A Robot Named Fight Review (Windows)

Matt Bitner’s A Robot Named Fight feels like it might be the answer to a question: What if a third-party developer had made a Super Metroid style of game for Sega’s Genesis console?

Here’s the concept: You’re a robot, you fight some meat-monsters until your remains are tossed on a heap of other robots that have failed in their task. Each time the robot named Fight dies another robot you control shoots up a different procedurally generated series of rooms. Each bot is looking for a violent solution to the meat-monster problem, or at least some powerups for now and some upgrades that might be available for the next ‘bot. Ultimately, you must destroy the Megabeast. The developer calls it a “…pulsating moon-sized orb of flesh, eyes, mouths and reproductive organs…”

Most games in this metroidvania genre of side-scrollers try to significantly depart from their source material. In this case ARNF takes the unusual position of straight-up copying Samus’ spinning jump and a few other animations. They might not be perfect reproductions, but they are so close.

Now that isn’t bad, just a surprise as if you went into a Burger King for the first time and found them selling the exact same sandwich as you would find in a McDonald’s. Except in this game the fries and tray and your drink and cup and straw would be made of meat.

A Robot Named Fight has another clear ancestor in Rogue. That’s where it gets areas generated programmatically, or laid out by an algorithm, instead of designed and assembled by hand in a linear order. You might see the same kind of room in one run and another, but the layout of the rooms should almost never be the same as what you saw in your last attempt.

This is also a pretty difficult game. There is what the developer calls true permadeath, once you run out of health your run is done. No coffins or alien tubes to resurrect in. The game lets you save at any time, but that’s not a save you can go back to if, when, things go to shit. Although I did find a robo-tube save-room once, using it brought me back to life with a black screen that ultimately appeared to be a bug. After restarting the game I was back to a normal view. More typically, when Fight dies it’s back to the start for an almost entirely clean slate.

A Robot Named Fight is at least nice enough to follow the standard of giving you what you need most. If you’re low on health, you’ll get health when you splat some more monsters. Low on energy? Here you go.

The bosses I’ve faced so far aren’t super challenging, they generally feel like you can work out a simple strategy as long as you’ve had enough upgrades on the path to them.

Other little things contribute to the difficulty. Often, games can be generous with the amount of invincibility you get when landing in spikes or lava or whatever to get out of them, not in ARNF. If you land in spikes with some minor obstacle blocking your exit it could be game over.

Some of the most challenging parts of the game come when you least expect them. Once, when I had been through a room a few times before and was used to blasting everything before it could harm Fight, I wasn’t paying quite enough attention and got tangled by a glitch monster that screws with your controls. That wouldn’t be so bad if they hadn’t gotten me while I was over a pit of spikes where I struggled for a few moments watching my health dwindle before regaining control.

Like many modern metroidvania games, when you press the “select” button to bring up the map, or view the minimap in the top right of the screen, you’ll see an indicator for rooms with hidden powerups. But in ARNF I keep coming across misleading markers for hidden items where the marker is for one room but the adjoining area is actually where the hidden powerup is. It doesn’t take too long to figure out that you’re attacking the wrong zone, but it isn’t fun to waste a few minutes looking for something that isn’t there. It’s also a bit difficult to even see that the hidden powerup marker on the minimap when you’re in the room because the “you are here” blinking marker overlaps it. Then you realize while you’re staring at the map that bringing it up doesn’t pause the game and you might lose some health or die. Not fun.

Maybe the most frustrating part of A Robot Named Fight is that in some cases you’ll end up taking a path down that is a steep enough drop that you can’t return to the previous area. In one egregious case I went through a door on the floor intro a room that connected to one other but had no way to get back up or progress in any way because I hadn’t found a double-jump powerup on that run. 20 minutes of exploring down the drain because the procedurally laid out rooms had been generated poorly and then five minutes more of trying to find some way to progress by letting my robot bounce off of the two monsters that spawned in the room.

The developer is still patching the game, and I see patch notes for correcting similar issues so I would expect all of those situations to eventually be resolved, but in that case maybe this game should be in Steam’s Early Access program. I reported the bug and sent my save file to the developer before starting a fresh game in a different save slot.

The next run I had was my longest robo-life with the game at that point, 35 minutes or so where I explored a lot of the meatly ruins  It’s here that I finally had the default blaster leveled up with so many rate-of-fire powerups and other bonuses like flame damage to finally feel like I could breeze through areas without worrying too much about the monsters in them.

