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Wot I Think: Ittle Dew 2

Combat fatigue

We rather forgot to review Ittle Dew 2 [official site] when it came out last November. So we're remembering now. I've had a rather confused time with it, finding my enjoyment frustrated far too often. Here's wot I think:

When reviewing the original Ittle Dew, a game I really loved while finding myself SO CROSS with it, I realised that it was, if anything, gaslighting me. (Not that I knew that term in 2013 - what we've been through, people. (wrap your eyes round this, John - ED)) I wrote,

I’m suspicious that if the game started calling me “Mr Fatty Stupid Face” I’d awkwardly laugh and say, “Sure, that has made me cry a bit, but I suppose it’s probably my fault.”

A conflation of RPG and sokoban-style block-pushing puzzles, I came away from the finished game thinking incredibly fondly of it, despite having previously believed I just flat-out hated block-pushing puzzles. Turns out, if they're used wisely, making use of your brain rather than your patience, and placed as the obstacle between you and the next cool gizmo, ability or upgrade for your adventuring, they can be quite the thing. This was all surrounded by a lovely, lively world in which Ittle and her flying fox/dog companion (friend would be far too strong a word for how he feels about Ittle) Tippsie (he gives tips, see) made silly and joyfully ironic remarks about their situation. Also they bonked enemies on the heads with sticks.

Ittle Dew 2 came out toward the end of last year and slipped through our net, so I set out to make up for that now. And goodness me, I have so many good things to say about it. And yet... Well, I just said of the original, "I came away from the finished game..." I can't say that this time, because honestly, I haven't finished it and I'm not sure if I will. And sadly, that's not because the puzzles are too hard.

The puzzles are completely splendid. For everything plot-critical, the game loudly emphasises you can complete any challenge with nothing but the stick you start with, and that's true. All the other items and abilities you pick up along the way can provide alternative ways of solving a puzzle, ways to find alternative routes around them, and most crucially, let you solve all the side-puzzles and extras. The difficulty isn't raised on the first game, but rather deepened. Puzzles are smarter without being significantly tougher, which is always the absolute best way of delivering a sequel - it lets everyone carry on playing, and develops on the original in an interesting and worthwhile way. (My point is, this isn't Stephen's Sausage Roll, this is possible for thickies like me.) Except, but, although, however, what the sodding hell have they done to the rest the game?

The combat in the first game barely deserved the title. It was a fun aside, a little bit of bopping baddies or tricking foes to allow progress. This time out it's gone absolutely stark-raving bonkers with the difficulty, at points approaching a bullet hell-like volume of combatants on screen. And the decision to do this is mystifying. What had previously been a gentle, daft and engrossing puzzle RPG has now become in places a twitch-controls whack-fest, requiring an adept level of its dodgy dodge-roll that I'm not sure I care to develop. (Compare this with last year's wonderful Enter The Gungeon, where the dodge-roll is an essential joy to use and master.) And this isn't just during specific dungeons, but all over the game's sprawling map, with areas demanding you madly run through them dodging gobs of enemy fire, rather than methodically stopping to fight them. Enemies respawn as soon as you go off their screen or enter a dungeon, so there's no hope of clearing a zone for safe transport, and you'll have to have the same fights with the same enemies so many, many times.

This, while deeply strange, is fine. It's annoying that you can't enjoy exploring without having to fight the same few enemies again and again and again because you briefly went inside a building, but it's doable and fine. Where it gets to the point of actively spoiling the game for me is in the dungeons.

Now, were this a game about blasting through floor after floor of baddies, then fine! I love those sorts of games. But this is a game about staring at a screen of blocks and barriers, and methodically working out how to push them around such that you can achieve a goal. It doesn't seem especially odd to suggest that trying to do this while six or seven rapidly moving baddies fire missiles at you, hit you with swords, and blast the room with walls of fire, isn't quite as rewarding. So yeah, you clear the room first (in some rooms, that's the challenge - the door is only unlocked once you've killed everything, and there: great), and then get on with the puzzle. Oh, but the puzzle involves trying to navigate a deadly drop, or a rotating wall of spikes, or pits of lava, and it's reasonably likely you'll come a cropper to one of these while trying to complete the puzzle. Or, even more commonly, you push a block to a position that makes a puzzle unsolveable, and have to leave the room and re-enter to reset. At which point you start the room again (or often, the entire dungeon again) with all those enemies respawned, having to be killed yet again before you can get back on with the puzzle that's likely to...

And I think I've now reached the point where I've had enough of that. Where Ittle Dew was frustrating for all the right reasons, Ittle Dew 2 is for some of the wrong ones. Solving the puzzles is splendid, and they're wonderfully designed. The world is hilarious (if rather poorly introduced - the game cares not about having a beginning), the banter always splendid, and the graphics hugely improved over the original while maintaining the hand-drawn cartoon feel. And apart from the crap (but unfortunately necessary) dodge-roll, the combat's good! It just shouldn't bloody be there.

Despite having an immediately open world, it's absolutely crucial that you follow the game's suggested route through it. While you absolutely can go off into more difficult areas when you please, and a great deal of the puzzles can be finished without extra equipment, you'll have a significant amount less fun doing so. This is mostly because you'll find dead-ends you just can't know are dead-ends, never knowing if you're stuck because you're being dumb, or because you don't have the ability to create extra blocks yet. Because you don't know that an ability to create extra blocks is even going to be a thing at some point. However, play through in the order marked by giant red arrows that appear on the map (but are not otherwise part of the narrative, nor especially not the natural order in which you might explore the world) and you'll get what you need as you go along, and end up with a much more rewarding time. A time I haven't had for not realising this early enough, and thus prejudicing my experience of much of the game.

I really want to keep playing, and I've had a great couple of day's fun from it, but I haven't the energy to keep fighting against its own daft decisions in order to play the great game underneath them. Yes, if you go through in the prescribed (but barely mentioned and geographically illogical) "right" order you'll end up with more powerful weapons and powers by the time you were "meant" to have these repeated encounters, but that doesn't entirely negate them, and it certainly doesn't mean you don't have to run screaming through them in order to follow the batshit random order of dungeons.

Cuh, I'm not sure. I'm not sure how much of my opinion has been coloured by my frustration with bumping up against invisible walls that exist by dint of my taking advantage of the free roaming nature, and how much is because they made a lovely, difficult game far, far too fiddly and twitchy to play. There's greatness here, and damn, it's so funny and cutesy-sarcastic. The puzzles are top notch, and the dungeons, when properly equipped, often a pleasure to plough through. But there's just so much annoyance layered on top for absolutely no discernible reason, beyond presumably a fear that their sequel didn't feel sufficiently different. The silly thing is, it was.

Ittle Dew 2's out on Steam for £15.

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