Saturday, 21 January 2017

Whiskey Reviews: Gunmetal Arcadia and Gunmetal Arcadia Zero

Platform: PC
Release Date: 7 February, 2017
Developer: Minor Key Games
Publisher: Minor Key Games
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £6.99 (Steam)

We've got something new this time – not only a new game (that isn't even out yet!) but also a first for Whiskey Reviews, a double feature! Gunmetal Arcadia and its companion story based game, Gunmetal Arcadia Zero, make up the new series from Mr Pittman over at Minor Key Games. Is it worthy of standing alongside Super Win The Game? Hit the link and find out!

Before we start, please take not that all screenshots are from Gunmetal Arcadia Zero. This is because the preview build of Gunmetal Arcadia that I played was missing some background art and I just plain liked the ones I got from Zero more.

With that out of the way it's serious disclaimer time: I received both of these games for free from Mr Pittman for the purposes of this review/preview. The only thing that's changed hands apart from that is a bit of Twitter trolling. Without further ado, lets get on with what you came here to read!

Zero acts as a kind of story set-up/preview for Gunmetal Arcadia, which could be argued is the full gameplay experience. You play one of several bird-named Tech Elves, Vireo, from the city of Arcadia which is under threat from the Unmade Empire, grotesque mutants whose army is made up of monsters great and small. While Gunmetal Arcadia follows the same general story it takes place after Zero and is structured like a roguelike, with your decisions and actions influencing subsequent attempts.
Charming forests are always bordered by grotesque Life Force style dungeons only accessible through small intestine ladders.

In both games it's your job to catch up with your friends and protect the city from the oncoming threat by going beyond the walls and defeating the queen/leader of a nest of the Unmade. To aid you in your quest are various shopkeeps, some of which are aligned with either the Gunmetal Vanguard, militaristic types who favour strength over speed, or the Seekers Of Arcadia, mystical scholar types who favour speed over reach and strength. You don't have to align with either faction but doing so will get you discounts at their shops, and price-hikes and scorn from shops of the opposite faction.

Gunmetal Arcadia, being a rogue-like dictates the difficulty to you through the availability of shops, randomly generated rooms and enemies, and what choice of weapons and sub-weapons will be available. This means there's obviously a lot more replayability but it also means there's a lot more game over screens. Personally I have a huge reliance on an in-game weapon called the Scapula, a hugely powerful but slow axe and I'm pretty naff with the rest so if I don't get a Scapula from the Vanguard shops early on then I'm pretty much stuffed several screens later when I have to fight anything more dangerous than a slime.
By the power of Gunmetal Grey Skull!

If I've made the shops sound overly important it's because they are. You see, you'll probably not want to remain neutral because you're going to want a weapon you're comfortable with because Vireo, and you are in for a rough trip. Veterans of The Adventure Of Link will probably find the game a bit easy but Gunmetal owes a lot (in both gameplay and style) to Zelda 2, including the difficulty. Veterans of Wonder Boy, specifically Monster Land, will be instantly familiar with the shop style progression system.

It's not an unfairly hard game but preparation and execution go side-by-side in many areas. Rushing forward will only serve to get you murdered by variety of enemies, all of which act differently to each other. You might think you know how a snake statue is going to behave from the ones you saw earlier in the game, but if it's a different colour then it's going to act differently. Observation, experimentation and, most of all, patience will see you through the game's handful of chapters.

And therein lies my only real gripe with Zero – it's a bit on the short side. You can count the number of chapters on one hand. If you're the kind of player that goes right for the goal and doesn't much explore or hunt secrets then you're probably only going to get a couple of hours out of Zero at most. It's pretty replayable thanks to the variety of weapons though, if you're used to a weapon with reach and power you can crank the difficulty up by opting for daggers and give the game another shot.
Sometimes you just have to punch a Moomin, it's unavoidable.

That said, the real meat is in Gunmetal Arcadia and Zero is meant to be an introduction slash prequel to the main event. It does a good job of not just introducing the world and characters but also prepares you for the gameplay challenges you're going to face once you graduate to the big leagues.

