(Review) Portal: Prelude – Torture

So, yeah. Portal: Prelude was released recently – yesterday? – and thus far, opinions about the game seem to be in two camps.

First, there’s the camp that sail through. This seems to be populated by veterans of Portal‘s advanced maps; they have the absolute precision required to beat certain maps.
Then there’s the camp I’m sitting in, populated by people who can’t make the jumps, maneuvers, or aim the portalgun in midair whilst being fired on by at least two turrets in a window of opportunity lasting less than a second… in the first chamber.
I don’t doubt they had some people test the game, but my guess is that their sample group wasn’t exactly representative of Portal’s entire audience. It’s been mentioned by one of the designers on the mod’s forums that none of the testers got stuck for more than ten minutes, but isn’t that too long anyway? If I was attempting a puzzle for ten minutes straight, I’d quit the game for then and do something else to take my mind off things.

But it’s not the puzzles. I think the problem is that the designers of Portal: Prelude got things the wrong way around; Portal had puzzles; spotting the answer was the difficult thing. Portal: Prelude, on the other hand, has what are for me very difficult maneuvers and tricks; the answers are very obvious – you can very easily tell you need to take out the turrets before you can get to the exit, though it’s just a few metres away, but that’s not the same as doing it.
Note: I only reached part way through 02 before giving up. This is not actually representative of the rest of the game, but judging from the moaning on the forums*, it’s a good guess.

There are a couple of other things I found irritating, but they pale in comparison to the sheer frustration this game caused me. Not even the final boss of Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a hideous monstrosity entirely dependent on sheer luck to defeat, forced me to give up so quickly or risk hurting myself trying.
Frustration of this kind makes me feel sick to my stomach, and it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t want to risk it… or even go through it for a game like this.
See, nothing about Portal: Prelude makes me want to stick around, so I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all important. The two humans… using synth voices in English… are nowhere as compelling or interesting as GlaDOS. What GlaDOS has isn’t exactly charisma, but it’s something – maybe it’s her insanity…? – and these two technicians just don’t have it. Not even slightly. The two puzzles I managed to solve – I’m not counting the test chamber, as that almost happens automatically – demonstrate two things puzzle-wise:
1. How to kill a player (me) over twenty times with the same set of blasted turrets, and…
2. Crouching? What? Crouching in the middle of a jump? Chell never needed this; Portal never even hinted it would do a thing. Apparently you get a hint about it… in 03, though.
I understand understanding we don’t want to go through learning to use the portalgun again; we have proper Portal for that. But…
Why. So. Difficult?

For nine months’ worth of work, it seems like a waste; I estimate this mod is unplayable to a moderate-to-large portion of the people who played and enjoyed the original Portal, either due to the lack of anything compelling from the original game to keep players’ interest, or earnest frustration reaching breaking point at being unable to solve something no matter how many times you quickload, maybe tweak a portal’s position, and try again. Even someone who reputedly breezed through the advanced maps had problems.
If the target audience of Portal: Prelude was purely the ‘hardcore’, solved-every-advanced-map crowd, then the designers succeeded. If the audience wasn’t just the ‘hardcore’, they made serious mistakes; underestimated the difficulty of the maps, severely overestimated the appeal and drive to continue through hardship and rampant death on the part of the players, I don’t know. Mistake, or mistakes, plural.
But, since they don’t rely on this mod as their significant source of income – though they have set up a donation page since so many people asked** – they can make whatever they want of it, without fear; they don’t have to appeal to a wider audience, or even think about being appealing at all.

It’s tempting to think they never did, in the first place.


* To be fair, it’s more-or-less balanced on the forums; some love it, some hate it. Some think it easy, more (?) think it difficult and/or impossible. Some write rave reviews, slightly more write ‘what Portal: Prelude did wrong’/condemnation. I figure whatever I have to say has been said there already, so I’m posting here instead.

** Needless to say, I haven’t donated. Plus, who knows that they didn’t plan it after all, and would have put the page up even if virtually no one asked? That’s just my Internet skepticism and cynicism, though.

Etrian Odyssey, and Difficulty (written 30/6, revised 04/7)

So I beat the boss of Etrian Odyssey several days ago; saw the credit sequence. I’m not going to spoil it, but the fifth stratum was beautiful, and pretty much entirely unexpected, to boot.
However, it turns out the game isn’t done with me. Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard arrived today. I decided not to make the mistake I did with the first game; I ordered this one when it was released and easy to get, rather than waiting until a year later and then having to jump through hoops to find it from anyone who’d deliver it to the UK. But… I still can’t play it. See, it promises extras if you input a password the original Etrian Odyssey produces on completion, but… I haven’t beaten the game yet. Not really.

