Game Ramblings #161 – A Little Golf Journey

More Info from Okidokico

  • Genre: Puzzle
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: Steam

It’s perhaps ironic that this one was published by Playtonic, because my enjoyment curve of this game reminded me EXACTLY of Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair. The game slowly added mechanics throughout that worked well. It felt like it had an appropriate challenge curve based on mechanics that enhanced the puzzle solving. I got to the end of the game with a high level of praise ready to be put to ramblings.

Then I hit the long level for the true ending of the game that felt like it turned the mechanics on their head.

This is a puzzle game through and through. Ya it’s got its golf coat on, but that part of it isn’t really the point. Each hole is a puzzle to figure out what specific locations you need to hit the ball to in order to finish it in the correct number of strokes. That’s ultimately all there is to it. Ya there’s some dealing with power. Ya you get some wind later on. Ya you’ve got to deal with some gravity shenanigans in a moon world. Ultimately though, it’s a puzzle. What makes this work is that the entire game is a zen experience. You’re thrown into a little diorama and can move all around to plan out your shots, but you go at your leisure as you plot your course.

The way I would describe this is that you’re succeeding through trial and experience. Failures in a case like this end up being a case of not having enough experience – whether that be a lack of knowledge of how wind is affecting your ball, or how a slope in an area will affect rolling distance. However, it’s never because you were lacking information. Succeeding is because you’ve learned and applied your knowledge. In this case, the variable involved is purely your aim and your imagination in getting through the course.

When this all is working well the game is phenomenal. It’s the type of game that you can just sit back and relax to. You’ve got a pretty light ambient soundtrack that adds to the relaxation. You’ve got a game that isn’t rushing you, but is instead just letting you enjoy the experience.

What ends up being the enemy of this is time. For the most part though, the time-based mechanics aren’t too egregious.

The main mechanic that hits this is actually the core power selection. If you aren’t specifically focusing, your power and aim selection occurs via a cyclic infinity symbol. You can use this to increase or decrease your distance beyond the core aiming, which adds a bit of flexibility to the aim selection. While this works fine, it largely feels unnecessary to me. I don’t see a case where allowing the player to select their power around a target wouldn’t be beneficial to the player. The challenge of the game to me feels like picking your shot selection precisely. You can still do that with the cyclic aim, but it adds a level of imprecision that adds friction to the experience. It doesn’t make the game harder, it just makes it slower. You’re missing shots that you shouldn’t miss purely because of timing.

Later on in the game, the levels start getting some time-ish mechanics. These largely revolve around some lights moving items – asteroids in the moon levels, blockers in a computer level. Things of that nature. Again, these largely work fine but don’t really improve the game. Your shot selection doesn’t change because of the moving stuff, it just causes your pace to slow down.

And then I got to the final level.

The thing about the last level is that it adds a bunch of dynamic geometry. In some cases it’s geometry being created in areas panning around the world, while in some cases it’s creating holes in geometry. I get why this is happening, because ultimately the last level needs some challenge. However, it just doesn’t work to me.

The first thing is that the core golf mechanic is just too dynamic for this. I can’t tell you the amount of times I would land a ball perfectly, then sit there having to wait for it to shed the last little bit of speed. By the time I was able to shoot again, the geometry would disappear underneath me and I’d lose my shot. I’d then do nearly the exact shot on my next attempt, but a little shorter or a little longer and the ball would immediately stop and give me plenty of time to shoot.

It also just adds a time crunch that doesn’t really vibe with the rest of the game. Instead of planning your shots and carefully aiming, you’re just kind of rushing to generally the right area for your ball to land, then rushing to the next shot. Rather than trialing and gaining experience, you’re kind of just flailing around and eventually succeeding. It’s less learning and more just doing and it feels awkward compared to the rest of the game.

I guess despite the last level, I still recommend the game. There’s enough there that I enjoyed that if I ignore the last level, I’m fine with what I got out of it. It’s the same thing that I ended up doing with Impossible Lair. Enjoy the parts that are great, and just don’t actually finish the game.

