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Windows Phone Xbox Live Review: Tentacles

WP Central

Games are usually fairly consistent in quality from start to finish, with the latter third or half perhaps showcasing more bugs and less interesting level designs. It’s a typical effect of the rushed production schedule that developers go through as they’re forced to hit a release date on time. While I’m used to a slight drop-off in quality as I get farther into a game, nothing prepared me for Tentacles’ downward spiral. The platformer-esque Windows Phone exclusive from Press Play, makers of the whimsical Max & the Magic Marker could have been one of the best games on the platform. Instead, it comes across like a malicious bait-and-switch.

Tentacles

Before we get into what went wrong, let’s look at what Tentacles does right. First is the unique premise, told through slightly animated story sequences. In the 1960s, Dr. Phluff, a mad scientist, loves splicing species even more than Dr. Moreau. Replacing his own head with that of a dolphin was just the start! His latest experiment has created Lemmy, a microscopic, three-tentacled Cyclops.

After a typical lab accident, Lemmy ends up inside of the good doctor and starts wreaking havoc on his internal organs. Over the course of the story, the doctor becomes increasingly frustrated and aggressive towards Lemmy, often to hilarious effect. It’s not often you get to play a bad guy, or an invasive organism, anyway. It all pays off with a great ending that almost makes the pain of the latter levels worth enduring.

On top of the story scenes’ clever comic-like art and writing, Tentacles also looks and sounds beautiful during gameplay. The game uses a 2D perspective and 3D graphics to bring Dr. Phluff’s inner space to life. I love the weird color palette, which utilizes far more blacks and yellows than most games. The ethereal soundtrack from Danish artist Rumpistol (aka Jens Christiansen) perfectly complements the 1960’s sci-fi vibe. Throw in some catchy sound effects (particularly when Lemmy eats things or pulls parts away from enemies) and Press Play’s artists have really outdone themselves all around.

Tentacles utilizes a truly unique control mechanic. Lemmy doesn’t walk with his three main tentacles; he clings to things. Tap anywhere within Lemmy’s range (about a third of the screen) and he’ll grab onto it with a single appendage. Tap the same spot or another and he pulls himself towards the new spot. It sort of feels like individually controlling a person’s feet, which I initially loved.

Tentacles

Lemmy also has a fourth clawed appendage which he uses to grab the eyes out of enemies. See, all of the native organisms inside of Dr. Phluff want the invader out. And for some reason they each have at least one eyeball – Lemmy’s favorite snack. Pulling away a bad guy’s eye (or all of its eyes) kills the aggressor and refills the player’s health. Simpler enemies are fun to fight, though the ones that can only be hit from behind prove far more annoying, as do the huge bosses.

At the outset, I had a blast zipping through levels and fighting simple bad guys along the way. So did a lot of people, as Tentaclespositive reception from the mainstream press reveals. But right around level 20 (out of 40), the game starts to change. The fun peters out, replaced instead by almost unending frustration. What went wrong?

As I see it, the following problems basically ruin the experience of playing Tentacles:

  • Health and damage system: In lieu of a life meter, the screen turns increasingly red as Lemmy takes damage. The only way for him to heal is by eating eyeballs. Unfortunately, eyeballed enemies are often hard to come across after you’ve been hurt. Even when you do find one, it might be of the risky-to-fight variety, killing Lemmy during the battle.
    Once injured, the remainder of a level tends to be super tough and punishing, like the game is rubbing in your mistake. The developers could have easily rectified the problem by simply allowing Lemmy’s health to recharge over time. The game would still be pretty tough then, but at least players wouldn’t be punished so much for their mistakes.
  • Swimming upstream: Since Tentacles takes place inside of a human(ish) body, it makes sense for liquids to swirl around in there. But the sections with forced currents are without a doubt the most frustrating and unfun portions of the game. These parts quite often result in bashing Lemmy against spikes or other objects that will kill him. They usually don’t give you much time to react before Lemmy is diced to pieces. Worse, the actual safe route in the forced current sections is often unclear. The developers basically had exactly one solution in mind, and if you can’t find it you’ll simply die over and over again.
  • Oh, those tentacles: The currents often exacerbate another issue: controlling the length of Lemmy’s tentacles is difficult and unintuitive. With spiked and electric death dotting the walls just about everywhere in later levels, it’s often essential to keep Lemmy’s body at a specific distance from the floor and ceiling. Unfortunately, even after beating the game I can’t regulate his tentacle length with any consistency. I often had to brute force my way through difficult passages – simply trying to run through them repeatedly, until I finally managed to survive unscathed.

