Posted on September 27, 2011 AT 02:11pm
Sucked into a black hole of frustration
When you build your game around a novel core mechanic, you’d better make damn sure it’s easy to grasp, simple to learn, and fun to keep using. Bionic Commando’s famous grappling arm is probably the most pertinent example—even though the game’s lack of a jump button forced players to rethink the way they navigated the traditional side-scrolling platformer back on the NES, it felt intuitive enough that swinging through levels eventually became second nature.
Rochard’s gravity-controlling mechanic, on the other hand, feels clunky and awkward from the start—and it never really comes together to feel natural, fluid, or engaging. These controls allow you to switch between normal and low gravity and pick up various objects along the way with your gravity gun, but they require such precision that you’ll never end up dropping that object quite where you want to—and you’ll have to attempt again and again to get it right. While aspects of the game certainly entertain, that failure of the core mechanic means that the experience is never quite as enjoyable as it could’ve been.
That’s a shame, because for all the talk about how we’d like to see more relatable protagonists than beefy space marines or buxom sexpots, Rochard actually delivers on that end: John Rochard, a portly, mustachioed space miner tasked with…well, mining—and you can tell from the country-music backdrop in the opening segment that this is a lot more Firefly than Star Wars. In fact, Rochard’s world seems so cobbled together from an all-star parade of nerddom—Firefly mixed with Portal with a dash of Futurama, among other things—that it never really emerges as its own distinct universe. The narrative also includes clear ’80s and ’90s pop-culture references to things like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Duran Duran; they’re not exactly funny, though, and they almost seem like a form of bizarre shorthand from the developers to a particular segment of the audience: “Hey, look when we grew up!”
Rochard’s gameplay alternates between two basic types: puzzle segments and action sequences—and both have pretty glaring flaws. The puzzle segments often require you to figure out which box to move where or which energy pod to insert or remove in order to open a path or unlock a door. The problem is that you’ve got to harness the gravity controls in order to do this, which can be an exercise in excruciating frustration. I’d often figure out the solution to the puzzle pretty quickly, but the clunky controls didn’t actually allow me to execute the solution in a timely manner.
The action sequences feature similar flaws. They’re fun as a change of pace from futzing with gravity, but because Rochard can’t take more than a few hits and can actually die from falling long distances—what is this, 1982?—you’ll find yourself continually perishing and constantly enduring the loading screen. One particular sequence that stood out for me saw 10 seconds of action, a death, followed by 10 seconds of loading…that repeated for approximately 15 minutes. Even so, the game does feature several rewarding segments that would’ve been at home on the NES or Super NES—all punctuated by a rockin’, ’80s-sounding beat.
Really, that’s what was so frustrating for me about playing through Rochard. You can tell—particularly via the retro-gaming callbacks—that its developers grew up on classic platformers and really felt the passion to deliver one of their own. But, just like Bionic Commando succeeded in spite of its novel take on the formula, plenty of other platformers over the years weren’t quite so successful in attempting something different. And, in the end—while I certainly respect what it’s trying to do—you can add Rochard to that list.
SUMMARY: Offers a decent downloadable mix of puzzle- and action-platforming, but the cumbersome gravity-altering controls hold it back.
- THE GOOD: Decent mix of puzzles and action.
- THE BAD: Core gravity controls never quite come together.
- THE UGLY: Motion-sickness-inducing “inverted” scenes.
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