Monday, November 5, 2012

Game Review: (Armed With Wings:) Culmination

(Armed With Wings:) Culmination is what appears to be the currently final game in the Armed With Wings game series, which is made up of (in internal universe chronological order) Red Moon, Armed With Wings, Armed With Wings 2, and Armed With Wings 3. (Considering that the chronologically last game involves the protagonist killing the villains, resurrecting the heroes, and declaring he'll eradicate all "evil" from the world forever, it kinda seems like there isn't much room for further continuation.) I was a little surprised to see a new one, but then I realized it didn't have "Armed With Wings" in its actual title, so I suppose it's not that much of a surprise after all.

As near as I can tell, Culmination takes place in the middle of Armed With Wings 3, during a rather hilarious/stupid bit of the story where the protagonist is trying to get help from the protagonist of this game, and he runs off to chase down another villain who's running around instead of being remotely helpful.

One of the things that immediately struck me about Culmination is that it's probably the most artistically polished of any of the Armed With Wings games. (I'm not sure when it was made, but it feels like the last game, and its title suggests further that it must be the last game.) Look at this screenshot and try to tell me that it's anything less than beautiful, and I'll insist you're prevaricating and suggest that your leg garments might in fact be rapidly oxidizing.

You have the ability to turn on color, which is also rather pretty, but I don't think it really adds anything.

This game is very good at making you feel awesome when you're doing well, and awful when you're doing poorly. I've complained about the jumping puzzle bull in this series in the past; it isn't quite as awful as Armed With Wings (the only game I've ever played with jumping puzzles where you can't actually [grawlix] jump) or the second half of Red Moon, but it's still often very annoying. On the other hand...

...sometimes the jumping puzzles make you feel fantastic. To elaborate: In the above image, the lines and circles represent the path taken by your most powerful attack, which pulls you to the location of each enemy in turn to attack them... so these enemies are arranged like this so that you can kill them all to ascend this jump. This is terribly fun.

On the other hand, I personally miss jumps all the time and fall to my death, and in Hard Mode you can't double jump except when you've got at least half the possible amount of Special (which you can only get from rare items or from beating up enemies), and when you die you automatically lose all your Special, and so, well, not fun because you need to start over and now you can't jump as well as you could when you died.

Oh, yeah, there's a funny thing about this game. In all his appearances in other games, the protagonist (who was sorta called Armed With Wings in the first game, in AWW2, and the first bit of AWW3, but is here known as the "hero of the earth" or the "lone warrior") cannot jump, even when he's manifesting his full powers as the avatar of a creator god. Here, he's able to jump as well as the protagonist of Red Moon or even a little better, and she's an awesome jumper.

(That's probably why the game's creator felt justified in giving her such horrible jumping puzzles to get through. If it weren't for those [grawlix] puzzles, Red Moon would unequivocally be one of my favorite games of all time.)

Even more hilariously ironic is that he talks about how he's "improved upon" a jumping technique "invented" by Vandheer Lorde (and sounds like a total boastful jerk and butthead while doing it). Dude, how do you even know how to jump all of a sudden? YOU ARE NOT IN A GOOD POSITION TO BOAST ABOUT YOUR JUMPING SKILLS.

(Neither is Vandheer Lorde, mind you, as the worst jumper in these games who can actually jump, even with his "attacking to get air" and super jump, but ah well.)

Okay, let's talk about good stuff again. Aside from the awesome ultimate attack, and a combat system that is similar in terms of how it enables your abilities to the system in Xenos (which is a happy coincidence, as it means I don't need to explain it very hard-you build up power by beating on dudes, and it gradually drops over time, meaning you need to stay in combat to keep it charged), which has a lot of fun potential itself, there's also the combo meter, which is wonderful for lifting one's mood after the jumping puzzles get you down.

When you land hits in sequence, "[x] HIT COMBO" pops up on the screen. What makes this fun is that the more hits you land, the bigger your combo meter's font is. Observe:

Incidentally, I only managed to get the combo meter to about 90 because it kept getting slightly interrupted, but I juggled that poor shadow monster for around two hundred hits. This is intensely satisfying, especially with the combo meter gradually expanding.

