A few hours in
Hey, look at that, I did beat one of these bosses! It took some practice, and trial and error, but I got there.
I beat a great many number of bosses, in fact. Once I started getting the hang of things, fights that were once impermeable opposition started falling quicker and quicker. Although I should probably give some of the credit for that to my co-conspirator and new best friend, Hyper Mode. Figuring out how that worked was probably the best mistake of my life.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Splinter Zone is a difficult game to summarize. Not because it’s especially complicated or rich in moving parts, but because I experienced my enjoyment of play shift around quite a lot during my 8 hours of play. It’s been going up and down, and up and down, like a sine wave of enjoyment metrics. Squishing that all together into a single assessment is basically pointless: You could have asked me for a ‘final thoughts’ five different times and gotten five different summaries. What I’ll do instead is try to sketch the whole picture: Just how did my Splinter Zone play experience change over time, and why?
My initial assessment of Splinter Zone, about 30 to 60 minutes in, was honestly ‘it’s not all that’. On the surface, Splinter Zone looks like a relatively limited bag of potatoes. There’s not a lot of variation in the 16-bit art style, and what cool art there is gets repeated over and over. In normal play it has about three songs: The title music, the boss fight music, and the ‘you’re currently playing a level’ music, which I hope you’ll learn to enjoy, because you’ll be hearing it a lot. And mechanically… Well, I’ve pretty much covered it mechanically. You run, you jump, you shoot, and you move from level checkpoint to level checkpoint without dying. It’s not a set of mechanics that anything is particularly wrong with, but as far as depth is concerned, it felt like something I’d expect from a Game Design Masters student final project. Good grasp of basics, needs polish.
But the assessment that Splinter Zone lacks polish is flat-out incorrect. I found myself noticing more and more cool stuff as I kept playing. For instance, the level of animation detail on the main character is impressive. The basic running, jumping, and shooting animations are already fairly crisp, but there’s more hidden in the margins. If your character gets hurt, her idle animation changes to a pained hunch. If you play many levels in a row, she’ll start pantomiming exhaustion. If you walk through rain, she drips, and her hair curls in and depresses. And when you get out of rain or water and stand still for a sec, she’ll shake herself dry.
I haven’t noticed as much detail in the audio as I have in the visual, but that’s just not something I’m good at. But I’ll say this: I got annoyed early on at the short period of immobility preceding every boss fight, since nothing much happens during that time. But a lot of that annoyance abated when I realized that the drum hi-snare ‘drop’ of the boss fight coincides exactly with the moment the fight proper starts. Suddenly it’s a stylistic element. That still could be shorter, but now that I understand the intended start-up period, I can appreciate it all the same.
And mechanically… I won’t say that Splinter Zone gets much more complicated. But all the same, as I played, I did notice I got better at it over time. It’s not so simple that it doesn’t offer room to grow. Part of this was my slowly increasing mastery of the mechanics, learning the intricacies of the jumping and the motion and the semi-automatic firing with a limited clip. I’ll immediately say that a lot of the movement can feel janky: Particularly the hitboxes when it comes to grabbing onto ladders are massively out of sync with the visuals, leading to situations where your character sort of teleports onto ladders. But at least it’s consistently janky, so it can be learned.
The other part of increasing mastery has to do with Splinter Zone‘s approach to levels. The levels you run aren’t actually randomly or procedurally generated: Every level is a predesigned atomic set, with the same challenges and the same enemies in the same place every time. Levels are strung together randomly, creating a different play experience every time, but the steps are always the same. Which means it’s straightforward enough to get good at individual levels. ‘Oh, these enemies spawn here’. ‘Oh, I have to be careful of the ice platforms there’. That sort of thing. It’s something you’ll need to do: Some levels are simple and easy to master, but I’ve had (and still have) one or two layouts or enemy types that I just cannot get the hang of. I’m still not sure how to deal with those wall turrets that fire curved shots, beyond ‘shoot them from very far away if possible’.
The same mechanic goes for bosses too. Every four-or-so teleporters leads to a boss fight, drawn from a set: The order is always different, the bosses are always the same.
