Author: Violet CLM
Genre: Single Player
I was a bit harsh in my review of Violet's FSP: Rent Collection, so I decided to be a bit nicer and review what I believe is his best level released. I've been intending to do this one ever since I reviewed FSP, and I should have done it a lot sooner.
Shade Castle was meant to be a preview of sorts to the sequel to FSP. I don't know how much Violet ever made of this sequel, but I'd like to hope something of it might still come out one day. It would be a shame if it was abandoned like so many other projects, because while this is only a single level - and not a very big one at that - it shows a remarkable improvement over the design of the original FSP episode. None of the complaints I made in my prior review apply here.
This level, like the ones in FSP, requires you to collect a certain number of coins in order to win. The level is open-ended, so the only way to win is to explore. That's where the similarity ends, though. Unlike FSP, Shade Castle is actually designed like a JJ2 level. This means it has plenty of ammo, and special moves are encouraged rather than prohibited. Furthermore, enemies are actually used in a sensible manner. While I did find one annoying invisible wall, it was nothing serious and could only be found using RF jumping anyway. Another change is to the coin-collecting mechanism itself: in FSP you would win immediately after collecting all the coins, but in Shade Castle you have to collect all the coins and then go to the coin warp. This is only a minor difference, but it's worth mentioning.
One of the main draws of this level is that the tileset use is absolutely stunning. Violet claims he made it in a rush, but I can't see any sign of that. The level uses a tileset that is notoriously difficult to work with, and yet he's managed to pull of a completely unique look which I haven't seen in any other level. Everything has been placed perfectly, making this one of the best looking levels that I have played. One of the neat things is a lot of the eyecandy is actually made via "unintentional" use of the tiles. This sort of creative tile placement is used by many people, but often it looks more ugly than not, especially when people try to get too creative. Violet managed to sustain a good balance in this level, since it looks great. My only complaint in this area is that the spikes are often hard to see: I ran in to them by accident several times.
As for the actual design of the level, it's creative too, with a lot of fun little details thrown in to keep the player interested. The heavy use of trigger scenery really adds to this element. There aren't too many enemies, but they are used in a way that gives the player a decent challenge. Overall this means the level is fun, balanced, and dynamic. I especially liked the part where you hit a trigger crate, causing a bunch of goodies (and enemies!) to appear in a corridor you just passed. There are also plenty of moving platforms: those tend to be one of the best elements a level designer can use, because so much of JJ2 is about movement, and when the level itself moves the game becomes far more interesting.
Unfortunately, Shade Castle is not perfect. The exploration element is taken a bit too far at times, and when playing, you will probably find yourself having collected seven or eight coins (out of the required ten) and then wonder how to get the last few. Those last ones might take you a while to find. I took about twenty minutes myself. The problem is that in order to progress, you will need to find a trigger crate, which opens access to another area (which might be on the other side of the level). This area has another crate, which opens up another area, and so on. In other words, you'll be required to explore the level over and over, to find out what you just unlocked. The order is completely arbitrary, and rather unintuitive. It makes the level easy to get lost in. Also, one of the crates is very well-hidden, and you will probably miss it unless you look very closely. I'll give you a hint: it's on the same screen as one of the locked doors.
I don't consider these problems to be too severe. The occasional item hunt can be fun, and because this is just one level, it doesn't get boring. I'd have a different opinion if this were a large series of levels where I got stuck in each one: in that case, it would probably be too much, and I'd get annoyed.
Shade Castle is a very good level, and I highly recommend that you play it if you enjoy open-ended gameplay. It's also a good example of how to design a good non-linear level. I know from experience that it's easy to fall into the trap of making a level too non-linear, and winding up making something that feels more like it belongs in multiplayer. Finding a balance is important, and this level has it. All it really needs is to be a bit more intuitive. These sorts of levels often work best when the player is given small hints on where to go next, especially when triggers are being used. Text strings are the easiest method of doing this, but having arrows appear in mid-air is another useful method.
As a final note, I recommend that you save the game regularly in this level. Don't abuse the feature (since that is basically cheating), but don't underuse it either. A good idea would be to save every time you collect a few coins. The reason for this is the level does not feature checkpoints - the open-ended style prevents that. Therefore, if you die, you must play the whole thing over again. Also, saving the game in this level won't cause any problems, unlike some others which tend to crash... (and that is something I will be discussing in my next review).
I don't see any reason not to give this a 5.0. It might not be groundbreaking or anything, but it masterfully accomplishes what it sets out to do, and doesn't have any serious failings. New ideas aren't always necessary for a level to be great; often, it's better to simply take existing ideas and try to perfect them. That, I think, is something a lot of people forget, regular players and level makers both.
- One of the best examples of open ended level design
- Has virtually none of the problems seen in FSP
- Very good eye candy
- Good music (from Mega Man 7!)
- You might have trouble finding the last few coins
- Spikes are hard to see
- No checkpoints means you have to save the game on your own
- Forces you to explore certain areas in an arbitrary pre-set order