Friday, November 11, 2011

REVIEW - Rochard.


Just look at that logo. What does that say, to you? The font alone speaks of a more innocent time in gaming, when space ships were triangles and missiles were cubes. At the early stages of Rochard, the title reminds one of the SNES era of PC games, when the lion's share of puzzle-platformers were either an Apogee shareware affair (Commander Keen) or often something that could be disguised as educational (The Lost Vikings).

Much of Rochard's presentation is in keeping with the standards of that era. There's something a bit bare-bones about the universe he inhabits. Cutscene and in-game animations are rote, and while it tries to tell a meaningful story it manages to only remind one of a time when narratives in games were an afterthought at best.

Despite making a weak initial impression, Rochard offers many sparks of creativity that pay big dividends - not the least of which is casting an overweight, stoic, southern good 'ol boy as a roughneck space miner turned action hero - but it firmly finds its footing with thoughtful design, mechanics and pacing.


Things start out very simply. You have only the ability to jump, grab and lift small objects with your trusty G-Lifter - Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun re-purposed - and Rochard takes its time walking you through the intricacies of its environments, during which boredom can set in. Simple, bold, colorful art direction does not task itself with painting a rich world, but instead serves to offer very clear information about the rooms you must puzzle your way through - the first steps into the game are more about teaching you how a blue force field will allow people to pass through, but not objects, and how blue fields will allow objects through, but not people, et cetera.

Once Rochard decides you've had enough of the training wheels and begins really mucking about with mechanics and design, the game manages to pull free of the runway and starts to fly. Throughout the remainder of its campaign, each subsequent challenge is a clever riff on what came before. The game layers mechanics and the rules of its world in ever-more complex variations, and by the time you get to a room of four impassable lasers you find yourself experiencing a brief moment of panic before remembering that all you need to best this gauntlet is a G-Lifter and your wits.


Others have complained that the eventual addition of a blaster to Rochard's mining gun is an error. I entirely disagree. The game's most thrilling moments are orchestras of physics and laser fire - turning on low gravity for a moment to fling yourself into the air, blasting at space jerks below as you soar overhead. As you slowly float, a storm of laser fire will zip towards you - and to dodge it, you turn off low gravity at the last moment to slip under the beams and slap into the ground. Thus, these moments of low-G action occasionally turn this puzzle-platformer into something resembling a bullet hell shooter - and given how little punishment the titular roughneck can take before succumbing, mastering the game's enemies provides a healthy dose of satisfaction.

By the time you're exceedingly comfortable with the rules of Rochard, you can have a crazy good time dashing down its halls, ripping laser turrets from the walls with your G-lifter, flinging them into space goons, flicking low gravity on and off, zipping yourself through the world - and you find you're playing an entirely different game than the what Rochard introduces itself as.

What leads up to it is great, but the game's final few beats - when John Rochard is finally within striking distance of his nemesis, and cruisin' for a bruisin' - are fantastic. The mechanics are given a switch-up which provide you a wonderful feeling of empowerment during this final, hectic gauntlet, and the excellent boss encounter is not some limp redesign of familiar mechanics, but a glorious combination of the game's funnest aspects, sprinkled with jazzy style and frantic action.


While Rochard's design following its lackluster opening is well above-par, much of its presentation leaves something to be desired. Animations in particular - such an opportunity to showcase character and creativity, in a title like this - are adequate at best (low-G movement) and plainly lacking at worst. Particularly during cutscenes, they seem akin to something we would have found acceptable fifteen years ago, and are entirely unacceptable now.

The music is excellent, but the game's characters are of a broad quality spectrum - and strangely makes me reflect on why I'll accept some stereotypes, but not others. I find the southern-accented, drawling Rochard entirely charming. I love that all the space cops are flamboyantly effeminate - a very strange, interesting choice - and I was utterly disgusted with the way futuristic, spacefaring Native Americans are portrayed.

Perhaps that is in part due to living in a city where a massive part of the population carry Indian Status cards, or due to having several of my personal heroes, friends and teachers as a child being of native descent - but I found myself appalled by the portrayal of that culture in Rochard, particularly given that the game is so squarely aimed at a child or youth audience.


Rochard suffers in comparison to many of the higher-profile downloadable titles available on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, thanks to lackluster animation, a fumbled narrative, three-gen-ago cutscene presentation and a few... interesting choices. Thankfully, games aren't just for looking at, but for playing - and there, it is often a great success.

Its finely tuned, thoughtfully-paced and thoroughly fun design and mechanics offer a steady stream of puzzle-solving pride and bouncing, flying, low-G gunplay. Rochard may not be the most attractive man at the dance, but once you get to know him you'll discover a wholesome charm, and innocent earnestness.

He's uncouth - a little rough around the edges - but he offers substance in place of style, and as you lean your head on his broad shoulders and feel that bristly mustache tickling your forehead, you'll breath in a scent you've not sourced in years - nostalgia.


THE GOOD
  • Rochard himself is a unique, interesting hero. I love the idea of someone casually working in space.
  • after the slow start, the game masterfully layers mechanics and tasks to always keep you on your toes
  • reminds one of the heyday of puzzle-platformers
  • low-gravity combat is tons of fun
  • after the flow start, the pacing is almost perfect
  • I loved the final boss and the run-up to the ending
  • great music, y'all
  • Recoil Games is populated by the awesomest folk in the entire gaming industry*

THE BAD
  • gets off to a slow start, which highlights...
  • cutscene animation that would have been perfectly serviceable in 1995.
  • the rote in-game animation is a squandered opportunity to showcase character
  • the story is pretty bad, and terribly told
  • maybe it's just me, but one character is a straight-up racist stereotype

THE VERDICT

While rough around the edges, Rochard is a fun, nostalgic return to the heyday of puzzle platforming.

*Rochard was provided
by the developer
for review purposes.

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