Nelson Tethers – Puzzle Agent Bits

Nelson Tether Puzzle Agent1 Nelson Tethers – Puzzle Agent Bits

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent cribs quite liberally from Professor Layton, and relies heavily on its art style, but it’s still my favourite of Telltale’s episodic games to date.

The bits:

— Obviously the most noticeable thing about Puzzle Agent is its offbeat, crayon-drawn art style. What’s interesting here is that the game relies on stop-motion like animations reminiscent of old, low-budget cartoons. The effect is actually quite good and and the choppy movements are consistently utilized even when smooth animations could have easily replaced them  (e.g., a snowmobile driving in a straight line).

The system made me wonder if other art styles not conducive to animation could successfully adopt a similar approach.

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is quite a cinematic game that uses lots of different framing techniques for both its interactive and non-interactive sequences.

— Aside from the visual style itself, PA is a very atmospheric title in the vein of the old LucasArts adventure games. The characters are bizarre and expressive, the Fargo-esque setting is unique (at least for a videogame), and the great music and voice acting enrich the overall experience.

— PA was clearly designed with the iPhone/iPad in mind. The player never walks his avatar around the screen, and clicking most places sends out a helper-shockwave. As this shockwave expands, it highlights any points of interest that can be clicked on to initiate conversations, puzzles, scene transitions, etc.

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These icons briefly pop-up whenever the player clicks on any close-by, non-interactive areas.

— The actual puzzles in PA are a bit of a letdown. This is due to two main reasons: lack of instructions, and the inability to jot down notes in-game.

A lot of the puzzles are quite obtuse, sometimes to the point where a hint needs to be purchased just to figure out what the game wants the player to do. Unfortunately this seems like a concession to the game’s hint system (all puzzles must contain 3 individual hints) as some cases actually contains an additional screen that explains the controls and the goals of the minigame.

The secondary complaint deals with the nature of the puzzles themselves. Many of them are common math/logic problems that are meant to be solved in a series of steps. However, the player is often forced to visualize and work through them without any in-game aids. This artificially inflates their difficulty, especially when compared to the visual jigsaw puzzles.

These points certainly don’t ruin the game, but do I hope the various minigames are improved in future episodes.

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Unfortunately most of the other puzzles are not described in nearly as much detail.

– Many puzzles are completely optional and make exploring the world feel more like a non-linear, interactive experience.

– The actual hint system is quite clever. The game starts off with the protagonist trying to solve a crossword, and, having some problems with it, eventually reaching over for some gum to help him concentrate. As we soon learn, the town he visits is experiencing a gum shortage. This forces the player to pick up old, discarded pieces of gum to aid Agent Tethers in his puzzle solving endeavours. Yes, it’s quite gross, but perfectly fits the mood of the game and gives the designers a great excuse to sprinkle virtually all parts of the environment with a useful collectible.

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Agent Tethers comes face-to-face with Mike “The Lobster” Lobb.

Old gum also seems to be a reusable resource, reappearing in new spots as the Agent Tethers travels around town. This provides the player with an unlimited source of hints and prevents him from getting stuck on any one puzzle.

– As a nice little touch, the time of day on the title screen changes up periodically while the camera slowly scrolls around the Scoggins eraser factory.

– The UI of the game is very flashy but intuitive, with lots of animating widgets composed of labels and icons. The unskipable puzzle submission is a tad long, but the overall interface is a joy to use (especially when compared to many other adventure games).

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My favourite scene with the creepy gnomes had one of them invade my puzzle in the middle of me trying to solve it! The sequence worked very well since the puzzles (at least up to that point) were a separate, uninterruptible segment only exposed to the player.

– Agent Tethers uses a tape recorder throughout the game to narrate his experiences. This provides extra personality and context while clearly outlining what must be done going forward.

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Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

Dungeons Dragons Tower of Doom header  Dungeons & Dragons – Tower of Doom Bits

In the 90’s, Capcom produced a plethora of side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups. They were all pretty fun, but my favourite was an unlikely-branded D&D title, Tower of Doom.

The TSR/Capcom partnership actually spawned two individual games, but here are the notable bits for the first one:

— The most famous feature of ToD is the branching path structure. Periodically, the player is presented with 2-3 options of how to proceed, with each choice leading to a different area and boss. All these paths converge fairly quickly, but the extra choices are a nice feature and encourage multiple playthroughs.

