For one thing, it’s a really difficult game: it’s not unusual to find areas that you’ll have to play through dozens of times before succeeding, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there was an area in there somewhere that I played through a hundred times. Difficulty alone I can take: N+ and Orbient are games that I played this year that had levels that were plenty tough. (Mind you, I didn’t finish either of those games!) But both of them felt different from Abe somehow, and I’m trying to tease out why.
I think having clearly delineated levels is part of the reason: in Abe’s, in contrast, you’re never quite sure whether or not you’ve made it to the next checkpoint until you die and see where it respawns you. Also, both N+ and Orbient had a simple set of mechanisms to play with; Abe’s didn’t have all that large a set, but they were somewhat inconsistently implemented. For example, enemies frequently follow you from one screen to the next, but sometimes they don’t; sometimes throwing a bomb to the next screen will kill the enemy in that screen, but a lot of times you’ll walk to the next screen and see an enemy standing right where the bomb must have gone off. Even in situations like that, the game has its own internal logic, but it’s one that goes out of its way to prevent certain possible solutions to puzzles.
What annoyed me more than that, though, was the feeling that, at some basic level, the game designers didn’t respect my time: the game play was all about them, not about me. There wasn’t anything as extreme as the tower in Final Fantasy VI with no save spots anywhere in it and with a boss at the top with an insta-kill attack (which caused me to immediately give up on that game), but there were plenty of bits where I thought the designers could have been a bit gentler, a bit more humane without giving up anything important. The ending in particular really drove home this attitude: if you haven’t invested the ridiculous effort required to save more than half the Mudokons, you get treated to a cinema where people look at your character being threatened with execution, say “nah, he didn’t try hard enough”, and let your character die. And I, for one, felt that I’d tried quite hard enough, thank you very much, and had in fact gone out of my way to try to appreciate the game simply by virtue of the fact that I’d slogged through the whole damn thing! (I was also amazed by the notion that the game designers apparently thought that the game would be the start of a quintology; and rather put off by the combination of the title with, as far as I noticed, a complete lack of further Homeric references. But maybe that’s just me being snotty.)
It’s not the game designers’ fault, but the hype in our pre-game discussion also ended up backfiring on me: people talked about how great the presentation is, how funny it is, and it’s just not. Don’t get me wrong, the presentation is good, but you spend a lot more time going through rooms made out of the same nice but not stunning design elements than you do watching the cut scenes. And I appreciate the idea of including comic poetry, but the actual poetry left something to be desired.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, however, the game does have some things going for it; I think people were looking back at their memories of game through rose-colored glasses, but there really are some good bits here. In particular, what a game like this boils down to is the quality of the sections between checkpoints: as annoying as many of those were, there were also many that were pleasant enough, and some sequences (frequently annoying ones!) were actually rather well-constructed set pieces.
Above, I complained that you didn’t know what the distance is between checkpoints. This is true; but you get a decent feel for that fairly quickly, and the frequency of dying means that you are never in doubt for very long whether or not you’ve reached the next checkpoint. And the game designers were actually pretty decent about not making you replay too much stuff before you got back to the last place you died: usually, once you figured out how to make it past a given obstacle, you could make it past that obstacle in the future fairly reliably and fairly quickly. (Though there were certainly some areas where I had to spend more time than I’d like waiting for enemies to be in the right location before I could do my next action.)
Also, given the small number of moves you could do, the small number of enemy types, and the small number of objects, they did a quite good job of figuring out different ways to combine those elements, and doing so in such a way that you could generally figure out the new technique that an area demanded. I managed to make it through the game without going to gamefaqs a single time; there were some bits where that was luck, but there were a lot of sections where I was stumped, thought about what I had to play with, and managed to figure out a way of combining the elements at had that I hadn’t thought of before. (A pleasant change from the VGC’s first game.)
Take, for example, the very last section in the game. On the one hand, it’s full of fiddly actions: you have to disable bombs at just the right time, you have to make just the right jumps. But, by then, you’ve done that dozens of times before, so that’s not really a significant challenge. What is a challenge is an area where two guillotines are coming down, with the right one coming down before the left one: it’s easy to move right-to-left, but then you have to come back through it left-to-right. And that seems like it should be flat-out impossible.
I’m not sure how many times I tried to go through that: 20 or 30, maybe? But it wasn’t nearly as frustrating as it could have been, for two reasons: for one thing, it was pretty clear that it was the next thing I had to figure out, so I wasn’t second guessing myself, and for another thing, once I got the timing down on the approach to that section (in particular on disabling a bomb), I could get to guillotines within 10 or 15 seconds of respawning after a death. So I was spending a fair portion of my time trying to figure out that puzzle, as opposed to traveling around or dying for other reasons.
And once I figured out that puzzle, I was impressed: it turns out that, if you jump at what seems like an impossibly early time, you can clear the right guillotine, and in fact clear it with ease. Simple when you see it done, almost impossible to believe until you’ve done that. I died a few more times in later sections in that area, but there weren’t any more really hard puzzles there: sure, it took me three times to get through the final screen in that section, but dying three times in this game is barely worth noting, and once I knew what to do, I could get from the respawn point to that final screen in a minute or so.
So: I don’t begrudge the choice of game, and on the whole I’m even glad that I stuck it out through the end. (Though I certainly don’t blame other people for giving up a third of the way through: I completely understand why they made that choice, and came very close to making it myself on more than one occasion.) I learned a few things from the game, and had several moments of real gaming pleasure during the time I spent with it.
But I also never want to see the game again. And I hope that our next choice of game will be something more forgiving, something less self-absorbed.
This post has not been revised since publication.