Puzzle Game Design: Start Methods

So, Portponky had a long (er, cough) post on Reddit here (don’t worry, all links here will be to another tab/window) about puzzle game design. …That post is in my experience only above average for Reddit standards, and my Great Star Offensive review was just below 6000 words, which is like 10 times the length of his post.

If you don’t have context, he basically replied to someone asking him his engine and puzzle design advice. That someone deleted their comment. But what about his engine?

I have more than a decade industry experience writing C++, and once you’re used to the big guns it’s hard to put them down. Godot looks great, but there is a learning curve with any new tool, so I tend to stick to what I know best. For reference the game took 8 months to develop.

…Honestly, I’m not sure he cares, since it only takes up like two lines. I’m still not sure what his opinions on Godot are or if that’s even the engine he used. Anyway, the real part of this I want to respond to is the puzzle design stuff.

I have SO MANY opinions about puzzle design, so this post might get long. tl;dr: If you want to write books, read a lot. If you want to design puzzles, solve a lot.

First of all. The original post is not long. :/ I’ve solved and made puzzles for fun (as well as made fun of puzzles…) for years, so I think I qualify. I highly suspect there’s a better way to do so though – like playing incredibly bad games to see where they went wrong. I agree here. One of the things I feel like when writing is that I’d at least like one person invested like me so I can really feel encouraged about taking the time to write a long article.

When I design puzzle games, I tend to first think about each mechanic. For Recursed, there were about 8 mechanics that I put into the game and about 15 that never made it past the drawing board. Mechanics should be reasonably simple to understand, distinct from each other and there should be a variety (e.g. items, environment, etc.). Most importantly, mechanics should interact in interesting ways. I don’t add a mechanic if it acts in a way that’s too isolated from other mechanics.

Disclosure: I haven’t played Recursed. It’s interesting, but I no longer spend the time nor money on the risk of dud game purchases since about a year ago. So if a critic contacts me about how Recursed is actually flawed in XYZ, I’m not gonna take any junk from people taking my agreement on a certain topic to be representative of if the game even follows this quality. I’ve already witnessed when someone can say something and then not do it; instead of their opinions braiding, they conflict. In any case…

When I design puzzle games, I tend to first think about each mechanic. For Recursed, there were about 8 mechanics that I put into the game and about 15 that never made it past the drawing board.

Well, wouldn’t be much of a dev if you didn’t, there. I think there’s something missing here though. The definition of a mechanic is always somewhat vague, and if you were to include mechanics already used by the framework, you’d have a lot more; gravity, movement, jumping, in some ways exits. Since it’s almost always possible to split mechanics you can change those to be taken in the view of “just” being split mechanics combined – for example, some games don’t allow for full movement and only allow moving in one direction. Ice-block games only allow you to move the maximum space in one direction at a time. (And whether ice-block games’ “slipperiness” is a result of the ground or the player is for you to decide!)

Mechanics should be reasonably simple to understand, distinct from each other and there should be a variety (e.g. items, environment, etc.). Most importantly, mechanics should interact in interesting ways.

From the ice-block example from before, there are some mechanics that are more like modifiers. For example, one mechanic in Recursed that gives off a green smell will not exist without a respective key or door. However, I am not sure that redundancies are necessarily bad. While if underused it could seem like it was only made to add “+1 feature” on the marketing, it is still good to explore a mechanic just to find any possible interesting side effects to either expand or change.

Most importantly, mechanics should interact in interesting ways. I don’t add a mechanic if it acts in a way that’s too isolated from other mechanics.

I copied the last sentence here because it also applies. I don’t agree with this. In the simplest example, say your game involves oranges. You also have a converter that converts apples to oranges. Your game has no apples. Under this, you would have to remove the converter and never be able to make either the apple or the converter mechanic at all just because they are useless on their own. Basically, you can have interesting loops involving seemingly otherwise isolated mechanics.

(Also, we basically just hit the length of the original post (subtracting quotes, I’m not that dumb), and we’re hardly done. >_>)

Now, as to the ‘interesting ways’ part, that is completely true. Designers have to be worried that they could be making backwards progress each time they add a new mechanic. Note that this is more susceptible in terms of rules, not mechanics – you could make an equally devastating change to a mechanic you already made, and it would be harder to notice. You could completely brick all your levels in a platformer by lowering jump height, but if you alter a tangible that’s even worse – at least in the previous scenario a lot of the levels would be easy (but time consuming) to fix.

Before I go to the next part of the post, I want to quickly mention restrictions. As a beginner puzzle designer, you may have come from anywhere – I did some puzzles in Marble Blast and Super Mario Bros. X (while greatly embarrassing myself), and then made a Talos Principle level. However, you could have used Mario Maker (grumble grumble), PuzzleScript, or Scratch. All these have varying amounts of restrictions; whether ridiculous like The Talos Principle or ‘just’ engine issues which I’m sure happen.

(I’m not a programmer; even though you may see me say I like programming puzzle games, that’s it. I think current programming tools are too terrible and tedious to use, as if they were made by a designer of [insert bad game here]. The only reason I like them is because the best ones, especially LogicBox HTML, actually fixed some of the big issues. So check out any anecdotes from other people who have actually had engine-related issues with mechanic implementation.)

expc1
As you can see, the death zone is very close to the start. What? You don’t believe me? Try taking a box.

With that, you actually have to fight the designer a bit. For example, The Talos Principle has no undo mechanics and an instant death, which is terrible for puzzle design standards. Due to this, I tried to make death and rewind as infrequent as I could, but I didn’t compromise puzzles that needed their use. In those puzzles, I did things like place the death zone very close to the start.

What this is basically leading to is that if you also find one of the mechanics you made are tedious to use, it should be greatly considered – such hiccups can easily be worse than overly harsh loss penalties, but you will have to carefully weigh design space versus wasted time. (There’s a spacetime joke here somewhere, and I’m not getting it! Argh!)