Tentacles is tough

Press Play famously added an Easy Mode to the game in an update. But Easy Mode only allows Lemmy to take more damage before dying. It doesn’t address the horrendous level design and infuriating currents. Even with more life, Lemmy still gets pushed into inescapable death far too frequently. Easy Mode doesn’t feel like a proper easy difficulty – it’s just the difficulty the game should be anyway. Worse, enabling Easy mode (a simple toggle from the Level Select menu or Options) prevents players from earning progress towards a couple of Achievements.

Achievements

Besides the story-based ones, many of Tentacles’ Achievements revolve around earning three stars for every single level: Pickups (collecting all pickups), No Death, and Challenges (completing irksome Speed or No Damage challenges). Pickups are probably the easiest of the stars, but they’re also annoying because you usually can’t go back to get stuff you’ve missed. Turn on Easy Mode and you automatically miss the No Death star, another bummer considering how hard it can be to avoid dying even with Easy on. If playing Tentacles is like rubbing a cheese grater across your skin (and it is), then trying to earn every Achievement is like pouring hot grease on the wound.

Overall Impression

I wanted to like Tentacles so badly. Even after finding that I hated the game, I held out hope that the version 1.1 patch would fix its woes. Unfortunately, the patch did very little to address Tentacles’ flaws. Mobile games are supposed to be played in short doses and enjoyed by as wide a variety of players as possible. Sadly, Tentacles proves to be far too challenging and frustrating for playing on the go. Only a certain kind of gamer enjoys nut-kicking difficulty; it’s a shame that Press Play didn’t design the game with a wider audience in mind.

Tentacles costs $4.99 and there is a free trial. If you can handle a beating, get it here on the Marketplace.

WP Central

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Reader comments

Windows Phone Xbox Live Review: Tentacles

24 Comments

I couldn't agree less with this review. Tentacles is my favorite mobile game of all time and I played it with excitement and fun all the way until I beat it, even the latter half.
I never noticed a downward spiral in level design. I noticed that levels got more challenging and occasionally frustrating - a very good indicator of a good game. I would have been annoyed if the levels didn't get harder as they went along. It was also far more rewarding to beat each level.
More to the point, I didn't continue on with the game until I got all three stars on the level I was currently at and most levels only took me 2-4 tries to beat.
The current really isn't so bad. When you die, you're taken back to a pretty reasonable spot. It just means that you can't tank your way through a level and expect to win. It makes you think fast and use your mind, or remember the correct path if nothing else. It's not a bad thing that there's only one way to progress through certain parts. Even if you restart after ever level for the stars (like I did), you'll know the first parts pretty well and you can get back to the trouble spot pretty quickly.
I think it was an intuitive, challenging, fun, and incredibly-designed mobile game from start to finish. They've already nerfed some levels, unfortunately, otherwise I wouldn't care as much about a review like this.

I agree with the first comment.
This review feels so unfairly negative. I completed this game last night and thoughrully enjoyed every level. 
You seem to have a complaint against every mechanic that can harm you. The currents, and heatlh system gripes make it seem like you just aren't any good at it or are rushing way too much. 
This is the second bizzare review I've seen recently from you guys. Getting a real lack of faith in this site.

t3d, you're welcome to disagree with reviews all you want. After all, a review is mostly opinion and people often have different opinions.

While you obviously had a different experience with the game than me, I tried to clearly state my issues with it and elaborate on why they bothered me so much. The review does praise all the elements that I thought were well done, so it's not entirely negative.

