Monday, April 13, 2009

Caster Review

Caster, developed and published by Elecorn.
The Good: Varied spells that are fun to use, deformable terrain, customizable upgrades, non-linear campaign with some objective variety, dying only affects upgrade potential, very inexpensive
The Not So Good: Indie production values, basic AI opponents, iffy camera control, two hours long
What say you? Well-executed gameplay makes this a notable action game: 6/8

Did you ever have a great idea for a game but nobody bothered to make it? Jerks! I know my dreams of a realistic door-to-door-salesman simulation have gone unfulfilled. Well, some people take the bulls by their collective horns and do it themselves, and that's the case with Caster. In this action game, you control a character that would fit right in to Naruto (believe it!), fighting off crazy looking aliens bent on your destruction. Luckily, you have crazy looking spells to even out the battles. Does Caster make itself unique?

Caster certainly looks like an independent game, featuring basic 3-D graphics. The highlight of the game is the deformable terrain that responds to the various weapons your character can wield, but the bland textures used in each environment look, well, bland. The environments themselves are usually devoid of any objects other than the terrain itself (save for the occasional tree), making the world of Caster feel less like a plausible fantasy setting. Some of the enemy models look great, but, again, the textures used on them could use some work. There are some nice weapon effects and explosions, though they are repetitive and enemy damage is indicated with a red glow rather than showing actual limbs flying off (as an example). The camera controls make it difficult to tell who is shooting at you; it would have been better to have a more permanent camera setting or one from a further perspective in this third-person game. The sound design is also very basic, with typical effects for each weapon and OK background music. While none of the graphics and sound of Caster are overwhelming in quality, they do suffice despite their basic nature.

Caster features a non-linear (you can choose between two to four levels, up until the end of the game) campaign of fifteen levels that takes about 1 ½ to 2 hours to complete; you can extend the game by hunting down each and every enemy in each and every level, but it's not necessary to beat most of the levels. This is a fair amount of content for the low price ($5) of the game: that’s a third of the length of Wanted for a tenth of the price (and much less repetition). The levels have a variety of objectives: while you will have to kill every enemy on occasion, you might just have to collect orbs or get to a tree (a magical tree, naturally). Difficulty ramps up as you progress, offering more advanced (meaning they cause more damage) enemies. To balance this, each of the game's six weapons are gradually introduced over time. While the second-to-last level is a good amount of chaotic fun, the last level is just a confusing mess. There is no mid-mission saving, but missions are short (2-5 minutes) so this is never an issue. Caster lacks multiplayer, which would have been an interesting feature considering the game's terrain deformation.

Other than obviously being able to move, the main character can super jump (by pressing jump while jumping) and dash (by pressing move while moving). The meat of the game involves the six spells you can attack your enemies with. You get a basic blaster, seeking missiles, stuns, a shield, and terrain altering spells (both add and remove land). The orbiting shield is far and away the best weapon: holding down the left mouse button charges up a shield and releasing it shoots a slow-moving bomb. A viable strategy I found is to just spam this weapon: use your shield while being shot at, release it when the opportunity arises, and immediately charge it back up again. A fully-upgraded orbit weapon is a force to be reckoned with. The rest of the weapons are quite conventional and while they have their use (missiles and stuns for fast moving or high numbers of enemies), once you go “orbit” you'll never go back. Speaking of upgrades, you can increase the effectiveness of your weapons in addition to your health, jump, and dash abilities. This gives you incentive to fully complete each level, as points awarded for disposing of foes

Caster can be a difficult game (I died many, many times) because it's one-against-all and the later enemies are quite powerful and difficult to deal with. You thankfully don't have to restart the level when (not if, when) you die: it resets your score and that means less potential upgrades. I like this system, as it prevents Caster from being a frustrating experience if you die frequently. The varied objectives means that you don’t have to kill everyone to beat a level, but it helps your score and subsequently your upgrades. Respawning is a bit questionable, though: since you resume the game in the same exact spot you died, you can get stuck in a “death cycle.” If you died in the acid, why would the game respawn you there? The enemy AI you will be dealing with is very basic, featuring basic patters from “move towards you” to “fly around you.” This actually works in your favor, as you can trick them into going through lava that you can create using your deformation spells…heh heh heh. The gameplay in Caster is fast-paced and full of action, and combining your different spells to dispose of the enemy horde is quite an enjoyable experience. During Caster's short length (perhaps because of it), interest is kept high during your journey, as unique enemies and new spells are introduced in essentially every level. The varied spells, unique enemies, and terrain deformation options makes for a distinct gaming experience.

You can't ask for much more for $4.99 (it’s cheaper than a foot-long!). Sure, it's only a couple of hours long, but it's an enjoyable two hours. Caster takes two unique elements, terrain deformation and the game's specific spells, and combines them into an effective action game. The memorable alien enemies, from small bugs to giant ant-looking-things, provide a good challenge for the aspiring mage (that would be you). The level of difficult never becomes annoying, however, as dying simply resets your score instead of the entire level, and finishing a map is merely a matter of persistence, no matter how inept you might be. Aiming for perfection has its rewards, however, as you will then have more cash to spend on upgrades in preparation for the final battle. The presentation is certainly indie-level, but the game does have some distinct visuals (notably the enemy models) that would be improved with better textures. The game's fifteen levels are over far too quickly, but the developer has stated that you'll get all future content included for free (whatever that may entail). Caster is a game with distinctly more advantages than pitfalls and provides a couple of hours of good blasting fun.