The final differentiating factor for this metroidvania is that it isn’t built for playing on a review schedule. A Robot Named Fight feels like a game where it is entirely run-based and would be best played at a leisurely pace, picking it up once or twice a day for a few weeks to experience a new layout of the wrecked planet each time. Playing repeated runs for long sessions felt defeating. One run might be great, but my next would sometimes throw me up against a boss immediately without enough powerups to win.

I like a lot of things about A Robot Named Fight, it is extremely familiar with callbacks to earlier games but also changes things up with the randomized level layout and meat-tacular theme, but it feels like it isn’t ready yet.

I love the feeling of progress in metroidvania games by unlocking more weapons and breezing through areas that were previously difficult, but ARNF isn’t always as rewarding with its progression as it should be.

I love randomized level layouts in some recent metroidvania games like Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells, but it’s clear with A Robot Named Fight that no human designed them when I ended up looking at layouts of rooms too often that made no sense. Secret paths that lead nowhere, broken rooms without an escape. these all made me feel like this game should be in beta, not a finished product. It is receiving patches every few days right now to fix these issues, and I can understand why someone might not want their game lumped into the early access program, but sometimes when you hit a bug ARNF feels like it’ll be done in 3 months, not today.

Still, there’s something charming about the meaty challenge. If you’re looking for something that you can’t turn your brain off and breeze through, this could be that game for you. For me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach the Megabeast but I will keep trying a run or two every few nights.

3 out of 5 reanimated meat monsters for A Robot Named Fight. It’s out now at $10 on Steam for Windows and macOS. A Linux version is planned.

Prey (2017) Review

I can’t type the word “Prey” without thinking back to the 2006 game by Human Head and the 90’s Prey from 3D Realms that was never released. The Prey game in 2006 was inspired by the idea of portal technology from the 3D Realms game. The concept was that players could look through, and walk through, portals, to take them to other places. This idea seemed revolutionary back when Duke 3D could barely manage to hold a mirror together in the BUILD engine. The idea was completely surpassed by Valve’s Portal, but there were plenty of other Prey projects between 2006 and now that shared the same fate as the original 3D Realms game that never saw the light. One that sounded particularly promising was a bounty hunting sequel by Human Head to their 2006 game. We will probably never see any of that work, but here we are in 2017 with a new exploration and brutal alien murder sim from the developers of Dishonored, Arkane Studios, that has no portals or involvement with the previous developers.

The second game to actually ship with the name Prey shares the overall genre of science fiction and first-person action but has nothing to do with any of the previous games. Today we’ll play the character of Morgan Yu. Morgan is kind of a blank slate who has lost a lot of themselves, but in a way that feels appropriate when you learn why.

Although you hear Morgan’s voice more than a typical silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman, it is still far less than you might expect. The developers have a neat trick to make you feel like you hear more from Morgan that I won’t spoil.

Morgan’s life and work are on board a gigantic space station called Talos 1 where an alien species called the Typhon are being researched by the employees of the TranStar corporation. They acquired the station after it was developed by different political groups in the alternate timeline of Prey‘s universe.

Talos 1 truly is huge, it feels complete once you’ve seen the different sections where it’s clear that different crew members worked and lived. Prey gets some things wrong, but their space station isn’t one of them. Eventually you can explore a few different modes of transportation that let you get around more quickly than hustling through the decks. Each of those alternate transportation modes have their own advantages and add to the wonderful sense of exploration I felt as Morgan gained more and more access to the station.

Different areas of the station, and rooms or maintenance facilities behind its facade, really felt like they were designed by different era’s and cultures of space explorers until TranStar finally got hold of it for their projects.

Part of TranStar’s research enabled people to absorb skills through a device that jacks into their brain via spikes inserted into their eyeballs to reach their brain. Ouch. Fortunately, as these are the regular way that Morgan can upgrade their abilities, you only have to truly experience that effect once. I’d probably recoil in horror if it were done in virtual reality.

Neuromods could give someone the power to play the piano with the skill of an extremely talented musician in just a few seconds, but Morgan’s upgrades are almost all centered around overcoming obstacles to reach new parts of the station, survival skills to live longer, stealthily sneaking past enemies, or straight up combat abilities.

