Review by Meho Krljic
Noitu Love 2: Devolution
Developer: Joakim Sandberg
Released: Sometime in the last six months
Available for PC
Verdict: 4/5 Thumb Up
“Noitu Love 2: Devolution essentially bursts with quality. It’s just a highly professional piece of work, from the actual design of the stages and action down to the quality testing. It feels like a proper commercial product despite the low resolution, occasional screen-tear and the campy old-skool aesthetic. It’s a pick-up and play kind of game that anyone can play but that anyone will almost certainly be someone already considered a (dare I say it – hardcore) gamer.“
You know what? Mass Effect can go to hell. Seriously.
I managed to miss it on the Xbox 360 because at the time I signed the deal with the Redmond Devil and forked out for the Red Ring of Death standard bearer, the word on the PC version of this highly acclaimed RPG from the best western developer was already out and about. So I held out for the superior version, naturally.
Then it came and I was so mad about the EA’s use of SecuROM that I sat on the game for months waiting for my vision to return to the regular colour-scheme. Once I started playing it, Fallout 3 and Persona 4 were already out and they offered notably better experiences. So here I am, after all this time, cursing and sweating, trying to finish the goddamn Mass Effect before it finishes me.
It’s not that it’s a bad game. It’s that it’s a poorly designed, archaic piece of gaming “streamlined” by adding several cups of soul-crushing boredom in the form of action mechanics meant to bring the game closer to the hypothetical masses who wouldn’t normally play a good hardcore RPG but will gladly play a disastrous shooting/driving game in space.
Actually, it seems to have worked as Mass Effect receives nothing but praise by reviewers and gamers alike. The joke’s on me, eh?
But, why am I telling you about my beef with Mass Effect in the review of a small, almost nonexistent indie game? Because I believe that this game is what you all should be playing right now, while Mass Effect is a prime example of a huge, mainstream, AAA game made with a complex design document and devised through the use of focus groups and other arcane methods – in the end just a feature-list made digital flesh and weaker for it.
I can appreciate Mass Effect’s cinematic dialogue scenes, its voice-acting, even the story (and appreciation isn’t the same thing as genuine liking) but as a game, it stumbles, heavily, until it falls flat on its face. The level design and mission design are weak and obsolete, but where the game really falls apart is the shooting and the driving. You know, when the AI won’t even listen to the basic ‘stay here and guard yourself’ command and runs face first into a hail of hot futuristic bullets to be gunned down unmistakably every time, that is one of the signs that your shooting mechanics could do with some more development time. And as for driving, BioWare managed to break the very first rule of game design: if you’re going to have the player do something in your game many, many times, make sure it’s fun. Driving in Mass Effect is not fun. It’s clunky. No, scratch that, it’s broken, completely.
Yes, fun is subjective. When Satoru Iwata and Miyamoto–san talked about the Wii (back then when we still called it Revolution and the skies were clear and bunnies danced wherever we went) they were saying that the new Nintendo machine won’t be about pushing trillions of polygons to kids like so much digital crack and that it won’t be about specular lighting or textures teleported from the 26th century onto your TV. They were saying it was all about making games fun (again?). Now, even back then I had a premonition that they just MIGHT be talking about stuff like Wii Music and Wii Fit. You know, the not fun kind of fun. The fun for people who think games are played for fifteen minutes on a party before moving to tequila-shots-and-spin-the-bottle kind of fun.
But us, the so called hardcore, who are very serious about our fun and will become very bitter and defensive about it when calling people names on the Internet, we knew what kind of fun we wanted. The fun that is all missing from Mass Effect. The fun that Noitu Love 2: Devolution is all made of.
So, yes, I am here to tell you that an indie game made by one person with graphics that look like your Gameboy Advance somehow managed to hijack your precious PC monitor is MUCH better than an expensive and expansive RPG made by the best western RPG developer. Because it’s fun. No, scratch that. Mad fun. I mean telling you about it. And playing it is even more fun!
Joakim Sandberg is an independent developer/animation artist who used to do some animation for the solid Contra 4. His website www.konjak.org is however full of his own games, made from scratch as experiments in game design and usually free to download and play. Recently he made a game that is a passionate love letter to the Zelda series which he deems to be the best game series in the universe. It’s free, you can get it here. Go ahead, you know you want to.
But Noitu Love 2: Devolution is not free, it’s ten bucks and is currently the only game Sandberg sells on his website (you can alternately get it from Direct2Drive if you’d rather support a faceless, almost certainly evil corporation rather than a faceful, almost certainly lovely human being). Is it worth the ten bucks he asks for? That depends. Do you like to have fun? Do you seriously like to play games that are fun in the no-nonsense, bang-your-head-to-this way? No, do you?
