Tag Archives: Sententia

REVIEW: Pillar

Let me preface this review by saying that I like Michael Hicks as a developer. He does not settle for predictable ideas, nor does he compromise on his original vision. He’s one of the guys behind XBLIG’s last Uprising, even taking part with his interesting (yet ultimately unsatisfying) Sententia. He cites Jonathan Blow as an influence (easy enough to tell in his own projects, really), which is certainly okay in my book. Video Games as a medium need more people willing to take a chance and tell a story that not everyone will get at first glance. That said, his latest, Pillar1 ($4.99) is yet another interesting project that’s lacking… well, much enjoyment.

Not that ‘enjoyment’ has to be everything in a game, but it plays a large part. There’s more to Pillar than what’s on the surface, but Pillar is a puzzle game, first and foremost. Well, a collection of minigames, I suppose. Its puzzles and its gameplay revolve around the idea of human personalities, its six characters built on traits like Giving, Enduring, Distant, Capable, etc.. There’s no dialog in the game, no written story of any kind, but there are connections and conclusions to be made. There’s plenty more to be said (and, more specifically, seen) about introverts, extroverts, and everything in between. Also the titular ‘Pillar’ itself, a supposed source of great knowledge that these characters are after.

The game takes that task and its cast seriously, letting you pick and choose freely between said personalities, even going so far as to ask you who you are, and where you are, in the game world when you continue. Each character is given an initial setup, letting you read into their personality type. One character spends all her time praying in Church, say, while another takes part in the rat race of Capitalism. One might avoid human interaction, while another seeks it out. Eventually, the game draws two of these personalities together, in order to solve a series of increasingly-difficult puzzle sequences.

Those puzzles vary in form and style. Distant / Focused uses a stealth mechanic of sorts, avoiding detection and using ‘voice’ as a distraction to lure guards (just normal people) and / or to unlock doors. Enduring / Renewing has you collecting orbs and opening life-depleting gates, while avoiding personal contact. Giving / Capable presents the most involving puzzles of the bunch, which sees you constructing and lighting various numbered lamps, using pressure plates in specific order. Regardless of character pairing, you can bypass most of the puzzles completely by ‘losing’ (which isn’t a bad idea2), but you’ll only be cheating yourself, not to mention missing out on the puzzle pieces that comprise the characters’ ‘notes’3.

Pillar - Screen2

The ‘lamps’ puzzles are easily the best part about the game.

Unfortunately, Pillar falls in love with its puzzles whether you do or not, throwing room after room at you in succession. Some ideas work better than others in longform, but the game would have been better-served to hand them out in moderation, rather than stretching its mechanics out to pad the puzzle count or drive the point home. Of course, you can always take a break or switch personalities, and then come back to a previous part, but the puzzles can play and feel like an extended slog anyway, in sharp contrast to the game’s quieter, contemplative moments. It seems bizarre to say this, but Pillar is a puzzle game that might be better off without its puzzles.

Much like Sententia, Pillar is a lovely idea that suffers some in its transition to videogame form. It tries to say important things about Life and about Us— and does, to an extent— but it ultimately feels flat-footed and outright dull in certain spots. No doubt the developer poured his heart into it, and he’s to be commended for it, but despite that care and lofty ambition, the end result is just not very fun or balanced. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t play Pillar. Just consider it more as a piece of self-explorative art, rather than a videogame you’d play for entertainment.


  1. Pillar marks the first XBLIG I’m reviewing that I didn’t actually buy on my Xbox 360. The game is also available on the PS4 (at a higher price), which is the platform I played it on. Sacrilegious? Perhaps. Supporting indie games on all platforms? Probably. 
  2. You totally should ‘lose’ on occasion, as some of the sequences that occur after you fail are worth a look, and give you even more insight into a character / personality. 
  3. Nothing groundbreaking, but completed puzzles (a la Braid) do offer some enlightenment (and trophies in the PS4 version). 
Advertisements

What Worked and What Didn’t: The ‘Uprising III’ in Review

Without the benefit of time to look back on the Indie Games Uprising III in a foggier and perhaps more glamorous way (it’s only been a few weeks since its conclusion), the general review of the Uprising doesn’t have the luxury of hiding or settling much in my system before being held under the microscope and dissected. So a brief article, if you will, of me spouting off whatever pops into my sad little head concerning the before, during, and after of the event, which took place from September 10th to September 20th, 2012. I take a look at the hits and misses of the promotion on a case by case basis. This is an overview of the Uprising as a whole. For an in-depth review of each Uprising game, the titles are clickable links. Enjoy.

