The Animal Farm

April 7th, 2013

A Brief Discussion on Bioshock Infinite

Spoilers Ahead. Deal with it.

Bioshock Infinite was a good game, though somewhat lacking in the gravitas of the original Bioshock.

A lot was made of this big floating city in the sky, and beautiful as it was, generally it just felt like a normal city. A normal hard to navigate city, since I could never keep track of which skyline would take me where. There was a sky and some ground, and most of the time I forgot I was perpetually in the air. I tend to prefer bright and accessible games, but it’s undeniable that Rapture set a mood that made it a character unto itself.

Columbia sets a mood more with what fills the environment. Much like Rapture is a picture of Objectivism gone wrong, Columbia is a comment on Exceptionalism and Nationalism taken to their nasty extremes. Here it does an excellent job. My favorite portion was when they introduce Fink and his establishment, focusing on labor exploits that are very much rooted in American history. His talk seems almost satirical - like the heightened rhetoric of Ryan - but it’s a reflection of a reality that still partially exists. It’s masterfully done.

The narrative had some pacing issues. Near the middle there is a series of fetch quests, cheapened by the fact that every time you get near the thing you’re fetching you simply jump to another world where the thing you were fetching had already been fetched. Time starts to (seem to) skip around erratically, and without actually accomplishing anything you’re in the middle of a bloody revolution.

Near the end there’s the classic “giant information dump” to reveal things they couldn’t fit naturally into the narrative but needed to reveal for a full conclusion to make sense. It’s something Eternal Sonata did, though Eternal Sonata did it much worse. It’s not terrible - they provide subtle hints throughout the game where you could possibly piece bits of it together, and once it all fits there are even subtler clues in the game that seem a lot more clever. Still, there could have been more organic revelations.

Comstock, for all his importance, didn’t measure up. Andrew Ryan was a fantastic antagonist, constantly menacing you through the dreary Rapture. Comstock tries, and he has a few shining moments near the end of the game, but he’s mostly of little consequence while you tear down his army. Fitzpatrick is equally unimpressive - you don’t have a lot of time to warm to her before Elizabeth gets all stabby.

Gameplay didn’t really bring anything new to the table. Guns were guns, Vigors were (mostly rehashed) Plasmids, the end. The skylines added a little twist, and it’s clear they wanted me to use those by how much Gear they gave that was skyline-centric, but I never found much success there outside of hurriedly running away from a Handyman. It was good gameplay - a solid FPS - but nothing we didn’t see in 2007.

I found myself missing the Big Daddies, the terrifying battles that left me within an inch of my life and completely out of ammo. Even though I always knew when they were coming and had time to plan and lay traps. The closest equivalent we had here were the Handymen. They were good - seeing one of those hulks tear an airship in half before charging you was certainly harrowing - but I think there were three of them in the entire game? Maybe I should crank the difficulty up.

I know most of this discussion has focused on the negative, and it sounds like I don’t appreciate the game when set beside its predecessor, but understand that if it were half of the original Bioshock it’s still miles ahead of every shooter and the vast majority of games. When I’m thinking about games as art, wondering whether I could make a strong argument for any mainstream releases, Bioshock 1 & Infinite are the games I reach for first.

March 3rd, 2013

RPG Chess Art & Technology & Love

I’ve been putting a lot of mental investment into RPG Chess. Thinking about technology and resources and time.

Technology was a decision practically made up for me. I want to support asynchronous play, and the only (free) system that supports this is Game Center for iOS. There are other systems, but they’re expensive or complicated or involve writing a lot of the back-end tech myself. There’s a limit to how much time I want to spend treading that kind of water. My knowledge of web development is already pretty minimal, and if I manage to get through life never touching JavaScript or PHP again I’ll consider myself a success.

Art is still a wide open question. I’m conflicted on a lot of things: do I want classes or not? If I have classes, it makes sense that every class would have unique pieces, but that’s visually confusing. I don’t want players to be uncertain about what image correlates to what piece. Do I want animations? That bumps up my art requirement considerably, but it could add a lot of panache to the game. Can I get away with just using stock art on the internet? There are some good sets out there, though less than I’d like. Is it morally reprehensible to take that stock art and sell it as IAP? It adds to the game, but it’s not something I myself created.