Game Ramblings #152 – Manifold Garden

More Info from William Chyr

  • Genre: Puzzle
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PC (EGS/Steam), Apple Arcade (iOS, macOS, tvOS), Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S

This game broke my brain in the best ways. Any time you can look at an art style for a game and immediately know what you’re getting into, that’s a good thing. When you look at this one and recognize the Escher-esque style, you know you’re in for trouble. Good trouble.

This game does so much with so little, and it’s an amazing thing to behold. You can run, you can change what direction down is, and you can manipulate a small set of blocks. That’s it. That level of simplicity means that the game spends its entire time manipulating your brain, and not your hands. Every single puzzle is a set of maybe three or four steps, but figuring out what those steps are is always the trick.

In some places, it may be that you need to manipulate blocks of different colors to hold each other up and activate buttons. In some places, it’s using the blocks to redirect streams that you can then freeze and use as walkways. In some places it’s simply trying to figure out which up is the up that you want, and trying to rotate around to get there. However, none of this would work without the game’s use of portals to support the visual and gameplay style, and it’s by far the game’s most impressive – and most hidden – feature.

Everyone knows what a portal is in the hit Valve game sense. You have a spot on the wall that you can walk through to teleport to another spot. That tweet there is a very simple version of this, but it shows off the core of the tech. They have a portal in the door to allow the player to teleport from one room to a completely different room seamlessly. They use this for simple tricks like that, but they also use it for some core functionality in very non-obvious ways.

In this screenshot, they’re also using portals. The tower out there in the distance is actually the same tower. The little thing coming out of the ceiling above them is actually the bottom of the tower poking through the floor. In this case, there’s portals allowing the one tower to exist as an infinitely expanding world in multiple directions, but to the user it’s just a crazy never ending landscape to move toward. This version of their portals is used all over to support falling as a gameplay mechanic. Need to bring a colored block from the bottom of a tower to the top? It can only be moved while you’re on its plane of existence, so simply fall down to the top of the tower.

That is really where the game broke my brain. Contextualizing a 3D space not as something finite or fixed, but as something where it can stretch infinitely in arbitrary directions is weird. Down is down, but there’s also 6 planes of “down” that are all valid. Up is also down if you can fall. It gets even crazier when you start doing things like redirecting water flow to create a waterfall so you can get water to some wheel above the source of the water. It’s crazier when you get environmental pieces to fall left so they can get stuck on something to your right. It’s even crazier when they only way to hit a button is to get a block to fall up.

However, for as weird as it is it’s also incredibly natural. You get a piece of the game at a time, so you mold your thinking to a new mechanic in isolation. It’s a very oddly Nintendo approach. At the start, you only have the gravity shift in fixed hallways, so you get used to changing the meaning of “down”. They then introduce a spot where you can fall infinitely, so you get used to the wrapping environment. They then start introducing colored boxes, so you get used to bringing them around to triggers that open doors. Etc, etc, etc. It’s that little bit at a time that turns something that should be a complete mindfuck into something that is both completely manageable and completely natural. It’s incredibly well executed.

From front to back this was just an incredible experience. It’s extremely tight mechanically and extremely impressive visually. The puzzles are well crafted to take advantage of a limited set of mechanics. It’s long enough to feel good, but short enough to not wear out its welcome. It’s just really fucking good.

Go play it.

Game Ramblings #123 – Bugsnax

More Info from Young Horses

  • Genre: Adventure
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PC, Mac, PS4

I know this is kind of a weird first game to play on the PS5, but it was the perfect storm. I was in the middle of moving into a house, so games were getting delivered there. However, I was still working remote from my apartment, so I delivered the PS5 there to be safe. I wasn’t going to have the PS5 plugged in long term because it also had to move, but I needed something to test the system out, and this was free on PS+. I also knew that I was starting the dive into Yakuza: Like a Dragon, so I didn’t want to start something that was going to take long or require me to remember a ton of information.

