Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Soko Banish 1.3 - Status Symbols

Dah-dah-dah-dah! It's that time of the year again where I show you things from Soko Banish 1.3 to drool over - or perhaps even vaguely appreciate. Huzzah! Let's get on with it, shall we?

Conserve energy: turn off the lights when you change your settings.

There are two things to see here, the first of which are the settings. These are what pops up when the player presses "Escape" now, replacing the ugly old retry and quit pop-up and darkening the rest of the screen as is all the rage in pop-up menu fashion. I mentioned the settings on [my previous post] and I don't think there are any big surprises here, but I still wanted to showcase how it actually looks in action right now. The runes spell "Soko", in case you were wondering - the game has had that little thing going about Germanic runes appearing here and there because old-timey magicks, though I may not be doing much more with that.

Perhaps more surprisingly (and illuminated for your convenience), we can see the new status bar thingy, formerly known as wasted screen space. I'm not sure what I was thinking when I originally dedicated the entire bottom row of tiles to only a small level changer, but the bar finally has all the kinds of useful things one would expect to find there, like basic GUI functions.

I had actually already done this in what would have become Soko Banish's "Necronomicon" expansion before I scrapped it, but I'm not exactly crazy about recycling old material from 2006/07 when I don't absolutely have to, so I started it over from scratch, taking the opportunity to tinker with the graphics a bit to turn vaguely wood-looking blocks into something more akin to limestone. The wyvern(?) statues are still the old ones - I might update them some day, but I'll need to be careful with that; they're a very characteristic part of the game's appearance.

So, what's new here? From left to right, we first see the new step counter in action, counting steps like a step counter does. Those are footprints on the icon, in case it's too tiny to tell. Next to that is the timer, counting in minutes and seconds and going up to 99:99, which I hope no one's going to legitimately want to exceed in a single session of playing a 20x14 Sokoban puzzle (though if you do have that sort of time to waste, let me know and I may have some tasks for you!). Both of these can be switched off in the settings and will be switched off by default, as this kind of game honestly ought to be about finding solutions to the puzzles and not optimising your performance. Results aren't saved, but if you care about such stats, you can now see them while you play! Oh, and there's the level name at the bottom, which is automatically filled in as "Level #" for untitled levels - such as this one, and pretty much every other level right now because the meta data pixies are lazy clods.

On the other side of the level selection (which works the same as it always has) are a couple of useful buttons. Retry and Quit are finally where you would expect them to be instead of being confined to an unnecessary Esc menu - this also means no menu will pop up when the player character dies now, allowing you to undo if you'd rather not start the whole thing over. The gear once again opens the settings, while the fat "i" stands for info and displays the level's meta data in a pop-up. I was considering showing this automatically at the start of each level, as happens in the brilliant MESH: Hero games that I heartily recommend and am not being paid to advertise, but I figured it's probably nicer to see the actual levels when zapping around. No more pop-ups! Except when you want them.

So, what's next? Apart from some graphics work: converting all the old stages, finishing up a half-finished feature or two and a lot of testing. There are tons of things that I'd love to see in the game eventually (saving solutions! Saving level states! Saving Private Ryan!), but I think people would rather be able to actually play this than listen to me rant and rave about all the things they don't get to try out yet. Considering the 1.1 update was as significant as fixing a bug and adding a blinking animation, it's about time to get 1.3 ready for release before it turns into version 3.1, growing up without its version number parents so it can dress like a flying mammal to spread fear into the hearts of software bugs and terrible GUI approaches.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Soko Banish 1.3 - Choose Your Destiny

Progress has been slow on Sokobanish 1.3, but it's still going somewhere when I'm not too occupied with drawing comic pages and wallowing in self-pity. Showcased here is the new level select screen! I posted a sneak peek of this in the Lanschilandia Games news a while ago, and as I promised there, here's a more detailed look.

More intelligent discourse than my usual writing.
So, what's new? Quite a lot, in fact, since I finally separated all this stuff from its primitive home on the old title screen. In the top-left corner, you can see the overview of level sets - this is roughly the same list as the old one, but looking quite a bit neater, framed by a sort of book shelf. Because it's the level library. Get it? Me neither.

In place of putting in a level number, the levels are now listed as fancy soulstone spheres in the somewhat stage-like section of the screen. (Because they're stages. Hehehe.) This not only gives you an overview of how many levels are actually in the set, but also lets me do some other neat things.

For starters, selecting them now reveals meta info! This can be set in the updated Level Creator, with the exception of the preview, which is generated automatically by rendering the level data with tiny-sized versions of the game elements. Since it shrinks the actual in-game graphics, custom tiles will also show up as they should in the preview. The level sets have meta info as well, which is simply the contents of a file named "info.txt" that can be placed in the level set folder.

You may also notice the little rune circle icon on one of my test levels - it indicates that the level has been completed. In the top-right corner are the player profiles, framed by, well, a picture frame. Selecting "<New player>" and attempting to start a level will prompt the user to enter a name, thus creating a profile for them. Huzzah!

