Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: A-Men (PS3)

To be fair, Bloober does try to warn you right out of the gates, as A-Men's description calls it out as a title geared toward "hardcore gamers", and describes it as a strategy title. I initially was thinking more tactical/combat/war strategy than puzzle strategy, but upon firing this title up it all makes perfect sense.

What you have here is a game that has far less to do with military strategy (despite a cast of fairly colorful military characters) and more to do with trial-and-error puzzle solving. The immediate comparisons that came to mind for me were Toki Tori meets the Lemmings. Basically the developers have crafted forty levels where you need to use the specific skills of your team members to try and solve a variety of puzzles.

Another game I can compare it to is Trine. The team members all have different abilities, and while early on they are introduced slowly so you can better understand their skills, later levels have you working with several at a time as part of a team, tackling challenges one after another. Trine has fewer characters, but there is a similarity in how the unique skills of the characters can be used to overcome the environmental puzzles.

The visuals are actually very pleasing. While not a technical marvel that pushes the scope of what the Vita is capable of, the colorful backgrounds, fairly detailed characters and use of parallax scrolling actually reminds me of Guacamelee! - and that is a good thing, believe me. The music is also fitting - so while it is seldom what I would call memorable, it is enjoyable and does nothing to detract from the game itself.

The biggest problem A-Men has is that in trying to be a challenging game, it gets in its own way somewhat. You will lead your men to their deaths - quite often actually. There is a rewarding sense of victory when you finish out a level, but the trial and error method of gameplay does get frustrating at times as well. Part of the appeal to a game like Toki Tori is that you can experiment, but the levels come at you in thin, brief slices. If you mess up, you rewind things a bit and try again - or even restart the level and you are likely only out a few minutes of your time.

A-Men is far less forgiving as there are no options to go back and immediately right your wrongs, and the levels can be somewhat lengthy at times. There are very limited save options presented to you, and even if you make use of them there is a points cost that goes up every time you do it. This can leave you without enough points to make a save, even if you are at a save point. This means you could be repeating very large portions of level over and over again as you unlock a small piece of the puzzle, only to die at the next part. Lather, rinse and repeat.

I am all for a challenge and definitely enjoyed the thrill of victory each time I beat a level and put it in the rear view mirror, but the sense of frustration along the way did get under my skin a bit here and there - and I feel I am probably more patient than most gamers (I enjoy RPG experience grinding and will spend a dozen or more hours on it, for example). I can see this style of play appealing to players, but also turning them off during some of the game's middle and later stages. A really great story might help a player continue to press on if they felt invested in it, but in truth the story here is pretty uninteresting - it is clear the majority of the development team's focus went into the level designs. That is all well and good, it just feels like they made the game a bit less friendly than they could have.

There is a good deal to do here. There are quite a few levels of play, and you can skip around a little bit between levels, which is a welcome reprieve in case you run into a challenge that simply has you stumped. Eventually however, to progress you will have to go back to those skipped levels and beat them. There are four different worlds at play here, each with its own visuals aesthetic that helps keep the game feeling fresh, even if by the midpoint you have seen most of what A-Men's puzzles have to offer.

You can spend a couple of dozen hours traversing all forty levels, but a good chunk of that feels padded in frustration at times. When you beat a level, you are scored on your execution of it, and there are quite a few different trophies that might bring you back to play it a few more times, but once you have the solutions themselves figured out, you may not feel inclined to come back and play through the game a second time from start to finish.

Bloober deserves credit for doing something is both new and different, but still feels familiar at times. They seem to know exactly who they are targeting with this title. It is fun enough in short spurts, but might be a bit too focused on challenge to appeal to a larger audience.



- Nick H
 Senior Journalist
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