Because if you’d rather watch really nice dialogue scenes where professional actors go through a meticulously written space-opera narrative and then contemplate suicide as you try to drive or shoot, then, hell, I bet Mass Effect still can be purchased all over the place.
Because Noitu Love 2: Devolution, last year’s Independent Games Festival finalist, won’t give you nice dialogue scenes. Its narrative could be written on a back of a post stamp and it essentially breaks down to: you are Xoda Rap, the aliens are attacking your futuristic city (they’ve brought some nasty looking robots along too), go and ruin their shit! Also it’s 2D and the resolution is 320×200.
What Noitu Love 2: Devolution will give you is intense, non-stop action of the kind that makes your heart pound, your index finger twitch and your brain repeatedly explode with joy. It is quite possibly that you will feel a little more as a man after mere five minutes of playing this game (regardless of your biological gender, I hasten to add) because by that time you will have pimp-slapped some two hundred pink and silly looking aliens back to their home planet and dropkicked their oversized battle tank to oblivion.
Noitu Love 2: Devolution is a sequel to Sandberg’s free game Noitu Love (available here) and while that one was interesting and funny, it is very clear from the start why the author deems the sequel worthy of commercial distribution. When compared to most indie games, Noitu Love 2: Devolution essentially bursts with quality. It’s just a highly professional piece of work, from the actual design of the stages and action down to the quality testing. It feels like a proper commercial product despite the low resolution, occasional screen-tear and the campy old-skool aesthetic. It’s a pick-up and play kind of game that anyone can play but that anyone will almost certainly be someone already considered a (dare I say it – hardcore) gamer.
It’s a 2D action side-scroller where you control a cute looking fighting girl who is the only hope of her hometown against an invasion of pink and green bug-eyed aliens. The action is fast and intense and essentially boils down to running left to right, kicking tons of grunts in the face along the way and then fighting a miniboss or an end-level boss. There are platforming elements to this game but it is not a platformer. There are puzzle elements to this game but it is not a puzzler. This is a pure non-stop action game with intelligent level design and interesting bosses and if it was sold in boxes, the backs of boxes would have words “SPEED!” and “SPECTACULAR!” printed in huge red letters. Also it has an Asian and a wild west stage.
Of Speed and Spectacle
Xoda is an asskicker and nametaker. She can run really fast, jump really high, punch people several feet away, dash-slam them and spin-attack whoever is stupid enough to get vertical with her in the wrong moment. She can also project shields anywhere on the screen and is quicker than a greased lightning. In a way, despite Sandberg’s allegiance to Zelda, Noitu Love 2: Devolution is much more akin to Treasure’s celebrated 2D action games from the times past, particularly Gunstar Heroes and Astro Boy. There is the same sense of speed and crazy action coupled with fun, cute visuals and enough gameplay depth to satisfy even the picky hardcore.
What is really good about Devolution is how its simplicity doesn’t equal shallowness. At first, the game is all about the spectacle. Xoda can virtually be everywhere at the same time, zapping from one side of the screen to another, facekicking the alien scum, raking combos like it’s some kind of a summer sale in wantondestructionland. However, as the game goes on, the fact that the grunts hardly present any danger to Xoda is balanced by intelligent level design and well positioned and designed bosses. The pacing, that holy grail of modern game design (something that Mass Effect, incidentally, lacks completely), is near perfect with the game leading the player through simple puzzles and simple combat at breakneck speed, making sure none of it outstays its welcome. Precisely at the moment when you start wondering whether the game will now just remix the last two set pieces, you are faced with an entirely new challenge, usually a boss encounter that is demanding, different but never frustrating. Bosses require the player to analyse and understand their behaviour patterns and Sandberg managed to hit the sweet spot between complete intuitiveness and the need to think. Not that seasoned Contra players will have any troubles with Devolution’s bosses or set pieces, but that doesn’t make the game any less fun.
Big games with expensive graphics seldom can afford much variety so recycling of enemies and bosses is something we have grudgingly come to accept in (and expect from) AAA games. Not so with Noitu Love 2: Devolution. You don’t get to fight the same boss twice in different settings. You don’t even see the same bosses twice unless Sandberg has a really great idea how to make an already familiar face completely new. It would be tempting to say this game bursts with ideas, call it a triumph of indie design and slap a recommendation on it but that would be selling the game short. Because, on top of ideas it has very serious implementation, fantastic balance and polish that is absent in many big titles.
