Return To The Old School
Thanks to the efforts of Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, gamers aren’t completely reliant on big publishers and developers to release safe games that appeal to the broadest possible demographic. It’s because of these smaller, perhaps even more eccentric developers, that new ideas — and maybe even more importantly, old ideas that are no longer considered fashionable — are given a chance to show what they can do. Rochard, by Recoil Games from Finland, is one of these ideas, taking the side-scrolling platform/action/puzzle genre and giving Playstation owners a surprising, affordable treat.
Truckers In Space Still Work Hard
Rochard borrows a page from Alien, and puts the intergalactic equivalent of truckers as its heroes. John Rochard, the protagonist, is a hard working asteroid miner with a spell of bad luck, just trying to do some honest labour for honest pay. Unfortunately his cold streak of not finding any valuable minerals is about to cause a shut down of his operation by the company footing his bills. It all changes dramatically when his crew stumbles across an artifact at their latest asteroid dig, and things go horribly awry. What follows is a simple story that gets its beats across, ending, unfortunately, in a cliff hanger. It’s a functional tale, with a simplicity that — like much of the game — hearkens back to a simpler time, feeling almost like the kind of game one might play on an Amiga from the 90s.
Being a downloadable title, the graphics of the game are obviously not going to be pushing the PS3 to the upper limits of its performance. Then again, it doesn’t need to. The game, like Bionic Commando Rearmed and Shadow Complex is “2.5D” using polygons to represent a world that is only ever seen in traditional, side-scrolling profile. The entirety of the game takes place in tunnelled asteroids and star bases, so for the most part the art direction is focused on rock, pipes, and the occasional high tech hangers and offices, with a detour through a futuristic, low gravity casino. The characters, like Rochard himself, are occasionally seen up close in cut-scenes, and when they are, they bear a distinct, cartoony impression that owes a lot of the Team Fortress aesthetic. The art direction is colourful and functional, with nothing in the way of fancy particles effects or complex, dynamic lighting. Rochard won’t win any awards for its graphics, but it does a good job of showing you what you need without any confusion.
The audio side is a mix of positives and negatives. On the one hand, Burt Kane, the director on the game, has chosen some music that shows his 90s gaming heritage, with a synth track worthy of any Amiga gaming aficionado. However, the voice acting can stumble, with an odd mix of Duke Nukem’s Jon St. John providing the southern drawl of Rochard himself, while others provide flat British or Native American accents. St. John manages to inject a certain liveliness into his Rochard performance, while others, such as his constant radio companion Skyler, tend to slip in their delivery, without the same energy or impact. The sound effects are appropriate to the setting, but as a 2.5 D side-scroller, listeners aren’t going to hear much going on with multi-speaker set ups.
Jump, Shoot, Alter Gravity
At its heart, Rochard is puzzle and action platformer that plays it safe by sticking to two dimensions. This means jumping is easy, precise and never unclear when it comes to judging distances. This is especially important because of the fact that at the touch of the L1 shoulder button, players can lower the force of gravity for longer, higher jumps. The puzzle component of the game employs the gravity gun, which can lift objects, force fields — with various effects such as admitting only biological material, inanimate material, or blocking everything — and the use of normal and lower gravities. Over the course of the game, the puzzles combine these elements into newer, more devious and ornate solutions, although Rochard never goes so far as to present absolute brain-stoppers. The puzzles are always logical and usually even the seemingly-impossible ones require just a little detailed observation to surmise that it’s time to bring out explosives and blow open a hole in the floor.
The other component, combat, is an alternate function of your gravity gun, which can turn into a blaster. Combat, as with your gravity gun, suffers slightly from its lack of expertise. While the combat is not as tight and responsive as a dedicated shooter title, it works reasonably well, and plays out its role beautifully as a companion to puzzle solving. When combat is built into a level to add a little adrenaline to a puzzle, it works fine as an accent. Where it stumbles is in some of the areas where combat becomes a focus, like locking Rochard in an area until a certain number of enemies have been killed. The combat mechanics are just not responsive or satisfying enough to pull their own weight. That misstep aside however, Rochard generally manages to get a lot right.
Pacing is another area the game generally excels at. Occasionally there’s a sense that Recoil might have lingered a little too long on introducing new mechanics for the solving of puzzles, but these moments are minor speed bumps on an otherwise smooth road of increasing complexity, reflexes and some unorthodox use of crates, gravity, force fields and industrial explosives. In many ways, the design and more methodical pacing of the game hearken back to the hey-day of platformers in the 90s when games like Flashback and Oddworld were held up as high watermarks of what the genre could do besides merely jumping. There’s a sure-footed knowledge of the genre at work here, with an appreciation for the modern conveniences like infinite continues, regenerating health and of course, manipulating gravity.
But perhaps the most compelling reasons to pick up Rochard from the Playstation Network are the simple ones; namely that the game is fun, cheap and runs a decent length. The old school platforming is a rarity in today’s gaming landscape, so the quality level that Rochard hits would be reason enough to pick up for those starved genre fans. But when you factor in that the game can clock in at about 6-8 hours for the first playthrough, and it costs only $10—or $8 if you’re a Playstation Plus subscriber—then the entertainment value becomes that much more attractive. Games of far shorter length and lower quality retail for a full $60. To get Rochard for $10 or less when the game is so well put together is practically criminal.
In the end, the only reason to not get Rochard is if you’re not a fan of the platforming puzzle/action genre. Everyone else, however, would do well to put some money in their virtual wallets and download the game. If you’ve been pining for a simpler, more old-fashioned entertainment experience that doesn’t involve shooting in first person, and a lot more jumping and collecting, this will fill the void. Rochard represents a quality return to a rare genre at a surprisingly low price, even by the normal standards of the PSN where most downloadable games regularly sell for $15. This is a great deal that gets a lot right.