Saturday, July 10, 2010
Deathsmiles for XBox 360: Final Review
Sometimes I just need to shut my mouth. Like when I argumentatively accuse someone of something and their response makes me feel like an idiot because I know they are right and I am wrong. I open my mouth to spit out a snappy comeback,then realize that I had better just shut my mouth before I say something even more stupid than I'd already said.
I've had several of those moments this past week. A few examples:
I complained to Ben that I never get a chance to work on my projects because I always need to have an eye on Jhonen. Ben said “what about this morning when you put your pictures in frames while I worked with Jhonen on his train set?” Oh yeah. Shoot! That made me shut my mouth. Then I complained because we didn't have any weekend plans and Ben said, “Well, tomorrow we're going to the mall and out to dinner and the next day we're going to the zoo. What else do you want to do?” Oh yeah. Dangit. I had to shut my mouth. Then I wrote a long blog post about how I don't like video games because of bad storytelling and irrelevant gameplay. Then I finally played Deathsmiles, a game I'd been hesitant to play for a over a week, and the stupid game made me shut my mouth, too!
I will explain with this brief digression:
This video game project is like eggs. I never really liked eggs much. I'd eat them occasionally, say, when I was at my friend's house to be polite or because I was really hungry and there wasn't much else to eat. As an adult I'd never make eggs at home. At restaurants I'd eat eggs, but only if they were in omelet form. I hated all other eggs, especially the runny yolk kind that sits on the plate like an angry cyclops. Then I decide one day that I need to experience all sorts of egg preparations out of fairness to myself and the wide variety of egg cooks in the world. Plus, my husband really likes eggs, so we could eat lots of eggs together. It could be fun! So I try eggs sunny-side-up and over-easy, poached and hard-boiled. I like some of them a little better than others, but still feel that the only egg-featured menu item I'd order would be an omelet. I begin to justify my lack of egg satisfaction by complaining about eggs and the people who cook them. I generalize that the reason I don't like eggs is because they aren't cooked masterfully enough. Eggs just haven't reached their full potential, I lecture with certainty. The next day, though, I go to a Waffle House where I am told to eat scrambled eggs draped in orange cheese. I dread the first bite, sure that I'll hate it. Then, with surprise and a bit of embarrassment, I realize that I like them. In fact, I would order those eggs again. They are Waffle House eggs! They don't exactly meet the criteria I had set forth in my previous lectures. They were greasy and salty, cooked by a man who looked a bit like an angry old cyclops, himself. Yet, I liked them! Those stupid Waffle House eggs made me shut my mouth.
Deathsmiles is Waffle House eggs.
Actually, it's a side-scrolling shooter game featuring french-maid costumed anime girls trapped in a gothic castl-y underworld. The girls must stop Sakura's father who is determined to get back to the “real world” through a portal he's found. Unfortunately, each time he opens this portal, demons are unleashed into this otherworld, making these girl's lives very stressful. You pick a girl to fight the crazy demons. I first chose Windia, a “wind user” and then Follett, a “fire user,” though I didn't notice much difference between their abilities. The girl, with a little help from her respective animal companion, shoots bullet streams and bombs at demon enemies who shoot their own bullet streams and bombs right back. Their bullet streams are much cooler than yours, but your bombs are much stronger than theirs.
You move through stages fighting various types of demons – from big green or burgundy eyeball monsters to lizard beasts to my all-time favorite game enemy of all time, a giant, demonic, nose-ringed cow named Mary. Even though the game is side-scrolling, enemies approach from both the left and right and you can shoot both directions by pushing “A” to shoot left or “B” to shoot right-a feature I'd never seen in a shooting game before. You also have the ability to target enemies specifically by pushing “A” and “B” together, but I didn't really get into that. I played the game on Ben's arcade stick and found that fun. Somehow playing on an arcade stick made the experience seem more special.
You can choose between several difficulty levels and you can push start to continue the game if you die, a feature I took full advantage of which seemed to disappoint my husband. Ben says that die-hard players will start over rather than continue through the level, but I am no die-hard. I thoroughly enjoyed the stress-free shooting experience. If I had been playing in an arcade, I would have lost several rolls of quarters on this assignment. I pushed the continue button about once a level.
The game isn't ugly and it isn't beautiful (there are a few exceptions on both counts...there were some pretty scenes of castles, forests, and a Haunted Mansion-esque ballroom and there was one hideous scar-face demon). There is a story, but it's really limited, and only comes to fruition at the very end, though I will say the game's endings were satisfying to me.