Monetization has been at the back of my mind. I came up with the idea for the game without considering how to make money off it, but I’ve made no money off enough games that it’d be nice to, y’know, recoup some of my investment. (Side note: Cuddle Bears actually lost me money, even if you don’t count the time we invested). I can sell: new piece sets, new boards, new board layouts, premium powers, premium classes if I introduce classes, avatars, artificial advancement. “Pay to Win” leaves a horrible taste in my mouth, but I hope to balance the powers in the game such that higher level players don’t have a distinct advantage as much as they have a wider selection on how they’d like to play. Do I include ads for non-paying players? That’s pretty common in freemium games, but I dunno.

Scheduling is a constant concern. I’m not horribly busy at the moment, but I’m busy enough to make a side project hard to manage. This thing will have to be scoped carefully - big enough to make it an interesting game but small enough that I can actually finish it. I’m already foregoing a single player mode entirely (no complicated Chess AI here!), so the ‘RPG’ title won’t be as descriptive as I’d like. I think once I sit down and start devoting my energies, things will come together, but it’s impossible to predict how long this will take or whether it will become another unfulfilled project.

Design wise, I’ve locked down a lot. I’ve got 20 different powers thought out. If I don’t have classes, that may be good enough for a first release. If I do have classes, I’ll need a lot more to support positive, constant player progression; at least 10-13 per class. The general flow and UI feel is coming together on paper. Communicating new concepts to the player has been streamlined, largely because the new concepts themselves have been streamlined.

During the course of writing this post, I think I’ve resolved on including classes. The major reason is that they provide a larger deviation on standard Chess and fit nicely into the RPG framework. I was starting to worry that simply ‘Chess + Progression + Powers’ was not enough of a difference to make this an interesting product. Allowing the player to have different characters that can each grow independently adds a whole new dimension. Balancing will be tough, and there are art decisions that come along with it, and it also slows down the new user flow if I’m not careful. But I think it’s the right call.

So now I guess all that’s left to do is, well, get started. Very little tech work has gone in so far, but hopefully over the coming weeks we’ll see that change. First playable by the end of March? I’m not going to commit to that, but it’s a nice idea.

March 1st, 2013

The Evolution of RPG Chess

Recall this post about RPG Chess - a deviation on Chess that introduced piece leveling and a new piece that leveled between matches.

As I tried to flesh out the game, I became increasingly dissatisfied with how hard it was to communicate all the information. First, every piece having different abilities depending on its level leads to a lot of information players need to manage. Of course there would be heads up displays, but as a player you don’t want to constantly reference a help section to determine if a pawn at level 2 can counter-attack your every move. Second, the inconsistency between an individual piece (which would not level between matches) and the new War Mage (which would) creates a disconnect between expectations and reality. Third, the new mechanics could not be conveyed without lots of tutorials and notifications and popups.

Everything was feeling unwieldy.

My first move to rectify this was to cut the War Mage. A new piece with disjoint mechanics lost its appeal. However, I didn’t want to lose the sense of progression, so instead I decided the player should level. Upon leveling, players would be rewarded with different abilities that can turn the tide of the battle.

The notion of abilities was a natural fit - it’s a more manageable chunk of information that’s easier to convey to the user. It also has parallels in other games which adds familiarity. Finally, there are more balancing options. Ability cooldowns can be introduced and tweaked based on level discrepancies between players. Bonus: it adds monetization possibilities in the form of premium abilities.

Once abilities entered the picture, individual piece leveling seemed less relevant. Instead of a piece gradually becoming more empowered, there could simply be abilities that did what those levels would do. So now instead of a pawn gaining the ability to move backward, we’d have an ability that moved a pawn backward.

It leads to a much more streamlined system. Most of the complications in terms of UI and messaging melt away without losing the crux of the idea.

The major open question that still remains: should all players have the same bank of abilities available, or should players bind themselves to a “class” where certain classes only gain certain abilities? The former seems the easier to balance - if players all have the same options available to them, there’s no possibility of one player being at a severe disadvantage. It’s also less work. The latter seems more personal, allowing players to choose a play style and bond with a certain class type as they would in any other RPG. The latter also has monetization options in the form of selling premium classes.

