Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Boktai Review: Fools and Stupids See the Light

Today marks the beginning of R&R week: Review & Repair. On the agenda I have Boktai, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Everyday Shooter, Sonic (2D platformers), and if I'm lucky Braid and Super Princess Peach.

Since last November when I started the Critical-Gaming blog, I've critiqued other reviews, developed a body of language to communicate the intricate inter workings video games, and written a few reviews to demonstrate.

Now that the foundation has been set, I can exercise a bit more creative writing liberty. After all, creative writing is my specialty. Using this new style, each review will be focused in a way that communicates the various elements of design along with my personal experience/thoughts of the game. Here's the catch. The style and themes that I choose to structure the review will also reflect the mechanics, functions, ideas, and/or themes of the game in some way. Sound intense? Don't worry. Just sit back and read carefully and lightly. If you're lost, by the end I'm sure you'll come out of the darkness.

Fools and Stupids See the Light


It wasn't until about the end of the game when I realized what was going on. Boktai is a game that's shrouded in twisted mystery. I remember beginning my adventure on Earth, yet for the past few hours, I've been in running around aboard a mauve space station silently orbiting my home. I recalled how quickly and unknowingly I made the jump from my simple, home grown, earthly ambitions to lifelessly floating out in space just going through the motions fighting any manner of man, beast, or undead that I can shove into a coffin, pile up, and drive to victory. The funny part of it all isn't how my evil twin brother who descends from a source that's not exactly my mother has been stringing me along "using" me to defeat his enemies so he can free him self from the Moon Queen's control only to later join my side in defeating her. The funny part is, I saw it all coming.

Kojima isn't much of a story teller. By ignoring one of the most effective tenets of written story telling "show don't tell" and relying on unnatural dialog to communicate the overly complex, muddled mush of a story line to the player, Kojima has casted yet another opportunity for a true spark of ingenuity into the forever depths of obscurity and the forgotten.


In the grand scheme of Boktai puzzles, there are only a handful that cleverly utilize the manipulation of light and shade as the pivotal element. There may be even less that use the real time clock creatively. When playing such puzzles, I held a glimmer of hope for the rest of the game. If half the puzzles in Boktai used light and time instead of just the few, I would have more glowing remarks to give. Unfortunately, most of the puzzles are rustic push block/switch puzzles. As annoying as these puzzles are, there are a few that have nothing to do with the world of Boktai at all.

Like a nightmare, imagine stepping into a room only to have the door slam shut behind you. Though not a word is uttered, you can't help but think that you're in a "trap." In front of you is a math problem the likes of which you haven't seen in many years. Numbers, different operators, and equal signs are strewn about set up in such a way that beckons your assistance. All of a sudden, you're in school again trying to finishing a math test. Your heart sinks. You were just enjoying recess and now you're stuck with a math problem you can't solve. When you go up to the teacher for assistnace she subtly hints that you're looking at the problem wrong. And after a few more tries fiddling with it, you ask again. This time, you're told you're "stupid." This is what some of the puzzles in Boktai are like right down to being called stupid.

Perhaps what's worse of all about the puzzle design is, unlike Zelda/Mario/Metroid/Pokemon and just about any game that takes its design seriously, you can easily trap yourself trying to solve a puzzle in Boktai. Not to worry. Since the beginning of the game, players are supplied with a "Fool's card" that resets any room that a player may be stuck in. This deconstructive little card not only breaks the organic flow of the game, but the function of the card doubles as a "get out of jail (danger) free card." Instead of designing a tighter game, Konami took the easy way out.


It wouldn't be a Kojima game if there wasn't a heavy use of the game menu that borders on abuse. The menu in Boktai is used to customize the solar gun, examine the map, or use an item. With every use of the menu, the game is paused putting abrupt breaks in the flow of the gameplay. If you're about to die, just hit pause and gobble down as much life/solar energy restoring fruit as you want. With so many healing items and such an effective healing method, the gameplay can easily deconstruct into repeated reckless attacks and menu based healing. Such a strategy is functionally analogous to the attack-attack-heal strategy in many RPGs. Needless to say, by attack-attack-healing, the gameplay doesn't become more engaging. In fact, the menu system in Boktai is reductive and seeks to deconstruct the core design. The silver lining with all of this menu abuse is it's all optional.


MOVE. SHOOT. FLATTEN. TAP. Boktai contains all the mechanics of an stealth/shooting game. Fortunately, it does a few things correctly. Not being able to move and shoot focuses the action so that it can exist in a smaller space, which is ideal for the GBA screen size. Also, players can only fire in 8 directions, which requires more careful aim when hitting far away targets. The long range shots are the least effective at killing while the close range spread deals the most damage. Having to move in close to enemies to effectively kill them in a shooting game increases the tension of combat. When all of these design elements come together, the combat reminded me of fighting in a top down Zelda game like A Link to the Past.

