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Terminal Velocity Review

Apparently, Saturday was “Review A Great Game Day”. Never heard of this before. But I’m not one to let these things slide. So let’s see… it’s still Saturday in Honolulu. I guess it still counts, right? Right. Let’s try and review something a bit less famous than usual.

This is actually quite representative of the game itself. What a rare sight.
This is actually quite representative of the game itself. What a rare sight.

Terminal Velocity was developed by Terminal Reality (can’t be a coincidence…) and published in 1995 by 3DRealms, back when they were still relevant. You probably remember the developers for pearls such as Kinect Star Wars and that Walking Dead shooter, but ages ago, they were also fairly big in the early Windows scene, making games that were at least trying to take advantage of the newly-fangled Direct3D technology, including Hellbender and Monster Truck Madness. I pity them, because by all accounts, early Direct3D was terrible.

Terminal Velocity is, for my money, still their best game (though admittedly I haven’t played all of them: I heard pretty good things about Nocturne). In case you couldn’t notice from the cover, it’s a space shooter, a very common genre in the mid 90’s, thanks no doubt to the amazing success of Descent, which had spawned several clones. But TV breaks the mold somewhat by letting you fly on large planets, making it less claustrophobic and far less nausea-inducing. Interestingly, you can still fly your ship in complete freedom, so it’s actually possible to go far above the clouds and near the atmosphere even. Good luck spotting your targets from there.

There are three camera modes: first-person, third-person, and a weird fixed camera third-person mode that is near unplayable but probably very cool for screenshots.

The structure is fairly similar, if somewhat repetitive: you get objectives to complete (usually flying to a spot and then destroying a target base), weapons to collect (lasers, missiles, your typical arsenal), enemies to kill, bosses to survive. Since everything takes place on open terrain, you are usually free to take the route you want, and exploration is even encouraged by hiding powerful weapons off the beaten path. You’ll also get attacked from all directions, so keep wary. Sometimes things can get overwhelming.

In order to retain a sense of purpose, you are often asked to fly through underground tunnels. These are presented as point A-to-B voyages where you need to dodge doors and destroy ships who just love ramming through your own. There’s a vague sense of Descent in these 3D metal tunnels, but with completely straight paths, it’s a bit more like a rollercoaster. For extra fun, try using the afterburner in there, and see if you can survive.

With the small radar pretty much useless, you’ll quickly learn to play with the super-imposed radar constantly on. Turok didn’t come first, guys.

The controls work fairly well for such an early game, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble with that. Even the graphics are quite pleasant for their time, once you get used to the giant pixels. Since you know I’m a 3D accelerators aficionado, I’ll also tell you the only “accelerated” version was made available for S3 Virge cards. Of course, in exchange for texture filtering, it actually runs slower than the base version. Don’t cry. Also, as was standard procedure for the era, there are not many music tracks in the game and the few available ones are repeated very often. Still, they are quite catchy, so I’m not complaining all that much. There are also vague hints of a story somewhere in there, presented at the start of each mission, if you can be bothered. I don’t think the developers cared that much either though.

A tunnel. It looks better in motion, I swear. The pixels aren’t attacking your eyes like thousands of small knives, for example.

There’s the distinct feeling that terminal Velocity could have been an all-time great, but it’s somewhat held back by its repetitive structure. With nine different planets and three stages on each, it would have taken a lot of variety to keep players interested throughout, but the game just doesn’t have that. The different tilesets are nice to look at, including giant volcanos places (maybe a Venus expy?) and snowy landscapes (before Skyrim made them all the rage), but I don’t know how many people will have the willpower to see it through to the bitter end – and bitter it was, if I recall some of the later bosses were an utter pain, made worse by the lack of saving during missions.

So, the game was repetitive, much like my reviews. That shouldn’t deter you too much though, because while one might not last long enough to see the ending, at least there’s fun to be had for quite a while. Besides, most 90’s games didn’t even have a meaningful ending, so what do you care? Get on that ship and fly to your heart’s content. The game is easily available on GOG and Steam. Did you know there’s even an Android version? Never tried it, but just to be sure, I’d steer clear of it. Besides, I still have the old disc. Fun times.