The lowest form of these amorphous blobs of Typhon sludge can assume the shape of random objects on the station and it isn’t long before those skills enable them to escape their containment and start murdering everyone onboard Talos 1. The higher level Typhon can possess the crew’s minds, turn them into bipedal Typhon phantoms, or just murdering them. There are so many dead or possessed people on Talos 1 that you really might feel bad for some of the regular crew who weren’t involved in the research. It took hours before I came across any humans left alive on the station.

Other Typhon can even possess the station’s stationary sentry guns and the large flying toaster robots (called Operators) that serve as medics and engineers onboard Talos 1.

Each upgrade of Morgan’s skill tree is only unlocked with Neuromods, there aren’t any experience points or other leveling mechanics. That tree is so large that you’re really only going to get to play with a few different sets of abilities throughout the game. A lack of specialization would probably leave your Morgan unable to survive for long, and although I had many options I did end up feeling like I picked a slightly boring route by focusing on stealth and traditional firearms over the (slight spoiler) unlockable Typhon powers that would have allowed my Morgan to gain some of those mimic abilities and other more outrageous powers. Maybe I put a little bit too much of myself into my character, but I felt that the Typhon were genuinely disgusting to look at and didn’t want my Morgan to be like them.

It was a little frustrating that you’re not given any chance to test out these powers before spending your precious Neuromods on them. On the other hand, the descriptions on some powers are straightforward enough to understand what you’d be getting. Unlocking the different tiers of the hacking power, for example, makes sense because every hackable item in the game tells you what level of the hacking skill you would need to even attempt it.

Speaking of Prey’s hacking, wow is it bad. It’s a randomized two-dimensional level where your controller or keyboard input fidelity are reduced and you have to move a crosshair onto a target position and press a randomized button before time runs out. Each level of the hack introduces a new target position onto the same field of plain walls and shocking red walls that bounce your crosshair around. If you can’t complete the puzzle within the time limit the hacking attempt fails and Morgan loses a little bit of health.

I don’t know what a good hacking minigame could look like today, but this is definitely not it. I just found myself frustrated and annoyed when I had to go through with it in order to achieve some relatively minor objective like unlocking a safe that just contained eel parts and ammo.

Strangely enough, the higher tiers of the hacking minigame give you so much time to complete them, and the puzzles are so generously spaced out, that they’re actually far easier to complete than the lower tier puzzles. It’s almost like a message from the developers that they know this sucks but they needed to limit Morgan somehow, but they are apologizing by making things a little easier.

Hacking is just one of the different powers on the skill tree that allow Morgan to proceed past different obstacles and access restricted areas of the game. Sometimes you’re also given the opportunity to find a key card that can get you past a secured door without having to hack it. Or you find a maintenance duct that you can use to sneak past enemies and get into the same room. Prey goes out of its way to tell you that you have these options very early in the game. You also might be able to use the game’s gloo gun to clamber over the wall or access that maintenance duct. These options make Prey feels like a very advanced metroidvania.

One way for Morgan to get more ammunition and other consumable items is to recycle junk that you can pick up around the station through a very entertaining process that ends in a satisfying series of clinks and clunks as the the resulting pure materials land in the recycler’s bin. Once you have the raw materials you can select what you would like from the catalog of an ultra-advanced 3D printer. Throughout the game you’ll also find the raw blueprints that enable you to expand your catalog. Recycling junk and turning it into ammunition never stopped being fun for me, even after the process would sometimes leave me feeling strapped for materials once I had mined part of the station’s Typhon and trash cans for recyclables. At those points in Prey, particularly towards the end of the game, I was very glad to have unlocked stealth and other movement abilities that enabled me to speed through the world and complete the final objectives I had left.

The story has meaningful choices, and some surprisingly technical ideas. For example, at one point you find out that digital rights management has locked you out of 3D printing an item you might want, but an optional mission gives you the ability to bypass the DRM and keep printing that item. It makes sense that if all of the 3D printers on a future cruise ship or space station are from the same company they could also, and almost certainly would have, implemented incredibly shitty DRM. Some of the crew’s audiologs and e-mails are concerned with people wanting more access to the 3D printing catalog, or their abuse of it. This just adds to the lived-in feeling of the station.

It’s fun that these materials and neuromods are your currency. I can’t remember any point of Prey where Morgan has to deal with money, but it also feels like part of the game’s mostly solitary journey that you’re not interacting with any vendors.

