Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Evil, and Not In a Good Way


Evil Twin: Cyprien's Chronicle for the Sega Dreamcast

Thirty hours or so of my life I'll never get back and I stubbornly, doggedly, stupidly worked my ass off to make that happen. This may be the worst game I've ever played to completion. But let's begin at the beginning.

I acquired this game ages ago from a local import store... local to where I was living at the time, Maryland. I was attracted by the art style and the fact that from what little info I could glean it was a 3d platformer. It was near the end of the Dreamcast's short lifespan as a regular retail product, but I still didn't have much in the way of platforming games for it and I'd had a fine time with the two Sonic Adventure games.

To get the good out of the way (and this'll be very short) it DOES have a pretty cool twisted fairy tale look to it. Although the framerate frequently bogs down and the number of polygons is low by today's standards it is still an interesting game to look at. It could be seen as a sort of companion piece, graphically, to the American McGee Alice games-- especially the first Alice. The music is really good. I've read the soundtrack described as 'mostly ambient sounds' in reviews but that's crap. To go along with the Burton-esque visuals, the game has a very definite Elfman-esque soundtrack, some of the tunes quite memorable. The voice acting is also decent with plenty of somewhat adult humor, and I'd swear there are some name actors amongst the voicing, like Terry Jones and Robbie Coltrane, though I haven't tried to investigate this thoroughly. They are not credited in the manual. The whole sensory package aspect is attractive and one of the two main reasons I stuck with the game right to the end. I wanted to see and hear everything there was to see and hear.

Also there was the time investment. When I read a book or watch a film, even if it is abysmal I usually try to stick it out. Whether that's through some usually-misplaced idea that it SHOULD get better or whether I just hate having put a time investment into something and then leaving it undone, I don't know. In the case of Evil Twin, I'm going with the latter. When I first put the game in years ago, I played it a while but just got tired of its shortcomings. Then after enough time had passed to salve over the frustrations, I'd pick it up again and play through a little more. The problems with the game exaggerated of course, by my having to figure out where I'd left off in the levels and the narrative. Over the years I've probably had three runs at the game, each covering a day or two. Recently I decided to stop farting around and just finish it. Determined to finish it.

That mindset put me on the path to mental ruin, one I was determined not to stray from no matter all the warning signs and opportunities to bail.

That's because every other aspect of the game is horrible. During the previous plays, I think I just thought the trouble was me and my sporadic playing, 'Of course it is going to be tough, I'm not really putting serous time in on it'. Actually, no. The game plays like ass. It is the very definition of that certain type of euro-game, a game designed by a European studio, that has great style but completely misses the mark that makes Japanese or American games playable. Evil Twin is French. Obviously, I'm drawing a very stark generalization there. But in the main, there seems to be some truth to this. If you want an exception to the rule, most of the French-made Rayman games seem to dodge the euro-game's penchant for horrible mechanics. Game studios in the modern era are bigger and more 'international' so I'm probably being a predjudicial ass for bringing this up. Studious like Crytek and Croateam make awesome games and they are euro devs. Maybe it was a nineties thing mostly. Anyway.

 Challenge is one thing, but when the majority of the challenge is trying to wrestle with how to work around a game's shortcomings?... that's bad.

Where even to start? 3d platforming games, or the 3d platforming sections of other generes, are a tough nut as it is. Placing your character in a tricky jump can be infinitely more complicated and difficult when you have three axes of movement over the traditional two.  Mario 64 showed it could be pulled off with panache. Nintendo dialed in just what the player needed in a camera and in the controls, both sensitivity and on-the-fly correction. The Sonic Adventure titles didn't have as good a camera, but Sonic himself had pretty great tools to navigate the levels and the game detected use of the homing dash pretty accurately over parts that could've otherwise really been frustrating. Every game involving intricate jumping from a 3d viewpoint struggles with how to make it challenging... but in all the right ways... and the fruits of that struggle pass on to the player frequently for the worse. Why? Why couldn't devs figure this out? I recently also finished Metroid Prime's remake on the wii. I was shocked at how well (Nintendo again) the platforming worked. Metroid's formula wasn't to make the jumps themselves overly difficult... Samus has plenty of oomph to her jumps AND the ability to control her descent somewhat, AND a bit of floatiness to give you a bit of extra correction time... but in the nature of each area's construction, with the player having to figure out where to go, usually vertically. The jump physics weren't the most realistic, but it sure made the game playable. It was fun, and if you failed a jump it was pretty obvious you weren't equipped to make it. The game let you know from the get-go that you weren't supposed to spend a ton of time figuring out if the holdup was lack of an item or just shitty playing. If you were supposed to make the jump at that time, you made it easily.

Evil Twin has just about everything wrong with it's platforming. Other aspects of the game are buggy and confusing, but it is something you can deal with. And in fact, parts of the game other than the platforming are kind of fun. The parts where you can freely explore a hub area or the boss fights. But the camera sucks. The controls suck. Collision detection sucks. Cyprien's shadow (for placing just where you are in a jump) sucks. Bugs and wonkiness abound.

A typical example: Tricky platforming segment. Narrow planks on which Cyprien must jump, frequently moving or the kind that drop out from under you if you stay put more than a second or two. Also more often than not, a failure leads to death, not just a drop down to an earlier area for you to make your way back up. This is the kind of thing that in a 2d platformer, assuming tight controls, a player deals with all the time and is, in fact, a trope of the genre. But in Evil Twin, you must do this looking from behind Cyprien, jumping him forward into the screen. Cyprien jumps for greater distance the longer you press the jump button, and the platforms are unevenly spaced. His shadow is slow to be drawn under him (or the ground between the platforms is too far down for you to see the shadow). On wide or round platforms the shadow sort of works... you have time for a bit of midair correction. On narrow planks, as in this example, you will not have time. Cyprien is not floaty in any way.

