Gaming on a Timer

On the Clock: Thirty-Minute Gamer, Summertime Edition!

In this bi-weekly column, we’ll be taking a look at some of the games I’ve been playing, on a limited time budget. Short cell phone distractions played over a half-hour lunch break? Longer, more “core” experiences played over several sessions in the weekend? Anything and everything in between? Let’s talk about them all! This fortnight, I escaped some rooms, tried doing sweet tricks with a skateboard and… mopped up some blood and entrails?

As with last time’s post, I’ll be skipping on a few of the games I’ve played in the last couple weeks, mainly due to either finding them too interesting (therefore warranting a blog post of their own at a later time) or not interesting enough. As such, honorable mentions go to Ziggurat, a clever if simplistic fusion of FPS and rogue-like mechanics with a medieval fantasy theme, Bioshock: Remastered, (which has been my go-to game for streaming alongside Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for the last few weeks) and Her Story, which takes a very interesting approach to non-linear storytelling (and probably something I’d like to talk about in more detail in the near future).

This week, I’ll also be adding a few useful statistics for each game played, mainly to help out anyone that is thinking of picking up these games but isn’t sure of the time commitment they require. Any comments, criticism or thoughts on this addition are more than welcome in the comments section below!

Game: Zero Escape – The Nonary Games

Genre: Visual Novel/Puzzle

Mood: Mystery/Drama/Horror

Theme: Sci-fi

Average Session Length: 45 minutes to 1 hour per segment (depends on puzzle-solving skills and reading speed, can interrupt play at any point during game)

The first game that’s I’ve been spending time on these last couple of weeks is Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, a remastered compilation pack of 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (originally released on the Nintendo DS) and its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward (which initially saw concurrent releases for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita).

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Until The Nonary Games, I never thought it’d be this hard to not spoil something.

Mechanically, the Zero Escape games are a mixture of escape-the-room puzzle solving punctuated by lengthy visual novel sections. This constant change between story and puzzle segments works surprisingly well, both at establishing a good baseline for pacing and at providing frequent exit points to the player – something I find more and more valuable with my limited amount of free time.

Puzzles take the form of individual “rooms”, where a series of smaller riddles must be solved for the player to be able to escape. These are well-designed and sufficiently varied for each room to feel unique; aside from a disproportionate reliance on math-based puzzles (often requiring examining clues in different number bases, with the majority encountered in 999), the player can expect to experience everything from lateral thinking to sliding to mechanical puzzles during the course of both games.

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Still not a spoiler, promise!

Similarly, story segments (the visual novel part of the game) are well-written; barring a few minor plot holes I felt were inadequately addressed, both games in the compilation feature very good stories, primarily by building upon the supporting cast. Both games in the series feature an ensemble cast of nine individuals, covering a wide variety of archetypes, which are central to the plot.

Unfortunately, the above strengths of the games also make it hard to talk about while avoiding spoilers; I am finding it extremely hard to describe what makes the Nonary Games collection so good without inadvertently spoiling it for anyone reading. If you are interested in character-driven drama with certain science fiction elements and some really good puzzle design, I would highly recommend both The Nonary Games and their sequel, Zero Time Dilemma.

Game: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD

Genre: Sports (skateboarding)

Mood: Exhilaration/Exploration

Average Session Length: Around 2 minutes per run (career mode); free play option with no time limits available; certain optional modes between 1 and 3 minutes per run.

In between puzzle sessions, I’ve also been playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, the 2012 remake/mashup of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2. Impressions here were, sadly, not as good as the Zero Escape games; having been a fan of the Tony Hawk’s franchise back in it’s heyday, I found this newer offering to be a big disappointment.

Similar to the older games of the franchise, THPS HD takes place in a succession of enclosed, playground-like levels, tasking the player with completing a set number of objectives before being allowed to proceed to more varied and difficult levels. The levels in question are taken from the first two games in the series, with a slight emphasis on THPS 2 content and have the usual objectives – perform enough tricks to reach X score, locate certain collectibles, do specific tricks at specific areas of a level – on a two-minute time limit.

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Oddly prophetic trick name…

The foundation is, therefore, kept intact from earlier titles; players can have a lot of fun exploring each level, chaining tricks and trying to learn the best routes in each area for maximizing their points output – that is, when the game works properly. One of the biggest issues I’ve had is the seemingly-random appearance of glitches, mostly physics-related, which tend to mess up a successful run through a level.

Most prominent are clipping issues, with my skater often falling through the level geometry and off the map, especially when transitioning to flat surfaces from a jump. Further to that, a lot of the time the character will clip through rails (which you can grind on) during the initial grinding animation, which also seems to affect the skater’s speed (something that can mess up your routing – referred to in the game as a “line” – by causing you to overshoot/undershoot the surface, ramp or rail you are aiming for).

