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Great Games I've Played Recently

I've played several truly excellent computer games recently, so I thought it was time for another post describing them and bringing them to people's attention.

You can clearly see my preferences in computer games from this selection. The four games between them include three platform puzzle games, two Metroidvania games, three 2D games, two games with lots of secrets, no games where a playthrough exceeds 25 hours, and four games which I downloaded straight to my PC. Also, one free game and none that cost more than £20.

Onto the reviews!

Portal

Yeah, we may as well start with the most famous of the four, and so the one I need to say the least about. Portal is excellent. It's a first-person puzzle game (in fact it may have defined the term "first-person puzzle game"). It's got pleasing flavour, which starts out very bland apart from the quirky computer, but gets darkly comic in a satisfying way. The game mechanics are very simple, but the consequences get pleasingly complex.

And of course, the ending song is a masterpiece, which got stuck in my head for weeks after I completed the game. Hooray for Jonathan Coulton!


Aquaria

Yay, Aquaria. An game that far more people should play. It's making some waves in the indie game circles, but deserves much more recognition.

Aquaria is quite a hard game to categorise. It's very like a Metroidvania game, except that you're not jumping on platforms, you're swimming in the sea. It can be a game of exploration, but you have to shoot things sometimes, and it starts seeming like a side-scrolling space shooter; but then you spend a lot of time exploring beautiful landscapes, and making your character sing songs and cook, and it's the furthest thing in the world from shooting.

Let me try to describe the gameplay. You control a solitary undersea creature called Naija. You start off swimming her around ocean caves, and learn one or two songs to interact with your environment. You collect basic food items, some of which will heal you or make you go faster or suchlike. You discover certain things that obstruct your path – boulders, locked doors, and so on. You explore your environment, and learn new skills, which will let you get past some of those obstructions and explore new areas of the big, connected world of Aquaria. After a while, you start fighting enemies, and cooking more complex items to help you. You have freedom to do different areas in different orders, as long as you have the skill to get entrance to said area. You may return to old areas to see what you missed the first time, or what you're able to interact with now that you weren't before.

And you reveal the story of Aquaria – of the civilisations that used to populate its waters, and of Naija herself – where she came from, and how come she's swimming around on her own.

Aquaria is an aesthetic experience. The world is immersing, ranging from beautiful and startlingly diverse seabeds teeming with life, to creepy infested ruins. There's a real joy in seeing sea creatures both recognisable and astonishing swimming around you.
And the music is awesome. I generally never notice the music to games, but Aquaria's music is immensely evocative, without being intrusive. I bought the soundtrack CD to Aquaria, and I've never bought a game's soundtrack before. And the occasional moments when the soundtrack suddenly relates with the gameplay... are truly awesome.

Would you enjoy Aquaria? Here are a few criteria.
  • If you like your games neatly categorised and squarely within one genre, perhaps not.
  • If you like games including exploration and gaining new abilities, then probably so.
  • If you like to be clearly told where to go next, then perhaps not.
  • If you like games with lots of secrets and side quests, then probably so.
  • If you only like games with 3D graphics, perhaps not.
  • If you appreciate visual and musical beauty, then perhaps so.
I'd recommend people try out Aquaria – there's a free demo which includes the first two or three chunks of the game, perhaps 20% of the whole thing. Download it here, or on Steam.


Braid

Braid is a platform puzzle game which has acquired a certain reputation. There are some things I very much like about it, and a couple that I don't.

The basic game is all about time manipulation. You can rewind time at any point, including if you're dead. This means there's no way to die – there's no limit on this rewind power, unlike the similar mechanic in Prince of Persia. But that certainly doesn't mean the game's easy. It just lets the game concentrate its challenge where it wants it, which is the puzzles.

The website of Braid promises "Every puzzle in Braid is unique. There is no filler. Braid treats your time and attention as precious." And for the most part, it really delivers. The game mechanics are simple, though brain-stretching at times. But the consequences of the simple mechanics are some tricky puzzles. Which is good!

The puzzles are mostly satisfying. At times they require some quite tricky jumping, particularly in world 6 where things get rather time-dependent. But generally, for some nice brain-stretching platform puzzle action, Braid comes highly recommended.

