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SummaryHard to be a Cat
The GoodClaw is the second game developed by Monolith, following their debut title Blood. It's hard to imagine that within one year, the young developing team had produced two imaginative, brilliantly designed, challenging games, that are so different from each other stylistically and gameplay-wise. Yet both games have something else in common: they break no new ground from either technological or gameplay point of view, yet they bring their respective genre formulae (FPS and platformer) to perfection.
I have to say this right away: I don't like old-school platform games. By "old-school" I mean any platformer that doesn't follow the so-called Prince of Persia school of thought. This sub-genre of platform game was best represented by the French contributions(Another World, Flashback, Heart of Darkness), but in my opinion culminated in the outstanding Abe's Oddysey, which was by the way released the same year as Claw. Directly comparing these two games will give you a very good idea of the differences between old-school and "PoP-style" platformers. Abe's Oddysey, like the French platformers I mentioned above, incorporates exploration and "peaceful" tasks (conversation, puzzle-solving) into the platform gameplay, at the same time reducing, or even removing many characteristic features of the genre. These game challenged your reflexes much less than traditional console-style platformers, but introduced more complex tasks, that had to be solved by thinking rather than having good reaction and sense of timing.
Like I was saying, this type of platformer is the only one I really like. Console-style platformers frustrate and bore me. I can't stand it when I keep dying constantly by narrowly missing jumps, when I feel there is no time to complete a task, when I have to depend entirely on my reflexes and require all my patience - of which I generally have very little - to solve finger-numbing exercises. Even a really great game of this type, such as for example Super Mario World, could never capture my interest enough to compel me to finish it or at least advance into the final stages.
Claw is the only exception to this rule. Make no mistake, it is a real old-school platformer, much more similar to a Super Mario World than to Another World. Level design doesn't strive to be realistic; the levels of Claw are full of platform constructions that serve absolutely no real-world purpose, coins, jewels, and power-ups floating in the air, complex mechanical traps, etc. The gameplay, while introducing a few interesting and fun features (dynamite, elemental swords, etc.), is otherwise completely traditional. Claw is all about jumping to the right spot at the right time, staying alive, and defeating the wicked, tricky bosses. It poses no challenge to the brain, but will test your reflexes like hell.
So why did I have enough interest (and patience) to complete it? Well, at first I was absolutely charmed by the game's style. Countless animals have starred as platformer protagonists before Captain Claw, but can you name even one with as much charisma and attitude as this feline pirate?.. Dozens of other games of this type tried to be cute, but none evoked in me the warm smile I had on my face every time I watched one of the game's cut-scenes. By the way, these cartoon movies are truly fantastic; before the game begins and after each boss battle, the player is treated to a beautifully drawn, fluid, impeccably directed cartoon that moves along the story. The story is quite simple, but the whole thing just oozes style and is great fun to watch. It was an excellent decision to let the player watch any cut-scenes he had already unlocked, and even watch them in sequence, like a real movie.
I doubt though that these movies were the only reason that made me keep enduring sessions of a gameplay type I don't like. But there was something in this gameplay that kept compelling me to continue. The level design was very "hardcore", if I may use this word for lack of a better term. Claw is perfect in what it wants to be - a thoroughly old-school, traditional platformer. It simply has everything such a game needs. Name it, and you have it: satisfying, challenging, impeccably executed melee combat; ranged attacks (gun and magic); fun ways of eliminating your foes by throwing dynamite at them or using elemental swords (fire, ice, and thunder); devilish assorted traps: moving platforms, disappearing platforms, crumbling platforms, spikes, arrows, cannons; a large variety of great-looking enemies, including cool dog guards and assassins, pirates, sailor bears, treacherous sea-gulls, mercats and invisible chameleons; incredibly dangerous and tricky boss battles that require extreme planning and timing; colorful, varied locations - prison, forest, town, harbor, underwater caves and mysterious temple.
The bosses deserve perhaps a special mention; though at times terribly frustrating, most of these battles are spectacular and very cleverly made. While the first few boss battles are simple (though really well-executed) sword duels, later ones are built like mini-levels, complete with traps, obstacles, and reflex-challenging tasks to accomplish before you have a chance to defeat the big bad guy. Such tasks involve for example changing the direction of a cannon shot to hit the boss instead of yourself, or arranging an explosion to make stalactites fall on your enemy's head.
Claw has great replay value. Each level is full of secret areas, rare hidden treasures, and challenges that are not required to finish it. Completing the levels - meaning surviving their dangers and safely reaching the exit - is a very hard task on its own; but exploring the secret locations and collecting all the treasure and power-ups simply means that you have to put everything else aside and play Claw for months. This is certainly the most addictive platform game I've ever played; the game taunted me with unfathomable challenges, and I had to continue playing it, teeth-grinding.
