Monday, December 12, 2016

Super Lovely Planet - Playing a Level

Much like the controls we discussed in the last post, Super Lovely Planet doesn’t over complicate things with all the mechanics complementing the core platforming experience. Every level is a linear get to the exit challenge. It has a start point and an end point with traps and enemies conspiring to push you back. Much like the original game, most of the levels are a collection of floating islands that connect to form a linear path to the exit. The architecture of the world is more akin to the original game unlike Arcade. Carefully rounded geometry invites spamming the jump button to find shortcuts and sequence breaks in the most unexpected corners of every level. Fall off the side or lose all your HP before reaching the end and the level resets you back to the start.

Unlike the original game, Super Lovely Planet sports slightly longer levels. That’s got a lot to do with the fact that you’re crawling at a snail’s pace if you refuse to play faster by jumping about, so levels can feel more like an endurance run now. Stages can last from anywhere between sixty seconds to a couple of minutes depending on how you choose to tackle them or how well you're playing. Plenty of new mechanics support this alternate play-style but at the same time they also deliver the familiar try-die-repeat gameplay which we know and love from the original Lovely Planet.

One big difference this time is the new health system. Making a mistake doesn’t instantly reset the level. You have health points now with pickups that heal you if you get hurt. A limited amount of these health drops can make every encounter a lengthy ordeal if the player finds it difficult to make it through in one go. Failing once doesn’t force you out of the encounter immediately, but leaves you with more interesting choices to deal with the situation. Scrambling around to grab HP can be tense and satisfying if executed properly but also sometimes result in a comedic failure if approached carelessly.

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This HP system lends another mechanic borrowed straight out of the original Castlevania. While most platformers would take some HP and throw you into an invincible state, Super Lovely Planet implements the infamous knockback from Castlevania. An uncontrollable rebound pushes you back after you make a mistake that works like a cutscene mocking your slip up. Failing to dodge a bullet right at the edge of a narrow platform shows your avatar plummet into the abyss while you wait and watch helplessly.

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Everything that’s a darker shade is going to hurt you along the way. Red blobs sit around waiting for you to accidentally jump on them and purple spikes cover the grounds of the Fortress. The Baddies make a return from the original game shooting the familiar purple bullets once again pointed right at your avatar. They come in different shapes and sizes, firing regular slow moving bullets or homing missiles depending on where you run into them (Yes the Swamp area is back and it’s more brutal than ever).

All this play is neatly tied together at the finish line with a new grading system that awards you with a rank ranging from an "F" to an "A". Complete a level flawlessly without crawling around for too long and the game will give you the special "S" rank. I moved away from the three star system because with this game it behaved more like a laundry list of boring tasks that had to be executed individually. This newer system doesn’t favor one play-style over another. The computation is a complex mix of your APM (Actions per Minute) and style points. The game conceals all of the details of this system which I feel should encourage players to play around with it before they can find a way to master it or eventually just break it.

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I’ve written before about the world and progression system. Super Mario Galaxy was a big influence for the way this game eventually turned out. I feel that game is a perfect blend of wildly different platforming gimmicks that deliver a good variety of interesting mechanics without a dull moment of repetition. Since our game puts all of its focus on the platforming as well, each world experiments with a different and contrasting play style. One moment you’ll find yourself balancing on a narrow beam to later dodging sniper fire in the vast open expanse of the Rice Fields.

As of today, Super Lovely Planet packs a total of fifty levels spread across seven unique worlds which is up from the five in the original game. I’ll go into more detail about those worlds individually sometime later. For now, I’m quite satisfied with all that we've discussed about this game here. I've painted an accurate picture of where Super Lovely Planet came from, what it is today and where it might be tomorrow with the weeks or months of polish that could eventually go into it.


You know it’s not a first person shooter, right?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Super Lovely Planet - The Controls and Platforming

In its platforming, Super Lovely Planet is more Castlevania than Mario. If there was one thing unique about this game that sets it apart from other games in the same genre, it’s that it takes inspiration from the kind of 80’s 2D platformer that got mixed reviews on its controls. Think Ghouls ‘n’ Goblins and Castlevania instead of Mario or Kirby.

The controls are quite straightforward but also very demanding for players who are accustomed to modern 3D action adventure games. The left and right analog sticks are mapped one to one with the movement of the character and camera respectively. The game doesn’t automate the camera at all. The jumping action is mapped to the right trigger so your thumbs never leave the joysticks. You can squeeze the trigger once for a single jump or hold it down if you want to continue jumping. NPC interactions and the optional attack button is set to the face buttons “A” on Xbox and “X” on Playstation. We’ll talk about those functions in another post, right now I just want to focus on the platforming alone.