And speaking of bosses and mechanics, one thing that majorly improved my enjoyment was going back to the manual, reading it carefully, and figuring out the relation between leveling up and Hyper Mode. It goes like this: Levels are gained by killing, and lost by getting hit. The manual says you lose ‘all your XP’ on a hit, but this’d already been changed in the version I played: Now you just lose a significant chunk of XP, often enough to set you back a level number. Every enemy you kill rewards experience in the form of floating orbs. Gain enough XP and you level up, from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. Level 1 is your basic-ass self. At level 2, you get one Gradius-style Option, as you saw on the last page; At level 3, you get two. Finally, when you max out the bar at level 4, no new friends are gained, but you and your Options gain a triple split shot.
You can activate Hyper Mode at any moment you have more than zero XP. Once activated, Hyper Mode slowly burns through your XP supply, all the way back to 0-XP-level-1. But in return, as long as it’s active, you can fire your gun with infinite ammo, as fast as you can pull the trigger, at the level you were at when you started. So if you trigger Hyper Mode at, say, halfway through level 3, you get a good 15 second of rapid-fire from yourself and the two Options. Hyper Mode also slowly heals you, though I’m not sure what the metric for that is, and I think you’re immune to incoming damage while it lasts? All in all, I’m sure you can see the basic gameplay loop form: Play through the basic levels with as little incoming damage as possible, arriving at the boss with a good stack of levels and XP, which you then activate to burn down that sucker before they can get a single hit in.
This was the original upswing in my Splinter Zone enjoyment, when I noticed myself getting better and better with each iteration. There’s a certain simple fun to be had in mastering a complex system, and blowing through levels and bosses that I once considered super hard scratched that itch. I had a good time.
Then my good time went down again when I started wondering why I was playing.
I appreciate Splinter Zone‘s approach to ‘random’ level generation because it allows mastery and practice with some degree of uncertainty, but an obvious counterpoint is that the game becomes much less enjoyable once you have mastered everything. It takes time for this to happen, but all the same it does happen, in varying degrees based on which levels you get more often. And you’ll be getting those same levels often, even in the same run. I figured initially that Splinter Zone‘s logical end-state must be that you beat every boss and complete every level in a single run. But no, stuff just repeats. Levels and bosses. While it’s fun to get better at surviving Splinter Zone, it runs into the same issue that plagues almost all survival-oriented games: What do you do when you start getting untouchable?
Now, I wouldn’t blame anyone for quitting Splinter Zone at the point this sense of repetition sets in. I kept playing through this second experience nadir for two reasons: Scores and secrets.
In many ways, Splinter Zone styles itself as a score chasing game. There’s the whole ‘you’ve earned this many points and this is your rank’ popup at death, for starters. All the same, initially, the score isn’t really there. You earn points, sure enough, but… there’s a sense of disconnect between what you do, and how well you do, and the point total at the end. Similarly, I’m still pretty much convinced that the ‘rank’ number is randomly generated. It’s meaningless. I’ve earned rank 355 out of what?
But the score system is actually more elegant than I give it credit for, just beneath the surface. The trick is that your score interacts with your level, and with Hyper Mode, through two score multipliers. The first multiplier, the top one, is always equal to your current level. And the score it tracks is the score you’ve most recently earned, from all enemies you beat so far without taking a hit. The second score, below, is more of a general score repository. It has a multiplier too: This one is equal to the number of non-boss levels you beat.
Here’s how it turns out this work. The top score, I mentioned, is based on successive enemy kills. If you get hit, that score is cleared, and added to the bottom ‘repository’ score. As far as I can tell, the multiplier in this case is meaningless. But… If you activate Hyper Mode and see it through to the end, your current score gets multiplied by the multiplier you had when you started, and then added to the total. It’s a simple system, but still one that introduces some needed strategic complexity. Obviously, your score will get the highest if you only always activate your Hyper Mode at level 4. But what if you get to a boss on only level 2 or 3? Do you pop the button for that needed firepower? Or do you train, so you can take the boss down without any nitrous? Conversely, even on level 4 you might not want to burn everything right away… that triple shot can make life real easy. And if you’re one level away from the next boss fight…
Every time you die, your score is compared to a target number. I have no idea where this is drawn from. As far as I can tell, it stays the same as long as you don’t hit it, then increases after you surpass it once, then exit the game and come back. Then again, I might be imagining that. Splinter Zone is very opaque about this layer. I don’t know what the score target is based on, and I have no idea what the ranks mean. Going through my old screenshots, I can see that my early ranks are in the 5000s, while my current ranks are consistently sub-50. Is that good? Does that indicate progression? A part of me thinks that I can complete Splinter Zone by getting a high enough score, getting that rank to #1. All the same, the only score-based achievement is for getting 1 million points. And my current high score is a little over 34 million points. When would enough be enough? I don’t know if it ever will be.