I’m not sold either way here yet. I lean toward giving players the same bank of abilities, but I remain very open to the idea of separate classes. There’s still some thought and opinion gathering to be done there.

February 27th, 2013

Clashing Cards

Here’s a game idea that primarily uses a standard deck of cards & a board. Loosely described, because I’m not out to write the rule book in a blog post, but I think you’ll get the idea.

Divide a deck into two halves - each half as a complete red & black suit. These halves form each player’s personal decks.

On the board, each player has a certain number of ‘card stacks’ - a combination of red & black cards that are face up such that only the top card is visible. Red cards are attack cards, black cards are defense cards. At no point can a player rummage through his opponent’s card stacks to see what cards are there.

Every round, players draw some number of cards from their deck. They then place those cards face up on any stack that they choose. If they have less than 5 stacks, they can place a card on an empty space to form a new stack.

Once players have placed all their cards, they start taking turns activating stacks. A stack can only be activated once per round. When a stack is activated, it can perform 2 actions out of the following list:
* Move - move a single space
* Attack - attack an adjacent opponent card stack
* Combine - place the stack on top of an adjacent stack, forming a larger new stack
* Divide - take any number of cards from the stack and form a new stack in an adjacent space

Those are mostly self-explanatory except for attacking: when a player chooses to attack another stack, both players reveal the cards in their stacks. The person with the most attack (red) cards is the winner. For each attack card in excess, the loser must give the winner a defense card. If the loser has no defense cards to give, he must give the winner all the attack cards. In the event of a tie, nothing happens.

The cards provide victory points equal to the face value of the card. The winner is the person with the most victory points at the end of the game. ‘End of the game’ conditions have yet to be determined - either once a player hits a certain number of victory points or a fixed number of rounds I think.

That’s basically it. Exact numbers for things (board size, max # of stacks, victory points to win, # of actions per turn) are subject to iteration and actual playtesting. There’s also room for special rules like making face cards do something special when in a deck. I see this as a potential mobile asynchronous multiplayer game as well, but it’s worth roughing out a prototype to try it out.

October 3rd, 2012

Borderlands 2

My one sentence review of Borderlands 2: It’s… basically Borderlands.

That’s not a bad thing. I played a ton of Borderlands - finished it several times. I devoured each DLC release. I am a fan.

I wish the sniper class were a bit more engaging, but 66% of his powers are focused on melee, to which I’m all like, “Huhwuh?”

I also wish there were a few more gameplay surprises thrown in. I’ve seen class mods and corrosive weapons and relics. It’s all holdover with little new spice.

But it still keeps the same hearty core. There’s questing and funny dialog and shooting and Scooter. There’s more challenge, which I can get on board with. It’s bigger and louder and just as get, and I intend to play it just as much.

September 28th, 2010

XBLIG Review: Old School Adventure

In Old School Adventure by Chris Hughes Games, players assume the role of Chris Unarmed. Chris is aptly named for having no arms, but he also has no neck or legs - he is a head attached to shoes. He runs and he jumps, and that’s all his anatomy will allow him to do. The game tasks you with defeating Mango, who is apparently en-route to destroying the world. First, though, we have to get to Mango, and that’s where things get challenging.

OSA can best be described as a puzzle platformer. Players run and jump and wall-jump, but each room presents a challenge beyond motor reflexes: you genuinely have to think to get from Point A to Point B. In virtually every screen, there will exist an intricate setup of spikes and enemies and traps that will push you past the standard sidescrolling habit of running and jumping. Instead, you will be planning out your actions, attempting failed experiments to see how things play out, sometimes questioning if getting to the room’s exit is even possible before having an “Aha” moment where the pieces click into place. Even then the solution is not complete, because you must now use those motor reflexes to execute your plan or face a quick end.

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I died an awful lot. I died within five seconds of playing. I died ten seconds after that. I then got into a groove, finished the first room, and promptly died again.

That’s OK, though. There is virtually no penalty for dying. You reappear at the entrance to the room and start again. It’s less about staying alive in the long-term and more about solving an immediate puzzle. If you are a fan of Abe’s Odyssey, this style of play - this puzzling and experimentation and brutal death - will feel right at home.

