Monthly Archives: March 2015

First Impressions – Pillars of Eternity

Oh Baldur’s Gate!  It’s been too long!

I sometimes feel that a particular genre or type of game falls out of fashion because someone decided it wasn’t worth doing any more.  2D platformers, JRPGs, and turn based strategies are all enjoying a renaissance due to smaller developers taking a gamble on the idea that these games aren’t outdated, just under appreciated.  Pillars of Eternity joins that crowded field by reviving Black Isle style CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment.  From the first few hours playing it, I can say that Pillars of Eternity is a solid revival of the great CRPGs of yore.

For the uninitiated, the CRPG is the spiritual predecessor to Bioware’s Dragon Age.  Most CRPGs were made using the Infinity Engine which allowed for pausible, three quarter view combat relying heavily on position, line of sight, and party composition.  When not killing all manner of fantasy beast, CRPGs had branching dialogue paths and wide open worlds to explore.  The combination of a deep combat system, interesting quests, and unique settings carved a special place for CRPGs in the greatest games of all time.  That being said, they weren’t without their flaws.  CRPGs were notoriously difficult, dialogue heavy to the point of being pedantic, and stapled to the Dungeons and Dragons systems, with warts intact.  This genre was undoubtedly a fun one, but it needed an update before making its way into the modern world.

Pillars of Eternity appears to be that update.  The first and most welcome change is freeing the CRPG from the confines of the D&D universes.  The D&D license imposed arcane rules that allowed for incredible flexibility assuming the player could ever figure out what was going on.  Pillars of Eternity developer Obsidian Entertainment simplifies the interactions and battle rules into something far more approachable than Baldur’s Gate’s old “do I want this number to be higher or lower?” game.  This includes the welcome addition of a stash that allows for the infinite accumulation of items without having to manage an ever shrinking number of spaces. Overall, Pillars of Eternity takes better advantage of the video game medium.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to the game world.    The world of Pillars of Eternity feels very similar to the fantasy worlds of old school CRPGs.  Replete with distant gods, wizards, and old wars, this is a world we’ve seen before.  Even the playable races are pulled from the Star Trek “Every alien is just a human with different skin color and a horn” school of creativity.  Of course, I haven’t gotten too far into the game, but what I’ve seen doesn’t impress.

On the other hand, combat remains a highlight by pulling in the old system wholesale.  Party composition and management are vital with success hinging on clever use of terrain.  Fights are pleasantly difficult, though unwelcome difficulty spikes crop up around boss characters.  Players will likely need to level up specifically for bosses or else repeat fights over and over again until they get a lucky roll.  Party members cover the usual professions with two new additions.  I haven’t had a chance to play the Cipher, a psychic, but I have enjoyed my time with the Chanter.  Chanters fill the bard role of buffing the team while still being able to fight.  The player can craft the Chanter’s songs allowing for interesting combinations of supporting songs and debuffs that lend the class a high degree of flexibility.  For my part, I’m just glad druids aren’t weak priests as they were in the previous generation.

There’s a lot to love in Pillars of Eternity.  I’m hoping to see more development out of the world, but the game already feels like a worthy purchase.  For players jonsing for that old Infinity Engine style game, this will be a welcome update to their favorite genre.  For new players, it’s hard to gauge how they’ll react to the complexity and difficulty.  Still, I’m glad to see this kind of game return.  Thanks Oblivion.

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Review – Guacamelee!

Kicking it old…ish school

It’s not often that a game sets itself in a small Mexican town circa 1850.  It’s also not often that a game is a tight, focused experience with a solid sense of humor to boot, yet that’s exactly what you’ll get with Guacamelee!.  This game is a quality platformer from beginning to end with only minor stumbles.  And a nasty difficulty.  Did I mention that?

The story begins with the humble agave farmer, Juan who is helping his village prepare for a festival.  Juan’s love, the daughter of El Presidente, is kidnapped by the evil skeleton Carlos Calaca who then murders Juan and flees the scene. A now dead Juan is gifted a luchador mask that returns him to the land of the living where he fights Calaca’s minions.  It’s basically the story of Mario with an undead super powered Mexican wrestler.  Guacamelee! doesn’t put much focus on its story, but the characters are so lovingly crafted with character and nostalgia that you won’t care.  From the transforming goat mentor who complains about Juan destroying his statues to the chicken that teaches the player combos, each character is infused with a dry, absurd humor that makes interacting with them a joy.  Guacamelee! still manages to balance out the humor with enough seriousness to prevent the whole production from falling into slapstick.  The environment is given the same treatment.  Background posters and level design call back to the classics of yore or make clever (or not so clever) jokes.  They are drawn with a unique, South American style that stands out from the pixelated pack of most indie rogue-like games.  The whole of the game is filled with a sense of fun that makes it a joy to behold as the player looks for new delights at every turn.