Other elements can also play a part as well – in The Talos Principle’s case, there is already a resetting feature built into the game and it would not impede plot to allow for free undo, and easily other puzzle games without story can add an undo feature, but what about games with stories that shouldn’t allow the player to go back at all, where gameover resetting already takes you out of the action a little bit? It’d be nice if all puzzle games had a rewind feature as an industry standard, but unfortunately this is not the case. (Hell, not even programming has that, but that’s just because it was never meant to be used by human beings anyway.) Funnily enough, the treatment of the lack of an undo pretty much perfectly fits what I mentioned earlier about working around design decisions.

OK, onto the design level methods.

For puzzles, I have three methods of designing levels. They’re pretty much easy/medium/hard.

1) The ‘tutorial’ style level. I think about one facet of a mechanic and come up with a simple situation that is impossible to solve without using that facet. I try to keep misdirection to a minimum, and lead the player on towards the solution.

2) The ‘adventure’ style level. I think of an unusual action the player must take (e.g. copy a chest and take it inside itself). Then I come up with a level for which the player must do that action to solve the level. THEN, I do my best to disguise the possibility of that action. I misdirect away from it. I move all the pieces so the player isn’t likely to randomly bring the right components together.

3) The ‘chaos’ style level. I make a level that’s directly impossible and then try to make the smallest possible tweaks until it’s possible. Create the tiniest crack in its armour. This one’s highly iterative, but it can give great results.

I think this is pretty accurate, but not applicable for all games. I’ll get to that later, but first, analyzing each one.

1) The ‘tutorial’ style level. I think about one facet of a mechanic and come up with a simple situation that is impossible to solve without using that facet. I try to keep misdirection to a minimum, and lead the player on towards the solution.

These end up being generally solid because they are easy to examine. However, I now find I no longer do these kinds of levels. The reason being that there is a high chance it will feel redundant. Several times in The Talos Principle, you could go out of order with levels, solve a harder puzzle before the tutorial one, and then the tutorial would be complete filler. The length of two tutorial levels can usually be very easily combined into one, and the misdirection that offers can even make it into one new puzzle. The only time I would still use the tutorial style level is a massive need for leading (the player), though I often find when the player must learn a mechanic I would rather make it impossible or obviously impossible to do anything else, often with narrow paths.

2) The ‘adventure’ style level. I think of an unusual action the player must take (e.g. copy a chest and take it inside itself). Then I come up with a level for which the player must do that action to solve the level. THEN, I do my best to disguise the possibility of that action. I misdirect away from it. I move all the pieces so the player isn’t likely to randomly bring the right components together.

Honestly, this is a LOT like Tutorial mentioned earlier, and is the from-start way to build a level. In The Talos Principle or even Mario X., making a level’s elements is somewhat tedious to do. This means you basically cannot get anything wrong or you’ll have to demolish what you made. To me, this is only a part of the puzzle of puzzle design, but it is solid.

3) The ‘chaos’ style level. I make a level that’s directly impossible and then try to make the smallest possible tweaks until it’s possible. Create the tiniest crack in its armour. This one’s highly iterative, but it can give great results.

To be fair, this is a bit of an overspecification. Any developing puzzle in any category is going to at some point have a few oscillating parts – some too lenient, some too strict, and you’ll eventually walk a line of impossible and possible while balancing aesthetic things. So, I think doing ‘chaos’ is just as viable if you have an overly possible level and just cut things – it’s just more possible to cut the overly possible level in a way that’s redundant or already explored, versus finding something actually new.

Now, I want to combine what’s being said in 2), 3), and this next section to make a point.

It’s bad form to have an object in a puzzle that has no use. It feels cheap, and players dislike it. Players have a tendency to associate each ‘object’ with one part of the solution.

That whole line is like zigzagging all over 2)! Objects that serve no purpose (or stuff like pathways; you could be more subtle) are just as much a part of misdirection as trying to find the largest possible space between the key objects. I also think once your player solves a puzzle that has a dummy item, they will grow to expect this from the puzzle design. Jelly No Puzzle is guided to the very end with very little red herrings, but The Talos Principle does indulge in red herring puzzles, even if they didn’t make all too much use out of it. Sure, it’s a bit cheap if you plopped Red Herring Puzzle #6 as Puzzle #1, but not if they know. This also makes the rest of the levels slightly less obvious as well.

…but maybe it’s moot, since the quote cycles back to kind of agreement on what I just said? I’m not sure how this was supposed to go.

You can really screw with people by playing with that expectation. E.g. One of the fairly early levels in my game has an object with three distinct uses, which really jams people up for a while. Of course, if you do it all the time, they’ll expect it, so you have to keep your puzzles varied. Some levels are MacGyver, some are Columbo.

Anyway, on the promised 2) 3) Q) combine. Because speaking of combine, where is it? I am more inclined to believe he just left this out by accident because combining puzzles is such a common thing – many ‘chaotic’ answers from 3) can lead into combined puzzles. This is where more than one idea is going into the puzzle, and it can lead to some pretty memorable feeling stuff because you can tweak the level so that the combination is more relevant. For example, any leftovers in Puzzle #1, or switches or positioning you changed, can be used in Puzzle #2 – or surprise the player and they don’t matter at all.

I’m going to return to when I said I’d look at this as an overall. Some puzzle design does not allow for this. Programming optimization games are the biggest example here – solutions are purposely so open ended that there is a bigger rift between possible and impossible. Minute changes can really reduce how succinct a level ends up. For example, it’s possible for any given card in a card game with a number (say 3), that that number is not the perfectly balanced number, but the number it should be is something like 3.6724. Now this perfectly balanced game will require a lot more number crunching and might be less fun overall. Instead, design strategy goes for rapid-fire abstract levels instead (almost like spamming ‘chaos’). You’ll have to think of ways your ideas ABC can fit in a level with as few issues, and you may have to ship flawed many times without knowing it.