You can tell Sandberg tested his set pieces very thoroughly because all of them work. And the game is better for this avalanche of great ideas that ensure you never know what awaits after the next boss. You will be fighting on vertical stages with collapsing floors and rocket engines waiting to burn your pretty visage to a crisp. You will be fighting underwater and trading blows with an angry looking sea-serpent. You will take to the skies and blow flying aliens away with a gun that can shoot beams travelling from target to target. The aliens will respond with a machine that uses a GIGANTIC MECHANICAL FIST as ammunition and when all else fails, a steam-powered train will break into a savage gallop and attempt to crush you. Elsewhere, you will fight your lookalike armed with an RPG (not the tabletop kind. The shoots-exploding-projectiles kind.), run on a spinning wheel down a watery slope while the aforementioned sea-serpent tries to chew your head off and in another inspired boss encounter you will be fighting a mad orchestra conductor inside of a concert piano. Does that sound like fun?
If your answer is jumping out of your chair and screaming “Hell yeah!” pumping your fist into the screen then this game might be for you.
The Chopshop of Unearthly Delights
Noitu Love 2: Devolution is seven stages of non-stop action of the kind I have just described. It’s deliberately cheap-looking, campy and faux-Japanese but don’t mistake its passion for the lack of chops. It has chops. Possibly dozens of them. Not just because it’s a Gameboy Advance looking game that you play on your PC, but because it actually uses the PC to make the game better.
Take the controls for instance. The game could have been controlled using only keyboard but the addition of mouse controls actually makes it control better. Xoda is a quick, agile little combatant and using the mouse to send her dashing across the screen actually changes the way you think about combat and puzzles. It’s an advanced control scheme that actually makes the game deeper without taking away from its accessibility, speed and spectacle.
Likewise, the saving/ continue mechanic. The game allows you to continue playing after you have died a set number of times and also allows you to save and quit at certain points. However, to ensure that it is an accessible but challenging experience, the save file is destroyed the moment you continue playing the game. Of course you can go and muck around with the save file and make backups and stuff, but Noitu Love 2: Devolution is a game that lets you play, lets you have fun but also challenges you to be better, to learn, to overcome, to evolve. Or, to put it this way, it will give you a fighting chance, it will then murder you, several times and when you’re all out of fight, it won’t laugh at you… much.
You can tell it works when someone with almost nonexistent hand-eye coordination like me manages to play it and have fun and be motivated to go back and be better even after I lose all my continues to an evil boss near the end of the fifth stage. The proper hardcore gamers will have little trouble with the game on its normal difficulty setting and the hard setting will undoubtedly give them something to chew on. The game ranks the quality of your performance after each stage and, hey, don’t be sad that you’ll be seeing Ds for most of your first playthrough – it’s whether you’re having fun that counts. There are also secrets to find and different game modes to sample.
Graphically, the game looks lovely despite the low resolution. The art direction is instantly likeable with simple but funny and expressive looking sprites and elaborate painstakingly-crafted machines. The visual clarity however is never absent and the player always gets all the necessary information despite the carnage on screen. Yes, there are occasional screen-tears. Live with it or die, I don’t care.
And then there is the music. Oooh, the music. It’s actually so good that Sandberg lets you download the soundtrack for free. Get it. Come on, it’s not just free, it’s excellent.
All Rad, Nothing Bad (about it)
Are there bugs in this game? Yes, there are. No, none of them managed to get me worked up. At one point the game slowed down to a quarter of its speed and everything was in slow motion. It was right before a very cool bossfight so it actually ended up looking even cooler and the game reverted to its normal speed afterwards. Other than that I don’t even remember what the rest of the bugs looked like. Meaning it’s essentially bug free.
Does it have any bad sides at all? Well, no, not really. Unless you consider the absence of cool cinematic dialogue scenes and horrible driving sequences bad. Also, no multiplayer but seriously, did you expect any? What you can see while playing is how the game could be made even better if someone was to throw some serious cash at Sandberg. More weapons. Alternative routes through stages. Possibly slightly higher resolutions.
But none of it takes away from the fact that this is a highly imaginative, highly polished game made by one person that puts to shame most of the big budget games from ‘real’ publishers at either continent.
You know, in the last year or so we have come to accept that indie devs can and do produce titles that are better than 90% of mainstream tosh out there. But all those Clouds, Braids and World of Goos, fantastic as they are, can make people think that indie games are necessarily pacifistic, cute, emo pieces of software made by hippies for hippie infants. Noitu Love 2: Devolution is the cure for this delusion. You didn’t start playing games in your childhood because you wanted to be a hippy. You wanted to blow shit up. Well, do it, brother, do it sister and spread the word!!! Because if we do not get Noitu Love 3 by next holiday season, I am going to be seriously pissed. After all, Mass Effect 2 is around the corner and we will need the antidote!
Please welcome Meho to our staff. He’s been a longtime reader and supporter of both Tap-Repeatedly and its predecessor, FourFatChicks, we all look forward to Meho’s tough and thoughtful contributions. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Welcome, Meho!