Thursday, October 25, 2018

Four Last Things (PC) - Review

More heaven than hell.

In the infinity of things it was probably inevitable that someone would take a closer look at renaissance paintings and think to themselves "hey, these are pretty whacky. Wouldn't it be fun to make a point & click adventure game set entirely in these paintings?". That someone is Joe Richardson and that game is Four Last Things. It is exactly the kind of thing I would use as an example of something that is either a stroke of genius or completely bonkers - but Joe Richardson wasn't the only one who thought it was a good idea, as Four Last Things is a Kickstarter-backed game. Let me say this though - it is a good idea.

I can't say I know much about art, or that I am overly interested either. I listen to an art podcast however so I guess that puts me slightly above average in interest-level even though it's more because of my massive interest in everything history and less about art specifically. In the end it really doesn't matter if you know or don't know anything about renaissance art when you play this game. If anything, if you go into this purely because of your love for point & click adventure games, you are likely to come out of it with a curiosity of renaissance art. Because boy are they weird.
Richardson seems to have been especially inspired by the works of Hieronymus Bosch (Four Last Things refers to a work by him), and it's not hard to see why. Just look up pretty much any of his artwork and you'll probably find a painting worth poring over for quite some time. Unless you know all the intricacies of renaissance symbolism, chances are they are going to make absolutely no sense.

Your guess is as good as mine.

The game itself is not big, it only contains around two dozen different screens to interact with. Each screen is a patchwork quilt of paintings, with certain parts simplistically animated. Richardson has clearly realized how absurd the whole idea is, because this game does not take itself seriously. If you're worried a game about renaissance art is too high-brow to be fun, you can stop worrying right now. The wikipage says PC Gamer called it "Monty Python"-esque and that is definitely a very fitting description. The writing is surprisingly fun throughout and probably the games biggest strength.

The story is simple but effective - you play as a character who has come to the church of Heavenly Peter, seeking absolution for having committed the seven deadly sins. The bishops tell you that the sins were done outside of their jurisdiction and so you need to re-commit them in order to be absolved in their church. Re-committing these sins is the entire game, meaning it is not very big, because we all know sinning isn't something that requires much effort. I finished it in 1,5 hours, admittedly I required some help for some of the puzzles meaning that if I had had the patience to try and solve them on my own the game would've probably lasted around twice as long.

That is not to say the puzzles are particularly difficult or unfair, on the contrary - I found the puzzles some of the most well-balanced I've encountered in a point & click adventure in a long time. Even though I am a bit too slow-witted to figure them all out, you are definitely given the right type and the right amount of clues to figure out most of them without having to make big leaps in logical thinking, especially if you're accustomed to a point & click-think. While they range from silly simple (and this is also pointed out in the game) to trickier several-step puzzles, you won't find any red herrings here. I wouldn't have been able to figure out the riddle in a million years though.

Looks overwhelming at first, just like good renaissance art should.

Each screen is accompanied with its own classical renaissance-tune, played by some character or characters in the screen. Each tune is mostly just a short jingle on a loop and I can understand why Richardson thought there needed to be a lot of variation, because every single tune wears on your ears pretty quickly. Fortunately you don't spend enough time in each screen nor with the game to become too annoyed by it (big ear-worm warning here though).

You control your character by  (surprise surprise) clicking on objects in the surrounding that are interactable, this gives you an action-wheel a la Full Throttle to either use (hand), talk (mouth) or look (eye) at or with something. Your items are handled in a drop-down menu. This works very well but you will find yourself with little reason to look at things (other to hear the witty description of it) and you won't pick up and handle many items. Most of the game is solved by talking to people. Unlike with some other P&C games I never struggled to find what objects were interactable nor where I could go next. I did encounter a bug of some sort where I wasn't able to interact with anything in the screen. Right-clicking makes your character do a somersault (to no apparent use in the game as far as I could tell) and only after doing that did the controls work again. I have no idea if this is working as intended, but it only happened twice and was barely an inconvenience.

In the end the Four Last Things comes out as something I am glad I have spent some time with. It's entertaining, and dare I say maybe even a bit educating. If you're into odd video games, renaissance art and/or point & click adventure games you could do worse than to spend a few hours with Four Last Things. It doesn't have much, but what is there is unconventional, witty and well-designed. And there is something to rewarding an oddball idea such as this one with your time and money.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS) - Review

Stick it where it don't shine.
Rage-filled spoilers!

I love the Mario & Luigi games. They've got great characters, fun stories, interesting gameplay and exciting worlds. Don't worry, you're not in the wrong review. I'm just listing things that Paper Mario: Sticker Star could've had, but doesn't. Paper Mario: Sticker Star, or PMSS as I am fittingly going to abbreviate it, because it made me rage like I had PMS, has flat characters, a boring story, nerdrage inducing gameplay and tedious worlds instead.

After 20 hours and almost at the end of the game I just slammed my 3DS shut and decided enough was enough. The game had made me angry for the last time, and I wasn't going to deal with any of its bullcrap any longer. Those 20 hours had been filled with me going "what the heck am I supposed to do here?!" and then "how on earth was I supposed to figure that out?!" after googling the answer. I am daft with game logic at the best of times, and often find I want to kick myself in the backside when I can't figure something out. Not so with PMSS which I thought was genuinely unfair. I'll give you some (un)funny examples in a moment, but first let me explain to you how I ended up playing this game.

