It was almost a year ago exactly that I was given the opportunity to preview an upcoming indie game by the name of FORCED. As luck would have it, I was kindly offered the chance to do the full review recently, to which I happily obliged. However, it turned out to be a much more difficult task than I had imagined. When I played the preview, I knew nothing of the developers or the hardships they had to endure to get their game to market. Nowadays, most games journalists will know the name BetaDwarf, but probably not for their game.
Before I even begin this review, there are two pieces of preparatory reading. The first is my original preview, which breaks down the basic gameplay elements and the problems I encountered. I don’t want to repeat myself, so quite a lot of this review will simply be what has and hasn’t changed, for better or worse. The second is this, which is one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever seen in game development. If you read these two things in order, you will have some idea of how I feel now.
Because, hand on a heavy heart, I can’t say that I enjoyed FORCED.
First of all, let’s look a what’s good about the game, especially if it has been improved upon since the beta I played a year ago. I’m happy to note that all the bugs I reported to them (which weren’t all listed in my first article) have been resolved, so kudos to the developers for that. One of my pet peeves is a bug that goes ignored because it’s too much of a nuisance to bother with. Another minor, yet excellent change is that “Use” key is no longer bound to Enter – what was once a ridiculous design choice is now a thing of the past.
I’m also very happy to see that the “Spirit Mentor” has been given a name and a personality, though the person who did the voice is clearly trying a bit too hard to be funny. It would be alright if a joke was done once or twice and then left alone, but this is not the case… but we’ll come to the negatives later. The combat is as challenging as ever, but I have noticed a welcome toning down of the difficulty from the beta I played. From the outset, I got the impression that FORCED was less about grinding and more about skill: the battles shouldn’t drag on if you’re constantly doing the right thing. For the early levels at least, BetaDwarf have struck a good balance in this regard.
Another thing to be highlighted is that the game looks and sounds really nice for an indie title. I say that with no slight intended – many mainstream titles have art budgets bigger than the entire cost of FORCED. BetaDwarf have done an amazing job given the circumstances. I have had enough of cartoony, cel-shaded or – perhaps worst of all – shoddy “pixel art” to last me a decade. It’s not about to tax your graphics card or reduce you to tears, but the visuals and audio of FORCED were a refreshing and welcome departure from the norm.
With all of that said, there are still some things that remain unaddressed in this game. Perhaps that’s because the issues are too great; some changes might have required that the game be entirely reworked to accommodate them. Movement with the keyboard and mouse, for example, is still a bit clunky. The four weapons available to you each control slightly differently; sometimes, you can just hold down the mouse button to constantly swing a weapon. Other times you’ll have to click and release rapidly.
Regardless of which it is, you’ll often find yourself unintentionally moving in one direction and facing another, depending on how the camera is behaving at that given moment. It’s not a system that lends itself well to rapid, arena-based combat. When you switch to the gamepad, these issues are reduced somewhat. I get the impression that this game was very much designed with the 360 controller in mind. Yet still, especially when it comes to using the bow and arrow, problems persist. I found it impossible to immerse myself in the game when I was forced to think about which buttons I should be pressing. Games like Geometry Wars and Dead Nation managed to circumvent this obstacle and I feel like BetaDwarf might have taken a few pointers in this regard.
Coming back to the “Spirit Mentor” (or Balfus, as he is now called), this may be the one factor that really marred my enjoyment. While it’s clear that they wanted to get a sort of Wheatley / Elizabeth vibe from your companionship, Balfus jerks back and forth between helpful protector to “quirky” tutor to woebegone prisoner. I couldn’t take anything he said seriously. As unhappy as I am to say this, the acting for Balfus was painful to listen to at times. If BetaDwarf had simply picked a personality and stuck with it, things might have been different.
Herein lies one of the two major problems with FORCED: the writing. The plot is so formulaic and cliché, it fades entirely into the background. No matter how much I wanted to care about my silent protagonist, I couldn’t. Nothing about the narrative grabbed my attention in FORCED, which left me with only the gameplay. Sadly, this is the second major problem: despite protestations to the contrary, FORCED is not intended as a single player game. Everything you see, hear and experience tells you that this is a multiplayer experience. It’s one of the few games where I believe the multiplayer was designed first and the solo game tacked on afterwards, almost an afterthought.
Whether it’s the NPCs referring to a group of people in front of them when it’s just me standing there, or the challenges that are clearly biased towards having multiple people at different areas of the arena to float Balfus back and forth, there’s no doubt to be had. Sure, you can play FORCED on your own, but it would be a terrible use of your time. I tried to play a few multiplayer matches, but was beset by horrible lag and connectivity issues, so I can’t report on any improvements you might experience by way of playing with random people. But that’s beside the point – I rarely, if ever, play online for these types of games. The single-player experience should be able to stand on its own… and it just can’t.
So what does this mean for FORCED? It’s certainly got more negatives than positives when looked at on its own. But after I spent a good couple of weeks getting all of my ideas penned down, I asked myself if I was being fair. More importantly, was I being fair for the right reasons?
I could quite easily have gone the way of the pity-review: “Oh come on,” I might have said, “these guys have been through hell to make this game. Let’s be nice to them.” But not only would this have been dishonest, it would demean the very effort I sought to honour. One might counter that if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but that just be a different type of dishonesty. Lying by omission is still lying after all.
No, the fairness I found was much more enlightening and it puts FORCED in a better place. While I was playing it, I was thinking in terms of Diablo. By this, I mean I was comparing FORCED – an indie title – with a triple-A PC and console release from one of the biggest games developers in the world. I kept thinking to myself, “Diablo does this or that better or worse”. I began to think of games like Torchlight and Champions of Norrath; two other games that have done this general style, but never captured this exact genre. Then I got to thinking… I really hadn’t played any other games of this genre. Hell, does FORCED even have a traditional genre?
So look at it this way. FORCED is a game that I don’t like, but that’s OK, because it’s been designed to be played in a way that I don’t play. Despite that, it’s comparable in execution to Diablo III and it is effectively the front-runner in forging an entirely new genre. When I stop and take all of this into account, I don’t need to condescend to be genuinely impressed with what BetaDwarf has accomplished, dire straits or no. FORCED would be best played together, with friends, using 360 gamepads… but I believe it will be remembered in years to come for being the plucky little forerunner to a burgeoning new sub-genre of games. Despite all its various failings, the core gameplay is definitely there for thousands (if not me) to enjoy.
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A twenty-something gamer from the North-East of Scotland. By day, I’m a Computer Technician at a local IT recycling charity, where I fix and build PCs. Outside of that, most of my time is spent either sleeping or gaming, which I try accomplish in equal amounts.