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Game review: Javel-ein by Daniel Linssen

I loved Javel-ein when it was first released as a Ludum Dare 28 Jam entry. It’s been expanded into a “Full Game” — I put this in quotes because, other than perhaps a lack of background music, there wasn’t anything about the Jam entry that felt incomplete or less than “full” to me. TL;DR: it’s a great game, it’s free, and if you run Windows, you can play it.

Get Javel-ein.

Game Play

You’re a guy armed with a Javelin, jumping and running through a 2D platform world of caves and lava pits. There are dangerous creatures, which you’ll need to kill with your Javelin. Once all the creatures are destroyed, you need to find the door to take you to the next level. The twist is that you only get one Javelin, and you have to retrieve it each time you throw it, leaving you temporarily defenseless.

The controls are superb. The mouse looks around and positions the camera, as well as aims the Javelin. Mouse click to throw. Both WASD and the arrow keys control your running movement — I find this works very well, since I can switch between the two with both hands on my laptop, controlling the javelin throwing with the trackpad and whichever thumb feels more comfortable — as the levels grow progressively more difficult, I have to switch between left and right hand very quickly, which makes the controls a unique challenge, and are perhaps the stand-out feature of the game that makes it unique and rewarding to play.

Death is no big deal; you can do it as much as you like, and just re-start the level. If you get stuck, or can’t retrieve your Javelin, you may need to. Or you can press R to restart the level.

Differences:

There are a number of differences between the LD28 and the Full version of the game.

More levels!

This is the main improvement. There are now 60 levels, divided up in to 4 “Chapters” (see Story, below). The level design in the original game was terrific, and these are even more polished. Mostly, the additional polish is a good thing. In some cases, perhaps a minimalist feel might have suited me better.

In many of the original levels, there was a Bonus pickup somewhere, in a hard-to-reach, optional area of the level. There are now signposts in the early levels, indicating the branching off point of the path to the bonus item. This is probably unnecessary, and cheapens the discovery of the bonus items for the player, but after the first couple it stops providing the signposts.

New enemies

There are new enemies, of course. New bosses, a new type of bat… possibly more.

Play changes

In the LD28 version of the game, you could exit to the next level if all enemies on the level were defeated, with or without your javelin. In the Full edition, you have to retrieve your Javelin. If your last toss defeats the last enemy, but puts the Javelin out of reach, too bad — you have to re-do the level.

Personally, I liked the “freebie” of renewing an expanded Javelin by winning the level. It doesn’t really change strategy all that much, though — you now always need to be careful where you throw it. On the other hand, if you don’t want to leave the level yet, and want to explore, just put your Javelin down next to the exit, and now you can freely touch the door without worry that it’ll take you to the next level before you’re ready.

It feels like gravity might affect the Javelin a bit more than it used to, which changes aiming and range slightly. You get used to it pretty quickly though.

Hit detection to retrieve the Javelin is feels tighter now — you have to touch the head of the spear to pick it up again, touching the shaft does nothing. This is a mistake, in my opinion, as there will be times when you’ll be frustrated by a Javelin sticking into a wall just high enough to where you can only reach the shaft part, and yet it won’t let you grab it. Being just able to grab a Javelin that was almost out of reach, and being able to retrieve it easily while on the run made the original game more fun, and to me made the level designs seem better thought out, since it was very unlikely that you’d throw it somewhere that you couldn’t get to. Many of the new levels seem to use the threat of unretrievable throws as a design element, and while I don’t mind it occasionally, it’s perhaps a bit more dominant in the level design than I find fair. A few levels where it feels like it’s done deliberately in order to create a special challenge works for me; but where it’s too common it gives me the feeling that the level designer just didn’t care that much about making the levels feel “fair”, and the world is more indifferent to you than I’d prefer.

Graphics

The exit doors look different now, and have a new “light up” animation when you clear a level. In the original, the exit was actually a crown, not a door

There are now waterfalls spilling over certain platforms, which are pretty, but you can’t interact with them in any way, so they only serve as a visual dressing. It would have been interesting had the water flow added a conveyor belt effect to your movement when standing on a platform, to simulate water current.

In the LD28 version of the game, you couldn’t pass through a platform; you could only run off the sides of platforms, or jump onto them from the side. In the full version, there are new platforms that allow this. In a few places, they look a bit off to me, though, the way they’re drawn doesn’t quite work with the background, and makes them look improperly offset.

Javel-ein drop through platforms

The way these drop-through platforms look, they don’t appear to line up properly with the background underneath them, which is visually confusing.

Also, your Javelin will not stick in the drop-through platforms, and this is often inconvenient and will cause you to misjudge what targets you can lodge your Javelin into, until you understand these platforms work differently from how the platforms in the original version all did. This feels unfair at first, but I’ve read that the developer did this deliberately, because in the original game it made the strategy of short-range throws and easy retrievals too strong. When you stand on a pass-through platform, you can’t easily retrieve the javelin, and there are many levels where you can’t throw it at all without losing it, which forces you to run more and look for walls and platforms where you can safely throw the Javelin. It doesn’t do much to encourage you to throw from longer ranges. Trying to avoid being defenseless without the javelin dominates your targeting strategy in any case. I like the idea of drop-through platforms, but they ought to be targets for the Javelin to stick into, in order to feel more fair to the player.