Even worse, these glitches serve to highlight the weird “respawn” mechanic that was implemented in THPS HD: in the older games, if your skater lost their balance and fell to the ground, there’d be a short animation where they’d stand up and keep going. Here, however, it has been replaced with a much lengthier, much more annoying fade-out/fade-in sequence in which the skater is placed back on whichever surface they initially were when they fell.

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Note the button prompts, also note that I had a controller plugged in at the time.

Aside from being visually off-putting, respawning doesn’t even seem to work properly, as in more than one occasion the game would return the skater to the very edge of whatever environmental hazard had caused my fall to begin with, setting up a vicious cycle of falling, respawning and falling again. In a game with a two-minute time limit, this is doubly aggravating.

Unfortunately, while these occasional problems would be easy to overlook in any other genre, in a game which requires efficiency, good timing and precision they only compound the problem further.

To add insult to injury, THPS HD also suffers from a plethora of other issues, such as button prompts defaulting to keyboard icons (with no provision for controller icons appearing at all), song select being mysteriously absent (which was a feature in the initial Tony Hawk games this version is based on) or that certain menu options (such as the Gap List, which provides a handy list of all the “special” jumps and gaps in a level) only being accessible if you’re not currently in a level. The list, sadly, goes on and on.

Which is a damn shame, because THPS HD would otherwise be great for short gaming sessions; the aforementioned two-minute limit provides ample exit points, while the modular structure of the levels means that you can hop in, get a few objectives done and put the game down without having to devote a lot of time to it, still getting a sense of progression and achievement.

Game: Viscera Cleanup Detail

Genre: First-Person/Physics Simulation

Mood: Comedy/Collectibles/Exploration

Average Session Length: Varies depending on player’s preferences; fully clearing a level (with 100% and above clean rating) takes anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hour 30 minutes; both manual and auto-save functions are provided at any point during a clean-up operation to break up an operation into multiple play sessions.

Finally, I’ve also been putting some time into Viscera Cleanup Detail. This game is… weird, but in a good way. The player takes the role of a “Space Janitor”, specialized in cleaning up the sites of disasters that are inspired by sci-fi staples, such as a laboratory where a bio-engineered plant got loose, or a space base in the aftermath of an alien invasion. The janitor is then tasked with cleaning up, most often by locating and scrubbing out blood stains, gathering and incinerating body parts and generally tidying up the levels.

Mechanically, the game is competently executed; as with most physics-based games, there are some minor annoyances, especially when attempting to move items that never seem to want to be moved. Thankfully, these issues are few and far between, leaving the player free to tidy up with impunity.

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Welp, time to tidy up…

The janitor is initially provided with only a few tools; a mop for cleaning up blood and residue, a scanner for locating problem areas and a clipboard that keeps track of your objectives in each level. These are complemented by a variety of in-site machines, such as an incinerator (for burning any body parts or other inconveniences they might come across) or a scissor lift (good for getting to those hard-to-reach stains and trash). Further into the game, more tools are unlocked, with a storage system used to ferry them between levels.

The objective here is, naturally, to clean up the mess. To this purpose, the game keeps track of everything the player has cleaned, with stuff as major as blood pools and body parts to trash as minor as a discarded soda bottle, being tracked separately and contributing to an overall completion ratio. If you are the kind of player that likes to explore areas and locating every single prop and item, this might be the game for you.

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Control? We’re gonna need a lot more bleach….

While I haven’t played much of Viscera Cleanup Detail, what I have seen is cleverly put together; each stain, each spent bullet casing, every body and prop, all are placed deliberately, with every location telling its own mini-narrative. Which is impressive in its own way, considering that the game is presented as a jokey parody of janitorial work.

The environmental storytelling is also extremely well-presented. As an example, let’s examine a scene presented in the game’s first level, Athena’s Wrath:

A couple of bodies, clad in military fatigues, are slumped against a wall. Bullet casings are strewn around their feet, with bullet holes peppered on the opposite wall where a weird green residue is splattered unevenly across its surface; evidence that these soldiers had fought in vain against the mysterious bio-engineered plant whose escape caused all this mess.

A crate nearby lies on its side, most likely having served as cover for the two unfortunate soldiers against the monstrosity before being toppled over in the ensuing attack; the edge of the crate is now soaked in the blood of the soldiers who, bereft of their cover, took one last, fatal hit.

A deep gash runs across the wall, where the soldiers were backed against, as the plant apparently slashed through both flesh and the metal surface behind in that final attack.

The above tableau conveys a lot of unspoken backstory, giving the place a sense of being, well, alive, in a way that most AAA productions fail to deliver consistently. The best thing? These are set up everywhere in each level, making it a joy to explore them and try to puzzle out what happened

In short, I feel that this game is a master-class (or at least, an excellent example) in environmental design and storytelling, which is even more impressive considering that the game never goes out of its way to draw attention to these visual vignettes.

Have you played the above-mentioned names? Found them fun? Crap beyond comparison? Somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

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