Now. At times the game camera does swing out and view Cyprien from the side OR you can rotate the camera to do so. But here's the complications to THAT. A sidelong camera doesn't always pan along with Cyprien. It ROTATES. So as Cyprien jumps the camera stays in its place an rotates to keep Cyprien in view. The camera 'wants' to be behind Cyprien, the default view. So if he jumps while you view him from the side, at the end of the jump you will see him from behind in a three-quarter view. And the controls are relational to the camera. So at the end of the jump, the sideways movement you held jumping him forward in 2d view now moves him diagonally or even sideways. So you'll need to re-orient the camera back to Cyprien's side if you want to jump from the 2d vantage again. A laborious process at best, and totally impossible on those sections where the platforms drop out from under you. You don't have time for such camera tomfoolery. You are forced to leave the camera behind Cyprien so that the view is fixed and the contols won't change on you as you negotiate the series of jumps.  Even in the sections where it fixes on a 2d view, You can still move Cyprien toward or away from the screen. Coupled with the Dreamcasts slippery analog controller, it is a common occurence to have Cyprien fall off the front or back edge. It is inexcusable to have intricate, variable 2d platforming sections without the player character 'locked onto' a rail that only works in two dimensions. Can you imagine having to make sure Mario didn't take a step or two towards or away from you as you did all that jumping in Super Mario World? If the d-pad could be used so that you were sure you were going ONLY left-right or up-down, that might've helped, but Cyprien's movement is only on the analog nub.

It just goes on. Cyprien grabs ledge edges and hauls himself up. Except when he doesn't. This mechanic could go a long way toward making up for the difficulty in orienting yourself during jumps. But it is extremely capricious. And you have no way of knowing ahead of time which 'edges' are candidates for grabbing and which aren't.

I don't know how the controls are in the PS2 or PC versions, but the DC's are really fucking sensitive. I was constantly hauling Cyprien back from almost running off the far end of a plank or platform. Which is itself a symptom of his shadow being useless for placement, and lack of floatiness for correction. The player must push the stick all the way forward to make sure Cyprien makes the jump, but often that is TOO far. This happens in quite a few 3d platformers, sure, but Cyprien has little in the way of jump correction on the way down. There's a reason a bit of unrealistic play exists in the best 3d platforming games and Evil Twin is an example of a game with all of that shorn out.

My kid let out a loud 'whaaaa?' when he watched me land squarely on a huge expanse and then just drop through it to my death. Although it wasn't exactly common for this kind of bug to kill my player character, on top of  the other difficulties it became one more weight on the scales of frustration. The game has save points that are few and far between, and on later sections waaaay far back from progress through the level. I spent a lot of time knowing I should go all the way back and save after accomplishing something important, but dreading the monumental work to get back. AND saves are an inventory item. So unless you explore pretty thoroughly (which isn't encouraging), you might actually be low on the ability to save.

The graphics, interesting though they were, led to another issue. They are so stylised and so gnarly and intricate in places, that I wasn't really sure what I was seeing. That's a problem in a game where you have to 'figure out' where to go. The game is kinda like Metroid or Zelda where access to an area is granted after you gain an item. But it was dreadfully unclear just where the next path was. Cyprien has a journal/objective book but it is pretty vague. And some of the hubs and levels are so complicated, that if I put the game down for even a day or two, it was hard to remember the layers of quests and where I was going. In this game you need to take notes. Some items you get you don't use until much later in the game, so long that I really forgot I'd even had them and I only progressed by throwing my hands up and going back through my inventory to try equipping things to see what that'd trigger. That's old computer adventure kinda shit. Really poor signposting. I'd have done better to keep my own notes on inventory items AND what exits or paths the game showed to me as I flipped switches. The game wants you to really explore and note all this out of the way stuff, but the controls and other issues make this such a chore it discourages exploration. I frequently found myself just getting through a level in the most linear fashion I could, and that's no way to play a game where the major hook is the visuals.

So you've got buggy, dodgy jumping and a lot of it. Slippery controls and iffy edge detection and grabs. The worst camera ever. Limited Resident Evil-style save items, and frequently inconvenient save points in a game guaranteed to kill you many many times. Not to mention, obscure objectives and paths that you'll need a guide to sort out. So why did I keep at it?

I'm not sure. There was just a point where I'd put in enough time... so that even when I realised the 'kinda-ropey' jumping stuff at the beginning was only going to get worse... I couldn't just abandon it. Maybe the very evil of the whole thing made me want to conquer it, if only to say I did it and then complain about it. Like some players fancy conquering kuso-ge on a regular basis. But normally, that ain't me. I have a good track record of buying games that turn out to be good. Good enough to finish without regrets. For every Splatterhouse (finished and didn't like) there are dozens of games in my to-play stack that turn out to be a decent choice. I wound up using a guide MUCH more frequently for this game than I care to because I just wanted to get it over with. Even figuring out how to beat a boss, a part of games I really enjoy normally, was just not something I wanted to deal with when getting back to the boss room would be ANOTHER horrific bout of platforming.

So stay the hell away from this game. Seriously. I VERY rarely ebay a game after I've played it, but I think this one's outta here. Its saving grace, probably due to relative rarity, is that it seems to hold a pretty decent price for resale. But even a crazy-good return for selling this thing wouldn't be enough to get that time or sanity back!

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