Tag Archives: PC

Review – Owlboy – PC

What the hell happened?

Owlboy had me going.  For the sweet first half of the game, I appreciated its steady learning curve, interesting puzzles, fantastic visuals, great sounds…I could go on.  This was going to be an unmitigated recommendation…and then something happened.  Owlboy made a slow steady descent into bad design choices that don’t ruin the game, but do make me wary to give it an unreserved recommendation.  Make no mistake; this is a good game.

It could have been a great one.

The interesting bit starts right from the beginning.  The player is introduced to Otus, an owl boy under the tutelage of his owl mentor Asio.  Asio is hyper critical of Otus and his strong, almost cruel, berating of the boy sets up the first of the game’s interesting characters.  Pirates attack Otus’ hometown while Otus is away forcing him to join with Geddy, a human solder, in an attempt to stop the pirates’ dastardly deeds.  The story starts incredibly strong with impactful moments that seem to have an important effect on the characters.  Otus, Geddy, and others who join later seem genuinely changed by the events.  Even side characters undergo trauma, exhibit bravery, and hint at greater development to come.  It’s all very compelling except that it never really pays off.  Most events happen as you would expect or just don’t happen at all.  At one point Geddy leaves the party due to a conflict with one of the new party members.  The other characters comment that he’ll come around and, well, he does.  The player doesn’t see his character develop which is shocking given the delicate handling of the emotional scenes in the first half of the game.  Nothing is particularly wrong with the story and characters during the second half, but they devolve into industry standard heroes rather than the complex elements they started as.

Sadly, the level design does the same.  Owlboy’s Metroidvania style action platforming stands out in the beginning as a fun, puzzle-focused romp through lush lands.  Otus can fly and use his compatriots for their abilities by picking them up.  The flight controls bleed over to the walking controls causing periodic frustration when Otus doesn’t do what the player intends, but the controls are tight enough and the levels are permissive enough that it doesn’t matter.  Owlboy also has reasonable check points, cut scene skipping, and a way to skip death animations showing considerable respect for the player’s time.  This all slowly degrades as developer D-Pad Studio sought to increase the difficulty of the game.  D-Pad introduces ever more frustrating mechanics that make the game harder, but less fun.  The mechanics devolve until the final level wherein Otus can only glide, not fly.  The confused control design between flying and platforming results in the player accidently engaging gliding when they need to get the most from their jump.  Other mechanics degrade as well such as unfortunately placed checkpoints and unskippable cutscenes in the middle of boss fights.  None of these ruin the game (after all, they are staple problems of the genre), but they seem completely unnecessary in a game that looked like it fixed them as problems.  It’s this decline in level design and mechanics that undermines the game most of all.

If anything makes up for the slow decline in quality, it would be the sound and visual design.  The songs are gorgeous and match the mood of each level.  They periodically combine with the detailed hi-bit visual design to craft a truly magical moment.  Environments get repetitive at times, but it’s always a pleasure to see the leaves rustle through the forests, watch a waterfall, or enjoy a well-positioned scene.  Unlike the other aspects of this game, the quality of the aesthetic design never fades.

It’s hard to not miss the great game that Owlboy could have been instead of the good game that it is.  The decline is noticeable and frustrating, but never wrecks the experience.  Fans of Metroidvania games should get their money’s worth and even those who general enjoy the genre should have a good time.  Owlboy doesn’t transcend the genre the way it could have, but you’ll still have a fun time playing it.

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No Man’s Sky and the Infinity Game

The beginning of the end

Imagine a game to end all games.  The only game you’ll ever need.  Each press of the “new game” button leads to a wildly different adventure with worlds, stories, and characters created anew.  Each world acting as infinitely expansive with a brilliant experience around every corner and, again, all in a single game.  It sounds fanciful, yes?  It is now, but No Man’s Sky represents a real step forward towards the creation of a true infinity game.

