Sunday, 28 February 2021

Beyond The Labyrinth (3DS)


Unfortunately, this is a game to which I've had to concede defeat. I really wanted to get further into it, if only take screenshots of more areas, since it is a visually beautiful game, but the first boss is just too hard for me. My save file says it has a little under three hours of playtime, but I've played at least that much again in failed attempts at beating that boss. There's still a lot to say about it, though, so let's go!


Its official title is Labyrinth no Kanata, and unusually for an RPG in the (relatively) modern era, it never got an official English release, though there is an unofficial translation patch. It's a dungeon crawler that recognises the old-fashioned nature of the genre, but at the same time, brings a lot of new ideas to the table. The game starts with you playing a faux-online dungeon crawler with kind of MSX-looking graphics (that is, if the MSX was capable of full-colour texture-mapped 3D mazes). As you make your way through the maze, other players join your party, and there's a little banter between them, until you're suddenly taken away to another world: one that not only has more modern graphics, but also a cute silver-haired girl who instantly befriends you.

Your presence in this world is a bit of a mystery, even to the characters in-game: it seems that "you" are actually present in the world, while your party members are still just at home, watching everything through their screens. They can talk to each other and you using the game's text chat, but they can't talk directly to the girl, even though she can somehow see them (or is at least is aware of their presence), and they can attack monsters, since all the combat is done through the medium of magical projectiles.

The combat itself is fairly original. It seems simple at first, as there are only three elements (working in a rock-paper-scissors kind of way), very few different types of items, and no spells or special attacks. Things mainly hang upon the interplay of the three elements, and the order in which everyone takes their turns. If you attack an enemy with the element that's their weakness (or vice versa), not only do they take double damage, but the damage is stored in the corner of the screen, and the next time a character (good or evil) of that element attacks, they'll absorb all the stored damage of that element as recovered HP. So it's not always the best option to attack the enemy upon whom you'll deal couble damage, if they're just going to re-absorb it on their next turn. Furthermore, when you attack, you can choose the strength of your attack, with stronger attacks putting you further back in the turn order. During battles, you can see where everyone is in the turn order, and exactly what damage you'll do when you attack, so though there aren't a lot of options like you'd see in most RPGs, there's still a lot of strategy involved.


As for the girl (as far as I've got in the game so far, she hasn't been named, and is literally referred to ingame as "the girl"), right from the start, she takes a place in the turn order, though at that point, every time her turn comes around, she just picks up a pebble off the ground and throws it at an enemy to deal one point of damage. After a few floors, though, she has magic powers awakened in her. Her turns don't come around as often as everyone else's, and the damage she does is non-elemental. The damage she does is also based on a equation involving the percentage of her own HP she has remaining multiplied by the amount of damage all of your party memebers have inflicted on enemies since her last turn. If you plan things well, she can do pretty devestating attacks, though you don't get to choose which enemies she attacks, unfortunately.

In summary, Beyond the Labyrnth is a game that's very beautiful (it's been on my radar for almost a decade, since the first promotional screenshots were released) and also very interesting. It's just unfortunate that it's a bit far outside my usual wheelhouse, and as a result, way too difficult for me to get very far into. But if you are a big fan of dungeon crawlers, even I can tell that this is one made to a very high standard, and definitely worth your time. And if anyone I know does play it and get further than me, please show me your screenshots of later areas when you get there! One final tip: if you're playing the translated version, then you probably can't speak Japanese, and the subtitles for the girl's voice aren't switched on by default, so go into the menu and do that.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Tom Mason's Dinosaurs For Hire (Mega Drive)

 For some reason, SEGA of America had a strange habit of making Mega Drive games based on comics that no-one had ever read. There was Ex-Mutants, Chakan: The Forever Man, and this one, Dinosaurs For Hire. Chakan's probably the most well-known of the three, though that definitely has more to do with the videogame than the comic. In Dinosaurs For Hire's case, it could have turned out a little differently, as there was a cartoon in development that never came into bring, according to Wikipedia. Then it could have formed a trinity of 90s cartoons about gun-toting dinosaurs alongside Extreme Dinosaurs and The Terrible Thunderlizards.


The game is, at its most basic level, a Contra-esque platform shooter, which sees you pick a dinosaur, then go from left to right (or sometimes from bottom to top) shooting soldiers and monsters and vehicles and so on. There are a few twists to the formula though, to the extent that the game almost feels like some kind of experimental take on the genre. The smallest, but most obvious twist is that because the player characters are anthropomorphic dinosaurs, they dwarf all the human enemy soldiers that are running around. That's a nice little touch.


But the weirdness starts as soon as the game does, opening with a boss fight against a giant turtle-like monster that's climbing up the Hoover Dam and breathing fire. After you kill it, the credits start rolling before a cheeky little pterodactyl appears and tells you that was just a prank and the game actually starts now. This fight is also the first time that your HUD disappears, which is presumably some kind of resource-juggling programming trick based on the presence of the giant monster here, and the fact that it happens again when other giant bosses are onscreen. One thing you can always say in SOA's favour is that they were always trying different tricks and techniques to get fancy effects out of the Mega Drive hardware.


With that in mind, it's a shame that some aspects of the game's presentation are kind of terrible. I'm not saying the game itself looks bad: the sprites and backgrounds are all well drawn and animated, and the player characters are especially full of personality, with little touches like gleeful facial expressions as they blast away when you hold the fire button for a couple of seconds. But there's some little things that bug me, like how all the text in the game uses a font that I assume must be the default in Mega Drive devkits or something, since it can be seen in things like leaked betas, and the notorious homebrew Crazy Bus. I know i'm nitpicking here, it's something that really jumped out at me from the start, and made the game feel a little cheap, maybe even unfinished?


I do have a more legitimate complaint, too, though: some of the stage design is really bad. For example, early on there's a stage where the main threat comes from tiny mounted security camera guns, which are constantly firing at you from all angles, and in another game, it might not have been so bad, but in Dinosaurs For Hire, the characters are too big and not maneuverable enough to deal with this kind of situation. Even something as small as a Gunstar Heroes-style fixed aiming mode might have made this stage a lot more palatable. Then a few stages later, you're making your way upwards through a spooky cave, and for some reason, as you climb, if you fall back down below, the areas where you just came from are now an instant death pit, with no kind of warning or signifier that this might be the case.


Dinosaurs For Hire is a game that's almost great. I wonder if they ran out of money or time during development and had to rush it out before they could polish up the presentation or sand the rough edges off of the game itself. But either way, if you want to see a game that's more ambitious than it is actually good, then give it a look. Otherwise, don't bother.