Sly Cooper, Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, these represent possibility the best platformer titles for the Ps2. Each one has a different take on the genre and I assume each one of you that had a Ps2 knows what I’m talking about. Today I’m going to talk about another platformer on the Ps2 which is just as good as these and that most of you have probably never played.
Kya: Dark Lineage or KDL was released on the PS2 in 2003 in the US by Eden Games. This was surprisingly the first of this genre from the developers. KDL follows Kya who after discovering a strange rune in her house gets transported to another world and is called upon to save it. There are two main species of creatures, Nativs and Wolfen; the Nativs are the general populace of furry creatures and they are being attacked by the Wolfen. The Wolfen are Nativs transformed into Wolfen by the big bad guy and Kya must exorcise the Wolfen to save everyone. Yes the story was not going to win any awards but like any good platformer the game play is where Kya has it.
As I mentioned at the start, the best platformers for the PS2 each took a unique take on the genre and ran with it. Jax went gritty and cinematic, Ratchet added unique weaponry and run and gun and Sly put stealth. Kya started out like most platformers, you have a hub world that takes you to each area of the game and you will unlock new gear to backtrack to go for 100%. Once you get past the intro you’ll find that Kya has a few tricks up her sleeve and that Kya is actually a 3d brawler stealth platformer game.
First is stealth, it turns out that wolfs do more than claw and bite, they take firearm training. Kya will run into armed enemies who if they see her they will gun her down. Gun fire also pushes Kya back preventing a brute force strategy of running at the enemy. Most of the time enemies are set up on encampments requiring the player to take the long way around to reach the guards. If Kya can get close enough to a gun wielding enemy chances are she can take them in a fight as all the gun wielding Wolfen are the weakest class (more on that later). Further in you’ll run into puzzles revolving around finding a way to disable the guards in areas that you can’t reach. Next up, what you do when you can reach your enemies.
For once in a platformer title the protagonist has more in the range of attacking then just pressing one button over again. KDL has an engrossing combat system to go with the running and jumping. Kya can attack with punches, kicks as well as grab attacks with combos and new moves are unlocked through upgrades. Combat feels very visceral as enemies fly backwards from strong attacks and you can watch enemies reel back from taking blows. Combat also takes an interesting turn as the enemies are actually smart enough to block. The more you use the same attacks or combos on an enemy the quicker they will learn that attack and block more nullifying the attack, this requires you to change up your attacks.
If I remember right there are three classes of wolfen to deal with: scrawny, muscular and elite. Scrawny wolfen are also the only ones who wield guns and fall fairly quick to a few good combos. Muscular do more damage and are more proactive at counter attacks. Finally elite guys can teleport, do the most damage and are the fastest to figure out your combos. What makes the combat work is that button mashing is punished requiring the player to learn these combos which are nowhere near as complex as the ones you see in fighting games but still engrossing enough. Now being sneaky and kicking ass is important but the platforming of KDL really ties everything together.
KDL throws in a lot of platforming staples along with a few new tricks. Perilous climbs and jumps are all over the place along with classic platforming challenges, such as jumping to moving platforms, race across dangerous sections to an oasis and other ones. KDL also throws in some special sections, such as navigating a hot air dirigible through a cavern. Two of my favorites would be the air gliding and animal riding areas. One of the species of animals in the world is these ostrich type creatures that run faster and jump farther than Kya. Besides the standard jump across long distance sections there are some that require you to catch up to a moving vehicle and jump off the creature to the vehicle and these sections are just awesome. I wish that there were more parts like this as the sections were well done.
Air gliding which comes into play more often involves Kya using pockets of air to glide around areas and avoid spikes and such. These sections serve as a great break between the platforming, stealth and fighting sections while still providing a challenge. Once again it’s that time for me to take off my rose tinted glasses and look at where KDL slips up.
The difficulty level of KDL stays firmly on the tough end of the scale, fortunately it came out around the time that platformers were moving away from lives and continues so you don’t need to worry about repeating levels after you die. However there are several sections that do focus on trial and error as one goof up can kill you. I remember one part near the end that has you racing up a cavern while lava is filling up, if you don’t do things perfectly you’ll get caught in the lava. As mentioned earlier you have to exorcise the wolfen to turn them back into nativs. There is a set # of wolfen in the game and to get %100 you have free them all, the problem is that if a wolfen dies by bottomless pits they are gone unless you kill yourself. While not a game breaker it does feel counterproductive to have to suicide to complete the game.
