Posts Tagged ‘puzzles


Terra Battle


I’ve spent the past few weeks playing Terra Battle, a free-to-play game from Mistwalker.  Aside from Mistwalker’s previous games, Terra Battle caught my interest because of the involvement of contributors from some of my favorite game series, including Final Fantasy and Drakengard.  Even with the caveats of free-to-play game design, there was little to lose in loading this on to my phone and trying it out.

To my knowledge, this is the studio’s first attempt at a mobile game of this scale.  While many of those on the project have considerable experience designing games for consoles, I wondered how such an experience would translate to a touch-based system, or if this would be something entirely different from what I might be expecting.  From what I’ve seen so far, Terra Battle mixes elements from console RPG titles that have come before it with mobile puzzle games.  Let’s take a closer look.

Terra Battle’s gameplay takes place on a 6 x 8 board where your party, enemies, hazards, and power-ups can be placed.  Every turn has you moving a character around the board, and then any enemy with a turn counter of 0 can take a turn.  You move the character by dragging them across the board.  Enemies will block your character from moving through the board, but enemies and power ups will swap places with your character as they proceed through the square.  In this way, you can arrange multiple characters in the same turn.

Once you have arranged characters such that two have been placed side-by-side with one or more enemies in between them, you can execute an attack with those characters.  At the same time, any allies that are adjacent to the characters performing the attack (without an enemy in between them) will be activated and will execute certain skills (heal, buff) or add strength to the attack.  Similar rules apply to enemy turns, but there are options for them to execute attacks without lining up allies in the same way that you are required to.

So here, we find one of the tried and true role playing game mechanics: min/maxing.  You have a timer that depletes as you move your character.  They can move as far as you can drag them, but as soon as the timer ends, the character is placed and attacks are executed.  Your job is to arrange as many characters as you can in as little time as possible to maximize the number and potency of attacks in a turn.  It can be a bit of a mind-twister, but pulling off attacks that dispatch many enemies at once can be very satisfying, even if sometimes it’s not entirely clear why you have.

Outside of the core gameplay system, you are given a series of zones to clear on a map.  Each zone contains a set of 5 to 10 battles, and each battle has about 4 or 5 sets of enemies that have to be dispatched.  You can recruit generic characters using coins you’ve collected in battle, or rarer unique characters using “energy” which is given out sparingly in the game, usually when you’ve completed a zone.

Energy can also be purchased.  And here’s where the paywall comes into effect.  Each battle requires use of stamina in order to initiate it.  If you run out of stamina, you must wait to proceed, or use energy to replenish stamina.  I’ve only found myself running out of stamina on rare occasions, as I only play for short sessions.  More often, I find myself burning through energy to collect rare characters. Terra Battle does offer qualities similar to a collectible card game, though it does not lend itself to impulse purchases to serve that end (speaking for myself anyway.)

If it’s not clear yet, Terra Battle is a complex game that’s almost forced through a simple interface.  There’s a lot to dig in to, but given its complexity and chance in recruiting characters, the level design is not steep or uniform.  It offers a consistently low bar for quite a while that does not challenge you to form unique or novel strategies.  You can certainly still do this, and it is rewarding, but you’re not going to be stopping very often and racking your brain for strategies to complete battles.  This may something that becomes more important further along in the game, but I can say that it’s not a large part of the experience for the first half-dozen zones – a time where the game should be carefully teaching and reinforcing its vocabulary.  There’s plenty to do and learn, but not a whole lot to motivate you to do so.

Ultimately, the game offers some great music, art, and interesting ideas.  And initially, at the price of free, there’s little to stop you from trying it out, but there’s not a whole lot that’s going to keep you around either.  I’m eager to unlock more challenging zones, and collect more characters, but I think Terra Battle would be a better game if it had a more focused experience.  This may be a trade-off for its business model, which would be unfortunate.  I’ve enjoyed my time with the game though, and I hope that continuing development on the title only improves its value.


Games and Genres, Part Two

We've all been here at one point or another.

[Part One]

If game genres should represent why we should care about playing a game, how exactly do you describe them?  The best starting point is to draw parallels between the ways games appeal to people and how conventional activities appeal to us in meat-space.  There was a time in all of our lives where we could care less about games, and there was something that clicked between what we enjoyed in meat-space and something that a video game had to offer.  They are about verbs, and so it only makes sense to look at other things that we already like to do, and then build on them.

Play Sports: Many people like to challenge their ability to perform skill based physical tasks.  And while it is easy to immediately associate sports with muscles and physical endurance, it is equally about dexterity and hand-eye coordination.  Of course, skill based challenges to your hand-eye coordination and dexterity can translate to many other activities, including action based video games.  And if sports games are any indication, the hand-eye coordination part of that equation is a significant reason why people enjoy sports in the first place.

Solve Puzzles: The flip-side to challenging your dexterity and hand-eye coordination is to challenge your cognitive abilities.  People will embrace artificial constraints to try and demonstrate cognitive potential.  There is no point to solving a cross word puzzle, or winning a game of chess.  The rewards are all in your mind.  Working around those constraints allow people to prove to themselves and others just how sharp they are.  Or they provide a way for someone to witness their own progress at getting better and better at tasks that challenge their mind.  If there was ever an activity that video games were well suited for, it’s puzzles.

Express Ourselves: Through creative expression (painting, music, performance, writing, joke telling, etc) we can create something and call it our own for nothing but time and effort.  It can be relatively cheap and satisfying no matter who you are.  This work can be easily shared with those around you and can definitely be a very compelling activity to do with your time.  Games can provide ways to promote this sort of experience in a contained, digital context.  In tandem with the internet, games can be a tremendous creative outlet that can be shared with virtually anyone.

Screw Around: Of course then there are people who just enjoy activities that don’t challenge your mind, dexterity, or creativity, and just want to have fun.  Some people just enjoy things for what they are and are content to simply explore the different ways you can interact with something.  Some enjoy mischief, others are curious tinkerers, but all of us at some time or another just enjoys playing with something that’s right in front of us.  Games that provide the audience with novel systems can appeal to us in this sense.  At times, we even enjoy playing games not for their intended purpose, but for the secondary activities you can take part in. For instance: insulting people.

Explore: Discovery something new can be very exciting, and has motivated people to do incredible (and incredibly dangerous) things.  For that, exploration may be one of the most powerful and appealing of these activities, and is also one of the best ways a game can appeal to an audience as well.  Books and movies can take you places, but you are stuck looking at them from the back seat of a car that’s just passing through that world.  Only when the player is in control can they begin to feel the senses of fear and reward that go hand and hand with exploration.  The possibilities are virtually limitless with well realized digital worlds.

These activities probably sound incredibly basic when describing how they can be connected to games.  But for the console games industry, I think more time needs to be spent on understanding the fundamentals instead of simply counting on there being people playing games simply because they already know that they like them.  It’s because the console gaming industry and community has been so narrowly focused on established genres that we’re so surprised when a game like Farmville does so well and our response is “well people who like Farmville are just idiots who don’t know what real gaming is.”  We’ve just forgotten what it was that had drawn us into games, and it is probably the same sort of thing that Farmville gamers experienced too.  At their roots, I think most video games can be traced back to something that’s intrinsically appealing to human nature; I hope gamers and developers alike will take more time to consider what that might be.

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