The level design has another marvelous thing working for it: rooms tie together splendidly, and many things within a room are repurposed depending on Chris’s current power. Something like a moving spiked block that seriously impeded your path at one point in the game might become an essential stepping stone once Chris gains the ability to walk on spikes. Inaccessible rooms you see in the beginning of the game gradually open up, and it’s a great feeling realizing how a new ability you just earned will enable you to do something you wondered about earlier. These designs have some of the early Metroid spirit about them, and quite bluntly, it’s some of the best level craftsmanship I’ve seen in XBLIG.

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… And now this review stops looking like a love letter, and I hammer on some of the bad…

A good portion of the platforming is hampered by loose controls, and this is where the biggest frustration of OSA resides. A platforming game needs a tight control scheme to be manageable, and OSA does not have this. I found myself drifting inadvertently into spikes more than once, not because I didn’t know exactly what to do, but because I expected Chris to stop and he just kept going. Wall jumping, especially off certain (for lack of a better word) escalators behaved erratically. In a not-insignificant number of instances, I would run to the edge of a platform and try to jump only to plummet to my death - and then I’d do the same thing a couple more times in a row before finding the ’sweet spot’ I needed to make the jump actually get me where I needed. These experiences were enough to make me angrily curse at the game more than once (yes, much like a seventh grader or a Halo player), spoiling an otherwise great time.

The graphics, music, and story are nothing to write home about. The game never looks bad, but it doesn’t look particularly good either. Minimalist styles can often work, but this game has a roughness to it. The music falls into the background; there are only a couple tracks, and if you played them for me I probably wouldn’t recognize them. The story goes all over the place, forming a halfway interesting narrative and then throwing it away for something simpler and more tongue-in-cheek near the end. This makes the last few sections of the game somewhat cute but also somewhat unfulfilling.

Finally, there was one show-stopping glitch: I managed to get stuck and couldn’t progress because I got a powerup at the wrong time. It’s a testament to the game’s quality that I came back and replayed the beginning to pass that point, but it’s obviously a black mark on the experience. Chris has told me he intends to fix that.

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I had a lot of fun with Old School Adventure. There were a few times controls left me frustrated and cursing, and the aesthetics aren’t really there, but I don’t regret playing through the whole game (twice). Not even a little.

September 25th, 2010

XBLIG Review: Super Avatar Hero Force

Avatar games have become a bit of a joke among XBLIG developers: they’re almost invariably terrible, shameless money grabs, and the grand majority have the word “Avatar” in their title. Super Avatar Hero Force manages to narrowly avoid that first bit but obviously not the second.

SAHF has a super simple premise: avatars are running at you from the left (and the right!) and you have to punch or kick them away. You can’t move, you can’t jump, you can’t even control whether you’re punching or kicking. You choose the direction for an attack and the character attacks, sending enemies flying into the air. If you get tapped it’s game over.

Oh, and you rescue kittens. I almost left out the bit about the kittens, but I know the grand majority of my audience has a bit of a thing for kittens.

Super Avatar Hero Force

There’s not really anything more I can say about the gameplay, because that’s all there is. I kept coming back to the game to see if there was something I was missing, something that might inspire me to keep playing, but no - everything the game is about is right there at the beginning, and you’ll know within seconds of play whether this is the game for you. That’s why we have trials, I suppose.

In the beginning I said the game avoids being terrible, and it avoids that less by being an inventive game and more by being charming. The graphics look good. There’s an animated environment with a distinct comic style that really stands out above more complete XBLIG titles, and it’s clear UberGeekGames put a lot of love into this. The game has some nice camera and slow-mo FX that punctuate knocking people around, and I even found something to appreciate with the font. The only flaw here is the music, which is repetitive and uninteresting after about 30 seconds.

Oh, and the kittens make an adorable little “meow” sound when you rescue them. How awesome is that?

Super Avatar Hero Force

If this review seems short, it’s because I can’t find a lot to say: Super Avatar Hero Force is a cute game that charms for about the length of a trial but doesn’t contain anything compelling enough to warrant a purchase. There’s a lot of untapped potential here - game modes, extra gameplay mechanics, additional themes/environments, better achievements - that could’ve given the game some extra oomph, but as it stands the game doesn’t have much to offer.

September 24th, 2010

XBLIG Review: Nasty

I suppose it’s only fitting that since my first XBLIG review was a positive tribute to Fun Infused Games’s Hypership Out of Control, my second review should be a considerably harsher look at a game by the same group: Nasty.

