‘I’m back! Back in the New York Grove’, sang Ace Frehley in 1978.
Shortly after, KISS took off their make-up and Ace Frehley then left the band. They had become a bit dated, silly even? So, too, the platformer. They came to be seen as undemanding, linear games; the preserve of younger kids who like the cartoon presentation of these games.
Even efforts to compete with the advent of 3D did little to halt the decline of the platformer from its market share heyday of a third of games sales to 2% by 2006, but whisper it like Ace Frehley… the platformer is back.
Sunblaze, developed by Games from Earth, is a 2D single screen platformer harking back to classic days. It’s title screen opens with a popping tune reminiscent of early Mario music and the soundtrack throughout is top notch.
You are Josie, a cute pony-tailed little girl whose father is a retired old superhero. Better than that though, Dad owns a Superhero training simulator – well of course we’re gonna try it. It is during the training session that we…err train and are taught all the basic moves in the game environment; the double jump, the dash, hang crawling, hitting things or jumping on things causes them to fall and this can break obstacles.
These are all the usual, expected staples of a precision platformer and they are introduced quickly and seamlessly. It’s a joyous start.
Then the training simulator goes wrong and you are stuck inside and have to fight your way through various colourful levels to escape back to Dad.
One of the starkest things about Sunblaze, right from the start, is how darn quick the game is in almost every respect. Sunblaze treats death in the best way, from red sauce to resurrection in a millisecond. Instantaneous and unforgiving failure is followed by instant play again without even the need to press a button.
Speedrun Death Challenge, Anyone?
There surely has to be a contest for who can rack up the most deaths in under a minute? Then when you complete a level there is no fade screen or load screen, the screen simply melts into the next level like the moment you see a magic eye image…boom it’s there and you are stood right where you were but in a different room, facing a different puzzle.
The pace is amazing, making the experience a pretty continuous one and emphasising the positive part of that, no matter how you are doing.
Pretty soon however, you start meeting those challenging levels where the game demands you put together your newly learnt moves into combinations in order to whizz around the board.
Each level (created by a friendly rainbow unicorn, naturally) needs to be solved and they become more a complex puzzle each time. There is an order of doing things, hitting jedi training robots, dropping blocks, exploding TNT, squashing laser gates, breaking glass barriers and all sorts of other things.
Pretty soon you start each level with a moment of pause to survey the puzzle in front of you and try to figure out a way to the end. As the game progresses, each new chapter introduces more hazards. There are spiked floors, poisonous coral, explosive oil drums, volcano spitters, and evil computers.
Played normally, Sunblaze is a pretty difficult game. It isn’t called a Precision Platformer for nothing. You know what you are in for when you see that the game keeps a death counter and a timer. There’s going to be competition with speedruns and lowest deaths (or as I prefer, posting a screenshots of completing a game with an unbelievably high death count).
Death comes in many forms and frequently, you can explode into residue on touching spikes, be crushed entirely by a moving block or fried in classic cartoon style of shocking your skeleton when caught in a laser gate. If it all proves too tough there are a multitude of difficulty settings that operate seamlessly.
Firstly there is a Zen Mode which is, effectively a rookie mode and gives you the whole game and story with fewer levels and a reduced difficulty, so the game can be played by a variety of ages and capabilities.
On top of that you can switch on various cheat functions that remove the game cap or cooldown on abilities such as infinite jumps or infinite dash. You can even make levels easier by giving yourself the ability to ignore volcanos and laser gates by switching on invincibility or to smash glass barriers on contact and avoid the perils of messing with squashing blocks. These accessibility options can be combined in any mode; play the standard mode and tackle a particularly hard level by switching on infinite jumps for example?
A Variety Of Deaths
Sunblaze is a great game with a wealth of accessibility. It knows what the flaws of a platformer are and if gets around them confidently. You will never be stuck for too long, you can always tweak the game parameters a little for one level of the whole game and experience much the same as someone else who plays the more skilful variant. And for those of you who want greater challenges you can try to collect the power cubes in each chapter. Do all this and there are a reputed 700 levels in the game.
All in all you can play Sunblaze from start to finish in a couple of hours using all of the easiest settings and cheat modes or you can take on the full challenge and it will take you days and well over 1000 deaths. That the game can be immensely accessible and extremely challenging at the flick of a setting and lose you nothing in gameplay gives Sunblaze broad appeal.
The plethora of Roguelites around in recent years has given the platformer a lesson in how to present death as irrelevant to gameplay or at least not a setback to progress.
Is It Worth Buying Sunblaze?