The plot and setting of Braid... I have rather more mixed opinions on. At the start of each world, there are some books narrating a vague connection between the protagonist's real-world life and the time-manipulation gimmick for that world; it's quite silly. The final level pulls off a very clever recasting of what's gone before, which deserves applause.

But the final level also looks like you ought to be able to do things differently. There are ladders which you'd dearly love to climb but are only present when you don't have control. I looked a long time for a way to make things go differently, but there isn't one. As it happens, there are a few very well hidden secrets in a few levels of Braid, including this one; I watched through YouTube videos of how to get them, but what happens isn't what I'd been hoping for either.

Now, I understand that this is part of the point of Braid. There's a melancholic tone pervading the text of each level, and I shouldn't really have expected a happy ending. That's not what the author is trying to say. The reason for my dislike of this part of the game comes down to a very philosophical point, which is just that I'm an optimist and the author's a pessimist. I'm not keen on modern "slice of life" movies, with an ultimate message of things like "Life sucks" or "People don't change", which I find unsatisfying because that's not my opinion or my experience. There's also an argument to be made that the game's deliberately obscure, particularly in the epilogue, as this article argued at length.

But that's the level on which I dislike and disagree with Braid. As a puzzler that does neat tricks with time manipulation, however, it's excellent and worth trying out.


Iji

And finally, I get to the bit I've been looking forward to the most: I get to write about Iji.

Iji is a side-scrolling action adventure (which is free to download). It's got a surprisingly compelling plot driving it. The story seems simple – aliens invade and you're the only one who can drive them back – but rapidly develops twists, and the factions and characters are well-textured. It's hard to describe any character or group here as the bad guys: they've all got reasons for what they're doing.

One of the major reasons Iji appeals to me so much is the branching storyline. Although all your actions are within the platform-game interface, they have major consequences for the plot. It's a beautiful example of gameplay and story integration, rather than gameplay and story segregation. There are two or three major branches the story can take depending on your actions, and several other more minor ways in which the consequences of the things you do are shown.

The other major thing I love about Iji is the amount of secrets and unlockables. Even from the title screen, a look at the Extras menu will show you several Extras that are only unlocked on certain achievements – ranging from straightforward "complete the game on Normal difficulty" and "complete the game on Hard difficulty", to "find some well-hidden posters in each level" and "make over 100 successful cracks in the course of a game", right through to the deliberately cryptic "find the Scrambler". But the ones mentioned on the Extras screen are only some of the many secrets the game has to offer: and in the course of playing you'll find some ledges you can't climb (yet), some doors that seem they should be openable (but you can't immediately see how), and some log books from the enemies referring to some of the deeper secrets in the military complex (which hint at things you could have done differently on previous and future levels).

For these two reasons – branching storyline and bucketloads of secrets – Iji has awesome replay value. It's quicker to complete Iji than the other games here: a first playthrough took me less than 4 hours by the game log, which is probably under 6 hours real time factoring in dying a few times, and the author says he can complete the game in 30 minutes. But it's got way more in it than you'll see in two or three playthroughs. And, nicely, after you've completed it once it lets you play each level individually, which is handy for finding a number of the secrets.

I rather like to describe Iji as a platform puzzler disguised as a platform shooter. You've got a whole variety of weapons, each of which are useful against enemies in different circumstances, but are also useful for letting you reach different hidden places. There are assorted stats you can level up over the course of the game, from Health and Attack power, to Strength (for kicking enemies and doors) and Cracking, to skill with two different categories of enemy weapons you'll pick up. The management of these stats to let you get through certain barriers at the right times forms part of the puzzle element, and almost all the stats - even those that seem unlikely - have puzzle applications as well as combat ones.


One other thing that all four of these games have in common: at one point or another, I consulted a walkthrough, but I'd have preferred to get more subtle hints. (In Braid, I completed the game on my own, but there were some secrets I was missing. In Portal, there was one manouevring technique I couldn't figure out (even though the game tried to hint it to me). In Aquaria, there were two or three bosses that I couldn't figure out how to damage, and one puzzle in the Sunken City (not "the one where everyone gets stuck", though). In Iji, there are two or three secrets that I've been spoiled on.)