Once I have a lot of levels, I do a lot of playtesting and iteration. People generally approach situations in similar ways, and are easily tempted to do certain things, so you can tailor situations to their benefit. That way, they feel like they’re doing the right thing. Playtesting also allows you to get rid of any bad solutions (e.g. alternative solutions that are very laborious and feel bad) and any glitches/shortcuts in the puzzles. There is no such thing as too much playtesting.

I’ve never had a lot of playtesters, so I can’t speak to this. However, I’m glad I don’t hear the design excuse of “Ignore the proposed solution they give” – I mean, wow. That’s so rude. But anyway, even though it’s short, I do wonder about playtesting specifically for first-timers. While an experienced playtester can quickly recreate a level’s solve, I don’t know if they can so quickly recreate their first playthrough. Unfortunately, there will probably be a bound of people and a bound of time on finding what the optimal level order is.

Finally, once I have a full set of levels, I try to order them well. Make sure that levels teach skills in the right order and build upon each other. DO NOT just put them in linear order of difficulty. If the difficulty is too linear, players will reach a certain point and give up, feeling hopeless. Have some relief after a challenge, so the player does not get too fatigued.

Heh, that’s convenient. So, this is generally true – a linear level of difficulty doesn’t work (“but what about quadratic?”). However, there are difficulty scales that are pretty much always often used. For example, a game with mechanics ABCD will not sporadically have perfect difficulty increase. Instead, it’s more likely to see mechanics selectively limited in certain sets of levels for both a sense of consistency and tutorialization.

But really, I don’t think a linear set of levels is a good idea. Some games are now using a system where multiple levels are unlocked at a time, and one more is unlocked if you solve one. I think this is a much better system. Note that the player will still reach a point where all X levels are stuck, but they can vary their progress and not feel like they are out of options. There is obviously the extreme of all-open levels with hidden information on purpose, which is also worth considering, but never done in a traditional level select. This is somewhat strange to say because I thought Recursed already had multiple levels unlocked at once from the trailer…?

It may be interesting to note that side missions can also be done the fully-open sense mentioned earlier, and in a LogicBox-style game, you can have them still be ‘worth’ something – I think it would be the best way forward, as currently LB is extremely linear if you discount side optimization.

(In more detail about LogicBox: Each level is a new tool thanks to the design of the game. For a majority of the time, these tools are not necessary, but they are greatly compact and are therefore convenience. Each time you complete a level, it can be used in future levels. So if the game were to have 10 extra, simple levels, per chapter, the player could have something to do when they hit a roadblock, using the ideas of the simple levels to mull over the level they’re stuck on. Due to levels being tools, doing these side missions won’t just feel like busywork.)

Hopefully that helps.

🙂

 

 


Hey! So, I’m a developer of some sort, as well as other things. Currently, reviews suck, so I’m trying my hand at it, even though I’m not really a writer, so apologies for any issues that might cause. Apparently, this site forces ads, so please use an adblocker when viewing the site. I do not make money off any ads on the site. Useless social media: YouTube (still having issues), Soundcloud, Twitter, Voat, Wordp- hey wait a minute!


 

 

 

“I wasn’t expecting EXTRA long!”

Review – Paper Mario: Great Star Offensive

Paper Mario: Great Star Offensive is… an interesting game. It’s a fangame based on Paper Mario that was made 3 years ago (2013). You can find it here (don’t worry, all links here are all new windows/tabs), but there’s really not a lot on it right now. That will change once I get my Let’s Play up, which I’ll sooner or later update with (currently I’ve completed 3 chapters).

A lot of the reviews on the site are not quite as detailed as they could be. Therefore, I’ll not only have words, but pictures and examples of certain game aspects. Since the creator is looking to make another game based on Paper Mario, there are some parts of the game that haven’t been seen in the reviews. Even if he is already aware of perhaps all of these, hopefully it’ll still provide useful for later players or designers. Here is his rather humorous review of his own game. This review will be split into several parts: Perspective, Gameplay, Story, Graphics, Sound, Overall, and Extras. Perspective is my personal standing on various subjects related to the game, and Extras contain a few added things about some of the categories that were too small to list in them. The rest should be self-explanatory.

Perspective

The perspective of a reviewer is occasionally a helpful detail when reading a review and comparing your experiences, so briefly, I have played all the games in the Paper Mario series besides Color Splash at the time of writing. I’ve also only played a few other games in the JRPG section, but I feel confident enough from looking at a few other games in the genre to speak for possible frequent game tropes. (Edit: If you want to personally contest this, I’ll explain: I’ve played some Final Fantasy, some Dragon Quest, some Pokemon, and seen some Xenoblade and a whole bunch of other RPGs.) I personally do not agree with most of them, which is why I put more of my effort on RPG’s looking at improving TTYD’s battle system. I have not completely finished Great Star Offensive yet, but I have all the badges and star pieces and have completed the game.

Gameplay

Overview

The game uses the Paper Mario battle system… kind of. See, the original Paper Mario battle system was basically thought of from a more blank-project perspective. (Note that in some parts Paper Mario was inspired off Super Mario RPG, but the examples are similar enough to apply here.) There are plenty of common RPG tropes that were not followed in the game (though, some of them still applied, like MP, mana, turning into FP).

So how does it compare?

Well, pretty badly.

While a few things between the official and the fangame were used, a lot were not. There are no random encounters, but also no first strikes. There are action commands, but also no partners. Here is a list of what is and is not in the game between the two. Things that do not appear in the game have a No” before them. The game also came after TTYD (was released after Sticker Star, though note the game started development way before that time), so things that appear in TTYD only are pink.

  • Flower Points
  • Badge Points
  • No Badge Cost Variance (all badges cost 1 BP)
  • Action Commands
  • No Stylish Commands
  • Guarding
  • No Superguarding
  • Predictable Encounters
  • No First Strike
  • No Special Moves (…ish)¹
  • (which also means No Audience
  • No Health Knowledge
  • No Status Effects
  • No Turn Effect Minimum Choice³
  • No Enemies Carrying Items

¹ – We’ll get back to that involving the battle system. You do get extra… stuff per chapter, but it’s not a new mechanic exactly.
² – Audience including stage effects and audience effects, only in a minor way star power.
³ – The default least you can do on a turn; it’s Do Nothing in 64, and Appeal/Defend in TTYD. While Appeal gets slightly better over time compared to Defend (Defend gets left in the dust later, it should really be a small % skill), in GSO it is also Do Nothing.