During the lockdown of the last year there has been a widely reported jump in playing video games, Platformers are in the top five genres for growth in that period with platform play growing by 25% in that time.
These days Ace Frehley is back playing with KISS, they still tour and they are back in their daft glam costumes, but what we realised is that we liked it that way after all. Sunblaze is one of a developing new breed of platformers in the line of Super Meat Boy and Celeste that realise the platformer never really left us and know how to give us what we really liked all along.
You know that feeling you sometimes catch yourself doing in a game whereby you lean hard to the left in your chair, subconsciously willing your character to make that jump, you’ll be doing that a lot here. Like any game, when you put together a series of combinations to travel with speed and fluidity across and around all the obstacles to complete the level, it is glorious when you succeed.
I literally punched the air and let out a holler when I completed things. So, if you ever liked a platformer then you should check out Sunblaze and you too can sing ‘I’m Back’.
Did your ordinary German soldier in 1943 who was fresh out of school at 18 know he was one of the bad guys in WW2? I’m a bit confused about The Happy Little Virus. Normally in games you play the hero, sometimes the bad guy, but when you do it’s clear. I think I’m the bad guy in this…
The game is played in imagined circuit boards, in a kind of Tron way, where you are in the grid, on the motherboard of a computer or in the servers. You play a virus…so a bad guy (right?) and there are companies to choose from to ‘attack’ on the menu screen.
One is for Guide Dogs and the other is a Cancer support charity… we’re hacking and stealing from these people? We’re definitely the bad guys! Right? Perhaps we are fighting corruption or abuse? No, there are suggestions that rich people want guide dogs because they are trained to poo on command. You are sent to hack and steal from various addiction, wildlife and support charities. We’re definitely the bad guys.
Happy Little Dalek-like Creature
In The Happy Little Virus you control a small Dalek like creature in a 2.5D shooter and you have to run through circuit boards, which are effectively corridors. You gradually collect weapon power-ups through the course of the game and your progress saves after each level.
The early levels are just corridor shooters and lack a zing about them to draw you in, but if you persist the game does develop a bit. You are presented with wider levels, giving you choice about how to tackle opponents. Enemies (the good guys) are similar Dalek shaped creatures but represent anti-virus software and sometimes can reproduce in hubs on some levels.
You (as the virus) can take over these hubs and replicate yourself a few times. This gives you a form of extra life in some of the more challenging levels. Levels also develop a variety of additional features. You can regain health from circuit board resistors and there are firewalls, which act as little laser gates that can be activated on and off sometimes. If you are smart you can use these to your advantage making some of the faster anti-virus Daleks career into them as you sidestep like a matador.
Sound & Visuals
The music and sound effects are not up to much, it’s there, but pretty rote and unobtrusive. The colours however are vibrant and look good, with bright greens making borders and circuit connections and some levels using luminescent lighting to provide a different type of challenge than just more enemies. The gameplay curves nicely in difficulty although the final level is something of a chaotic overwhelming challenge.
There are a variety of different weapons on offer through the game and they are quite inventive, you don’t just shoot things, although of course in a robot shooter, you do have a laser. You can blow a blast on a diffuser that shatters opponents – only at point blank range mind you, you can blow bubbles that capture enemies and bounce them off into space and off the board and you can gather up the shattered bodies of your enemies into a debris whirlwind and fire them at your enemies.
The more enemies you face, the more cluttered your narrow play area and corridors become with these shattered bits of anti-virus robot. This can be a help to you as it slows down the advance of your enemies allowing you to retreat a little and gather yourself; but it can also hinder you by rendering your long range laser redundant with too much debris in the way to hit the intended ‘good guy’.
The weapons then work best at a variety of distances and best against certain types of enemy. This all means you need to become pretty good at switching between weapon types and picking attack and retreat as weapons cool down. all-in-all it’s a pretty good fire system and definitely the strength of The Happy Little Virus.
If the combat is well constructed the level design and gameflow is less impressive. Although the difficulty is well planned and scaled, the essence of the game does not change very much and this makes play somewhat repetitive and slightly irritating. On top of this the constant messaging is just odd and awkward.
There are about 25 levels in all and they are grouped into rough themes, culminating in destroying and stealing from organised religion. It doesn’t feel like there is a narrative, rather that you are being subjected to the developers prejudices. If you can ignore this, it will take you about five hours to complete Dalek Training school.
The Happy Little Virus is a reasonable FPS puzzle game and is available on Steam. It has some good design in weapons and a reasonably well planned difficulty curve, but the messaging falls flat and the game is a bit repetitive and lacking fun after a short while; kind of in the way that Candy Crush is a challenge but isn’t actually fun.