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Barrow Hill: The Dark Path – Night of the Offering Redux

I’ve made no secret of my love for niche horror adventures. I don’t know what it is that attracts me to them – maybe the obtuse puzzles, or the totally corny voice acting, or the nice art that still relies on point and click screens. I’ve been playing these things since the original Dark Fall. Although, it wasn’t always such a great time: Dark Fall was a bit too complicated. Rhiannon was a screen-hunting mess (in a real nice setting though). The Lost Crown was really good, but perhaps too long. Barrow Hill was one of the most interesting titles, but suffered from a pretty hard big puzzle near the end. So how does its sequel fare?

(spoilers ahead)

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“I thought I was rid of Emma Harry and her crazy spirits forever. But now I know I must go… BACK TO THE HILL!” *theme music*

The plot is not too different from the first game. It’s still the Equinox, some kids are still stupid enough to go around meddling with vengeful spirits, and you gotta save everyone. While it does feel like a retread, even down to the puzzles progression, enough has been changed to make the experience feel fairly fresh.

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Oh, looks like the victims from the first game got some mourning from their families. Finally someone who cares about disappeared NPCs.

The big problem in horror adventures is often how difficult and obtuse the puzzles are. Finding some of the ingredients in Barrow Hill was outright devilish. Dark Path tries to solve this issue by hinting at solutions a bit more heavily, especially if you enable item descriptions from the options. The three big puzzles to end the game – find the kids’ personal items to free them, find the metals to destroy the circle, and get some substitute items to replace Baibin’s – are almost all fairly obvious. This does make the game a lot less frustrating as you are generally able to understand what you are supposed to do without going around in circles, although the hints are a bit too direct at times.

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Ah yes, somewhat crudely rendered 3D objects. Believe it or not, they are a big draw for me. They harken back to the days of Myst. (okay, not quite *that* crude)

Unfortunately a few obtuse puzzles are still there, but perhaps more due to the interface than the developers’ intentions.I had to look for a walkthrough to see that I was supposed to make a fishing magnet in the garage, because the cursor didn’t help at all. At one point, I just started clicking the screen at random until I got it to do what I wanted. Another big annoyance is a point where you need to rearrange a series of short clips. And in general, there is a lot of scenes with rubble to move around, which honestly shouldn’t count as puzzles. These feel like influences from the HOG genre. Overall though, I feel the general experience is improved, and a good mix of old adventures and new HOGs.

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This style almost looks like a screenshot straight out of an hidden objects game.

The visuals have been modified in several ways. While of course they are higher quality (1024×768 instead of 800×600, and more detailed) the general look is not as dark as before. I don’t mind myself – Dark Fall was one of the most illuminated horror games around, and it’s still got one of my favorite art directions, while its much darker sequels weren’t as good. And who can forget the original Alone in the Dark with its pastel colors? So I’m not that bothered. Still, I can’t help but think that it’s a bit too colorful at times. But hey, you get to enjoy the nice scenery, at least. And of course the voice acting was bad as always, which is just what I wanted.

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The day again, at last! Now to call a taxi, and hope it’s not being driven by a skeleton in diguise.

In the end, Barrow Hill: The Dark Path is a pretty good effort. While it feels modernized, it doesn’t stray from its roots too far, and its improvements for the genre are many. Some may say it was made a bit too easy, though, and that’s something to think about for future games.

Speaking of future games… will Bracken Tor ever come out? I’ve been wondering since 2010 at least, but I’m a bit more hopeful now. Dark Path contains a few audio and visual teasers. Also, many might not remember Wychwood Hollow, another game that was announced a long time ago, as far back as 2011. I remember the early trailer and shots, and it really looks like the project eventually evolved into The Dark Path instead. Chances are, Bracken Tor could end up like that too. Something to wait for?

Developer’s Contract

Imagine that you are a developer who knows that they are going out of business as soon as your next game is released. Maybe for money reason, maybe you just want to change your field of work, for whatever reason this is it. Your next game is the final one. How do you go on making it?

I can’t say I know the answer, but my idea is that the reaction would depend on the reason why you are going to stop. If you are doing it because you want to do something else, maybe you’ll make a swan song worthy of that name, of course within possibility. But if you are doing it because you are all out of money and can’t afford to make games anymore… well, I think morale might be low enough that the game will be affected.

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The ratings are surprisingly high. Don’t be fooled though. There is something to like, but also enough to dislike.