Pregame: Uprising III

WHAT WENT RIGHT: A great deal of promotion and mentions from a variety of sites, mainstream and backwater establishments like myself, in the weeks leading up to the Uprising’s start. Indie journalists around the web, at Cathy’s (IndieGamerChick) insistence, worked together to spread the news, not just on their respective forums, but with links and cross-promotion with other sites, creating a network of easily searchable previews, interviews, and articles related to the launch and its lineup. Personally, I don’t think we as a group could have done any more to better set the stage for September 10th’s start date.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Microsoft. Again. Surprise. Not that the company ever puts much faith or weight behind XBLIG (changes to the service usually only happen once enough people complain about their lack of effort), but outside of a few token lines and minor stories, the big M was mostly silent on the promotion. No dashboard banners, no vocal support. To make matters worse, the prepaid code generator for Xbox Live Indie Games, the system that spits out free codes that developers hand off to reviewers and the general public, broke down in the middle of the Uprising, and to date, has not been fixed or given a timetable for repair. Considering the Indie service makes them money, you’d think they show a little more drive. Not so. Unacceptable and baffling.

qrth-phyl

WHAT WENT RIGHT: A classic ‘snake’ arcade game, now updated in three dimensions, with a unique look, nice soundtrack, and a great 3D camera. That camera-work, by the way, it’s not easy to get right. Extra kudos. qrth-phyl was a great choice for a leadoff title that got people excited to see where the Uprising was headed.

WHAT WENT WRONG: That depends on who you talk to. Some felt it needed leaderboards, which aren’t easily-implementable or ideal for XBLIG. Others, including myself, expected more besides the snaking, given the complexity of its presentation and the mention of ‘ghosts’. It was deliberately cryptic, both in previews for the game and in interviews with the developer. Regardless, the final product didn’t suffer for it.

qrth-phyl+fun=good

Sententia

WHAT WENT RIGHT: An existential premise; paving your own path in life, remembering not to lose your youth in growing up, a statement on bullying, and a cool twist to combat and puzzle-solving. A thinking man’s game, a Braid for XBLIG. Prior to its release, I had the game pegged to be one of my Top 3 to come out of the event. I fully expected it to shine.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Pretty much everything beyond the title screen. Bad platforming bits, clunky puzzle-solving, and utterly-aggravating enemy spawns leading to cheap death after cheap death. Given that developer Michael Hicks was also in co-charge of the Uprising itself, there were some that felt his game’s inclusion should have been somehow invalid or disqualified. Past Uprisings have contained games from co-sponsors, but having played the game, I can say it certainly needed a lot more work and testing. Would’ve better served the Uprising to have been left out of it.

Diehard Dungeon

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Roguelikes are popping up everywhere these days, and much like FPSes and Block Crafters, the gaming public can’t get enough. Diehard Dungeon hit the spot dead on, proving it was more than a Binding of Issac cash-in. With a fun twin-stick shooter (including a leaderboard!) as an extra mode and the promise of almost 50% more content to be added to the game in post-release, you got your dollar’s worth and (eventually) then some.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Very little, which frankly, after the fiasco that was Sententia, the Uprising sorely needed in order to get back on track.

Gateways

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Portal in 2D, plenty of gateway guns to experiment with, and some of the best puzzle designs seen anywhere, including the big boys in arcade and retail. Gateways deserves every accolade it receives. It ended up being my favorite from this Uprising.

