Platformer

Audiosurf 2

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Race on zany tracks made from your favorite music.

PC Release: May 26, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Music is often compared to a drug, with good reason. It can have a profound effect on mood, outlook, and the desire to thrash one’s head back and forth like someone receiving an exorcism. How fitting, then, that Audiosurf 2 combines music with the psychedelic visuals associated with hard drugs. It also allows players to choose how those two media interact, for just as the atmosphere and composition of a song can affect mood, so too can those qualities of a game. Audiosurf 2 seeks to join music and gameplay together in creative ways.

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Created by Dylan Fitterer, developer of 2008’s AudiosurfAudiosurf 2 is a game that lets players ride their music. Simply upload a favorite song, plug in a visual theme, and ride a futuristic car along a road paved with that song’s notes. All the while, that tune is playing in crystal-clear quality. Players can also collect points that pop up along the track and execute combos to drive up their score. Just like in Audiosurf, players can select different vehicles and from a palette of different visual themes.

Once players have picked a song, a ride, and a theme, it’s time to hit the road. Audiosurf 2‘s music-seeking software makes finding a song on the hard drive easy as pie. The game comes with a few pre-packaged songs, but they’re not all that great. Besides, Audiosurf 2‘s best selling point is hitting a digital road to the tune of the player‘s favorite song, and it executes that function smoothly. That the game can build a track out of any song means that Audiosurf 2 has as much variety as the entire spectrum of music. It’s a cool feature whose novelty is matched only by that of the original Audiosurf.

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(furious headbanging)

Audiosurf 2 has single-player and multiplayer modes. Whoever can rack up the most points littering each track gets a spot on that song’s worldwide leaderboards. More popular songs have a lot of competition for spot no. 1, so uploading an obscure song is a great way to earn worldwide prestige on the cheap. Success in multiplayer requires knowing the ebb and flow of the song, and maximizing a vehicle’s points-earning ability. Similarly to Audiosurf, points take the form of blocks called “cars” and mosey along the road for players to speed through.

How cars are laid out and how the track flows depends entirely on the song. A slow or tranquil song makes for a straight shot of a race, while a fast song can produce one heck of a bumpy road. The faster the song is paced, the more difficult the track. Players can swap between three lanes of traffic to pick up points and fill three points meters at the bottom of the screen. Players may be expected to collect points while going over a series of speed bumps or even through a loop-de-loop, depending on how intense the song is.

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Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuchino in road form.

Although Audiosurf 2‘s track-building software seems little-changed from that of Audiosurf, the game features a larger palette of visual themes. Whereas players were previously restricted to a small handful of themes, Audiosurf 2 has a much wider selection of stylized racing worlds. Players can stick to the game’s signature Tron-esque racing corridors or opt for dusky cities, winter wonderlands, etc etc. Audiosurf 2 also has a thriving modding community, and players have created dozens of additional tracks to choose from. The Knights of the Old Republic swoop racing level is particularly fun.

On top of that, Audiosurf 2‘s visuals have received a serious overhaul over those of the first game. Audiosurf is a beautiful game, but its textures are blurry and its objects occasionally hard to define. Audiosurf 2 opts for much sharper visuals and brighter, more interesting lighting effects. The vehicles have much more defined textures, and some tracks feature reflective, well-lit surfaces.  The other elements of the racecourse, like the track itself and the in-game visuals that spawn and bloom around the player, are also significantly more beautiful.

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Audiosurf 2 is lookin’ sharp.

One of the issues plaguing Audiosurf was the game’s vehicle selection, which gave players a huge roster of different musical buggies and vaguely defined special abilities. Some vehicles might be better at gathering points arranged in a row, others might force false point blocks onto the track, so on and so forth. Audiosurf 2 nixes this issue by reformatting the different vehicle perks as racing modes. Now, players simply pick a mode where points are gathered in clumps instead of having to pick a vehicle that executes that effect. Players can now select a vehicle for how it looks, not what it does.

Even though Audiosurf 2 also does a better job of explaining each mode than the first game did, this title’s loading screens are peppered with weirdly written advice, like gathering points during “big moments” in a song. It’s possible that Dylan’s referring to loop-de-loops or something, but everyone’s idea of a “big moment” in a song is different. That’s the beauty of music, but it also obfuscates the meaning of the in-game advice. Players are better off sticking to the stated goal of the mode they’re in. Those tidbits, at least, remain clearly written.

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I’m supposed to do what now?

Audiosurf 2 also benefits from improved menu design. The options menu is a far cry from the barebones sliders and buttons in Audiosurf, with more ways for players to tweak their in-game experience. The menus for selecting races and songs have also been heavily streamlined and are broken down into three simple selection windows that make getting out onto the course a piece of cake. (By the way, my recent dieting is responsible for all these baked good analogies. About to hit day 90 of the diet and am hallucinating that everyone is birthday cake or a piece of pie. Maintain a safe distance).

Although Audiosurf 2‘s core menus are a sight for sore eyes, not all of the game’s interfaces are well-implemented. The YouTube streaming option is a crapshoot; at one point that mechanic’s implementation broke the entire game and made it impossible to play without streaming. That problem was eventually remedied, but the patch has since resulted in sound issues for many players. Gamers who buy Audiosurf 2 have noted, with alarming regularity, a complete lack of sound across all operating systems. A steady stream of patches hasn’t done much to stem the flow of these complaints.

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This game has a few glitches in the matrix.

More than a few Audiosurf 2 players have also taken the game to task for its inability to stream music from services like Spotify and Pandora, but making that kind of arrangement with the music industry can be murderously difficult. These companies guard their music with enough jealously to make a French lover balk, and that’s no hyperbole. Dmytry Lavrov, developer of 2010’s The Polynomial, mentioned to Art as Games that current industry laws make it very difficult for music games to stream songs and even use certain file formats. Truly, music execs are the Scrooges of the digital age.

So yeah, while only being able to use music stored on a hard drive may seem like old hat these days, Dylan deserves a bit of a break for not cracking into the most curmudgeonly segment of the entertainment industry. Music executives and industry leaders have guarded their holdings for decades, and it’s most likely that obstruction, not Audiosurf 2, that’s responsible for the game’s lack of streaming compatibility. Overbearing restrictions and copyrights are probably why Audiosurf 2‘s Soundcloud compatibility was abruptly stripped out a while back. Hopefully the situation will change someday, but in this age of overzealous DRM, it’s unlikely.

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The music rights are in another castle!

Audiosurf 2 offers a streamlined, reforged music racing experience over its predecessor, but players would do well to watch out for those aforementioned sound bugs. Give the game a go; if the sound still works, keep the game and give that music library a whole new meaning. If not, return Audiosurf 2 to sender and dive back into the first game. When Audiosurf 2 runs well, it takes the freedom and fun introduced by the first game to dramatic new heights. It makes racing on favorite songs a cinch and customization of the overall experience easier. Hopefully Dylan will continue to work on the game and address its rough spots, as he’s done diligently since its 2015 release, but Audiosurf 2 is worth at least trying in the meantime.

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You can buy Audiosurf 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Yooka-Laylee

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Adventure through colorful worlds like it’s 1997.