Enough gushing about the excellent gameplay though, what about the graphics and sound? Well, if you've ever played a game by Mr Pittman before you probably already know what you're getting yourself in for. Faux-retro pixel art and sounds that could easily be at home on any 8-bit system are backed up by an optional CRT filter and the game's even presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio so prepare for vertical black bars on the sides of a modern aspect ratio unless you're prepared to stretch the image to fit.

It's worth noting that the CRT filter more closely mimics a TV from the mid '80's than a monitor, adding a little extra nostalgia for those who grew up playing the classics sat in front of a screen that probably had actual dials and only 9 channels. If you missed the '80's or, like me, grew up gaming on something with a monitor then you're probably going to find the filter more distracting than enriching. But hey, that's why it's optional.
Not optional: Sick mid-air dance moves. Also, sick Dozer reference!

Besides a bit of optional nostalgia, the visuals are classic and yet modern. Realistic proportions mesh well with the limited palette of each sprite, usually only two or three colours, and even though each individual pixel is pretty chunky the colours are well blended to produce depth and smoothness. Colours are used well, with bright, distinct colours dominating the foreground and indicating solid objects and interactive elements while darker colours and more black than a goth convention make up the background. The huge amount of negative space produced by the blackness is masterfully used to produce the illusion of gigantic areas, especially evident when you're in the city and can see the silhouette of the skyline with a small portion of deep purple dusk sky drawing your eye to the detail.

The soundtrack is just as artfully done. Inspiration seem to have been drawn from every platforming adventure of the 8-bit era. One track might sound like it belongs on the NES, while another might make you swear you've heard it on a Commodore C64 (yes, I know the C is kind of redundant there, shut up) while a third might yet sound like it's straight out of an early '80's Master System game. Wonderful ambient effects are woven into the music, not immediately apparent while in game but when heard away from the game you can hear the Link's Awakening style waves crashing on a shore are part of the music rather than a separate effect.
Danny DeVito elf likes the cut of your jib.

Every single track has managed to remind me of at least one classic game; everything from obvious influences like The Adventure Of Link and Wonder Boy to the previously mentioned Link's Awakening, Golden Axe Warrior, Castlevania, Bonanza Bros, Alex Kidd, Mega Man, Adventure Island 2, Batman, Ninja Turtles, and a dozen others will easily spring to mind for a retro gaming nut.

A variety of instruments are also used to produce an upbeat and yet tense soundscape. This is a happy, exciting time, like playing games after school as a kid. It's also a harrowing and sometimes sombre experience as you fight to survive just one more screen or briefly mourn the death of your protagonist. Then it's right back to the title screen and any frustration and sadness are washed away by the chirpy opening riff of the title music and your thumb involuntarily hits the button to go again because the lizard part of your brain knows it's about to get another shot of sweet happiness as the city theme kicks off immediately after.
On the Silibus this term: Death at the hands of the horrific lovechild of a dragon and ET.

Even with so many retro influences the music is unmistakable Gunmetal Arcadia through and through. You're not going to hear the synth keyboard and mouth organ (I think?) of Death Wish and mistake it for anything else. That's because the aforementioned synth instruments are undeniably modern. Yeah, 8- and 16-bit sound chips have mimicked instruments before but the crisp yet smooth instruments coming out of your speakers when listening to Gunmetal Arcadia don't have any rough edges unless where intended, like in the track Six Gun where the percussion sounds lifted right from Streets Of Rage.

Thanks to Mr Pittman's Youtube channel you don't even have to play the game to enjoy the sounds. I've been listening to them the whole time I've been writing this and I'm on my third go-round this session alone and haven't grown bored of them yet. The embed below should help educate your earballs on what retro game music can be.
Overall, the best way to describe Gunmetal Arcadia, and Zero, is to say they're retro through a modern lens. Through and through the presentation is unapologetically from the heyday of the platforming genre but the gameplay and structure are reinforced by the lessons we've learned since then. Anyone aching for the good old days or just looking for a thoroughly delightful gaming experience isn't going to come up short by choosing Gunmetal Arcadia and Zero.

Scores: Zero gets 8 out of 10 ROT13'd spoilers out of 10. Gunmetal Arcadia gets 8 out of 10 trips to the game over screen out of 10.

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