Stoned Ruminations: Mark of the Ninja

Before starting a brand new (to me) game, I tend to Google trailers to pick a few interesting videos to get myself psyched up for interesting and well executed mechanics or holy shit moments that lay ahead in said game. Sometimes the interesting videos are official TV commercial style trailers, sometimes they are developer diaries (produced to excess in some cases with way too many whooshing graphics and terrible soundtracks). In this case, the  interesting vid that got me stoked was this one:

I just spent a good minute marveling at how the carbonation is going wild on one side of my poured glass of Pepsi, yet the other 70% of the circumference of the glass is placid. Yay! This means I’m suitably stoned to throw myself into Mark of The Ninja. It was released initially for the Xbox 360 Arcade in September 2012 and then a PC follow-up appeared later in the fall of 2012. Developed by Klei Entertainment who are also responsible for N+, Shank, Shank 2 & Don’t Starve.

Visually, it’s striking from the get-go. 2D sprite animation at it’s best, I believe Ninja Gaiden on the NES wishes it could have looked like this. Stylized and reminiscent of the best of Cartoon Networks evening fare for the pre teens, Samurai Jack would surely feel at home. The main character (I can’t recall his name and it doesn’t matter) bounces around beautifully and the animations for everything look identical to top-notch animated cartoon fare. There are a lot of cutscenes that bear the same high production value. Acting is well done in both those scenes and the main game (mostly in the form of reaction to your heinous stabbings or general guard banter before they notice you).

Where's Waldo ninja?Not only is the game near the pinnacle of what 2D side-scrollers can do in terms of style, but it is so tight mechanically as a stealth game that your mind abstracts it pretty quickly into X’s and O’s as you plan out your assault on each room, hallway or ventilation shaft (central HVAC abounds). Vision cones, light cones, visual cues about how far sound travels, pop up reminders of what button to push in nearly any context and even a reminder of how far away the patrol dogs can smell you from all help to give you the information you need to succeed. There isn’t guesswork involved, you can easily know what result your immediate actions will have thanks to this overlay of info. Similarly, the game does a good job at obscuring information from you when right  Anything not directly in your line of sight is blurred out with static silhouettes left as a reminder of where enemies were last seen. Your only clue about the changing position of unseen guards in that room or behind that wall are little visual pings of sound they might make.

Level design quickly progresses from allowing you to feel like a naughty ninja god capable of anything to disallowing the same behaviors and forcing you to be smart and efficient (ie not killing everyone for no reason). There is a point system that rewards you for nearly every act and while it gives you points for stealthily slicing up flashlight toting rent-a-cops, the point potential for distraction, evasion and never being seen is far higher. The puzzles (layout of guards, lights, lasers, dogs, large potted plants and body dumpsters) get more and more devious, but they don’t require you to be too twitchy. The difficulty balance between puzzle and action execution reminded me of the end of Portal, so it’s by no means a bullet hell or straight action game at all in the first few hours.

mark-of-the-ninja_updgrade-screenYou earn experience points (I’m sure they’re called something else) to unlock new contextual abilities and new toys to help with all your “neenjah…VANISH!” skills. Because Mark of the Ninja dangles a carrot of “C’mon, try to get your score a little higher for that level” in front of you, all of the unlocks will be achievable just through repeated attempts (or failures I guess) of trying to reach shadowy perfection. Clearly, piles and piles of replayability are available for those who become entranced by the tense gameplay.

It’s really hard not to recommend this game to anyone with any love at all for stealth games. I’m not a big fan of first or third person stealth, but in 2D, the awareness of your surroundings really helps you feel in control instead of just surviving. The design, tempo, style and replayability make this an exemplar of what budget games should be.

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Stoned Ruminations: Eufloria Edition

(Please welcome Modern Borefare’s newest contributor, Shallow Ma Gu, who’ll be tackling both indie games and possibly illicit substances. Take it away, SMG!)

Alright…

My body is melting.

Well…not really in any technical sense. But, I’ve mixed together my creative high weed and my body stone weed and imbibed generously. So my head is limber and ready for some sideways and backways reasoning and perceptions, and it’s coated with a nice syrup of body warmth that sort of feels like melting.

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Time to jump into Eufloria in my stoned rumination form of a Let’s Play. The general list of my pre-conceptions as I stand now are these:

  • Gameplay looks sort of like a fractal, which is a totally tits bonus.
  • I think it’s some kind of strategy-ish thing, maybe similar complexity and mechanics to tower defense?
  • I’ve seen enough bro-ish turds posting negative things about it and how it fails to be CoD or GTA that I must (in my dickbag contrarian way) come to like it.

Eufloria has been available on PC, Linux, PSN, iOS and Android platforms for some time now (Feb 2012 release for iOS was the last one). I’m engaged in the PC version I picked up in a Humble Bundle awhile back.

The game has a simple, bleak, yet soothing aesthetic.The background music is ambient pipes and keyboard tones, very laid back. I’m not sure if I like how the game and interface sounds clash with that slightly. Your mouse clicks and notification sounds within the game are all crisp ting ping noises that sound like iOS style notifications. The juxtaposition of the chilled out music and the sharp sounds fails for me. However, it could completely be THC screwing with my brain.

Visually, the game is stunning in both it’s charming simplicity and its scope when it comes to zooming in and out. You can zoom out to see the whole of your plant empire in it’s abstract glory, or zoom way way in to see a single seedling full screen. The transitioning is nicely done between zoom levels and the game even abstracts its already abstract graphics to symbols when zoomed out to its furthest, so you can tell what kind of plants are on each asteroid at a glance.

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You direct hordes of seedlings around from asteroid to asteroid, sacrificing some of the horde at any time to plant trees that, in turn, slowly produce more seedlings…so you can reach more asteroids. Eventually you run into enemy seedling hordes (even sentient plants are war like apparently) that you need to overpower through sheer numbers mostly. It’s an exercise in trying to be as efficient as possible (in real time) in your movement of seedlings in batches, timing of planting new trees and prioritizing where you confront your enemy. In theory, the enemy is doing the same thing to you.

It’s the real time strategy game broken down into it’s most simple and necessary components. You only have one “troop” type (seedlings) for most of the game that are both your fighters and builders. You can only build what amounts to a traditional RTS base at predetermined nodes (asteroids). There are only two types of production buildings (plants) that I’ve seen thus far. They consist of the aforementioned seedling factory type plant and a brutally vicious defense turret type plant that has to be overcome with massive numbers of your “stronger” seedlings grown from certain choice asteroids. The levels are procedurally generated, so you may find a holy grail asteroid whose plants crap out AMAZING seedlings that are fast, hardy and deadly. Or maybe you just get lumbering HP powerhouses that don’t hit very hard or any other combination of the three attributes. You can sort through the seedlings by extraordinary attribute with only two clicks, so it’s easy to send the right seedling horde for the task at hand.

It comes down to efficiency in your seemingly simple choices. There is nothing like base rushing because of the effectiveness of even one of the defensive turret plants. You need to expand, defend and build hordes of seedlings to overrun the enemy in orchestrated attacks. The pace in doing so is not particularly rushed at the difficulty I’m playing at, but human opponents could ramp up the urgency I suppose. It really is pleasant and meditative busy work that rarely feels panicky or rushed, which seems perfect for an iOS or Android diversion.

I realize I’ve said simple a lot, but there is some complexity underneath it and it is a pretty game. If the price seems attractive to you for a light RTS pastiche, I say jump on it and see if it rubs you the right way. I can easily see returning to it for a few hours to finish the single player challenges and diving into some multiplayer matches once or twice a week until I’ve conquered all that stand before me.