Story

A background story has been added to the game. For me, I think the story is largely unnecessary; I enjoyed the game very much without any background story, and I don’t feel that adding one adds much to the game. The presentation of the words on the screen is well done, but I’d rather just get to playing than read it. Still, read it I did, and it reads like yet another prophesy driven mythic story — nothing terribly original. For me, at least, this is one of those “less is more” things — by not explicitly telling a story, I could have made up whatever I wanted, or just been left with a sense of wonder, and I think that would have made the world seem bigger.

Music

The original game had no music; this one has a decent ambient background track consisting of several songs. They did not annoy after looping for several hours. It’s solid, but nothing spectacular. You can also turn the music off if you want to, but I left it on.

Difficulty

The post-LD28 “enhanced” version of Javel-ein had an amazingly graceful challenge curve. The intro levels were reasonably easy and effectively taught you the controls, the enemies, and the environment, gradually building the challenge, then hitting you with some very challenging levels, a couple of which were hard enough to require an hour or so of serious concentrated effort to beat.

The challenge does not abate in the full version. Indeed, by chapter 3 the levels are brutal, even fiendishly difficult.

The original game didn’t have any levels where you could get trapped in a spot where you couldn’t jump out of, but since the “R to restart” control was added, there are now a few traps like this. To me these felt like mistakes in the level design, though — really you shouldn’t have places where you can get stuck; you should only need to restart if you die or lose the javelin. You should always be able to jump out of a pit that you can fall into, or at least have some alternative way out, perhaps a long or dangerous detour.

The original game’s levels felt more fair in this regard — it never left you stuck in a challenge that you couldn’t get out of. In this full version, I felt that some of the level designs were a bit unfair, demanding the player make blind leaps where being off by a tile block or two results in death. It’s practically impossible to succeed on the first try, and you have to learn how to beat the level by repeatedly attempting different approaches until you find a successful strategy. Even with a successful strategy, the harder levels are quite unforgiving of mistakes. The original levels never pulled dirty tricks, and although they throw you into some very tight spots, it always was a straightforward challenge — here’s some obstacles, a tricky jump or a difficult combination of enemies, but you can do it if you’re good. Some of the levels in the full edition do pull dirty tricks — “OK now you just have to jump and hope you remember the space that is now just offscreen well enough that you happen to land on a platform instead of lava.” A number of the levels aren’t that difficult, so much as they are tricky, as it’s difficult to throw the javelin without losing it, leaving you stuck. Many of the levels derive their challenge from the fact that the javelin won’t lodge in a jump-through platform, making it unsafe to throw on them if there’s no solid platform below.

A few of the levels were hard enough for me to tell myself “I’m going to beat this level ONCE and then never again!” The later levels in Chapter 3 become frantic, requiring you to be near-perfect, and fast, there’s almost no room for error and you only get one shot at taking out a room full of enemies before they overwhelm you. The original Javel-ein rewards patience, thinking, planning, and careful aim, more, and I had thought of it more as a puzzle platformer than as an action platformer, but to my surprise the action levels are just as good, albeit much more difficult, and really demand that you rise up and master the controls. These levels don’t afford you the luxury of planning or thinking, and you just have to react, move quickly, throw quickly, recover quickly, and if you don’t, you die and start the level over. When you beat one of these levels, it’s usually just barely, and you feel like you got lucky that time, rather than mastered it. Or rather, once you’ve attained mastery of the controls, the later levels are still so difficult that you will only pass if you try dozens of times and happen to get lucky. Once you’ve beaten it, it’s still likely to require several attempts if you ever go back and try it again.

I couldn’t get past the boss level in Chapter 3, after four solid hours of trying. I found a strategy and a pattern that works, but after hitting the boss a few times, the level starts spawning more enemies, which no previous level had done — usually there are a fixed number of enemies, all of whom are present when the level begins. The first time, I felt like the game was cheating. I kept on trying, but never could beat the Chapter 3 boss and get the Key.

All told, I felt it was perhaps slightly too difficult, and would have liked just a little bit more reasonable challenges, but if you’re a true hard core gamer who likes maximum challenge, this game delivers.

Room for improvement:

As I played the game, it gave me a few ideas for features I would have liked to see:

  1. Some kind of bonus for a multiple-hit throw would have been fun, even if it was just a fanfare sound.
  2. Statistics for throwing accuracy, longest hit, fewest deaths to pass each level, etc.
  3. Walk-through walls into hidden areas in the level for secret areas.

Conclusion

Overall, this expansion of the original Javel-ein is great. The challenge is extremely difficult, and the game becomes frustrating at times. The new pass-through platforms change the flavor of the game considerably and take some getting used to — while they open up new possibilities for level design, I’m not sure that I actually like them more than the simple platforms of the original. Still, the dozens of new levels, new enemies, and the additional polish make Javel-ein a worthy follow-up to the original.

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