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Options, options…

— ToD’s overall structure is very similar to a typical beat-‘em-up, but the game also contains lots of streamlined D&D/P&P RPG elements. Characters gain experience and grow stronger by leveling up, keys (or a thief character) are needed to open some chests, traps are virtually everywhere, there’s lots of treasure to collect, etc. There’s even a troll boss that needs to be burned once his health is depleted or he’ll simply regenerate.

— There are very few health-recovery items in the levels themselves, but the player can heal by collecting loot and purchasing health potions in shops. The shops appear in between levels and also allow the player to restock on usable items such as daggers and arrows.

— ToD contains lots of nice, little touches: the characters start the levels with their weapons sheathed (and the player can walk around unarmed until he presses the attack button), enemies can be damaged by traps, an extra victory animation accompanies a boss’ defeat, and all major stages and events are framed using unique illustrations. The game even contains some unique “Game Over” pop-ups that — if triggered during a boss fight — have the player’s enemy openly mocking him.

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Upholding the D&D tradition, Cloudkill is useless against the undead.

— Magic spells execute a flashy animation while pausing the gameplay, and their effects occasionally carry on once the game has been unpaused. This works fine for the most part, but due to the rule of only-one-spell-at-a-time, it’s occasionally possible to not be able to cast a spell while walking around without having a clear idea as to why it’s not working.

— Like many other beat-‘em-ups, ToD’s attacks are accompanied by hit-flashes that indicate successful hits and mask collision issues. However, unlike most other titles in the genre, the player can attack downed enemies, but can’t actually grab or throw them.

— If timed properly, it’s possible to slash projectiles out of the air with a basic attack.

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How could they break — the Beholder isn’t even touching them?!

— Non-usable/equipable items are fairly rare, but they do provide passive bonuses such as extra attack and defense boosts. These items don’t usually last very long, though, as they get “broken” or “lost” if the player gets hit a couple of times.

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Split-Screens and Widescreens

split screen header Split Screens and Widescreens

Split-screen modes in videogames are often pejoratively labeled as the “little brother” feature. I think the association was always there, but only recently has the term itself gained popularity.

With the advent of XBLA, PSN, etc., console gamers are playing multiplayer titles the same way their PC counterparts have been for years: online. Supporting both online and split-screen modes is not a trivial task, so the older brother — much to the younger one’s assumed chagrin — ends up hogging the console. If a split-screen feature is present, though, both can enjoy the game at the same time, hence the “little brother” moniker.

Of course developing multiplayer games for a single screen has been around for ages. Shmups, puzzle games, rhythm titles, rail shooters, etc., often only require a single screen to accommodate all the participants. Other genres like scrolling beat-‘em-ups or fighting games tend to lock or stretch the playing field to attain similar results. However, when a title requires a large physical separation between the players (such as in a racing game), console titles have generally relied on a split-screen approach.

Split-screens (especially with 3D games) are computationally expensive, so their implementation tends to be quite basic: each player gets his own personal rectangle of real-estate. In two-player games, this means dividing the screen into two portions with either a horizontal or a vertical line.

gears of war split screen Split Screens and Widescreens

It might look pretty (if a bit wide), but I didn't enjoy Gears of War's horizontal split-screen co-op.

On older, squarish TVs neither the horizontal nor the vertical approach could really be that graceful, but the horizontal split became a de facto standard. It made sense since much like human vision, games were more horizontally oriented. It was the lesser of two evils.

With the rising popularity of co-op and the advent of widescreen HD TVs, though, I assumed this would change. My HD TV’s picture-in-picture option allows me to vertically split the screen between two visual streams, and it works quite well. After all, 8:9 is a lot closer to 4:3 than 16:4.5. It’s something developers have started to address — despite the fact that many current games are designed for a 16:9 aspect ratio — but split-screens still tend to be a bit of a mess.

To improve their implementation, I would suggest the following:

— Provide an option for either a horizontal or a vertical split-screen mode. Automatically selecting one might seem user-friendly, but it’s also a very divisive issue. Once split-screen is implemented, it should be relatively simple to support both modes, so why not let the player choose which one he prefers?

splinter cell split screen Split Screens and Widescreens

I didn't know Splinter Cell: Conviction had a vertical split-screen co-op mode! I was going to wait a bit for its price to drop before picking it up, but now I'm tempted to get it just so I can play it with my roommate (hi Dave!).

— There’s no rule that says 100% of the screen real-estate must be taken up by the players’ viewports. This can often produce a warped and cropped appearance, so why not try to maintain correct aspect ratio (in either mode), and use the remaining space to display a minimap, the inventory, HUD components, etc.?

