Monday, June 20, 2011

Indie Cred: David K. Newton's Crystal Towers 2

Hello everybody!

I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled Indie Cred with a few quick special announcements.
Along with my recent foray into “books about games”, I’ve become privy to the idea of “games about life”, an area of game development that has naturally occurred to fill the obvious philosophical and metaphysical need of many gamers. This area was once spearheaded by a small band of developers who formed the serious games initiative. Although their time has apparently come and gone (the original website is rather dead), their awareness and goals spawned a number of like-minded projects such as Social Impact Games and Games for Change.

These sites continue the vision and idea that games can be more than just entertainment devices; they can be used to transmit and teach ethics, encourage prosocial behavior, and raise awareness for special causes. Even Al Gore seems to think so.

Personally, I think it’s true that games can be used for things other than entertainment, and I think that doing so goes a long way to promote the legitimacy of games as a valid form of art and culture. Much like other forms of culture (music, painting, creative text), it has the ability to offer the world more than just entertainment value. Of course, I think it’s important that even if the intent of these games is not entertainment, they should still be “good” games (like how movies shouldn’t be judged simply on their subject matter, but also on the quality of their production and cinematography).

As such, independent developers tend to have more freedom in choosing their content and delivery, and thereby becomes the perfect breeding ground for these kinds of games. So it’s relevant! In short, take a look, keep an open mind, and be prepared for something delightfully different!

We now return you to your regular programming.

Title: Crystal Towers 2
Developer: David K Newton
Released: May 2011

It’s like that story about that goose that lays golden eggs, but it’s more realistic because it makes you endure scraping off all that goose poop before you get to the gold part

one of the greats

Creative types always suffer from a particular kind of guilt when presenting their creations to humanity. Skilled creators never have to admit to it, while others are so open about it that it’s satirical. This guilt stems from the inescapable fact that nothing is new; that everything that is now has been before, and what will be will have been done. Every person who’s ever engaged in the process of making something knows that you never really start from scratch: an idea from a book turns into the foundation for a painting, a sequence in a movie turns into the inspiration for a piece of music, the character in a game forms the basis for another game. The key to success then isn’t to avoid copying (as it can’t be avoided) and strive for innovation. The key is to make a damn good copy.

Crystal Towers 2 is a damn good copy.

one twice-baked macguffin, please

“Good” in this case has a particular definition that can really only be understood through illustration. Crystal Towers 2 digs deep into the massive trove of well-tread narrative, ludal, and artistic tropes and pulls out gem after gem, dutifully buffing and shaping each one to a perfect polish. The story itself is a prime example of an artful implementation of humor, distraction, and misdirection which utilizes procedurally generated and scripted texts. Level and enemy design draws inspiration from both modern open-world, emergent mechanics and traditional linear, prescriptive ones.

What’s more, it’s packaged in an appealing, retro-styled aesthetic that places itself shamelessly and rightfully along those games it copies. It’s an anachronism of the best kind. It exudes a self-effacing charm that provides a welcome perspective on modern gaming, but still remains an enjoyable, playable game.

the return of the combo king

The tutorial is straightforward enough, and the controls contain no surprises. To be fair, the entire game contains no “surprises”, but will surprise you often enough. The level design is presented in an open world a la Super Mario 64, which had you meandering from room to room from the central castle hub, entering magical paintings and defeating their objectives one by one. Crystal Towers 2 is no different. Stepping into its SM64 painting equivalent leads you into an even more faithful replica of that system: the mission selection menu. Once chosen, that world’s objective is adjusted and you’re off.

Its presentation as a straightforward platformer is purposefully circumvented the moment you step foot into its first real level. One of many tasks is to collect gems, the game’s equivalent of coins, used to unlock other areas in the main hub. The final objective of each area also grants crystals, which can be likened to SM64 stars. Between these two goals, there is more than enough game to be had considering that there are 33 levels to conquer. But secondary objectives begin to emerge once you unceremoniously stomp your first enemy. Points. Not only points, though, but combo points. As you chain actions with enemy kills, you earn more points. It’s the essence of the trick system found in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, adapted to a platformer. The beauty of this system is only compounded when you realize that it’s copied whole hog: repetitive kills garner less points, diversity garners more. Combine this with the classic damage reaction of the Sonic series (loss of gems on hit), and you not only have a flood of gamer nostalgia, but also an infuriating, skill-based, addictive, fun, and ultimately rewarding platformer. Progress through the game also rewards you with upgrades, abilities, and skills that increase the depth and satisfaction of the combo-reward system.

this thing is like, so thick

Along with the aforementioned 33 levels, there are 11 bosses to defeat, multiple secondary objectives per level to complete, and online leaderboards to compare your performance with others. While the demo only has about 15% of the content available, progress made there is transferable to the full version (a pittance of $5). I’ve only started playing, and already I’ve gotten my money’s worth. After an hour and half, I’ve completed less than 1% of the entire game. This has a lot to do with the fact that I’m obsessive about comboing as many actions as possible, but still.

Still, the game isn’t perfect. There is no checkpoint system in the levels, meaning if you die, you restart from the beginning. This isn’t too frustrating, because the levels are relatively short. However, you do lose all the gems you may have collected. Also, the Sonic-type damage reaction of losing gems is a bit misleading, but of course this is due to the conditioning I’ve received from playing Sonic games. You have discrete, non-regenerating health, and it is NOT gem-based. This is partly remedied by having the option to turn off the gem-spilling effect, but man, that’s no fun. The controls can be a bit slippery, but is more an issue of learning than design. There are few other design choices that I’m not fully prepared to evaluate until I finish the game (such as the spell system, the unlock system, end-game progression), but so far the game is near-perfect.

5-dollar foot in the door

If you’re still not convinced, try the demo first. It won’t hurt. The only difference between the two is the amount of content available. For a one-man outing, it’s clear that this game is filled to the brim with heart and soul. And that would be enough (for me. I’m very emotionally driven, apparently). But it wasn’t for David K. Newton. The man had a vision, and thanks to his grit, his supporters, and his cunning, he’s brought that vision to us for our enjoyment. And for that I say, thank you, good sir.

You’ve more than earned my $5.

CONTEST OPPORTUNITY! post a comment for a chance to win one of three full copies of the game. Contest ends on June 25, before midnight. Details on the contests page.

UPDATE: DavidN (the dev) has released a full map of the Music Castle (staging area for portals). it can be found here.