Last issue is a collective assortment of rough patches in the game, such as invisible walls glitches, camera awkwardness and such. Still with these issues I enjoyed KDL to the point that I went through and got 100% for it. Sadly we did not see a sequel even though the game hints heavily at continuing the storyline during the ending. In my opinion a several things affected the success of KDL. First marketing was almost nonexistent; I barely remember seeing anything advertising the game other then reviews. Speaking of which reviews of the game did mark the game down for appearing in an over saturated market. The PS2 had a lot of platformers on it from great to poor and with so many games in the genre it was hard to tell the diamonds in the rough.
The sad part is that KDL like Jax, Sly and Ratchet did do something unique for the genre. The combat and stealth elements were not seen in that manner from other platformers and KDL was caught in that awkward phase as the genre started to change. The platformer genre as a whole was moving more into action adventure with less focus on lives and level progression and more to larger open areas. I would have loved to see a refined sequel to KDL as the other great platformers really didn’t come into their own until their second or third titles in the series. Fortunately Eden Games is still around, having worked on the latest Alone in the Dark game but I still hope that we could see a sequel or even a spiritual one.
Someone who shall remain nameless that I know very well is playing the Starcraft 2 beta and lest he summon the wrath of Blizzard will not talk about anything Starcraft 2 related. While I leave this mysterious person to play Starcraft 2 I do want to talk about the style and design of Starcraft. Looking at Starcraft I can’t help but feel that it is one of the best the RTS genre has to offer and at the same time it is one of the worst.
Looking at Starcraft from the design point of view it is amazing: three asymmetrical sides with balance going across the board from what each unit is strong against down to time and resources required. Starcraft was not like other RTS games where each side was different but had similar units, here every unit was unique. There was no mistaking a ghost for a dark templar or marines to zealots. The variety of tricks to pull out against your enemy was unending as every possible matchup had its own playbook to use.
Then we had the single player campaign which to this day still stands as one of the best seen of the genre. The story played across each side delivered mission variety and some epic battles, like the attack on the zerg over mind at the end of the first one. Throw in an expansion pack that not only continued the story but added in even more units and it is no reason why Starcraft was amazing. Yet even with the spectacular single player campaign it was of course the multiplayer that is why people are still playing it today.
Thanks to Battle.Net Starcraft took off as one of, if not the best game for competitive games. Having balance down to the time required for each unit to build gives high level playing a mathematical focus as you try to time everything to be built on a schedule. High level Starcraft playing could be considered another game compared to what us normal guys can do; the amount of macro and micro management skills required is immense. There is a reason after all that it is a cyber sport in South Korea and tournament players practice nonstop to play Starcraft. I’ve been watching pro level Starcraft 2 games over on YouTube and it is mind boggling the stuff these guys can do.
Now with all that praise it’s time to talk about why I think Starcraft is one of the worst games of all time. Starcraft fails one of the most important tests of a great game, which is teaching the player to actually play the game. A common problem with RTS titles is the disconnect between single and multiplayer modes, while both use the same mechanics they both have a different experience and cannot easily mesh well. Single player campaigns are about a narrative which requires the player to be put into situations that will not be seen in multiplayer games. Such as the player vs a pre built base or with the recent Dawn of War 2, boss fights. Likewise multi player gives you all the tools available and just asks you go at it. The main problem is that multiplayer skills translate into single player but it does not go the other way.
Multiplayer is about dealing with build orders, spam attacks and advanced micro and macro skills that the single player does not go into or even require. The problem is that if you take someone who plays single player superbly and throw them into a multi player match, chances are they are going to lose horribly. Starcraft is one of the worse examples of showing the player how to play and learning from it. With three asymmetrical sides and a somewhat hard counter system it is impossible to know what counters what without scouring the internet and if your game requires that then the designers have failed on this issue.
