What's got 10,000 screens, hordes of vicious robots out for your blood, and a zillion complex puzzles for you to solve? We drop Phil South into Firebird's Sentinel to see if he's king of the castle!
Game: The Sentinel
It's dark. All you con see is the wall of a high computer-generated cliff. As you rotate on the spot, you can see a small clump of trees, which you quickly absorb for their energy. You can't see any more without tilting your head... then as you look up you can see it, its slowly rotating body towering over you. All too soon its malevolent eye turns on you, and you start to feel the energy being sucked from your body. Finally, as your consciousness blinks out, you see the face of your destroyer... the evil Sentinel. Oh well, better luck next life.
It's rare than an original game concept comes out, so when one appears it takes you completely by surprise. Sentinel is just such a game. It's a new kind of strategy/arcade idea, which draws from elements common in a range of traditional strategy formats. It takes place in stunning 3D renderings of 10,000 different landscapes through which the player moves, (or more precisely, teleports) in his quest to destroy the evil Sentinel. Yes, you must destroy him... but the catch is that if he sees you, he'll absorb your energy and you're dead!
On each landscape there's a finite amount of energy to be had, in the form of trees which are dotted around the computer generated hills and valleys in a more or less random way. You have to absorb the trees to get any goodness out of them. Having gained a bit of energy, you can then project it out of your robot body, by creating something tangible, like another tree, a boulder or a fresh robot. Now, and here comes the clever bit, you can teleport yourself (accompanied by a digitised riff from a synthesiser, a sort of Whaaanggg!) into that new robot body and absorb the one you just left, and in this way you move across the landscape. The reason you absorb the robot you just left is because the amount of energy remains constant in the landscape - so if you expend energy to make a new robot, you must gain some of that energy back by absorbing your old robot. As to why you need as much energy as possible, we'll go into that in a minute.
Your view of the computerised landscapes appears as if you're looking out of the head of the robot. You're able to pan round to look for the Sentinel and, using the crosshaired sight, orient on and absorb trees. This may all sound a bit easy-peasy to you, but there's one major point to the gameplay which prevents you from just scooting around, teleporting wherever you please and eating every tree you can see. You can't absorb anything unless you can look down on the square the object stands on, and that goes for boulders, trees, your robots and even the Sentinel itself. If you can't see it, you can't eat it! This can be very frustrating if you can see the top of a tree but can't see the square it's standing on. (The secret is to always go for extra height, but we'll get to that later!) Once you've managed to absorb the Sentinel and climbed up to where he was standing you can hyperspace to the next level. Here's another clever bit - depending on the number of points you have left when you've absorbed the Sentinel, you go on to a higher level. The more points, the higher the level. The entry code for the level you've achieved is displayed across the sccreen and you type this in when asked for it. And if you write it down on a bit of paper, you can go straight to that level next time you play and so save yourself the worry of going through from level one again.
The graphics are totally brilliant, being by far the best 3D effect I've seen on the Speccy, and the digitised or sampled music is great. It sounds like that spooky synth music you used to get in Dr Who. (Daaann dannn dannnnnn! Ooooooo!) Soo-parb!
If you find this all a bit hard to grasp, and who could blame you, don't worry. We've constructed a little Sentinel universe in microcosm, from which you should be able to draw all the conclusions you could possibly want. So sit back, and we'll take you forth into the dangerous realm of... (deep voice) The Sentinel!
Cripes! You'd better look sharpish 'cos here comes...
THE COMPLETE YS GUIDE TO PUZZLE GAMES
Yep, readers, looks like it's time once again for another one of those Complete Guide thingies. This issue, for your delight and delectation, we thought we'd take a peek at the more puzzley sort of games. Y'know - puzzle games - those sort of weird ones where you have to use a bit of the ol' grey matter to solve, erm, puzzles and things. And who better to clasp you by the hand and drag you through the world of the mind-boggling than YS's resident 'heart-throb' RICH PELLEY. Hurrah!
BUT FIRST... THE RATINGS
As usual, the normal rating system seems a bit crap in these circumstances, so here's a different one instead.
How complex and difficult to finish are the puzzles? Are they a complete bummer to complete, or could you do it with your little finger stuck, er, wherever you want to stick it?