PC Release: April 11, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Even for a medium as fluid as video games, the demise of the open-world platformer was breathtakingly fast. The 90’s were replete with titles like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, in which players were free to explore huge worlds littered with hidden treasure. Despite massive popularity, the genre largely died out at the turn of the century, and has remained quiet for the better part of two decades. With games like 2014’s The Last Tinker and last fall’s Unbox, though, it’s starting to creep back into the gaming scene. Yooka-Laylee, the subject of tonight’s review, is the strongest sign yet of the open-world platforming genre’s push into contemporary gaming.

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The title Yooka-Laylee is immediately reminiscent of 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie, and that’s no coincidence. Not only is this new game a spiritual successor to that legendary platformer… it’s made by the same team of former Rare developers, who reunited after nearly 20 years under the banner of Playtonic Games. The team’s stated goal with Yooka-Laylee is to bring back the open-world platforming genre that gaming has been sorely missing, and to create a title that they hoped would match the vibrancy and variety of one of the Rare era’s best platformers. Just like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee sees a duo of cartoonish animals square off against an equally cartoonish evil, with plenty of platforming to boot.

Yooka-Laylee kicks off with the game’s titular characters, a chameleon named Yooka and a bat named Laylee, relaxing perilously close to the premises of the nefarious Hivory Towers. The adventure starts when the One Book, a golden-paged tome that Laylee found, gets stolen by the evil Capital B and his sidekick, Dr. Quack. The pair hope to use the tome to rewrite the universe, but not before stealing all the world’s books and turning them into money! That latter plot detail kinda falls to the wayside, but it doesn’t stop the heroic duo from breaking into Hivory Towers to stop Capital B and save the universe.

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Capital B and Dr. Quack’s scheme to rule the universe is as 90’s as such schemes get.

Yooka and Laylee manage to break into Hivory Towers (the door was open) but the One Book’s magical pages get scattered all over the place. Collecting “Pagies” is the main goal of the game; they are to Yooka and Laylee what Jiggies were to Banjo and Kazooie, and golden stars were to Mario. To find all the Pagies, Yooka and Laylee have to dive into huge worlds brimming with treasure. Collecting Pagies is not only the only way to confront Capital B, but also to open up new worlds for exploration. Yooka-Laylee contains five big worlds with themes similar to those of Banjo-Kazooie, while Hivory Towers serves as a hub world that binds it all together.

Like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee is a third-person platformer that emphasizes scouring the aforementioned big worlds for hidden treasures. In addition to Pagies, players can also find a riot of other collectibles. Quills, for example, allow players to learn new moves useful for accessing new areas. There are also more conventional pickups, like health and power upgrades. Pagies are still the most important item for players to find; some are awarded to Yooka and Laylee for completing challenges, while others are hiding out there just waiting to be discovered.

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Everything is colorful and/or has eyeballs. We’re definitely back in the 90’s.

Yooka-Laylee‘s gameplay is pure Rare platformer. While out exploring the world, players can use different abilities to speed across terrain, jump to new heights, and break through physical barriers. Like Banjo and Kazooie, Yooka and Laylee execute these moves by working together as a team, with coordination that can only be described as symbiotic. Players start out running and jumping, but can learn how to blast through barriers, fly, and even absorb new abilities from the world around them. Provided they’ve found a certain squid-woman scientist, players can even transform into new creatures for taking on previously inaccessible challenges. Most monsters go down in one hit, but boss battles are a little more complicated.

Using these abilities is essential for collecting Pagies and advancing to new worlds, as well as finding the other useful pickups hidden around each level. Most challenges revolve around using these powers to destroy an obstacle or complete a task, sometimes with a time limit, and getting a Pagie as a reward. These tasks are usually performed at the behest of an NPC, who can’t be bothered to just hand the damn Pagie over even though the universe is in danger of being destroyed. No, no, there are rules, ways that these things have to be done. A quest to save the universe is moot, but jump through these hoops (literally) and somehow that’s way more impressive.

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The hoops have eyes…

Even though five worlds may not sound like a lot, each of Yooka-Laylee‘s treasure-filled realms is a sight to behold. The game’s textures could stand some sharpening, but its worlds are colorful and gorgeously detailed. Like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee‘s worlds are expansive and each revolve around a singular theme, like a ruins-filled jungle, a winter wonderland, or a spooky swamp. The intergalactic pirate cove world is particularly beautiful. Each world varies visually but their basic layouts are all similar: a large ground area studded with obstacles and opportunities to jump high or swim low.

Though running around these worlds looking for treasure is fun and quite reminiscent of the best 90’s Rare games, there is quite a bit of pointless space packed into each one. Between each challenge and cluster of quills is a ton of open space that, while useful for establishing the world’s sense of scale, leaves players spending an inordinate amount of time running from place to place. Scale can be achieved without putting an empty space the size of a football field between Pagies, but Yooka-Laylee nixes compacting its levels a bit in favor of leaving them too big. As a result, each world has a lot of ground to cover but also ends up feeling empty.

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There’s a difference between levels feeling big and being big.

Although Yooka-Laylee runs well and suffers almost no bugs or in-game problems, some of its gameplay does feel rather dated. Embarrassingly, the game contains a few gameplay issues that were endemic to 90’s games but successfully omitted in other, more recent releases, including imprecise controls and occasionally tedious platforming. The fact that Playtonic has reintroduced these long-corrected issues with a 2017 title is embarrassing. It suggests that the team entered some sort of hibernation after developing Banjo-Kazooie and emerged from their slumber blissfully unaware of the advances that have been made in game design these last 20 years.

To be fair, though, some of the issues plaguing Yooka-Laylee have been greatly exaggerated. Critics at the bigger networks have taken this game to task for its camera controls, which, to hear them tell it, are the worst thing to befall mankind since the Bubonic Plague. The camera does struggle to provide decent angles on occasion, including during the first world’s boss fight and in a few puzzles, but it’s not anything that players will be fighting constantly. Usually it does a pretty fluid job of following the player, without necessitating constant push-back.

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Reports of a camera control apocalypse are premature.

The main concern to be had with Yooka-Laylee is how in lockstep it is with Banjo-Kazooie. It feels less like a spiritual successor and more like a reskinned Banjo-Kazooie that was ported to modern systems. Though Yooka-Laylee is visually superior to that venerated title, there’s almost nothing in the game that wasn’t also present in its predecessor. The characters do that Banjo-Kazooie thing where they repeat a few odd noises every time they talk, and virtually all of the collectibles are stand-ins for the items found in Banjo-Kazooie. Even Yooka-Laylee‘s fonts are nigh identical to those of Banjo-Kazooie.

None of these things are necessarily bad, but they do represent a missed opportunity to innovate the open-world collectathon. Playtonic did streamline a few things here and there, like how the player absorbs and uses different types of projectile weapons, but the otherwise rigid adherence to what Banjo-Kazooie already pioneered makes Yooka-Laylee feel cheap. The fun and nostalgia that its open-world gameplay brings back to the scene is compounded by a weary sense of repetition. It’s at once demonstrative of the genre’s resilience over time, but also leaves players wondering that they’ve already seen this exact game before.

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Don’t mind me, just burying the chance to do something different.