Most of my reviews are not strongly negative (or overly negative as you call it), but I felt strongly about this particular game and Fusion: Sentient. You're welcome to check out our other Xbox Live reviews (there's a complete list in the Games forum) to see what I mean.

Reviews are only one aspect of what we do here. The aim is to help people make informed buying decisions and help developers understand what works and doesn't work in their games. Since you've already bought this game, you don't need anyone else to validate your purchasing decision. You can still enjoy the Xbox Live news and interviews we bring, which often contain exclusive information and screenshots.

I would go as far to say that a review is entirely opinion. The only true difference between my opinion and yours, is that you have a stage and readership to which your influence could be remarkably damaging to what I consider to be a fun little game and one of the best on the platform. 
Just as a side note, accusing a reader of reading a review you have written as a method of validating their purchasing decision is somewhat self-congratulatory and egotistic, is it not?
p.s "overly negative" was "unfairly negative" in my previous comment  :)
 
 

Well, the review can't be entirely opinion - you have to provide facts in order to back up your opinions. And in fact, a portion of most reviews simply attempts to be informative - telling readers a few facts about the game before the reviewer starts praising or criticizing it.

While we are the largest Windows Phone site (and the best ;) ), I doubt my disliking Tentacles will reverberate too far towards its sales. The game has been out for several months already. The timing was a deliberate choice on our part - we didn't want to evaluate it before the 1.1 patch hit since my criticisms might be rectified by the update. And like I said in the review, there is a fair amount of positive press about the game out there too.

I don't see how you're interpreting my comment to be egotistic in the least. I fully respect your opinion and that others may have a difference of opinion, especially because mine isn't middle-of-the-road in this case. However, it's always the strongly criticial reviews that generate contention with readers - here or anywhere. I do believe that many people simply look for reviews to echo their own opinions rather than express an opposing opinion. That does seem to be your problem here - that I didn't like something which you do like, rather than factual innaccuracies or my failing to explain my viewpoints thoroughly enough.

I agree with everyone else. Yes, the game is challenging but it's nothing you can't over come. I beat it and got every achievement about a month after it released. It's easily my fav game on the phone. Sounds like your just a noob. LOL

I love a challenging game!!!
I've played tons of games like truck-mania witch made me feel stupid!
I've held my finger on a button for 10 mintues and i completed 10 levels.
Wtf is the point of good graphics with such a crapy gameplay?
Is holding a finger on a button and watching a truck jump worth the money?
Tentacles was FUN!

I love Tentacles... although I enjoy challenging games. Games like Rocket Riot that are just level after level of easy tap tap tap get boring very quickly.
 
Aside: Easy mode disabling acheivements is not lame. It makes complete sense. If you took an easier path just to get through the game then you shouldnt get the credit of someone who took the harder way.

There's a thread in the forum about the difficulty spike in this game. It's cool to have a challenging game, but this game becomes fustrating.  I'm on "The Gut Feeling" level, and I've pretty much gave up. The water flow is what mainly kills the game for me. It's moving so hard against you, that you can barley move. Your arms may or may not connect, causing me to die time and time again. 
 
If you set the game mode to easy, then you pretty much become Super Tenticle, taking pretty much all the challenge out the game. The review is pretty much dead on with what people were saying in the forums. The games could have been great, but I wouldn't recommend it due to the difficulty SKYROCKETING in the later stages. 

I really love this game. It saved me from countless hours of boring classes. I even showed it to some of my friends and let them play, and all of them asked me if they could download it on their iPhone or their Androids and every time I would have to tell them that the only way to get it would be to get a windows phone. It is great for windows phone to have such quality games. I really don't know how someone could not like this game.

Imagine how great you would feel if after hours you finally beat this game!! That is how games used to be. Easy to play, hard to learn, impossible to master. If I paid $5 for a 3 hour cake walk I would be more disappointed. Remember ninja gaiden? How many people actually beat Contra without cheating?

Oh, I love NES Ninja Gaiden and Contra (NES & arcade versions). But I don't think either title's difficulty would be appropriate for a mobile game. With phone games, people typically play them away from home and/or in short spurts. It's important that the user feels like they've accomplished something during those short times, rather than failing and getting rustrated.