Underneath the veneer of silliness is a serious action side-scroller in the vein of Metroid.  Juan, joined by the optional second player Tostada, must maneuver his way across increasingly difficult puzzles using a variety of moves imparted on him by his goat mentor.  Early puzzles are as simple as double jumping across a chasm, but quickly ramp up to rushing, wall sliding, dimension traveling, and upper cut boosting all in the same run.  While some of the harder puzzles are optional, it’s impossible to deny that Guacamelee! is one hard game.  Frustration is inevitable as the player figures out what must be done, only to replay the same section for 20 minutes trying to execute it perfectly.  In one particularly annoying puzzle, the player must wall jump between platforms that they must summon by alternating between dimensions midair.  If they’re too late on the button pressing, then the game dumps them back at the beginning of the puzzle.  The controls are usually up to this kind of devilish task, but sometimes aren’t precise enough to handle the high demands of the challenge.  Fortunately, the death penalty is minor as Juan quickly restarts just before the problem area with minimal fuss.

In fact, that’s the only real complaint I have about Guacamelee! (other than the length.  It clocks it at about 4-6 hours).  This is why reviewing a game like Guacamelee! is odd for me.  On one hand, it’s an incredible clever and fun romp through a luchador filled world with plenty of puzzles and interesting environments.  On the other, it’s hard and frustrating in a way that certain aficionados of the genre really enjoy.  If you like this sort of game, then you owe it to yourself to check Guacamelee! out.  For everyone else, your mileage may vary.

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Review – Sid Meier’s Starships

It’s the worst of both worlds

At the end of my first game of Sid Meier’s Starships, the game crashed to the desktop during the final cutscene.  I reloaded, hit the “shore leave” button, and it crashed again.  Under normal circumstances, I would have been angry, but I couldn’t fault Starships on this one.  After having gone through the largest map in about two hours and never experienced anything resembling excitement or interest, I had to agree with the game.  It was time to go.

Sid Meier’s Starships is a striped down 4x game about conquering the galaxy as one of the factions of Beyond Earth.  The advertising plays up the link between the two games, but I can’t honestly say I felt the impact of the link nor any real interest in continuing my game from Beyond Earth.  Once the player selects a faction (each has a bonus), an alignment (another bonus), a universe size (bonus-less), and a difficulty (presumed bonuses), they’re offer to explore the galaxy with the fleet, of which you get one throughout the game, and their home planet.  During the opening phase, the player sends the fleet out to explore new worlds and complete tasks to gain control of those worlds.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much good to say about exploration, because there really isn’t much to discover.  Each world provides a one-time bonus, but feels the same as every other world after that.  The player can invest resources into improving planets, but I never felt an attachment to a given world.  My empire, much like Starships, was just a giant collection of blah.

This feeling continues on to the combat.  Battles take place on a 2D plane with asteroids, planets, and wormholes breaking up the empty space.  During the player’s turn, they move their ships, attack other ships, or use special abilities.  Thanks to the aforementioned obstacles and damage increases based on angles, positioning plays a large role in dealing damage effectively.  The inclusion of a torpedo that moves in a straight line each turn and zones out opponents also adds some depth to the combat, but that’s the extent of it.  It’s rare that one battle feels different than any other or that the player need employ complex strategies.  The strategy is get behind the opponent while exposing your ships as little as possible.  Sadly, the AI hasn’t even grasped that.  It shows little understanding of positioning and will rush headlong into torpedoes or drip forces into a fight single file as if lining up for death.  What little thrill that is possible to eke out from this simplified combat system is dashed on the rocks of incompetent enemies.

I could talk about the story, but it doesn’t exist.  I could say something about the art, but it’s purely functional and without flourish.  I could speak to the music, but it’s oddly annoying and repetitive.  In short, mediocrity plagues every aspect of Sid Meier’s Starships.  Nothing stands out, feels unique, bursts with flavor, or otherwise distinguishes itself.  Planets, ships, and factions all suffer under a samey blob that doesn’t permit stand out elements.  No part even shows a hint of even trying to stand out.  Sid Meier’s Starships is just boring.  Don’t buy it.

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Opinion – How to be a decent human being at a con

Stranger in a strange land….now with more anime!

I’ve had the opportunity to go to a number of video game cons and I’ve noticed something each time I’ve gone.  There is always someone, be it someone with me or after the event, who feels the need to disparage the event.  To look down on those participating and criticize the proceedings.  While I am fortunate that none of my friends have engaged in this kind of behavior, others have.  It strikes me as an unnecessary attack on gamer culture and a response to ignorance or insecurity.  Gaming certainly generates its own problems, but sometimes those issues are rightly blamed on the outside.

It’s worth noting that cons are weird.  They are probably the only place where your average human being is likely to come across outlandish game characters, super specialized talks, and an openly present gaming culture that often spends its time in the shadows.  That, combined with the overwhelming sensory overload, creates an environment that seems foreign, even to the target audience.  My first couple of cons were difficult affairs and I’m technically part of the culture.  This is all to say that I understand and accept when people are put off by gaming cons.  I understand even more when they walk in at the request of a partner or family member and must make their way around this alien world without a frame of reference.  There is nothing wrong with this and I applaud someone willing to do so.  My objection is not with someone who has decided that gaming cons are not for them.

