Activetuts+ Workshop #2: Amorphous+ Critique
I've always been a fan of simple yet addictive games, especially those of the action genre. Amorphous+ is one of the most memorable browser-based web games to fit this criteria. It's easy to pick up, quick to play, but very hard to master. There's a lot Amorphous+ does right, a little bit it does wrong, and many things it could do better.
It's pretty clear that Innocuous Games, the developer, was quite passionate about what they made. There's no track of looking for a sponsor, the game used programmer art, and they focused directly on making a game that was fun and that they too would enjoy playing. While this may lead to a few faults, it definitely brought out what strengths Amorphous does have to offer.
With the above in mind, let's take a look at the core gameplay mechanics of Amorphous, its greatest strength. You walk around, kill whatever comes at you, and try not to get hit. With easy mouse controlled movement, a one-click attack mechanic, and a pretty obvious visual indication of what's dangerous, you can't get any simpler. Okay, there are also the (later introduced) “A”, “S”, and “D” controls (for special abilities), but those too are straightforward.
The only flaws I can find with these mechanics, is that sometimes you'll click outside of the game's window when fighting near the edge of the arena, which too often leads to death. There's a simple solution to this, but more on that later. The other issue is that “X” automatically exits to the main menu when pressed, without a pop-up confirmation window. With “X” appearing so close to “A”, “S”, and “D”, that's a huge design flaw, as having your game cancel on you instantly is extremely frustrating, and will almost always result in a player leaving your game.
So what makes Amorphous excel above other games, especially those of its genre? The most notable feature is that your attacks are performed with a short-range weapon (a sword, to be specific), rather than a gun or laser. This may seem like a tiny change, but it's the difference between a generally saturated genre, and something a bit new. I'm willing to bet that we can all think of three or more “Arena Shooters” (think Geometry Wars), but it's hard to come up with half as many that focus on short-range weapons.
Aside from avoiding a saturated genre, there's more to be gained from using a sword rather than a gun. There's a certain sense of gratification when you swing at an enemy in front of you, and destroy it in one swift blow. While shooting something far away and watching it explode is also gratifying, it doesn't give the the player the same sense of feedback and power. Perhaps this sense of gratification is why many MMO's find themselves with more physical class players than ranged.
While Amorphous does many things different from the average game in the “Arena” genre, it also handles many of the essential elements very well. The game does a fantastic job with the rate at which it exposes you to new enemies. At first you'll be surrounded by petty green blobs, but soon find yourself under assault by all sorts of unique enemies (or Gloople as the game refers to them). The creativity with enemy types really is unmatched by any other game of the genre found on the web. And for players who get bored of the weak enemies at the beginning each time they restart, there's a “hardcore mode” which makes all enemies you've encountered appear from the start, which is unlocked pretty early in the game - a very nice addition.
There are many game modes to choose from: players can choose from various sized “nests”, which are more or less mini-goals within the game, and for those who conquer all the above and want more challenge, there's also an Endless mode.
To encourage players to explore all of these modes, the game offers a massive number of achievements and unlocks, which keep players hooked and satisfied. Encountering a new enemy will add it to the game's bestiary, which gives you some interesting and sometimes humorous information about it. Earning enough achievements will grant the player a special key, which can then be used to unlock new abilities in the rewards menu. In addition, there are a few modes and other small bits that can be unlocked, which really adds to the replay value.
As I mentioned, the game has a number of abilities that can be unlocked. You won't know what these abilities are until you unlock them, so there's a small rush when deciding what to unlock, in the hopes that you'll find it useful. These abilities range from protection by dropping a smoke bomb that attracts enemies, to the ability to sprint for a short amount of time. Many of these abilities can change the way you play the game, and so keep the recipe fresh.
While Amorphous does many things right in terms of gameplay, there's also a number of things that could be greatly improved upon. The most notable, to me, is that the arena doesn't feel too much like an arena. The entire gameplay is confined to a single screen's worth of arena, which sometimes makes things feel a bit cramped. Even worse, is that the developer kept the resolution of 550x400 (the Flash IDE's default size), which is even more limiting than the standard of 640x480, leading to the aforementioned issue of frequently clicking outside of the game window.