Again, I've got to mention the Mario & Luigi games. The RPG-series in which you play Mario & Luigi through some of the weirdest places have been a truly entertaining one for me through all the games I have played so far (which are Superstar Saga, Partners in Time and Dream Team Bros.). It made me think that maybe the Paper Mario series would be worth checking out, and the easiest for me to obtain without selling a kidney was PMSS (since I don't own a Wii or WiiU).

I was immediately disappointed when it turned out Paper Mario isn't an RPG at all, which I had for some reason gotten into my head. I wasn't going to let that stop me though, since I play loads of games that aren't RPGs but it definitely made me wonder if I had any clue as to what Paper Mario was at all, or if I had been thinking of some other game all along. This review might also make you think I am an easily angered person, but I am really not. I am usually serenity incarnate, but this game made me tap into

The schtick about PMSS is that not only is Mario and everything around him made of paper (which I find is a fun and interesting aesthetical idea) but everything you do also revolves around stickers. Combat, which is similar to that in the Mario & Luigi games in which you're required to time your attacks and blocks to increase damage done and reduce damage taken, is done entirely by using stickers you find around the world and buy from the store. These stickers can pretty much be anything. From your down to earth stomp and hammer pound, to more esoterical items like Fans, Vacuums and Scissors. And this is where some of my biggest issues with PMSS rears its ugly head.

I don't even want to get into the story, because it is completely pointless. In essence however, you set out to rescue some royal stickers because of reasons. You get a side-kick sticker named Kersti who quickly tells you about something called "paperization". Paperization basically allows you to manipulate the world in different places with the help of stickers. It sounds pretty cool on paper (no pun intended) but doesn't always work so well in action. Sometimes these paperizations are necessary to advance the game and almost always it's extremely unclear which sticker it is you need to use. If you use the wrong one, it disappears and you have to go back to wherever it was you found it and pick it up again (something I didn't even know was possible until about a third into the game).

Let me explain the scenario here. You get to someplace in the game and you don't know how to advance. The first and easiest thing to figure out is that you probably need to paperize somewhere. Finding the right place is also rarely an issue. But you're only presented with an empty box and no inkling as to what sticker should go in there. This is especially infuriating during boss fights, because some are unbeatable unless you figure out which sticker needs to be used.

Here's an example; you fight a big cheep cheep about half way through the game. Almost immediately the fish jumps far out into the water, out of reach of your attacks. Not only might you have lined up some of your best stickers to hit him, which will now fizzle and be wasted, you also can not hit him and will die unless you figure out a way to get him back to you. The solution is a fish hook sticker. That sounds completely logical right? Sure enough, but only if you've already found the fish hook sticker, which is hidden in a completely different level. If you, like me, stand there without that sticker you have to just realize that "hey, I should probably have a fish hook here", then go to every stage and try to find the secret place where a fish hook, that you don't even know for sure is in the game or the solution to your boss fight, might be. This obtuseness just goes on.

In a later stage you need to find a sticker piece hidden underneath a pile of garbage. The solution is to have a goat sticker eat all the garbage. There is a chomp-chomp boss you can only defeat by removing the peg he's chained to before you enter the fight so that he jumps off instead of fights you. There are doorways that you genuinely can't frickin see because they're hidden behind objects. Not doorways to secret areas, just regular doorways you need to go further into the stage! (While that has nothing to do with paperization, it is very annoying).

The straw that finally broke my back was when I was fighting another chomp chomp, which to beat I had to enter a fight with to put to sleep with a certain sticker, then run from the fight so I could hit the peg, then re-enter the fight and have him run off. Trying to hit the peg I accidentally re-entered the fight by hitting the chomp chomp instead and since I for some reason couldn't run from the fight again I was screwed. I would have to restart the level to retry. I just looked at the screen and thought "No. I'm not doing this. This game is legitimately making me angry, and that is so not worth my valuable game-time".

Bosses are also often so much more difficult than everything else in the game that if you don't figure out their weakness you'll basically run out of all your stickers trying to kill them. I've always had a pet peeve with this kind of discrepancy between regular mobs and bosses if it doesn't feel natural or well-designed (the Persona games is an example of where this makes sense). But fighting a boss and find that the same attack suddenly does a tenth or even twentieth of the damage with no explanation, it just feels unnatural and unfair. It feels like they are trying to force me to use my special stickers, rather than making it optional to ease the fight.

In all of that it doesn't help that, as mentioned, the story is completely meh (which it often is in Mario-games, but countered with great gameplay). It doesn't help that none of the characters are interesting, or even make me remotely chuckle, like in the Mario & Luigi games. It doesn't help that the stages have jumping sections that almost made me want to crush my 3DS in my hands out of anger. But on the other hand I find it really doubtful that even if those elements had worked, it would've been enough to remove the extreme frustration I felt with the gameplay. It's also made me seriously wonder if I should play Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam...

I do have to give credit where credits due though and say that the OST is well worth a listen as there are some really great tunes in this game. It is actually a bit of a comfort knowing that I haven't just wasted 20 hours on this game but at least walk away with some nice songs for my playlist (songs I could've admittedly found anyway and with a lot less rage, but still).

In the end PMSS felt like I was playing a really cruel point & click adventure game - requiring me to picture solutions I didn't know for sure were even in the game, then set out to find this mirage. And just too much trial and error, putting me in situations where I realized I was screwed only because I had no idea what was coming. Imagine King's Quest but with none of the heart or fun.