I know Splinter Zone has an ending, because the achievements explicitly reference one. So maybe I do need to just grind more? Put my inner student athlete to work?
Well. Or maybe the ending’s related to Splinter Zone‘s secrets. In my hours of play, I’ve stumbled over three ‘secret’ rooms, secret in the sense that they didn’t lie in the expected direction of movement but were otherwise hidden in plain sight. One of them was basically kudos by the developer: ‘Good job, keep it up’. But the other two lead to new, special areas, with unique art styles and unique music, and unique red orb sub-bosses that… Do something?
The realization that there was more to Splinter Zone, and particularly how clever some of these secrets were, caused a second enjoyment upswing. I… I want to find all the secrets. This is made a little more difficult than it could be on account of the all the fighting, as well as the random generation of levels. Not every level has a secret, I don’t think, and since levels can repeat as they will, it can take quite some time to get to the place you wanted to check out in the first place.
Splinter Zone does offer a friendly handhold here with the very first opening menu, which I now understand is basically an Extended Difficulty Menu. The game itself calls it ‘cheat mode’, but is it really ‘cheating’ if it’s explicitly offered as an option? My money’s on ‘no’. Either way, the difficulty menu lets you tweak the experience: Lower incoming damage, increase outgoing damage, or toggle your semi-auto fire to full auto. There’s even a ‘tourist mode’, which removes all enemies and bosses in favor of letting you run around empty levels. It’s this mode that I used to hunt for more secrets. Not only is the world easier to get through, but the low score you get this will also removes any temptation of ‘you know what, I’ll just play this one for real’.
It’s at this point that the review timeline finally catches up with actual reality. After a slow start, then an initial upswing, then boredom, and then the excitement of hunting for secrets, I’m entering… Another downswing, honestly, in keeping with the sine wave metaphor. I want to see Splinter Zone‘s ending, and I do really dig the idea of digging for secrets in order to escape a never-ending loop of incremental mastery that exists for no other sake than its own. I just can’t seem to find any. I spent half an hour in tourist mode, running from one level to another and throwing myself into every pit and seeming secret entrance I could find. But there’s just… nothing. There have to be more secrets, I’m almost sure of it, or at the very least there has to be something that I can do differently in order to win. But I have no idea what. I’ve called Splinter Zone opaque before, but it’s important to emphasize that here. This game will give you no guidance. Most of the time, it’s not really needed: Figure out how to proceed for yourself. But here, at what I hope is the end of all things, I find my final progress stumped by barriers that I don’t even understand.
I’d really have liked to close out this review on the high note of ‘and then I did find the actual ending, and it was cool and fulfilling and everything was good again’. I’d really like it if that was the timeline we were living in.
One very important thing to realize about Splinter Zone is that it’s still somewhat in flux. The reason the manual incorrectly mentions that ‘getting hit will clear out all XP’, I found in a Steam forum post, is that the developer patched this after launch to see how it performs. This also means that Splinter Zone may not yet be what it could one day end up being. With a little more player guidance near the end, more levels and content, and other quality-of-life upgrades, this game could turn out to be a great little platform shooter. While I generally try to avoid too much backseat driving, Steam leaderboard integration should definitely be high on the list of features to add: I understand that Splinter Zone isn’t necessarily a score chaser, but all the same I’d probably play for hours more if it served the purposes of showing up some of my friends.
As it stands, Splinter Zone is a well-crafted game that fits best in the slot of temporary diversion. It works well as a podcast game, I’ve found: Turning down the volumes to 5%, I got a lot of fun out of slowly getting better while listening to my shows in the background. The graphics and audio are decent-to-good, the controls are pretty crisp and responsive, and it is fun to slowly get better and to watch the numbers go up. There will eventually be a point where what Splinter Zone offers is outpaced by what you’d like Splinter Zone to do: Deeper mechanical challenge, a slightly larger and more diverse set of levels, and an ending that’s actually in sight of non-dedicated treasure seekers. But at the moment, it is what it is, and what it is is perfectly decent. I disparagingly mentioned that it came off as a Game Design Masters student project at the start, but a project like this would definitely earn passing grades with flying colours.
Whether it’s worth a $9.99 value proposition is, as always, up to you. I’ve had enough fun with it to make that feel like a more than fair price.
Jarenth has finally remembered to put something of an end-of-article footer in his columns! To celebrate, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?