This is the second in a set of four daily reports which will cover the games I played this weekend at the Eurogamer Expo 2010 in London. Each report will cover three games, with yesterday's being Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Microsoft's Kinect. You can read about those games here. Under the microscope today are Kirby's Epic Yarn, Vanquish and Enslaved: Odyssey To The West. Enjoy!
Kirby's Epic Yarn
Watching Epic Yarn in video form is enough to send most grown men into enamoured fits of cooing adoration, but that's nothing compared to actually playing the thing. Although the bigger transformations occur at set points, where Kirby and his b'crowned pal (whom a friend labelled King String for lack of a better name) hop into swirling fabric vortices and transform, this time into the enormous circular tank with missile-firing mouth and controllable fist projectiles, the ability to reshape your malleable protagonist into a parachute, weight, submarine or (best of all) car are available at your want, assuming you're in an appropriate environment. There's not a huge amount of point to any of these other than charm, but then that appears to be the case for the game in general. Ostensibly, enemies exist to knock away the gems and treasures you collect while traversing each level, but the truth is that these are so lacking in threat that you would have to leave the game on whilst making a cup of tea and doing the laundry before you're even remotely at risk. That's not a bad thing: it's fun to combine with the second player to find all sorts of silly ways of taking enemies out, even if they don't present any danger. Only the boss that ended the two-level demo, a string dragon who will be familiar to players of the Paper Mario series, was so simple to take down that it became more a test of patience than skill. Searching for treasure encourages you to explore the multi-layered environments and find the myriad secret areas, but even for an opening level you'd actively have to avoid doing any kind of exploring not to find all of them. There were many games at the Expo whose difficulty seemed to have been toned down, but Epic Yarn's main challenge (and therefore the key to any replayability) looks to come through clever design and in that respect, the demo failed to ask even the slightest question of players' instincts to explore. In fact, the first time my friend and I went for some independent exploration, we stumbled across the one big concern to arise from my experience with the game – and when I say the concern was big, it was enough to overwhelm the game's enormous visual charm and plant deep worries that Nintendo spent so long developing charming graphics that level design was left as a half-hearted afterthought.
A short way into the first level, my friend and I came across a pink castle with insurmountable blocks halting our progress forward. We pulled open the castle door, where we ascended to the top up paths up via routes on the left or right walls. I went up the right hand side and my friend the left, with us prevented from meeting on the roof by a tower. In order to pass the blocks at ground level, I jumped off the castle and landed behind them. My friend was unable to do so without dropping back down and climbing back up to my side of the castle – the problem being that, with both players having to be on-screen at the same time, my friend was unable to walk far enough back to drop off the castle to climb up the appropriate side due to my path back being blocked. He was stuck at the top of the castle by the tower and the screen refusing to zoom far enough out, while the blocks on the ground were stopping me from moving back and giving him more room. With no New Super Mario Bros Wii bubble, the only solution (even after asking the rep watching the stand) was to reset the software. This could of course be a one-off design flaw, but given how important multi-layered, two-player exploration appears to be in the game – this a game set for US release next week and therefore given as much testing as it's ever going to get – it's a big concern that such an early game-breaking design fault hasn't been spotted when you'd assume that the way the gameplay is set up would almost certainly lead to the risk of the situation being repeated in later levels without careful scrutiny. Epic Yarn makes an endearing first impression, but whether it will all unravel under pressure remains a disconcertingly strong possibility.
Even in such a short time with the game, Vanquish felt like the spiritual successor to Rare's N64 tour-de-force Jet Force Gemini, only losing the much lamented item hunts and replacing the vast numbers of increasingly immense aliens with large numbers of increasingly immense mechs. The focus on eye-searingly paced action and ridiculous bosses seems a straight lift from Rare's game, only upgraded to ever more insane levels through the technology of the high-definition generation. Much of the game's art design appears generic, from the big grey spaceships interiors, heavily armoured marines and attractive blonde issuing directions from Command HQ. Yet in a similar vein to the Dead Rising games, these clichés so beloved to Western audiences are painted with the veneer of mocking amusement with which Japanese developers often observe such material. Action games are typically overblown (two such titles will be among tomorrow's previews), but Platinum elevate this innate absurdity to the same skyscraper scale as its bosses. Hero Sam Gideon – yes, really – is not just a hardass marine, but a champion gridiron player to boot, growling through cigarette smoke at every break from the action. The plot takes root in the ever-fertile ground of hostility between America and Russia, then throws in gargantuan robots and space-stations for good measure.