Note that on this list, TTYD occasionally has new mechanics that innovate on the previous game. So, what about this game?

*cricket chirps*

If the same list were to be applied to Epic Paper Mario (another fangame) as it is now, meaning all badges costed 1, had no stylish commands, et cetera, it would be more like an alternative and not a downgrade. In specific cases, mechanics may even be removed just for potential chapter ideas without damaging the game, but with this game, there is so little removing one would practically break it apart, like the removal of FP or removal of guarding.

However, this is just an overview. Piecewise, there are more subtle issues with the game. For example, leveling is very standard in RPG’s, and this game does have that, but… dead enemies are permanently dead, and there’s no way to reset stats. This means items and grinding are completely gone – a particularly item-happy player (which you might be, if you want to get through the backtracking of the game) will no doubt be left in the sand once their limited coin supply runs out and they cannot defeat bosses. The side effect of this is similar to what happened in Sticker Star in reverse; coins were so plentiful that even though battles technically had the reward of coins and stickers, players were intelligent enough to get the worthlessness of doing so with such limited coin rewards. This is the same thing for a good amount of people regarding Color Splash’s EXP system. In this game, your coin count is finite, so players would be intelligent enough to not use items.

(Ignore the next paragraph if you don’t care about Color Splash comparisons, it’s just more elaborating.)

(I don’t want to misrepresent anyone here; there’s people who feel like even the very small progression of Color Splash is enough. In my opinion: coins are even more useless in Color Splash given the multiples of 100 coins you can keep receiving which wasn’t even there in Sticker Star, and not only are there prepainted cards you can receive everywhere, but Thing cards, the ones you need, cost very little. Another note is that the reward for the level ups for paint in that game decreases over time; it starts 50, then moves 20, then goes to 10 and even falls to 5. Notably, TheBitBlock did a complete playthrough of the game trying to collect as little scraps as possible; seeing some comments, several other people also operate under the same system as Sticker Star.)

There are numerous advantages to permanent leveling access in an RPG, but it’s probably not a topic in your mind as you’re slogging through grinding. The alternative to grinding in an RPG is giving up on the game, though there’s technically an advantage for “grinding” without reward still on a boss as you might figure out certain optimal ways to do particular things.

  • The best reason is that it prevents an immediate forced quit.
  • Difficulty can smoothly go down over time, but this won’t work if it takes too long to get to the boss and you end up overleveled. (Which it doesn’t does (Edit: Do.) here, if you ever thought of grinding the final enemies left.)
  • Any poor development/testing that caused a challenge to be too hard before can be accounted for.
  • Using the Paper Mario framework, overworld challenges in previous areas can still take effect. (Which it doesn’t do here, because permanent deaths.)

There’s also another reason items seem like an afterthought; you only get items on the field in the last chapter. The best part is, they don’t even come from the question mark blocks (? Blocks) – they’re on the ground instead! The ? Blocks end up only containing coins for the whole game. (Edit: Not quite true, they contain star pieces sometimes.)

While there are item shops, item balance is odd (turns end up being worth more comparative to items later in the game, Tasty Tonics way better than the now 16-HP Ultra Shroom, one item is almost completely a waste even in the early game). As I don’t want to put in a potentially spoilery table right in the middle here as some reviews do spoil plenty a game (making it worthless; even though this is a free fangame, some may even be thinking of their time while reading this), what I’d like to point out is that an endgame health equivalent already exists quickly, and the rewards gained by one of the items (which has defensive utility as well) is much better than the rest.

Progression

We’ll get back to this in a moment, but before I talk about the battle system, there’s a few more things first. In each chapter, you check the mail, find the new area, explore the new area, progress through the area, maybe fight a few minibosses, explore again, and find and defeat the boss. You get a special ability and start over again.

That seems normal, right?

Well…

  • The special ability mentioned is not ‘special’ as much as it is ‘compulsory’. They do not consume another resource like SP. They instead just consume FP as if they were a normal badge move.
  • When I say “start over again”, I mean it. After each chapter you’ll have to take another walk back through the area you went through. While this was sometimes a thing in TTYD, they at least did subtle teleportations. Instead of a walk from Hooktail Castle over to Rogueport, you take a walk from Petalburg instead. Instead of a walk from Creepy Steeple to Rogueport, you take a walk from the respective city.
  • Most designs are really, really linear, besides maybe a walk to the left to find a secret.

I’ll continue that train of thought after the battle system. Just note special abilities are not another resource.

Battle System

gsohunbat
In the third chapter, there are already over 100 battles, about 80% of them being a repeat of a battle that was already completed. (Picture subject to change; info still reliable, though.)

Let’s go deeper in the battle system. Obviously, it’s rather barebones. But one big thing I don’t see mentioned is simply the ridiculous amount of repeated battles. In my Let’s Play, I track all the amounts of battles, repeats (repeated battles), and uniques (unique battles). This makes even the first pass of an area actually count towards severe backtracking. With each battle taking about a minute, this is quickly boring; even the victory screen seems to get stretched out at that point. However, even if there was some battle variation, that main large issue of time has to be sorted out – Mario not having a partner, which is more or less doubling his power, means enemies take so long it is faster to walk to the last heart block (a Heart Block Hangaround) rather than try to manage your FP once it gets low. Instead, you use your quickest high damage abilities and run back to do it all over again.

