At the suggestion of my lead editor, I reluctantly tried a newly released (4/11/2014) game called Spandex Force – Champion Rising. This game was created by a one man development studio called KarjaSoft.
KarjaSoft has released a total of 5 games since its start in 2007, all of which are described as “casual puzzle/adventure/RPG games with a twist.” Champion Rising is the third instalment in the Spandex Force series. I’ll admit that I was sceptical about trying it when I first heard the name. It was mostly the word Spandex in all honestly. But I’m glad I took my editor’s advice and tried it out. Actually tried is not the appropriate word here. I’ll say played because I completed an entire playthrough in one sitting. And just so you know, it took me 4.5 hours so if that doesn’t convince you to try out this game, then read on and hopefully the rest of my review will.
I really like the graphics in this game because it looks like an interactive comic book and rightly so. The game is essentially the story of a normal citizen’s rise from nobody to superhero. So it’s basically the plot of every first comic book for any character that has a movie. It only makes sense that the game would look and feel the way comics do.
It’s basically all 2D graphics. The backgrounds, which are recycled, but appropriately, are all hand drawn backdrops of various locations like a neighbourhood, a science lab, and other places you would expect a superhero to go. The only background I didn’t like was the street burglar fight background. While it is hand drawn, it just doesn’t look as good as the other backgrounds in the game. It may be that it’s just not a setting that goes with the rest of the game’s art style. But all in all I really liked the set pieces.
The dialogue is all done in comic book speech bubbles that appear right over the background of wherever you currently are, similar to when you play a JRPG, but the art style has a much more American comic book feel with circular bubbles in the centre of the screen as opposed to the big rectangles down below the characters.
One of my favourite parts about Spandex Force is that you get to design your own character. While this may be common in most RPGs, it’s very rare in puzzle games and even more so in games available on mobile. This game allows you to pick 1 of 4 different character renders and then lets you edit the colours. It’s limited to just 2 colours for costume and 1 for hair colour, but it’s a start in the right direction for indie games and mobile games.
Your character will appear the way you designed him/her in all battles and dialogue scenes, but I didn’t like that this isn’t the case while travelling around the map. Map travelling uses a generic character button based on the render you chose, but ignores your colour decisions. Not a serious issue in the grand scheme of things, but definitely noticeable when taken with the fact that you do get to design your own character.
Speaking of the map, it’s probably the most impressive part of the graphics in this game. It’s quite detailed and has a number of different accessible locations. It’s also quite lively and interactive with citizens moving about and items dropped for pickup. At the start of the game it’s mostly grey, but as you progress through the story new areas come to life and become available for use. By the end of the game Vigilance Valley is a rainbow of colours and lively activity.
The map is cool because it’s interactive. When you click a location your button actually moves to the location and it takes time, which is seen in the very simple map HUD which features just the bare essentials (clock, money, star collection, rank, and name). There’s also quest info available, but only when you are in an active quest.
The NPC renders are all unique to other characters in the game, but some of them have been recycled from the other Spandex Force games. They are all very comic-esque with obvious references to famous characters such as the Riddler from Batman in the guise of Countess Conundrum.
The in-game graphics are placed directly over the backgrounds to create a sort of battle mode feel like you see in many RPGs. There are a number of funny minigames which have simple graphics and then there’s also the main gameplay which consists of hex-based puzzles. The graphics for these rounds are also put directly over the background, but they’re slightly more intricate visually with effects like rounded display bars, more intense colours, and a much more intricate HUD. And everything throughout the game is explained in short and simple white block text bordered in black so it’s easy to read.
What I like about this game’s visuals is that they’re cartoony and simple looking, but very intricate and detailed. It brings the comic book feel without the overwhelming high graphics of something like Arkham City. All in all it looks great for what it is, but the graphics aren’t why you buy it.
The first thing to note about the gameplay is that it’s variable. When you look at the previews for Spandex Force, you see mostly the main type of gameplay which is the hex-based puzzles. These are best described as a cross between Hexic and Bejeweled. You use your cursor to find groups of 3 or more and cause explosions. These explosions cause pieces to fall into the newly formed holes. When there are no more moves the board resets with no repercussions. Groups of 5 or more lead to chain reaction combos for increased bonuses depending on the mode you’re playing. This basic gameplay is used very creatively in 3 different modes (battle, training, and work) with a slight twist as an objective.
In battle mode you collect tiles by exploding them from the board and use them to fuel your attacks. You always make the first move, even in boss fights. You have 3 possible types of attack (elemental, physical, and mental). When you first obtain powers, you only have 1 type of attack but as the game progresses you gain access to the other 2 if you so choose.
