Monday, February 15, 2016

Of Rabbits, Mice and Men

Comparisons to Dark Souls are pretty common these days.  I do it fairly often on this blog page.  I've also seen others do likewise in game reviews and on forums across the internet.  It's usually shorthand for hard-but-fair gameplay with RPG elements.  Similarities tend to end there, but in the case of Dark Maus, mechanics like stamina bars, campfire checkpoints, recoverable bloodstains and the general design philosophy feel borrowed whole cloth.  That said, first time players will immediately notice two big differences; the top-down viewpoint...and a mouse for an avatar.

I actually like this idea a lot.  Unfortunately, I finds myself wishing that the developer more fully embraced the concept.  To me Dark Maus feels a bit too "Redwall" and not enough "Watership Down."  If that's not clarifying things let me elaborate a bit further.  Redwall is basically a series of novels about a medieval society wherein the people are replaced by anthropomorphic rodents.  Watership Down is also a novel except it's about a bunch of rabbits that have (for unexplained reasons) a level of intelligence more akin to humans than other mammals.  That might sound like the same basic concept, but it's a matter of approaches.  In Redwall the protagonists live in a castle, eat human-like food, wield iron-age weaponry (swords, spears, bows, etc.), and generally conduct themselves in a manner that feels consistent with a medieval human society.  In contrast, Watership Down is almost alien with rabbits living in simple warrens, eating grass, and using their innate weapons (teeth and claws).  Additionally, they have their own religious beliefs and some unique linguistics used to express concepts from the perspective of a rabbit.  To put it in video game terms one piece of media is a texture re-skin while the other is a somber thought experiment.

That's not to say one is objectively better than the other.  In fact if you asked me to choose my preferred IP, I would probably reject both in lieu of a third option - the comic series "Mouse Guard."  The reason for this stems from the unique aspects of the setting.  Specifically, Mouse Guard turns the mundane into high fantasy through a shift of perspective.  The titular Guard are a knightly order (of mice) that defend their species against classic antagonists like a wyvern (actually an owl), undead (really just hungry sand crabs), and barbaric hordes (weasels).  Hideous giant beasts are actually ordinary animals such as foxes and snakes, while the faithful steeds of the Guard are semi-domesticated rabbits and (in the case of flying mounts) birds.  Insects like beetles and bees are basically livestock and the principal fortress of the Guard is a hollowed out tree stump.  It's cool stuff, but I think it would be even better if the mice were outfitted in a way that is more reflective of their diminutive size.  Let me give some examples:

  • Sowing needle thrusting swords
  • Shirt button round shields
  • Ax heads made from shaving razors
  • Drinking mugs that are actually thimbles
  • Blue cloaks crafted from scraps of denim
  • Armor forged from tin cans and bottle caps

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.  Dark Maus has all the trappings of a uniquely engaging action RPG.  It just needs a bit more flourish in the form of scale appropriate enemies, environments and equipment.  Add to that some Shadow of the Colossus style boss battles and the setting and gameplay would be elevated above its derivative roots.  As is, it's an interesting game that doesn't quite realize its full potential.

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