You may have just touched upon an interesting point that I feel is worth consideration... essentially the idea of what mobile games are "supposed" to be.  In this evolving market I think we're going to be seeing more and more games that have longer, deeper storylines and more challenging gameplay mechanics.  Mobile devices are becoming increasingly powerful and capable of handling larger scale, visually appealing, compelling games.  And some of these will be hard... on purpose.
In those cases instant gratification isn't always necessary because it's not that old mobile formula of simple games geared towards relatively self contained 5 - 15 minute gaming sessions.  While you will still have those, I believe that we're going to be seeing more games that break out of that formula.

It all comes back to this idea of what a mobile game is "supposed" to be and I don't think anyone can necessarily define that anymore...
 

Well, I agree with Paul's review, and I also like reviews which cover not only facts but also has a clear personal opinion, that's charisma.
Regarding the game, it needs to be praised for its high quality graphics and polished feel, but level design is weak. I like a difficult game, sometimes I make it even more difficult than needs to be (I refused Halo CE coop game invites since I wanted to do solo Legendary), but a crappy level design is a crappy level design, mobile or not.
And - and I'm Portuguese - ffs, it's "you're a noob" not "your a noob". I come here to learn a bit more of English, please!!!

Ahh, it's always fun to see a bit of vitriolic backlash.
 
I'm one of the reviewers at BestWP7Games, and I also had the misfortune of reviewing this game - though we didn't wait for the patch before going live with ours. Like Paul, I didn't think a great deal of it, for almost exactly the same reasons. On the off-chance that you don't want to read a second review damning the game, I too found the difficulty spikes and level design to be incredibly frustrating, playing against the strengths of the control system - which is a wonderful system, but not geared towards quick reactions or pixel-perfect maneuvers, which the game seems to love to throw at you.
 
Like Paul I'm not coming at this as somebody new to computer games, unused to challenge: I've been playing games since 1989, and writing about them since the early '00s. Halo on legendary difficulty, or VVVVVV - those are games whose difficulty I respect, whose mechanics are so clear and precise that they manage to be punishing without feeling unfair. Tentacles? Not so much. It's such a shame, as it's a beautiful game with a brilliant control system - wasted on level design that makes me want to weep.
 
Despite all this, I'd really like to see Press Play make another Windows Phone game - they're clearly an extremely talented developer, it's just that this game, well, fell a bit flat for me.

Dude.. seriously.. im kinda suprised at this.. the second crap review for a game that has a 4 star + rating on market place.. 
People.. these are opinions.. not reviews.. if you want a really good indication on the quality of a game.. read the market place reviews.. in my experiance thats the best overall way to tell.

Everyone claiming Paul was having too hard a time swallowing the challenge of the game is being way too harsh.

Let's not forget something: Paul beat the game. Despite his feelings surrounding the difficulty level of the experience, Paul did overcome those obstacles and was able to finish it. There clearly was nothing so difficult about the experience that Paul was unable to complete his review properly. No one here is saying that the game is insurmountable; it just takes a few tries.

The problem with Tentacles is the frustration level. CAVX himself said the game was occasionally frustrating. As much as he seemed to enjoy that feeling of frustration, most of us do not. The literal definition of frustration is a feeling of negative discouragement. When playing a game, that is NOT the sort of emotion most of us want to experience. Games are supposed to be rewarding, uplifting experiences. Defeat in some games is enevitable, but that defeat should never trump the desire to progress.

There is a very fine line between creating a rewarding challenge and a frustrating failure. While some games manage to demonstrate a deep difficulty with a rewarding payoff, Tentacles never quite manages to achieve that feeling. The entire experience feels like you're fighting poor design choices in an effort to achieve... What? There is no story here; no characters to love. Defeating levels does nothing but move you to the next level. The environments never really change, and many of them are repeated. Even the challenges themselves never really "progress". Exactly how many times did you have to guide Lemmy up, then down, through a group of spikes? Or pass through a door that crushes you? These same ideas were repeated too many times. The game runs out of fresh ideas within about fifteen levels, and yet you somehow still have fifteen more to go. That's the result of a limited game design; one that wasn't effectively executed to begin with.

