Friday, June 8, 2012

Gargoyle’s Quest Review

[NOTE: There will be some lots of strong language within this review. You’ve been warned.]

So a while back I realized I still had some left over money in the 3DS store from a previous purchase, and decided to check what games I could find on its virtual console worth buying. I found a game called Gargoyle’s Quest that, upon research, was apparently a 2D platformer with RPG elements that people had generally good opinions of. Figuring it would at least be worth a few bucks, I downloaded it and got to playing. The plot of the game is your standard, barely substantial game plot about defeating evil and isn’t really worth addressing. You play as Firebrand, a gargoyle who originally appeared in the NES game Ghosts ‘N Goblins.

To some people, the language warning at the start just made a lot more sense…

            For those of you who don’t know, Ghosts ‘N Goblins was a game that was and is notorious for being horribly, horrendously difficult. This game… isn't as hard as that. Oh make no mistake. It’s hard as fuck. Unless you’re seriously good at platformers there will probably be at least one point in this game where you get a game over. Put another way, this game is going to absolutely crush you. Put another way, fuck this game. Fuck it hard. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not overly fond of it at all, good sir.

            But again, it’s not as bad as Ghosts ‘N Goblins, and although that’s like saying it’s not quite as warm as the surface of the sun I’d like to go over some of the good bits first. The game is a platformer that’s a bit different from your run-of-the-mill ones in a few ways. You can jump and fire bullets, but can also hover for a short time. You can cling to walls for an infinite amount of time, and of course jump off them. As the game progresses, the platforming stages are interspersed with and RPG style overworld segments, complete with random battles where you fight enemies in a small separate stage. At key points in the game you get upgrades to your health, jump height, and hover duration, as well as new attacks that deal more damage and have different effects.

The way you hovered, the RPG elements and the way you clung to walls, shown above, were all elements of this game that didn’t suck.

            The RPG elements are one of the best parts of the game, which is why it’s a shame that they’re kind of underutilized. There are only two things you can earn in the game apart from upgrades earned at set points, and that’s vials and talismans. The talismans are lives, pure and simple, but even when you run out of lives you’re revived at the last town you visited, which is nice. The vials are currency, but literally the only thing to buy in the game is talismans. Their price increases as you get closer to the end, but there was so much wasted potential here.

For example, although the upgrades make for a nice contrast in gameplay near the end, they’re never used for Metroid style backtracking or secrets. In fact, there are almost no side areas at all in the entire game. Despite having an open world, it’s mostly just an overworld pen for the player to wander until they decide to move onwards. There are often even segments you can’t go back through, and the structure of the world is mostly funneled straight to the next stage. The point I’m making is that there would have been very little difference if they made the game linear, which is a bad sign.

Every town has a place to revive, and a shop to buy lives. Sometimes those are the only buildings, which are always the same copy-pasted building on the inside. Often there’s not a single person in town with something useful to say. So why have the town at all?

That actually ended up being more complaints than compliments, but, uh, oh well. To be fair, the focus on hovering, the sticking to walls, the increasing jump height as time goes on, and so on make for a game that feels slightly different from your standard platformer. It’s kind of fun even, and often requires skill to maneuver in a way that feels good. So there. Credit where credit is due.

But you know what else this game deserves credit for? Being fucking infuriating. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a hard game every once in a while. I liked Super Meat Boy, and beat it. I liked Rayman Origins, and beat it, including the secret world. I beat Sonic Generations, completed every challenge and unlocked every single one of its 49 achievements. And those are just some recent examples. But difficulty in games is a gigantic topic with all sorts of subtleties. I’ll no doubt address difficulty in a broader sense (and particularly related to the old-school variety) at a later date. All you need to take away from this at the moment is that this game is not only really god damn hard, it’s hard in ways that aren’t fun.

One of the problems is the screen size of the game, combined with the enemy AI. You see, as with a lot of game boy games the view you have beyond your character isn’t super large. At the same time, this being a game from 1990 most of the enemy attack patterns boil down to running or shooting straight at your character as soon as they appear on screen. This leads to that incredibly stupid tactic in games of its kind where you have to slowly inch the screen from side to side in trouble areas, hoping to blast the enemy before they appear out of nowhere and make a beeline for your character before you can get away.

 The fact that this often happens in midair and the fact that you stick to walls only exacerbates this problem. There’s absolutely nothing more frustrating than being near the end of a super long stage filled with death on almost literally every available surface, and then having a giant undead bat/owl fuckface with what has to be like a 20 foot god damn wingspan stealthily pop in out of nowhere and fly straight towards you when you have nowhere to go.

See how that devil bat isn’t in a horizontal line with me and is on-screen? That’s essentially a pre-emptive game over sign. If these things weren’t dead already I’d go to their houses at night and murder them in their sleep. I’d settle for whoever designed them though.

 Of course there are other annoying moments, like when you cling to a wall right below some spikes and have to willingly kill yourself because you have to jump off walls.

Imagine you accidentally clung to that tiny bit of wall on the left. It’d be hard here, but happens all the time in other places, especially with enemies tailing you. Now imagine your only option is to jump upward. Fun times.

            Another thing which isn’t really frustrating so much as odd is how easy the bosses are. Some are harder than others but even the hardest are usually far easier than the stage that precedes them, which is kind of amusing when you think about it.

Oh good, a giant, haunting apparition of death and despair. It’ll be good to have a break and relax for a bit.

            The last two bosses in particular are a bit of a letdown. They both just remain stationary in the center of the room and fire off a few bullets in predictable patterns, as well as a homing one which is more annoying than anything else.

The first of the twin bosses too lazy to get off their asses. He kind of reminds me of Rawk Hawk from Paper Mario here…

            So okay, we get it, the games are frustratingly hard. But how are the aspects of the game other than its gameplay? Well, they’re a bit average, to be honest. The visuals are serviceable and some of the bosses and enemies look kind of cool but, well, it’s a game boy game from 1990, it ain’t exactly gonna’ win any beauty pageants. The music is, apart from one tune or two that peaks slightly over the edge of average, an unmemorable affair. And the story, as mentioned earlier, is the type of bland, boiler-plate and minimalist RPG fare you’d expect of the time.

            But what this all comes down to in the end is a simple question: Is Gargoyle’s Quest a good game? Fuck no, have you even been listening to any of this? A fair follow-up question, then, is why the hell did I play the game to completion. I almost didn’t, as a matter of fact. But right on the precipice of quitting forever I managed to complete the final stage. As mentioned above the game tries some things that aren’t standard so I felt somewhat obligated to see it through because of that. It also was a bit of that pride point that keeps players rolling in the face of these types of old-school difficulty.

But when I did finally reach the end of the game, I wasn’t really satisfied. I didn’t think “oh I tried my hardest and persevered in the face of a really tough challenge”. Instead I was thinking “well that was a disappointing last boss”, “well at least it’s over”, and, perhaps most importantly of all: “that wasn’t really any fun”. I’m sure some people will differ from me on this point, as I have some prominent and potentially controversial opinions on old-school difficulty levels, which again I shall have to expound upon another time. But the end result is the frustration I felt towards the game had destroyed most of its fun by the time I reached the end, and a game that isn’t enjoyable to play simply can’t be one I recommend.

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