Yooka-Laylee is somewhat aware of how dated some of its design has become, as demonstrated by the game’s writing. The dialogue is rife with funny little fourth-wall breaks, as well as jabs at how the gaming industry has changed since the 90’s. Capital B in particular cracks a lot of jokes about microtransactions and DLC, which is cathartic for players who remember a time before such cancerous practices. Surprisingly, the dialogue contains a lot of innuendo, which makes it harder to characterize the game’s intended audience. Is it the adults who grew up with Banjo-Kazooie, or today’s crop of youngins?

For all the fun that Yooka-Laylee pokes at contemporary gaming, though, some of its writing remains little changed from that of Banjo-Kazooie. As characters, Yooka and Laylee are virtual clone-stamps of Banjo and Kazooie, with the former being a slow-witted but big-hearted warrior and the latter being an acid-tongued little prankster. The supporting cast of NPCs make for a colorful bunch, like the serpentine abilities salesman, but that the two main heroes are so similar to Banjo and Kazooie once again makes the game feel derivative. Like a lot of things about this game, Yooka-Laylee‘s characterization and writing are a mixed bag of amusing, yet dated.

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Dude, your nose is bigger than the rest of your body.

Yooka-Laylee has a lot of adventuring fun and amusing dialogue to offer, but it’s nothing that old-school platforming fans haven’t seen before. The game feels less like the triumphant return of open-world collectathons and more like a fun but clone-stamped fan service for people who grew up playing Banjo-Kazooie. Playtonic bet too hard on the game’s nostalgia factor, nixing innovation in the hope that the mere presence of an open-world platformer would be enough to catalyze the genre’s resurrection.

Unfortunately for Playtonic and for Yooka-Laylee, innovation is the only way the open-world collectathon genre will regain the prominence it once enjoyed. It’s not enough to simply derive from what was already done and expect the outcome of the genre to magically change. None of this stops Yooka-Laylee from being a fond love letter to the 90’s and to fans of Banjo-Kazooie, but it does stop the game from being the genre-reviving spark that Playtonic set out to make. Above all else, keep that divide in mind while deciding whether to purchase Yooka-Laylee.

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You can buy Yooka-Laylee here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball

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Dodge, dive, duck, dip and dodge your way through rocking dodgeball games.

PC Release: February 19, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Next up in this month’s cavalcade of zany party games is Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball, a title whose gameplay is (thankfully) a bit more fluid than its name. The game’s premise—uni-wheeled robots rolling around disco parties clubbing each other with dodgeballs—may seem a bit ridiculous, but it’s actually pretty great, and it doesn’t stand out that much when coming up on the heels of Gang Beasts and King of Booze. Just because St. Patrick’s Day has now passed (a moment of silence, please) doesn’t mean that the March madness has to go with it. More fun. More partying. More Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball.

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RR-DDD is a multiplayer dodgeball game brought to life by Erik Asmussen, a one-man studio who apparently remembers high school dodgeball more fondly than most nerds. This game ain’t no state-sanctioned athletic torture, though; it’s a room-sized disco party full of robots attempting to forcefully deactivate each other with high-speed balls of death. Robots don’t keel over and vomit if they get hit in the crotch with a dodgeball, so already this game sounds much more fun than the real-life sport.

RR-DDD is pretty simple to understand: players are organized into two teams and roll around a big room throwing dodgeballs at each other. It only takes one dodgeball to knock an enemy player out of commission, but they’ll respawn soon enough. Team matches are the lifeblood of Roller Robot-Derby Disco Dodgeball; players can duke it out in local 4-player co-op, or participate in well over a dozen online game modes. These range from simple death matches to one-kill elimination. Players can also forego playing on teams in favor of an every-robot-for-itself free-for-all.

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If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.

Before rolling into battle, players can customize their robot with a huge palette of colors, accessories and visual effects. Most of these are locked off behind the game’s leveling system, but new players can still give their robots funny doodads and clan emblems. After creating their custom robo, it’s time for players to roll into one of gaming’s grooviest battlefields. RR-DDD enjoys thriving online activity, and finding a match usually only takes a few seconds. Of course, players are also welcome to create their own online matches and invite friends. RR-DDD provides full controller support for local matches.

As previously mentioned, RR-DDD includes an impressive variety of game modes for online multiplayer. The most popular is the simple team deathmatch mode, in which the first cabal of robots to reach a certain number of enemy deaths wins the game. RR-DDD also provides some true novelties in the multiplayer world, ones that tweak the environment or players’ equipment for entirely new experiences. The mode pitting a team of laser gun-wielding robots against a squad armed with jetpacks is particularly fun, as is the game’s basketball mode, in which one team tries to score hoops while the other defends. Players can also race each other or team up against hordes of enemy bots. The sheer variety of RR-DDD‘s modes is almost bewildering.

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Legend has it that before rubber was invented, dodgeball players used severed heads instead of balls…

 Even though RR-DDD has a lot of modes, the gameplay at the core of all of them is pretty simple. Roll into battle, find a dodgeball, pick it up, and throw it at an enemy player. There are only so many dodgeballs to go around, so players have to hurry to find one before an opponent does. Dodgeballs fly fairly quickly and bounce off of surfaces, though they don’t ricochet at the speed of a bullet. Players can also make shots while moving or flying through the air, the latter movement enabled by the robots’ high jumping ability.

To further preserve its variety. RR-DDD scatters each of its battlefields with little perk tokens. These items grant players timed abilities to help them out in battle, like being temporarily immune to shots or moving just a little faster. Most arenas are also riddled with floor panels that can enhance jump height and speed when touched. These features help level RR-DDD‘s difficulty for new players, but they also help to make each round as chaotic and unpredictable as real-life dodgeball.

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The Average Bots. Er, no, wait, Robo-Gym!

Thus far we’ve seen the robot, roller-derby and dodgeball elements of the game, but what about the disco? While all of this chaotic combat is going on, RR-DDD accents its arenas with a soundtrack of pulse-pounding disco electronica. Each track is a fast-paced round of tunes that wouldn’t seem out of place in an arcade game, and they fit RR-DDD‘s neon-tinged atmosphere pretty well. The music certainly helps the game’s combat feel even more frantic.

Visually, RR-DDD is not too sophisticated. The in-game textures on character models and arenas aren’t super-sharp, but they’re almost always covered by the game’s neon colors. Each arena in RR-DDD is absolutely soaked in neon, rounding out its groovy cyber vibe nicely. Character animations are pretty simple; robots basically just roll around and somehow launch the balls at each other despite lacking arms, but the characters’ movements are mapped just fine.

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Anyone else getting a Tron vibe?

As can be inferred from these screenshots, RR-DDD‘s arenas are not the flat school gymnasiums of real-life dodgeball nightmares. Each arena features lots of elevation variety to give players a chance to escape opponents… or a chance for an amazing long-distance strike. The game features a few types of terrain, mostly stairs and the aforementioned jump pads, but the robots seem to function well no matter where their wheels roll. It might’ve been interesting to include terrains that negatively affect player speed and performance, but their absence is no great loss.

