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22:2722/09/2014Posted by Raymond Webster2 Comments

Kapsula is a puzzle game combining the reflex-testing of an endless runner with the block-matching of a game like Columns; the end result is something a little like Audiosurf but without the soundtrack element. It is well-suited to mobile formats, requiring only minimal inputs and – with a simple failure state and an interface designed to make repeat play as efficient as possible – being built from the ground up for intermittent play sessions. The mobile puzzle and skill game market is gaining a well-established set of ground-rules for designing a good mobile game – it should be as minimalist in terms of getting to play the game as possible, and as easy as possible to try again after a session, since mobile games are often played for short periods of time to fill a break. In this respect, Kapsula works well.

Mechanically, it is simple to play, if hard to explain, and crucially compelling. The Audiosurf comparison is a natural one; the player controls a car, travelling down a road populated by other cars, and must match coloured cars as they do. Moving adjacent to a car makes it stick to the player’s one, and the two will subsequently move as one unit, with further cars in adjacent lanes sticking to the combined vehicle until all the lanes are stuck together. Colliding with a similarly-coloured car will destroy all cars stuck to that car: for example, if the “chain” of stuck cars goes White (the player’s vehicle) – Blue – Red – Blue in lanes 1-4, then colliding with a blue car in lanes 2 or 4, or a red car in lane 3, is a legal move and will remove all cars past that point (e.g. colliding with a blue car in lane 2 will remove all three cars, colliding with a blue car in lane 4 will only remove the car in lane 4). Colliding with the wrong colour ends the game. The only other complication is using the coloured walls – as the sides of the track change colour, cars can be pushed into the appropriate colour wall to remove them. Keeping track of where the car needs to be to ensure the most efficient collisions can take place is the main skill needed, and the responsiveness of the touch controls (tap the left half of the screen to move left and vice versa) makes the challenge feel a fair one. Indeed, the only mechanical gripe to be had with Kapsula is that sometimes the contours of the endless track obscure oncoming vehicles – the randomisation is such that this happens so infrequently as not to make it a serious problem, but when it does occur it makes a run feel wasted as it is lost without any good reason.

However, thematically and aesthetically it falls down. The soundtrack is the highlight: strong, Ladytron-esque gritty synths that do not grate even after repetition and the in-game sound effects are unobtrusive and serve their purpose unambiguously as good sound effects should. The visuals, however, could do with some work; the road and backgrounds are cel-shaded and Tron-like, with equaliser-esque pulsing skyscrapers and an endless ribbon moving between them, which makes the blobby, textureless car models seem unremarkable. Rounded rectangles in dull plain colours feel uninspired on a more exciting backdrop. But the whole game is dressed in an irritating cod-Soviet theming that achieves nothing and feels like it is trying too hard to be quirky, ending up tediously stereotypical. A photomontage of a Trotsky-esque figure over a morph-suited racing driver spouts cryptic nonsense on the title screen (for example “The Master talks about a deep pain when you become a pilot. He has no idea, not even close, comrade”) to give the impression of some profound dystopian setting or at the least a parody of one, while the UI uses a pseudo-Cyrillic font to strengthen the feeling of some nonsensical Soviet death game.

It would be easy to say this does not matter, that it is just a standard sci-fi parody that draws on the precedent of Tetris, but I feel it does matter. As a dystopian parody, Russian affectations like saying “comrade” a lot and colouring everything red are lazy and uninspired – there is nothing beyond these superficialities, no depth hidden in the cryptic statements of the pilot with his talk of drones and The Master and Kapsula would have benefited from dispensing with any cultural signifiers for all the good they do. Remove the Soviet flavour and it is Audiosurf with different mechanics, a game which has done well out of the a-cultural Tron neon. Ultimately in an abstracted game the theming is what matters, what sells it – a purely generic or geometrical theme, executed in an aesthetically pleasing way, can be enough (as the success of 2048 shows – it has none of the quirky Thomas Was Alone-esque personality of Threes but has the same compelling gameplay) in the same way as heavy theming (the silly kaiju parody of Colossatron or the Golden Axe pastiche of Punch Quest are good examples) can make a simple game stand out. Mediocre theming, however, drags a game down. Were a little more effort put into Kapsula’s aesthetics – a more unified quality of graphics in the game itself, and a theme that is either used to good effect beyond anodyne stereotypes or dispensed with for something more generic, would make it a very good game indeed. As it is it is enjoyable, if irritating visually.

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