Like in Color Splash, there is even more of a strategy reduction compared to TTYD. While in Color Splash the developers gracefully did things like remove seeing damage numbers and having a vague amount of the effective FP (paint), many of the think-ahead mechanics have been taken out of this game. There are no spiked enemies, and the Hammer can target any enemy. There is no distinction besides stats regarding the Hammer Throw and Power Smash. Status effects are limited, impossible to check, and your foes cannot have status effects. It also continues weasel-wording like in PM64 and TTYD, like how no ability shows their stats or formula (interestingly, there is one item that tells the time of how long the status effect lasts).

There is at least a small amount of ability metagame, however. This is a table of a player’s potential thoughts while playing the game and thinking of what to do. (Note: Damage per FP and FP per Damage don’t refer to the move’s damage, but rather the normalized damage when the damage is subtracted from the highest base FP cost move. Results of infinity are slightly dodgy for calculations here, but eh.) (Edit: Didn’t really explain why. Infinity calculations are just a result of being massively inefficient or efficient, and since the base moves are what’s being used for the normalization, only base moves will have infinite Damage per FP, whereas with FP cost/damage anything under the base is massively inefficient.)

Name FP cost Damage Damage per FP FP cost per Damage
Jump 0 2 0
Hammer 0 2 0
Multibounce 4 6 1 1
Polybounce 4 6 1 1
Hammer Throw 3 5 1 1
Power Smash 7 8 ~0.85 (6/7) ~1.16 (7/6)
Spiny Shell 3 2/4/6 0/~0.66/~1.33
(0/3 / 2/3 / 4/3)
∞/1.5/0.75
(3/0 / 3/2 / 3/4)
Bullet Barrage 10 8/16/24 ~0.6/~1.4/~2.2
(6/10 / 14/10 / 22/10)
~1.6/~0.7/~0.45
(10/6 / 10/14 / 10/22)

It’s not quite bad! While there’s still little variety in the moves (there’s three categories: single, all, and polybounce; the last one is based on the action command that deals damage to enemies all in a row then loops back) you can see attempts to fill niches. Power Smash is a slightly suboptimal way to convert your FP away quickly before your HP starts to become a problem.

…Not that I’m sure that was taken into consideration, because you get this ability right after.

[spoilers] 10 11 0.9 (9/10) ~1.1 (10/9)

So, I’ve kinda been fluffing up the whole thing. If you want to see a full list for analysis, go to the bottom, Extras/Full Ability List. But there are several things that are more subtle that you might miss. For example:

  • That is not a list of a player’s currently equipped badges and the strategy they are using. No, that is instead a list of ALL the player’s badges. They are all 1 BP, and you get 2 (yeah, I dunno) BP per level up. You’re likely to have exactly as much BP as you do badges, except for some real crap ones that were not on the list.
  • Multibounce and Hammer Throw do the exact same thing in damage and Multibounce is faster, so the only reason one would have both is for chip regulation (if you have 25 FP, the best use for both is to use Multibounce until you reach 9 FP, as 4*4 = 16, and 25-16=9, and then use Hammer Throw to round out the FP so you have 0.) There are no flying-spiked enemies or whatever, nor does Hammer Throw need line of sight. It’s a weakness of the system to allow such similar overlap without having a much reduced cost, but well, that’s not really possible in a 3-BP system since all badges would need to “cost 2 base”.
  • Spiny Shell is practically useless compared to Bullet Barrage. It’s only useful before you get Bullet Barrage; these are compulsory abilities!
  • Many of these abilities are almost the same in stats; while there are small differences regarding action commands, the game has no Power Bounce skillcap equivalent, so the max is the value anyway. I’d say at the end, there are 5 categories, 3 of them taken up by only one ability. This is sad considering due to actual difference between Jump and Hammer besides visuals and action commands in the official game, as Quake Hammer and Multibounce are already different. This easy to read chart would have to be much bigger if there were more complicated abilities.
  • Because all badge points cost 1 to equip, you need as many badges as badge points to even give players a build at a certain level. Example: You expect players to be Level 10. This means they have a max of 30 badge points, but we’ll go with 20 because you choose to gain 2 per level up and not 3. This means you need 20 badges or this is not viable, not to mention those players have no choices – your player gets the most choices in the middle. With an actual currency system, you could just have large cost badges like Power Plus, which costs 6 officially but only 1 here.

There’s just a giant lack of depth in the battle system in general. Your foes also are limited to standard attacks, no Charge or status effect afflicting.

UI-wise, I guess it works, but it’s a bit weak. You don’t get to see the enemy names, and I guess there’s no real indication of where any action is in the menu compared to something in a different category. The biggest interface-related issue is that the action commands don’t feel right. In Paper Mario 64, you had to time action commands slightly before the ‘correct’ part, but that was fixed in TTYD. If you tried to time a Paper Mario 64 jump as if you were playing TTYD, you would miss a lot of times, but if you timed it before, you’ll find that the window for the command is actually pretty large. Now, in this game, it’s really bad; it has the same issue of non-precise timing that comes before the actual strike, while also not having 64’s leniency.

So, the battle system is weak. What about the bosses? Well, the thing is… only the last one has a ‘phase’. That is, while the bosses often do have enemies with them, their attacks and field don’t change. It doesn’t matter if the boss is at 5 health or 50, because they behave the same either way. It doesn’t matter if it’s Turn 4 or Turn 40, because it behaves the same either way. It makes even supposedly tense fights seem like it gets slow if you already know the optimal move and can just keep repeating it.

Overworld

As you may know, this game kind of did the 2D/3D mix before Epic Paper Mario, but for similar-ish reasons; it’s harder to make a 3D game. I already noted it was rather linear. To its credit, the world variety is better than Sticker Star’s, and does have a healthy supply of ceilings. However, the enemy placement is poor. There’s a lack of verticality that would assist in trying to avoid enemies, there aren’t any platforming-based challenges, and many enemies are simply unavoidable, whether they be on a small ledge or hitting a low ceiling.

Another big issue is the ridiculous amount of backtracking. Paper Mario is ‘infamous’ for its backtracking, so maybe it’s faithful, but this shouldn’t be a thing. Near the end, this track (possible spoilers, it’s a Super Paper Mario track) played so long that I developed a new appreciation for it though I already heard it in the game it was from. (The section takes about 3 minutes from one end to the other, and you’ll have to traverse it once forwards, once backwards; twice forwards twice backwards if you go back like the game requests.)