LACK OF SLEEP FACTOR
Will it have you coming back for more (and more) or will a few games be enough? (Who knows?)
PULL YOUR HAIR OUT FACTOR
Is the game easy to get into, or do you have to spend ages looking up various keys, and working out what's going on all the time? (The lower the mark the better the gameplay in this case.)
Are the puzzles varied, or are they all the same? (Er, obvious, really.)
Okay, so I admit it - I'm crap at puzzle games. Come to think of it, I'm crap at most games really. And I'm not in a particularly good mood today either 'cos I've got a sneaky suspicion that this guide thingy is going to take absolutely ages to write. Even though Matt has reassured me "It won't take long" and Jonathan has informed me (much to my surprise) that "Honest, it'll really be a lot of fun to do" I'm a little dubious. Still, let's get on with it and see what happens, shall we?
For a start, I can see one big problem staring me in the face almost immediately. I mean, what exactly makes a puzzle game a puzzle game, eh? One man's puzzle game may another one's arcade adventure be or, um, something really. We've had countless arguments here in the office over it already (and for some reason I always seem to lose). For instance, Matt thought Arkanoid, Batty and the like might almost count, while Jonathan firmly disagreed. (In fact, if Jonathan had had his way, Tetris would be 'the only true puzzler ever written' and this would be the shortest Complete Guide on record!) Seeing as this is my feature though, and I'm writing it, everybody's going to have to agree with me!
And what is my definition? Well, it's fairly loose really. It's anything where you have to try to work out some sort of (perhaps totally abstract) mental problem against a time limit. Most great puzzle games are based on one very simple initial idea, which is then perhaps spiced up by slicking in lots of different ways that you can earn bonuses, die, get extra weapons or abilities (if it's a weapons sort of game) and so on. It's the simple initial idea that really counts though - if you haven't got that, you ain't got much really.
So what sort of puzzle games have we got here, then? Well, lots of different ones really - there are games where you must arrange blocks, make pictures, blow up balls, collect keys, and do masses more equally weird and wonderful puzzley things.
One good thing though is the scope - unlike in most areas of Speccy programming, with puzzle games you sometimes actually get a degree of originality. The games I've covered here are all good ones, and all still fairly easily available and - would you believe it? - no two of them are the same! (Well, no three of them at least.) And, erm, cripes, looks like I've run out of things to say. So, um, I'll stop waffling and get on with it, shall I?
THE FIRST PUZZLE GAME IN SPECCY HISTORY
Um, er, um. Now you re asking. Turning to the very first issue of Your Spectrum (ie Your Sinclair in disguise), I find one lurking in the first few pages. Traxx from Quicksilver is its name, and what seems to happen is that you move around this little grid thing collecting squares. Fun, eh? (Alright, I admit it. Of course there's no way that could be the first commercially available puzzle game, but it's the first I could come up with. Sorry and all that.) Anyway, on with the show.
NB Erm, actually, before we start, I'd just like to clear something up. You may notice that all the marks for the following games are quite high - there don't seem to be any crap ones. Now this isn't 'cos I'm a great puzzles fan or anything (in truth I hate them all) - it's just that unfortunately all the ones I've picked have been quite original and good. And keeping up my reviewer's credibility, I have to be fair. Hence the high marks.
Reviewer: Rich Pelley
Er, um, so okay - it's not really that much of a puzzle game, but I'm desperately running out of the things. So just pretend it's not here or something.
Anyway, The Sentinel, eh? I'm pretty sure (I wouldn't take my word for it, though) that it was the first solid 3D game on the Spec. And what happens is that you're this robot thingy, and there's this sentinal thingy way above you who turns around slowly. If he looks at you then you start dying, so you must climb up to his level by creating rocks and trees and things. and eventually absorb him. This may all sound very complicated, but once you've got into it, it really is lemon peasy and very enjoyable into the bargain, despite the large pauses during play which do tend to hinder things a bit.
There we have it! As I predicted (and Matt and Jonathan got totally wrong) it took me absolutely blooming ages. And most of that time was spent arguing about what a puzzle game actually is and what qualifies and what doesn't (which is one reason why we don't have a giant list of all the ones ever made - we just couldn't agree what they were!).
Next month - Flight Sims. (Something everyone can agree on.) Hurrah!
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