— The major issue with vertical split-screens seems to be the lack of peripheral vision. It’s a legitimate complaint, but one that also seems easy to address with a little bit of field-of-view tweaking. FPS games in particular have been reducing the FOV for quite a while now, and widening it for split-screen modes should be very simple to do.


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Jedi Knight Bits

jedi knight header Jedi Knight Bits

Jedi Knight came out just a year after the original Quake, and was already showing its age upon release. Its development team was wise enough to include support for hardware acceleration and mouse-look controls (complete with a neat if archaic calibration of the axes that allowed for some very sensitive camera movement), but the low- poly count was much harder to mask.

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Guarded by a force field -- with a rather obvious power source -- this area leads into a twisting maze of vents that all have a different idea of where the gravity source is located. Confusing, but fun.

Jedi Knight still received very positive reviews, though, and rightfully so. It wasn’t perfect, and hasn’t aged particularly well, but I had a blast with it.

Here are some of the points that stuck out upon replaying it:

— The level design in Jedi Knight is fantastic, and probably its biggest strength. Of course level design was a bit of a different beast back then: areas tended to be much larger with fewer scripted events, the player had an inventory of keys and other usable items that facilitated environmental traversal, platforming puzzles were quite common (although usually disliked), movement was much, much quicker, etc.

Within that framework, though, the levels were a treat.

Despite the game’s low-poly count, its geometry was quite complex and varied. Textures were often repeated, but new ones trickled in periodically and every map had its own unique motif. The player was also constantly operating large-scale machinery that dynamically changed the landscape.

It all made for a nice combination of action, exploration and some occasional head-scratching. The only complaint I had with the levels were the large, industrial looking doors that were virtually indistinguishable from walls. Since these had to be opened with a button press, there were too many instances where the player could easily get stuck simply due to dodgy visuals.

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It's actually not as dangerous as it looks, and you can bet there's a secret room underneath...

— In-between level cinematics consisted of live-action actors superimposed over CG backdrops. They were rather silly and pretty low-budget, but did a decent job of conveying the story while showcasing certain visuals that were not possible to render within the game engine.

— The player was able to carry 10 weapons at any one time, and many of them shared the same ammo source. The limited ammo made becoming a Jedi and obtaining a lightsaber all the more rewarding. Visually speaking the lightsaber wasn’t anything fantastic, but it had unlimited power and the added advantage of lighting up dark areas and deflecting smaller enemy shots.

— Jedi powers were earned as the player progressed through the game, and they could be focused on neutral abilities, the light path, or the dark side. The powers themselves were a nice addition to both the singleplayer and the multiplayer, and were sometimes necessary to progress through a level (or at least take a short cut).

Force Pull was a particularly fun one as it allowed you to snatch weapons out of the enemies’ hands or grab healing items from far away.

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It's possible to blow up those barrels from this location, but due to wonky ray-tracing so common in older FPS games, my shots hit the wall.

— All the enemies responded to basic in-world physics, even after death, which made for some cool effects like a dead body sliding along the current of a pipeline.

— A lot of the audio was taken straight from the Star Wars movies, including the iconic sound effects and the famous scores by John Williams. These greatly enhanced the atmosphere and helped Jedi Knight stand out from other FPS titles of the era.

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A TIE/sa Bomber hounding the player mid-way through the game.

— The way the game’s secret rooms were placed was quite clever as they followed a pattern that went against the common funneling/guiding techniques of level design, e.g., a small nook embedded into the wall just above the entrance to a room was very easy to miss if the player ran right in without looking up and behind.

Enemies were often utilized to help the player spot these locations as they would often be placed in seemingly inaccessible locations, but with enough sleuthing, the player could always discover a way to reach his foes. A tally at the end of each level also informed the player as to whether he missed any secrets.

The impetus to discover the secret areas was very good as well. Not only did these locations often contain health, armour and ammo, but finding all the secrets in a level rewarded the player with extra force powers.

Jedi Knight is available for cheap on Steam, although everyone should keep in mind that it’s a very lazy port/re-release. None of the GUI elements have been updated for higher resolutions, the title screen and in-game cinematics must be viewed in a windowed mode, and the game doesn’t come with its original music. There’s a fix for that, but make sure to check out the forums first to get a better idea if it’s worth your money.

