Friday, March 11, 2016

Flamebreak - MOBA-inspired, Roguelike, Twin-stick, Action RPG

Genre: Action/RPG - Platform: PC - Release: March 15, 2016
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this game to review from the developer; opinions expressed in this review are my own.
Flamebreak's Steam store page already does a good job of describing itself, but to say it in slightly different words, this is a game of making your way through randomized maps of enemy encounters (and shops and minigames) with your choice of one of three randomized characters (which pull from ten races, eight weapons, and more than twenty skills). As you move from location to location on the map, adjacent areas are revealed so that you can plan your next step. Battles are fought in a top-down, twin-stick style. As you may have guessed if you're familiar with this type of game, it's all about surviving as long as possible - maybe even winning - and adjusting to the hand you're dealt along the way. Thanks to all the randomization, every playthrough is a bit different and you'll want to keep playing to unlock more playable races, weapons, skills, and play options (experience is given for completing each area, and there's bonus experience for playing in the daily challenges).
(Click to enlarge)
A typical enemy encounter.
The MOBA inspiration comes from the three randomly assigned skills you're given at the start of each run, which each have a several second cooldown and vary in how they're used. In most cases, simply spamming each skill as it becomes available is not the best strategy, since you may want to save one which will destroy incoming projectiles or one which allows you to warp behind an enemy for a more strategic time. However, I still found that once you get the hang of the skills, you can mostly use the same strategy on every enemy you encounter and simply use your skills in a more controlled and orderly form of spam. Anyway, these skills can be upgraded for a price if you're lucky enough to find a Wise Man on the map. I actually had a hard time determining what exactly the upgrades would do, but I'm sure that info was hidden somewhere in the somewhat overwhelming amount of stats displayed whenever you mouse over anything. (Honestly, the stats everywhere aren't that bad except at the character select screen when it's your first time playing.) But it's still better to have those stats available in the long run, even if they make noobs like me want to speed read over them.

Speaking of stats, you'll want to be on the lookout for towns, blacksmiths, and jewelers as well so that you can buy armor and other stat-improving equipment. For the armor and jewelry, there are sets that you can try to collect which will grant and additional effect when completed, usually going beyond simple stat increases to give things like a helper AI golem or periodically deployed shock waves. 
(Click to enlarge)
Deciding where to go on the map screen is a game in itself.
Next, there are map items which, as you may guess, are used on the map between encounters. You start with one of each of: a spyglass, for revealing a part of the map, dust of appearance, which reveals paths through impassable terrain and adds additional items in shops, a warpstone, which lets you warp up to three spaces away on the map, and a health potion, which fully refills your health. These items can also be bought in towns or won from riskier hazard battles which have additional dangers going on during the skirmish. There's a lot of risk and reward in this game when it comes to knowing when to use your consumable items and whether to attempt a more challenging path for its benefits, especially since your moves are limited by an ever encroaching shadow which brings its own dangers when it catches you: battles without rewards.
Check out my completed run. Beware of minor spoilers though.
[Note: the graphical glitch near the end of the video was on my end, not the game's.]
Apart from equipment and map items, there's also affinity toward particular demigods to consider. As you explore the maps, you'll also encounter altars to each of the five gods. In these areas, you have the option to defend or destroy the altar (though it's not like the enemies actually go after the altar, it's more about keeping it out of the crossfire). Should you defend it, you'll gain favor with that god, and with enough favor, you'll reap varying levels of benefits. If you destroy the altar, your favor with that god plummets, but you receive a little bit of favor with each of the others.
At the start of the game and between each area are bits of backstory told in the form of poetry.
All this god stuff is related to Flamebreak's noteworthy backstory which is told in the form of poetry written by Poem_for_your_sprog, the legendary spontaneous and hilarious Redditor poet; although in this case, the poems are for more serious storytelling, but no less well-written. Normally I'd skip right over the plot in a game like this, but since it's so well written and well narrated (by Adam Behr), I've enjoyed seeing each new part of the story even though they can be skipped. To summarize the story though, there's a main god that created all the various races and then created demigods to help them. However, the demigods rebelled and killed the creator god... except for the fact that he put a part of himself in his first creation: the phoenix. Thus, presumably, the goal is to defeat the demigods and revive the creator god... but I wouldn't tell you how it ends even if I knew.
(Click to enlarge)
Sometimes an emeny encounter will unexpectedly be a gold-earning minigame of
defending bags of gold or grabbing gold-carrying enemies with a hookshot.
While Flamebreak doesn't really overflow with content in the same way that The Binding of Isaac does, it still has a fair bit to do in it and I really appreciate the small things it has like being able to view your run's seed (so that you can send it to a friend to try or so that you can have a fair race), see your completion streak, and create custom challenges. My only complaint is that many enemies don't feel all that different from each other and that the battle areas don't have particularly interesting terrain. ...But maybe the functional, but forgettable graphic style just planted that idea in my head. The enemies hardly even look different from the player's character for that matter, making it difficult to keep track of yourself when the battles get more frantic and crowded. I feel like I have to be a critic, but I hate to complain too much because I've genuinely been having a whole lot of fun with Flamebreak. It's because I enjoy it that I wish it had even more variety, even beyond the unlockables it does have.