There is no feedback playing Starcraft to let you know what is going on or how you are playing. Most players are going to see one blob of units kill another blob of units without any understanding or explanation of what is going on. The game doesn’t even mention unit balance on the tool tips, something I loved about Rise of Nations. Why did all my zerglings die to an army smaller than mine? I will never know. Learning Starcraft is like trying to learn Geometry without first being taught Algebra, you may have a faint idea about it but you have no basis of how to learn it and everyone is already ahead of you. Ironically these skills would be useful to find out about in the single player, but you will never need to use it other than in the multi player where you are going to lose and not have a chance to learn it.
Many people say that you learn best by losing and finding your mistakes, but if you don’t know why you lost then you have no idea what your mistakes are. Watching replays of my games don’t help as I don’t know what I did wrong and the game doesn’t tell me, so all I’m left is watching my greatest failures over again. If Blizzard was smart they would round up the best Starcraft 2 players and create four videos that ship with the game. Three going into detail about each side, how their units work, their counters, strengths and weaknesses. With the last one talking about basic Starcraft 2 play, how to micro and macro, base composition and so on. I’ve given up ever getting to a pro level at Starcraft on my own; maybe I need a tutor to help me. These issues have not escape other RTS designers and the genre has changed considerably making the Starcraft design a product of another time.
Looking at recent RTS titles like Company of Heroes, Sins of a Solar Empire among others and even the recent Command and Conquer game are moving away from the Starcraft and 90s style of RTS games. Where each side has completely distinct units and instead focus on sides that have few unique units and units that fall into different roles or classes and tweak the stats from there. For example in Company of Heroes, both the Allies and Axis have a unit classified as “light infantry” or ” light vehicle support” and so on. The roles stay the same but each unit has certain tweaks to it, such as the automatic BAR upgrade for the allies. Higher up in the tech trees you find unique units, some fill the same role as units from the other side but differ in a few areas.
Another key aspect of recent RTS titles is the importance of “teching up”, in Starcraft the main purpose of teching up is increasing your troop composition but in recent games it can become a mad scramble. For example in Company of Heroes the arrival of tanks changes the match drastically as all those infantry units are now useless without having Anti Tank backup. To put it another way, imagine if marines in Starcraft could not even touch siege tanks or ultralisks and you can see the difference. These differences in design have a huge affect on the genre and are almost night and day compared to Starcraft’s design.
Due to army compositions staying for the most part the same across the board, the learning curve of modern RTS games have smoothed down compared to Starcraft. Yet due to the almost class system of unit design, hard counters are more effective. In Starcraft having 100 hydralisks fully upgraded can basically spell doom for the other enemy. Today however all it would take would be a few hard counters to wipe them off the map. Another twist I’m seeing in RTS games is the customization aspect seen in Age of Empires 3.
Personally I love customization in RTS titles as it adds that element of creating custom play styles seen in Collectible Card Games. Some titles use it as a way of adding tech or supplementing strategies like Age of Empires 3. Another side of this is the concept of “unlocking” units and abilities like in the recent Command and Conquer game. However this would never, ever, ever work in Starcraft due to the blessing and curse of its design.
Starcraft like I mention was meticulously balanced and that led to its popularity. However you cannot change any of the mechanics of Starcraft without destroying that balance. Starcraft is like a beautiful glass table that has only 3 legs, perfectly balanced but if you upset it then the whole thing comes apart. Imagine Starcraft where a Zerg player doesn’t start out with zerglings but instead has enhanced hydralisks, somewhere I just gave a pro gamer chest pains. Strange as it sounds Starcraft has hit a design dead end in my opinion and with rare exception the genre as a whole has moved on. However Starcraft really did strike perfection with one shot and if there was ever a poster child of the RTS genre of the 90s that would be this game.
For those that cam play and understand Starcraft and can reach the pro levels , you’ll find a virtual Valhalla waiting for you, but the rest of us are going to be stuck in the dirt and have to slowly crawl our way out. I’m interested to see the reaction Starcraft 2 will have among the newcomers to the series, who have been wean on titles like Supreme Commander, Dawn of War etc. At least we can teach a new generation of RTS gamers the concept of the “zerg rush”.