WHAT WENT WRONG: I reached the last puzzle in the game, and having heard the horror stories of its solution (time-consuming, required a bit of luck, placing actual tape over the TV screen to mark locations), chose to back away slowly and then run in the opposite direction. There were accusations of me being a pussy, which I was completely fine with. I escaped with my sanity to tell the tale, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the game otherwise.

Gateways, or visual depiction of my fractured mind? Both?

Smooth Operators

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Manage the daily grind (and incessant ringing) of a call center, the comings and goings of your workforce, set the schedule and decor, survive the ups and downs of operating a business, and, most of all, feed your personal addiction that keeps games like Sim City, Tiny Tower, and, now, Smooth Operators, in business and thriving.

WHAT WENT WRONG: My productivity in real life, sleep sacrificed so that I could build and maintain a fictional call center. My parents are proud.

Entropy

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Being so damn pretty I almost proposed to the game (in truth, I did propose, but Entropy turned me down. I’m still not proud of the way I begged it to reconsider. Plenty of tears.). Mystery, intrigue, lovely fire effects and lighting.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Kids, the moral of this story is, looks aren’t everything. Despite flashes of fun, the puzzles were extended not due to their complexity or guile, but by physics and controls that were manageable, but in no way perfect, for the solutions the game requires. It also lacked any kind of personality, which should have been impossible, based on the environments and their details.

Be still, my beating heart.

City Tuesday

WHAT WENT RIGHT: More art than most art, City Tuesday had time-travel and puzzles / people that were linked and grounded in the real world. It tackled the idea of terrorism, in a limited way, yes, but still carried more ideas with it that most other XBLIGs never bother to even touch on.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Just as you’ve adjusted to and learned the game’s tricks, it’s over. Twenty minutes in. The ending sequence feels tacked on and completely out of place.

XenoMiner

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Survival, a palpable sense of life and death, an incredible (and incredibly helpless) feeling of being on a foreign planet, discovering it for the first time. Crafting / Mining that rewards your patience with even greater rewards. Alien technology that can be put to work for you, provided you’re C-3PO and speak Bocce.

WHAT WENT WRONG: There’s no easy or quick way to get set up on Xenos, outside of hard work and (lots and lots of) time. Horrible skipping and pausing when venturing from one area to the next almost ruined the experience for me. Others have reported the same.

I can literally see my free time disappearing over the horizon.

Pixel

WHAT WENT RIGHT: A cool cel-shaded look. A puzzle / platforming hybrid that had variety.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The Uprising ended on Pixel and it should not have. Glitches, oversensitive controls, guns that didn’t shoot where you aimed, and a bad FOV all contributed to its downfall. That it was a short game was a blessing. It stunk of an unpolished title either rushed to meet the deadline or someone forgiving way too much during the testing process. As the bookend, it needed to finish the promotion on a strong note. Instead it left a bad aftertaste.

Postgame: Uprising III

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Three top-tier games that anyone should be able to enjoy (qrth-phyl, Smooth Operators, XenoMiner) and two immediate leaderboard games (Diehard Dungeon, Gateways). Not a bad showing from nine games, and all for $9. I will say this; overall, from both myself and other reviewers, as well as the gaming public, it is confirmed and accepted that the Uprising III games were much improved upon last year’s cast, and site traffic across the indie sites did see a boost. That doesn’t necessarily equate to sales, and it’s probably too early to measure it a success, but it does show that gamers were interested in the crop. Assuming there is a fourth outing for XBLIG, it will have to be quite good to match the combined quality of Uprising III.

WHAT WENT WRONG: A few ‘dud’ games in Sententia and Pixel, Microsoft dropping the ball, then kicking it out of the stadium so no one could play. One rejected marriage proposal. Some review-related stress, some sleepless nights.

REVIEW: Sententia

Sententia (80 MSP) is an art game, and even if it gets nothing else right, it doesn’t apologize for that fact. Nor should it. Whenever anything in the interactive medium tries for something more, either by pushing an esoteric theme or taking its gameplay on a road less traveled, I tend to get defensive, exalting the tiniest details and forgiving (or even neglecting to mention) the bigger faults.

