“It wasn’t like there was some obvious change. Actually, the problem was more a lack of change. Nothing about her had changed – the way she spoke, her clothes, the topics she chose to talk about, her opinions – they were all the same as before. Their relationship was like a pendulum gradually grinding to a halt, and he felt out of synch.”
–Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
“The following is a guest post by The Iron Mage.”
The 8-bit Review
Original Journey boasts that it contains “hundreds of procedurally generated levels,” but that seems like an exaggeration, or perhaps a misnomer. What separates procedural generation from random generation is that procedural generation incorporates an element of intelligence into its randomizations, utilizing algorithms that are designed to react to the way the player plays. While the priority in most other contexts is quality over quantity, randomization and random/procedural generation in games should ideally value both quality and quantity equally.
Imagine picking names out of a hat when there are only one or two names to draw from: luck and chance are lost. Randomization emphasizes the thrill of gambling, the never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get aspect of luck and chance. That, to us humans, will always be fun, as we seek enjoyment from defeating the odds, that universal villain.
In roguelike games like The Binding of Isaac, there are so many options, so many possibilities, that it’s quite possible that you haven’t seen every in-game item or combination of items even after having played for over a hundred hours. On top of that, you are always being rewarded with new items, some bad and some game-breaking, so that you’re constantly hoping for something to replenish your health with, or something to speed up your character, and to eventually get you to that next room.
While Original Journey doesn’t necessarily fail all of these facets of randomization, neither does it pass them with flying colours. Its levels and enemy spawns are randomly generated, true, but there is no apparent rhyme or reason as to why they are generated in the way they are. Simple quantity is one glaring hole in this game’s content–a sheer lack of options. Enemy types are few, and within only a few runs into the randomly created game world, you will have seen them all. Within that same time frame, you will have unlocked most purchasable equipment, and the initial wonderment for the world of possible possibilities, which I do confess was something I felt at the outset, will have vanished. Multiple varieties of weapon types can be obtained, such as a lightning saber or a grenade launcher, but it felt like the selection was unbalanced, and that there were only a select couple of practical choices.
I believe that it’s also worth bringing up the debate of procedurally generated versus handcrafted level design. The benefit of meticulously handcrafting the levels of a game shines in the specific personality that is created from each level. The relationship between the player and the game, such as one of a helicopter parent à la Kirby or the Stockholmian abuser Super Meat Boy, is meant to make the player feel a certain way. That element is, naturally, lost in some significant amount when it comes to procedural generation, as games incorporating the latter will occasionally feel artificial and repetitive, as if you might as well be operating a conveyor belt.
In the case of Original Journey, handcrafting its levels would have proven problematic, since every stage takes only 20-30 seconds, and you’re quickly swept off to the next task. However, not all of Original Journey seems formulaically factory-produced: its bosses, of which there are only a small handful (and which I wish were a larger portion of the gameplay) are perhaps the most engaging section of the experience. While not necessarily handcrafted, the bosses’ mechanics are much more demanding of the player, and operate in much more predictable configurations. That might seem like a knock on other games, but the predictability of some of the boss battles demands that players must get to know the enemies before they can be beaten.
In addition to the quantity of possibilities present for you to experience, two other things are comparatively important to the procedural formula: danger and reward. The player has to feel on edge, that there is something of worth that is at stake, such as running the risk of losing items in your inventory, losing your progress, or even actually feeling like the fate of the immediate world is in your hands. This adrenaline rush, of teetering on a tightrope atop a thorn-trimmed trench, is only effective when it’s accompanied by its cousin: reward. The ideal game, to me, offers a constant stream of reward, showering me in achievements and accomplishments. However, winning is no significant feat if there are no obstacles on the path to success, if there is no risk or danger. I mentioned in my Dragon Quest critique that, while many video games might mirror the fantastic, our imaginary fairyland, they also use work as a useful juxtaposition against play. Both story and mechanics should adopt the notion that with hardship comes greater reward.
Within the game in question, we see danger in the form of losing the valuables you amass on your missions. You are given the chance to retrieve your items posthumously, but after becoming comfortable with the most practical or comfortable equipment for your play-style, collecting items becomes fruitless. Additionally, the retrieval of your possessions feels like nothing but busywork as, in order to return to your location of death, you have to battle through the (possibly many) waves of enemies that you fought on your last run, albeit in a different configuration to the game’s algorithmic nature.