The Happy Little Virus provides the sort of frustrating challenge that trying to bounce a tennis ball on the edge of the racket does, you want to go again because you know you can do better, but you also know the experience and result isn’t going to be much different and when you finish you probably won’t ever do it again, unless you’re a bad guy and then nothing you do makes sense.
This GRIS review looks at the first game developed by Spanish team Nomada Studio; the result of a meeting at a party between some triple-A designers, and an artist who expressed a desire to make games. Devolver Digital are the publishers of GRIS, and looking at their back catalog, Nomada Studio are in good company.
Looking at the numbers, GRIS has sold well over a million units since being released in December 2018. In that time, it has consistently remained in the top 10 most popular indie games on Steam. These numbers would suggest the game is a bona fide hit. Or is it?
Years ago, I took the lady to a posh cinema for Valentine’s day. There, flunkies would whisper in your ear when delivering a glass of chilled wine and some Vol-au-vents as you reclined in an enormous chair. The only trouble with this was the completely inappropriate choice of Valentine movie on offer for this romantic date; it was either 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street; both of which being potential deal spoilers. Playing GRIS is a little like that date…
GRIS means grey in Spanish and whilst the game starts off all binary colors of black and white, the choices GRIS makes in being a game are anything but grey and ordinary. There is no death, no dialogue, no killing, no enemies to fight and color bleeds into the game gradually. At its heart GRIS is a platformer and a fairly simple one at that.
Playing the game feels like designers want you to experience something here – not be perplexed by it. To that end, puzzles are simple, levels are short, and the game can be completed in one sitting.
The art in the game is genuinely wondrous; color oozes into the game gradually as you progress. It is a beautiful game to see in this respect. The movement of your character is fluid, graceful and interacts with the environment seamlessly.
The camera zooms in and out at various points to show you goals, destinations and moments when you have to tackle larger sections. The viewport zooms back in for tunneled sections and works so well that there is no disappointment in being delivered to either camera point.
GRIS is played with a controller, or keyboard if you are on PC, but you will find there are no instructions. On the PC facing no help at the start I gave the WASD keys a shot and discovered I could move left and right. To begin with all you can do is walk in this 2D platformer, you cannot even jump.
Objective Of The Game
The object is to work your way out of the game by collecting orbs of light scattered around the world to build bridges in the sky and so gradually climb out of the game world and back to where you began. It does a good job of presenting a sufficient puzzle for you. It is a little too simple at times, but this helps GRIS to avoid the plague of many platformers – that of tiresome repetition attempting to complete that one jump sequence again…and again.
You are gradually introduced to new movement skills: jumping, becoming a stone block, floating and singing.
As you move through the levels the ways these skills can be used varies and develops in different environments.
The designers never want you to have to look far or get stuck or bored and the way platforming gradually changes through the game keeps you well involved.
You will get about four hours of gameplay out of GRIS, but there is no real replay value in it. Once complete, the main menu opens levels to replay but you cannot do so with all of your acquired skills… you are reset for each level. A bit pointless there then.
Elsewhere you can access some artwork and it is so nice that you might well take a screenshot for your wallpaper (which I have done for the purpose of this GRIS review, incidentally). You also get access to the game music. Whilst it sounds like a bridge ripped from a terribly clichéd and achingly worthy Coldplay song and something I winced at to begin with, it does suit the subject matter of the game well.
GRIS Review – Is It Worth Buying?
The problem with GRIS is the subject matter.
The game is about grief, depression or mental collapse, and your character metaphorically shatters, falls down into a dark pit and has to work through problems to rebuild herself. Although done well and evocatively, it may not be an especially happy prospect to indulge in.
I can admire the beauty and it was nice to have a gentle game so very different to what I might normally play, but we all come to games for a variety of reasons, to frighten ourselves, for the excitement of combat, for the speed of play, or the high of successful collaboration in today’s plethora of co-op games. What I doubt most of us pick up a game for, is to experience grief or mental breakdown…it just isn’t enjoyable in that sense.
For some it will probably hit like swinging brick and be their GOTY. For others, like me, it will be a good game albeit with some faults. Certainly though, there is enough great stuff going on here in a coherent, smooth and well-constructed gaming experience that will have gamers very much looking forward to what Nomada Studio do next.
Should you play it? Well the movies on offer didn’t spoil my Valentine’s date and the flaws of GRIS will not spoil the overall pleasure of the gameplay on offer here, you just probably won’t return to it. So yes, go ahead, it will be different to most things you play and that’s probably a good thing.
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