The Final Word:
Flamebreak isn't quite as bursting with content or as visually distinct as some of its peers, but it still offers a whole lot of fun and plenty of reason to come back for more. Thanks to its different take on map exploration and MOBA-style skills, not to mention the stellar poetic story, Flamebreak manages to offer something that's a bit different and to stand out as a unique experience rather than just an Isaac clone. Fans of action/twinstick-style roguelikes will definitely want to check this one out.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon - The anti-smoking SNES game

Genre: Platforming/Educational - Platform: SNES - Release: 1994
In a world much like our own (actually, I think it's supposed to be our own), one of the top salesmen of Blackburn Tobacco Company is DYING as a result of a lifetime of smoking his company's products! His mouth, lungs, heart, and brain are in critical condition and now the only one who can save him is REX RONAN, a surgeon who is perfecting the technique of shrinking to near microscopic size, entering the bodies of patients, and fighting illness from the inside out (I could've sworn there was a movie like this)! But that's not all - Blackburn Tobacco Company is afraid that if this employee of theirs recovers, he'll tell the world how bad smoking is, so they've somehow gotten nanobots inside him to attack Rex Ronan. ...and there's your incredibly realistic plot to get you going in Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon.
I played through the entire game for your viewing displeasure.

Obviously, the game's primary purpose is to warn kids of the dangers of smoking. In addition to the heavy-handed plot, there are also true/false trivia questions throughout the game featuring facts about how terrible smoking is. You can easily tell whether a fact is true or false based on whether it says something positive or negative about smoking. Answering a trivia question correctly clears the screen of enemies (thank goodness, since more than two cause the game to lag and slow to a crawl) and answering one incorrectly will damage you. Apart from answering trivia, you'll also be walking through linear, poorly planned levels and clearing away with the effects of smoking with your magic medigun thing... except that this is pretty much totally optional.
Seen here: enemy spam, tobacco gunk, a smart bomb trivia module, an upgrade out of reach on the bottom,
and flat, boring level design.
But this game doesn't just warn about the dangers of smoking - it also demonstrates the dangers of awful game design! Indeed, this is possibly the worst game I've ever played. Each level feels as though platforms and enemies were placed everywhere without any thought at all. Depending on the level, there are differently labeled blobs of bad stuff to destroy such as tar residue and pre-cancerous cells, but removing them is a monotonous task that only raises your completion percentage at the end of the level. In most cases, all you need to do is keep walking right, defeat a "boss" (just another enemy), and then move on. The trivia "smart bombs" are also mostly unnecessary and work in the unintuitive way of requiring you to shoot them to reveal the question, then touching it if true or avoiding it if false. There are also powerups that don't require any trivia questions and these change your gun type or refill your time or health. In between most levels, there are also 3D-ish flying sections where you avoid and shoot at obstacles as you head to your next destination. These are all mind-numbingly easy, but they do have generic hip, rock-sounding music that all the kids these days love.
One of the flying sections. You gotta move up to the gap in the green stuff.
Sometimes the green stuff spins. I'm not sure how that works medically.
The level design could get away with being an accurate prediction of a five-year-old's Super Mario Maker stage if it weren't for literally everything else also being almost unplayable. Movement is far too slow and clunky to give you any chance of avoiding the waves of seemingly randomly placed enemies. Let's just say that in the time Rex takes to complete his jumping and standing animations, he could have already cured cancer. When shooting at enemies or tobacco gunk, the player is required to stop and then swivel their aim around, but if you want to crouch, as you often will to avoid enemy shots, you'll have to crouch before shooting and then start your ridiculous aiming. That probably sounds like a minor thing, but when you're getting knocked back every second and need to fix your aim over and over, it's a huge deal. And even though movement is slower than your typical constipated bowel movement, Rex's walking speed outruns the speed of the camera so you won't be able to see what's coming until you run right into it. Oh, and I totally forgot until I went back to take the screenshots, but you can kick in this game. Unfortunately, the hitbox is so small and unclear and the cooldown so long, that there seems to be no reason to ever try it.
Notice how I can't at all see what's coming.
Even though the game seems to drag on for ages because of lag and being constantly knocked down by enemies, I actually finished the entire game in less than an hour on my first time playing. So whoever bought this game as a kid didn't even get their money's worth of gameplay out of it. There are a few options to keep the experience fresh on future playthroughs though: you can disable the music, disable smart bombs, and change the language to Spanish. Neato.

I'll spoil the ending so that you don't have to play the game for it: Rex Ronan saves the dude and the dude tells everyone that smoking is bad and everyone listens all of a sudden and the tobacco company goes bankrupt.
The Final Word:
You may have thought that dying of cancer was the worst result of smoking, but one could argue that the creation of this game is even worse. I actually go out of my way to try out terrible games and thanks to the clunky controls, thoughtless level design, and ridiculous story, this is easily one of the most poorly designed games I've ever played. I guess that means I'll have to speedrun it. Heh.
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