Indeed, RR-DDD‘s level design is as crucial to success in the game as throwing its titular dodgeballs. In addition to dodging enemy blows, players also have to account for enemies having the low or high ground, and making or avoiding shots while sailing through the air on the robots’ high jumps. This makes an already chaotic game even more fun, and opens up the floor (no pun intended) for players to take pot shots at enemies above or below them. Having the high ground can grant a distinct advantage, but it’s no deal-breaker; it’s also relatively easy for players to throw the ball from the relative cover of an upper level and then dart back out of reach.

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Three points!

Between its quick-to-find matches and endless character customization, RR-DDD is already its own cavalcade of player choice, but the game’s versatility is further rounded out with its spectacular options menu. One of the most in-depth menus of any PC multiplayer game, RR-DDD‘s options menu includes sliders and adjusters for shadows, buffering, and other high-end performance functions. Players who can’t quite get RR-DDD to run (unlikely, as it also runs well) will want for nothing when poring over the options menu. Like most games built to run on PC, RR-DDD brings some serious performance versatility to the table.

Indeed, versatility seems to be the name of RR-DDD‘s game. Erik Asmussen spared no facet of this game from being able to be tweaked by the player. The options menu allows for the game to be contoured to virtually any machine. The player character can be customized with hundreds of items and endless combinations of them. The online multiplayer is easy to access and has a ton of different modes to suit any multiplayer itch, from combat to racing to shooting hoops. To top it all off, the game runs well, and its groovy soundtrack adds to the slap-shot hilarity of robots killing each other with dodgeballs.

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FOR GLORY!

Overall, Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball is a fantastic multiplayer indie game. It’s difficult to find fault with almost anything the game does, from providing players with a plethora of options to all of the modes it includes. The game’s multiplayer community is thriving, and its local matches make for gaming parties on a caliber comparable to Gang Beasts and King of Booze. And in case all of that isn’t enough, more items, robots and arenas can be found in the game’s Steam Workshop page. Pick up a copy and take a journey into a world where dodgeball is a fun neon party with robots, not a dreadful gymnasium ordeal with assholes.

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You can buy Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Portal Stories: Mel

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Find a way out of an abandoned laboratory that’s under the auspice of a dutiful AI.

PC Release: June 25, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Every so often, an opportunity comes by to review an older game that can still compete with the best of the new stuff… a game that didn’t get reviewed on this page back when it first came out, but now gets a (belated) moment in the sun… a game that, in tonight’s case, takes some of the best that a beloved series has to offer and recreates it with impressive attention to detail, and some love of its own. Portal Stories: Mel is that game, and tonight’s a good opportunity to see how it fares both as its own game and in comparison to its predecessors.

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Portal Stories: Mel is a first-person puzzle game set between the events of Portal and Portal 2. For any Portal fans who are freaking out over apparently having missed a new title from Valve, that’s not quite the case – Portal Stories is actually a fan-made game and the debut title of Prism Studios. Much like the series’ vaunted Aperture Science, Prism Studios seems to be run by a cabal of madhouse scientists who enjoy tricky puzzle chambers and jabs at black humor. This concoction of theirs is an attempt to conjure the same “sciencey” magic that captivated gaming audiences everywhere with Portal and Portal 2.

Though the bulk of Portal Stories: Mel is set between the two main Portal titles, the game actually starts in the 1950’s with the arrival of Mel, a famous Olympian, to the then-brand-new offices of Aperture Science. After walking around the company’s opulent offices and getting an eyebrow-raising welcome from Aperture CEO Cave Johnson, Mel learns that she’s been hired on as a test subject for the company’s suspended animation initiative. Well, she climbs into the chamber, goes to sleep, and wakes up sometime between Portal and Portal 2… decades later than planned.

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Hmm… I might’ve overslept just a smidgen.

As Mel stumbles through the ruins of Aperture, she eventually gets a call from Virgil, an office employee who insists that the decay is all an elaborate test. Well, Mel isn’t fooled for long, and also discovers that Virgil is a personality core who’s also trapped in the bowels of Aperture. She also finds an old timey portal gun, complete with 1950’s warning labels, and promptly begins puzzle-shooting her way back to the surface of the facility. Virgil offers to help however he can- unlike Portal 2‘s Wheatley, he’s a calm and friendly personality core who does a better job of planning ahead. He’s Bing Crosby to Wheatley’s Bob Hope.

As the two make their way ever higher, they encounter another problem; after Chell knocked out the insidious GlaDOS in Portal, GlaDOS’s backup AI, AEGIS, came online to manage the facility in her absence. AEGIS is intent on exterminating all life in the facility so he can rebuild it from the ground up, leaving Mel and Virgil with an unfeeling, unsympathetic adversary. Armed only with her portal gun, Mel will have to stretch her wits to their limits to escape before AEGIS can resurrect Aperture Science.

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Maybe it’s the orange color or the retro decals, but I like this portal gun better than the original.

Despite being identical in plot to the first half of Portal 2, the story of Portal Stories: Mel opens Aperture up for more sci-fi intrigue. Though the game is not considered canon by Valve, Portal Stories presents a believable scenario set between the two titles that, in many ways, acts as a bridge between them. Like her counterpart Chell, Mel is a silent protagonist who offers no spoken thoughts on the chaos inside Aperture, but her perseverance in spite of being a stranger in a new time period suggests a Chell-like tenacity.

Unfortunately for Portal Stories: Mel, the supporting cast of characters isn’t all that interesting. Virgil is a friendly little core, but he serves more as a game guide than a Wheately-esque fountain of gaffes. Sure, he pokes fun at the occasional Aperture absurdity, but most of his dialogue is restricted to giving Mel instructions. It was probably better that Prism Studios not try to fill Wheatley’s guide rail with their new character, but the two personality cores cannot help but be compared. Virgil, while competently written, just ain’t all that interesting. To his credit, though, saying these things about him does elicit feelings of regret.

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Sorry, buddy.

Even though there’s not much to say about Virgil, he’s still leagues and fathoms more interesting than AEGIS. GlaDOS’s substitute laboratory overseer is barely even a character, and is much more an automated computer than a sophisticated, finicky AI. AEGIS’s flatly delivered announcements about laboratory protocol, while done out in an intimidatingly deep voice, can’t hold a handle to GlaDOS’s bleak humor. Here, it feels less like Prism Studios is trying to avoid reinventing the wheel and more like they’re trying to avoid putting a wheel on altogether. AEGIS is about as interesting as a printer, and his dialogue little livelier than a tray 2 lifting error.

No, the most Portal-like bits of humor Portal Stories: Mel has to offer are in the very beginning, when Prism at least manages to capture the likeness of Cave Johnson’s dialogue from Portal 2. Whoever the studio hired to voice the character has an uncanny vocal resemblance to J.K. Simmons, which helps with the game’s immersion. The Cave Johnson impersonation and the occasional funny rule reminder are where Portal Stories: Mel feels most like a Valve-made Portal game, but otherwise its narrative is pretty unremarkable.

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Portal Stories does not a memorable stories make.

Although a Portal narrative is supposed to be the fun, funny glue that binds the game together, Portal Stories‘ absence of a memorable one is this game’s only major flaw. For a start, the game’s level design is excellent, and presents a real challenge even to gamers who have played the two main Portal games. Indeed, Portal Stories: Mel seems to assume that players have already done so, given how difficult even its very first puzzles are.

