Saturday, June 06, 2009

BOH Review

BOH, developed by Simone Bevilacqua and published by EDITEL.
The Good: Effective combination of exploration and constant action, numerous levels, varied items to find, available for Amiga, retro graphics
The Not So Good: Disappointingly small weapon selection, rudimentary AI that constantly respawns, repetitive combat, retro graphics
What say you? A nostalgic action game that’s short on features: 5/8

The thirst for exploration is strong. From Lewis and Clark to Captain Kirk, man has always wondered what’s beyond the next mountain. Mysterious dangers have always lurked underground, like fish with no eyes (technically called a “fsh”). And what do we do when we see something strange and astounding? That’s right: shoot it in the face. BOH is a retro action game that lets you do just that: as a member of the United Defense Forces, you are charged with exploring long-abandoned places teeming with icky enemies just waiting to die. Let them live no longer!

On purpose, BOH evokes a strong “retro” feel. The graphics are designed for a decidedly low resolution: 320 by 240 pixels. Speaking of pixels, BOH is very pixilated because of this low resolution. One could argue that the low-resolution graphics result from laziness, but I must say that the developer did a good job with some advanced lighting effects, noticeable since most of the game takes place in the dark. I actually don’t mind the graphics too much, as the gameplay doesn’t really suffer because of the visuals. In fact, the overhead perspective makes BOH be somewhat distinctive in a land saturated with 3-D action games. The animations and level layouts could be more varied, but as long as you are not expecting cutting-edge 3-D graphics, then BOH should fare OK. The game features a very minimal sound design, with music only heard in the main menu and a handful of effects in the form of the occasional growl by the nearest enemy and the firing of your weapon. It’s all quite repetitive. Sound notwithstanding, BOH delivers on its promise of a “retro” look and feel.

BOH features twenty-six missions of varying difficulty, where you will be exploring dark hallways and shooting anything that moves on your way to a showdown with the boss. Some levels are comprised of multiple layers and more than one map; the more complex ones take a while to complete, so the inability to save your progress is a noteworthy missing feature. There is a good amount of content here as it can take quite a while to successfully complete each level (especially the more difficult ones), although more levels are always welcome. It’s stated that you can text-edit the levels, but I can’t figure out how to do it as it’s heavily encoded. There is a developer's manual available that explains how to do it, however. BOH is reminiscent of Scallywag and Larva Mortus, where you navigate the unknown mostly in the dark. The exploration aspect of BOH is well executed and the use of lighting is quite effective. Each map comprises of tiles, either consisting of normal floor material or special features like conveyor belts, cracked floors, pits, stairs, teleports, explosive barriers, and buttons for unlocking passages. There is back tracking involved in almost every level: who designs a building where you have to unlock a door from halfway across the map? You are scored according to how long it takes you to reach the exit and defeat the ending boss; BOH keeps your best time recorded, but there is no comparison online to other players. Increasing difficulty in the game results is two-fold: more enemies and more cramped maps. I’m glad that the developer did not solely rely on introducing masses of enemies as the only method of making the maps harder, as the more twisted levels offer a more sophisticated challenge that requires more careful traversing. While BOH does not offer multiplayer of any kind (such as the ever-popular cooperative feature), BOH is designed for the Mac and the Amiga in addition to Windows, so that’s nice.

You have a choice between using the keyboard or the joypad for controlling your character. The lack of mouse support makes it difficult to aim, especially since there is no turning sensitivity adjustment. I am accustomed to using the mouse to point at enemies while moving with the keyboard in 2-D games (I think I picked that up from Shadowgrounds), and relying solely on the direction you are facing makes combat a trying process. Usually a highlight of action-oriented games, the weapons in BOH surprisingly stink. You can only acquire three kinds of semi-automatic pistols, each more powerful than the previous one. Being semi-automatic, taking on large quantities of enemies is almost impossible. Where are the shotguns? Flamethrowers? Rocket launchers? Machine guns? Sniper rifles? Anything other than a pistol?!? Add in unlimited ammo and we have a low point of the game: sadly, the combat is quite uninteresting because of the very limited variety of weapons available. You can pick up a number of interesting items conveniently left on the floor for you (how nice!): health, flashlights, better vision, a map, and an enemy detector. When you get these items is completely up to the level designer; there is no way of leveling-up and purchasing items based on how good you are at the game.

The AI enemies of BOH are quite simplistic: they follow a set pattern and then run directly towards you once you get close enough. None of the five normal enemies (other than the end-level boss) have any ranged weaponry, so the tactic remains the same with each of them: never get close. Your pistol is essentially infinite range, so you can simply keep backing up until all of them are dead. The AI units differ only in health and speed, ranging from slow and weak to fast and powerful. At least the boss invites some diversity with it’s crazy movement and strange weapons. Still, all you need to do is aim and shoot: BOH offers little to no strategy. Worse of all, enemies keep reappearing until you find the exit and fight the boss. A room that you cleared ten seconds ago will be filled again with enemies in a short amount of time. The game manual explains this as the boss spawning more enemies to fight against you, but I just find it to be a cheap tactic. That said, BOH can be fun if you enjoy mindless combat with some exploration elements. Unfortunately, the game is limited by the AI and the weapons.

The core gameplay of BOH is mostly successful, mainly because it’s a retread of past 2-D action games where you hunt down scores of enemies in dark passages. There is no shortage of action here: there are multiple enemies around every turn. The exploration aspects of the game are effective thanks to the generally good (but occasionally confusing) map design and uncertainly about what lies around the next bend. There are a lot of missions to play through, spread evenly across several levels of difficulty. While BOH doesn’t have “loot” in the tradition role-playing sense, there are useful items to find, like additional light and maps to make your navigation more efficient. For an action game, BOH features a disturbingly small assortment of weapons: just three pistols. This makes for some very repetitive combat since you can’t switch weapons or use different tactics against enemy units. What action game doesn’t have a rocket launcher in 2009? This is coupled with the AI: only five basic enemy types that follow predictable behaviors means each level has the same feel as you engage enemy units that head straight towards you each and every time. Disposing of these enemies is made difficult by infinite respawning and a keyboard (or gamepad) control scheme that makes aiming a bit tough in a PC world accustomed to precise mouse-driven direction. Simply put, BOH needs more weapons and more varied AI to become a complete product.