Plenty of games promise “a whole new game” every time a new round begins and, to a certain degree, they’re right.  Turn based strategy games, such as Civilization 5 or Master of Orion, have long delivered on creating new experiences by messing with computation heavy aspects of game design.  Many of these games create maps using a random number generator and build on the ever changing set of map creation variables to force new and interesting interactions.  This is an old template, but it shows the power of randomization in developing replayability in games.  It is, unfortunately, also very limited.  These games generate maps that are composed of contained variables.  A mountain in Civilization 5 always has the same characteristics regardless of the game.  Developer Firaxis may add additional requirements to the mountain tile placement (not near deserts, limiting the number that may be contiguous, etc), but each of these modifications are still fixed changes.  These kinds of map making algorithms are still limited by the simplistic variables they rely on.

No Man’s Sky appears to overcome that limitation.  Rather than rely on combining a selection of predefined traits, No Man’s Sky creates entire planets off of a formula that accounts for a far wider variety than the randomly generate maps of old.  In No Man’s Sky, a mountain can take on any number of traits and is different in key ways from every other mountain around it.  This removes random map generation strictly from simplistic turn based strategy maps and expands it into the far more complex world of 3D map generation.  Open world games can auto generate their maps rather than meticulously craft each piece.  To be sure, games like Minecraft already do this to a certain degree, but never to level that we’re seeing in No Man’s Sky.  This is a major step beyond.

Of course, world generation is only a part of the puzzle.  An infinity game would also need procedurally generated content to truly provide continuous unique experiences.  We’ve already seen some advances along these lines such as item generation in many loot based games.  Again, these are comparatively easy as they rely on a discreet set of variables that can be mixed and matched to provide new items.  The difficult part of procedurally generated content is always those parts of a game that don’t provide that set of variables.  No element is less well defined and more important than the narrative.  Unlike an item, good narratives rely on fuzzy variables such as complex characters, well written dialogue, and an interesting plot.  While elements of the narrative can be broadly categorized, they are never so well defined as to make for easy combining.  They exist in a subjective space that relies on personal preference as much as any ironclad rules of creation.  Even if we could come up with those ironclad rules, their repetition would make them boring and, therefore, no longer suitable.  Success in this area means reliably creating and mixing a host of elements that defy the consistent rules that most procedurally generated content relies on.

The next great challenge is to overcome those hurdles.  We’ve already seen a few hesitant steps.  Skyrim and Fallout 4 create auto generated quests to augment existing stories.  These quests fail in the areas we’d expect them to.  Where creativity, characters and plot are required, these quests fall flat.  Still, the rewards are substantial for whomever can resolve these problems.  With both randomly generated maps and stories, developers can create an infinite number of games within a game.  That sounds like a goal worth pursuing.

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Opinion – What’s wrong with Stellaris’ midgame?

A big bang,

Stellarius starts with a bang.  Civilizations, with nothing more than a homeworld and a dream, expand throughout a galaxy in the hopes of becoming the next great empire.  Science ships chart unknown worlds while researchers expand the player’s technological reach.  The player runs across others and that existing scramble only intensifies to grab the few remaining systems left.  Alliances form and wars begin and suddenly it all seems…well…slow.  Boring.  Banal.  The hand off between the early game and mid game fumbles and the player pumps their legs in Wily E. Coyote fashion as their interest falls of a cliff.  What happened?

Stellaris is an example of a game with mechanics that direct the player away from the fun.  What worked so well in the beginning (or wasn’t there) now becomes a drag on the entertainment.  Let’s start with limited planets.  Stellaris limits the planets that the player directly controls to five (traits can add to this).  Every planet beyond the cap must either be turned into an AI controlled sector or acts as a serious drain on a civilization’s economy.  While this helpfully limits the micromanagement intensive planet building mechanic, it also means that the player controls the same number of resources in the early game as they do the mid and late.  Five planets is enough to power a growing empire, but a mid level empire will find itself resource constrained.  It is entirely possible to have an empire with a fleet equivalent to another empire half its size simply because they both can only directly control five planets.  This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the AI controlled sectors were capable or could be directed, but that is not so.  They develop slowly and without the basic building strategies that are incredibly important to intelligently developing a planet.  Resources from AI sectors increase at a snail’s pace thereby limiting consolidation and promoting stasis.  The five planet rule works in the beginning, but it can’t grow with the game.