Here’s a comparison table specifically for the time it takes for each session of backtracking. For the other games, I use a longplay in which I will link the time to.

Occurrence Time (rounded in 15 seconds)
TTYD Chapter 2 0:30 + 3:15 + 2:00 + 1:00 + 0:45 = 7:30
TTYD Chapter 4¹ 0:30 + 0:15 + 0:45 + 1:30 + 3:00 + 3:30 = 9:30
TTYD Chapter 5² 0:45 + 1:15 + 0:45 + 1:15 + 2:15 = 6:15
TTYD Chapter 6³ (I’ll get to this someday)
TTYD Chapter 7⁴ 10:00
SPM Chapter 5 5:15
SPM Chapter 7 1:45
Sticker Star Everywhere ∞:90
GSO Chapter 1 1:15 + 1:15 + 2:00 = 4:30
GSO Chapter 2 15:15 + 2:30 = 17:45
GSO Chapter 3 3:00
GSO Chapter 4 3:00
GSO Chapter 5 4:00 + 2:45 = 6:45
GSO Chapter 6 3:15

¹ – Sorry for this vague calculation; the longplayer cut out two backtracking trails, so because it was the same area, I added 3 minutes each plus 30 seconds for the other one as Creepy Steeple takes much longer to climb than exit. He also gets into a lot of battles; if you were to add 1 minute each to each one, I’d estimate it would be more like 25 minutes.
² – Again, the longplayer cuts out the forward and backward backtracking. I added 30 seconds each forwards backtracking as it takes a while to climb up. What the ones I added correspond to: The first 1:15 is to trade the item required. The second 0:45 is to go back to give it. The final 1:15 is to then give that item to the person upwards.
³ – Keep in mind many people (including myself) think this is not really backtracking on the first playthrough, however because it is in some ways an instance of backtracking I decided to put it on the list anyway. I have italicized the parts that could be in some way considered not-backtracking.
⁴ – The longplayer edited it all out, because of course he did, so I went to another longplay. Unfortunately he spends too much time, so I cut off 5 minutes to compensate for the Petalburg dawdling. Note in this chapter there is potential optional backtracking through being confused about the elevator layout.
– This longplayer edits stuff out, which is nice and all, but bad for me. Same goes for Chapter 5 and 7 of SPM – have to add a few estimates.

As you may notice, battles in GSO count towards the time while TTYD’s are specifically cut and skipped. Why is that? Well, in TTYD you can run from them. Not so in GSO; you have to fight or you can’t progress because they are unavoidable like previously mentioned. A lot of these would be longer if battles were included.

Keep that in memory, though. Part of this will be mirrored in Story, as overworld design and story kind of go hand in hand.

Progression (pt. 2)

So now that that’s all elaborated, here’s a reminder on where we started.

“In each chapter, you check the mail, find the new area, explore the new area, progress through the area, maybe fight a few minibosses, explore again, and find and defeat the boss. You get a special ability and start over again.”

What’s missing? Spoiler: How about revisiting old areas and sidequests? Well, once you’ve cleared out all the enemies, most worlds are barren. Chapter 3 is the first place you find that could resemble a town…if there were more than 3 people in it, two of them being shopkeepers and the other saying something you would have found anyway. Funnily enough, I think Chapter 4 might have more occupants than Chapter 3 despite not having a town. Chapter 6 is the most populated, though, but there are only NPC’s like Chapter 4. The main town’s occupants also don’t change, nor do at least their dialogue.

As for sidequests, there’s only one. Not just “one main” quest like in Seven Sages; that game had several minor side missions. I can accept not going the TTYD route which had lots of fetch quest sidequests, but this is as ridiculous.

There’s also a lack of extra features in some ways. There is no way to change your stats for something else, and you can’t ‘take back’ badges for star pieces; while this was true in PM64 and TTYD, at least in those games those weren’t the only way to get badges. In addition, they were grindable in TTYD.

Sort of a spoiler, but very helpful: The game has a point of no return near the end. This is why I have backed up my save files.

Gameplay Score

Worst: 3/10
Usual: 5/10
Best: 6/10

+ Actual PM style (not using common tropes)
+ A few new world themes
+ Some new enemies
— Repetitive battle system
– Constant backtracking
– Lack of depth/strategy/balance
– One sidequest only
– Lack of innovation in mechanics
– Point of no return

Story

This is not a category applicable to all games, but it is important enough in Paper Mario but not close enough to the gameplay to merge their scores. Unfortunately, it is almost as lackluster. The lack of partners means no mouthpiece for Mario – not even an exposition dump, which even Sticker Star had.

While it’s nice Peach isn’t kidnapped, this really doesn’t show itself in gameplay differences nor story differences as the only contact with Peach is that you get basically hints in the mailbox with her name signed on it (which is a nice detail, actually). To follow with there being just one sidequest, the sidequest mentioned also has no story.

While the main games have never been that interested in a big main story (only Super Paper Mario really got closer to that), the per-chapter story (or substories if you like) were the real strengths. However, in this game the graphics and imagination are the only things that really set the stage. Various areas could be imagined as big and complex, but it is in reality a long straight line. Granted there is less potential to make giant-feeling areas in 2D compared to 3D, but it is still possible; slight hints of that do exist, like how just adding multiple passages to a 2D area can make it feel much more open even if they are inaccessible. In this game, most characters’ dialogue doesn’t even change between chapters. While it tries to have substories similar to the previous games, the lacking depth of the areas and characters obstruct memorability (the only moment where it could be considered even somewhat similar is Chapter 6), and since the bosses themselves are hardly characters in the sense that they have no plot influence, the plot doesn’t change based on them, as well as the lack of partners or allies that are doing anything, or even conversations that are not targeted at Mario.