Attacks supposedly work in a rock, paper, scissors style against opponents but I found this explanation to be flawed. First off, you can’t tell what type of opponent you’re facing so you just have to try out attacks to see what works effectively. Secondly, I found that most opponents were susceptible to 2 different types of attacks so while there is some system in place, it’s not explained very well.
Both you and your opponent must collect tiles in order to power your attacks and you both have life bars based on your stats. One of the things I really liked about battle mode was the fact that losing meant a loss in battle, but not a loss in the game. Just as with superheroes in movies, losing is a natural part of life. The hero doesn’t always win. You don’t throw in the towel. Instead you work harder, train up you skills, and then get the win next time. Boss fights are replayable, but burglar fights aren’t. Losing a battle means you don’t collect any of the loot gained during the round, but you don’t lose anything you already had, which is probably a bit too easy if I’m honest.
Training mode is interesting because you have a limited number of moves to make special experience tiles fall to the bottom of the board to be added to your experience of the stat you chose to train. This mode is actually pretty challenging because you have to think very strategically. Even if you explode a bunch of tiles, that doesn’t necessarily mean success, because if you don’t get the right tiles you still might not be able to get the blocks to the bottom. Training costs in-game money so you can’t just train indefinitely, but money is fairly easy to make in this game so it’s not that hard to train to your heart’s content.
Finally there’s work (money) mode. In this mode you have to pop a specific number of each of the 3 types (mental, elemental, physical) as quickly as possible. You get a preset amount of money plus a time bonus amount. This is the easiest of the 3 modes. In all the hex puzzle modes you can find and pop tiles other than the 3 battle types. There are star tiles which I couldn’t really figure out what to do with. I think they just add to your overall score. There are money tiles, which obviously add to your money. And there are clue tiles which only become available during certain quests when you need to find out more information. These quests involve collecting a certain number of clue tiles which are accumulated across all the different rounds you play.
Hex-based puzzles are not the only type of gameplay though. KarjaSoft honed in on a number of different simple ways your mouse can be used to play other games within the bigger puzzle game. There are 7 minigames all of which require you to use only your mouse. The minigames include things like traversing dungeons (buildings), dodging traffic, saving cats from trees, and finding thieves in a group. These minigames are dispersed throughout the game and used as a way to keep you from getting bored with the hex puzzles and to build certain stats.
Like with any RPG, there are different stats to build up. This game actually has 10 different stats to build up in various ways. Not just normal ones like strength and constitution. But also some crazy ones like ethics, management, and reputation. I don’t actually know what all the stats are used for but you can easily figure out how to build up each one and focus on the ones you deem important.
The game runs on a calendar that starts on January 1st. I beat it early, but based on the dialogue, I believe you must defeat the final boss within 30 days to successfully complete the game. Time is important in this game. Every action you take uses time. When moving around the map you can see the clock moving forward. Even when you choose not to enter a location that still takes time just as it would in real life. But the clock does not move too quickly. I was able to complete the game in 25/26 days and I still had time to play around a bit and get a feel for different things whether they were important or not. And you can still play around after you defeat the final boss.
I don’t know if I want to use the word addictive to describe the gameplay, but it’s definitely something I would consider saying. After all, I did play through the whole thing in one go. I would say that the gameplay can be best described as comfortable. As in you may not fall in love with the gameplay, but you won’t get bored with it either. It takes strategy, versatility, and experience to get good, but it’s easy to play as a beginner. The fact that it coupled with a super hero plot so well really impressed me and definitely made Spandex Force stand.
I really like the sound in this game. Especially for a game that’s relatively simple compared to some of the other indie titles I’ve reviewed this year. As always let’s start with quality. This game has good quality, but not overwhelming sound. You can adjust the settings however you like for music and effects, but the default interestingly enough is not set to full blast for either feed. Music is set to about 50% and Sound effects to 75%. I thought these settings were perfect both with my headset and my laptop speakers.
You can play these sound settings on full and it won’t be overwhelming, but full blast isn’t necessary. KarjaSoft did a great job with the sound production for this title. There are a variety of tracks for different occurrences and modes such as when you’re on the map, in battle, training, or in different types of dialogue. It’s very campy and emotionally charged just like in comic book cartoons or movies.
