Graceful Explosion Machine (PC) Review

 

Graceful Explosion Machine.

Developer/Publisher: Vertex Pop || Overall: 6.5/10

If I’m wrong, tell me – I have no idea what’s going on here.

The title itself almost begs the comparison to Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, a point driven home by the fact that the protagonist is inside of a yellow vehicle. Like Bay’s movies, though, little is added to the genre with GEM.

It’s not that Graceful Explosion Machine is a bad game – far from it. It’s just that it doesn’t do anything to keep me coming back after two decades of playing games similar to it. GEM is a 2D ship shooter, much like the classic Defender, right down to needing to hit a button to turn around. The game’s premise being there was, like, this big ship, or something. There was a city in it, maybe? I’m not sure. There were some gems on it, and astro pops, I dunno. Anyway, these googly-eye’d robots spheres and oblong shapes came and blew it up. A ship popped out of the explosion, and the pilot was obviously distressed that the gems they had stolen from Bejeweled had been, in turn, stolen from them. So the ship pursued, intending to set fire to their planets. It’s open to interpretation, obviously, so I’ll just post a .gif of the intro sequence so you can decide. It gets the job done, but honestly, I would have been just as happy with no story, since the stills you see explain nothing aside that you’re killing things for a reason: sweet, buttery revenge on rye, dijon mustard and a side of coleslaw. I’ll take my revenge, hold all the other stuff. Thanks.

Alright, on to gameplay. The Defender comment was a hint here: it plays like Defender. The ship is moved in the cardinal directions, but it always faces left or right, a state that is changed with space (or left trigger if you’re using a controller, and I hope you are). Aside from the dedicated turn button, there is a dash/boost to dodge through enemies. If you’re in your 30’s and 40’s, you probably know what’s up here. It’s just as riveting as before, only by this point you’ve probably played PixelJunk Shooter and stuff. Kind of like when you have a succulent ribeye steak at any point before eating a New Castle burger.

Now, for some reason this ship is unarmed until it picks up conspicuously laid out weapons in the tutorial, which is probably why these yellow guys got their shit ruined in the first place. First you get a pea shooter, which rapidly fires out blasts until it overheats, which is its only constraint. Second weapon, you get an “energy sword” which spins around twice on use, tearing into enemies and destroying enemy bullets. Next is a sniper beam, which is a very powerful beam that does a lot of damage and tears through enemy shields, but forces you to move slowly. The last is a missile barrage that can be directed out of your ship with a directional input before they race off to seek targets. With exception of the regular blaster, all weapons require weapon energy to fire. This is harvested from enemies on death via the yellow crystals they drop. The weapon energy meter doesn’t say what the max is, or how much each crystal is worth, nor is the energy required for attacks displayed anywhere, so it’s more of a fuel meter in that regard. Crystal/weapon power management seems to be the main bottleneck of player skill. Players need to swoop through slain enemies in order to get close enough to collect weapon power, which dictates how often you can use area of effect attacks. Gameplay quickly maxes out as an advanced game of chicken, blowing through enemies to collect weapon power to in turn massacre more enemies. The only real thing that mixes this up is how close enemies spawn, and if there’s an enemy that requires you to use the sniper cannon to kill quickly.

The game is divided into levels on four planets. A few open up for play, unlocking more as you complete them, culminating in a “warp” level to move on to the next planet. Each level has phases, which are this game’s checkpoint system; waves of enemies will spawn throughout an endlessly scrolling cave section as the player kills everything. Points are awarded for each kill, a multiplier in effect for consecutive kills and keeping a spree going. The ship is able to take three hits before dying, but each level has two continues, which can be utilized to restart from the beginning of the last phase that was started. The game isn’t exactly easy, but with tools like these, it’s not difficult either.

There’s plenty of different enemies, but most of the time, they either require a specific approach or a specific weapon, neither of which is much of a puzzle in the grand scheme of things. The problem is inherently with the focus of the game, which is entirely on score and leaderboards, rather than actual gameplay progression. This, coupled with spawns that don’t randomize, makes for a very stale “replayability” factor. Defender, way back in the day, got away with this by being a fixture in a public place with minimal mechanics and increasingly difficult and unforgiving gameplay, mostly to siphon quarters off kids. Well, that, and Defender is 36 years old. Graceful Explosion Machine has too many mechanics that it doesn’t dole out to keep the player interested, and thus have to use new enemies in lieu of new mechanics, powers or features to keep the player interested. Maybe it’s bad to expect more from games that go for $12.99 without a discount, but competition is stiff; there’s a myriad of games competing for your cash, and unless DeMar’s and Jarvis’ Defender is the model of what you consider an amazing experience, chances are you won’t be whisked away by this without a heaping spoonful of competitive spirit. Other games offer that competitive element too, obviously.

To its credit: the game runs well, and makes use of high refresh rate monitors. The music is benign, but not bad by any means. The controls on keyboard are serviceable, though I recommend controller. What’s more to say about a game that, mechanically, is solid even if there’s no carrot on the stick past score-whoring? There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it’s uninspiring, like a joke you’ve heard before, or a monologue on a topic you’re uninterested in.

And, with that: I’d like to talk to you about our Lord, Gabe Newell. Our Father in Seattle, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. Dot-gif us this day our daily gameplay, and forgive us our unpaid credit cards, as we…

*The droning of a long-winded joke, built on a foundation of memes, hits for 3d6 focus damage: 14 points*
*You roll d20 to save – a one*
*Quietly, you drift off; memories of your homeship and your ill-gotten Bejeweled gems haunt your dreams*

*You wake up, covered in a sticky substance. You’re not sure where you are or what you’ve been doing, but you have a feeling it was spent doing something slightly mediocre.*

That’s what the game is like. Some people might be interested, and may even find some enjoyment out of a Defender game with some extra bells and whistles, but the depth is shallow and the ride is short.

