Monday, March 30, 2020

#IndieSelect: Mekorama (NS)

I received a copy of Mekorama on the Nintendo Switch from publishers Rainy Frog and Ratalaika Games and developer Martin Magni for Xinthus' #IndieSelect event last week.  The game was given and received without promise or expectation of a positive review, only that the game be played and the experience be shared through social media channels.  All words unless otherwise noted are my own and all pictures included in this article, unless otherwise noted are from my own experience playing the game.

Judging by the pictures included in Xinthus' initial post about Mekorama, I was not sure what type of game I was getting myself into but it looked like some type of Minecraft isometric puzzle game.  It is not that.

I have not played a lot of games that fit this mold of isometric environmental puzzle games with FEZ and Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker come to mind, but Mekorama is not a clone or love child of either of those titles.  In Mekorama, you play as a robot who has a B on its chest (who I have and will be referring to here on out as Bryan) and you have to get them from their starting location to the goal of the stage.  Along the way, you have to manipulate certain pieces of the environment to manually move Bryan along, with objects like sliding platforms, moveable blocks, elevators, and rotating whirligigs all the while avoiding hazards like lethargic robots, aggressive robots, and electrical traps.  I would say that for 90% of the time I spent playing before writing this article (about three hours) I used exclusively touchscreen controls as I found them to be very intuitive (if you are already familiar with touchscreen controls).  Two-finger pinching zoomed-in, two-fingers apart zoomed out, moving your finger would rotate the screen, et cetera.  I never felt that I needed to use the controller, especially on later levels (Level 17 

I want to bring up the music early on because it is just so good in the way that it integrates into the game without being in the way or too ambient.  But, it is pretty ambient in the way that a lot of the music in Breath of the Wild is ambient, but the music in Mekorama has another layer to it.  According to Martin Magni, the music is both procedural and dynamic which is always cool when it is pulled off well.  And here it is pulled off very well.  There have been a number of instances when clicking on a place for Bryan to move creates a specific tone on a piano and then the next couple of notes in the music seem to play off of that one note, either building on it or just reusing it in a laid-back jazzy kind of way.

The game is split up into Easy Levels, Medium Levels, Tricky Levels, and Hard Levels with each set of levels being comprised of 25 individual levels, which is quite a lot of content for a game that retails for $4.99, but you could also argue quality over quantity.  After the first 25 levels in Easy, I feel that a lot of the levels were fairly well-paced in terms of difficulty.  The first handful of stages do a decent job of explaining the basic mechanics of the game and never feeling that there was a significant jump in difficulty that made a level feel impossible.

Except one level.

The Number of Times I Was Killed Here Is Slightly Embarrassing.
Level 17: Bot Bypass gave me a bit of grief in that was the introduction of a new mechanic, the antagonistic electrified  R-Bot who will zap you when you get within one square (both adjacent and diagonally) of them.  Knowing the type of game this was trying to be 17 puzzles in, I felt that being able to deftly avoid the R-Bot was not supposed to be the point, and I eventually decided to use the Hint system, which ended up not being as helpful as I was expecting, but that was because after trying to pass the level for the last  7 1/2 minutes, I failed to let the R-Bot do a full rotation of its patrol, otherwise, I would have seen it do what I needed it to do.

I Feel You, Bryan. I'm Tired of A-Bot's Antics too.
Patience.  I should have realized this from Level 7 Pagoda Push, being one of the levels that I have seen some people post about on Twitter, being one of the more frustrating levels in the game (along with Level 15 Back Track) which does require a lot of patience.  Pagoda Push introduces A-Bot, a computer-controlled robot whose only purpose is to get in the way.  In Pagoda Push, there really does not seem to be a specific puzzle, but more of a waiting game as Bryan inches forward forcing A-Bot to also move forward up until you reach the Goal. In Back Track, you just have to help A-Bot down the tower and then move after it passes your starting hovel and then backtrack back up the tower to the goal.  For these two levels, in particular, I feel like a shorter level would have been more appropriate and less time consuming to get across the same point.  But I am not a game designer, just a player.

And with that, Martin Magni also included a custom level designer that is unlocked from the beginning.  When you boot it up, you are greeted with a blank screen and nearly endless possibilities.  Kind of.  I did tool around with the level designer, not so much knowing what I was doing, but trying to create something that looked more like Level 1 Crash Course than Level 21 Dual Controls.  I feel like I went in expecting a toolset that was easy to use like Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS, but that was not was I ended up working with.  I am also not sure if this is the same toolset that Martin Magni used as I do not know if I would be able to recreate Level 20 Factory Run or Level 27 Magical Number 7.  Those two levels specifically have a lot going on behind the scenes and outside of using graph paper to plan out each level/layer of the stage, I would be and was overwhelmed by making something that was both functional and akin to the levels in Easy.  This really goes to show the level of creativity that was put into each of the 100 puzzles in this game, which were probably not created on the Switch.  My biggest gripe with the level creator on the Switch, using either the touchscreen or the controller, was being able to line up anything that was not a block.  I did try for far longer than it should have, to simply place a pipeline as a track for the block to run along, but it took so many tries to even get the right pipe attached at the right spot that my screen was littered with misplaced pipes; then deleting them and not anything else I had purposefully placed made me a bit anxious.  The last negative thing I have to say specifically about the Switch port is that there is no way to share levels either between friends, or an online marketplace-of-sorts where people can share their creations.  It looks like this functionality exists on the mobile versions of the game (as there are QR codes you can scan), but an update to the Switch game would be do greatly in this era of Super Mario Maker.

My only other critique is how the game operates when you either die (zapped by electricity) or fall off of the playable area.  What I mean by that (you can watch below or just continue reading my rambling) is that in some of the stages there are elements like spinning gears or blocks that pop out of walls (think Wipeout) knocking Bryan off of platforms, ledges and anything else they're standing on.  Or in the case of any number of levels, moving a platform too quickly will cause Bryan to loose his balance and fall to the ground.  The issue that I take is that if Bryan does fall, you are freely able to walk around the area (or swim if Bryan lands in water) doing nothing but walking (or swimming).  The level does not restart.  When you die (as in the case with Level 17 above), Bryan's body will float for eternity.  The only way to restart a level is if you manually press start (or the pause icon in the upper right corner) and press the reload button.  Now, I would not expect the game to immediately restart the level if there is no way of recovering, but maybe a three-second gap between when Bryan dies or gets up off the ground after falling would have been nice.

So, after about three hours of playing through the Easy Levels, the first four of the Medium Levels, and spending about 15-20 minutes with the Level Creator, I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp on Mekorama although I still could not tell you what the name of the game means.  The physics surrounding Bryan can be a little wonky sometimes but Martin Magni knew this when he was developing the game as the B actually stood for the way that Bryan would bumbling walk through levels (and also why its color is yellow and black).  Would I recommend this game?  Sure, and especially at the $4.99 price point, playing through all 100 levels will probably take some time (although hopefully there are not too many that require the player to wait for the A-Bot to do anything) and from what I have played (just over 25% of the game), the puzzles are still fun to figure out, even if Bryan is far from the most coordinated walker.

~JWfW/JDub/Cooking Crack/Jaconian
Now I Understand

P.S.  As I play through the Medium Levels (and possibly through the Tricky and Hard Levels as well) and fool around with the custom level generator some more, I might write up a follow-up article in the coming weeks.

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