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Persona 3 Bits

persona 3 header Persona 3 Bits

When Persona 3 came out, it was pretty universally acclaimed. I was skeptical — as I usually am when it comes to dubiously high praises of RPGs — but I was pleasantly surprised.

While definitely a budget title, Persona 3 eschews tired genre staples while successfully mixing dating sim elements with those of a dungeon crawler.

The rest of the notable bits:

Persona 3 is pretty evenly split between its combat and exploration, and its heavily scripted social elements. During the day, the protagonist attends school, hangs out with his peers, goes shopping, participates in various extra-curricular activities, and generally goes through the motions of a typical student’s life.

By night, however, he hunts dangerous demons and explores creepy dungeons.  The two parts are separated conceptually, but tend to bleed into each other: roommates join the protagonist in battle, items purchased during the day are mostly used at night, and the emotional bonds formed with peers enhance combat abilities.

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Igor, a mainstay of the Persona series, in his creepy, blue-velvet room.

The game takes the player through a standard school year, with each day containing at least one unique scripted event. These range anywhere from overhearing a short bit of gossip to attending a lengthy student assembly. Regardless of the events’ scope, the quantity of these sequences is impressive, and they guarnatee that the player will encounter something new every day.

— While in school, the player is occasionally forced to sit through somewhat brief lectures. These usually result with the player being asked to answer a question based on the topic that was discussed. Sometimes it’s just a matter of relaying what was already stated, but at other times the game actually requires the player — not the player character — to be familiar with the subject matter.

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One of the class lectures.

It’s an interesting twist, and answering incorrectly never punishes the player (it simply results in a missed opportunity to upgrade a social statistic).

— A typical school day is divided into various types of events that are mixed around in order to avoid a clear and repetitive pattern. For example, one day the player will sit through a lecture, while the next the lecture will be skipped and various characters will approach the protagonist with offers to hang out after school.

Social invitations also tend to reappear if initially turned down, preventing the player from fearing that rejecting an offer will result in permanently missing out on something.

— The actual progress of time is entirely player controlled, although each day only allows a small number of actions to be performed. Once the day is over, the player has the option to journey into Tartarus, the single dungeon (or rather tower) that encompasses most of the game’s more traditional RPG elements. How much time is spent in Tartarus is also up to the player, although the game will punish lengthy excursions with temporary stat decreases.

This proved somewhat controversial with fans (as did most time-handicapping systems in MMOs), but it does encourage variety in gameplay.

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An optional scene viewed by accessing the dorm's security system.

— Establishing social links with peers, including romantic ones, is nicely slotted into the day-by-day progression. It’s a gradual process that builds over time, and, despite the characters’ relative simplicity, is actually used to great effect for both character progression and development.

— Although the player is only allowed to fully pursue one romantic interest at a time (there’s never any room for non-monogamy, is there?), it never becomes a permanent facet of the game. Once 10 dates go well, the chase is over and the player has “won.” The favoured girl can still be visited from time to time, but no new events are ever introduced, and the player is free — even encouraged — to start dating someone else.

Considering the amount of effort put into these social links, it seems like a bit of a missed chance that the relationships are not extended a step further.

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A storyline event from one of the full-moon sequences.

— Persona 3 contains a plethora of minor but continuous changes that enhance the perceived passage of time. Bystanders are shuffled around in the shopping areas, new stores open up, roommates come and go in the dorm, various holidays are celebrated, etc. A large portion of these tweaks simply involve placing characters in different spots and giving them one or two unique pieces of dialogue, but the combined effect creates a varied and well-paced experience.

— Every 28 days during a full moon, the player must engage in a uniquely structured action sequence complete with a boss battle and linear story progression. Since the player can simply skip fighting in Tartarus, these sequences tend to quickly level-up the party if it’s inadequately prepared for the upcoming encounters.

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Exploring Tartarus.

— Tartarus itself consists of 200+ floors, each one a small, randomly generated map. The tower is also divided into visually distinct zones that are unlocked as the full-moon bosses are defeated.

A neat little touch is that the player can see a preview of the next area before defeating its corresponding boss.

— Sporadic checkpoints allow the player to return to a handful of previously visited floors, and each floor also contains a warp point that can whisk the party back to the base of Tartarus. The uneven placement of checkpoints has the added effect of imbuing the game with a certain sense of risk, i.e., do I return to the base while I still can, or do I keep pressing on so as not to replay the same levels?

— There are no random encounters as all enemies are visible in the exploration portions of the game. The enemies also behave differently based on (mostly) their strength relative to the player’s party — weaker enemies run away, while stronger ones home in on the characters.