That would all seem to indicate that this was a complete chance play through, and to some extent it was. I’ve been looking forward to playing this one for a while since I was a fan of Young Horses’ previous game – Octodad – and I have the physical release on preorder whenever it decides to come out. However, like that one, Bugsnax is not really a system seller, and it’s really not meant to be. Ultimately what it ended up doing was filling the same slot that the previous title did – be a mechanically quirky but interesting puzzle experience, have an absolutely absurd story, but end in a way that left me absolutely satisfied with the experience that was put in front of me.

That pic feels like as good a place to start as any, as it really encompasses a lot of the absurd aspects of the game. Yes that’s a giant living maki roll. Yes it’s something that you have to suss out the mechanics of catching. Yes, it’s core to moving the story forward for one of the side quest chains in the game.

Bugsnax works the best when you’re solving puzzles in order to catch things, and the handful of boss battles really nail the feeling of that. The general individual creatures you catch act as a sort of training method to get through the harder stuff. You generally use one trick in order to catch them. Sometimes it’s using the right sauce to lure something out of hiding. Sometimes it’s using the launcher to toss a thing at them. Sometimes it’s using a trip line to stop something running around at full speed. However, the boss fights tie it all together.

In the case of the sushi roll, it’s the recognition that you need to scan its path to figure out where it’s going to be moving, then setting up your zipline to trip it, then when it breaks apart, running around to catch the pieces until you have them all. In another example, it’s using a trap type that a creature hates to lure it into a specific location where you can then use the hook shot stand-in to pull a rock down on its head. For a game with only a handful of specific tool types, they get a lot of mileage out of their inventive use and combinations possible to really push what you learn against smaller creatures into clever capture mechanics on the larger ones.

Of course, it helps that you want to capture everything. To some extent, you’re drawn in by the clever and very groanable naming and visual scheme of the creatures, such as the crab apple – named after the plant, but very obviously a crab made out of apples, or things like the mothza supreme – a giant flying supreme pizza. You’re also drawn in by the behaviors of the creatures themselves. They emote out of fear when you’re chasing them, out of happiness and anger when you send their favored sauces their way, out of shock when something gets the drop on them.

However, the PS5 version definitely gets some unique touches that are already starting to show the promise of the new controller. Catching a creature does little audio cues of the creatures yelling their names in a way very reminiscent of the Pokemon TV show. It’s something that’s been done in the past on consoles like the Wii, but the quality of audio coming out of the DualSense controller is a marked improvement. Different tools do different things with the modifiable triggers, with custom click points that make it act like the old double action Gamecube analog trigger. It’s also worth noting that the quality of haptic feedback available here is a marked improvement over the last generation’s implementation on the PS4 and Xbox One and being more in line with what we’ve seen done with Nintendo first party titles on the Switch, with feedback on things like creatures walking into the player trap having obviously distinct feedback, allowing you to catch creatures just based on feel while you hide out of sight. It was surprising to see how much these little feedback changes improved the experience, but it’s a level of polish that I’m now hoping to see happen more often throughout this generation.

It definitely also helps that the NPCs and story play a nice balance between lighthearted and absurdist. From a non-spoilery perspective, the core of the story is that you’re a journalist documenting an expedition researching and cataloguing the Bugsnax, which when eaten change the character’s limbs into that snack. The expedition folks seem entirely unconcerned that they slowly turn into fruits and vegetables that you force feed to them, which is hilarious and absurd, and incredibly dark as you roll through the story. It lasts long enough to have its own set of twists and turns, but also doesn’t overstay its welcome. There’s also a nice balance of core story and side quest content, giving you an obvious golden path to go through, but plenty of options to venture out and learn more about the townsfolk if you want to, all while catching more new things to turn them into.

So is it a next-gen showcase? Nah. Do I think it’s better on PS5 because of the controller? Yes. Do I think it’s worth playing? Depends. This one falls into a niche where I would easily recommend it to fans of games like Pokemon Snap or Slime Rancher. It’s distinctly an adventure/puzzle game, and it’s casual enough to get through but offers some nice range of easy to difficult content that fits into a lot of skill ranges. It was also the PS+ title for November for the PS5 launch, which right away puts it into the “why not” range. If nothing else it did exactly what I needed out of it – it entertained the hell out of me while giving me a way to test my PS5 and gets me started for the next generation.