Category: Puzzle-Platformer


Ever since games introduced the concept of infinite continues and liberal/kind/generous checkpoint placement, it isn’t too often that outside of Ninja Gaiden or Contra that we hear complaints that video games are perhaps too difficult. When Demons’ Souls came out a couple of years ago, its high difficultly was considered a breath of fresh air in a medium that had spent the last decade coddling gamers with comfortable security and easy victories. However, we often forget that there was a reason that classic SNES or Genesis games had a difficulty for being overly difficult which is that they often relied on cheap and/or random elements that were often beyond the player’s control and placed his fate in chance. I just finished playing Atlus’s Catherine, a puzzle-platformer that on many levels I loved because of the emphasis it placed on mature and adult (by that I mean real-life situations like love and relationships not necessarily sex) themes and its beautiful art style, but I also often found myself inconsolably outraged at the game’s occasionally cheap and extraordinary difficult that significantly marred an otherwise wonderful product.

Catherine  is the story of Vincent Brooks and the (literally) dangerous quagmire that is his love life. Vincent is the prototypical slacker who glides along his comfortable existence at a dead-end job and in a relationship with his girlfriend Katherine that has no momentum. He spends his nights drinking with his best friends at his bar and not taking any active role in shaping his destiny. Suddenly, Vincent begins to have nightmares that involve talking sheep (who seem to think that he is the sheep) where a malevolent force is leading him up a seemingly infinite tower where he must solve brain-bending block-based puzzles in order to wake up, for if he dies in the dream, he will die in real life. As if fatal dreams weren’t enough, Vincent’s life becomes even more complicated when he inexplicably wakes up in bed one morning with a strange woman named Catherine who is the polar opposite of his frigid and nagging girlfriend, Katherine. Catherine is chaos embodied and now in addition to surviving his dreams, Vincent is forced to keep the two women in his life apart as he must make decisions about what matters the most to him.

Gameplay in Catherine is split into two parts. The real meat of the game are the nightmare sections where you guide Vincent up the seemingly endless tower and solve increasingly difficult block-based puzzles in order to advance as well as interacting with the fellow denizens of the nightmare world in the “safe spots” between sections. The other half of the game and the part that I enjoyed the most is a social simulation where you guide Vincent’s choices and actions during the time you spend drinking at the bar with your friends. Your choices here place Vincent’s morality on a continuum between law and order and these have impacts not only on how other people fare inside of the nightmares but on which of the several different endings of the game that you will ultimately receive. You also make choices regarding Vincent’s moral continuum after every stage inside the nightmare where you answer philosophical questions that help to further flesh out Vincent’s outlook on life.

Not since Heavy Rain, have I played a game that deals so spectacularly with such mature subject matter. As I played the game, the choices that I made shaped the narrative to be a sort of coming of age tale about a man who is stuck in emotional arrested development and who slowly matures and learns about what matters most and starts to grab ahold of his own life rather than let it pass by before him as a passive observer in his own destiny. Themes like love and infidelity are so universal and powerful that I’m always shocked when they don’t have a larger place in the video game medium. Despite initial reports that this was supposed to be a heavily erotic and sexualized game, even the sex in the game is mature in that it is placed in the perspective of infidelity and is never graphic in nature. Honestly, the game’s story is by far the biggest draw of the whole game and it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Atlus. It makes me literally salivate at the thought of the next numbered entry in the Persona series.

Besides the incredibly addictive nature of its dungeon-crawler meets monster trainer meets social simulator gameplay, one of the biggest draws of Atlus’ flagship Persona series has been its distinct anime-esque art style. Catherine is Atlus’s first foray in current-gen systems and their potential for this art style, and I can gladly report that it was a striking success. Not since the PS2 and Rogue Galaxy have I played a game that so thoroughly convinced me that I was actually playing an anime, and Catherine is leagues prettier than Rogue Galaxy ever was. This generation of consoles has really made me a firm believer that video game developers should go for expressive and stylistic artwork in their games rather than hyper-realistic graphics as games that are hyper-realistic for their time age horribly the second the next best thing comes out but art like Okami or Braid is timeless. Catherine gets to join those ranks.

It’s really such a shame that all of the things that I love about the game and that make it exceptional are weighed down so terribly by actual gameplay that is reminiscent of the worst aspects of old school video games. In theory, I love the block puzzle system and it forces me to think in ways that most games will never ask. However, later stages are plagued by a random nature that despite all of your best planning will often lead to your death or inability to solve the puzzle through no real fault of your own. It’s also entirely possible to reach a checkpoint in the game that will eventually make you realize that you have to restart the whole area as you worked yourself into an unsolvable hole before you touched the checkpoint marker. I love puzzle games and the sense of satisfaction I received from solving the “fair” puzzles in the game was immense. However, I got no pleasure from spending an hour on one section of a level only to finally succeed because the random gods were suddenly kind to me. This game is inaccessibly difficult even on the Easy difficult and it only becomes more horrendous in its nasty desire to kill the player as you push the difficulty level higher.

