Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bad Rats - 2/20 hours

Bad Rats combines a sloppy physics simulation with unsettling animal cruelty to create a gaming experience that is, at best, eye-rollingly stupid. The core of the game is that you have a variety of rats, each with their own special ability, and you arrange them around a level in such a way that you can knock a ball around a series of obstructions and into some deadly object, in order to kill a cat.

I get that they're aiming for an over-the-top cartoon violence sort of thing, in the vein of Tom and Jerry or Itchy and Scratchy, but Bad Rats appears to have no understanding of what makes that sort of comedy work. Tom and Jerry is an inversion of the classic predator and prey hierarchy, where the ostensibly vulnerable mouse survives an attack by a physically superior cat through the use of cleverness and trickery. And while Itchy and Scratchy takes that to sociopathic extremes by removing all pretense of a self-defense motive from Itchy, it still follows the same basic beats of the genre it's parodying - Scratchy is physically larger, and is usually drawn into Itchy's elaborate death traps by the exploitation of a "vice" (though, usually, Scratchy's vice is that he trusted Itchy).

Bad Rats has none of that. The deathtraps play more like a merciless execution. The cat stands at the end of the level, completely helpless. It is more or less the same size as the rats, and its idle animation involves it making various nervous gestures, as if it were aware of its inevitable fate. It just comes across as disgustingly cruel. There's no sense of an inverted power relationship, not even a winking nod that acknowledges the fact that the rats have the real power. The cat is purely a victim, and the rats hate it for no apparent reason (it can't be survival - one of your rats is a suicide bomber, complete with turban and beard, because it's not enough for the game to be awful, it also has to include some casual racism).

Yet, even if it is a black hole of humor, it might be possible to ignore that were the basic gameplay compelling enough. And on paper, the idea behind the game seems solid - solve physics puzzles with a variety of objects that each has its own characteristic behavior. Unfortunately, the physics simulation barely works. It is extremely inconsistent. I've completed levels where my setup was just fine, but I had to run the simulation several times before the ball would get to where it's supposed to go. It would behave differently in different runs, making the line between correct and incorrect solutions very fine indeed.

And that's not just me imagining things. After you beat a level, you have the option of viewing the default solution - what the developers intended to be the standard way of doing things - and on multiple occasions, I've seen the default solution fail. On one level, it failed consistently. No matter how many times I ran the sim, the ball would always get stuck (but not necessarily in the exact same place, so I'm sure that it must have succeeded at least once, in order to get put in the game that way).

For the life of me, I can't even imagine how that's possible. Are they including a random factor in their simulation model? Is it based on some quirk of my hardware, like caches or something making certain calculations faster or slower on different runthroughs and thus introducing rounding errors? I don't believe it's intentional (because Bad Rats is a freaking puzzle game, and randomness is antithetical to the genre's goals), but if it's an accident, that seems like a huge oversight.

Not that I think a whole ton of care has gone into this game. The soundtrack is awful, and the interface for placing items is a nightmare to navigate unless you stick to the most basic placement possible. In particular, setting up ramps with the board always takes more work than it should, because if you adjust its angle in a way that makes it intersect with another object, it automatically cancels and resets, which is a total pain, because when you need to change the angle, any new intersections could be solved quickly with a small translation. Yet, because of this ass-backwards interface, I wind up having to partially rotate the board, shift it slight, rotate it a little more, shift it again, and so on until it is in exactly the right place.

I think, though, that I've seen the worst the game has to offer. If I can tolerate it now, it shouldn't be a huge problem to tolerate it for the next 18. Provided, of course, that it has no more nasty surprises in store.

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