Friday, June 26, 2009

review of henry hatsworth in the puzzling adventure (ds)

I do not feel I am at complete liberty to review Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (hereafter "HH") for the Nintendo DS since I haven't beat it (yet), but since I'm at the final boss and I have invested a fair amount of time into it, I feel confident I can provide a fair, honest review. So, I consider this a distraction, for me, from what has been a very difficult game and what is an extremely difficult boss battle.

HH utilizes the DS's split screen in an innovative way. On the top screen, you control Henry, a well-dressed British man who looks like he's ready to go on a wild safari. He has a melee weapon (a sword) and a basic projectile weapon (either a plasma gun or bombs or a boomerang). Your task as Henry is to battle your way through hoardes of different enemies on 5 worlds, averaging 5 or 6 levels per world. The level design is basic in its idea: it's a standard platformer, so you have your fair share of perilous jumps, nerve-wracking spike pits, moving platforms, balloons to bounce on, and of course a few underwater levels. As the game progresses, these levels get longer and more difficult, both in terms of the platforming and the enemies you must defeat. Check out some beautiful pictures of the levels and enemies you face here: and here:

If that was all the game offered, the game would get dull rather quickly. Aside from (as you can tell) the beautiful artwork in the game, there would not be any real depth to the game, and since the game gets quite challenging later on, it would easily turn people off. In fact, that is exactly what was happening to me throughout the first 2 worlds. My view of the game began to change once I reached the boss of the 2nd world, a character named Banson whose theme song you can hear here: banson's aria: It was the soundtrack that really started to get me into the game, and Banson's theme song is simply charming: very original and funny. If you like what you hear, you can actually download the entire OST from the Henry Hatsworth website: henry ost, download here:

So, this was really what got me interested in the game, since up until that point the game was getting pretty dull. The soundtrack really charmed me and that motivated me to continue. As I progressed, the challenge picked up and this challenge was supplemented by thegameplay in the bottom screen.

So, the top screen of the DS is the platformer. The bottom screen is a simple block puzzle (line up three of the same color in a row to dissolve them, giving you some "puzzle power") that interacts with the top screen in some interesting ways. First, you can use the puzzle to boost your projectiles: shoot a projectile and before it hits the enemy, switch to the puzzle screen, line up a few blocks, then switch back to the platform screen. This is really handy as you progress through the game and you face some very tough showdowns. Second, you use the puzzle to activate platforms in the top screen, allowing you to progress further in the level. Finally, if you solve quickly enough and build up "puzzle energy", you can eventually unlock "Tea Time", where Henry jumps into a giant robot to give you a temporary boost in power, which is perfect for taking out large groups of enemies. For a nice example of the gameplay you will experience, see the 1st boss battle:

You'll notice the voices are done strangely, in a way that reminds me of Okami ( but, just as it was with Okami, the unique voices add to the game in a positive way.

This game has not developed a large fan base, but there is definitely a "cult" feel to its style. People who like it end up loving it, while people who don't like it will probably end up hating it. In general, I found it to be refreshing. Mostly, my feelings are due to the unique artwork, comic aspects, and the challenge the game offered. Few games today will really challenge the gamer's aptitude at solving problems. Part of this is due to the widening window of gamer tastes which many developers aim for (videogames are increasingly seen as something everyone should be able to do and want to do), while part of it has to do with some systemic aspect of videogame design that I really can't put my finger on.

The closest I can get is by arguing that games have largely traded in 1. a solid, holistic experience where games can be completed 100% relatively easily in terms of time but less easily in terms of problems, puzzles, etc. for 2. a more open experience where the task of completing a game 100% mainly becomes a question of whether one can devote 100, 150 hours to a game without losing interest. It becomes less about intellectual aptitude and more about whether you have the time to devote to a strategy that is relatively straightforward.

(The following is a digression/rant, however it is mildly related to the review so I won't make a separate post about it. It's related to the review because HH is a modern game which retains the flavor of the "old style" of videogame in its difficulty. In case you care not to read on, I'll attach the other two links I wish to share regarding HH then move on to my digression.)

HH on twitter (demonstrating the "cult" aspect of the game)

Consider the top games of 5-10 or so years ago

Final Fantasy 6, 7, 8, 9
Kingdom Hearts
Gran Turismo 1, 2
Spyro the Dragon
Mario series
Zelda series

One defining characteristic of games like these (I definitely left some out...) is that they were all extremely well-designed games overall (story, music, gameplay), but they were also short enough that you could complete them 100% in anywhere from 40-70 hours. You could literally enjoy all aspects of the game in this time span. And, the games weren't that "easy" -- sure, games like Final Fantasy 7 weren't challenging, but the game challenged you in a lot of other ways (finding secrets, story, varying class setups, for three examples).

Consider some newer games:

Final Fantasy 10, 12
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Advance 2

These games certainly have elements of strategy to them, but combined with that is the sheer vastness of the worlds. Super Smash Bros. Brawl would take over 100 hours to unlock all the trophies in the game, and this has been proven. Super Mario Galaxy similarly takes a drastic amount of hours to complete, and while a few of the levels offer a real challenge, mostly it is a matter of ploughing through level after level of platforming madness. Finally, Final Fantasy 12 in particular has been singled out as truly monstrous (mostly in terms of the Hunts you must complete to get all of the best weapons and items). It was modeled on a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), so I guess it is to be expected, but this fact does not detract from the fundamental fact that it is a console game.

I could go on about these videogames, but I think the point is clear enough: games offering a unique, "completable" but challenging experience nowadays are rare, but HH fills in this gap and I appreciate it for that fact. It ranks up there with Zelda: Twilight Princess and Okami as a quality "new generation" title in my book.

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