My problem is when someone comes to a con and denigrates the inhabitants.  This comes in two forms, one born of ignorance and one born of hate.  For those who attack in ignorance, they often cling to outdated stereotypes as a way to understand a world that may seem foreign or scary to them.  They express contempt as a way to distance themselves from what they’ve been told is contemptible.  I see this behavior as a holdover from gaming’s early days where it was the playground of young boys and obsessed older men.  As the source is not malice, but ignorance and fear, the response is not to attack, but to inform.  Gaming and gaming culture has taken great leaps in the past few decades and it is important that we communicate that to others.  For many, the rise of gaming is a frightening phenomenon that has grown around them, yet they only have outmoded tools to understand it.  By familiarizing people with games culture, we can make gaming cons and gaming culture a far more approachable experience.

The hatred is the sticky part.  I’ve been in the presence of someone who called female cosplayers “sluts” even as he jockeyed to get pictures with them.  This was someone who appreciated the new games, loved the costumes, yet felt the need to attack con goers for reasons I can’t fathom.  His comments, and the comments of those like him, show how gaming is not, and can not be divorced from the broader culture around it.  The notion that someone is less worthy because they put on a costume is ridiculous and the idea that you can walk into someone else’s culture and insult them without cause is odious.  If someone isn’t capable of treating everyone with respect, they should leave the con.  That applies to gamers as well as outsiders.  Cons are not a place to attack others, but rather celebrate gaming.  Take your hatred elsewhere.

A gaming con, like any con, is a gathering designed to bring people together around a common interest or goal.  The purpose of the con is the creation of a mini world where attendees can spend a few days focused on the topic of their choosing.  If someone isn’t on board with that, then they are welcome to enjoy the 99%+ part of the world that is not the con.  On the other hand, if you’re going to attend, give respect to all the people who love these events and make them happen.  They’ve invited you to be part of their culture.  Be a good guest.

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Opinion – Talking to an old friend

This is gonna get awkward.

Hi Final Fantasy!  It’s been a while.  I’m so sorry that we’ve lost touch.   How have you been?  Is the whole Final Fantasy XIII franchise concept working out for you?  No?  People keep complaining about bland, unlikable characters and an incomprehensible story line weighed down by three games worth of crazy?  Sorry to hear that!  …not really.  Look, it’s time to be honest with you.  When we stopped being friends, it wasn’t me, it was you.  You changed and everyone noticed.  Our good buddy who had memorable characters, unique worlds, and an epic sense of adventure was lost in a sea of flashy graphics and narrative nonsense.  I see that you’re trying to turn that around.  Final Fantasy Type-O looks amazing and I’m even hopeful for Final Fantasy XV, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Here are a few things you could work on.

Have better friends – Remember Lightening?  How she thought she was so cool because she kept her distance and never betrayed any emotion?  She was no fun.  While her devotion to her sister Serah was great and all, it seemed to be the only complexity to her.  Conversations at the bar were about swords or protecting her family, but what did she do in her off hours?  Oh, and let’s talk about Serah and her very earnest boyfriend Snow.  There’s a reason I don’t hang around 13 year olds in love.  They’re totally obsessed with each other, but have absolutely nothing in common.  Maybe you know why they’re such a great pair, but I could never figure it out.  That actually seems to be a major problem with all of your friends.  They are all about declaring emotions and making grand gestures, but there never seems to be any substance to them.  They’re just words.

Tell better stories – Final Fantasy, I know you’ve got a great imagination, but I really wish you could reign it in now and then.  You’ll start with some story about oppression or nobility and, then midway through, you’ll throw in gods and stupidly random magic powers and act like its okay that you’ve just contradicted yourself 20 times.  Look, I know you want to be interesting.  Everyone does, but the most interesting stories don’t have floating cities or thousand year old sin monsters.  The best stories talk about people and their struggles.  They pull on extraordinary circumstances to show comparatively ordinary emotions.  And they make sense.  Seriously, if I hear one more deus ex machine out of your mouth, we’re only going to meet at the bargain bin.  If you can’t explain your story to a five year old, try again.

Stop treating me like an idiot – You’ve got a lot of fun ideas for some really neat games.  I love how you’re constantly trying to invent new ways to play.  I just wish I didn’t have to sit through 30 hours of handholding to get the whole ruleset.  I also wish you didn’t create very pretty games that have all the user input of Candyland.  I’ve been playing all kinds of games since we were kids, Final Fantasy.  Many of them are much more complicated than yours, yet you’re still acting like we’re five and you won’t play with me because I’m not smart enough.

If I’m to sum up everything I’m saying, Final Fantasy, it’s grow up.  I’ve got so many more friends with incredible depth, unique character, and their own sense of style and interests.  They have grown up with me in a way that you never seemed able to achieve.  I genuinely wish you the best.  I want your new offerings to build on the concepts that everyone else has pushed forward.  I want this, but I look at your most recent games, and I’m not hopeful.

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