Worst: 4/10
Usual: 4/10
Best: 4.5/10

+ Peach isn’t kidnapped
— Plot doesn’t feel like it affects gameplay
– Lack of towns
– Most characters don’t change dialogue
– No side characters doing side things

Graphics

gsoprerel

While graphics are usually not a game’s strongest suit (if it is, that should set off some warning signals), I imagine this is not a very high priority topic for fans of Paper Mario; even Paper Mario 64 has a style where you can sort of see the pixels in the sprites. The game’s graphics are similar to perhaps a Super Mario Bros. X level, as tons of different artstyles are being mashed together. I’m no connoisseur of fine arts, so I’ll simply mark a few things. One, the style is more pixelated like Paper Mario 64, which I’m not too fond of. Next, a lot of art and design just looks awful. Any instance of text looks hastily put together. That number comes from a completely different font than the “star points earned” text, there’s too much space between them, and they even have a completely different shadow color. It’s probably not centered, either.

The font choices are not good. The UI for the HP and FP probably takes up too much vertical space, the amount of system fonts are ridiculous (those are in Arial, the damage numbers try a ‘stylish’ style exchanging readability for visuals, etc.) and some really ugly visuals for the victory screen.

The background choices seem to just be plain textures until Chapter 6 (it has parallax) and a bit of the endgame. There’s no playing with the background like all games after PM64 did sometimes.

When it comes to graphics made only for aesthetic purposes, it’s okay. Some backgrounds I just recognize as (probably) 256×256 textures from the internet. There was at least some attention to detail by putting holes or extra blocks in various places.

Graphics Score

Worst: 5/10
Usual: 6/10
Best: 6.5/10

+ Combination of various styles
– Poor text choices, sometimes hard to read
– No special creativity

Sound

The game’s sound is generally okay. There’s no bad track, but nothing exclusive, as there are no custom compositions. There are a few remixes, though, and that kind of comes from the use of MIDI. However, pretty much all the tracks in the game have really awkward looping where it just fades out and you can tell that the track looped. This happens very often during backtracking sessions. I think the same can be said for the sound effects.

Sound Score

Worst: 6.5/10
Usual: 6.5/10
Best: 7/10

+ Good selection of tracks
+ Some interesting track usage
+ Some use of remixes
– Awkward fadeouts and odd bugs (more in Extras)
– No original tracks

Overall

Paper Mario: Great Star Offensive is a somewhat interesting, but also somewhat flawed, game. It’s not what its title’s first word wants you to believe, but it’s not as bad as the third word does. It’s an okay game with some good points in part destroyed by a repetitive battle system and backtracking.

Final Score

Worst: 4/10
Usual: 5.5/10
Best: 6/10

+ Small amount of new ideas
+ Some boss visual variety
— Repetitive, weak battle system
– Lots of backtracking
– Limited choices throughout game
– Locked in progression, point of no return

(…I mean, I rated Sticker Star a 3, so unlike the creator, I actually think Sticker Star is better than this game.) (Edit: No, past me. I mean the other way around. >_>)

Extras

There are minor quirks that don’t really fit in with the rest of the review since they’re not important enough to mention, so here is a quick listing of them. This may slightly shift the overall perspective on the game, but it’s not likely to make or break your experience.

Gameplay

The use of certain gameplay elements is a bit strange. In the item shop, as well as some ability names, what should be named in a previous official title is not reflected in the game. One of the earliest examples is the Multibounce badge, which while in the official RPG’s is a badge where you jump on every enemy in succession, it acts as a Jump that happens six times, basically a capped Power Bounce. This is something to generally avoid whenever possible since a fangame is in some ways meant to latch onto an existing universe, and rules should be generally kept. There are few exceptions of course – it can be nice for plot reasons. The way it’s done in the game almost seems like an excuse to not make new item sprites, and while it is sort of that way too for the exceptions, at least there’s a reason behind it. It’s especially strange considering the existence of the respective FP items not having this issue, the last one even having a completely new (though only recolored) sprite. More examples of this can be found in the Spoiler Material/Bending the Narrative.

The existence of “Sure hit” badges are also strange; I believe they were also there to cut development time. Sure, it’s a bit of “fanservice” for people who are aware these were beta badges, but removing action commands entirely off is too far, and then there come moves that are simply better (fix?)

Somewhat annoying is that Bullet Barrage has 3 action commands, one for each potential enemy. If you’re attacking 2 enemies out of 3, it will deal damage in order of your action commands, NOT in order of the enemy that it is shown targeting. For example, if you had 3 enemies and killed the one in the middle and use the ability, instead of your first and third action commands being what determines the damage, it’s your first and second, even though the second is shown targeting nothing.

There actually is a form of endgame content near the end of the game which I appreciate – the end isn’t the end.

Graphics

Using an item is strange; items are shown, then brought back to Mario for the visual effect of ‘consuming’ an item, but while this makes sense if the item is a Mushroom and is presumed to be eaten, it makes no sense if said item is a Fire Burst, in which the animation would imply it just goes back into Mario’s possession.

Sound

Well, I suppose there’s the strange thing that happens when you look at the badge menu and the music tries to loop, but it doesn’t work, so all music stops. Oh, and sometimes the music goes ridiculously off key. What’s with that?

Overall

There are less bugs and glitches than the creator may be led to believe in his review. While it is still generally stable, there are some moments like repeated battles leading to inevitable game over in Chapter 3, or getting stuck in the sidequest. There are also enough typos to give C-Division a run for his money.

I have no idea what causes the save files to be so large. Apparently it’s because of the enemies permanently dying? But even if there were 500 enemies in the game, that would only take up ~62 bytes (even less on average if you optimized bits that would tell you if all of an area was cleared). Even if you for some reason needed one byte for each, that’s only half a kilobyte. Guess what my endgame savefile is? 7,000 kilobytes. The game, in comparison, is about 35,000 kilobytes. Five savefiles is one game. (Edit: Check the comments as to why, as he has responded.)