Nothing is gained from progressing through Tentacles, and it is this, personally, that I find to be the game's largest flaw. I never felt like my frustrations were a means to some greater end. There was no story, no 1-up, no extra costumes, no extra powers or equipment. Tentacles provided no satisfaction of any kind. All I did was become more frustrated, and the necessity of repeating FULL LEVELS in order to complete the challenge half-way through each stage became immensely annoying. Completing those special challenges resulted in absolutely no reward either. While I suppose achievements might satisfy some, it's a very select group that actually gives a damn about said points.

Tentacles is a flawed experience. Intially, I agree, it looks fun. The graphics are beautiful and the idea behind it is fresh. These things are enough to hook anyone who plays the demo. Unfortunately, that only makes it more disappointing when halfway through it becomes a repetitive, frustrating chore. So I have to agree with Paul on this one: Tentacles did not live up to expectations.

Let's not end this on a sour note, though. At least this game proves Press Play is still a capable developer. They weren't afraid to try something different, and they did mange to provide something engrossing for a limited amount of time. Hopefully next time they'll take the more positive aspects of this experience and use them to create something better. The talent is there... It just needs refinement.

"Mobile games are supposed to be played in short doses and enjoyed by as wide a variety of players as possible."
 
This quote is wrong is so many ways. What if someone were to say, "XBLA games are supposed to be short and easy to pick up and play for everyone". or... "Shooters are supposed to be all like COD!"
 
Come on, just because a game doesn't "fit your style", doesn't mean it deserves a low ranking for being "too challenging".
 
This IS why I never read reviews... because someone reviews RPG Game X, knowing they hate RPGs, or think all RPGs should be like other RPG Game Y... Why review a game at all if you think "all mobile games should be short, easy to play, and like Angry Birds"

It's a bit of a blanket statement, yes, but it's also mostly true.

Not all mobile games need to be built with a short, abrubt level structure like Angry Birds or Cut The Rope. But the point definitely stands that they need to be accessible in a pinch, and able to be picked up and put down in small bursts. A great example of that is Pokemon, which is a massive, egrossing game, yet it allows you to save virtually anywhere at any time. You can have a few Pokebattles in mere minutes, put the game down, and still feel like you did something.

This is actually one of my largest complaints regarding the recent iOS release of Chrono Trigger, as the game does not allow you to save at just any point, making it almost a pointless mobile experience in some ways. Mobile games need a save system or checkpoint system that doesn't get in the way of their portability. Any designer who creates portable games without portability in mind is developing for the wrong platform. Calling a mobile game out for lacking mobility is a completely valid point, regardless of the game's genre.

As for the ability to be enjoyed by a wide number of players, of course that's true. Why do you think games like Metal Gear Solid, Halo, Call of Duty, Skyrim, Diablo, Starcraft, Arkham Asylum, etc. are so well regarded? Partially because they accept players of virtually any skill level and cater the game towards them. A player can make those games as easy or as difficult as they want in order for them to be enjoyable. There's a reason why those games sell in the millions while difficult, yet well advertised, titles such as Ninja Gaiden are still lucky to hit half a million. Likewise, there's a reason why the casual market exploded five years ago and went on to eclipse the hardcore market. A gamer who actually enjoys being frustrated is a rare breed, and games that cater exclusively to that market are few and far between these days because we learned just that. That's not to say core gamers don't deserve difficult games, but it's better situation for everyone when a game can provide an equally fun experience for all. Tentacles doesn't do that, especially because its easy mode punishes you, and I think it's completely fair to call it out on that.

See Dark Mirage's rebuttal - he explained it perfectly.

I do not hate RPGs, hard games, platformers, or whatever else you sort of implied. I like virtually every kind of game except for stunt-course type games (Trials HD, etc.) and some sports. However, portable games do need to be designed as portable games, period. Again, Dark Mirage basically explained why.

The later levels are way too hard, and if you use easy you will not get the achievements.  :(  Lame.  Love the game otherwise.