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Plenty of very specific design choices bring a unique twist to the gameplay, and now's when the Castlevania influence starts to show. Loads of gravity keeps you grounded. Instead of altitude the jump gives you more speed, pushing you forward almost twice as fast than if you’re simply crawling. There’s absolutely no mid-air control so you’re going to commit to the direction and speed of the jump for the time you spend off ground. Other mechanics are tuned to complement the jump to give it new meaning and purpose. If players want to move faster, reposition quickly or dodge enemy fire, they are left with no choice but to resort to the jump button and that makes for the most quintessential risk-reward action that lies at the center of the platforming experience on offer in this game.
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Crawling

The challenge here lies in trying to strike the right balance between taking your time to carefully plan a flawless jump and moving more quickly. Nobody wants to call in a committee of advisers to give them a green-light before they can press the jump button. This combination of mechanics should see players balancing on a tightrope of temptation and patience. A balance is struck by multiplexing between two mutually exclusive states that grant control and award the player with more speed. The challenge is overcome when they are able to gracefully transition between the two states so as to create a sort of ebb and flow where the right amount of control is borrowed from crawling which pays off in a short burst of quick jumps. That balance allows players to carefully measure their movement and align jumps before approaching them in advance without having to forfeit too much of their speed in the process.

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Jumping

The jump is consistent across the whole game so players eventually internalize its length and height. That’s when every successful leap onto an enemy and over a trap becomes just that little bit more rewarding. And before diminishing returns can set in, the game unfolds to present a new layer of play to master. Once players are comfortable with pacing single jumps, they’re encouraged to string them together for more speed and efficiency. Finding optimal routes through levels by chaining successive jumps to make it flawlessly across a section of the map without needing to crawl for too long will require a good grasp not only on the jump itself but the layout of the level as well. A kind of ballet if you will.


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Baddie, bullet, pickup and red blobs of death

I feel that’s plenty of depth on offer. Other mechanics including enemies and pickups work to complement this core platforming experience.
We’ll talk more about those in the next post.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Super Lovely Planet - World and Progression System

Ever since I started working on this game, most of my efforts were focused on the world and progression system. It was the one aspect that I saw being revised more often than anything else in the entire game during development. In the last post I talked about an inflection point where this aspect of the game took a sharp turn. I’ve been working on it for some time now and I’m confident it won’t change again. I thought we’d celebrate the occasion with a blog post. Also once it’s out there I’ll think twice before erasing everything to start again. Here’s hoping this time it sticks!

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With all the complex hub worlds, portals and checkpoints removed, I felt at home once more with the recognizable simplicity of the original game returned. Every level is a linear get to the exit challenge with deadly traps and enemies scheming to creatively push you back. Almost exactly like the original game the levels are once again strung together linearly. You start from the simple and straightforward tutorial stages and make your way up to the more challenging levels later. What changes with Super Lovely Planet  is the order in which they are made available to play.

I doubled back to a simple stage select screen, offering players a menu of levels to choose from. While Lovely Planet would lazily unlock a whole world for you to browse, in Super Lovely Planet players will see levels being made available in sets - pairs and tuples. Unlocking a new set of levels will open a small selection of two maybe three different stages not all of which might be compulsory to move to the next set. While it does make for a more inflexible unlocking system, there’s a good reason for why it it goes about doing it that way.

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The system employed by the original game wasn’t perfect. It offered plenty of choice but couldn’t deliver on variety. It locked you into a world until you beat a good portion of it. Every world had a distinct theme and setting which brought a unique challenge different from the one you played before. A new world would open a large set of levels to play but that selection of stages only delivered a single style of gameplay. With the new progression system, Super Lovely Planet hopes to break up the monotonous grind by limiting choice and putting variety at the forefront.


The progression and unlock system works to deliver a healthy mix of different play-styles by regularly and consistently throwing the player from one world to another after every level. Unique enemies and traps still remain exclusive to their own areas to build a consistent theme and setting, but the game shuffles you in and out of these different areas as you progress to keep things interesting. New worlds are introduced in quick succession and once the game realizes that the variety it’s trying to deliver has plateaued, it reveals the final stretch by cranking the difficulty up to eleven. That’s when all of the mechanics finally synergize to deliver the toughest most grueling platforming challenge which ends with a cutscene celebrating your victory.

Apart from the levels themselves, the game also conceals a few secrets and achievements. You can revisit any level you’ve played before to hunt around for those secrets at any time. The menu conveniently highlights the stages which are blocking your progress to point you in the right direction once you decide to get back on the road. The system also accommodates other more sophisticated secrets by not acknowledging their existence at all. That burden is lifted by another system. I look forward to talking about the NPCs at some point.


There’s a lot more to tell about Super Lovely Planet. Next time we’ll go more into the platforming and talk about the basic gameplay mechanics in more detail.