An elegant solution to these issues would have been to have the arena go on forever in all directions (or at least appear to do so to the player), and to never let the player reach the edge of the screen. At the very least, a 4x screen arena would have given the player some breathing room. This would have greatly reduced the off screen clicking problem (thus reducing how many players rage quit), and would give the player some more room to navigate between enemies (reducing rage quits even further).
Somewhat related to the arena size, is the issue that enemies remove themselves from the game when even an inch out of bounds. Some enemies go outside the arena by accident all the time, and never come back, confusing players that don't understand the code behind the game. This also allows you to lead or chase some enemies off screen to get rid of them, which to me feels like a design flaw. While enemies need to be removed when out of bounds, those bounds shouldn't be just outside the arena; a bit of padding is definitely needed.
Although there are an enormous number of unlocks to be had, I can't help but feel that the average player won't experience it all, due to the pacing at which these rewards are given. In the casual games market, player attention is a hard thing to retain, especially for a game as simple as Amorphous. I believe that these unlocks should have been more frequent, and more goal-oriented - by which I mean that the developer should have veered away from making the key unlocks based solely on the number of achievements the player has earned, and should have instead rewarded them both based on achievement count, and tasks completed.
As is, the player receives very little reward (an achievement or two) for wiping out a nest, which is really a let down since even the easiest nest is quite challenging. While spacing achievements out does increase the overall length of the game, that length is lost if you lose a player before they experience it. For a game this simple, it's essential to constantly reward the player, otherwise they may not stick around.
While it obviously wasn't the goal of the developer to have astounding graphics, that doesn't spare Amorphous from the fact that its art is both lousy, and lacking. Simply put, the developer should have hired an artist - and had they not been creating the game strictly for fun (so it seems), I assume they would have.
Another flaw of the art is in the UI design. I feel that the main menu is a bit cluttered, and that sub-menus would be more than welcome. The bestiary screen is a wall of text, and some more “to the point” information on how each enemy behaves would be much appreciated. Perhaps a “Bio” and “Behavior” section would help make the information more readable, visually appealing, and informal.
What Amorphous does do right, is make sure that what art it does have is complete. Attacking a “Grinder” (large stone ball enemy) shoots particle effect sparks when it's invincible. Killing enemies leaves a splash behind, based on the way your sword makes contact. The achievements each have their own graphic, all 110 of them. All of these small graphical polishes help offset the lousy art, because it's at least complete. If this much attention was given to games with great art (which is amazingly not done too often), we'd have a lot more visually stunning web games. It's a shame Amorphous doesn't have both great attention to detail, and good art, because the rest of the design really is well done.
The audio in Amorphous is great, aside from the enormous compression resulting in low quality sound. This isn't so noticeable with the sound effects, but it really rears its ugly head when it comes to the music.
The music variety is quite large for a web game. This is essentially only possible due to the compression, so I'd vote that less tracks and higher quality would be more beneficial to the game.
But what shines most in the audio is the sound effects. If you pay attention to how much detail there is audibly with this game, you'll be quite impressed. Everything, and I mean everything, has a sound. Different kills, gaining an achievement, certain enemies switching forms, it's all there. I play and review a massive number of web games, and almost all of them are lacking in audio completion; Amorphous not only fills in all the blanks, but does it well.
One minor gripe I have is that there's no way to mute the audio during gamplay. Pressing “M” is already taken to display the name of the current track, which to me, would have been much better utilized if it muted the audio, or toggled what is muted. At the very least, there should have been a small button in the pause menu.
Overall, Amorphous is one of the more impressive Flash games on the web, especially if you take its age into consideration (it was released in 2008). It did a lot right, and very little wrong, which is impressive for a developer that doesn't seem to have any more games under their belt.
The game has definitely made a dent in the popular portals as a cult classic, which isn't easy to achieve. All in all, Amorphous is what it is, and good at what it does. If we were ever to see a sequel to this one hit wonder, and the above points were taken into consideration, we'd have one heck of a web game on our hands.
What do you think of Amorphous+? Share your constructive criticism in the comments below!
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