As with the main Portal games, Portal Stories: Mel comprises puzzle rooms that are solved using the portal gun. Players can fire two portals onto two different surfaces, enter one portal, and come out the other. Some surfaces are resistant to portals, which is one of the Valve games’ most challenging factors. Players may also need to make use of environmental objects, like weighted companion cubes, to move forward. Unlike the main Portal games, which introduced new mechanics and obstacles gradually, Portal Stories: Mel pretty much hands players everything from the get-go.

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Hey! I recognize that death sphere!

To its (great) credit, Portal Stories: Mel actually advances many of the level design innovations that Valve made with Portal 2. It’s not often another studio can take what Valve did and make it better, and that Prism Studios managed to accomplish that feat makes Portal Stories: Mel warrant immediate attention. This game introduces almost no new mechanics or obstacles, but rather scrambles the series’s pre-existing obstacles in new ways. Players might need to oil up a hard light bridge with friction gel, something that Portal 2 never did, or find new ways to get behind the game’s infamous turrets.

All of this, of course, means that Portal Stories: Mel is much more difficult than Portal 2. Even its mid-range puzzles are harder than the toughest conundrums Portal 2 had to offer. This makes Portal Stories unwelcoming to players new to Portal, but it’s a bit unreasonable to expect gamers to play this before playing the main games anyway, so power to Prism for turning things up for the established fans. Any inveterate Portal fan spoiling for a new challenge will love (and hate) Portal Stories: Mel.

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Portal Stories’ level design is most impressive.

Similarly to the level design, Portal Stories‘ art direction manages to preserve what Portal 2 pioneered and add some intriguing innovation. Players can expect to encounter the same derelict puzzle chambers encountered in Portal 2, but Portal Stories adds a few new areas with original textures and objects. These include the 1950’s Aperture labs back when the company was, y’know, alive, and new office and administrative areas under the control of AEGIS. The game also introduces a 1950’s variant of the Aperture turret, as well as dozens of new doodads and decals to spruce up what would otherwise look like a very familiar world.

Because Portal Stories: Mel is built in the Source engine and therefore to run on PC, players can expect few performance issues in-game. No crashes, no glitches, and relatively few physics bugs. The game’s comprehensive suite of options lets players tweak and fiddle with the game how they will until they achieve their desired performance setup. For anything that can be said about Prism Studios’ writing, these developers are ardent students of everything else Valve does well.

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What a beautiful chasm of death this is.

Even though Portal Stories: Mel doesn’t quite create a memorable story, any Portal fan can tell that the game is a labor of love. There are signs here and there that this isn’t a Valve game, like the puzzle chambers’ considerably longer lengths, but Prism Studios still did an impressive job adhering to the atmosphere and level design innovations of the Portal games. The puzzle chambers are still laden with the thick, mysterious atmosphere of Aperture Science, as well as that inescapable feeling of isolation that comes with being within its walls. It provides a hearty morsel of fun for inveterate fans by turning up the difficulty, without sacrificing that tantalizing sense of exploration.

In closing, Portal Stories: Mel is still a must-have for Portal fans despite being light on the dark, absurd writing that made the other two games iconic. It faithfully builds upon the level design and head-scratching puzzles that made titans of the two main games, and scrambles what those games did without losing the atmosphere of Aperture Science. It creates a plausible bridge between Portal and Portal 2, but manages to use its impressive level design to still be its own game. Oh, and uh… has it been mentioned that the entire game is free? That’s right. Prism created an impressive Portal tribute and both it and its soundtrack don’t cost a dime.  So go get it, and take an in-depth journey through the next level of Portal‘s groundbreaking puzzle design.

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You can buy Portal Stories: Mel here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Portal 2

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Find a way out of a labyrinthine, robot-riddled laboratory.

PC Release: April 19, 2011

By Ian Coppock

There’s no denying the allure of puzzle games. Players who are put off by their potential difficulty risk missing out on that sweet sense of accomplishment that comes with their completion. Indeed, that sense of accomplishment is arguably sweeter than that of any other genre, since puzzles engage the mind in a way shooting bad guys or motoring down a raceway cannot. Since the game that was originally slated to be reviewed today won’t run, this is an excellent opportunity to write all about Portal 2, one of gaming’s most beloved puzzle-fests.

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Portal 2 is a game that requires little introduction. Like many properties of the almighty Valve Corporation, it’s as much a piece of pop culture as it is a titan of the video game world. If someone hasn’t played the game, they probably recognize the iconic Companion Cube. Or they’ve heard the iconic (and traumatic) line, “the cake is a lie.” Though it released over half a decade ago, Portal 2 remains a staple of fun puzzle gameplay and comedic impersonations the gaming world over. So why isn’t it being reviewed on this page until now?

Well, like many things in life, Portal 2 got lost in the shuffle. But now there’s an opportunity both revisit a beloved classic and plug a serious hole in this page’s back catalog. Besides, with all the surreal and horror games reviewed here recently, a few puzzles thrown together with clever writing and exceptional level design never hurt anyone.

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Ooooh… shiny! Well, hmm, no, not really.

The original Portal was designed and released alongside Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, back when the delay on Half-Life games was only a year or so. Though Valve intended Half-Life 2: Episode Two to be the star of the trio, Portal ended up stealing the gaming world’s heart much more than anyone anticipated. Between its puzzle-platformer gameplay, its intriguing world, and some stellar writing, Portal became one of gamedom’s very favorite odysseys — a title it still holds today. Valve promptly began working on a sequel and released it about four years later, though many fans were irritated that the studio hadn’t spent that time working on Half-Life 3 (ahem.)

Anyway, Portal 2 takes place some time after the events of the original game, in which a tenacious test subject named Chell wakes up in the abandoned labs of Aperture Science and engages in a battle of wits with a sarcastic, sadistic AI named GlaDOS. Though Chell survives the endless test chambers, thanks in no small part to her handy-dandy portal gun, she nonetheless remains trapped in the facility. With nothing better to do, she enters suspended animation, only to be woken up who knows how many years later by a knock at her door.

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GASP, yay!

Chell opens her door and befriends a spherical little robot named Wheatley, who’s woken her up to ask for her help in escaping Aperture Science. He reasons that the two stand a better chance if they try to escape from the labs together, an assessment that silent character Chell apparently agrees with. Together, the two venture out of Chell’s suspension chamber and into the vast, untamed wilderness that the labs have grown into. Portal 2 nixes mentioning exactly how long Chell’s been asleep, but given that there are now forests in the place of break rooms, it’s safe to say… a long time.

It’s not too terribly long before Chell finds a portal gun, the amazing inter-dimensional device that serves as the true star of the Portal series. With it, Chell can create interconnected doorways on most flat surfaces and walk instantly between them, a gimmick that also powers most of Portal 2‘s puzzles. Escaping the lab quickly becomes the least of Chell’s problems, though, as Wheatley accidentally reawakens a vengeful GlaDOS from years of slumber. It will take all of Chell’s wits, and her skill with a portal gun, to outwit Aperture’s malicious administrator a second time.

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No! Go back to sleep, go back to sleep!

