Tuesday, 30 August 2011

XBOX Indie Game Special: Grand Theft Froot

From my limited experience of XBLIG so far I've already gleaned there's a huge range of games that vary extraordinarily in content and gameplay. There's rampant cloning of popular titles, shovelware and kids titles by the dozens as well as the obligatory avatar games. One diamond that shone from the pile for me, however, was a game called Grand Theft Froot and I was lucky enough to catch up with its developers, Jack & Lisa of Frooty Game Studios earlier this week. But we'll get to them shortly: what of Grand Theft Froot itself?

Despite the paraphrased name from Rockstar's classic one-man-crimewave game, Grand Theft Froot is a platform game set on an alien planet. There's some sinister things going on; a mysterious corporation (The Advanced Weapons Research Corporation, or AWRC) is developing super weapons using a strange poison known as "Froot" and your hero (or heroine?) is charged with finding out what's going on. Suffering from amnesia, you are constantly offered conflicting advice from two different sources: one of them is trustworthy, the other is not. Each multi-scrolling level in Grand Theft Froot contains an exit with various hazards in between - before the exit can be reached, these hazards have to be traversed and all the Froot contained in the level collected. Enemies include the robotic guardians of the AWRC as well as the globular remains of their nefarious experiments.

The graphics in GTF hark back to the times of the NES and Master System - simple and precise and do the job perfectly well. Sound is utilised well and there's a cool dance tune that plays throughout, although this can be a little repetitive (I ended up turning it off). Where GTF really strikes gold is with its gameplay - the game combines those classic tenets of being easy to play (initially at least) yet very difficult to put down. This is for three reasons: first of all, the platforming action itself which is tightly controlled and balanced, luring you in; secondly, the character development in the form of "levelling-up", an unsophisticated form of the RPG genre that continually lets the player improve their basic stats (such as agility, power etc); and thirdly, the story that accompanies the game, something that expands and explains as it goes on.

Where GTF wins for me, however, is the ability to go back and replay previous levels. This gives you the chance to improve your experience (which you don't lose if your character snuffs it) and therefore make tougher levels simpler. As an experienced but generally useless platform gamer, this was essential for yours truly! The game also offers numerous upgrades to your gun and shields which can be obtained by collecting the coins that lay carelessly strewn around the alien planet.

Alas, it's not all beer and skittles: Grand Theft Froot does have its faults. The title, for starters, which whilst undoubtably apt, was probably not the best choice. There are some annoying little tics as well; plot updates and messages appear in pop-up boxes and these often obscure the action resulting in your character being totally exposed. Also, when hit by enemy fire you "jump back" resulting in some frustrating falls into lava pits. However, whilst other critics have complained about the over-use of the cannons in GTF, I personally didn't find this to be an issue.

Still, at a mere 80 msp, Grand Theft Froot offers hours of gameplay and a depth that more than warrants the miniscule investment. It has a touch of humour to it as well that should appeal to anyone brought up on the wacky platformers of the 8 and 16 bit era.

Grand Theft Froot is the first fully completed and published game from Frooty Game Studios, aka Jack and Lisa and I spoke to them about the genesis of the game.

Their plan was simple: to create a game that anyone could complete, yet was still a challenge to more experienced gamers. "The latter Ratchet and Clank games are a good example of this," says Jack, betraying an influence on GTF, "in that the game gets easier each time you die because you keep your experience and upgrades." The upshot of this is simple: expert gamers will get through the game in quick time with the appropriate difficulty level; less experienced games will take longer but find the game gets a bit easier with each mistake they make.

Grand Theft Froot took around 8 months to fully develop and this flexibility within the game's structure was planned right from the very beginning. "The whole idea was to tell the story," says Jack, "and the game was simply a vessel for this. In order for players to experience the whole story it obviously has to be beatable by everyone, yet offer a challenge as well." This resulted in the RPG-style addition to the platforming action whereby the player can go back to any previously played levels and try and gain experience, thus accruing more health, energy or agility. Also, GTF offers traditional platform elements such as secret areas and hidden treasures. "The game rewards exploration by giving you more coins and secrets in hard to reach places - but this comes at a potential cost as these places aren't always easily reached," explains Jack.

Despite this, GTF was designed and programmed to a certain extent "on the fly" by Frooty Game Studios. "We had a general idea of what we wanted to accomplish," says Jack, "but as we worked on it we refined the design more and more, playing through all the levels, changing the layout and enemies. Basically the game began to evolve itself." And all the time Jack & Lisa were set on creating something different, from the main character to the storyline. "Games with cool stories stick with the player better," explains Jack, "and our idea was to make a game with one such story and show that indie/XBLIG games are more than capable of offering a great story coupled with entertaining gameplay."

Despite the flexible system, many gamers from the era of the 8-bits will find memories of rock-hard platformers such as Monty Mole and Manic Miner resurfacing. "Yeah, the difficulty really ramps up towards the end, but it actually fits into the storyline, although its never unbeatable," confirms Lisa, "although the option to go back and level up is there. In fact, levelling up your character to 50 makes you literally overpowered, making the game really easy."

So what next for Frooty Game Studios? "At the moment we're looking at adding one more challenge level to GTF," says Lisa, "and then we'll focus on a different game." And is a follow-up to Grand Theft Froot a possibility? "Yes, definitely, as we are planning for this to be a trilogy. The next part will probably be made next year," they both confirm, although they are reluctant to opine further for risk of revealing spoilers. In any case, it would appear there's plenty more Froot to be stolen in the future!

Further info
Grand Theft Froot is available on Xbox Live Indie Games and costs 80 msp.
You can check out the GTF page on Facebook by clicking HERE
Check out video footage of GTF on the Frooty Game Studios own Youtube channel HERE

Many thanks to Jack and Lisa of Frooty Games Studios for their time.

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