The game keeps throwing new challenges at you, carefully introducing new enemies and obstacles with each new level. The difficulty curve is flawless, each new set of levels (for the most part, they are divided into groups of two, with a boss waiting at the end of each group) raising above the previous one in difficulty, each subsequent boss being tougher and trickier than the one before, until it culminates in the outrageously hard final levels and the nearly impossible final boss. Every time I passed a level or defeated a boss, I wanted to see what else the game had up its sleeves, what other challenges awaited me. By the time I understood the game was making me miserable almost as much as it entertained me, it was too late, I was already addicted and couldn't stop until the very last battle - which is where my patience surpassed its newly set limit and exploded; but more about that in the "Bad" section.
Claw is the manifestation of everything that is great in old-fashioned platform games, it is the epitome of the genre and can also count as its swan song, before 3D graphics made it obsolete in the eyes of most players. It is obvious that the game was put together with great care, and - just like in Blood - the developer did everything they could to squeeze the last ounces of creativity out of the rather conservative and almost stagnant gameplay templates they were using. Again like Blood, Claw proves that talent, effort, and feeling are what really counts in game-making, surpassing even gameplay innovations, and certainly technological achievements. Of course, the best way would be to have all of those, but the example of Claw shows that a game can become a classic without relying on innovations and technology. A traditional, modest game made by talented people who poured their love into it means much more to me than a technological blockbuster with revolutionary gameplay features but without a soul.
Even though it is modest, in terms of production values, Claw is top-notch. It has colorful, beautiful 2D graphics with some excellent animation - you should see the peg-legged pirates roll or the tigers in the last level leap at you like crazy. The sound effects are all in the right place and are very satisfying. I also loved the short phrases Captain kept saying, they became part of the experience in a way similar to Caleb's one-liners in Blood. After a while, I found myself saying "Hmm, this looks challenging!" aloud together with the Captain every time I saw some tricky disappearing planks over spiky ground.
And the whole thing is accompanied by what is probably the best music ever to be heard in a platform game. It conveys a fantastic "pirate" atmosphere and just keeps urging you to find more treasure and defeat your foes.
The BadClaw is unbelievably hard.
Okay, once again I want to stress that I have never, ever completed a platform game that was not a Prince of Persia-style action-adventure. I'm an absolute layman in this genre, so take everything I say below cum grano salis.
Having said that, I'm still positive that even a platforming veteran is bound to have hair-pulling moments of frustration when playing Claw. I could talk on and on about the merciless level design of Claw, the absolute necessity to practice and memorize long stretches of a level, the large level segments consisting of complex patterns which require perfect timing and ultra-quick reaction, the ferocious, unforgiving boss battles. Again, maybe it's just me. But if you've played eleven out of Claw's fourteen levels and found some of them hard, you can safely start using cheats for the rest of the game. Because the difficulty rises brutally towards the end, and the final stretch - last save point of the last level and the final boss - is maddeningly tough. And yet all these problems pale in comparison to the game's crippling flaw - the inability to save properly.
Yes, I know that old platform games didn't have any save points at all, while Claw offers two save points per level. I won't go into a discussion as to why it was necessary to keep a tradition that owed its existence to console hardware limitations. But if somebody asks me why I don't play old-school platform games, I'll honestly answer: because I want to be challenged, not frustrated by a limiting device that has nothing to do with challenge. Claw has plenty of real challenge, but the lack of normal save system raises the frustration bar much too high. Because even with two save points, the game forces you to replay very long and incredibly hard portions of a level, until your hands ache and you feel like you don't want to ever play video games again.
I endured all this torture until the final battle of the game. But when I saw that this final battle was yet another assortment of devilish traps and timed challenges that required days of practice (I don't exaggerate), when I realized that even if I lose my last life during the last moment of the second part of the fight, I will have to replay - no, not from the first part, but from the last save point, miles away from the battle! - I understood that I value my time more than the satisfaction from overcoming a nearly impossible challenge. I used a cheat code, only during the final boss battle, the first time in my life. The only small consolation for me was the fact those cheat codes could be found on the official game website, which means that a compassionate soul at Monolith had pity for the less-than-skillful player.
By the way, I played the patched 1.3 version of the game, which supposedly makes it easier. In reality, it simply makes the regular enemies weaker; but believe me, enemies will be the least of your problems. If only they added save points before boss battles...