Botkai was hatched from Kojima's mind and brought to life under his heated gaze. In true Metal Gear fashion, players don't have to kill any of the enemies. From the game's outset, I was cautioned against "unnecessary killing." By TAPing to creating distractions, FLATTENing to silence my footsteps and to squeeze around enemies, and by SHOOTing my foes in the back I had all the abilities I needed to stun and stealth my way through the game without taking a life. The problem is, this isn't Metal Gear, and I'm not pitted against other humans. I'm fighting the undead, which puts the whole "killing" concept in a dimly lit gray area. It also doesn’t help that most of the enemies in the game are "immortals" that regenerate after being "killed."

I realized at some point, that stealthing around isn't engaging enough to hold my attention for the duration of the game. When trying to play "Kojima's way," I have to do a lot of searching the area using the LOOK mechanic, a lot of waiting for enemies to turn their backs, a lot of wall TAPing to create distractions, and a lot of avoiding engagement. Doing this opens of the game to redundancy and static space. It would be different using such stealth tactics was the best way avoid taking damage, to conserve solar energy, or even to access special areas. But, the way Boktai is designed, conserving recourses isn't vital because there's no problem a few items can't fix, and there are no areas that require stealth to access. In the end, using stealth is simply the slow way to play Boktai.


The overworld in Boktai must be some kind of joke or failed attempt at a Zelda like overworld. Not only is there nothing to do of consequence on the overworld except walk in an almost straight line to the next dungeon or mini dungeon, but the different areas are abruptly patched together like a quilt instead of organically blending form one to another. One moment, I'm standing in a graveyard. The next step, I'm in a forest.

What's worse is the whole game is designed as if it has been cut out of a mold using a large isometric chisel. Though the blocky look and feel works for some of the buildings, the style all becomes stale in how it limits how the player's possible paths through the level and how forced and inorganic it feels. Without strong organic themes and ideas to govern the construction of each level, every room feels artificial and disconnected from each other. Even in the fire dungeon where the player manipulates switches to raise and lower the magma level much in the same way link does in the various Zelda water temples/dungeons, it is not apparent how the magma changes with each adjustment. Instead of trying thinking about each room as a part of a whole, I stuck to a simple strategy. Just keep going forward and don't get distracted. The game is linear even when it doesn't look like it.

There is only one aspect of Boktai's level design that is worthy of accolades: The folded and refolded level design. In each of the game's main dungeons, players delve deeper into each location overcoming obstacles, enemies, and traps to reach the boss. Players then Battle the boss (the crease). While dragging the boss inside his/her coffin back through the level, the player is mindful of the factors: the coffin randomly shaking itself free from your grip, slower character movement, the ability to use the coffin as a weight for switches, and how enemies will notice the coffin and help it escape. Once players take the coffin back to the beginning of the level another battle with the boss takes place in a special ritual. The sequence up to this point completes the folded design.

As an interesting addition, if during the course of the ritual the boss breaks free and escapes, it'll make its way back through the dungeon forcing players to scramble back through the level to recapture it and continue the process. This feature creates the possible refolds.

Over all, the folded design in Boktai is very unique and well executed. There are just a few things that I did not like about it. Unfortunately, as the coffins inch their way to freedom, once they slip through a door way, their position becomes difficult to track. Even if you pursue a runaway coffin right as it moves through a door, on the other side, the coffin is no where to be found. In fact, the coffin somehow manages to move through several rooms in the blink of an eye. It's too bad that the game couldn't design this feature more organically using the game's established rules and mechanics.


The enemies in Boktai are creative each filling a specific and unique design space. Crows fly around and swoop in to pester the player. Spiders bunch up, spin sticky web traps, and spit. Gouls patrol around and launch attacks on the player. Golems are powerful stone creatures that roll after the player at high speeds. And the list goes on. What I found to be the most interesting part of the enemy design in Boktai, is the interplay that exists between the player and the enemies. By manipulating the environment, the player can turn enemy attacks against themselves. The fast rolling Golem in pursuit of the player will smash and kill any Goul in its path. The Kraken can be tricked into using its tentacle to snatched up another enemy instead. Mummies, when set on fire, can set other mummies on fire as they run around frantically. It's this kind of attention to detail that I feel is too obscure in Kojima's other games, but perfectly tuned in Boktai.


So what is this game? From the look of things, Boktai is a game with a poor, convoluted story, lack luster puzzles, and undynamic mechanics with a level design that is composed of parts that are either hit or miss. If this accurately described the game I would have put it away long ago never to have finished. Fortunately, the best part of Boktai, the part the goes beyond the folded level design and the Classically correct enemy design, is the game's primary function: the sun that is in my hand.

