Stellar Escape Shows Us How To Frustrate Users With Artificial Difficulty

You know what's more frustrating than a beautiful-looking game whose controls don't work?
A beautiful-looking game that requires you to use those controls to react to events in a split-second.
Alright, perhaps that was being a little harsh. Stellar Escape is a new game that comes to us on the Android Market from a small dev team called Orange Agenda. In the game, you play as an interstellar courier who has delivered a package that could power a planet-destroying death ray. having a moment of conscience, he grabs the power source and sprints away from his client, becoming the most wanted man in the galaxy at the same time.
So, as the title implies, he must escape to his space ship by traversing a number of obstacles: he vaults over low blocks, slides under high ones, vaults through small crevices, monkey-climbs over electrified floors and jumps down pipes, Mario-style, to avoid obstacles all together.
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If this premise seems familiar to you, it's because the same formula lead browser Flash game Canabalt to moderate success. Split-second timing and "see how far you can go" gameplay made it a winner, but including a social element and inviting others to beat your score made it a lasting favourite.
Unlike Canabalt, however, Stellar Escape features 3D graphics, which give it a better sense of reality than just a silhouette on a background. I really like the way the game looks because it emphasizes cleanliness; things are stark, white and sterile, like the first couple levels of Portal 1. It clearly emphasizes the future motif without being obnoxious about it. Also, everything that shows up on your pathway to escape is an obstacle: there's no worrying about whether something you're supposed to avoid something when you're clearly not.
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However, everything isn't all roses, here.
With old Nintendo games, there used to be something called "artificial difficulty." This was different from "real" difficulty in the sense that a game's lack of mechanics or poor design lead it to be hard, as opposed to intentional AI design or challenging focus.
Stellar Escape has artificial difficulty in the sense that nearly every time I die, it is because of a button missing its response, or something that should have been covered by the game's developers.
For instance, the player is able to overhand shimmy over a bar in order to make it over some electrified flooring, and this is the only way to bypass this article. Like monkey bars, the player will go hand-over-hand, but only twice; this does not guarantee that the player will actually make it over the electrified flooring. It's only by jumping at the last possible second that you have a guaranteed chance of making it over.
Another issue arises with the "middle height" barriers, which require you to do a jump-and-roll to get through. I have had untold amounts of trouble executing this successfully, as any clipping of your character with the wall results in a "death." It also doesn't help when the button doesn't consistently work: strangely, it's only this specific action that I have this problem with.
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To be honest, it's kind of heartbreaking to see an app that had a lot of potential fall flat like this. While I'm willing to give most hiccups a pass, there's a point where it just stops being fun to try to outwit the game's problems. While reviewing this app, I literally could not progress past the fourth level, as a combination of the bar-shimmying and middle-vaulting (along with more infrequent problems, like one instance of a small freeze throwing timing off) lead to death. After death. After death.
And these aren't deaths where I can say "darn, I should've pressed that button faster." These are deaths where I'm sitting there, thinking "I KNOW I pressed that. What the hell!?"
So, developers, take this as a notice: if you're going to make a game revolve around one mechanic or gimmick, please make sure that gimmick works. You wouldn't release a physics game with a physics engine that causes your projectile to never settle to a "finished" state. You wouldn't release a puzzle game that makes it a chore to flip tiles.
You should never release a game that requires precise implementation of controls at high speeds and not be a little forgiving.
Stellar Escape
Download Stellar Escape from the Android Market
Download Stellar Escape from AppBrain
QR code for market://details?id=com.OrangeAgenda.StellarEscape


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