Sententia is one of those times I’m tempted. I truly did enjoy the ‘idea’ of the game, which charts the life of a ‘special creature’ from child to adult, armed with the foreknowledge that he can create his own path through the world. In dialogue and occasional quotes, it touches on issues we’ve all pondered at some point, specifically in never forgetting your youth or imagination, and fighting for what you believe in. It has its moments. It also has some glaring issues that cannot be swept under the review rug.

An odd mashup of styles, the game alternates between its story / existentialism, platforming / light combat, and puzzle-solving via single-screen ‘stages’. In a twist, you ‘fight with words’, using them to defeat adversaries, and they you. The puzzles in the game are platforms that must be linked using your ‘imagination’, matching the number of ‘connections’ shown on each node. In theory, you see, this should be a good game. Once in action, though, it quickly goes to hell.

The problem starts in the clunky puzzle ‘building’; placing links is mostly fine, but removing connections can be a hassle. Rather than a toggle, there should have been separate buttons for each function; the middle steps are slow and unnecessary, breaking the momentum. When I’d rather quit to the menu to redo a puzzle than manually-deselect each connection, it’s a problem.

Then came the ‘punishformer’ jumps and disappearing platforms, often forcing you to leap from the exact edge of a disintegrating block in order to be successful. Other steps you find are simply illusions, leading to countless deaths as you trial and error your way into ‘learning’ the correct path. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you’re usually under fire from hecklers during these tougher slogs. You can now multiply your countless deaths by ten, all due to the terrible enemy layouts, their heartless AI, and their constant, cheap respawns.

After all that (and if you’ve stuck around), add to this a final puzzle that offers no hints as to its solution, no previous example in the game on which to base its logic, where I had to sheepishly ask for help (a sincere thanks to Tristan at Clearance Bin Review) in order to finally move past it (see comments below for help), and you’ve got a game that wasn’t ready for publication, let alone a prime spot in the Uprising. What you’ve got is a twenty-minute concept that stretches out to an hour or more because of bad design.

Still, and I must stress this, Sententia is worth at least a look. Don’t worry, there isn’t some misguided plea or ‘support the arts no matter what’ speech coming. What I am saying is brief and to the point. Play the game if you’re a developer, and play the game if you’re a consumer. There’s a lesson for anyone here.

Games are and should be a passion first, but they are also a product. High Concepts and putting your heart into a project are great, but they can only take you part of the way. Fun and proper balance have to do all the heavy lifting, or your idea, as sound and unique though it may be, will buckle. Sententia is the result of placing too much burden on an idea.

.

Review on Clearance Bin Review

Review on The Indie Mine

Review on Indie Gamer Chick

Review on Indie Theory

Prelude to the Uprising: Sententia

Developer Michael Hicks (MichaelArts) is a busy man these days, pulling the double-duty of releasing a game for and co-running the Indie Games Uprising III, opposite the venerable Dave Voyles. Though he’s still a young pup, he’s also behind the previous Honor in Vengeance series on XBLIG, although his Uprising contribution marks a stark departure from spaceships and interplanetary conflict.

You are a special creature, and you have a purpose; but are you capable of holding on to it? Sententia is an “art game” that explores the challenges we face to keep our imagination alive as we grow. Start your journey through life’s forest as a young creature and build your way through it by solving puzzles, interacting with your fellow creatures, and defending your ideas with your own sententia.

Sententia is attempting to go for much more than just being a puzzle platformer, weaving story, emotion, imagination, and the universal idea of growing up and getting older, to hopefully create a transcendent experience you don’t regularly see in gaming. Braid is an inspiration, but this is more a result of Hicks’ developmental shift to making the kind of art he’s interested in seeing / telling, rather than a replacement or successor to an existing favorite. If you enjoy a little bit of thought and life in your games (and you should), this could fill that space.

.

Sententia will be released on September 11th.

Interview on The Indie Mine

Interview with Indie Gamer Chick

Just Press Start interview on YouTube