As the universe developers, the player must interact with other civilizations.  Diplomacy could have represented a fun, mid-game mechanism to help continue the excitement.  Unfortunately, it’s designed to do the exact opposite.  The two big diplomatic achievements, alliance and federation, direct the player towards stasis.   The first, alliance, allows civilizations to come to the defense of their allies.  An alliance of smaller civilizations can face down a larger civ in a war they would otherwise lose individually.  In a more aggressive environment, this would create an ever shifting galaxy of allegiances and force the player to pay attention to their surroundings.  As it stands, the timid AI uses alliances as yet another reason not to attack.  Even worse, alliances may prevent victory for a civilization(s) that has all but won a war against an alliance.  Once interstellar diplomacy kicks off, civilizations may form alliances across the galaxy.  An empire which defeated most of an alliance may not “win” the war if enough of the losing alliance is on the other side of the galaxy and inaccessible.  Once again, Stellaris’ mid-game mechanic promotes stasis, not dynamism.

Federations don’t help either.  If an alliance endures and its members like each other, they may further integrate into a federation.  Federations are alliances under the control of a rotating president representing one of the civilizations.  If a player joins a federation, they must subordinate their military to the frightened AI until they gain control of the federation.  Presidencies last a great deal of game time resulting in a considerable delay for players who hoped to use the federation for aggressive ends.  This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the federation had its own mechanics, but it’s really just designed to give the player major power for a short time and then forced turtling until they rotate in again.  It’s a mechanic designed to nullify another major game mechanic for 3/4th of its duration.

The problem with Stellaris’ mid game is that one major mechanic (diplomacy) is designed to nullify another (war).  If diplomacy replace war with something interesting, this might work, but that didn’t happen.  Diplomacy just shuts war down and then does nothing new.  Planetary development might have filled the void, but the limitations on directly controlling colonies deliberately stifles that part of the game.  These issues create a boring situation where the player manages a stagnant empire with little change but the slow accumulation of tech and a death march towards the end game.  Hopefully developer Paradox will address this.

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Review – Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – PC

Killing high schoolers has never been so much fun!

Murder mysteries are an often neglected part of video game design space.  Whereas books, movies, and tv series have seen great success with that theme, games have generally avoided it due to the lack of obvious gameplay.  Those that have tried (Batman Arkham Asylum or L.A. Noire come to mind) have trouble making the investigatory process interesting as compared to the shooty/fighty bits of the rest of the game.  Given the challenges of the past, it’s not surprising that the game that finally gets it right is the one that commits to being a detective.  Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc succeeds because it knows exactly what kind of game it wants to be.

The story begins with Makoto Naegi attending the first day of high school at the ultra-exclusive Hope’s Peak Academy.  He walks in, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the school has been shut off from the rest of the world.   Stuck with him are his hyper talented classmates who are then informed by the sadistic murderbear Monokuma that the only way they can leave is by killing one of their classmates and getting away with it.  The rest of the story focuses on the interaction between the characters as the bodies pile up and the desperation sets in.  The set up creates a great deal of natural tension between the characters as they grapple with their desire to avoid killing (or being killed) while still wanting to escape.  Each character feels more fleshed out than your standard anime archetype and the game explores their backstories as a way to both empathize with them and establish their motivations.  The murder mystery style pushes the characters in interesting ways so much so that you’ll be sad to see them go.  In between investigations, the player can hone in on characters they particularly enjoy and these mini vignettes fill out their personalities.  Danganronpa’s character depth helps the player invest in the world and care about the outcome.

