Saturday, June 13, 2009

Genesis look: El Viento

Here we have another game with a bit of an identity to it. However just because a game has an identity doesn't make it great since what if the identity has serious flaws? El Viento is the story of a Peruvian Princess out to stop a group of mad worshippers from awakening a mad God that could destroy the world. The mafia is involved as well since there's apparently profit in this sort of thing and Annet's only assistance comes from a prettyboy Indiana Jones-esque man named Earnest Evans. Oh and the game takes place in 1928. Yeah I don't understand it either.

El Viento was developed by Wolf Team and it certainly shows. Wolf-Team's biggest problem is that while they have a handle on mechanics and programming they never really figured out level design and at times they push for new ideas when their games would benefit more from ignoring them altogether. 

The game is comprised of eight stages. Some have multiple sections and they all vary in length. Starting from the streets of New York City Annet moves on to cliffs, sewers, caves, ships that travel by both land & air, and finally an encounter at the ruins of the Empire State Building. Unless you watch the cutscenes in-between levels you'll have no idea where in the world Annet is going.

Annet controls about how you would expect. When not running she's jumping and she's extremely maneuverable in mid-air(which is necessary for dodging a lot of attacks). One unique tool at her disposal is the fact that she can duck while in mid-air. This makes her a slightly smaller target which is always a good thing. Finally while ducking Annet can perform a dash. This is good for getting around faster, dodging some attacks, and is necessary for one of the boss-fights. Annet's main weapon is an infinite cache of boomerangs. These fly straight ahead unless you grab a jewel power-up then it has slight homing capabilities. To add to this Annet has access to some magic spells. Thought she starts with only a simple fireball as she progresses she gains a water blast that travels along the ground, a wave shot for covering a wide area, a fireball that does immense damage if it connects, and a homing shot that automatically fires and lasts for several seconds. To use the stronger spells Annet has to charge up for them, which only takes a second or two. After casting her MP guage is drained of the required amount for the spell but it is quickly replenished. This is mostly to keep her from spamming spells repeatedly as they're all much stronger than her default boomerang. Another unique aspect is that Annet has an EXP system. By killing most foes(respawnables don't count) she amasses points and after certain amounts her life bar increases. Needless to say score really doesn't matter in this game as it is tied entirely to her survival. If anything you could theoretically make the game more difficult by killing as few enemies as possible.

The stages contain quite a bit of variety. The first stage provides a standard introduction with lots of guys to kill and stuff to jump on but by the second stage you're doing a variety of platforming. The third stage mixes it up even further with lots of nasty enemies to run away from and even some large dragons to fight with. The fourth stage has Annet riding a dolphin over the ocean but most of the time she's in the bowels of a ship dodging spikes and solving a handful of exploding barrel related puzzles. From there she arrives at an ancient temple in the fifth stage to kill some things. The sixth stage involves lots of conveyor belts, scrap metal to avoid, and cute little tanks. The seventh stage is a very short romp on the top of a plane and the eighth stage is just an abomination(I'll get to that later).

Annet's enemies are tied to their respective stages and very rarely will you see anything from one stage make an appearance in another. At first you're dealing with mobsters but later on all sorts of freaks, mutants, and monsters will make attempts on your life. The bosses mix things up a bit and usually have some sort of gimmick that you have to figure out in order to kill them. It's nothing complicated but it could trip up players who aren't paying attention.

The mechanics to this game are something else. To start with Annet doesn't get any invincibility period when she takes a hit. So if you're constantly running into bullets, enemies, and whatever else your life-bar will drain quite quickly. Instead she kind of bounces away a bit, does a flailing animation you probably won't notice, and a very distinct sound effect plays(it sounds something like "DOOM" so if you get hit a bunch of times it's just "DOOM DOOM DOOM DOOM"). This can be quite difficult to get used to but I guess since everything takes off so little health it's sort of balanced out. Annet's hitbox is also confusing. Some attacks can fly right through her head. However at times a simple spear that looks to sail right over her will cause damage. This isn't such a big deal since the game is relatively easy once you know what to expect but it's obvious more play-testing should have been done.

The stages are very unbalanced in terms of difficulty and design. The 3rd stage is quite a bit of trouble since it runs rather long and there's only two health items in the entirety of it(to add to that one of them is at around the beginning of the level). The 4th stage starts off horrifically with these huge pixelated Octopi that you can't avoid taking damage from(plus you get knocked off your dolphin into the water, leading to more damage). The 5th is just pathetic in terms of difficulty(even the boss goes down with a snap if you know how to dash). If you can beat the 5th then the 6th will definitely not be a problem. Sure the dangerous scraps on conveyor belts can be a problem but they have an easy pattern to figure out. The 6th boss is actually one of those games you play where somebody takes a ball and puts it under one of three cups. They switch the cups as fast as possible and leave you to figure out which one has the ball(if you're no good at these games then I guess you're out of luck here). 7th level and boss? Also pathetic. Only at the final stage does the game decide to get challenging again and how? By being a complete abomination.

Now it's not the spear-wielding guys, the elevators, or the doors tied to switches that ruin this level. It's the bats. Not only do these bats constantly respawn but they can come from anywhere off-screen. They appeared in the 5th stage as well but they appeared from the mouths of certain destroyable statues so it made sense. In the final stage however there's nothing you can do about these things aside from using the homing spell every few seconds. Many will still get to you though and if they do have a habit of getting stuck behind your head, doing tons of damage and leaving you struggling to shake them off. By the time you reach the final boss it's guaranteed you'll be at half or even less than a 1/3rd of your total health. Unless you know what to do against this guy you're out of luck. This final stage is perhaps one of the worst I've ever experienced in a game. This had to have been rushed because it's a horrible way to end what could have been a somewhat decent game.

Furthermore even if we did remove the final stage of the game we'd still be left with a series of levels with an incredibly poor difficulty curve. The hardest the game gets before the final stage is stage 3. That makes no sense at all. Stage 3 is also only as hard as it is because they tried a number of interesting ideas(like respawnable deadly rats and fish that you have to dash away from and possibly ride) but the mechanics and level design just weren't tight enough to make it work as well as it should. Actually let me get this straight. In a game about a Peruvian Princess fighting against a cult of demons the biggest problems with it come from bats, rats, and fish? I'd understand it if Wolf-Team created some insane monster that was so powerful or had so many advantages that it broke the game but they failed at designed rats, bats, and fish...three of the easiest creatures to place in a videogame. As I mentioned before they tried new things and they all fell flat.

I say take all of that other junk out and leave just the concept, mechanics, controls, and Annet's powers and start fresh. There could possibly be a room for a lot of these ideas but what they need to become good is a steady sense of progression. You have a level with conveyor belts. Okay. Now make those conveyor belts move, then throw stuff on them for Annet to dodge, sprinkle some sensibly-placed enemies, maybe some dangerous substance to jump over in-between conveyor belts, and so on. It's standard certainly and chances are you've seen it all before in every other action-platformer but it works. The identity will come from Annet's controls and powers as well as Wolf-Team's own ideas about level design. I'm honestly not sure how the developers behind this game could screw up so bad and make so many amateurish mistakes. 

In Conclusion El Viento has some merit but it's so far buried under so many design issues that it'll never amount to anything more than an obscure piece of trash. I still like the game but I have to recognize that it's heavily flawed and would have benefitted so much from a reasonable development schedule and a team more concerned about making a solid game than one that is only interested in showing off. This is also one of Wolf-Team's better games...yeah.

I read around and the 6th boss(three cup guy) actually has a pattern. Everytime you play the game the boxes always move to the same spots, making him one of the easiest bosses ever. Eh oh well.

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