With GlaDOS reactivated and the facility turning back to its pristine panels, Chell’s got her mission of escaping Aperture once and for all cut out for her. She’ll usually have only herself to rely on, as Wheatley, while well-meaning, ain’t exactly the brightest of bots. All the while, Chell also has to endure constant taunts and threats from GlaDOS, who intends on exacting her revenge in some unspeakable way. Chell will have to solve puzzles and elude traps in order to make it out. At least, if she wants to be… still alive. (Ba dum tss.)

Just like its predecessor, Portal 2 is a first-person puzzle game that relies on portals as its chief problem-solving mechanic. The game makes a few major breaks from the original Portal, extending far beyond the original’s hour-long length for a full 8-10 hours of puzzling. As Chell progresses, the game also adds a few traps and gadgets not seen in the last game, including laser-redirecting cubes and splashy gels that ignore the laws of physics.

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Oh yes, and we can’t leave out the gravity beams.

In its purest form, the goal of Portal 2 is to solve a puzzle chamber. Usually this entails finding a block to hold down a button to hold open a door so Chell can leave the area. Players can use their portal gun to access difficult vantage points and manipulate the environment around them. Can’t reach that block over there? Pop a portal onto the wall behind it, walk through, and grab it right quick. The game starts players out on a few easy chambers… actually, the exact starter chambers as the first Portal, but they gradually ramp up in difficulty. Chell also has to use her gun to navigate Aperture’s long-abandoned environs in sequences that, while not cordoned-off puzzle chambers, are about as challenging.

It’s Portal 2‘s smooth learning curve and fun with portals that make Portal 2 so endearing. Though few would suspect otherwise of a Valve-made game, Portal 2 really is a well-designed title. The game does a great job at gradually introducing new items, and then new ideas of what to do with those items, over and over until its conclusion. It’s also not afraid to mix those items and situations together to produce a new conundrum. Though Portal 2‘s puzzles get longer and more difficult, the game does well at equipping players for the path ahead. This game’s toughest puzzles are also of a considerably larger scale than Portal‘s, resulting in a longer sequel that preserves the original’s sense of pacing. Overall, the gameplay is a pretty solid package that leaves little room for complaints.

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Ooooooh.

Portal 2‘s visuals have aged a tiny bit in the last six years, particularly in regards to texture detail. The game still manages to impress with its vast color palette, expanding beyond the stark white of the original and incorporating faded colors for Aperture’s older areas. Again, because this is a Valve game, every option and its mother is represented in the game’s comprehensive menu. Tweak this, slide that, whatever needs to be done to get the game to work on PC, Portal 2 can match it.

Even more than the visuals, though, Portal 2‘s excellent voice acting is what completes the game’s curious atmosphere. Ellen McLain reprises the role of GlaDOS, as sarcastic and clinical as ever, while British comedian Stephen Merchant makes Wheatley video gaming’s most lovable idiot. Even more impressive than either of these stellar performances, though, is the voice work of J.K. Simmons, who was brought on to voice eccentric Aperture CEO Cave Johnson. Though Johnson is long dead by the time the game begins, his legacy lives on in voice recordings that play in the older areas of Aperture. Nothing that Simmons voices can afford to be missed, especially Cave’s hilariously inept introduction to decades-gone “new arrivals.”

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Lasers. Why does it always have to be lasers?

Decent visuals and physics puzzles are all well and good, but what truly gives Portal 2 its intrigue is its atmosphere. The game aptly blends some seriously cool sci-fi with some of gaming’s most laugh-out-loud dialogue. Portal 2 uses this mix of ooohs and laughs to strike the same absurdist vein of black comedy that made Portal so iconic. From oddly specific anti-meteorite policies to Cave Johnson’s mantis-man initiative, Portal 2 doesn’t lack for things to laugh at. GlaDOS returns with a more acidic brand of jokes than she had in Portal, lacing threats to kill Chell into gags about her weight and French fashion designers.

Inlaid in the dialogue and humor, though, is a surprisingly poignant narrative that fleshes out what Portal began and adds new perspective to its small but poignant cast of characters. Chell realizes that there’s much more to Aperture when she stumbles into a condemned area of the facility, and learns that there might be more to GLaDOS than a sadistic robot with a flair for cake. Wheatley, expressly programmed to be dumb, is far more than the archetypal village idiot, and undergoes quite a character arc of his own. None of the same can be said for the silent Chell, but that’s okay; the myriad of interwoven subplots and sci-fi lore is plenty sufficient. Similarly to Half-Life, the player is meant to be a silent observer, whose experiences and those of the main character are one in the same.

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Silly, slippery, science-y fun.

Overall, Portal 2 is a watertight title with top-notch production values and that runs bug-free on PC. That last one is a godsend in a world now dominated by broken day-one releases. Six years on, the game remains an avidly competitive and ambitious puzzle game. Other puzzle-y games, like Quantum Conundrum, have attempted to wrest some of Portal 2‘s stardom away with no success. Some players have noted what they see as flaws in the game, like the Cave Johnson section being much longer than the rest of the title, but it’s honestly difficult to find concrete flaws in Portal 2‘s design.

As for those two robots on the cover art, Portal 2 includes a second full-length campaign set sometime after the main story that follows those little guys as they try to make an escape of their own. The kicker is that this campaign is co-op; its story isn’t anywhere near as strong as that of the main game, but damn if it isn’t fun. The puzzles return, but with the added novelty of requiring two bodies to solve them instead of one. Those are fun too, whenever killing your teammate with shifting ceiling blocks gets old.

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I’ve seen some slip’n’slides in my time, but damn!

Portal 2 has little that even the biggest skeptics wouldn’t crack a smile at. It has fun, tightly designed puzzle gameplay, an intriguing central narrative, and some truly memorable voice acting. As a whole, it’s a wicked (and wickedly funny) experience that will leave players truly remiss when the exit, whatever form it takes, finally looms into view. Play the first game if you haven’t already, and then dive into the hilariously absurd scientific madhouse that is Portal 2. As Cave Johnson might put it, the worst that could probably happen with the time put into the game is missing out on a few rounds of Canasta later in life.

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You can buy Portal 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike

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Climb up a cash-covered mountain to enrich your company and save Christmas!

PC Release: December 18, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Well folks, this is it. The last, and 100th, video game review of 2016. Much like this year, the video game industry experienced a volatile mix of ups and downs. There were some great games, like Abzu and Firewatch, and some not-so-great games, like No Man’s Sky, Mafia III, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, etc etc. However, just because a year contained lots of ups and downs doesn’t mean there can’t still be some Christmas cheer! A year should end on a celebratory note, even if some of the notes preceding it could’ve sounded better. A year should end with each of us standing atop a mountain, screaming in victory and defiance at a bright winter sky. In that spirit, it’s time for Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike.

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Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike is a little holiday game created by Devolver Digital, the indie label best known these days for publishing Hotline Miami. The game’s titular star, Fork Parker, is Devolver Digital’s fictitious CFO, and is used by Devolver to promote everything from new games to unorthodox marriage advice. As the face of Devolver Digital, it only makes sense for Fork to star in his own video game, and it’s all about the money.

Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike opens with Fork attending a board meeting with a few nervous-looking oligarchs. It looks like the company’s sub-par games have sent profits down the toilet, and the company is in danger of tanking! Before Christmas, of all days! Luckily, Fork is the CFO, and if there’s anything he has a peculiar knack for, it’s finding more money. He doesn’t take the board’s crap about finding no money in Q4 for long.

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This s*** will not fly! Especially not on Christmas Eve!

Luckily for this company, Fork knows exactly where to find the funds. A magical Christmas mountain, far far away, reputed to be covered in giant piles of cash. With a swig of his martini and a wipe of his sleeve, Fork jumps onto a helicopter and sets out to save Christmas!

So begins the newest journey of video gaming’s dirtiest CFO, of an old man who is determined to save his company, save Christmas, and kick some hiney all in one offing. After leaping dramatically from a helicopter, Fork lands at the base of the Profit Hike and begins working his way up the peak. The higher he can get, the more money he’ll find, and the more severe the Christmas party hangover will be.

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That right there is the face of no-nonsense.

Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike is a side-scrolling platformer decked out in old-school, pixelated graphics. The entire game is meant to be a satirical take on the games industry and its greed, much like the rival video game company segment in Postal 2: Paradise Lost. Rather than being the fictitious mascot of an indie darling, Fork is portrayed as the grumpy CFO of a giant, faceless conglomerate in the same vein as Electronic Arts or Activision. And, in their spirit, he sets out to find more money for his company, no matter the cost.

As Fork, it’s up to players to scale a giant Christmas mountain, collecting money and building base camps. The game works a lot like an obstacle course; Fork starts out at the bottom of the mountain and collects money as he goes. However, he loses some of his cash every time he dies, be that at the hands of giant icicles or from a variety of Christmas-themed creatures. Players can end up going deep into the red if they die a lot, as the game’s money counter doesn’t stop at zero. The game’s final outcome is determined by how much cash players manage to preserve on their ascent. The more money Fork keeps, the more lavish the company’s profits (and Christmas party).

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Let’s get some MONEY!

As Fork, players can move from side to side and jump up on vertical obstacles. As an homage to old-school platforming games, Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike also comes loaded with lots of tricky traps and floating platforms. Fork has no means of attack should he encounter an enemy (he can’t even jump on their heads), and must move to avoid their paths. Every so often, Fork will build pass a checkpoint and build a new base camp as he ascends the mountain. Players will respawn at base camp if they die (and they’ll probably die a lot, as Fork keels over with just one hit).

As awesome as Fork is just by virtue of being Fork, he does bring some mountaineering tools with him to help climb to the top. Players can throw pitons between two or more mountain walls, and a rope will spawn between them. Fork can slide along the rope to reach higher areas or speed out of the way of foes. Players can also cancel their piton throws if they need to re-aim, and can throw about 3-4 pitons before they automatically respawn. Not even Fork Parker can spawn infinite pitons.

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Rock climbing at its finest.

Although the piton mechanic in Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit hike is certainly novel, it’s a bit clunky. There’s no sort of crosshairs or reticule for throwing a piton, so players have to manually judge their throwing distance as best as possible. Of course, this means that a lot of pitons will end up being mis-thrown, so some areas require a lot of experimentation to traverse. Additionally, this game works much better with a controller than a keyboard and mouse. That’s a pretty common rule of thumb for platformers, but it’s disappointing to see for a small indie game released on PC.

Being able to aim a piton throw accurately is vital in Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike, because in addition to the aforementioned icicles, Fork also has to dodge some unfriendly Christmas critters. From flying Christmas sweaters to bouncy penguins and levitating ice cubes, there are a lot of dastardly creatures standing between Fork Parker and his profit hike. Some surfaces also won’t hold an anchor, forcing players to rely on good old fashioned aiming and jumping to get around.

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Holy crap that’s a lot of penguins.

The level that Fork is doing all this mountaineering and enemy-dodging and cash-grabbing in won’t be terribly unfamiliar to platformer fans. Floating platforms and lots of terrain elevation tend to be standard fare for this genre. Less common, however, is the game being a vertical platformer rather than a horizontal start-to-end run. The vertical setup of the game’s platforms and enemies adds a huge challenge to the game, as Fork has to worry even more about obstacles above and below him as well as to the sides. With icicles and enemies closing in from all sides, Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike becomes a pretty difficult little game. Much like the old-school platformers of old.

The world of Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike, small as it is, is also replete with Christmas cheer in the sound department. The game is accompanied by a funky electronica soundtrack combining various Christmas sound effects with a steady beat. It’s a bit short and loops a bit too obviously, but it ain’t bad. The other sound effects the game offers are crisp and loud, especially the sound Fork makes when he runs into an icicle and poofs into nothing. If nothing else dissuades players from trying to get Fork killed, the sound of an old man exploding like a balloon will.

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Steady… steady…

By now, anyone reading this has probably figured out that Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike doesn’t have a deep narrative with intricate character development. But that’s okay. This game never claimed to attain such things, and its simple premise lends it a lot of charm. This can be offset by the game’s punishing difficulty, but it’s nice to kick back during the winter break with something small and simple.

The game’s fealty to old-school platformers is also quite reminiscent of simpler times. The entire game features platforming visuals that are considered classic by contemporary standards. Fork and the Christmas creatures are all pixelated, but the background environments are much more richly detailed. Unlike a lot of old platformers, the colors in Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike are bright, and arranged to create contrast. It’s a pretty little game, combining the visuals of games past with the sophistication of current art techniques.

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Almost there!

The best part about Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike and the piece de resistance of its profiteering publisher joke is that the game is free. Yep. The game that glorifies gathering huge sums of money in time for a Q4 booze-fest doesn’t cost a dime. Sure, it clocks in at 40 minutes to an hour for first-time players, but its challenge factor adds some genuine value to the game. This isn’t a simple Flash game or tech demo like so many free games on Steam, but a fully fleshed out little bit of holiday cheer. Between its short but sweet satire, its challenging platformer gameplay, and constant barrage of Christmas spirit, gamers have little reason not to pick this up and give it a go during the holidays. LONG LIVE FORK!

And with that, Art as Games is shutting down for the holidays. As always, I want to give a huge shout-out to readers new and old for checking out my content. Your support is what motivates me to write these and what makes Art as Games possible, so really, thanks a ton. Please also be sure to check out GeekFactor Radio, the site to which Art as Games is now syndicated, for even more great content on games, comics, movies, and all things nerdy.

Happy Holidays from Art as Games! See you in 2017.

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You can buy Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Audiosurf

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Race against friends and thorny obstacles on tracks built from your music.

PC Release: February 15, 2008

By Ian Coppock

After a big disappointment like Mafia III comes down the pipe, it’s never a bad idea to turn off the feed of big new titles and mosey on back to games from back in the day. From a time when developers knew how to craft a working PC game more often than not, and when the simple joys of life were faithfully transcribed into a digital medium. Today, that simple joy of life is music, and that faithful transcription into a digital medium is the beloved racing game Audiosurf. It’s not flashy, it’s not fancy, and it’s pretty down to the basics. But what it set out to do, uniting the media of video games and music, is a noble goal indeed. Time to see how well it did.