Nasty is a fairly straight forward run ‘n gun: every level is a single screen full of enemies, platforms, and traps; your goal is to kill all the enemies to move on to the next room, all the time collecting gems and fruit to increase your score. On your way, powerups/weapons will aid you while bosses try to impede you.

First thing’s first: go ahead and turn off your rumble. Every time you shoot the controller vibrates, and since you’re constantly shooting, the game becomes a cleverly disguised massage app. You’ll probably want to turn off the sound effects too, since those gun shot sounds aren’t doing the game any favors but are still not the worst SFX the game offers.

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Now let’s move on to the game itself. The premise isn’t terribly inviting - killing things until everything is dead is, quite bluntly, dull. On its own that’s forgivable. Plenty of games survive on a diet of mindless explosions and bro-tastic gunplay. Unfortunately, where those games succeed in their execution, Nasty does not.

The most glaring problem is the level design. The game boasts 100 levels, but a good majority of those levels can be beaten by standing still and shooting. This is no more apparent than in level 65(!) where I literally held down X until the level ended. In the few instances where that is not sufficient, you generally never have to take more than a few stops, stop, shoot, repeat. It’s about as mindless as it gets.

There are infrequent levels where the game tries to force a bit more from you, either by making you do some tricky platforming or by throwing in awkwardly positioned enemies. These are welcome, but even these levels have flaws - the platforming can be frustrating, especially when there’s a low-hanging ceiling that you repeatedly bump your head into only to fall in a pit of spikes. The awkwardly positioned enemies usually don’t increase the challenge, they only necessitate the need to find a better angle.

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The boss battles are where we see the game’s potential shine, but there are only a handful. I fought two over the course of the first 70-ish levels. They were fun and challenging, and I would’ve much rather seen more of this and less of the straight-moving, easily predictable enemies that littered every level.

There are plenty of little tidbits to collect to boost your score (I did enjoy the point scoring system) and a good assortment of powerups/weapons. Alas, even most of the weapons work against you - the grenade launcher and wave shot were both pretty useless whereas the tri-shot was stupid powerful.

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Moving past gameplay, there are a host of technical issues. The controls are loose - sometimes I would duck when I wanted, other times I would run forward and shoot at a downward angle, leading me straight into an enemy. The options menu is especially broken, with every move of the thumbstick doing something unwanted. There are collision detection bugs (when using the tri-shot weapon I frequently managed to shoot through walls) and a few places where the game noticeably jerks. There’s nothing here that explodes in your face, but there are enough little “gotchas” to cause frustration.

From a production value standpoint, the game is a mixed bag. Menus and screen transitions and cinematics feel appropriately polished. I legitimately enjoyed the handful of music tracks. Character and enemy designs are charming. Environment art runs the gamut from OK to atrociously bad. I’d say the game is pleasing to look at with a few standout experiences both good and bad. Oh, and again, the sound effects. Not good.

Nasty

If the game does one thing really well, it’s its multiplayer offering. You can play the entire game with a second player. Better still, you can challenge others to competitive matches with different goals. The levels are a bit tight for a four player match, but this mode is a welcome diversion from the single player experience.

Unfortunately multiplayer is not enough to save Nasty. There’s just too much working against this game, with bland level design, extremely repetitive gameplay, loose controls, and a host of bugs. The game is a step above much of the XBLIG rubbish that litters the service, but I still can’t call it a good game. A little bird (who hopefully won’t hate me forever after reading this review**) has said the game’s sequel Nastier is in development; I’d skip Nasty and hope that Nastier turns out better.

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(Footnotes follow)
** For those unfamiliar with my background, I’m a game developer, and I talk to other developers over Twitter. I’m writing these reviews from a position of unbiased respect - I like the creator, and I know how hard it is to make a game, and I’ve personally had my own games blasted; while I’m reviewing, though, I’m trying my hardest to set all that aside and look at a game critically. If you’re a developer I talk to who asks for a review, please keep that in mind.