Where games like Dark Souls are confident in their gameplay loop being engaging and rewarding, and rightly so due to their mechanical precision, Original Journey tries to be confident in its own mechanics where it shouldn’t be: incorporating dangerous conditions into the gameplay urges the player to feel invested in the possibility of losing their inventory to the ether, and hopes that the player actually enjoys their experience enough to return to their tombstone. Retrieving items after death is a hassle, as you’re forced to stomach the world’s several initial levels, which I assume are designed to be the shortest and easiest, becoming nothing but a waste of time, again and again. The fact that the game operates so imprecisely and is so visually chaotic, to me, makes reliving the same levels even more gruelling, as often your character will take damage from seemingly out of nowhere.
It appears that Original Journey was deliberately limited in its graphical department. As I’ve mentioned, one colour is most prominent: brown (or maybe olive? I’m not sure). However, the game unfortunately does little with its limitations to compensate for its lack of visual grandeur.
Think of 8-bit games: developers didn’t simply decide to create games using the restraints of pixelized graphics, no–they were forced into doing so, and they had to compensate by doing the best with what they had. The prominence of Original Journey’s single colour, here, seems like nothing but a stylistic choice, yet is impractical to the style of gameplay. Visually, the game is coated in a monochromatic veneer of rusty sepia palettes, dulling what personality it might have had. At first your character is indistinguishable from the other soldiers often populating the screen. In fact, your character is barely distinguishable from many things on-screen: boulders, spikes, turrets, platforms, smaller enemies. Eventually, your character is given the ability to unlock more powerful armour, which in turn also gives your avatar a much-needed visual upgrade.
The monotonous aesthetic of the game makes it difficult to distinguish the white or grey orb representing incoming enemy fire from the background or foreground. There is also very little in the way of visual feedback for receiving and inflicting damage; the one way it tries to show you that you’ve taken damage is with an irritating recoil animation that causes your avatar to inadvertently jump up. I think an explosion or any other sort of visual marker would have sufficed better than relieving the player’s control of their avatar. Lastly, the fact that you can’t aim your weapon (except for pointing it left or right) seems like a major oversight. When enemies can come at you from all angles, it’s frustrating having to maneuver your character to the right angle in order to hit them.
The basic premise is that you are a lowly lackey in the service of an alien army of sentient plants called the Ato, who are tasked with invading the hostile Planet Shadow. The intrigue of the story is in the motive behind the invasion itself; being of such a low rank, you are left in the dark and are forced to obey orders without question, even if it means the pillaging of an innocent alien world. In the telling of this story, subtlety might have come in handy, leaving the player to speculate for themself–instead, it’s immediately obvious that there is another unspoken dimension.
I felt that there was a lack of cohesion in Original Journey‘s narrative. It seemed unsure whether it wanted to be a serious or satirical game, and the chibi visual style (while definitely unique in it’s own right) would have seemed dissonant in both situations. The dialogue and sparse writing is lacking in flavour and personality, and whenever any emotion is injected into the narrative, it opts for either inappropriately gritty melodrama or cheap “comedic” references (like an alien that says “wubbalubbadubdub”). In neither case does it feel natural. Cutscene sections, which are sorely lacking in any facial or bodily animations, are littered throughout the experience.
There were tutorials–perhaps too many, but they were there, and they introduced the mechanics of the game just fine, leaving me to perfect them on my own. Original Journey felt similar to an arcade or Flash game that you would find on a free games website–by that, I mean that it felt very familiar and easy to just pickup and play without having to study its mechanics in-depth.
My Personal Grade: 5/10
I would not have been so hard on this game had it not set itself up with such a seemingly grand narrative and used cutscenes and tutorials to such a frequent extent. These things made it seem like there was much more operating beneath the surface layers in wait, and it turned out that there wasn’t. While it is a flawed experience, I believe, had more time been spent polishing the game’s mechanics and adding more content into the mix (…and perhaps some colour), that Original Journey would be much improved. I still had a great time for a significant portion of the game, when its new world was still fresh and exciting to me.
And hey: thanks a ton to developer Bonfire Entertainment and publisher Another Indie for providing us with a review copy for this critique!
Aggregated Score: 5.1
The Iron Mage, in his natural habitat, is commonly found wielding his weapon of choice: his 8-string guitar. A musical fanatic who is also fascinated with studying the arts through a critical lense, his YouTube channel showcases his dedication to writing challenging progressive rock and metal music, as well as rearrangements of video game music.
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