Friday, August 27, 2010

The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

7.0 - [Great]

Gameplay: 7
Visuals: 7
Music: 7
Sound: 6
Value: 6

Publisher: 2K Play (XBLA), Valve (Windows)
Developer: The Odd Gentleman
Multiplayer: N/A
Console(s): XBLA, PC
Reviewed on: PC
ESRB rating: E (Comic Mischief)
BMR rating: E (Copious Pies)

Good points:

Dapper presentation - Humorous script with a magnificent vocabulary - Puzzling puzzles - Captivating clone system

Not so good points:

Obtuse concepts can hamper the learning curve - Some puzzles are too chaotic and difficult for their or good - Short experience

P.B. Winterbottom is no ordinary thief. Jewels and gems do not tempt him, nor does gold and money. No, this devious gentleman is interested in only one thing: delicious pie. As persistent as he is portly, Winterbottom will stop at nothing to achieve his pastry-based escapades, yet everything changes when he breaks the rifts of time and encounters a giant, magical, somewhat creepy-looking blueberry pie. This is the basic premise of The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom and its odd presentation is as integral as the head-scratching puzzles it offers. Set in an 1800s-inspired world of strangeness, the game plays out like a silent film, so you can expect a complete lack of any dialogue and a black-and-white color pallete. The humorous narration text is the scoop of ice cream on the pie as it seems to have an endless stream of quaint, charming, and sometimes downright insulting tips for the player. I'll try my best to avoid mimicking its infectious, old-timey speaking style as I write this review. Crumbs! Well, that didn't last long.

Even without the imaginative frills, P.B. Winterbottom has a lot of really good ideas. It's almost impossible to talk about the game without mentioning a similar product, from the artistic indie style to the time-manipulating, puzzle-based gameplay: Braid. If you've played the stellar indie game before, you'll have a better understanding of how P.B. Winterbottom works. However, the folks at The Old Gentlemen took their project in a decidedly different direction. With the goal of grabbing as many pies as humanly possible in a given level, you'll soon learn how to record Winterbottom's actions as you hop to and fro along the 2D plane. Playing back your recording will spawn a clone of the gluttonous burglar, allowing you to interact with it however you wish. You might want to stand on its head in order to reach a ledge, or perhaps you need it to hold down a switch for you so you can pass through a gate. Whatever you choose, the clone will keep looping its course until you delete it, either by making a new one or simply growing tired of the lazy bum and blotting it out of existence for the spite of it. This is the backbone of P.B. Winterbottom's gameplay, each world adding new twists to the basic formula. Sometimes you'll have to grab pies in a certain order, some pies only clones can obtain, time restraints will keep you on your toes, and evil clones will harm you if you aren't careful. There's a wide breadth of subtle alterations that change the entire experience, and you'll rarely be doing the same thing for long.

They might be cooperating for now, but just wait until it comes time to share the pie...

The varied puzzles take a delicate mix of dexterity and mind-power, forcing the player to think ahead and then successfully complete the required steps to nab every last crumb of dessert. It's a tricky business trying to arrange all the clones to time the current scheme just right, but finally solving a seemingly impossible task is satisfying to the utmost degree. However, the game can get a little too tricky in this area, occasionally venturing into frustrating territory. Perhaps I'm just a little slow at it, but some of the earlier concepts were difficult to grasp, which made things a bit less intuitive than felt proper. It didn't help that mistakes forced me to wait on a long clone animation or, worse yet, set up my plan all over again after accidentally deleting an important clone. These problems gradually dissipated until they were gone for good, replaced with fun and merriment, eventually leading to a great final boss that ended with a bang. Nevertheless, whether it's the learning curve or an annoyance that one learns to deal with, it certainly hampered my enjoyment for a good while. As a final frown upon P.B. Winterbottom, my journey of pie lasted only three hours, including my extended periods of staring at the screen and feeling like a full-blown idiot. A host of challenging bonus stages will keep competitive spirits going at each other on the leaderboards, and the game simply begs for a speed-run or two, but the story mode is fleeting.

Yet the time you do spend in this oddball world, however brief, is a pleasure to both the eyes and ears. From the pseudo-3D character models to the wonderfully crafted backdrops, P.B. Winterbottom stays true to its theme from start to finish. Illustrated cutscenes unfold the goofy yet captivating story and the screen has just enough of an old film grain to be effective but not annoying. Pianos and strings set the mood of a silent movie with a perky yet oddly ominous score, greatly adding to the overall effect and making the game fun to listen to. There aren't many sound effects to speak of, which makes sense considering the whole "silent" part of "silent film", so it ends up helping the premise. Yes, art is alive and well in P.B. Winterbottom, and it's obvious the creators put time and thought into its presentation.

Times like these make me wonder if the narrator just makes up words on the spot.

If you've played and enjoyed time-and-space-bending puzzle games like Braid and Portal, this misadventure is probably right up your alley. Although it doesn't nearly reach their caliber of greatness, P.B. Winterbottom has its own story to tell and quandaries to pose, making a unique name for itself with the fantastic setting and lots of funny, little clones. Even with its frustrations and brevity, it's hard to turn down such a thought-provoking and charming adventure. Considering the current price point of $5 (or 800 Microsoft Points for the XBLA version of the game), it's really a no-brainer: The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is fun waiting to be had.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 1996 - Super Mario 64


Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

1996 was a big year for games. Sega released its killer app for the Saturn, NiGHTS Into Dreams; Sony unleashed its platforming hero Crash Bandicoot onto the gaming scene; Capcom virtually invented the horror genre with Resident Evil; the world became addicted to Pokemon Red and Blue; Eidos started the long-running Tomb Raider series starring the famous Lara Croft; and to top it all off, 3D was starting to become commonplace. But even against such a wave of intimidating titles (if you count Crash Bandicoot as intimidating), Nintendo was ready to win the prize with Super Mario 64. A classic among classics, the game gave 3D new meaning. After more or less inventing the 2D platoformer with Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 64's lasting design made the realm of 3D platoformers what they are today. Running and leaping through vivid lands as Mario was exhilarating and magical, and definitely proved what the Nintendo 64 was capable of. The madcap obstacle course sensibilities from the past games remained intact, but that handy third dimension did wonders to spice things up. Huge, open levels practically begged to be explored, and the mysterious castle still stands as one of the greatest game HUBs of all time. Looking back on the controls today certainly proves that video games have matured, but considering this was Nintendo's first legitimate foray into 3D, it's amazing to consider how spot on they had it.

So very many ways to die.

Whistleable tunes that cause even the most hardened gamer to choke up with nostalgia added to the ecstasy that was Super Mario 64, and Charles Martinet lent his voice to the perky plumber for the first time, immortalizing Mario's personality into the hearts of players. The sound design fit the tone of the game, which was literally constructed from 100% recyclable fun. Whether you were swimming in the deep, relaxing waters of Dire, Dire Docks or sliding joyously down the ice cave's penguin race in Cool, Cool Mountain, Mario 64 managed to cast a spell of everything a video game should be. It was challenging, innovative, colorful, and just plain entertaining. I can sometimes be heard complaining that video games these days fail to capture the magic of the classics; to understand what I'm talking about, spend some time playing Super Mario 64.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 1995 - Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island


Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island

The sequel for the lauded and wholly awesome Super Mario World took a drastic turn in a bold new direction. In Super Mario World 2, Mario was-- get this-- a baby. Not only that, but you couldn't even control the de-moustached plumber; you instead took full and constant control over the lovable Yoshis, charged with the protection of the infant Mario. Being the selfless dinosaurs that they are, the Yoshis didn't care about getting killed themselves so much as keeping Mario safe. Taking a hit would send the howling infant into the air via a floating bubble, which provided for a number of tense moments that has the player scrambling about in a frenzy trying to reclaim his lost prize. Adding to the drama was a stricter time limit, encouraging players to collect as many clock-prolonging stars as possible. There were a lot of unique ideas at play here, including wacky transformations (more or less a Yoshi version of Mario's suits), swallowing enemies for use as egg-based projectile weapons, and my personal favorite: Super Baby Mario. This magical power-up allowed the tiny, helpless baby to don a cape and dash through the level at extremely high speeds, all the while being perfectly invulnerable! That's very rad.

I think Yoshi is oblivious to how pretty his surroundings are.

Just as striking as the gameplay changes were the visuals: Yoshi's Island was probably the most artistic and beautiful game of its time. A crayon-inspired style colored the fun and imaginative world in which there be Yoshis. Thick outlines and a pallete of pastel paints gave life to this wonderful-looking game, making everything a pleasure to look at. Pseudo-3D elements and excellent animation mingled with the inspired design to cheer-worthy effects. Using a clever music box song for its theme, the tunes of Yoshi's Island were tear-provokingly lovely, happily jaunty, and ultra rocking, proving once again how crazy-brilliant Koji Kondo is. Despite its vivid look and inventive gameplay, Yoshi's Island ultimately failed to match its near-perfect predecessor, but that really says more about the top-tier quality of Super Mario World than any weakness of this game. It's a worthy winner of 1995's awards, even against other excellent platformers like Donkey Kong Country 2 and Ristar. Granted, I never played Kirby's Super Star Saga or Chrono Trigger, so don't start yelling at me concerning their respective awesomeness. Yoshi's Island is a joy to watch in motion and to play, and serves as a testament to the consistently amazing games Nintendo puts out.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 1994 - Donkey Kong Country


Donkey Kong Country (SNES)

It really is a shame that Rare no longer has control over the Donkey Kong license. Nowadays the once-memorable gorilla spends his hours starring in bad kart racers and getting cameos in good kart racers; but back in 1994, he was king of the jungle.  Lots and lots of barrels, bananas and... my alliteration has failed me, so lets go with mine carts. Lots of barrels, bananas and mine carts inhabited the well-designed levels of Donkey Kong Country, and it brought a new take to the platformer world with good looks to spare. "An Incredible 3-D Adventure in The Kingdom of Kong!" proudly advertised the box art; and it wasn't far off from the mark. While still sprite-based, the game did use pre-rendered 3D graphics, which alone amounts to a certain legacy. Luckily the gameplay was also ridiculously refined, so you have only yourself to blame if you lose every one of your red life balloons (unless, of course, an underwater level did you in; that's understandable).

A gorilla riding a rhinoceros charging a beaver! It's a real jungle out there! 

I know I tend to promote music a lot, but this time I really, really mean it: Donkey Kong Country's music was uber-fantastic, or I'm a monkey's uncle! Oh, wordplay... the two of us get along well. Some songs even feature samples of monkey noises for percussion! Extremely good stuff. Even with the established and popular Mario and Sonic out there, Donkey Kong proved that he can make his own room in a crowded genre of heavy-hitters. And it's not only the platformers that DK bested; major contenders such as Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and Final Fantasy VI were forced to give way. And yes, I'm sorry Final Fantasy fans; whether or not you debate this to the grave, I'm not giving up my monkeys. Not even for an army of moogles. Ah yes, if only Donkey Kong could climb out of the empty banana hoard of despair and climb the palm tree of success once more...

Hm? What's that...?

Wait... what?

Retro Studios is making WHAT?