Games for broke people (8/6/16)

The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.

– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

The above statement is as true now as it was when Melville wrote it over 160 years ago.  Paying for things is terrible, and it’s especially terrible when you don’t have a steady job or a consistent source of income.  So while I look for a job and wait the three months it takes the state bar to grade exams, I’ll also be looking at some free and free-to-play games on Steam.  I can’t expect anything amazing from a free title – what I’m looking for is not necessarily a full meal, but more of an hors d’oeuvre.  And since you don’t pay to eat hors d’oeuvres, that analogy really works, doesn’t it?

Today, we’ll look at two puzzle-platformers featuring blocky protagonists.  But these two games are totally different in every other way.

Mandagon

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The things I know about Tibetan Buddhism can be counted on no hands, because I don’t know anything about it.  So I may be missing a lot of meaning in Mandagon, a very short game whose developers claim is inspired by Tibetan theology.  However, I don’t think you have to be an expert in that field to appreciate this game.  Mandagon tells the story of a sacrifice, and the player has to explore what seems to be a large temple sitting on a mountaintop to make that sacrifice.  The one puzzle in the game is extremely easy to figure out – it hardly even counts as a puzzle, and the whole experience only lasts about half an hour, or an hour at the very longest.  But the point of Mandagon seems to be in the exploration itself rather than in finding the goal.  The art is good, and some of the visual touches are very nice (the flags and chimes that flutter in the wind, for example.)  Together with the background music (really more like ambient sound) the atmosphere created is both ominous and strangely relaxing.  The mention of theology in the game’s description put me on my guard, but Mandagon isn’t preachy or heavy-handed either, so don’t let that scare you away.  It’s well worth a play.

You Have 10 Seconds

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The simply and honestly titled You Have 10 Seconds could not be less like Mandagon.  Where the focus in Mandagon was on exploration and relaxation, the focus in 10 Seconds is get to the goal NOW.  YOU DON’T HAVE ANY TIME TO SIT AROUND AND LOOK AT SHIT.  GET MOVING!

10 Seconds requires the player to take his nameless block of a protagonist to the goal on every map within ten seconds.  If he fails to do this (if time runs out or the player runs into a hazard) one life is lost.  While extra lives can be gotten in some levels, the combination of time pressure and obstacle-dodging makes 10 Seconds a fair challenge.  It’s very simply animated, and the music can get annoying, but the game is basically effective at what it tries to do.  For a total cost of $0.00 and at a tiny 33 MB, it’s worth at least downloading if you have any interest in games of this sort.

A review of Freedom Planet (PC)

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The love of indie game designers for retro-stylings is pretty understandable – it means way less in production values, and playing on the players’ love for the games of their childhoods is always a good bet. Still, most of these games have seemed to focus on the 8-bit era of the Famicom/NES/Master System. Which is just fine, but the video games of my childhood are more in the 16-bit SNES/Genesis category. So I’m pretty happy about Freedom Planet, an early 90s-style action platformer released in 2014.

Not that mere nostalgia is enough for a game to be good (see Retro City Rampage, which seems to try to survive on its nostalgic appeal alone and fails.) A game, even a pretty basic platformer like this one, has to have fun gameplay and some aspects that set it apart from other, similar games. Luckily, Freedom Planet has both.

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First things first: Freedom Planet obviously looks like a Sonic game. The level art and the sprites and character designs are really reminiscent of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Moreover, the characters play a bit like Sonic, Tails and Knuckles as far as speed and special moves go. Hell, the game even has half-pipes and loops that look like they were taken straight out of an old Sonic game. And the main character (Lilac, above) kind of looks like a redesigned and recolored Sonic character.

So big deal, you might be thinking: Freedom Planet is a fangame starring a modified Sonic sprite. However, it’s really more than that. Freedom Planet also takes influence from other 16-bit series like Gunstar Heroes, Rocket Knight Adventures, and Mega Man X. The player can make use of lots of different moves unique to each of the game’s three characters to take down enemies and bosses. The mix the developer used here ensures that this game feels not like a Sonic pastiche, but like its own game, which is important as hell (at the very least, it lets him claim a way broader copyright on his work without getting mixed up with SEGA’s lawyers.)

But this isn’t an article on copyrightability in video games, so let’s move on. Freedom Planet tells the story of Lilac, a dragon (yeah, she’s a dragon, somehow), her tomboyish cat friend Carol, and their new annoyingly hyperactive dog friend Milla as they help a mysterious stranger defeat an evil alien overlord who has instituted a coup in their country by killing the king and mind-controlling his son, the prince. It’s a lot more grim than a game from the time would have been (just imagine Dr. Robotnik doing something like this. You can’t, can you?) However, the game still manages to maintain a light and fun atmosphere. It’s colorful and fast, the level designs are varied and interesting, and Lilac, Carol, and Milla play quite differently, requiring a different approach to the same levels for each character. Despite the Sonic-looking-ness of Freedom Planet, the sprite and level art are all great, and it’s obvious that a lot of work went into putting the game together. There’s even full voice-acting. And the voices aren’t even bad! Try to beat that.

Freedom Planet's trio chilling out between stages.

Freedom Planet’s trio chilling out between stages.

I’m gushing over the game at this point, so let me tune it down just slightly: along with the old-school stylings of the art and the gameplay, Freedom Planet also features plenty of old-school cheap difficulty, and some of the levels are long and drag a bit. However, even the pacing and difficulty aren’t really an issue, because Freedom Planet gives Lilac and friends unlimited continues and mid-level checkpoints to start from. Moreover, unlike an old Sonic game, which capped the player’s time in each level at 10 minutes, Freedom Planet imposes no time limit at all, letting you explore and find new ways to get through a level. Finally, the game tries hard to mix things up with new level mechanics in each part of each stage. Some level sections require the player to solve a puzzle to open a door further back in the level. Others feature Indiana Jones huge boulder escape parts. It’s easy for these sorts of games to get dull after a while, but Freedom Planet succeeds for the most part in keeping gameplay fresh throughout.

Oh yeah, the story is also kind of stupid, but I don’t remember a platformer on the SNES or Genesis that had a story worth caring about, so who cares? Nevertheless, there is plenty of story in Freedom Planet, complete with long cutscenes (long for this sort of game, anyway) but if you don’t care to watch them, the game lets you cut them out by choosing “Classic Mode”, which takes you from stage to stage without interruption.

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first.  Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first. Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

So: the verdict on Freedom Planet. It’s sometimes frustrating, but basically a really good game. I could even say it’s great, though that might be too much praise. In any case, I basically enjoyed Freedom Planet, even though some parts of it are way too god damn hard (specifically some extra-long parts of later stages and boss fights.) If all of the above sounds good to you, you might consider buying the game on Steam: I’d say this game is worth the $15 price tag.

I should disclose that I might be biased here because, as a kid, I really enjoyed the old Sonic and Mega Man series and some of the other games Freedom Planet cribs from, and I still do, so I naturally took to this game’s approach. I also appreciate the fact that, unlike a lot of modern 2D action/puzzle platform games, Freedom Planet doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously or have pretensions to being meaningful all-capitals ART. For the most part, it really feels like a game that could have been released in the early 90s on the SNES or the Genesis. There’s a place for serious art in video games, and even in platformers, but sometimes you just want a good time, and Freedom Planet delivers that.