How can you tell if you should play Catherine? Have you ever found yourself in a heated argument about whether or not games can be “art”? If so, then this is one of those games that easily falls on the art side of the debate. Do you have a deep-rooted love for puzzle games? Once again, this is a great puzzle game when its fair. Do you have the patience to sit through many, many deaths or failures before you finally solve the puzzle? This is the most important question. I had the patience, although barely. There was a point (when I had literally broken the game at a checkpoint) where I was ready to quit but I persevered. Fortunately, I was able to fix the error and ultimately beat the game. I actually beat the level that had stumped me for hours on my first try when I reset the game which is hilarious in retrospect. Anyways, this was a good game that had the potential to be a classic. It’s just a shame that the difficulty was so through the roof that only those with puzzle skills and a lot of patience should put themselves through playing it.

Final Score: B+

Portal 2

Let’s flash-back to 2007 for a moment. I’m a self-described hard-core gamer, but because of my family’s financial situation, I never had access to an adequate gaming computer (something I quickly rectified the summer before my sophomore year of college). Because of this, I had never played one of the most highly acclaimed video games of all time, Valve’s classic, Half-Life 2. Obviously, when I discovered that Half-Life 2 and all of its expansion packs were being released on a single disc known as The Orange Box, I was understandably excited. Hell, I was even getting two other games thrown in the mix. As irony would have it, I still haven’t beat Half-Life 2, but I’ve dumped more hours in to Team Fortress 2 than I want to too closely examine, and I consider the original Portal to be one of the greatest games of all time. Although it was a four hour “throw-it-in” for a compilation project, it’s hilarious writing, completely unique gameplay, and sense of novelty shot it into the stratosphere. I was obviously concerned about how Valve would be able to turn Portal into a full-lengthed game for the sequel, but I was worried for absolutely no reason. With a stellar single player campaign and a co-op campaign that forever changed co-op for me, Portal 2 was everything that fans of the original game could have asked for and then more.

For those rare few who never played the original Portal, let me explain the conceit of the series. You play as the voiceless Chell, a young woman who is a test subject in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center led by the acerbic and quite obviously psychotic A.I., GlaDos. In the original game, GlaDos ferried you through a series of test chambers where you used a “portal gun” to set up inter-connected portals and then used said portals to solve increasingly difficult puzzles. Eventually though, the game ends with you destroying GlaDos who has spent the last act of the game trying to murder you, but the game is fairly vague about your ultimate fate. This game picks up “a very long time” after the original as you are awakened by one of the old personality cores that GlaDos was run by, a friendly but inept robot named Wheatley (The Office U.K.’s Stephen Merchant), after possibly centuries in a cryogenic slumber. Soon enough, you accidentally re-awaken GlaDos, and without wanting to ruin the rest of the story which is chock full of hilarious and memorable moments, you get a compelling adventure through the present and past of Aperture Science as you see just what led to the company being what it is today.

Besides the always hilarious writing, one of the biggest draws of the original game was that there was simply nothing like it on the market at the time. While the PSN and XBox Live Arcade has seen a healthy flood of puzzle-platformer titles since Portal‘s masive success, when it initially arrived on the scene, it was a fairly unique creature. If Portal 2 had simply re-hashed all of the mechanics and tricks of the original game, Portal 2 would have been redundant and unnecessary. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Although the basic notion of using portals to solve puzzles is still the core of the game, Valve packs enough new tricks and toys into the mix that you’ll never feel like you’re simply re-playing a prettier version of the original game. With the help of repulsion gel (goo that makes you jump higher, run faster, or be able to create portals where you couldn’t), aerial faith plates (platforms that fling you across the room), tractor funnels (tractor beams), and hard light bridges (exactly what they sound like), Portal 2 gives you a wide variety of toys to play with. The moments of pure brilliance when you successfully combine several of the different tools to solve a particularly fiendish puzzle is an unmatched delight.

Valve upped the ante in every possible way for the sequel. As much fun as the original game (and this short length was the perfect ride for the adventure), it was only four hours long. I would say it took me about twelve hours to beat this game. It might have been an hour or two less than that. Whereas the original game mostly took place in a series of small test chambers or tight corridors of the Aperture Science labs, this game radically increases the size of the test chambers and the other environmental areas that you end up exploring. The sense of scale in the game is pretty impressive. The only flaw with the increased size of the levels is that it occasionally becomes easy to get lost or completely lose track of where your objective is. The game also showed a considerable jump in graphical fidelity which is an obvious by-product of giving this game the full treatment.

While the writing in the game was exceptional, and I discussed in my last post how the weighted companion cube section is one of my favorite memories in all of gaming, the original story was fairly bare bones, as it was mostly restricted to GlaDos making jokes about killing you or offering you non-existent cake. Portal 2 has a stellar story to match its stellar gameplay this time. It’s packed full of twists and turns, and the addition of two other voiced characters to join GlaDos is the perfect way to make sure her witticisms don’t grow stale. Stephen Merchant was potentially funnier than GlaDos as the inept Wheatley. His dry and neurotic humor was a great counter-balance to GlaDos’s dry and sociopathic humor. Also, J.K. Simmons (Spiderman, Oz) joined the cast as Cave Johnson, Aperture Science’s founder who you hear in possibly centuries’ old recordings. While he’s playing his typical gruff character, his lines are also nearly as gun as Glados’. If this game doesn’t have you in stitches the whole time, you need to have your funny bone checked. While there was only one moment that rivaled “the cake is a lie” or the “weighted companion cube”, the writing was over-all stronger on this title.