September 24th, 2010

Review Pipeline

Some developers have been kind enough to share some free tokens for their games, allowing me to build a backlog of (slightly older) games to review:

Nasty (Fun Infused) - Coming This Weekend!
Dungeon Adventure (UberGeekGames)
Oldschool Adventure (Chris Hughes)
Super Avatar Hero Force (UberGeekGames)

That’s not necessarily the order, and you’d be silly to hold me to any kind of timeline, but that’s what I have so far.

These are all slightly older games; after I go through this batch, I’ll probably start picking out of the new releases or games that personally interest me - unless of course other people want to send me free games.

Random dungeon generator successfully ported to iPhone!

September 22nd, 2010

XBLIG Review: Hypership Out of Control

I playtested Hypership Out of Control near the end of its development cycle, catching it somewhere in the late Beta stage. I didn’t (and still don’t) know the developer especially well, but he was asking for help over Twitter, and I had some time to kill one night.

And then I found that I had some time to kill the next night. And the next. If you’re not catching what I’m saying here, allow me to phrase it another way: I didn’t really have time to kill. I was staying up past 2 AM every night, having a bitter high score feud with another developer - not much of a feud since he is much better than I, but still. I tried.

Let that set the tone for this review: I enjoyed the game enough to sacrifice sleep for it.

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For the uninitiated, the premise of Hypership is thus: your ship is out of control, constantly accelerating, headed toward an inevitable and untimely crash. All you can hope to do is dodge and shoot to prolong your life, which becomes increasingly tricky as stages start introducing moving obstacles and tight paths. There is no winning; you play until you die and hope to collect as many points as you can on your way down.

This is a retro game at its core: its graphics, its music, and its simple move & shoot mechanics place it right at home with old arcade games. It has a definite mood to hit and it executes on that flawlessly.

Being a retro game, however, earns very few points with me. The internet is full of NES and MAME emulators. XBLIG and Android and iPhone and Flash portals are lousy with retro games. It’s all good and fine to be retro, but I don’t really think anyone can claim it as a major selling point anymore.

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Luckily that’s not really what Hypership has going for it. Hypership’s primary claim to “good” is with its level design. The creators clearly put a lot of thought into the stages, letting each one unfold gradually over multiple playthroughs. The first level is easy, but you can clearly see that you’re not getting the whole picture as you zoom past points and powerups. Not soon after you’ll start crashing and cursing and wondering how stage 7 is even possible. Then you’ll get deeper and discover a way through all the stages. And then you’ll break down optimal paths, gradually learning how to get through all ten waves without losing a life. And then you’ll find ways to optimize for points. And then… well, hopefully you get my point. The game has replay value all over it.

This is all augmented by a solid hosting of achievements and a high score system. The high score system isn’t flawless - when I was logged on, there was no one to share points with**, so I couldn’t get a feel for how I was doing.

Tack on a few extra game modes, four player multiplayer, and a “Fun” mode (which I found mostly throw-away) and you’ve got a fair bit of variety here. Overall, that’s where Hypership shines (and shines brightly) - it encourages lots of replay and lots of competition and lots of Twitter smack talk.

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It’s not a perfect game. The music could stand to do with some variety. The major track isn’t terribly annoying, it really falls into the background, but that’s not a compliment.

My harshest criticism of Hypership, though, is its lack of depth - once you’ve witnessed stage 10 on any mode, you’ve seen all the game has to offer. If replaying and finding the best route through levels and earning high scores isn’t something you’re interested in, this isn’t your game. Even then, I can’t say the game held on to me for more than a week.

A couple things would’ve been nice additions: a random level generator (perhaps similar to the Helicopter Game’s) could add a bit more replayability, and multiple difficulties would’ve been nice for those of us that had essentially solved stages 1-7.

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In summary, the game is super fun while it lasts, but it won’t last forever. It’s a worthy purchase***, and it’s seen more playtime from me than Brutal Legend.

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(Footnotes follow)
** High scores are one of the places where I cut indie games some slack. XBLIG games aren’t allowed to use the Xbox leader boards, so they’re forced to use a somewhat unideal alternative - high scores are shared between players as they sign on and silently connect with each other. If there are no other players, no high scores. Unfortunate, but that’s the best they can do.

*** I’m purposefully not giving the game a rating or mentioning its price. A rating in this instance is meaningless - I can tack on some arbitrary number, but the actual words in the review will give a much better indicator of whether you’ll like the game than a number.