Friday, October 9, 2009

LucasArts’ “Lucid” Return

Can't knock the art stl I can remember a time when LucasArts was a huge name in games.  And I don’t mean a few years ago when they helped BioWare make Knights of the Old Republic.  Go back twenty years and you’ll have trouble finding a PC without a LucasArts adventure game on it.  Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones, LOOM, The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle.  And those were just the adventure games.  What about the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series (which married the company’s proven flight combat engine with a beloved movie franchise)?  Or Star Wars: Dark Forces?  Guys, LucasArts owned PC gaming in the nineties.

In the current (or “new”) millennium, George’s videogame house has gotten a little rundown.  Sure, lots of folks played the Battlefront series, The Force Unleashed is the bestselling Star Wars game of all time, and I even spent an afternoon playing Star Wars: Empire at War.  But none have become killer apps.  I imagine they’ve all languished under the Prequel malaise that seems to have affected everyone over the age of twelve.  The closest thing to a breakthrough success has been the LEGO Star Wars series – again, the preteen demographic.

Recently, LucasArts returned with the rerelease of The Secret of Monkey Island, overseeing the Special Edition that coincided with the new episodic Monkey Island from Telltale.  Then, out of nowhere, came Lucidity, a small-scale puzzle/platformer.  The game recently hit the Xbox Live Arcade and Steam, so I spent some time with the demo.

In Lucidity, you help a little girl named Sofi (who bears a strong resemblance to your typical Little Red Riding Hood depiction).  She’s likes to read and then go on adventures in her dreams.  These adventures manifest as 2D platforming stages, which you must aid her in navigating by placing puzzle pieces along her path.  Put a trampoline in front of her, she’ll jump.  Close a gap with a staircase and she’ll clamber up and over.  All the while, you’re encouraged to help her collect fireflies.  According to the loading screens, she enjoys hunting for fireflies with Nana.

It’s interesting to play a LucasArts game with a such a narrow focus.  I’m used to adventures that span galaxies, and here I’m helping guide a little girl through her dreams.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the change in narrative scope has definitely impacted the game’s style.  It’s much more about the simple act of getting from Point A to Point B.  There’s no epic story, no witty repartee to flesh out the experience.  It’s pure gameplay.

Being that there’s little other than the gameplay to capture your attention, it’s a shame that Lucidity blandly hums along with awkward controls.  So these puzzle pieces appear in a queue à la Tetris (you can choose to store one in a “Hold” box for later use).  As Sofi skips through the level, you steer her towards fireflies and away from hazards (bugs, bees, spikes) by dropping the pieces her in way.  Unfortunately, the collision detection for such an idea isn’t what it should be.  I can’t always tell when she’s going to snag on a ledge or plummet to her doom.  Puzzle pieces do nothing to enemies, which is immensely counterintuitive.  Why can’t I put a platform in the way of that bee?  Why does Sofi still get hurt by the frog I covered with a staircase?  It’s maddening.  And like most games these days, Lucidity is designed with Achievements in mind.  Each level is meant to be replayed to collect all of the fireflies (also a source of health for a wounded Sofi).  Too bad some of the hand-illustrated backgrounds are saturated with yellows and oranges – the same color as the damn fireflies.  Color palette fail.

See the little counter in the bottom left?  That's fireflies.  Can you see the bunches of fireflies in the level?  Am I just really colorblind or is that f'n hard? 
As the levels get more complex, they have greater potential for frustration or elation.  Once I started deploying my trampolines and slingshots in the air, properly escorting Sofi to the finish line became much more skill-based and satisfying (that’s right, I said slingshots).  However, more difficult levels mean more packs of angry bees and snails, all waiting to move through your puzzle pieces and attack Sofi.   Maybe in later levels, I can place pieces that will directly impact her obstacles, but I’m not so sure.  The mechanic, in its current frustrating state, implies that only Sofi can see/interact with the puzzle pieces.  Perhaps it’s part of her dreamscape.  I call shenanigans.  If I want to hit a bee with a fan, I should be able to.

Lucidity is an imperfect game with some good intentions.  It’s got a unique, if obfuscating, visual style.  The music’s pleasant, though perhaps too soothing for extended play (see A Dog for All Seasons).  The idea of impacting the environment around a character instead of simply controlling the character is an inspired design choice.  I’m sure it’s been done before, but certainly not often enough.  I expect Flash/iPhone developers will take this idea to the next level over the coming months.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s polished enough to warrant a purchase.  Welcome back to the development game, LucasArts.  Better luck next time.

Played demo to completion.  Available on XBLA for 800 points or on PC via Steam for $9.99.