On top of the superb single-player campaign, we also got a revolutionary co-op experience just to sweeten the deal. Most games that offer co-op either design the entire game around single-player or co-op and the other option sits around unnaturally. Borderlands is an unmatched co-op experience, but as a single-player game, it’s still fun but less phenomenal. Call of Duty has great single-player and great multi-player, but with the exception of spec-ops, the rest of the co-op seems forced. Portal 2 solves this problem by separating the modes. Single player and co-op are two entirely different experiences. Instead of playing as Chell and some other character, you are two robots named Atlas and P-Body who run entirely different tests than the Chell did. I’ve never played a co-op puzzler before, and now all I can think about is how much I want to do it again. Instead of being forced to think in two portals (and the various other tools in the room), you are now forced to think in four portals and you’re mind will get seriously twisted around the increasingly wicked puzzles. It was just a phenomenal experience, and if you play the single player, you need to find a partner for co-op. It’s essential to the Portal 2 experience.

If you were a fan of the original, then there is simply no excuse for not playing Portal 2. It improves over its predecessor in practically every way. The only area that it stumbles is that perhaps it doesn’t quite have the novelty value that it did four years ago, but I can’t fault the game for that. The original just came out of nowhere and was the definition of a sleeper hit, and if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it (although the game added plenty to the formula to keep it fresh). I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun with a game. The idea that games can challenge our minds as much as our reflexes is a sorely under-appreciated concept, and Portal 2 stimulated my mind more than anything I’ve played in a while. I’m sad that I have to send this game back to Gamefly, as I really want to own this masterpiece.

Final Score: A

Limbo

One of my favorite topics of discussion of the last five years or so is whether or not video games are capable of being art. I fancy myself to be a veteran gamer going all the way back to the days of owning my Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo and getting my ass handed to me by the extremely difficult games on those systems back in the day, so I’d like to believe I know a little bit about the topic. Roger Ebert famously declared that video games could never be art, and that’s an opinion held by a lot of people who have never picked up a game controller and experienced the magic that the medium is often capable of achieving. I fall heavily on the video games can be art side of the debate, as games like Braid, Portal, Okami, and Shadow of the Colossus are some of the most memorable and beautiful pieces of fiction that I’ve ever dove into. While video games (much like movies) are mostly saturated by big block-buster brainless shooters that most definitely aren’t art like Halo or Call of Duty, there are few greater pleasures for a gamer than coming across a game that tickles your mind and sense of aesthetics as much as your typical gamer impulses. It’s been a while since I found a new game that I would qualify as art, but I finally found it in the indie downloadable gem, Limbo.

Limbo is a puzzle-platformer where you lead a boy, who is never really given a name or actual backstory, through a monochrome, black-and-white world on a deadly adventure to save his little sister. With no spoken dialogue or text boxes, the game uses a minimalist storytelling approach (very much akin to Shadow of the Colossus) to suck you into a beautifully crafted game world full of death and danger at every turn. Featuring only three real game commands which are move, jump, and action (which consists either of pulling/pushing things or pushing buttons), the game tasks you with solving many ingeniously designed puzzles or escaping from certain death situations on your way to finding your sister. Many of the puzzles are quite memorable, and while a lot of them will have you scratching your head for several minutes, I only cheated and looked up the solutions on the internet twice. Like the best puzzle games, there is always that sense of satisfaction upon figuring out the puzzle that previously had you so stumped.

The presentation in Limbo is absolutely top-notch. Everything from the sound design, which lacks any soundtrack and is only distorted ambient sound effects, to the black and white style to the filter grain effect like an old silent movie make this one of the most unique looking games on the planet. Not since Braid have I had so much fun just sitting back and soaking in the art of a game. Sometimes games can wow you with cutting edge graphics. Limbo would prefer to wow you with true artistry. As beautiful as the game is, it is also effective at setting an eerie and often creepy tone. You will die many, many deaths before this game is over, and even though the protagonist is a little boy, he will die in shockingly gruesome ways. For pure tone and style, few games can top this one.

If you’re a fan of video games as an art form, this is a must play. Its short length may be a turn off to most gamers and $14.99 is a lot to ask for a game that is probably only around 4 or 5 hours depending on how quickly you can solve the puzzles, but this is a great game. I would have preferred a cheaper price for its length, but I don’t feel like I was robbed. If you enjoyed games like Braid or Portal, this game may not reach their lofty heights of puzzle solving bliss, but it gets darn close. In a world where every major release seems like its a Call of Duty clone or another yearly sports titles, unique and engaging titles like Limbo deserve as large an audience as they can get and I’m glad I stepped into the morbidly beautiful world.

Final Score: A-