Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Falcon's Eye

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention something here: I don't really like rogue-likes. They're boring and frustrating to me. Falcon's Eye is a graphical engine for playing the most famousest rogue-like of all, NetHack. As such, it's not my cup of tea. Is it a good game, however?

Sort of, if you like rogue-likes. But sort of not. Let me explain: There are two issues with NetHack that people who don't like it, don't like. Every complaint with the game falls into one of these two categories: the gameplay, and the graphics. Falcon's Eye does nothing to fix the former - it's still NetHack. If you don't like the way the game plays, throwing graphics on top of it won't help. Trust me, I know.

But replacing the ASCII graphics of the original with some well-done if not exactly impressive 2D-isometric tiles does a lot to make it easier on the eyes. Gamers who didn't come up on text-based games and old-school low-res graphics tend to dismiss rogue-likes out of hand because they're so unapologetically low-tech, graphically, and Falcon's Eye does a good job of eliminating that, at least as far as independent/open-source games go. It certainly doesn't match current retail-gaming graphics, and it's not even as pretty as the best of the independents, but it does alright.

I said that it doesn't fix any of the problems people have with the mechanics of rogue-likes, but that's not entirely true. Mouse support had the added consequence of getting rid of the need to remember a bazillion keyboard commands - since the game is supposed to be playable with a mouse, clicking on things brings up option menus that allow you to select the command. I suspect that not all commands are represented in these menus, but the vast majority of them are.

Admittedly, one of the (many) reasons I don't like rogue-likes is the insane number of commands, many of which are useful only in very rare and specific circumstances. So kudos to Falcon's Eye for ameliorating that issue. But it just adds its own set of issues, as it's a bit annoying to have to navigate through these long lists of commands every time you want to do anything. What the mouse adds to ease-of-assimilation, it detracts from ease-of-usage.

Those perks come with a further price. Say what you will about how lame ASCII graphics are, as far as map-reading goes, they have a benefit: it's very simple to understand the layout of the level you're moving around in. The 3D isometric nature of the graphical overlay makes differentiating between different corridors problematic, when they're very close to each other (which is common), and the mouse-support makes it even worse. Click a teensy bit to the whatever-direction-you-like, and instead of moving a single square, you're walking five miles through a bunch of corridors to get to a tile right next to it.

And basically, that's the downfall of Falcon's Eye. Not that, specifically, but the reason it's a problem, and the reason there are others. Falcon's Eye isn't a graphical rogue-like, it's a graphical overlay on top of a text-based rogue-like. It wasn't written from the ground up to be graphical and mouse-driven, it just had a graphical and mouse-driven coat of paint slapped on top.

For this reason, I can't really recommend it, even to fans of rogue-likes. Rather than opening up the world of rogue-likes to players who like graphics, it's more likely to annoy players of rogue-likes who don't mind the ASCII. It's still not super accessible, and you're still going to have to scour the code, or FAQs on the internet, or both, if you want to come anywhere near actually surviving to the endgame. It's not the best of both worlds, or the worst of both worlds. It's the mediocre of both worlds.

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