Thursday, March 18, 2021

Game 47: Freaks

Time: 8.5 Hours

Its hard to think that a game made with a worse engine than Hovertank 3D gives me a bigger smile than just about anything I've played in the past year. You turn in 90-degree angles, no sound, no use key, bulletsponge enemies, enemies are stupid sacks of crap, and the gun is the bare minimum of what a shooter needs. What could possibly be good?

One of the things that appeals to me a great deal are puzzles. Short games that have logical, easy to understand rules that have an understandable solution. I greatly enjoy games like The Fool's Errand, Crush the Castle and The Incredible Machine, even if these things aren't always the cleverest or the most fun. Usually whatever pain there is gets over quickly enough and I'm back to doing what I like best. Shooters that mimic this feel of short, interesting to solve puzzles just give me a warm feeling inside. That was this game. Short bite-sized levels combined with an autosave and it becomes Deadly Rooms of Death 3D. Except I don't think that was intentional. Which makes this all the more strange.
The story is, you're The Magician, a servant of Gaia, creating all manner of nasty creatures. You have an assistant, named The Learner*, who is obviously evil, yet you do nothing. Naturally, he betrays you, killing you, and Gaia recreates you. You get a shotgun with infinite ammo somehow, and begin your quest to regenerate your body and take out The Learner, who has caused all your creations to turn on you. Then the author mentions he likes Lovecraft, Giger and Dead Can Dance. I have to admit, considering how many games just stick a Xenomorph in their game, it was quite refreshing to see a game that said "I love Giger, but I'm not going to take the completely obvious route." At no point are these inspirations blatantly obvious, with exception to one of Dead Can Dance's album titles.
At this point, the game begins, and its fun. The game consists mostly of small levels, and it autosaves every time you enter a new level, so its never time-consuming to get back to where you were. This honestly cuts off most of the problems older shooters had. Its not a question of where or when to save, so you're not savescumming or saving too little. Which places you entirely on the focus of beating this level. What makes this all work is ironically enough the engine's 90-degree turn limitation, more like Dungeon Master than Wolfenstein.
Because you always shoot in a precise direction and enemies always head for you in the simplest way possible, accuracy or enemies firing back, were only problems in specific situations. Like whenever the enemies were blocking a door or on the edge of a corner; The game is a bit weird with where the gun hits, so you're hitting the air in some cases. Thus the game is entirely about strategy. That's not saying this strategy was always brilliant, no, sometimes the strategy was standing at the end of a long corridor while holding down the fire button. But the amount of levels that had me figuring things out was always high. The gun does a set amount of damage over a set amount of time while the enemies are similarly predictable. This provided the majority of gameplay.
It doesn't even change when the game throws out ranged enemies either. They're all hitscanners. The damage they deal to you is inconsequential to what damage they deal to you if you attack them, so these sections suddenly turn into a different kind of puzzle. Although because they didn't die, you could sometimes screw up and place them in front of a door you needed to go through. I never had this happen to me, but I was smart, you might not be so lucky.
Now, I say this could be accidental, because there are boss battles, and they are not fun. They're all damage sponges, and none of these battles, except the first, involve any kind of thought from the player. The first is only an exception because it introduces the ranged enemies. The only thoughts are when he realizes its shooting at him, and if he realizes its hurting him when he fires at it.
Like I said this game feels like a bit of a counter argument to several typical shooter problems. Don't know when to save? Only the game can save. Think backtracking sucks? Its usually obvious when you need to backtrack and it isn't ever obnoxious. Don't know which weapon is optimal against which enemy? Doesn't matter, everything's the same. Its the antithesis of every generic shooter complaint one could have against the early era...except, explain to anyone that the solution to their problems is this game. Doom is the suxxor, so go play this game that looks like the missing link between Wolfenstein and Dungeon Master.