Once you’ve made some choices for Morgan and completed your journey through Talos 1 you aren’t given a chance to play through the game a second time while retaining the powers you’ve unlocked. Another bummer. I’m kind of glad that my playthrough is unique and will be my canonical experience, but it’d be good to at least have the option of experiencing more ways to play the game without starting over from scratch.

There are more pitfalls for Prey. The weapons aren’t interesting enough. They’re close, but they’re just missing more interesting effects and ideas that seem to have been reserved for unlockable powers on the skill tree.

The gloo gun is the most disappointing because I had the highest expectations for it. Each shot of gloo lets you attach a glob for climbing or incapacitating a foe, but that’s it. The climbing isn’t particularly enjoyable, and it feels wildly imprecise even with a mouse and keyboard. There also aren’t any puzzles where Morgan could connect two objects with gloo. Prey just uses the gun once or twice to seal a hull breach on Talos 1’s exterior and even then what I saw onscreen felt disconnected from the actions I was actually doing.

It also took quite a while for me to get engaged with the game early on, although it’s difficult to say why exactly that was, I had reached the opposite end of the spectrum by the time I had finished the game with 34 hours on the Steam clock.

The worst shortcoming of Prey is that while the game did give me choices that felt meaningful, in the end it also subverted them after the credits and made me feel as if they were never as important to the developer as setting up a sequel without any consequences from this game. Will the sequel even get made? Games called Prey have a very difficult time getting past a conceptual stage and production. If it doesn’t, ruining the player’s choices for a sequel could be a fundamentally wasted decision.

There is an obvious comparison to the System Shock and BioShock games, but I feel like Talos’ designs are superior to some parts of Rapture. Of course they might not have been better if it weren’t for at least BioShock existing in the first place, but once I got to know the world of some of Talos’ crew Prey just felt more like it housed real people instead of Bioshock’s caricatures. Sure, that comparison might not hold up for everyone on the station, and I will always be happy to destroy libertarian fantasy worlds like Bioshock’s Rapture, but here we are with original characters and science fiction ideas that somehow feel more grounded in reality than a modern gritty movie or television show.

I’m also glad that my fear that this would be a horror game was unfounded. The feeling of terror you get from the Typhon springing at you quickly fades, and leaves you with a level of fright that you might experience while watching the nth Doctor Who episode featuring the same monsters you’ve seen before.

Ultimately, the Prey we got in 2017 is a different beast that surpasses any association with older games just by being better than them. It has some serious flaws, but I can’t think of many successful first-person games that don’t. I haven’t thought about the the Prey game from 2006 in years, and if anyone does care about games with that name in the future they’ll think of what Arkane created here. Even when today’s Prey was disappointing, it was an overall success that I eagerly played whenever I could because unlocking and exploring a new room or section of Talos 1 was just so much fun.

4 out of 5 Typhon for Prey. It is available now on Steam for Windows as well as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

SuperHot Review

The first time I saw SuperHot, it was a simpler game for the 7-Day FPS game jam. Although it was simple, it demonstrated a singular, sound, question: What if there were a first-person-shooter that was more of a puzzle than a game about reflexes? Time in the game only moves when your character moves.

The first time I ever played something similar was way back when with Action Quake 2 and using Quake 2-engine console commands in order to slow down time. That gave me something like The Matrix, but it was an incredibly shallow experience, especially when it wasn’t fun to play multiplayer that way.

The finished SuperHot isn’t incredibly deep, but it is more impressive and has way more ideas than that old childish power fantasy of thinking and moving faster than the enemies around you in an FPS we all cribbed from movies.

The game presents you with all kinds of style. An old-school ASCII-style terminal provides the menu and feels like something from DOS computers in the the 1980s. Each option makes sense within this universe. You can change settings in settings.exe and the main game is launched from superhot.exe. This menu is where you bounce back from the challenge of the main game and chat with artificial online strangers to find out more about it.

Each level is a stark contrast of white geometry with harshly polygonal red bad guys that have a kind of shine to them. You will see one additional color, black, to indicate bullets and firearms along with objects like baseball bats that can be picked up and wielded against your foes. This style is unique. The closest comparison would be to Mirror’s Edge, but even that game’s simplistic color-scheme has much more texture to the characters and world.

It’s an art style that grabs your eyes with simplicity in order for you to focus on the game play of avoiding the oncoming bullets, fists, baseball bats, and other objects the red guys throw your way.

