A critical language is absolutely essential for cases like this. Take Two Fold Secret's first game Where We Remain; A NES Zelda-rougue-like-game with a neat story told through found letters, multiple endings, and plenty of secrets to discover. Now take their second game, Sanctuary-17; a DS Zelda-not-so-rougue-like game with a neat story told largely through scattered computer terminal email, multiple endings, and I assume plenty of secrets to uncover. If you take the time to play both (do so now if you haven't) then you know that these two games are spiritual twins of each other. Other than obvious differences in theme and graphical style, it's going to take some precise analysis to explain why Sanctuary-17 is a more solid experience.
The biggest difference between the two games is the interactive design between the player and the enemies. Where We Remain is all about avoiding enemies. Whether in a cave or outside, moving intelligently to keep as far away from the enemies as possible is key. In Sanctuary-17, you have the freedom to avoid confrontation with the enemy robots, but there are several design elements that significantly limit your ability to avoid making the game more engaging, tense, and challenging. The elements are as follows...
- Hallways. If you recall, for a top down 2D game enemy elements that must touch the player character to inflict harm are typically designed with pathfinding motion or AI. Otherwise, there's just too much space to easily avoid simple moving enemies. Other alternatives are greatly restricting motion with hallways/obstacles (like Pac-Man), restricting movement (Chess = turn based, unique movement limitations for each piece, and one piece per turn), or filling the area with lots of simple enemies (Shmup bullet patterns). Sanctuary-17 features plenty of hallways and some enemies with a bit of pathfinding AI.
- Energy drops. The main collectible in Where We Remain is flowers. Scattered about the outside area, just grab them when you see them. Going after these bonuses helps break up the unguided monotony of travel. In Sanctuary-17, the only collectible drops are the batteries that enemy robots drop when destroyed. Since you need energy to SHOOT, defend, and powerup computer terminals these drops are a more integrated part of the game. You earn every drop with every robot kill. And because you're always one hit away from death, grabbing the drops is a satisfying reward that encourages players to continue to move through the space.
- The darkness. I typically don't like playing games in darkness. The less you can see, the more frustrating it can become to do the simplest things like navigating hallways and avoiding relatively simple enemies/traps. Fortunately, the player characters have lights and enemy robots glow (see image below). So, unless an enemy robot is completely off screen, you can see where they are and make educated guesses on how to proceed. After all, though you can judge enemy positions by the glow, you can't know the exact layout of the hallways until you explore the area yourself. So you must proceed with caution and navigate the maze like areas.
Some of the power items in the game help you fight the darkness. But for the most part, you can expect to engage with the tension. The system is just deep enough so that you can narrowly escape danger by leading a robot into a spider web. Or you can bait a group of bots into zapping each other so you can save on energy. When it works, the gameplay is like Pac-Man or a light version of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass / Spirit Tracks. When it doesn't work, you die. Which brings us to difficult design.
From what I can tell, the designers of Twofold Secret have only made one difficulty mode for Sanctuary-17, which I prefer to the beginner-normal-expert options in Where We Remain. If you want a harder experience in Sanctuary-17, go for a higher score, beat it faster, and/or escape with more people. If you die in the process it's not game over. The more support you rally to your cause by activating computer terminals the more "extra lives" you have. Each "life" is a new character that starts back at the beginning room. Return to the spot where your previous character died can you can recover all of the items you had collected. This design gives players the option to shoot for perfection, lose it all, and make a few mistakes in the pursuit of either outcome. Such a simple change can make a big difference in keeping players in the game after making a single mistake. You learn faster this way too.
Like the scattered flowers, in Where We Remain stumbling across letter after letter on the overworld loses some of the impact. One possible reason for this is that the messages in these epistles are frozen in time. The writer always addresses you from some unknown point in time unaware of everything that you're doing. So, if stories in games are the most engaging, impactful, and persuasive when they are worked into the interactivity of a game, then Sanctuary-17 makes yet another improvement. The text blocks are presented mostly when you activate a computer terminal. These terminals are limited to about one per 2 rooms so you won't encounter them too rapidly after each other. Since activating the terminals is part of the basic save system, extra lives, game progression, you're rewarded with a bit of story (context) for progressing through the game. Finally, the email correspondence between your character and Rusty are written according to your progress in the game. When you're just starting out, rusty responds commenting on how he thought you might be dead. When you're in the middle of the game, he comments on how the elders are really mad especially because others have rallied to your cause. When you're near the end, he helps you decode some information. Yes, it's simple. But it's also very effective.
I've only earned one ending in both games. I've attempted to earn the other endings, but even Sanctuary-17 improvements over Where We Remain aren't enough to keep the additional play throughs as interesting as the first experiences. This isn't a big issue though. While Sanctuary-17 marks a positive trend for Twofold Secret, there is a much more frightening pattern to be aware of. I wonder if their next game will feature more evil elders.