Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Scurge: Hive

If you're familiar with Metroid Fusion, then you know how the story goes: Terrible alien parasite breaks out of containment at the science lab and takes over the whole facility. Tough female bounty hunter gets dragged into the conflict and has to set things straight, both for her own sake and for the sake of the galaxy. Over the course of her adventure, she'll collect different upgrades that allow her to interact with her environment in new ways, deal more damage to enemies, and grant her access to new areas of the facility, all the while guided by an intelligent computer.

That's the story. The story of Metroid Fusion. And the story of Scurge: Hive. Aside from the difference in perspective--Fusion is a sidescrolling platformer, and Scurge: Hive is a top-down platformer--the games are all but identical, save for the part where Scurge: Hive is repetitive almost to the point of boredom.
Now, Scurge: Hive isn't a bad game. The graphics are detailed, the character designs are interesting, the controls are responsive, the challenges are fair, the dialogue is well-written, the music is appropriately atmospheric, the sound effects are distinctive, the gameplay and story progression are well-paced, and the weapon mechanics are well-executed (utilizing a rapid switching system to select between a half-dozen weapons that affect enemies and your environment in different ways). There's very little that's actually wrong with the game, but there's also very little that's holding my attention some five hours into the game.

For one thing, there's no surprise in what's going to happen next, both in the story and in each new room you explore. Read a transmission saying this entire region has been overrun by parasites. Locate enough keycards (usually 3 or 6) to unlock the door to the next area. Read a transmission saying some ill-fated scientist has prepared a weapon or item that will help fight the bad guys. Complete a time challenge to collect said weapon or item, which will also open the way into more parts of the region. Find the six power nodes scattered across the region to activate the teleporter to the next area. Repeat.
For another thing, each room is essentially the same, consisting of [pick one or more:] tunnels, raised platforms, moving platforms, water, and hazardous swamplike ground, plus [pick one or more:] a platform to activate by charging a machine with your electrical weapon, a door to open by charging a machine with your energy weapon, a door to open with keycards, a platform to raise by holding down two switches, a tangled mass of plants that can be burned away to reveal a new exit, and a floating grapple sphere you can grab onto to fling yourself to the next platform (which, admittedly, is pretty fun). Throw in swarms of any of the dozen or so enemies in the game, and you've got pretty much every room in the game that isn't a save chamber, teleporter, or boss fight.
Granted, breaking down a platformer the way I just did diminishes the individual creativity of the level design in each room--greater games have been assembled with fewer elements; it's all about how things are arranged and the interplay of the challenges. What Scurge: Hive boils down to is "solve the same few puzzles in every room, while blasting random clusters of the same few enemies." This might not be so bad if the scenery weren't so similar throughout each area--assuming you can see much of the scenery at all.

Using Muramasa: The Demon Blade as an example, the freshness of repetitive games can be preserved in part by offering a variety of lush visuals. The graphics of Scurge: Hive, as I mentioned, are certainly detailed, but there are two factors that seriously detract from my appreciation of them: the monotony of one terrain type in each area, and the excessive use of ambient fog.
Metroid: Fusion takes place entirely on a space station with six distinctly themed habitation areas (such as a tropical jungle and a flame-seared wasteland), yet even within each area there are rooms and sections that employ notable variations on the main theme (going from scorched desert sands to red-hot molten metal in the pyroclastic area, for example). That alone keeps each region from stagnating, but there's the added bonus of exploring only parts of each area before you're called to another part of the space station entirely.
In Scurge: Hive, each major area has the same cargo boxes or rocky cliffs in every. single. room. and you're unable to proceed to the next major area until you've cleared out every. single. room. Yes, there are technically exceptions, but they're not prominent enough to counteract that oppressive feeling of deja vu--which makes figuring out where you're supposed to go next a bit of a chore at times.
If it were just a matter of reused scenery in every room, that'd be one thing. It's also that every. single. room. throughout entire sections of the game are covered in a dense fog that lightly obscures your view of the action. It's a nice atmospheric touch when used sparingly, Scurge: Hive takes it to an eyestrain-inducing extreme. The in-game map only serves to worsen the eyestrain--there's no zoom feature to examine areas more closely, so you are left squinting at the teensy red pixels that indicate a door or passageway to a room you haven't visited yet. If there is enough detail lovingly included in each room to set it apart from the next, it's lost beneath all the fog, and lost to the weary eyes aimed at the relatively small screen of the Game Boy Advance (I can't speak for the DS version). I haven't tried playing this on a Game Boy Player yet, but I suspect this might greatly improve the experience.
Another major factor that works against any feeling of novelty each room might attempt to exude: You are on a constant timer. The heroine, Jenosa Arma, is equipped with a protective suit that is constantly fighting a losing struggle against the omnipresent parasitic infection that has thrown these areas into chaos. There's a contamination meter at the top of the screen that increases by 1% every few seconds--even faster than that if you're standing on one of the aforementioned patches of swamplike ground--and your health begins to decay rapidly once you reach 100%. Finding a save point will restore your health and bring your infection level back down to 1%, but this mechanic changes the very nature game.
Without the constant threat of creeping doom, Scurge: Hive is an exploration-driven shoot-'em-up, sort of like a majorly sci-fi cousin of Crystalis (which I love). With the player being penalized for even standing around to think for a few seconds, the game becomes a mad rush to clear each room as quickly as possible, trading that joy of exploration for an increase in challenge and tension that keeps the player tethered to save points. Nothing's inherently wrong with extra challenge and tension, but the tradeoff here is not an entirely favorable one for a gamer with my preferences. I'd like to see an improved suit that slows the rate of infection even further, or an item that allows me to reduce my contamination percentage in the field.
So far--and I emphasize that I haven't finished the game yet--Scurge: Hive is a generally fun game that has only a few real problems...but the problem is, those problems are real. (What a useless sentence, right?) Good ideas are recycled and stretched to the point of dullness; the ever-present fog and itty-bitty map cause unnecessary strain on the eyes; and the perpetual threat of the contamination meter reaching maximum imposes a necessary element of haste on the player, forcing him or her to speed run the entire game before having a chance to appreciate and familiarize himself/herself with each foggy location...which increases the player's reliance on the miniscule in-game map to get through every. single. room. At least, the way I play.
If you're willing or able to overlook these issues, and don't mind the suspicious similarities to Metroid Fusion (including the fact that you actually fight Metroids in Scurge: Hive) you'll find a solid and predictably enjoyable game. As for me, my weariness meter is slowly creeping toward 100%, and I'm gonna need something stronger than another save point if I'm going to make it to the end without that weariness turning into pain.

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