By William Shelton
Release Date:August 30, 2016
Systems: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Frima Studio
Publisher: Frima Studio
Obtained By: Review Code Provided by Frima Studio
I had gotten the code for this a while ago, so first off I want to give a huge thank you to Frima for their patience. With school, computer issues and home troubles, getting this and the next couple of reviews done have taken way longer than I wanted them too. But if one good thing came out of the extended wait time, it was that I had enough time to get through the game, as a few of the design decisions had me rage quitting so often, that alone probably added as much to the delay as the rest of my personal issues. That’s not to say the game is bad, but one or two choices really held it back.
The central conceit of Talent Not Included is that all the action is taking place as part of a play, which each level (or act) having its own hero, villain and back ground decorations. Throughout each act, between some mostly funny banter between each of the three heroes and their villains, we also see glimpses of some devilish looking….Producers? Directors? (their role is never made quite clear)….who don’t seem interested in entertaining the masses. While I’m guessing the payoff to their story is locked behind the games 4th act (which I haven’t been able to unlock) I mostly enjoyed the writing and humor throughout the games first two acts.
“But Will,” I hear you ask “didn’t you say you played through three acts?” Why, yes. Yes I did. As much as I enjoyed acts one and two, act three is filled with cringy meme-filled dialogue. That would be bad enough on its own, but when you compare that to the charm and genuine humor from the first two acts, the writing in act three is almost jarring in how out of place it feels. I don’t want to overstate how good act one and two are: they were enjoyable, but nothing revolutionary. Act three ranks upon the worst video game storytelling I’ve witnessed. The only saving grace here is that the game play still held my interest and the fact that the story sections are both short and skipable. If I wasn’t playing this for review I probably wouldn’t have cared. But, having to pay attention to this really brought the experience down a peg for me.
The gameplay is where Talent Not Included makes the most of its theater idea. As you never technically leave the stage, the games 45 levels of platforming goodness are somewhat based on a theater’s fly system. While it’s not by any means a direct translation, as you complete parts of a level the cylinders on the floor shift to create new platforms and puzzles. And as each Act is made for it’s own hero and their particular movement set, you can never quite expect whats coming up as you make your way through the game. Plus, the game reminded me of my high school Drama class where I learned a little bit about working in the theater, which was a nice little nostalgia trip for me personally.
That really should be all I need to say here: the game was a charming, semi-challenging platformer. But like I said, the guys at Frima Studio made some really odd choices that I can’t let go. The third act writing was one of them, but there are a few more. First off: the collectibles. You know how in Mario you collect coins, and how in sonic you collect rings? Yeah, it’s pretty common for performers to have a collectible element too them. But they are usually somewhat relevant. Here you collect candy. I know, this is kind of nit-picky but….why candy? The dev team tried so hard to stick to an aesthetic idea, and for the most part succeeded. But then they make a major part of the game (the candy adds to your overall score) about something irrelevant. Why not script pages? Or ticket stubs? I may be the only person on earth who gives even half a shit about this, but I couldn’t help ponder the decision making process behind it.
On a more substantial note, there’s the wonky difficulty curve. Each act has 15 levels and every five is a boss fight. Naturally that means the difficulty is going to ramp up as you get closer to the boss, right? Well, kind of. I think the idea behind the game was for the difficulty curve to reset after each boss fight. That’s not too bad an idea, as it gives the player a breather after each big showdown. Unfortunately, where the difficulty picks back up again seems almost random. It’s not even always full levels. There were sections of levels that I had to go through half a dozen times or more before I got through, only to find I was only half way through the scene. That alone was pretty damn agonizing, but the fact that death brings you back to the start of the scene, where you still have to make it through the random hard part was part of the cause for a lot of rage quitting (but I’ll talk more about that in a bit).
And then there are sections that have such easy work arounds that it almost feels like the level was only half thought out. I remember one section that had two guns moving in alternate directions on both sides of the map. You have to dodge each shot while also dealing with ever changing platforms. I was having issues with this until I found I could just jump and hold onto the back of the ledge that one of the guns were on. Sure, I didn’t get any points, but as that didn’t bar progress there was no reason not too. While that didn’t stop the fun parts of the game from being really damn fun, I couldn’t help but feel that giving the game another play test or two would have benefited it greatly.
Another area were some more testing might have helped: the death screen. I died a lot in this game, which I normally wouldn’t mind. But, as this is a game about putting on a play, that means that your actions are being watched by an unseen crowd who are judging your performance. Die, and they boo your poor theatrics. And boo. And continue booing. In fact, they boo from the moment you die, through the death screen and right up until the very second you are back in the level. That was why I ended up rage quitting as often as I did. Having to go back though an entire level, dying again and again at the same spot where the difficulty spiked suddenly and drastically, only to get booed until I started again often proved to be a tad too much. I get the idea: booing at poor acting is something of an expected trope when making stage-centric entertainment. I think there is even a thrown tomato, if I remember correctly. I think I wouldn’t have cared if it only lasted until you hit “continue”, but the fact that it just kept going began to drive me mad on more than a few occasions.
So that’s Talent Not Included, a rather endearing little platformer brought down by some very odd choices. I say by all means give it a go, but maybe wait for a sale. If nothing else at least give the soundtrack a listen. The opening number is a fun little tune that always manages to put me in a good mood. I may not go back and figure out how to open up act four, but what I played was worth the time invested, even with the obvious flaws I talked about.