Now, a bit more bad: I hate the enemies.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with them; as this is the prettiest game in the series, they're graphically beautiful, especially these gorgeous miniboss monsters, whose only flaw is that they're a little too small.

Seriously, those guys ought to be huge. Instead, they stand slightly shorter than the protagonist if you're not counting the arms.

Anyway, the problem is that even the most basic enemy is very tough, and for some reason all of them are very good at countering your attacks, and that's in Normal Mode. (Ironically, the basic and most common enemy is tougher than any of the other common enemies; the other common enemies are smaller and quicker things. There are only three common enemies in this game, which is a bit on the low side even for a flash game. It doesn't hurt the game, though.) This isn't so bad, even if the basic enemy can counter you close to twenty percent of the time, though it is annoying.

What is bad is that over time, it seems like the rates at which everything counters you increases. Over time, that rate seemed to jump to perhaps fifty percent or more for the common enemies. The bosses are proportionately worse (well, not those miniboss guys-they're actually pretty inoffensive on this front). By the time I reached the final boss fight in Hard Mode (you can't play Hard Mode until you've completed Normal Mode in one go, and this issue continued through my entire playthrough), it was basically impossible for me to land a normal hit on the final boss, and I didn't have a way to perform any Special attacks as a result.

It's possible that it's just a fluke that was afflicting me, but it affected my experience with the game, so I needed to mention it.

Anyway, now it seems like a good time to talk about the boss fight at the end.

In both Normal Mode and Hard Mode, you play as the "lone warrior," who is basically my least favorite character from the entire series because of his terrible jumping skills and just generally being a stupid self-righteous jerk.

(Incidentally [WARNING: RANTY ASIDE INCOMING], I learned what the trick to the painful boss fights in the first Armed With Wings is supposed to be to keep them from smashing you into instant death spikes/pits is that you're supposed to block.

I learned this, and then I thought " can block in that game? What?" And after a little more thought, I remembered "oh yeah, there was some kind of mention of blocking in one of the introductory levels, wasn't there?" And then I thought "including an important feature but not coming up with ways to encourage the player to use it more often earlier in the game is bad game design."

There is no goshdarned use for the stupid block up until the first boss fight, which is halfway through the game, and there's no way that the game hints to you that you ought to be blocking. By the time I'd slogged to the final boss fight with Vandheer Lorde, I'd totally forgotten, and that's the only way to survive being hit by Vandheer Lorde's ultimate attack in that game.

I am never going to make use of this information, by the way, because if you'll pardon my plain speaking, there's no way in hell that I'm ever going through the living hell of playing that game again.

Ahem. End ranty parenthetical aside.)

Anyway, after playing through the various stages, you come to the final stage, and have a chat with Vandheer Lorde. Now's a good time to mention that Vandheer Lorde is probably my favorite character in these games, because he's so unabashedly villainous and so casually and brutally batman that it makes me smile. (He also often fails to make much sense, which is also endearing.) This means that I was rather delighted at the bait and switch that follows in Normal Mode:

During the final battle, you suddenly switch to Vandheer Lorde.

It isn't all fun; you need to re-learn how to play, because Vandheer Lorde handles differently from the lone warrior; he's a little slower (as near as I can tell), his specials are completely different, and his ultimate is just terrible. (On the plus side, I'm not absolutely sure but I don't think his Special bar drains the way the lone warrior's does.)

And like nearly all the boss fights from all of these games, if you fall, you're dead, but if your opponent falls, he escapes. I will give the game maker kudos for making the escape animation more interesting than the generic teleport that every other boss from the games use, even if it once again reminds me of the irony of the lone warrior being so good at jumping.

Anyway, I had a hard time with this boss fight at first; when I used the basic special attack, Vandheer Lorde teleports over to attack the lone warrior from behind... and it turned out that took him off a cliff. Died immediately.

I tried using the next special... I don't remember what it did, but it didn't work very well.

I used the ultimate several times... It's so slow it never even came close to hitting anything, and the style of attack demands moving into place to use it (heck, it's a teleporting attack itself, so you ought to just teleport into the correct position to hit with it anyway, especially since it's your darned ultimate), so it pretty much just stinks.

