Demo Driver 8: Rochard (#379)

Yes, you can throw the box at them and stop screwing around, but sometimes it's more fun just to watch them try so earnestly.  And fail.

I played Portal and you didn’t, you miserable hacks! Have fun shooting an invulnerable box!

Sometimes this feature can make me feel just a wee bit cynical.  By its very nature, I wind up playing a lot of little indie games, and a lot of these little or single-A titles turn out to be obscure for good reason.  My overall desire for games remains the same as it has ever been.  Which makes me wonder if the problem is just me, or if maybe the whole indie development switch doesn’t have the legs that I want it to have, or any number of other things.

Then I play a game like Rochard and it reminds me of the best part of trying on random demos – finding a gem you never even would have looked at otherwise.

Rochard is very much in the puzzle-platformer vein, a former PSN title that migrated to Steam as well a little while back.  It is also very, very charming, marrying a strong visual sense and a simple-but-enjoyable story to solid mechanics.  It’s fun, and it’s the first game that I’ve had where I immediately tossed it onto my wishlist once I was done with the demo.  Then, of course, I sat down to write this article.  It’s what I do, after all.

Run on for a long time, run on ducking and dodging.

Boy, you wouldn’t expect a guy his size to be quite so spry, but here we are.

When the game kicks off, you’re put in the very large shoes of John Rochard (it’s given the French pronunciation, so our protagonist doesn’t have the most on-point nom de pornographique in history) on his way back to his mining claim out in the asteroid belt.  That’s what you’re doing here, playing the foreman on a mining claim.  The game does a good job of providing an early tutorial and introducing you to your crew, who feel like they’ve been written organically.  Most of your chatter is with Skyler, the one woman on the crew, whose in-game model at least does look like a woman who works on a construction site rather than a waifish model, and there’s a good back-and-forth as you start by patching up half-functional crap.

Then, as the team’s digging… well, do I need to tell you?  You find a thing, mystery, bad stuff happens, cue facing off against hostile forces as you try to find out what’s at the bottom of the hole you dug and so forth.  Very formula, which means it’s going to come down to execution.

Fortunately for Rochard, the execution is damn solid, starting with the graphics.  These are not the most realistic graphics I’ve seen, obviously, but the way that everything is stylized works, and works well.  John himself is basically the archetypical foreman, appearing to be nearly as tall lying down as standing up and with a moustache you could hide a set of keys in.  His movements are the ones you spend most of the game looking at, so they had to be solid and fluid, but they do a good job of conveying someone very accustomed to labor without necessarily liking it very much.

That level of details goes into all of the models.  They’ve all got a faintly plastic quality to them, like you’re watching some weaker computer-animated films, but that plasticity contributes a feel of cartoon sensibility that fits nicely.  The graphics fit the game, the story, and the setting nicely all around.  Similarly, the voices aren’t great, but they’re solid for what they’re trying to accomplish.

Mechanics troubleshooting game premises.  Original concept do not steal.

“Well, what we’re looking at here is a real basic sit-you-a-shun, y’see? We gots an abandoned temple, gots a mining crew, gots a corporate office, I don’t need to paint ya a picture. Figure I can get this cleared up for you in about ten hours if I’ve got the parts I need. Damage-wise, you’re looking at two hundo.”

None of this would matter if the gameplay itself wasn’t fun, of course, but it sidesteps that problem.  Mechanically, it’s essentially a Metroidvania-style game with an emphasis on puzzles over combat, like throwing Super Metroid and Trine into a closed room and seeing what happens with the baby.  Your default weapon is the now-familiar style of gravity gun, allowing you to pick up objects, hurl them with great force, drop them in places, and so forth.

The danger, of course, is that you immediately see the game and know what sort of puzzles you’ll be facing.  How many staircases of boxes am I building this week?  The answer, happily, is “none.”  You have to use a single box as a stepping stone periodically, but you quickly gain the ability to raise or lower gravity in your area, meaning that most jumping feats are accomplished that way rather than forcing you into the tedium of building ramps over and over.  Instead, the challenges take on a far more mechanical nature.

By the time the demo’s over, you’ve already been introduced to a lot.  There are force fields that boxes can’t go through, force fields that boxes can move through but you can’t, lifts that sink when they’re weighed down but rise otherwise.  There’s a whole segment where you have to figure out how to get a platform to rise when you need to stand on it that I find particularly satisfying – you lower the gravity and start jumping, allowing the lift to rise further than it sinks when you land on it.  The whole exercise feels chunky and complete, spending just enough time on single puzzles before moving you on to the next problem.

Combat, however, is… less good.  Marginally.  The game isn’t super-suited to shooting guys, basically, and at least in the demo that isn’t super necessary.  Winning a fight is more about being clever with the environment and making use of boxes than straight-up trading shots; in later areas it’s quite possible that you could be overwhelmed and gunned down before you fully know what’s happening.  Carrying a box and using it as a shield followed by a projectile is pretty fun, though.

That actually is the game in a nutshell.  It’s fun.  It has some points of shallowness, sure, but they don’t detract from the overall fun or sense of atmosphere.  It’s a fun experience with plenty of little doodads to collect, items to pick up, and a general joy as you traipse your way through puzzles and try to figure out what your crew uncovered.  What more could you ask for?  It’s darn solid, darn charming, and it’s a little thing that helped re-validate my love of spinning the wheel and jumping in when I don’t know what to expect.

So go give it a whirl if you’ve got thirty minutes.  It might not quite be your thing, but I consider it a worthy little gem of a game.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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  1. Demo Driver 8: Unmechanical (#416) | Eliot Lefebvre - 06/30/2014

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