The sound effects are quite good too. The most basic effects are the in-game puzzle sounds for when you explode tiles and get combos. These are your simple chimes like in any other puzzle game. But the sound effects for attacks in battle mode are quite good. Each power has an appropriate effect such as buzzing for lightning based attacks. As with the graphics, the sound is not super intricate or overly done. It’s more than you would expect for a puzzle game of this magnitude, but it’s entirely necessary for the content. Spandex Force definitely gets high marks for sound.
I gotta say that this is probably the best written short puzzle game I have ever played. Even better than a number of disc based puzzlers I’ve played over the years on console. Firstly, it actually has a fully fleshed out plot. That in and of itself puts it way ahead of most games in this genre. Especially when it comes to indies. As a writer, I would be lying if I said that it’s easy to make a good plot for every type of a game. In fact any gamer can tell you that most games today, even when they’re AAA status have pretty bad writing and plots. It’s a flaw of the industry and it shows no signs of changing in the near future.
But even if it’s hard to get a good plot, there’s just no excuse not to give at least some kind of story to your game now days. You might not write the next Mass Effect and I understand if you don’t want to pay someone to write you a story for a 2 hour block breaker puzzle game. But you can at least pretend you tried and throw some sort of plot into the mix just to justify me caring about the game. In terms of writing, Spandex Force goes way above and beyond the call.
The plot is probably the most important factor in why I finished a whole playthrough in one session. The basic plot is that through the guidance of a superhero, a normal person becomes the saviour of the city. It’s your basic comic book plot full of villains, monsters, robots, and lots of trouble for the hero. It’s definitely not the Dark Knight, but it’s a full story with real development, shock value, and surprises along the way. I genuinely wanted to know who the shadowy figure was and just how far things were gonna go.
But the writing is also hilarious. The dialogue and characters are full of pop references ranging from Batman to Star Wars and a number of other places. KarjaSoft is very aware of the audience he’s writing for and he definitely entertains us. Spandex Force plays off the long history of campy dialogue used in comic books such as Robin’s interjections and the Flash’s sarcasm.
And then there are the insults. The dialogue is steeped in hilarious put downs and ridiculous criticisms about the successful superhero’s performance. And the funniest part is that it’s all thrown at the main character. The mentor is ridiculously over critical and he’s constantly putting you down for the first ¾ of the game and the back and forth is so well done. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed during a puzzle game before, but there’s a first time for everything and this was definitely it. Even the loading screen at the beginning of the game was funny. Without a doubt the writing was my favourite part of this game.
Spandex Force definitely has replay value. And not in the boring way that puzzle games usually do where you can just work to improve your high score and completion times. In fact you really can’t improve your completion time by that much in this game. As this game is an RPG you can actually build your character in a number of different ways so there is room for several playthroughs if you’re interested, all other things being equal. But that’s not the only reason this game is worth a replay.
This game is plot-based and lets you make decisions at key moments similar to how you can in Fable. There are 4 different endings to the game based on your character and decisions. This means that even if you build the same character every time, you still have reason to play the game several times over. One play through will take you no less than 4 hours so you can pull at least a good 16 hours from Spandex Force for plot alone. For a game that’s only $6.99 on PC (available for $2.99 on Android) you will definitely get more than your dollar an hour.
Even if you don’t want to replay the game you can still build up your stats and face special opponents at the end of the game which get more difficult with each challenger. And to top it all off there’s trophy support. The game has 16 trophies which are not simple to achieve. At the end of my first playthrough, I only had 4 of them. While I would have preferred to see a game like this at only $5, $6.99 is nowhere near robbery. Especially if you haven’t already bought the other two Spandex Force games which are admittedly very similar.
Spandex Force – Champion Rising is a truly magnificent achievement. For a one man developer KarjaSoft really impressed me. Excellent writing, simple yet innovative gameplay, good sound and music quality, solid plot, appropriate graphics, and around 20 hours of gameplay for less than $10. Now I’m not saying that this game knocked my socks off like One Finger Death Punch did, but it’s definitely worth a play.
I can say that I’m very glad that I went against my instincts and gave this game a try. I’m glad I played it on PC, but I almost feel like I would have enjoyed the experience more if I had played it on Android, because then I would have been even more impressed by it than I already was. But I can’t speak for the quality of the gameplay on mobile. But thankfully KarjaSoft has free demos available for both PC and mobile versions so feel free to try before you buy.
- Hilarious Dialogue and Great Plot
- Variable Gameplay
- Many hours of potential replay value
- Not enough repercussions for losing battles
- Bosses are overpowered
- Inconsistent/Confusing battle effectiveness system
Windows: Win 2000 or higher
Mac: Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher
1 GHz CPU
512 MB RAM