Accordingly, I'd be very happy to offer hints for any of these games, ranging from cryptic to subtle to blatant. If anyone is playing them and would like a hint more subtle than a walkthrough would give you, then please, email me and I'd be very happy to help. I've written most of a UHS file for Iji, so I've got a big list of hints available on most topics if anyone wants.

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
l_the_fangirl
Dec. 10th, 2009 12:32 am (UTC)
I am very glad to see that you've enjoyed Iji!

Aquaria I already knew and loved, saw a very good Let's Play of Braid (My favorite moment was when the commentator ended a cluster-F bomb directed at a puzzle in world 6 with "PRETENTIOUS!"), and I'm working on Portal, BTW.

Also, shamelessly plugging a friend: Sum Of The Parts is going to be an awesome VN. You heard it here first.
alextfish
Dec. 10th, 2009 12:19 pm (UTC)
Yes... now I come to think about it, it's you I have to thank for recommending I try both Braid and Iji, isn't it? Many thanks :) And based on that, I guess I should keep an eye out for Som Of The Parts :)

I'm not quite sure how a /puzzle/ in Braid could be pretentious. The story and artsy style, definitely. The puzzles particularly in world 6 can require obscenely tricky platforming, and it's my least favourite world for that reason. But I'm not sure I see how it can be pretentious.

l_the_fangirl
Dec. 10th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
[explainingthejoke]

A cluster fcuk bomb is when you hurl insults and vulgarity of increasing vigor at something that offends you. A common joke is to substitute something that you hate that is not vulgar at the end.

In this case, he was using ABSOLUTELY VILE LANGUAGE every time he died, and at his last death, simply screamed "PRETENTIOUS!"

Crowning moment of funny, that. [/explainingthejoke]
alextfish
Dec. 10th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
Ah... I see. I'm familiar with ClusterFBombs (from a site you and I both rather like), but not with the variation of throwing in a random non-vulgarity at the end.
chess
Dec. 10th, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)
How are Aquaria and Iji at the 'frustrating jumping puzzles' thing? I like games with a good story, but I am terminally inept at platformers and jumping puzzles ruin a game for me (because I just can't get them right, so I'm stuck with having part of the story and being really into it but unable to progress further).
alextfish
Dec. 10th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
Neither of them is particularly bad from that point of view.

Aquaria has very few jumping puzzles - it's set underwater, after all. A few of the bonus treasures are hidden beyond very tricky bits along those kinds of lines, but those are optional. There are a few levels full of enemies that damage you a lot, but you can often just swim straight past them if you don't feel like trying to defeat them. Most of the really hard bits of Aquaria are bosses that it's hard to figure out how to damage them at all.

Iji only has one tricky jump in the whole game, and that's going for an optional bonus. The platforming is very easy, because Iji will grab hold of the edge of a ledge and pull herself up it if you get near. The difficult bits in Iji are just places where enemies shoot at you a lot, or hard puzzles of figuring out how on earth you can reach some hidden place or other.

On the other hand, Braid and Portal have some very tricky jumping puzzles, like in Untitled Story and Super Mario 63, so you might do better to steer clear of them.
alextfish
Jan. 7th, 2010 12:59 pm (UTC)
Ha, it turns out that the tricky jump in Iji I referred to above was actually a puzzle that I managed to find an alternate solution to. There's a way to reach that particular spot that doesn't require any tricky jumping. Iji is great... :)
pjt33
Dec. 11th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
Would Tombraider be a first person puzzle game which predates Portal by a few years?
l_the_fangirl
Dec. 17th, 2009 07:38 am (UTC)
I'm fairly sure that Tomb Raider is 3rd person.
ex_robhu
Feb. 8th, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
Did you get all the stars in Braid?
alextfish
Feb. 8th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
No. I got 2 of them, and watched a few videos of how (the first stages of) how to get the others. I don't think I'm missing much - they're mostly focused on the "very tricky platforming" aspect of the game rather than the "figure out the way to do this", and I prefer the latter.
ex_robhu
Feb. 9th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
OK.

I haven't played Braid at all, but I watched the endings on YouTube, and I read a few articles on what the story was really about (the story is rather unexpectedly dark!)
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )