Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Rise of the Robots

No, don't run away screaming! I'm not reviewing that game, honest! I'd much rather discuss a couple of other titles I've been playing, starring heroes both fully and partially robotic.

Let's start with Mighty No. 9. The game was recently offered in a Humble Bundle, alongside a pile of other Deep Silver titles, and morbid curiosity compelled me to give it a try. Conventional wisdom is that the game was a crushing disappointment, and that Keiji Inafune should be flogged with a wet USB cable for inflicting it upon the world, but eh, conventional wisdom is overrated. I'm having roughly the same experience with Mighty No. 9 that I did Inafune's Mega Man games... you know, running through stages, tumbling into pits, and screaming myself hoarse because that stupid bastard blindsided me, I swear if I see him again I'll tear out his...

Plucky boy robot Mega-Bender
talks to his creator, Professor
You get the idea. This is Mega Man at its core, albeit anchored to dubious character designs and wrongheaded ideas. The robots suffer from design overload, while the human cast is lifted straight out of the Osamu Tezuka playbook, to the point where Dr. Sanda looks like a head swap of Astro Boy's creator Dr. O'Shay. It's like Inafune worked himself to exhaustion with the mighty numbers (and not always to their benefit), then threw up his hands and said "screw it" to everything else.

As for the gameplay, Inafune is clearly in love with Beck's "Xcelerate" power... I only wish I shared his enthusiasm for it. Killing enemies is a two step process, with Beck first softening them up with a weapon, then dashing into them as they bleed pixels. It's not as much of a chore as it was in that other overhyped yet ultimately disappointing platformer from twenty five years ago, Taxan's Low G Man, but it still seems unnecessary, and leaves the game feeling less precise.  It's a minor irritant that becomes hugely annoying during the boss fights, where you must ram into your opponents with the Xcel dash or risk them recovering their energy.

Funny, I remember the early
mock-ups used to promote
the game looking better than this...
Ultimately, Mighty No. 9 feels like a victim of unbalanced ambition. Keiji Inafune clearly cared about some parts of the game, especially the focus on earning high scores with perfect performance. However, the parts that mattered the most to him seem to matter the least to Mega Man fans, and vice versa. The graphics are plain, yet leave a bitter taste in the mouth, like unflavored yogurt. The versatile weapons system promised early in the game's development cycle didn't actually happen. Freed mighty numbers can offer their assistance in later stages, but only in those stages where their weapons are most effective... and even there, they don't do very much. No wonder Mighty No. 9 left a lot of players hot under the collar... they gave nearly four million dollars to the Kickstarter drive, and got something only Inafune wanted to play.

Guess who's totally screwed?
That's right, YOU are!
(image from Blue's News)
What was the other game I wanted to discuss? Oh yeah, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I got this from Xbox Live's Games with Gold promotion several years ago, and decided to give it another chance after a humiliating first encounter in 2014. I'm having more fun with it now, but it's offering a bitter reminder that I'm absolutely hopeless at stealth action games. It happens every time... I attempt to sneak around a crowd of heavily armed soldiers, get spotted anyway, then paint the walls with the blood of everyone in the room. (Or the walls get painted with my blood, which happens more often. But I digress.) I have no aptitude for this sort of thing. You might as well send a gassy elephant into the room to retrieve that top secret document... at least it could sponge up more than a couple rounds of gunfire.

The game's got merit, though. I mean, the graphics are nice, painting a world where Detroit is the peak of technological advancement rather than the badly neglected symbol of urban decay we know in this reality. The acting is solid, although the threats of foes and the heartfelt pleas of allies lose something when the characters jerk around on hidden strings, like so many extras from an episode of Thunderbirds are Go. Although there's a focus on stealth, it's not an absolute requirement... you can blow your enemies away with a variety of satisfying weapons, or sweet talk your way into otherwise prohibited areas. Problem is, you have to upgrade your character to do some of this, and that requires Praxis points... points you may have wanted to save for more exciting cybernetic enhancements. I'm just saying, I don't think most of the cash spent on the Six Million Dollar Man went into making him a sparkling conversationalist.

Evidently, murder really works
up an appetite.
(image from Moby Games)
You may have noticed some ambivalence in that run-on paragraph. It's been a running theme in my Deus Ex playthrough... I'd find something in the game that made me want to stomp my controller, only to find something else five minutes later that salvaged the experience and compelled me to continue. Areas are large and varied enough to invite exploration, BUT it's easy to get lost without constantly checking your map, and locked doors regularly impede your progress. Hacking is a confusing nuisance, BUT it's more tolerable than in most games once you understand how it works. Stealth takedowns are a thrill to perform, BUT they deplete your energy, forcing you to munch on Cyber-Snickers to replenish it. It's fun to play with the weapons, taking out security cameras and peeking out from behind walls to cap some unsuspecting fools, UNTIL you hit a roadblock in the form of a seemingly invincible boss. And so on.

There's a lot of give and take here. However, unlike Mighty No. 9, the developers had some idea of what the players wanted from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and delivered on those expectations... without asking for a single cent in crowdfunding. Granted, these are two very different games, but it nevertheless suggests that if you're going to ask end users to foot the bill for your next project rather than getting the funds from a publisher, you'd better not disappoint them. Just ask Inafune... when he comes out of hiding.

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