This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Clustertruck & Lichtspeer.
As many of you know, I like it a bit hard. This is something also well known to my escort service and my accountant. But I particularly like my games a bit hard. I put it down to my school day and having to navigate the shower room after games, running the gauntlet of kicks to the bollocks and nervous, experimental jets of spunk. But there are a couple of different ways hardness can manifest in the trousers of a videogame.
The Dark Souls method, as is well-documented, is to blatt you in the face with a rake that takes off all your health the instant you arrive, in order to organically train you to nimbly dodge the rake so that it can gently brush part of your foot on the backswing and take off all your health regardless. And then there's the kind of difficulty that sneaks up on you, like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating boiler, that considerable experimentation has proved doesn't actually work. Which can be a much more insidious form of difficulty, because it lets you in the door with a condescending smile, and waits until you've gotten comfortable with a plate of digestive biscuits before it quietly locks the soundproof doors and produces what looks like a tool used in vehicle maintenance.
And this week I've played two Steam games that subscribe to this philosophy of difficulty, starting with Clustertruck, which is one of those kinds of games of the Porrasturvat school, where 90% of the design document was just the words "LICENSE A PHYSICS ENGINE" in very big letters. It's a first-person game where you are a dude, or a dudette, or a walrus, or whatever you'd care to imagine, with the ability to accelerate to a speed somewhere in the region of "The Clappers", and your job is to get to the exit of each level without touching the ground; as the only things you're allowed to touch are a large number of trucks, moving vaguely in the direction you're heading. There's not much in the way of story to give that context, but it reminds me of a game I used to play when I was a kid -- and bear with me, because I know this sounds pretty crazy; when I pretended the floor -- right? -- was made out of lava, of all things, and would kill me if I stepped on it. I know! I was such a kooky, random little bastard back in the day; I'm surprised my parents didn't lock me in a straitjacket and have me sectioned... a lot earlier than they actually did.
Anyway, the standard response to the summary of Clustertruck is: "Is that it?" And frankly: "Yes." There's an emphasis on speed, and competing with the times of other players, but the top ten on the scoreboard are all inevitably 0.1 of a second. And you know what, guys? If you're gonna hack the board, at least come up with something believable. You're like the guy who turned up to the dick-measuring contest with a Cumberland sausage ineptly stapled to his foreskin.
The developers valiantly attempt to expand gameplay with a series of unlockable gadgets and abilities, none of which are of much use, compared to the jetpack and the slow-motion, which are among the first ones you can get. But fair's fair; the 80-odd levels of the game wring about as much potential as there is out of the concept of jumping all over a convoy of trucks as they navigate a Mario 64 level; we start out on straighforward country roads, and by the end, are hopping across trucks on a giant, rotating cylinder in an abysmal hellscape. And while, as the levels get harder, the chaotic nature of all the moving parts means that you're relying on a lucky quirk of the physics more than accquired skill, failures barely have time to register as you restart the level with a single click of the mouse... or a violent and blood-stained thud of the mouse, after frustration builds up. But try not to lose composure; that's how you get sectioned.
As for if I'd recommend the game: I dunno. I certainly got absorbed, in the way one does during hate sex. On harder levels, the frustration grows as you restart again and again until everything becomes an annoyance; the trucks, the levels, the room around you, your red-headed stepchildren. When I started writing this review, I was genuinely going to go off on one about how you die if you touch ceilings and walls, as well as the floor. What, have we got "Truck-exempt Brittle Bone Disease"? You don't lose "The Floor is Lava" just because you knocked over the standing lamp; at least, not 'til your Dad gets home. But I had a nice, cleansing poo, and calmed down. Clustertruck's so basic that recommending it feels like recommending the sensation of immersing your hands in a bag of dry rice. There; I hope that informs your purchase decision.
Let's move on to our second game, Lichtspeer, which is not--as one might reasonably expect--a game about violating the personal space of Albert Speer, architect of the Nazi regime. Although you might be vaguely in the right ballpark, 'cause it is a game based loosely around Germanic mythology. Of which I mean there are a lot of characters with beards, and someone used find-and-replace to switch all uses of the word "the" to the word "das". And I think strudel gets mentioned at one point.
You are the chosen warrior of a huge, bearded god of war who has grown bored, possibly because they're looking for decent indie games to play on Steam in late September. You are granted a magical pink spear to thrust deep into the flesh of hundreds of burly enemies for His divine amusement, in a way that has not at all become ever-so-slightly suspect now that I am coming to write it down. It's a 2D game with a somewhat arcade-y feel, where your character nails his feet to the floor and must repel oncoming hordes of monsters by chucking spears; adjusting the angle and power of each throw as necessary. So, sort of like tower defence meets Worms, except the tower is you, and the only worms will be the ones feasting on the blanket of corpses you leave in your wake.
Just like Clustertruck, Lichtspeer gets as much mileage as it can out of a simple core concept. Some enemies are slow, some are fast. Some are high up, some have specific weak spots, and some of them are walruses. And on that note, if your Dad used to dress up as a walrus and beat you with a fish, while playing "I Am the Walrus", so that you'd get conditioned to react with fear and disgust every time you hear that song, it still wouldn't make you as poorly-disposed to walruses as this fucking game will. I was having fun at first; nice, simple core gameplay and the sight of your spear gracefully arcing across the room into a kobold's eye socket couldn't've given me more satisfaction if it'd been my own thrusting, pink phallus going on a grey-matter safari. But then the insidious difficulty creep began, and I started to find some of the design questionable. I don't like how you can't use your special powers during boss fights, because boss fights are supposed to be tests of all the skills we've learned, so changing the rules for them is like basing the final grade on the student's penmanship, and how they look in a swimsuit.
Also, if you miss a spear three times in a row, your patron deity gets cross and you're stunned for a moment, and that's not going to help a struggling player bounce back, is it? It's like the moment of invincibility after you get hit in Sonic the Hedgehog, except instead of invincibility, it decks you in the face, and forces you to apologise to all the nice monsters for wasting their time. I almost felt like the game resented me for playing it. I get that, Lichtspeer. I feel the same way sometimes about people I invite over when they stay past my bedtime and scoff all the biscuits and still refuse to sit under the pendulum!
- Truck off and die: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- You shouldn't lick Albert Speer anyway because of all the inmates of Spandau he was only third tastiest after Donitz and Hess.
- I'm pretty sure you don't even get walruses in Germany.