Each time you shoot or punch out a red guy you’re rewarded with their polygons shattering in a unique display of aggression that is your reward for figuring out the solution to the puzzle of moving past that obstacle for the next. Each time you’re wondering how you can move onto the next red guy and survive until you’re rewarded with the end of the level when a robotic voice chants SUPERHOT… while the full-speed replay displays underneath the text SUPERHOT

Early on in SuperHot one of the levels wants to teach you how to dodge oncoming fire in a simple corridor. It took me a few tries to understand that yes, indeed, I need to go slow as the game had informed me in giant bold text. Darting right until the red guys fired, then left and waiting for them to fire again, on and on up the corridor until I could try and retrieve the pistol a dead red guy had dropped. Except picking that gun up was another motion that caused time to proceed, allowing the enemy fire to move, and left me dead a few times until I learned to lead the red guys into shooting away from me and gave myself enough time to pick up the gun. Each step after that put less distance between the red guys and my character, but with SuperHot’s gun all distances are shorter and it’s just a matter of giving yourself the time to fire, wait for the next round to chamber, and fire again. All without getting shot. So if the first half of that level taught me how to avoid fire, the second half teaches you to remember where bullets are in the air at any time. That’s the puzzle you have to work out in each level. Moving, from one red guy to the next, reaching out and firing untilSUPERHOTSUPERHOT

The level-ending chant is deeply satisfying when it happens. Although SuperHot’s campaign doesn’t present any incredible challenges, it does change things up and add new twists that are almost universally fun to learn and best.

SuperHot succeeds at being unlike any traditional FPS, but it also isn’t an incredibly long experience. I finished the game’s campaign in just a few hours. Once you’ve completed it you unlock other single-player challenges and wave-based survival modes that are fun, but it is questionable if the game is worth those $25 dollars the developer charges by default.

That isn’t a question I will be able to answer for everyone, but for my life these days it’s nice to be done with something after a few hours without feeling like I’ve just made the first step into adding some 150-hour long journey to the back catalog of games I’ll probably never get around to. So, I don’t feel like SuperHot overstayed its welcome by throwing more ridiculous gameplay ideas at us. Instead, it was just as much SuperHot as I wanted, and I’ll always randomly think to myself SUPERHOTSUPERHOT

4 out of 5 VHS copies of The Matrix for SuperHot. It is available on Steam for Windows, macOS, and Linux or on the Xbox One.

Touch my Katamari Review (PS Vita)

The king talks about a “hobo stew” later on.

The King of the Cosmos is back in Touch my Katamari from Namco on the PlayStation Vita, but this time he’s all about breaking the fourth wall and talking about how fans are upset with the more recent games in the Katamari series. It’s a nice setup. However it is not exactly welcome when this game doesn’t make up for six weak sequels.

So much of Katamari’s status was due to the original game’s surprisingly fun and original gameplay. When I first bought the Playstation 2 game I had no idea what to expect, my local retailer had only one copy and they were surprised anyone was going to buy it. But I’d caught word that it was something special. Not much has changed since then despite sequels for every platform. Rolling up every object in sight into a huge ball is still your overall objective.

The few unique levels in the game don’t really stand out, but there is a new gameplay element that is actually kind of fun. Or it would be, if there were more opportunities to use it while playing. For the first time you can stretch or squish the Katamari using the front or rear touch screens while rolling to fit into places the regular ball-shaped Katamari couldn’t.

Like the game’s few unique levels, this touch feature is underutilized. The most time you’ll spend using it is during the tutorial. Sure you could use it during regular gameplay, but there aren’t enough situations to do so. I’d hate to be forced to use touch features, but it’s almost worse that Namco actually came up with a good idea and then didn’t use it.

I wouldn’t really mind the lack of innovation in this iteration if there were more stages to play in. This is really the crippling blow to the game. I saw everything there was to see in a little over an hour.

That’s OK when there’s some kind of amazing narrative or replayability, both of which are missing from this game.

Katamari games have always had this great colorful texture palette that is a nice change from most every other game out there. It’s combined with fairly simple graphics which is why it’s a surprise when the game can get a little choppy in the frame rate department while you’re rolling your Katamari on the larger levels.

I had a few laughs at the King’s expense and enjoyed what I played, but I just wish there was more of it. Katamari games have never been super challenging, and they shouldn’t be so all the game really needs is more stages. I’m usually hesitant to equate gameplay hours to money, but in this case it’s impossible to ignore. King of the Namcos, lets put a little bit more effort in next time.

3 out of 5 Calamaris