XNA is Microsoft's "official" homebrew platform, a C+-based development kit that anyone can use to create games for play on Windows, the Xbox 360, and theoretically the Zune, if anyone actually owned one. Open kits like this tend to mean a large volume of what's deemed "shovelware", half-assed attempts at programming that result in broken, unentertaining games. However, it also means that a new developer can create products without breaking the bank on a huge devkit, instead spending their budget on better art, sound, and programming. While Zatun's Legend of Vraz has some rough spots, it shows the promise of a new developer that clearly cares about creating a product that looks and sounds good.
You control Vraz, a large-headed adventurer with his heart set on the beautiful Princess Avi. Her father, however, seems intent on keeping the riff-raff out of the marriage arena, and declares that anyone wishing to wed his daughter must complete five tasks. To help Vraz win the fair maiden's heart, you must set out on an adventure spanning fifteen stages in four differently-themed areas, collecting gold, defeating enemies, and finding valuable treasures. With these requirements, the game's story will actually remind one more of Wario Land than of Mario Bros., with the ultimate goal being to accumulate wealth and the passing through of various stages being incidental to that.
Control issues plague even the largest-budget titles, but Legend of Vraz has some pitfalls in many key gameplay areas that can be avoided with the simplest of fixes. The first is the control scheme itself. While pressing the Up key to jump is a staple of fighting games, it's almost never used with platformers, for a few reasons. The Legend of Vraz, however, invents a completely new reason to shy away from the practice, and it has to do with the arrow mechanic. Most enemies should be defeated by jumping on their heads, and I'll get to that can of worms shortly, Vraz also has the option of dispatching his foes from a distance with a bow and arrow. The arrows fly in an arc, meaning a player must choose their aim carefully, and there are two means by which they can accomplish this. The first is by using the mouse, but most platform PC gamers still have their muscle memory from the Apogee games of the early 90s, and want to naturally use their right hand for controlling character movement, meaning they'll actually have to take their hand off the movement controls to fire their weapon, a disorienting process to say the least.
FPS-style gamers should have less of a problem, but it still feels odd, since the arrow keys are on the right side of the keyboard for a reason. You can also, however, choose to use the arrow keys themselves to aim the bow, but this is where the Up-key jumping becomes a problem. to change the angle of the weapon, you must press down to aim down and left or right to aim up. Most players will naturally want to press up after having pressed down, which will make them jump, and press left after pressing right, which will turn them around completely. Reassigning the jump key would fix this issue quite easily. That, however, would still leave the problem of Vraz's other attack, jumping on his foes' heads.
Head-bopping is a time-honored tradition, an ability passed down from Mario to countless other heroes over generations, and The Legend of Vraz's awful, awful hit detection is, without a doubt, its biggest downfall. As mentioned earlier, jumping is controlled with the Up key, and our hero has the ability to double-jump, though it's not signified by any extra animation and you'll often find you've expended both jumps with a single key press. Anyone who's picked up an NES controller knows how to maneuver a little man in mid-air to the head of an enemy, but the collision issues in this game will make you question your skills as a gamer and eventually your sanity as well. Around half the time, your character's jump will end in failure, with Vraz taking damage, and there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to why the game decides you've not properly bopped a baddie. You can hit them near the head, the tail, or dead-center, but it still seems like a crapshoot, your hearts flittering away as you wish you just had enough arrows to shoot everything. This becomes particularly problematic with a specific enemy creature, a monkey who goes to great lengths to harass you, but because he's the princess's favorite pet, will deal damage to you if you kill him. Usually you want to avoid them outright and just pretend they're not there, but certain stages require you to kill all enemies--including the monkey--and other times the monkey sits at a very strategic spot and you'd rather not deal with him every time you start from the nearby checkpoint. Add the damage you take from killing him to the damage you take trying to kill him, and this single enemy can bring you to your knees over and over. Aside from the hit issues, there are a couple spots where you can jump into the ceilings, but otherwise the platforming is good and challenging without being too frustrating.
The high point of this game is its art design, with characters and stages in a stylized, rendered look that's overflowing with the personality of the Indian development studio that created the game. It could stand to have more frames of movement, though, as the game looks much better in screenshots than it does in videos. The backgrounds are well-drawn and never boring, and it's hard to tell which parts are tiles and which are genuinely drawn specifically for that part, though it does tend to rely on the Photoshop grass filter a little too often, and sometimes the pretty backgrounds give little indication as to where the running surface is. The game's overall look is rather polished, and has the appearance of a professional game, which will surely help them get it approved on the X-box live arcade. In fact, it will probably look good as an HD game on the service, which is better than many of the games already on it.
There's not too much to say about the sound in Legend of Vraz. The music is calm, peaceful, and soothing, not something that you'd rush out to buy on CD, but certainly not the kind of repetitive, droning crap that you'd turn off. The rest of the sound effects have a very stock feeling to them, with overly cartoony "boings" scattered around.
If you neglected to collect enough coins the first time around, you'll probably want to replay a few levels to get what you need for the Princess, but outside of that there's little the game offers to make you want to play it again. Straightforward levels with no real branching paths tend to give you the feeling of being glad you finished them rather than one of wanting to play through them again, but at least the game offers the courtesy of letting you choose any level you wish to replay, rather than forcing you to go through them all in a straight shot. If they could fix those controls, I'd be much more receptive toward giving the game a second playthrough.
Every game company has to start somewhere, and as far as these first steps go, Legend of Vraz isn't the train wreck you see from many big-name companies. Still, its control issues show a lack of knowledge in the fundamentals of game design that desperately need correcting before anyone will invest the six to eight hours the game promises. I truly hope they're able to rectify the mistakes made during programming, and give us a beautiful experience that's as fun to play as it is to look at in the future.