The Indie Games Uprising III continues onto its 2nd game, Sententia by Michael Hicks or Michael Arts, if you prefer. A colorful platformer/puzzle game that takes on the very difficult task of making a game about growing up (and this isn’t no Zelda – transporting into the future and suddenly being an adult type of growing up either). Ultimately, Sententia is about imagination, and what happens to your imagination as you get older.
So often in this day and age we play games made by faceless developer studios that, while often fun to play, lack heart. Even when you enjoy them, most often you just feel the difference from a game that is a labor of love and a job to pay the bills. That isn’t to imply that developers of AAA games don’t enjoy their games or designing them, but rather that in most cases that game probably isn’t the exact game they would be making if they were in total control. Many times we play a game that is fun or enjoyable, but it is just lacking “something” and that something is often heart. Sententia has plenty of heart, unfortunately it falls short in most other areas.
The game’s platforming elements are slow, cumbersome and in some cases downright so rage inducing you would swear the game actually gets some sort of sexual thrill from your suffering. Most jumping sequences are set up so that you must jump from the absolute edge of one platform to have any chance of hitting the other. This wouldn’t be so bad, but moving, jumping and basically everything else feels slow and unresponsive; meaning you often jump either just a bit to soon or to late. The platforming doesn’t feel difficult, the controls do. Top that off with the fact you must often do this quickly and with a level of precision not really possible in the game and you wind up rage quitting (three or four times, least that was my number).
Combat also suffers, but in an odd way. The only real form of combat in the game is pressing “X” to “fire” words at opponents. All of your opponents can also shoot words at you, and almost without exception, the enemies respawn almost immediately. Each little stage is ultimately about making it to the end, and the enemies are obviously there to make it more difficult, but their instant re-spawns and the fact that they fire instantly any time you come even remotely into their line of sight just makes it frustrating. On many stages you must jump a series of fall away blocks while a couple of enemies fire at you without the least bit of hesitation. Because you can’t fire while jumping you are often forced to try and fire on an enemy immediately upon landing, but they are so quick to shoot you that this rarely works (or, in many cases the block falls out from under you). In the end, you can make it through each stage (believe me, you can) but it feels like you just got lucky rather than skill or otherwise on your part. Many of these stages have enemies spawning right at the end point too, and more than once I just got to the end only to have an enemy spawn and kill me immediately before I could reach the right side of my screen. There were many moments where I had to simply lower my head for a second, take a breath, and then try again.
The irony of a game where words are weapons being torn apart by reviewers around the web is not lost on me by the way.
The game’s puzzles could have been the game’s saving grace but it has two flaws. You must build bridges with your imagination, which is to say, solve a puzzle to build the bridge and proceed. Each node available has a marker identifying how many “bars” should go into it. A marker with “II” should have two, etc. Finding the right pattern to make each node have the correct amount is actually kind of enjoyable (there is a caveat here though). The first flaw is that it is very “clunky” to control. I eventually got the hang of it, but even in the end it felt cumbersome. This could be worked around though, or more appropriately it can be ignored enough to move on. The other flaw is a very, very cheap final puzzle that became so frustrating it actually retroactively ruined my enjoyment of the other puzzles. Without giving it away outright, this last puzzle introduces a random game mechanic that had not been involved in the puzzles in any way previous. What’s more, “solving” it depends on noticing a very small difference in one node; a difference that even on a fairly large HD TV was not apparent to me until I was given a hint to look for it. This didn’t come off as clever or fun; in fact upon finally completing it I found myself annoyed at the puzzle and relieved in the knowledge there wouldn’t be another one.
There is an argument to be made that the game, which is about imagination, proves a point with this last puzzle, and some of the other quirks in the game. That if we close our minds too much we can’t see solutions we otherwise might. The problem with that line of thinking, poetic as it may be, is that it doesn’t translate well to a game even if that is the intent. In one college writing class that had a focus on Science Fiction, the professor remarked that we could do whatever we wanted in the worlds we created, so long as we obey our own rules. This is possibly even truer for a video game than crafting a universe for a novel; a game works because of clearly defined rules. When a game tells you how to play, and then switches it up at the very end without informing you of a rule change, it becomes frustrating to a player trying to solve the game per the rules established earlier. To put it crudely, changing the rules at the last minute is kind of a dick move.
Now, to end on a higher note there are some things Sententia should be praised for (and most likely is being overshadowed in other reviews around the web). I found the art style to be quite enjoyable, having a sort of child like innocence to it (whether intentional or not, it captures the spirit of the game perfectly). So perfectly in fact, that I really don’t care if it was intentional – I think it works. In that same vein, the music is fantastic. No need to say anything else on that subject. Some of the text and the puzzles for the bridges could have been bigger, but overall, I quite enjoyed the aesthetics of Sententia.
The other kudos deserved is the idea behind Sententia. While the execution of that idea may have some serious flaws, as I said before, there is some real heart behind this game. Having had conversations with Michael in the past may put an added bit of perspective to the game; but all you need is to have ever been a kid and it doesn’t hurt to be past your teen years (or close to it). Many of the little things written in the game seem like the exact kind of thing I would of written at the age of 19 when trying to be deep (note the word trying though). Most of us work hard to stay even half as imaginative as we were as a child, and growing up is difficult with many bumps and hazards along the way. This is something we can all relate to, it is something that fills our novels and films, but not our video games. Sententia may fall flat of its lofty goals, but it really does deserve credit for trying to be something more. It just never gets there.
Michael, please fix this game so that it can play as well as the idea deserves, or at least well at all. I want to give Sententia a 2nd chance. I really do, but it’ll take a lot of work.
Final Rating: 4/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: XBLIG
Time to completion: Knowing the puzzles, hour and a half, not knowing them, a couple hours.
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Copy furnished by MichaelArts
Current Price: 80 Microsoft Points ($1)
Recommend Purchase Price: Can’t go lower.
Why you should buy it: Fun aesthetics and unique concept
Why you shouldn’t buy it: It’s… it’s just not very fun. Sorry Michael