The demo took place on one such station, which conveniently enough seemed ideally designed for vast gun battles with wide open arenas, mounted guns and circular walkways at just the right height for attacking a four-legged war machine with a propensity for unleashing vast quantities of destruction at the slightest hint of an intruder. The demo's first arena contained a huge number of enemies to test your arsenal on, with plenty of cover to move between. What might have been a fairly mundane shoot-out is escalated to new levels of excitement and hilarity by Sam's inexplicable but brilliant powerslide move, allowing him to slide around environments at enormous speed, metal heels sparking off the floor, all the while unleashing bullets in all directions. Once standing toe-to-toe with enemies, Sam can pull off typically aggressive melée attacks and dodges. Shifting between cover shooting, high-speed navigation and short bursts of hand-to-hand combat gives the gameplay enough variety to stay fresh, a rhythm reminiscent of P.N.03 and the possibility of pulling off devastating combos that make the player feel as badass as Sam is designed to look. Any number of games give players shiny armour and a growly voice, but few pass on that sense of power to the player. Vanquish does so with aplomb.
Because of this, the game rebalances itself by being incredibly punishing to anyone who hasn't mastered Sam's numerous battle techniques. The demo had an extra difficulty level which made the player near-invincible, so they could experience the game with minimal risk, yet on the default 'Normal' mode enemies were able to take Sam down in seconds should the player so much as stop for breath. The best way of surviving the assault that opened the demo was by playing on an almost instinctive level, picking the first enemy to catch your eye and taking them out as quickly as possible either from cover or by sliding up close and attacking by hand if surrounded. Standing still for too long resulted in enemies flanking and turning your shiny armour to scrap. The boss battle which formed the second half of the demo was no less intense, pointing out a number of targets and then leaving it to the player to find the moment to attack between a constant barrage of bullets, lasers and missiles. If there was one negative to the gameplay shown in the demo, it's that gun magazines emptied very quickly and required players to stand over a new gun and hold down a button to reload (another button press were the gun contained in an ammo box). In a game whose appeal is the speed of its action, this brought the rhythm to a halt and could easily have been avoided were ammo collected automatically or by allowing boxes to be smashed mid-slide. It's a minor misstep in a game otherwise exploding at the seams with a manically accomplished attitude to refreshing a genre prone to taking itself too seriously, with gameplay that more than stands up to its aesthetic insanity.
Enslaved: Odyssey To The West
Enslaved was one of the games I was looking forward to playing, as Journey To The West is a text with a huge amount of potential for an outstanding videogame translation. A heady mix of Oriental mythology told through memorable characters that combines plenty of rowdy violence and lust with a deeper spiritual undercurrent, along with the geek cred of being the basis for the late '70s television show Monkey. Although the game's redrawing of the story with unoriginal science-fiction overtones (machines take over the earth after making humanity all but extinct) and replacing the religious mysticism and demons of the original, the overgrown cities that have formed the basis of much of the game's pre-release publicity is at least a colourful and more hauntingly subtle representation of a post-human world. I had time to play the first two chapters of the game, the first showing protagonist Monkey escaping a disintegrating prison ship by hitching a ride on last-human Trip's escape pod, while the second had them moving through a crumbling cityscape teeming with sentry mechs and explaining how Trip comes to exert power over the wild Monkey.
The demo wasn't bad, but resolved much of my disappointment that I likely won't get the chance to play any further into the game given how there are no plans for its release on PC (or, obviously, on Wii). The main problem is that there were no signs the developers could think of anything interesting to do with the source material other than use it as an excuse to justify yet another end-of-world scenario. If anything, the TV series seems to have served as greater inspiration than the text: the novel's Tripitaka is male, though was played by a girl on television and here becomes yet another Ninja Theory Nariko-esque heroine with red hair, shapely buttocks and blow-job lips (which her perpetually astonished expression seemed designed to show off). Monkey's egg-shaped prison is a neat visual throwback to the television character's origins (in which he bursts out of a giant rock egg, whereas in the novel it's just a rock), but the character himself becomes another muscle-bound protagonist, albeit with funkier hair (horribly textured, incidentally) and a strip of cloth dangling from his belt to resemble a tail. Sure, the demo only showed the earliest parts of the game, yet there was little effort to introduce the characters or give any deeper meaning to their quest. The unskippable cutscenes (in a demo!) were rife with contrived dialogue and misjudged attempts at humour. From a gameplay perspective, it's playable enough but lacking anything that hasn't been seen and done many times before. Aside from a very irritating shaky camera in the first chapter, Enslaved does everything you'd expect from this kind of game competently but not exceptionally. The platforming takes inspiration from the Prince of Persia series, but takes away any tension by making it apparently impossible to fail any jumps or acrobatics – Monkey simply won't obey your commands if you mistime a button press or aren't standing in the right place. Combat combines the usual standard, power and wide attacks that quickly turns into button-mashing. The Monkey-Trip combination play, again, uses the standard tropes - cause a distraction to let the vulnerable Trip sneak past guards; she waits while you take out a more powerful enemy or lift a heavy obstacle - without taking any risks. Beyond Good & Evil was similarly unexceptional in combat, but layered its world and plot with intelligent ideas and twists that elevated the overall experience of the game. Enslaved has the source material to do something incredible, but didn't show any signs of using it for anything deeper than surface aesthetics and leaving the core experience competent, but all too familiar.
Thanks to everyone for reading! Tomorrow's games will be the all-action trio of Killzone 3 (3D), SOCOM 4 and Crysis 2.