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14 June 2016 @ 09:27 pm
Game Review: An Untitled Story  
I first found out about An Untitled Story from a thread on RPG.net. Fresh from futilely hurling myself at I Wanna Be the Guy, I downloaded it, played it a bit, then shelved it for a few months and picked it up again once I moved to Japan. And playing it now, I'm even more impressed with my reflexes, my sheer bloody-minded persistence, or the combination thereof? How did I get as far as I did in this game without a gamepad, using not just any keyboard, but laptop keyboard? This is hard enough now that I have a purpose-built controller. I'm retroactively impressed with myself.

I've learned since then that the designer of An Untitled Story went on to make TowerFall, which I haven't played but which I've heard a lot of good things about but have never played, mostly because it's local co-op only and softlykarou isn't a fan of that sort of game. Or this one, really, though she cheered me on through my 47 deaths.

You're damn right I have.

As the above may have demonstrated, An Untitled Story is hard, though it begins somewhat deceptively. The opening screen has an egg in a nest, with no preamble or direction. This becomes a theme for most of the game--you spend large portions of it with no goal other than to play and no idea why you're doing what you're doing. You collect powerups because they exist, you kill bosses because they attack you, you pick up money because it's pickupable, and you explore because what else would you do? But you can say almost this exact same thing about the original Metroid, so it's not like it's inherently a downside. It's just an aspect that might not appeal.

Also, if you want to get all the secrets, be prepared to wall-hump every single wall like you were playing Doom.  photo doomguy.gif

That said, the game is very good about providing multiple options. At any given time, there are generally from two to four areas that are open based on the powerups you have, and if you get stuck in one place, you can head somewhere else and try that instead. It helped sooth the wounds from throwing the little egg over and over against a boss when there's somewhere else to go when I hit my frustration threshold.

This is what passes for a hint.

And that happened more than once. An Untitled Story looks cute, with a soft, rounded art style that looks half flash animation and half children's storybook, but this is a game in the tradition of old platformers. You will die, and die a lot. It starts off relatively easy and the difficult curve rises gently, but as the game goes on it goes up faster and faster. Around the time you get to the Curtain, the curve is a mountain looming ahead of you--climable, but standing as a wall against the sky. And this wouldn't be so bad except that a lot of the later difficulty is rigorous platforming and scarce save points, neither of which the in-game difficulty level affects. Bouncing from moving platform to moving platform across disappearing jump points where a single mistake makes you fall for six screens is only so fun.

Admittedly, the Curtain is a uniquely aggravating part of the game, matched only by the final area. And most of the platforming is fun, even when there are spikes all over the place. Areas are divided into screens and each screen is often a minipuzzle that I had to look at and study to figure out where to go, where to jump, and where to use my abilities to succeed. It's a lot of split-second timing and memorization of patterns, especially in the later or optional levels, but it's nothing that isn't all over the place now with indie puzzle-platformers.

While this is a Metroidvania, there's barely a fraction of the shooting that a game like Super Metroid has. You can shoot fireballs after finding the appropriate powerup, but probably three-quarters of what you use that for are for solving puzzles rather than fighting off enemies. It's almost entirely platforming that ranges from "medium difficulty" to "where did they even get all these spikes?!" The enemies that do exist are either speedbumps, part of the platforming challenge, or bosses.


If there's a major problem with the game other than that "it's hard," it's that the Metroidvania powerup collecting isn't well distributed. For most of the first half of the game, you get interesting abilities that expand your range of movement, like the ability to double jump, or stick to ceilings, or charge up your fireballs into freezing ice shots (hashtag videogames). But by the second half, you've collected all the interesting powerups and all that's left are the hearts to increase life, a couple of also-ran powerups like "more air time underwater," and the golden orbs needed to access the final dungeon.  photo latest.gif

In this, though, there is a major benefit to the difficulty setting--the final area requires fewer orbs to get into as the difficulty level goes down. On the lowest level, you only need half of the available orbs, rising up the scale until the hardest difficulty requires all orbs and caps life at 1. This is brilliant, since it means that you don't actually need to kill That One Boss, you can skip them and still win. And if you're on the higher difficulty levels, presumably you've signed up for all that entails.

I almost ended up taking advantage of this before finally managing to squeak out a win against Fluffy by the skin of my teeth. In an RPG where playing more earns more interesting stories I'm generally willing to do all the side stuff, but I'm less interested in that in a platformer.

Welcome to scenic SkyTown, egg.

The story is mostly told through inference and subtle cues. In the beginning, you're an egg. Relatively quickly you come on a village of cute bird creatures, all sitting around, and once you hatch and gain the ability to talk to them, they mention how bored they are, how much they'd like to travel, or how SkyTown is crowded but where else could they go? And initially it seems like it's just the classic case of a protagonist filled with vim and vigor and everyone else being a passive secondary character.

But as you explore the world, you find out that's not true. The inhabitants of SkyTown aren't just cowardly, they're very specifically fightened of something. Something that lurks out in the wild, and has made it an iron law that birds live in SkyTown and must not leave. Those who do leave are hunted down with ruthless efficiency. Others leave, and avoid them for a while, but they're caught. You see it happen. It's remarkably effective at being creepy for something with with flashgame-level graphics.

The story is finally revealed in a textdump at the end, much like Aquaria, but like Aquaria, it doesn't really matter. The game is in the platforming.

The conga line of death.

I ended the game with 86% completion, but having tried to get some of the items that are keeping me from 100%, most of them are just extra hearts that I've obviously proven I don't need since I beat the game. That's what I really wanted to do since I first played this eight years ago and it's been sitting on all of my various hard drives since then. Waiting. Well, now the wait is over and I can cross it off my list. Victory for me.  photo 3fee9e98b02297d6546ef2c40646360b.gif
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