Indie Games Summer Uprising III Review: Sententia
I always feel a little bad when I write a bad review of an indie game; after all a fair number of indie games are put together by a small team or a single person and don’t have millions thrown at them by publishing giants (and even then they still manage to turn out crap). I’m not saying that the teams in those big companies don’t pour their heart and souls into the games they make but it’s far easier to admire those who do every aspect of the game, from programming to artwork, on their own. At the end of the day though games are meant to be fun and if a game has enough problems that renders it unplayable then it’s obviously not a good game. Unfortunately that’s Sententia all over.
Sententia is the first game I’ve personally tried from the Indie Game Summer Uprising III (the second of the overall releases) and is the work of one of the Uprising’s organisers, Michael Hicks. He professes it to be an ‘art game’ and sees it more of a personal journey than his previous output. It has you travelling through woods as a boy on the path to adulthood, attempting to comment on the reduced imagination we all feel as we transcend to the boring world of the adult. Unfortunately when I was playing Sententia I got the impression that a lack of imagination and creativity had also been applied to the games development, and while that could be said about half of the games on the market these days I usually expect something a little different from my indie games.
You begin the game with your Grandpa showing you how to connect a series of dots to create a bridge, which is the main puzzle mechanic of the game. Each bridge has a different shape, and to re-create this shape you have to connect dots together with threads of connections. The catch is that each dot needs a certain amount of connections, so while one may require 3 connections the dot next to it may only need 2. It’s a sound idea and the only original thing that Sententia does, but it’s execution is far from sound. For starters it’s incredibly slow, and when you make a mistake (something that tends to happen quite a lot, with the whole exercise usually being one of trial and error) it’s a real bind to undo everything you did wrong. What could have helped these puzzles is to be able to start over instead of having to remove multiple connections just to fix one tiny mistake, and given that half of the buttons on the controller aren’t even used surely a do-over function could have been assigned to one?
Aside from messing around with dots the remainder of the game plays like a standard platformer, except it doesn’t do this particularly well. Jumping feels like throwing a stick of butter into the air and watching it quickly splatter on the ground with a plop. It’s so unresponsive that you’ll have find yourself becoming the aforementioned butter smear because you were shot before your elf creature thingy (what is it!?!) bothered to react to your button press. His attack is a bit naff too. He shouts words to kill enemies, and they shout back to. He’s probably yelling out what he thinks is an amazing idea, while enemies retaliate by telling him it’s crap and he’ll never make it anywhere in life, harsh! Basically the entire game is one big shouting match, and by holding down the button and charging your attack you can cancel out an oncoming enemy attack and kill them instead. It sounds simple enough, but actually using it properly is frustrating. You can’t jump and shoot, and you never really have enough time to land on the same plane as an enemy and charge a shot to beat theirs, so you have to time your jump to land aligned for the shot when they’ve got their back turned (providing they ever do of course!). Given the lack of responsiveness it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and it’s teamed with the problem that enemies re-spawn far too fast. In fact, let’s combine all these together and look at a section of the game where all these flaws create a situation that led to one of the most frustrating moments I’ve experienced in a game for a long while.
After completing another clunky yet fairly simple puzzle I came across a chasm that I had to cross. It seemed easy enough to negotiate, with floating bricks providing a scattered path across and two upper and lower platforms on the other side of the screen that were currently being patrolled by two rather pissed-off looking demon blokes. Because of the lack of jumping and shooting I would have to land on the first brick to line my shot up and take out the fiery looking dude opposite. I jumped, landed on the platform and promptly fell to my death as the platform sneakily vanished beneath my feet. It’s a cheap trick, one that reminds me of those nigh-on impossible custom Mario level videos that can amuse you for a while on YouTube. It wasn’t just the first one either, all of them vanished as I tried to make my way across; and all the while I’m constantly being shot at, or rather shouted at. Hitting the platform, getting a shot off and killing one of them didn’t matter because they INSTANTLY respawned and would usually get one of their own off before I even had time to jump. I proceeded to die over 100 times trying to get past this bit, always being let down by the unresponsiveness of the controls. It wouldn’t be as bad if the controls worked properly, but to have a section that requires precise timing and then to have your character react as if you’re only gently caressing your controller is unforgivable. Surely we’ve
I respect that Michael put all his passion into this project, and two plus points are that the music is better than a lot of other XBLIG inclusions and I did enjoy the childlike graphics that fit perfectly with the games theme. However, a passion for game development doesn’t automatically mean a good game. More work was needed to fix the apathetic controls and the illogical level design, it should never have been released in this state. You can have the best idea in the history of game development, but if the execution sucks then nothing is going to save your game from being consigned to the dustbin of the past. Ultimately Sententia feels like a rush job, likely to make sure it was ready for the Uprising. Michael did a great job organising a fantastic Uprising, but unfortunately Sententia should never have been a part of what’s supposed to be a celebration of the best of XBLIG.