 

PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate (PC) Review

Developer: Q-Games/Double Eleven | Publisher: Q-Games || Overall: 9.5/10

Q-Games’ PixelJunk series has become one of my favorites over the past few years. Starting with one of my all-time favorite games, PixelJunk Monsters, any time a new PixelJunk game gets announced it has gotten my attention. A couple of years ago I had purchased PixelJunk Shooter on Steam and fell in love with the blending of puzzles with twin-stick shooter gameplay. While I was never a big fan of twin-stick shooters by themselves, PixelJunk Shooter elevates the genre to a new height by integrating fast-paced, unique, and well-designed puzzles. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate, released in October, carries over all of PixelJunk Shooter 1 and includes PixelJunk Shooter 2, which continues the game in new and challenging ways.

The general goal of PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is to complete stages by collecting diamonds and scientists. Each “episode” is segmented into five different stages, and each stage is divided into a certain amount of “scenes.” Each full stage probably can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes depending on your ability to figure out puzzles. In most scenes, a lot of trial and error may occur, and you’ll have to memorize the order in which you do actions to succeed. This feeds into the idea that you want to be able to perfect your run through the scene to collect all of the diamonds, all of the scientists alive, getting out of the scene without dying yourself and in the quickest way possible. There is one boss per episode with six episodes total. Shooter 1 is the first three episodes, while Shooter 2 is the second three. Shooter 2 continues right where the first left off in terms of the story.

Most of the gameplay revolves around the liquid elemental aspects of puzzles. You’ll see lots of different types of liquid as you venture deep through the planet, all of which do various things to you and with each other when they interact. While you don’t have a health bar, per se, you have a “Heat Gauge.” The Heat Gauge hitting its max will spell your end, but you’ll be able to skate by as long as it doesn’t hit 100%, and even then if you somehow land in water you might recover. Your Heat Gauge will increase when you use special-fire missiles, get hit by enemy fire, or get close to Lava. You’ll be able to cool down by submersing yourself in Water, and while in water you are able to infinitely spam your missiles. Water and Lava, are the primary elements you’ll encounter in the game, and when they interact, it creates rock that you can blast through with your lasers. You won’t be able to swim through Lava usually, so that is one of the many kinds of simple puzzles you’ll see in the game. Where it gets complicated is when you should do these things and how they affect other parts of your current puzzle, and this kind of decision making is integral to the experience of the game. You’ll also be able to use “Suits” in certain scenes where they are available, which will change the rules in how you interact with these elements in unique ways. This keeps the gameplay fresh and varied. Each Episode ends with an exciting boss battle that primarily focuses on combat rather than puzzles, but you’ll still have to remember what you’ve learned, as they do usually use the elements you have become familiar with.

At first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to carry over my progress from the previous game. I had practically completed the whole game at this point, but hadn’t gotten to the end. Fortunately, you can load a save from PixelJunk Shooter 1 if you have it already on Steam. This allows you to continue right from where you may have left off. Those of us who had played the first game will notice immediately that there have been various UI improvements and a simpler way of knowing you’ve collected one of the objectives in each of the scenes. This helps when you inevitably have to go back and replay stages you didn’t do too well on. Also, diamonds you’ve already collected do not appear anymore, as opposed to the previously where you had to collect a total number larger than you had before so that it would count as more diamonds. This makes it easier to collect diamonds and doesn’t require you to memorize where all of them are across the whole stage.

A new art style known as the “Ultimate” art style is the default in this version of the game. The art has been upgraded to give it a more 3D look and benefit from effects such as lighting. The “Classic” art style is still available, which has a more hand-drawn, flat 2D look. While I personally prefer the Classic art style, the Ultimate art style still keeps the general charm of the art and looks pretty neat. I found myself actually playing in the Ultimate art style after a little while to benefit from the extra effects they added in. As a result of this newer art style it does seem to have upped the minimum requirements of your PC a bit. Music has an upbeat/jazzy/electronic feel and fits in very well. Music is always one of the strong points of PixelJunk, and this game is no exception. Music will also fade out as you get closer to a boss, to give it a feeling as if something big looms near (and it usually does).

Overall, it seems like there is about 20 hours’ worth of gameplay on your first play-through. To get perfect scores on each level, it will probably take you a lot longer since you’ll most likely miss a lot on the first time through. You’ll probably be forced to replay previous levels if you don’t have enough diamonds to unlock the next stage, so it won’t really be something you’ll avoid completely, anyway. There is also a sense of accomplishment in completing a whole stage perfectly. There is also enough variety that going back and replaying a stage won’t feel cumbersome.

As far as alternate game modes go, there is a local co-op mode and an online multiplayer mode. The online multiplayer is based more on competitively completing objectives and unlocking gear as you progress. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be very popular, so it is hard to find anyone to play with in the League mode. However, you can play online with a friend who owns the game, so this mode isn’t completely a loss. I don’t put much stake in requiring a multiplayer mode for my games so it is easy for me to ignore it. It was disappointing to not be able to try it out at least a couple of times, though.

Shooter’s formula is simple yet the design is complex and multilayered. You’ll be forced to master the basic formula, and then be challenged when the rules change and the formula gets thrown out the window. Some levels are fast paced, while others focus more on puzzles, and yet others focus on defeating enemies. PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate is one of my most favorite games in the past few years, and is highly recommended.  It is available now on Steam.