Bosses are visible as well, but they don’t move. Instead, they appear on special floors that are devoid of other enemies and contain a checkpoint, and the bosses always block the path to the next floor.

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A summoned Persona casting a spell.

— The player has the ability to split up his group and send out each character to individually explore the map. The goal of the exploration can be manually skewed towards defeating enemies or collecting treasure.

Each character’s HP/MP is always visible in the HUD, so whenever he or she enters combat, his or her display icon changes to signify the event (along with some non game-pausing audio and visual cues). The character and enemy continue to be present on the map as well, so the player has the option to join the fight if deemed necessary. Likewise, if an enemy attacks the player within the vicinity of other solitary characters, they automatically join the melee. Of course if the player doesn’t split up his party, all characters participate in every encounter.

If a separated character finds a treasure, the event is also indicated with an audio/visual cue. The treasures are only collected once the player exits the current floor, though.

Finally, any exploring character will pause the game if they stumble upon an exit point (either a set of stairs leading to the next area, or a warp point). These mechanics all combine to ease the pain of traversing previously explored locations and help to quicken the overall pace.

— One of the later characters provides a manual option to change the background music in Tartarus.

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Scanning enemies reveals their strengths and weaknesses, which is fully utilized by the AI-controlled characters.

— Most enemies — and all the characters, for that matter — have elemental strengths and weaknesses. The first time a character or an enemy gets hit with a potent attack, it becomes stunned and loses a turn while the attacker gains an extra turn. If all the enemies are stunned, the player has the option to unleash a group-attack where all the characters rush in to physically attack the enemies. This wastes the extra turn of the initial attacker, but doesn’t use up the turns of the rest of the party.

— In combat, the player only controls the game’s protagonist (with one small exception mentioned below). Many fans didn’t like this, but the approach definitely made for quicker battles.

The party’s AI is also quite solid, automatically targeting the enemies’ weaknesses while preserving MP and doing a good job of staying alive.

— My personal favourite feature of Persona 3’s battle system is the auto-attack toggle.

The combat menu is circular, surrounding a triangle symbol that corresponds to the button found on the controller. At any time — no matter what’s happening on screen — the player can press this button to toggle a state where all the characters simply use their physical attacks.

The player never needs to wait to queue up this option, nor does he need to scroll through a menu to access it, and the state continues to persist until it’s toggled off. It’s a simple but well executed feature that greatly speeds up the battles, and I found myself using it in virtually every encounter.

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An option to perform an all-in attack on the stunned enemies.

— Whenever a battle is finished, there’s a random chance that a card-shuffling minigame will pop-up. The minigame displays a handful of cards face up, with at least 2 to 3 representing some sort of a reward: a new item, a health recharge, an extra money bonus, or one of the titular Personas. When the player presses a button, the cards are turned over and shuffled around, and the player then picks the card that he thinks holds his desired prize.

As the game progresses, so does the complexity of the shuffling and the value of the rewards. Mysterious skulls also start to appear over some cards, along with the occasional opportunity to “double up,” i.e., gain two rewards at the risk of losing both if the wrong card is selected.

— Sticking around for too long on any floor summons the super boss Death. The player usually has more than enough time to explore the whole map, but drawing a skull-card from the shuffle minigame or entering a floor with no enemies (and only treasure chests, which is a nice bonus) reduces the amount of time it takes for Death to show up.

— Each Persona creature has its own attributes and skills, and the ability to level up. Only the protagonist can equip these, though, and only a single Persona at a time. The other characters possess Personas as well, but they’re permanently stuck with their starting selection.

The Personas tend to have strong links to the entities of various mythologies and religions, and are summoned whenever a character uses a special ability. These creatures are also obtained fairly regularly, and they can be combined to create new types of Personas. To take full advantage of this, the player needs to reference a detailed spread-sheet, but the system is still pretty rewarding. Limited previews of new Personas are shown prior to the fusions taking place, and the sheer quantity of the creatures promises something new around every corner.

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Jack Frost, something of a mascot Persona that's present in many Shin Megami Tensei titles.

Lots more could be said about Persona 3’s aesthetics — its focus on Japanese culture and the bizarre designs of the Personas themselves — but what really stuck out for me were the streamlined dungeon and combat mechanics, and the constantly changing social landscape. These elements made for a lengthy and unique experience, and did a good job of providing lots of variety despite a relatively small amount of assets.

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