Shards Of Pretty, Broken Glass: Stained Impressions
Imagine yourself as an anonymous robed figure on an unknown, uninhabited planet. Maybe you look a hell of a lot like the Grim Reaper. Maybe you even wield a similar scythe.
Now picture a mysterious castle, haunted by the aftermath of a lost civilization’s devastating battle against an enemy known as the Scourge. Imagine being tasked with exploring the depths of the castle and facing off against a legion of stained glass monsters in the process.
This is the concept for Stained.
Stained is an upcoming side-scrolling combat platformer from Real Axis Software, a small eight person outfit from Bangalore, India. The title is being developed for PC/Windows with an expected release date in August. Real Axis recently let me try out the first five levels of their new game, which boasts a unique premise and the potential for an interesting adventure.
Stained relies upon three core gameplay tenets: platforming, puzzles, and combat. Platforming and puzzles fit together in a natural way. As you traverse the castle, you’ll come across various stained glass windows and chandeliers. In non-combat sections, windows can be broken—by slamming your character’s scythe into the ground—and transformed into floating platforms. Jump atop a chandelier, smash the glass and it reacts by lifting players to a higher position like an elevator.
The game assists players with onscreen indicators when nearby glass can be shattered. In one level, a row of sharpened spikes block players’ path. After discovering the game’s hint mechanic, I quickly hopped a series of glass discs and escaped. The puzzles and platforming are satisfying even if the game is willing to give up its secrets rather easily.
The biggest issue facing the game’s platforming is the looseness of its mechanics. While your character skirts across the ground at a nice clip, and can sprint at faster speeds, the sluggish responsiveness of movement makes for a sometimes stiff and frustrating experience. Horizontal movement is confined to the left and right arrow keys only, limiting the character’s precision of movement.
Jumping functions in two disparate capacities. You can either perform a higher jump with less momentum or vault further horizontally while sprinting. Unfortunately, the two don’t blend with each other or lend themselves to cohesive design. Movement and platforming should not be compartmentalized but parts of the same whole. Instead, I felt like I could only apply one maneuver at a time. There’s a lacking fluidity that could become problematic in later, more difficult levels.
Like the puzzles and platforming, combat is a mixed bag. Real Axis keep it simple with a single key input for attacks. The same key can be held down to produce combos, but a stream of standard swings hardly qualifies as anything novel. Due to the limited abilities (and health) of the character, survival and perseverance are dependent upon putting distance between yourself and your foes, making combos negligible in the sections that I played.
Most enemies I encountered resemble something between a crude approximation of human form and a stone golem in stained glass, though some reflect insect-like design. Each possesses its unique pattern of movement and strategy. Some simply pursue and swing their weapon wildly in your direction; others hop up into the air and try to smash down on the player, extend lengthy arms to maim, or pursue players through the air like a charging beast.
Combat’s greatest strength lies in this enemy variability. Because creatures feature a variety of attacks, I was forced to adapt to each enemy I fought, often within the same battle. To avoid death, I found myself hopping over enemies, swinging my scythe from a distance, and employing the hit-and-run attack method. The combat I experienced sometimes devolved into tedium, but I found the challenge rewarding. I should also note that I upgraded my scythe at the end of last level of the demo, so I was unable to experience a stronger blade, which could have reduced the need for these entry-level tactics.
One of the demo’s missteps is also one of Stained’s box-quotable promises: temporary victory. After smashing an enemy into shards of pretty colored glass, it will typically recollect itself and attack once more like a fractal, two-dimensional T-1000. The mechanic is meant to challenge players, but in the stages I played, it just feels like blind repetition. Strike your scythe, shatter the glass, wait for the enemy to configure itself, kill it, wait a minute, repeat. The game’s site assures potential players that this temporary victory will get more complicated as enemies don’t simply reshape themselves but form into new, varied creatures. It’s a cool idea, but I was not able to test it in my brief demo.
Stained also promises random encounters based upon which pieces of glass litter the ground, but I was also not privy to this feature. When I replayed sections after dying or in successive playthroughs, I encountered the same enemies each time. I’m not saying that neither of these features will be present in the final game, but I did not get a chance to test them. It doesn’t help that all present stained glass must be shattered and all enemies defeated in a linear fashion to progress through levels.
One last niggling note about the combat: there are no sound effects outside glass shattering. There’s no thud or thwack to let players know they are chipping away at the enemies. It dulls the intensity and enjoyment of the combat.
Looking at Stained’s premise and on-the-box promises, I didn’t feel the presence of the intended game. All three core gameplay elements are imperfect but enjoyable with the right appreciation hat on—sometimes mechanical difficulty can actually contribute to a game’s effectiveness (i.e. Resident Evil‘s tank controls).
I love the concept of a randomized combat experience, forcing players to consider the shards lying about and which enemies might arise (again and again). I also dig the rough but colorful world on display and the game’s unique premise. It’s not often you get to explore a (maybe sentient, definitely defensive) castle as a grim reaper analogue while fighting monsters formed from stained glass. It’s a great idea for a small, independent platformer. If you don’t believe me, check out Stained‘s first trailer. The game looks cool.
Sharpen the game’s mechanics and give players a more capable avatar, as well as provide the intended variety, and I think Stained could be a fun time. As it stands, my enjoyment is in constant flux. For every aspect I enjoyed, there was another that held the game back from its own ambitions. If the small team at Real Axis can work out the game’s kinks and deliver on the game’s promises, Stained could make for a fun, old-school side-scrolling adventure.