Hey! So, I’m a developer of some sort, as well as other things. Currently, reviews suck, so I’m trying my hand at it, even though I’m not really a writer, so apologies for any issues that might cause. Apparently, this site forces ads, so please use an adblocker when viewing the site. I do not make money off any advertisements on the site. Useless social media: YouTube (still having issues), Twitter, Voat, Wordp- hey wait a minute!


Spoiler Material

Item List

Name Cost (coins) Effect(s)
Mushroom 5 +5 HP
Super Shroom 10 +10 HP
Ultra Shroom 18 +16 HP
Life Shroom 25 100% HP
Honey Syrup 5 +5 FP
Maple Syrup 10 +10 FP
Golden Syrup 16 +15 FP
Jammin’ Jelly 24 +25 FP
Tasty Tonic 25 +15 HP +10 FP
Potion 14 Convert all FP to HP
Red Berry 8 +1 attack for 4
Blue Berry 8 +1 defense for 4
Fire Burst 7 -3 damage all foes
Thunder Rage 14 -6 damage all foes
Stopwatch 20 Stop for 3 all foes

So, when I said “[what] I’d like to point out is that an endgame health equivalent already exists quickly, and the rewards gained by one of the items (which has defensive utility as well) is much better than the rest.” in Gameplay, I was pointing to the Life Shroom and the Stopwatch. The “almost useless” item I mentioned was the Red Berry (the turn it’s used is a turn you’re not dealing damage, which already starts at base 2 – multitarget attacks are your best benefit). Also, keep in mind that the turn that an item is used is also a turn for a status effect timer to tick down, so while Red Berry increases your attack by 1 for 4 turns (yeah right, ‘briefly’), you will only get to use the extra attack 3 times.

Bending the Narrative

Here are some examples of previously mentioned things in the game that work differently than they should seem at first. Elaboration on this is in Extras/Gameplay.

  • Multibounce turns from a bounce over all enemies to a 6-cap Power Bounce.
  • Polybounce is basically Sticker Star’s Line Jump, only it cycles to the start, not the end.
  • Hammer doesn’t restrict targets to only the front.
  • Ultra Shroom restores 16 health instead of 50.
  • Life Shroom restores 100% health instead of 10, and has no passive revival effect.
  • Jammin’ Jelly restores 25 FP instead of 50.
  • Tasty Tonic restores 15 HP and 10 FP instead of clearing all status effects.
  • Red Berry has +1 attack for 3 instead of restoring 5 HP.
  • Blue Berry has +1 defense for 3 instead of restoring 5 FP.
  • Fire Burst deals 3 damage to all foes instead of a random one from 1-5. I would agree with this decision if there wasn’t already something that dealt 3 damage to all foes
  • Thunder Rage deals 6 damage to all foes instead of 7. (Shooting Star already deals 6, but it is in my personal opinion Shooting Star should deal 7 anyway 😉
  • A little odd thing: proper names are never quite capitalized. In the next list, I write “Sure-hit Jump”, but in the game it’s actually “Sure-hit jump”.

Full Ability List

Attack = 1:

Name FP cost Damage Damage per FP FP cost per Damage
Jump 0 2 0
Hammer 0 2 0
Sure-hit Jump 1 2 0
Multibounce 4 6 1 (4/4) 1 (4/4)
Polybounce 4 6 1 1
Quake Jump 6 5 × 3 (15) ~0.66/~1.33/~2.2
(4/6 / 8/6 / 13/6)
1.5/0.75/~0.46
(6/4 / 6/8 / 6/13)
Sure-hit Smash 1 2 0
Hammer Throw 3 5 1 1
Power Smash 7 8 ~0.85 (6/7) ~1.16 (7/6)
Spin Smash 8 ~0.87 (7/8) ~1.14 (8/7)
Spiny Shell 3 2 × 3 (6) 0/~0.66/~1.33
(0/3 / 2/3 / 4/3)
∞/1.5/0.75
(3/0 / 3/2 / 3/4)
Bullet Barrage 10 8 × 3 (24) ~0.6/~1.4/~2.2
(6/10 / 14/10 / 22/10)
~1.6/~0.7/~0.45
(10/6 / 10/14 / 10/22)
Robot Punch 10 11 0.9 (9/10) ~1.1 (10/9)
L33t Haxx 1 -15 (Healing) N/A N/A
Valor Charge 1 -N/A (Buff) N/A N/A

Attack = 4 (if you thought infinity was dodgy, wait until you see Spiny Shell):

Name FP cost Damage Damage per FP FP cost per Damage
Jump 0 5 0
Hammer 0 5 0
Sure-hit Jump 1 5 0
Multibounce 4 9 1 (4/4) 1 (4/4)
Polybounce 4 9 1 1
Quake Jump 6 5 × 3 (15) 0/~0.8/~1.6
(0/6 / 5/6 / 10/6)
∞/1.2/0.6
(6/0 / 6/5 / 6/10)
Sure-hit Smash 1 5 0
Hammer Throw 3 6 ~0.33 (1/3) 3
Power Smash 7 10 ~0.71 (5/7) 1.4 (7/5)
Spin Smash 8 0.5 (4/8) 2
Spiny Shell 3 2 × 3 (6) -1/~-0.33/~0.33
(-3/3 / -1/3 / 1/3)
-1/-3/3
(3/-3 / 3/-1 / 3/1)
Bullet Barrage 10 9 × 3 (27) 0.4/0.9/1.4
(4/10 / 9/10 / 14/10)
2.5/~1.1/~0.71
(10/4 / 10/9 / 10/14)
Robot Punch 10 12 0.7 (7/10) ~1.42 (10/7)
L33t Haxx 1 -15 (Healing) N/A N/A
Valor Charge 1 -N/A (Buff) N/A N/A

A few things: Note multitarget abilities have been condensed to x times 3. I felt it would raise more questions inside the main page.

¹ – This is the best I could do. Seems balance-wise weird. (Edit: There was a revision where Spin Smash used to say it was 6/8 and 8/6. Not so.)