicopters and missiles seems unimportant. The level doesn’t seem to actually have an ending, either — it just stops.  While I’m sure something was planned, I’m not sure what. There were some strange errors here, too — After I  played for a bit, I stopped fighting the helicopters; a few minutes later I started seeing explosions behind me and began rapid accelerating backwards until I was launched in to some empty darkened sky. I don’t know what it was, frankly.

All in all Happy Happy Mouseland seems like it was just a little too monumental for the three days of TOJam, though what did get done was still quite impressive. Maybe we’ll get to see something more polished down the line.

Enthrapagatia

Enthrapagatia

Enthrapagatia is a time traveling boomerang self-defense lesson on the cusp of a black hole, from Chris Murphy. It’s also perhaps the most confusing game in the TOJam 4 collection. The game features a number of very impressive technical elements, and presents one of the most challenging play ideas I’ve seen in quite a long time. Even now, I’m not sure if I like it or not.

Foremost, Enthrapagatia feels like it has some sort of rich, conceptual background or story that we… never heard anything about. The game itself takes place in a vacuum, and I think it’s lack of explanations are unfortunately detrimental to the overall product of the game.  I remember hearing something about a blackhole, which also appears in it’s TOJam entry description, and seems to appear in the closing art, but I’m not sure what it’s significance is. It’s all very… unexplained and inexplicable.

The game focuses on a very wierd mechanic of a boomerang that travels backward through time as you throw it, and then forward again as it returns. This leads to a number of interesting problems because you can’t simply throw the boomerang at your enemies, as they’ll retreat as it approaches and everything moves at roughly the same pace. Now, admittedly I find this very frustrating, but I also feel that there’s an element of parallel thinking required to both enjoy and succeed in Enthrapagatia. While frustrating, the game is trying to force you to think differently — much more differently than the vast majority of games. In that sense, I think that Chris has produced a brilliant little gem of design, though I feel it’ll be unappreciated by most.

Additionally, while most of the art is nondescript and somewhat random, the game features a number of attractive visual effects. As the game progresses (or as the player gets injured — which I’m not quite certain) the environment becomes less stable and begins to rattle and change colors; not a difficult effect to achieve as I understand, but it works quite nicely in this context. Additionally, when the game ends, the game screen is sucked away — perhaps the only functional mention of the blackhole in the game.

Still, frustrating mechanics aside, Enthrapagatia’s biggest failing is still that it is a very unusual concept with no real explanation at to how it works or what you’re meant to do — it’s a concept without a context.

Flock U!

Flock U!

Finally, we have the Silver People’s Choice Award winner, Flock U! from Team Awesomo (Derek Van Vliet, Nick Coombe, Matt Coombe, and Robert Segal), a game about very superfluous battling it out for viral supremacy! (FYI: Avian Flu is the most powerful — or at least, my favorite.) Unfortunately, Flock U! is both a 4 player venture and requires XBox 360 controllers — so I’m reviewing from memory and some of you may not get to play it, but if you can, it won it’s Silver award for a reason!

Flock U! is a quick to pick up and play party game with a simple game concept and brilliant production. It’s a game that would be easy to see people buying for a few bucks to download for their XBox 360s and feels very much like a completely finished, completely professional product. And it’s a real blast to play — that’s important too.

The way it works is simple — each player controls a main virus, hilariously styled as one of a number of bizzare animal-inspired things, including Avian and Swine Flu, as well as Lizard and Monkey flu, too. You collect little purple viruses that randomly appear around the edges of the field, and convert them in to little versions of yourself. This forms a swarm, which you can manipulate in two ways — as ammunition, or as a mob. You can easily fire your viruses off like a machine gun, where they’ll run in a straight line until they hit something, or you can get them to move as a single large swarm as an extension of your character, where they’ll stay near but cluster in the selected direction.

Now, when two converted viruses meet, they both vanish. The aim is to hit the other players main virus with your swarm, battering them until they collapse. It’s easier said than done, since they want to do it right back to you. And when two swarms collide they evaporate quickly so if you didn’t get in to the mix with the bigger group, you’ll end up with some bruises.

Additionally, the game has three powerups which add a nice spiciness to the game; a health boost, a homing attack, and a circular redeploy. Players can carry one of the latter two at a time, the the health-up is simply automatically applied. The two held powerups are intensely useful and strategic; the homing attack sends your entire swarm directly at one opponent, often burrowing through their swarm and dealing serious damage; the redeploy collects all of your viruses and spawns them instantly at your center, then deploys them around you spread in a circle, making an excellent shield and surprise attack.

It’s actually with the powerups that a strange design decision shows up — one of the powers is green and the other yellow. These correspond to the ‘A’ and ‘Y’ buttons on the controllers, of the same colors. At first glance, this seems like a great aid to let people know what button to press, but the reality is, there’s no reason for them to be mapped to different buttons. Players never otherwise need to press any of the ABXY buttons, and any or all of them could easily activate both powerups, since you can’t carry two. This could also have been mapped to L1, L2, L3, R2 or R3, since none of those button are used. While the ABXY buttons make sense — the two stick robotron/geometry wars controls make pressing those buttons a very deliberate act — the separation based on powerup doesn’t make sense.

Additionally while the game-play is a blast, it’s a bit random. The game revolves around the neutral viruses being collected, but their spawning is random and can sometimes lead to one player getting a specific advantage over time. Since the spawning of power ups is similarly random, the strategy of the game often gets reduced a little by the randomness. I almost think the powerups would have worked better as abilities that charged over time, and if players spawned some viruses over time, or if they were rewarded with more viruses for hitting their opponents. Some sort of more deliberate system, at least.

However, the randomness is nothing compared to the overall product. The game is an amazing 4 player party and was a highlight at the Jam. (Also, I won most of the games I played; this may have been to sway my opinion of the game, those nefarious geniuses.) If you have the controllers to play it, Flock U! is a highly recommended title.

Images in today’s post shameless stolen from TOJam’s site. Visit them!

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3 Responses to “The Games of TOJam 4: Part 4”

  1. bignobody Says:

    Thanks for the kind words about Pond Scum! I agree with pretty much all of your criticism, but rather than address the issues in the Flash version I am putting that energy towards an XBox Indie Games version.

    All of the advanced features I had planned for the game got cut for time (lesson learned: bring some prebuilt libraries to work with instead of writing EVERYTHING from scratch), but for 3 days of work I’m pretty pleased with it.

    Those features cut from what is now called the “prototype” version will see life yet 🙂

    • Greg Says:

      Heh. Well, as a prototype, it works pretty well — it’s an excellent production! I can understand focuses more on the next version, though, and I look forward to seeing it finished! 😀

      I think once these reviews are all done, we should survey all the TOJammers for a commentary on ‘What I learned at TOJam’ — that could make a good read, and maybe good warning for next year’s participants.

  2. The Games of TOJam 4: Part 5 « The Art of Game Says:

    […] you’re just joining us now, you should check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of this series for more great TOJam […]

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