See, Etrian Odyssey has six strata, not five. Each stratum – each floor, really, but floors in a stratum are usually variations of the same problem – has a different trick or combination of tricks, and these usually aren’t replicated as the focus of a future floor. In essence, each floor, and therefore each stratum, has a different atmosphere to it.
The first stratum introduces you to the game’s elements, and as expected of an introduction area, isn’t difficult to navigate, or more difficult than usual to beat.
The second stratum forces you to walk long distances to simply reach the stairs to the next floor; you learn your time in the labyrinth is essentially very limited to the TP of your characters, barring a well-stocked inventory or a TP-restoring skill. It also has the first major non-boss FOE that is guaranteed death to encounter, at least until you gain 30 levels, and gives you little space to dodge if you screw up.
The third stratum is packed with winding, turning paths, pits behind doors, and FOEs that seem to revel in making existing fights worse.
The fourth stratum requires a lot of searching for secret passages, and careful mapping, before presenting a boss that’s more puzzle than any one encounter.
The fifth stratum has you following a winding path across four floors before you can make your way to the last floor; the one you think is final. Oh, and it doesn’t warn you when you’re on a path that eventually reaches a dead end.

Then there’s the sixth stratum, accessible only after beating the not-quite-final-after-all boss. The sixth stratum’s theme, or atmosphere, seems to be in encouraging frustration. Assuming you survive the enemies – tougher than the fifth stratum’s, of course, and pretty much requiring skills, and thus valuable TP, to defeat even at the highest possible level – your first problem is testing teleport points until you find the one – if any, that doesn’t set you back to the beginning. Then again, with secret passages. Again. Then again, choice of three. Any wrong choice means a lot of wading back to where you were, through enemies and FOEs (also worse). That’s the first of five floors.

At the time of writing, I was confused by B29F. One floor from the end. Well, one floor, and then the 30th floor’s hell of a single, winding, long path and three locked doors at the end.
B29F required all but 1 member to be at or around level 70 to survive; B30F killed you half the time if you had that but didn’t have a good stock of items in inventory, too.
I worried that my current party build was unsuitable, and that I’d have to train up one or more members from 60 again, after reallocating skill points. It was, and I had to defeat three very tough bosses outside of the sixth stratum, to boot.
But I still had two floors to solve.

I like Etrian Odyssey, because unlike some (more popular?) RPGs, it’s difficult to simply overlevel to solve a floor’s enemies – weaknesses need to be noticed and exploited in ‘fair combat’ to survive, sometimes, and it’s difficult simply getting enough experience to gain a single level, let alone get to the point where one stratum’s enemies aren’t a problem before the last floor of the area. The different floors of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth are all puzzles, too, as are quests; solutions to either may be hinted at, if you’re lucky or observant, but for the most part the whole game just lets you discover things for yourself. The FINAL final boss is painful like that; that’s how far they take it.
Difficulty throughout the game is carefully calculated, however; it ramps gradually, such that you don’t notice except when travelling to a new stratum, and you’re always at best struggling against a stratum’s enemies until the final floor, when you’re fully equipped with what the stratum can provide. Maps grow more complex and difficult to navigate, different status elements crop up, FOEs and bosses possess more intricate and fatal combinations of attacks, skills, resistances.

I prefer a calculated challenge; I’d rather spend an hour attempting to solve B29F (and I did – much more than an hour) than fighting through encounters with ShinRa guards, mutants and robots in Midgar and watching long FMVs. La-Mulana sits in a similar spot for explorational platformers – in the end, I’ll play it rather than Cave Story, as it has a balanced, ramping difficulty, whislt Cave Story in comparison has erratic spikes of difficulty, ridiculously easy in places and insanely difficult in others. Remember that cat-tank boss? Lots of people I know complained about that one being difficult. (Personally, I hate Omega – that jumping robot in the Sand Zone. The cat-tank is easy, but I died tens of times to Omega’s feet.)
It doesn’t help that I have the plots of FF7 and Cave Story memorised. Without discovery – of story, of environment, of nuances in difficulty – to drive me on, those games have little to offer me beyond the sudden odd urge to beat them again every year or so. Knowledge, in those cases, defeats the game. However, knowing everything – or as much as I’ll ever know – of a game like La Mulana or Etrian Odyssey does not eliminate the draw of the game; the difficulty remains unchanged, though I may be better prepared.