Other game highlights were the ingenious and strangely beautiful bullet patterns. They were pretty difficult to navigate, but in a fun and challenging rather than completely frustrating way. At times, lines of bullets obstructed my path, but one well-timed bomb button-press and I was good to go. If I couldn't continue through the game despite my deaths I would have probably grown frustrated, but after an hour I found that I died less frequently, which makes me think this game helps your skills improve with time. I played on the easiest level and was able to beat the game in about half an hour. Ben required me to play for a full hour so I decided to play through the game as another character to see how the story and gameplay differed. I also played in a different mode the second time....the mode was called something ridiculous like Black Mega Label or something. Either the Black Mega Label was easier than the other mode or I got better, because I had to push continue fewer times and got higher points the second time around. When I play again, I think I'll either try to play through Level 1 without ever pushing Continue like the die-hards Ben described or I will try out Level 2 to see how much more difficult it is.
Deathsmiles, a dialogue:
Ben: “ I think you are actually having fun right now!”
Me: “Yes! I actually am having fun. I think I like this game!”
Me: “Uh oh, I think I just like games that are easy and straight-forward, don't I? That is my problem with other games, isn't it?”
Ben: “Yep, that's the problem.”
Me: “I suck.”
Turns out, the real problem wasn't who prepared the eggs, although I still believe there are cooks whose eggs could be tastier if they paid more attention to the details and presentation. The problem is that I don't like eggs that are good for me. I like my eggs fattening and full of sodium. The greasy salty eggs go down just fine, but put chopped boiled egg in my Cobb Salad and I'm going to complain. I wanted to love A Boy and His Blob because it's adorable and charming and has a story that's much more “me” than demons unleashed in goth anime land or half-naked hoochie mamas playing volleyball. So what is wrong with me?
Puzzles. Puzzles are wrong with me. And working hard while still losing. There's a confession for you. I hate puzzles. I hate working hard. I hate losing.
I want a game to make me feel good. I don't want to leave a game feeling worse about myself than when I started. That's why I like games that ease me into difficulty slowly, like entering a cold swimming pool. I prefer to wade in slowly and carefully, letting each body part get used to the cold before I move on to the next. I don't like to jump into the deep end. I know this game could get really, really hard. But unlike a puzzle game, shooting games can more easily provide varying levels of difficulty and I need that. If I'm being honest with myself about what I really want I'd say that I want a game to make me feel consistently mildly challenged. I don't want to feel like it's impossible for me to progress and would rather a game err on the easy side. I want to slowly and steadily improve my skills until I magically discover that I am able to play at a higher level of difficulty. This game is good at that. The game eased me into their frigid waters and now that my skin is used to the temperature, I think I will stay a while and enjoy myself! The game could even slowly make the water colder and I may not even notice.
Perhaps even more importantly, Deathsmiles didn't make me figure out where to go or how to get there. It was straightforward. There was an end in sight and a clear path to get there. When I reached the end (I LOVE to reach ends!) I was given the ending to the story and it actually made me feel something! When you defeat Sakura's father and one more giant demon thing,you get to decide if your girl goes through the portal, returning to her family or stays in that gothic world with her new friends. Choose your own story ending? I love that, too! I decided that Windia should go back to her family and the game shows you the happy family reunion. At some point the narrator questions whether Windia's trip to the underworld was worth it since she found herself right back where she was before while leaving her friends behind. Turns out, before Windia's trip to Demon Town, she was a sensitive girl, full of self-doubt who cried easily. Her battle and ultimate victory helped her feel strong and confident. I wasn't expecting to learn anything about Windia and was pleasantly surprised that the game bothered to give me that resolution.
Looks like my high-fallutin' mumbo jumbo writing talk from last week was a bit overstated. Turns out I really do appreciate excellence in storytelling, art, and game design, but when push comes to shove, I really just want in and out. I want my story in half hour increments, hold the puzzles, please. I should have loved A Boy and His Blob, that pretty, subtle, coddled egg sitting in its delicate little white ramekin. I expected to like it. I appreciated the look of it. Being pretty wasn't enough, though. I left the game still hungry. So I went to Waffle House and got me some scrambled eggs with cheese. I honestly liked Deathsmiles because it didn't have puzzles. It didn't make me feel like a failure, a quitter, or an idiot. I learned a lesson about myself this week and it was a hard (boiled-egg) lesson to swallow. I learned that my desire to win fast and feel good about myself sometimes takes precedence over having to work and think hard.
Ben has decided to test this new theory that I only like video games that are easy and straightforward with next week's assignment which is exactly the opposite - difficult and full of puzzles. My next game will be Monkey Island 2 for the PC. I have seen Ben play a Monkey Island game before and it is one of the few games I can say has a fun, well-written and laugh-out-loud funny story. In that respect, Monkey Island 2 should be a good test to see whether or not a good story can make up for difficult puzzles. If not, I'll not only have to shut my mouth. I'll have to eat my words, too.