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Lab Rat - Gomie v. 2015 
 PostWed Feb 10, 2016 6:50 am
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LabRat0005.png
Maybe it would've worked better without sticking to the Tetris Piece format?
LabRat0002.png
Other than the cursor thing, it's a neat menu
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Why are these levels in the game if they're broken?
This is a review of Lab Rat.

As BlurredVisionGames describes it, Lab Rat is a simple puzzle game made for the "one-month mouse-only left-click contest". Naturally, that means there's going to be some goofiness with the controls. Far from a simple puzzle game, I think Lab Rat was very ambitious. A lot of that ambition falls short. I'd wanted to say here that at least it was experience that would serve BVG well when they made Shooter Game, but apparently Lab Rat came after. I can't explain the regression.

Lab Rat starts with a dynamic little OHRRPGCE logo and a BlurredVisionGames logo title screen. It's animated and it feels like something you'd see in a real game. That's good! When the menu pops up, the mouse cursor travels under the options you're trying to choose. That's bad! In a mouse-driven game, the first thing you should do is make sure the cursor is always visible. Preferably in a seperate container that's always front-er than the other stuff.

The game itself is hard to describe. You position tetris pieces on the map and then set a mouse loose. His behavior is predictable and if you do it right, he'll pick up all the cheese on the map, nab the key and then exit through the now-unlocked door. You click and drag the pieces to position them which is neat, I can't remember clicking and dragging in any other OHR Games. That's good! Once you've positioned a piece, you can't reclick and redrag. You have to hit back to remove the last piece you plopped down and then click and drag it again. That's bad! And if your problem isn't with the last piece you placed, then you have to remove them all and click and drag them ALL back where you want them. That's REALLY bad!

But what's worst is the level design! A good puzzle game works one of two ways: It either has a simple basic mechanic (fill a row with blocks to eliminate the row.) with minor complications and tweaks to make it hard to masster (eliminate multiple rows at a time to get more points, the pieces are funny shaped) so that the more you play the better you get at this repetitive, addictive act.

Or, the game has a very complicated mechanic and each level introduces you to a new aspect of that mechanic until you're able to solve complex series and combinations of these mechanics. Portal did that and it's one of the best puzzle games of all time. Lab Rat tries for the second approach, but doesn't do a good job of explaining how it works. The mouse always turns left, but even the early maps require very specific placement that doesn't do a good job training the player in how the mouse will bounce around and how you can "trick" him into a more complicated pattern before he gets stuck.

Take Portal, for instance. In the early stages of the game you can't even create a portal. You have to wait for one to be created for you. Once you've gotten used to that, you gain the ability to create one portal. You learn about conserving momentum and all that crap until the end of the game, when you're regularly firing two portals and manipulating the environment to take fantastic leaps.

Lab Rat should learn from that example: The first level or two should teach you about the left hand turn. Then it should teach you how to reverse the mouse's course. Finally it should teach you how to combine these elements to get the mouse to do the bizarre circuits required. In that way the player gets a sense of accomplishment at each level in their development and understanding, and solving the later missions feels like a huge well-thought out plan.

Because the basic mechanics aren't appropriately taught to the player, everything feels like guesswork. You win, but you're not sure why. A lot of times I'd just place pieces randomly, set the speed to fastest and wait and see if he'd solve it on his own. Without knowing what you're doing, it's not very fun.

I gave up when I found out there's no save function. Somehow, in my resets, I ended up with an extra piece on the board. I couldn't remove it, and thus couldn't solve the problem. Also, since I couldn't remove it, I couldn't return to the menu. One hit of escape, and I'd flushed all my work down the toilet. You can choose any level you want, so I could theoretically have picked up "where I left off" but because I have very little idea how I solved the earlier 5 or 6 puzzles, re-doing them would be as foreign as doing them the first time. Also, the last five levels on the menu are labelled as "BROKEN" so chances are I wouldn't be turning all those red names to green anyway.

Turning red names to green is a great way to display progress and I love the click drag stuff, but the game isn't very engaging and doesn't make you feel clever in the way a good puzzle game would. There's no music at all and that goes a long way towards making the game feel empty. I can't suggest it to anyone, but it was a good experiment by the author and I hope they placed well in what was surely a weird contest.
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