This is what Knight’s Contract, Game Republic’s final game, feels like while you play it. The whole thing reeks of developers who just couldn’t be bothered to polish their last effort to any acceptable standard. The base game underneath is solid, but everything around it definitely isn’t.

Most of the trouble looks like it stems from budget issues (the game sold terribly, and Namco probably knew this would happen), but some others are most likely just due to poor planning. And in general, there is a huge lack of attention to the details, something which instead characterized just about everything in Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, again within a reasonable budget.

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To the game’s credit, I’ll say this: I was at least willing to see it through the end. The high scores don’t really mean anything, I still died a lot (and often it wasn’t my fault).

A small list of things: death cutscenes that take 5-10 seconds to load (and run for 3 seconds before asking you to reload), complete lack of certain animations (pulling switches and valves, and Gretchen even lacks a basic climbing animation), pretty obvious balance issues in many levels (one temporary companion has an attack which is almost one-hit kill even against bosses), the camera often cuts away during pre-rendered cutscenes in order to avoid showing some difficult special effects such as a transformation (couldn’t they have used stills then?), save points placed pretty much at random (and rarely before bosses), and so on.

Imagine if this game had been made instead of Majin: what would we have got? And how would Majin be like instead, if it had suffered from that same trouble? We can’t know that, so the only thing we are left with, is a clearly half-baked game that shows just what happens when your money simply runs out.

Armikrog, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the Clay

Here not be spoilers. I’ve tried to keep this review as clean as possible.

I finished Armikrog, with a tour de force of roughly 6 hours in two days – which itself has come after a wait of two years and half since the Kickstarter launched, and which itself had to wait for 17 years since I first played the original The Neverhood demo obtained in one of those old PC magazines. This was a long time coming, wasn’t it? So… was it worth it? All these months, all these years of waiting? The answer is a resounding… “kinda”.

In many ways, it felt like Neverhood-Lite. The story was weird, but not as weird as Neverhood. The music was peculiar and captivating, but not as ear-wormy as Neverhood. And the puzzles were Myst-like and not overly difficult, but unlike in Neverhood, they reused some of them a bit too often and others were also a bit too straight-forward. Overall, there are less locations and it’s shorter. And while everything in Neverhood seemed to have a reason, several times in Armikrog I found myself thinking “ok, I did this, but what was the point since the puzzle didn’t seem to use it at all?”. Not to mention, there are a few locations that appear to serve no purpose: or at least, I finished the game without having to find them, if it was even possible to reach them at all. Might be a sign some things were cut to meet deadlines or budget needs.

Not a spoiler, but a warning: the Hall of Records is back. Better bring a tea mug.
Not a spoiler, but a warning: the Hall of Records is back. No contiguous rooms this time, but that text is a whole lot longer than it appears. Better bring a tea mug.

So there’s the vague feeling that it was a missed opportunity. But not all is lost. I said the puzzles are easier: this is actually a good thing for me, since I could finish the game without using hints, something that almost never happens with adventures to me. It also meant a lot less random clicking around. The Neverhood wasn’t a difficult game, but it had its moments. Armikrog at least spreads things on the table a bit more clearly for your convenience. Another thing to point out is the quality of the claymation. Not only the general rooms look great, but the cutscenes are funny and amazing. It makes me wish we could get a “remaster” of The Neverhood, with the original assets in high resolution. I wonder if such a thing would be even possible, even assuming there were no rights issues.

One problem that has been making the rounds is the presence of bugs, and yeah, the game really could have used some more testing. The lack of customized cursor is a bummer, and menus are as barebones as possible. Objects sometimes require you to find the exact right spot to click them or they won’t work. Other issues include: unsynced subtitles, non-appearing subtitles, sound sometimes disappearing after a movie (play the movie again to get it back), Tommy being able to enter rooms while they are closed, and other small nibbles. Of course, this is only true as of the time this post is going up. We can expect at least the biggest issues to be fixed, possibly sooner than later.

So is it worth playing? I don’t think it can become a cult classic like the Neverhood – it appears too derivative to really find its identity as anything other than a successor or homage to said title – but I think once the bugs are ironed out, you will find a decent adventure game down there, with good animations, okay music and design, and that won’t take too long to complete.  Whether that’s worth the current asking price, is up to you.