Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: "Serious Sam: The Random Encounter"

Friends, Shoot Him In the Face
review for Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (PC), 1 player action/RPG, out now

Serious Sam 3: BFE is out right now. It's Croteam's love letter to first-person shooting, an excellent game with a bevy of multiplayer options and extraordinary polish and attention to detail. The gameplay is classic Serious Sam; wide open spaces filled with relentless enemies, a non-linear ludo-narrative, the likes of which naturally come about when you dump the player in with the AI and let the destruction unfold without the aid of gratuitous set-piece cutscenes. And it's a lot of fun. Despite all this, there's are more interesting Serious Sam titles, and they all came out in 2011.

The Serious Sam Indie Series is what it is. Part marketing experiment, part unprecedented opportunity for indie developers to play around with the established formula of a well-known franchise, it's essentially publisher Devolver Digital throwing Serious Sam's assets and rights the way of a couple of independent studios with the simple instruction of, "do what you will". From the Serious Sam model of first-person shooting, the three titles made somehow included a gun-stacking 2D shooter, a survival-platformer for iPad, and... a Japanese-style, turn-based RPG. It's that RPG that we're going to look at now. It's called The Random Encounter. And you see what they did there, indeed.

Turning Serious Sam into a Japanese RPG is really, really hard. If anyone was to ever take on the mammoth task, it would be developers Vlambeer. Perhaps they are best known for the free-to-download smash hit Super Crate Box, they specialize in old-school, 16-bit-ish graphics and even older, arcade-style difficulty - no more evident than in aforementioned Super Crate Box. They have also proven on multiple occasions to be incredible inventive, and innovative. Their debut game is called Radical Fishing, and it;s combination of fishing sim and maniac's shooting gallery. They are insanely creative. So really, what else would they do with the Serious Samfranchise than turn it into an RPG?

...first of all, it's a lie. Serious Sam: The Random Encounter isn't really an RPG. It is, in Vlambeer's own words, "a game about running backwards and shooting things". When you think about it that way, The Random Encounter is as pure an experience as any Serious Sam sequel ever has been. Serious Sam's frantic, manic pace remains completely intact, as well as the wave-based carnage, parody-lite humour, and gun-soaked non-stop action all making the transition across to Random Encounter. What is mixed up is the mechanics of play, though they are, fittingly, as bizarre and bombastic as the concept - and Vlambeer's eccentric backlog - would guarantee.

The J-RPG it most takes cues from is Pokemon. There's an overworld where a Sam avatar walks around, and when you walk over certain parts of terrain you have a chance of provoking a random encounter. There's not a whole lot to this staple of J-RPGs that Vlambeer has changed. Occasionally a boss character will appear on the overworld as a non-random encounter, but for most part, it'll be all about walking around and triggering encounters. That's how these games have rolled for what seems like forever, and Random Encounter knows it's the best way to evoke the concept of a J-RPG.

It's in the encounters themselves that we find Random Encounter has taken vast amounts of liberties with both JRPGs and Serious Sam's time-tested mechanics. Indeed, Vlambeer's trademark inventiveness is well at play, and on display is an interesting, unique battle system that borrows heavily from everything, from RTS to bullet hell shooters.

Essentially, it's a game about managing an arsenal. Your three party members run backwards from hordes of enemies, shooting the whole time, and your job is to control them as they run (to aim their weapons, and dodge the incoming bevy of lasers and bullets), and what weapons they're holding. Where the turn-based element comes into play is as such; as you run, a 5-second timer counts down. When it's finished, the game is paused, and you're free to equip your party's weapons, set them to heal/use an item, or... well, that's it. Your options are to switch gun, use the gun you're using, or use an item. However, every item has its own unique properties.

When you equip a weapon, you must then adjust various settings to this weapon's performance. The minigun, for example, shoots in only a straight line, so you adjust the angle of that line. The grenade launcher shoots at a certain place on the playing field, and you have to choose what position that is before firing. The shotgun, you have to select its range - it's more effective and deadly and close-range, of course, but at longer ranges you can hit more enemies at once. Every gun, with the exception of the standard-issue revolver, has something to alter in the way it shoots; and so, when you're done selecting weapons and their options for every member of your party, you hit the spacebar and the 5-second timer counts down from the top, your party shooting their guns into the horde as directed.

It's a lightning quick, streamlined process - and often, you'll be happy with your previous setup and you can just fly through the weapon select screen and out the other side to continue the carnage. It's helped by the fact that you continue to control your characters' positions in the battle itself, and it creates a sense of control over the flow of battle that very few actual JRPGs have ever had. It's a fun, unique battle system, and while not exceedingly deep, will take considerable practice to get to grips with.

Holding up this solid core is great writing and graphic design. Every old Serious Sam enemy makes an appearance, in eye-popping 2D pixel art. It's incredibly beautiful, and lends the game a gorgeous individual style that sets it apart from its contemporaries in a meaningful way. The dialogue and character interactions, while simple text-scrolling stuff, is sufficiently witty and engaging; Sam's party consists of two (seemingly random) multiplayer models from the Serious Sam first-person shooters, each a meathead like Sam, each with a lustful urge to shoot things in the face. But the dialogue is written like they're snooty upper-class Englishman; they use words like "indeed" and "veritably" without irony, and come off as an intelligent bunch of gunnuts, very much the polar opposite of all previous Serious Sam character interpretations. Also, it's the small touches that truly make it - for example, when a character dies in battle, and yet your party is ultimately victorious, his status is set to "CRY". Gold.

The biggest problem with the game is in its longevity. It lasts less than two hours, and though there are a whole bunch of secrets, and an endless mode, it has a lacklustre amount of content. Not that its length is really that much of an impairment - it's very much like Portal in that it's long enough to satisfy without being so long that it overstays its welcome. But it still feels like it's an incredibly poor package, and it still feels too short. The game is only $5, sure, but what kind of excuse is that for the game lacking content? A lot of games sell for $5 and present hours and hours of polished gameplay. It doesn't make the game bad, but it is an issue worth addressing, and ultimately, effects the overall impact of the game. Serious Sam: The Random Encounter is getting by on only a handful of mechanics, and while these mechanics are incredibly fun and innovative, it's disappointingly brief. Though personally, I was able to justify the pricetag by convincing myself I was also, really, paying Vlambeer for Super Crate Box and Radical Fishing - this being the first ever game Vlambeer has sold for, like, actual cash-monies.

It's incredibly fun, incredibly cheap, and inventive, and witty, and charming. It doesn't represent the biggest bang for your buck ever, but it's creativity and outright nuttiness ensures that it deserves a place in your games library - alongside the previous Serious Sam titles. It's an excellent slice of downloadable gaming, it's just not a very filling slice.