I saved the best for last because it's important to understand how much influence a unique and well integrated primary mechanic is to a game as a whole. If you don't know already, Boktai is a GBA game that has a solar sensor built into the cartridge. Artificial light won't do the trick. In order to get the full Boktai experience, sunlight is required.

Because Boktai is a GBA game, the entire gaming experience is automatically portable. Play it inside, outside, and everywhere in between. Do whatever it takes so that the sun can power up the game. To use the sunlight players have to adjust the angle of the handheld so that the suns light hits the sensor directly. When battling the forces of darkness every photon of light counts. In my experience with the game, because I frequently moved from location to location, manipulating the angle of my DS to catch the sunlight turned my handheld into a 3D gaming controller that respond to real world conditions in 3D space. Using the handheld in this way is something that I've seen in few places.

To power the Gun De Sol, the main defensive and offesive weapon, players can absorb the light of day. Though the game provides many ways to obtain this solar energy in the absense of real sunlight, this section is focused on how the primary mechanic USE SUNLIGHT is used throughout the game. When the player is in an outdoor environement in the game world, the game world transmits the sunlight hitting the sensor so players are free to absorb and use the light infinitly. As we all know, vampires and the undead detest sunlgiht. So in Boktai, all of the bosses and enemies dwell in buildings or areas where the sunlight is blocked. Players must charge their solar batteries outside of these locations and conserse it once inside.

Depending on whether sunlight is shining on the solar sensor, invisible paths become visible, light shines through windows, solar winds increase, and specific areas will be illuminated. The environmental conditions also change depending on the time of day according to the game's internal clock. At sun down when real sunlight isn't available, hidden crystal like "solar bamboo shoots" twinkle in the moon light.

Even this core sunlight driven mechanic isn't without balance. To appreciate light, one must experience darkness or, in this case, shade. Playing out in the sunlight for too long will cause the Gun De Sol to begin to overheat. To remedy the situation, players must find some shade to play in. If the gun fully overheats, it won't be availablefor use until the next sun rise (also according to the internal clock). This feature tops the dynamic decay system of Boktai's solar gameplay.

In the outdoor environments in the game world, players are free to use their solar energy and refill their supplies infinitely as long as they're playing in sunlight. Generally, to progress through the game players must encounter the undead enemies in covered/indoor areas. Once out of the sunlight in the game world, players must conserve their energy as every shot drains their supply. This completes the first organic cycle between sunlight, the environment, and ammunition. And the player moves through different game environments, the solar ammo will decay with use and be refilled according to the location.

Regardless of what's happening in the game world, if the game is exposed to the sun for too long the gun will overheat. This decay cycle is partially independent of the first cycle. And when the sun sets in real life, both decay cycles are replaced with another organic decay cycle that resets with the dawn of the next day. In the end, no matter how you play Boktai, you're always a part of some kind of organic decay cycle that revolves around the sun. This means even when you're not playing you're still playing in a way.

Several reviewers criticized Boktai's dependence on real sunlight despite all the solar energy alternatives provided in the game. Complacent in how they play videogames, such reviewers thought it was inappropriate that they couldn't play Boktai any way they wanted and at any time. This is precisely why I enjoyed Boktai as much as I did. From gradually losing daylight and offensive power, to coordinating my attacks with cloud cover, to rainy day steak outs, I had to seize the day whenever I got the chance. Similar to how WiiFit raises awareness of one's physical body, playing Boktai made me more aware of the day and sunlight. In the age we live in, artificial light is everywhere. Having to work around less predictable and convenient light source made me tune into nature or at least it reminded me of how dependant and powerless life is without the sun.

And on top of all this, playing in real sunlight or in the shade is an organic way for players to control their own difficulty. During the day, I could harness the limitless power of the sun. By nightfall I had a choice to make. I could either turn the game off and wait until tomorrow to play, or I could tough it out with an ever draining supply of energy in my battery reserves.


If you don't fully embrace the light, then there's no point in playing Boktai. It's all about the solar sensor. When nearly every other element of the game is average or below average, the interaction with the sun highlights the game's more positive design elements well. Though the majority of the game leaves much to be desired, at least the sun is there with you the whole way. It's too bad some reviewers couldn't see the truth. It's also too bad that Konami didn't either. All the items, most of the puzzles, many of the dungeons, and most of the story could be completely thrown away to leave a purer, better designed product. It's a little pretentious of the developers to call me "stupid" for not wanting to solve yet another one of their dull push block puzzles, or calling me a "fool" for trapping myself inside of one of their poorly designed puzzles. If only Kojima knew what potential he had in his hands, he might have made a cleaner game.

In the end, all I wanted to do was hold the "sun in my hand," and I got a chance to with this extremely unique game. It's too bad I had to wade through some redundant mediocrity to get there. At least thinking back on the whole experience, my memories are bright.

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