I think I've gained an appreciation of one-weapon shooters now. The gun in this game has showed me that the weapon is only a tool, not necessarily something that needs to appeal on its own. Not that it changes the rating. 1/10

For the most part, the enemies really are interchangeable. You've got shooting enemies, and you've got melee enemies. You're not really supposed to kill the shooting ones because they hurt you whenever you attack. Bit backwards, but otherwise they're jokes if you don't get surrounded. However, I must admit they had an appeal beyond their varying health meters. It was neat seeing what weird new enemy would show up, and they all interesting in that regard. What was really different about this game was you needed to kill enemies in order to get health. I'm sure there are later games that focus solely on getting health via vampirism, I remember a Doom mod in particular, but this seems to be the first actual appearance of it. 3/10

None, everything was an enemy. 0/10

Freaks made use of some really inventive level design for the most part, and because of the way it was set up, most of the levels weren't obnoxious to get through. How do I get through this level with as much health as possible? Every game is like that, but here, because of each level's short length, it becomes that much more of an interesting thought. Now, the problem is that the 3rd episode felt more like a mediocre Wolfenstein-clone in a lot of places. But overall episode had more good levels than bad levels. 8/10

Player Agency:
I thought I was going to hate the way this has no smooth turning, just sharp turns. That was fine, no more troublesome than any other DOS-era shooter. What was troublesome was the weird issue where walls are technically larger than they appear. I have to assume this is some kind of coding issue rather than an intentional design choice, because its just so odd-looking. I could have used some rebinding of keys, since the Shift+Ctrl+Alt cluster are always tied into system functions. Also, the pause key crashed the game. 3/10

There wasn't really any. 0/10

Freaks does what I think very few shooters or shooter mods have ever succeeded in doing, do an excellent Lovecraftian atmosphere. This just felt like a bizarre alien adventure, but every part of it was going to be good. 9/10

I liked all the graphics in of themselves, but they felt like they were made ugly because of the engine. I like the hand-drawn VGA pixel-look. The problem is that at long distances or from a side angle, like most of the game, they look off. 4/10

The player is effectively God killing the Devil, with a shotgun. I realize its still an excuse plot, but man, how many games do you know that have a story like that? 2/10

There were basically three tracks in the game, which considering the level design, made sense, don't want tracks getting cut off in weird ways. The first track was the best, and it played the longest, reappearing at the final boss. The second was okay, except for the ear-bleeding part of it. The third was just okay in general. No sound, unfortunately. 3/10

Because this game is good in a way I didn't exactly anticipate when making my score system, I'm going to give it 3 bonus points. That's 36 points. Putting it one point below Catacomb Armageddon and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Am I wrong? Well, you'll never know that unless you play it yourself. Because there aren't any reviews beyond my own. Freaks is incredibly obscure, I've only seen it on a handful of sites, even including my otherwise large field of vision. This won't be the last game from Spanish developer Triptico AKA Lovecraft Dreams. Sometime in the future we'll take a look at Space Plumber, which is weird, and the remake of Freaks, which adds smooth turning. That might honestly ruin the game, since this feels like its only as good as it is through a combination of its out-of-date by 1993 tech choices. Making it a normal shooter would probably make it a mediocre Wolfenstein-clone, and I already know I'll have my fill of those by 2002.

The lead of Triptico, Angel Ortega, is kind of a renaissance man. He's done stories, he has his own one-man band, art beyond his video games, and basically had a hand in every bit of his video games. Its funny, looking at his blog, you don't see that going into any real popularity, the guy seems to have trouble getting his stories published, in addition to constant troubles with services that actually do publish his work. This guy's Spanish, so the audience is significantly less than in the English world. If this guy, who's pretty talented, in a smaller pond, can't get any kind of following, what hope does anyone else have? Food for thought for the artistically inclined among you.

*Which I suspect is a mistranslation of apprentice. The author is Spanish and that's what Learner translates into over there, with a few letters changed. As the years went on, it was probably kept because the author liked the sound of it more.

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