Then I figured out the trick. Get your Special level built up to the basic level that lets you use the aforementioned teleportation attack, and use it several times in rapid succession. (I was able to get a few hits in, but the counter creep thing I mentioned made it unsuccessful; using it at a higher rate let Vandheer Lorde finally connect.) Then just MASH THAT S KEY LIKE THERE'S NO TOMORROW.

What follows is probably my favorite sequence from any of these games ever, so wondrous that I had to get help from my sister to make an animated gif (which... doesn't seem to be working here on the blog, darnit, so my sister helped out again with her Photobucket):

armedwithwingsculminationanimation, Vandheer Lorde is ter bestest

Teleport spam juggling. Even better, Vandheer Lorde (my favorite character) is teleport spam juggling the lone warrior (my least favorite character).

Of course, in Hard Mode, you play as the lone warrior for this fight; this is totally unfun, as Vandheer Lorde is basically the same version from AWW3, a tough and powerful foe, he does that super-countering thing I've mentioned so that you can't build up your Special bar, and he of course teleports to safety in the event that you knock him off a ledge. And which one you play as doesn't change the ending-Vandheer Lorde stabs the lone warrior through the chest by telekinetically flinging his neat hooked sword, and then goes off to fight the protagonist of AWW3 as that game's final boss.

So yeah, no matter what, you're playing most of the game as a character who gets brutally stabbed to death at the end, and there's no way to affect that, although as Vandheer Lorde goes on to be the final boss of AWW3 rather than disappear mysteriously partway through, of course it's not going to end well for the poor dope.

So this game is yet another in this series (the other offenders are Red Moon and AWW2) which renders your arduous boss fight victories completely irrelevant in a cutscene. Guy, this is bad storytelling for a videogame. It really is.

Anyway, seeing as how this is a bit of a retrospective on the whole series, I suppose I ought to comment on each of the previous games and compare them. Specifically, since each game's saving grace is whether or not fighting is fun in it, I'll be commenting on that.

Armed With Wings has a terrible one-dimensional combat system (literally, since you can't jump). Armed With Wings' combat system is a boring grind at best. It really is.

Red Moon's combat is light and easy. The word that keeps coming to mind is breezy. It's perhaps too easy at times, though my memories of the boss fight with Vandheer Lorde from that game aren't of an easy fight, they're of dying lots of times and of his attacks randomly teleporting both me and him around (which is obnoxious). Its easiness isn't a bad thing, though-it makes the game fun, at least up until the second half when there are these bizarre environments that you need to jump through that don't make any sense.

Armed With Wings 2 has a combat system which gives you lots of options (and also lets you play as Vandheer Lorde). You can kick, punch, swing a sword (and you can change swords several times in the game), grab and toss, fire a magic blast, and use a special magic attack/ability that's derived from your sword. Vandheer Lorde feels direct and brutal when you use him, from his animations to the effects of his abilities. Armed With Wings 2's combat system is visceral.

Armed With Wings 3 has a combat system that takes successful elements from the previous games (mainly aspects of Red Moon's breeziness and the customization of AWW2) and further adds an experience/leveling system. It's not quite as easygoing as Red Moon (thanks to a wider selection of actually competent enemies) and the character is nowhere near as brutal-feeling as Vandheer Lorde in AWW2, but gameplay is still very solid and fun. The keyword here is flexibility.

So how does Culmination compare? When you're doing well, you're soaring. When you're doing poorly, it's grindy, though thankfully not as bad as the first Armed With Wings, since you can slip past many enemies if you can't quite beat them. Culmination is a game of highs and lows.

Where would I rank Culmination relative to the others? It's pretty much above only Armed With Wings, which isn't difficult. If it hadn't been for the oddity of getting thrashed repeatedly by enemies that would have been easy prey in any of the other games, even the first one, it might well have been a lot better, possibly even the best.

It really is a good game in terms of gameplay and especially graphics, even with its rather inexplicable flaw which might not be a real thing. If you're a better player than me, you'd probably have even more fun. (As I've noted many times, I'm not a great player, and probably not even a "good" one, thanks to my fairly abysmal reflexes.) I like it, even if I'm not going to play it as often as the other games in this series.

-Signing off.

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