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Audiosurf is a racing platformer game that was originally released in early 2008. The game’s core concept is the brainchild of Dylan Fitterer, a developer who wanted to more closely align music with video games. Although he received some help on development when the game was already close to completion, Fitterer’s work meant that Audiosurf is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man project. Even though it came out years ago and has since been superseded by a sequel, Audiosurf achieved what many gamers until then assumed was impossible or impractical: building a racetrack out of music.

Audiosurf‘s core novelty and chief selling point is just that; building racetracks out of players’ digital music libraries. In a feat of audio and computer engineering that’s still better off being referred to as a magic trick, the game ingests a selected song from players’ computers, and builds a race course that translates the ebb and flow of that song into the dips and rises of a physical track. It’s a great idea for a video game, one that synthesizes two media into one, and unites music and racing enthusiasts around a common title.

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This is your brain on music.

Audiosurf makes it pretty simple for players to ride their music. After unpacking itself, the game is automatically set to detect music stored on the hard drive, and has no problem picking up songs ripped from the Internet or purchased through a store like iTunes. Once it’s picked a song, Audiosurf will quickly ingest the music and construct a racetrack that utilizes the song’s rhythm and flow. Players can then pick a futuristic-looking car and set out onto the track, all while the aforementioned song is playing in the background. Audiosurf presents a novel way for players to get euphoria and meaning out of their music, by seeing it made manifest as a type of gameplay on the screen.

The replayability of Audiosurf is congruent with the breadth and depth of the human music experience. Because the game makes a unique track out of every song it processes, there are potentially millions of race courses that players can explore in Audiosurf. Sure, similar songs might produce similar tracks, but most people’s musical libraries will easily translate into hours of entertainment. Every novelty in every song creates a new experience on the course. On top of all of that, the game replays songs in fantastic audio quality, so it also makes for a good way to put on some headphones and unwind.

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WOOOO!!!

Audiosurf can be played solo or against other players; the game is enjoyable in either mode. The challenge in this game has less to do with pitfalls and ledges and more to do with gathering the most points before the end of a song. Each track is littered with moving blocks, called “cars” by the game, that players can pick up and accumulate. Generally speaking, the more rows of cars hit by each player, the more points gathered. Whoever has the most points at the end of a multiplayer match wins, but a player’s score will be posted to leaderboards in single-player or multiplayer mode.. It should go without saying that more popular songs will have much more competitive leaderboards, so obscure music enthusiasts (and hipsters) can score easy self-esteem points by crowning themselves kings of songs that no one has heard of.

Depending on the challenge mode selected, most tracks will also come packed with gray cars, which players will want to avoid. Gray cars eat up space in the players’ queues for points, and can lower both the amount of points to be scored, and the potential for combos. Avoiding gray cars while picking up the colorful ones is the main challenge in most modes of Audiosurf, and players can switch between three lanes of traffic to avoid or pick up different cars. Each racetrack in the game tends to pack more or fewer cars depending on how intense of a song it is. Really slow, gentle songs are likely to have smooth terrain with fewer cars, but intense, fast-paced songs will have much more variety.

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A mellow song means a mellow track. A rough song means rough driving.

Players can pick from a variety of vehicles, called “characters” in-game, that add their own spin to the challenges within Audiosurf. Each character changes the condition of the race, from the number or types of cars that can be picked up on the track, to new combos and even allowing for more than one vehicle. These characters are divided based on how challenging each of their track twists is, so players can start out with the basic ones and work their way up to more advanced vehicles.

The only issue with this system is that Audiosurf does a poor job explaining what each character does. The game will provide a general explanation, like “twist up the track and add more combos!” but not really specify what “twisting up the track” actually means. Indeed, most of the tutorials and documentation in this game isn’t that great. There is an intro video that explains how picking up points works, but, ironically, the audio isn’t that good, and the narrator’s already rushed explanation is often drowned out by the background music. There’s nothing wrong with a game forcing players to learn things manually, but Audiosurf‘s lack of a manual or concise explanations on what each of its characters does is a bit frustrating.

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This character apparently turns the road white.

Additionally, Audiosurf‘s options menu is a bit bare-bones, with only the most essential graphics and audio options present. The game usually does a pretty good job of auto-formatting to the screen’s native resolution, but any attempt to change the resolution will crash the game. Definitely a frustration and something that should’ve been steamrolled right out of the game during development, but chances are players can load up the game and expect their native resolution to already be accounted for.

Apart from these design and options flaws, Audiosurf will run beautifully on virtually any machine. Except for the aforementioned resolution bug, the game is virtually bug-free, which is a nice change of pace from the bug-prone Triple-A games coming out these past few months. Audiosurf doesn’t have a central narrative and its characters are basically super-powered cars, but that’s okay. This game provides a great way both to enjoy new music and to go back and revisit old hits.

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This game pairs very well with Coheed and Cambria. Just FYI.

As can be gleaned from these screenshots, Audiosurf goes for a cyberpunk theme in its artwork and graphics. Indeed, much of the production and many of its track themes are reminiscent of Tron. Just like the tracks, the artwork and visuals present in each course are influenced directly by the song picked. Players can choose from a handful of different colors and themes, like black or white backgrounds, but everything else pretty much arranges itself. These visuals can vary greatly, from circular tunnel lighting to huge colossi made of lights floating out in space. It further reinforces Audiosurf‘s visual value and looks quite beautiful.

The graphics themselves are simple, but effective. A close glance at Audiosurf will reveal some pretty murkey textures, but these are offset by the game’s bright lights and flares. Indeed, many elements of the game, especially the vehicles’ engine outputs, almost look cel shaded. Between the variety inherent in being able to choose from any song put to digital, and the palette of novelties Audiosurf chooses from while building tracks, players won’t run out of things to look at in Audiosurf, in addition to listening.

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This game is great.

Even though Audiosurf is a great game, it’s worth noting that it has since been succeeded by a sequel, Audiosurf 2, which was released last year. Does this older game present any advantages over the sequel? It actually does. Because even though Audiosurf 2 benefits from better graphics, expanded tutorials, and far more variety in tracks, right now the game is replete with bugs. Players have reported everything from desktop crashes to the play button not working, which is an obvious problem for a video game that depends on music.

Players have also reported having to download a patch that somehow makes the game run on a YouTube video? Or something? As of writing, it basically looks like Dylan Fitterer added a streaming option to Audiosurf 2 that has made the game unplayable for many players. To be fair, he’s announced a patch to get it fixed immediately, but who knows how long that could take. Audiosurf has remained untouched throughout all of this, so players who are intrigued by the concept of the series but don’t want to put up with a bunch of patching and development baloney will probably just want to start here. The game’s only ten bucks, and it could be a lot pricier for the value it offers.

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“Good eyyyyyed sniper…. I’ll shoot, you run!”

Audiosurf is not without its rough edges and blank spaces, but it’s one of the most novel video games of the last ten years and an outstanding achievement of creativity. It’s one of those bizarre experiments that combines two things into something surprisingly smooth, and something that video gamers everywhere should buy and try. Audiosurf doesn’t bill itself on a deep narrative, but its variety is only matched by that of the human musical mind. Download it today and experience music on a fun new level.

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You can buy Audiosurf here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.