And yes, as the good old gear button between "Play!" and "Quit" implies, the game now has an actual options dialogue with fascinating basic settings like volume controls and switching off the game's full-screen mode. It's funny how the need for basic GUI functionality never seemed to occur to me back in 2006, but I like to pretend I've gotten better with that sort of thing. Maybe.

Oh, and there's an experimental new feature implied by the contents of the level set list. Can you guess what it is?

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: Sokoban Online

Wait, what's that? Shouldn't I be talking about my own projects here? I probably should, but in absence of much to report and a lack of motivation to devote what time I can find outside of my webcomic to working on my projects over at Lanschilandia Games, you may be seeing the occasional review from me.

Today's subject is Sokoban Online, a free browser game by Uphill Studio LLC. The game can be played here. Let's kick it off then, shall we?

So, what is it?

Sokoban is a puzzle game published in 1982 by Thinking Rabbit about pushing boxes onto goal fields. It's spawned probably thousands of clones and variations and hundreds of thousands of Sokoban puzzles can be found on the internet. My own game, Soko Banish, is obviously a clone as well at its core.

How does this one hold up?

Sokoban Online, as the name would indicate, is an online adaptation of the classic game. It can be played directly in a browser and registering an account enables it to keep track of solved levels, scores and more.

Levels can also be built and shared, either using the classic Sokoban tiles by themselves or in combination with a number of new puzzle elements that more-or-less fit into the game concept. This easy online level sharing and playing is perhaps the game's strongest point, being neatly integrated with the website and player accounts. There's a limit of how many levels can be shared, after which a small fee is required to unlock more space, but prices are reasonable at only a dollar for 100 slots (which most people never seem to fill, according to site statistics). Everything else is completely free, save for a few purely optical replacements for the player character graphics (there are two included with a free account).

One of over 100,000 puzzles in Sokoban Online.
After a quick optional sign-up process, what sticks out is the number of levels available - over 100,000 as of writing this review. Now, these of course weren't all made for Sokoban Online, but include conversions of multitudes of puzzles scattered around the internet (and other Sokoban games), grouped by author. Added to that are the new levels, created by players and staff. Even after solving hundreds of puzzles, the statistics on the main page still tease with a completion percentage of less than 1% that will most likely never reach 100. Overwhelmed yet?

You very well may be, because browsing this database isn't always easy. After finishing a short tutorial and official "lessons", you are largely on your own in trying to find something that interests you, which can be difficult, as browsing is basic and there is no search. Nothing can be sorted (it's always by alphabet), no tags and almost no filtering, ratings are basic and so under-utilised they may as well not exist, descriptions are sparse at best. There are a few ways to get "recommendations", but they don't seem to be personalised and finding puzzles of a particular style, size or difficulty is impossible if you don't already know where to look. Even finding most of the staff-made levels is tricky (hint: look for "Jeffrey" in the directory for community-built puzzles). A help tab currently offers some outdated info, including links to sections that no longer exist.

The game itself is decently realised, if very basic. Arrow keys to move, U to undo, R to restart. No mouse controls, but the mouse is used for site navigation (including going to the next puzzle), so the player has to switch back and forth a lot. There is also a full-screen mode, but it doesn't remain active when the puzzle changes. The new elements are nice to have, but a mixed bag - some fit quite well, like the grey blocks and holes straight from "Sokonex", while others, like the magnets, feel unnecessary or too complex. There is also a bug involving icy floors and the undo function that makes boxes disappear. Levels can play quite differently depending on which of the new elements they use (if any), so it would have been great to have a filter for that.

What seems like more of a curse than a blessing is the game's competitive focus. When you solve a puzzle, the site saves the number of steps you took - not just for yourself, but it's also shared publicly, whether you want it to be or not. This score may then appear on the level's leaderboard, where the first three places are awarded with trophy badges and "EXP" displayed on the account. While it's all optional, the omnipresence of this aspect around the site creates pressure to solve levels in the fewest steps possible (and some are specifically built to be hard to optimise rather than hard to solve), which limits the feeling of accomplishment from solving the puzzles. Planning an optimal solution manually is hard to impossible, and Sokoban Online with its lack of features makes it a pain in the box, requiring many restarts and memorising your steps because the game won't do it for you. Adding to that, the availability of automatic move optimisers means that the top score on almost all (classic) levels is the absolute lowest amount of steps possible, so unless you want to waste time with external tools or a lot of trial and error, expect the game to continuously taunt you with the "invisible" trophies you're earning.

So, is it worth checking out?

Definitely, for its online approach alone - and there's no harm, after all, as it's free and runs in the browser. It also makes for an easily accessible way to try out a whole bunch of classic Sokoban puzzles without downloading them (if you can find the sort you're looking for), and new elements can introduce interesting challenges in the levels that utilise them well. For comfort and quality-of-life features while playing classic Sokoban, there are certainly better and much more customisable options available, though as a completely web-based clone with account integration and online level sharing, Sokoban Online is still worth a look.