The interesting setup and strong characters would have been enough to carry the game, but the gameplay elements form a nice compliment.  Danganronpa cycles through three sections: exposition, investigation, and trial.  The first two, exposition and investigation, have the player walking around the world in a first person perspective interacting with people and objects.  There’s more than a little walking simulator DNA here, but the perspective and dingy colors establish a haunting mood.  The trial is the most interactive part.  The player plays a serious of mini games designed to piece together clues found during the investigation phase.  Most of the games get at the player’s understanding of the clues and how they fit together.  For example, one mini game has the characters speaking.  The player must select the right fact that counteracts a phrase being said.  This isn’t the deepest gameplay and one of the minigames stumbles a bit, but it neatly includes the player in the business of figuring out the mystery.  I occasionally felt confused about the answers, but they largely made sense.

…and that’s the strongest aspect of Danganronpa.  If the game indulged in the leaps of logic endemic in many other Japanese series, the mysteries and solutions would have felt unsatisfying.  Instead, developer Spike Chunsoft took the time to come up with logical solutions to its puzzles and understandable motivations for its characters.  It makes sense in the way that good murder mysteries should.  It rewards the incredible interest that its unique premise generates making the player want to continue to solve the overarching mystery of how everyone got into this mess in the first place.  The only time it falters is at the end and, even then, that’s only for a piece of the big reveal.  In all the ways that matter, Danganronpa nails it.

With Danganronpa 2 coming out on Steam (the series has primarily been Sony handhelds) in a couple of weeks, now is the ideal time to pick up the original.  My only hesitation on recommending this game is the violence.  While there is no gore, there is a great deal of blood and brutal deaths.  If you’re okay with that, the intriguing mysteries, clever characters, and unique set up will grab you until the end.

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Review – Moon Hunters – PC

This is a thing I kickstarted.  You have been warned.

Moon Hunters is a game about stories…at least, that’s what the developers told me a couple of years ago when I saw them at PAX.  It’s about the actions of heroes and how they are immortalized through the people they help (or harm).  The game promises to let the players create their own legends except it’s missing out on one key part: the legend.  Moon Hunters feels like 3/4s of a game with the payoff missing.

The most standout feature of the game is the aesthetic.  Moon Hunters chooses a pixel based art style with fairly traditional, but varied, landscapes.  Forests are lush and green, deserts are brown and barren, and swamps have ponds showing the ripple of a falling rain drop.  Characters also animate smoothly and blend well with the environment reflecting a pleasant, unified style.  The music takes an appropriately reverential tone with plenty of otherworldly singing suited for a campfire.  On the whole, this visual and audible approach has been done before, but it’s also done well here.  The player will enjoy the little touches, even if the world doesn’t sweep them away.

Combat is similarly a step up from the norm, but not awe inspiring.  The player picks from one of four characters (local coop for up to four players) with unique skills.  They each have a main attack, an area of effect attack, and a speed move which the player uses on a top down map with a combat style akin to a twin stick shooter.  Not all the characters are sufficiently powerful (the range fighters suffer) which frustratingly extends some fights far beyond the point of fun.  Stat boosts from story vignettes scale characters well, but the opening fights can be a real slog.  Players can also purchase upgrades from merchants, though this often emphasizes the problems with the weaker characters.  Weak characters take longer to kill enemies which slows the rate of currency accumulation and thus the ability to upgrade out of peon status.  Still, the character powers are unique and combat requires tactics to perform well in.  There’s nothing special here, but enough is done right to get the requisite amount of fun.

The main selling point, the player made stories, is the weakest element.  The premise is that the player is one of several heroes of a moon worshiping village when the sun god kills the moon.  The player is then charged with reviving the moon goddess and defeating the sun god’s army.  The story after the setup is filled in with micro vignettes (they last about a minute at most) that confer or reflect traits.  These traits help establish the ending of the player’s story such as the “proud” trait inspiring other chieftains with the player’s confidence.  It’s at this point where Moon Hunters flaws are most evident.  The story wants the player to feel like they’re building a unique hero, but the procedural approach means that the trait ending stories feel disjointed.  The ending is several little blurbs of text pulled when a player has a certain trait.  It doesn’t feel cohesive or like an adequate payoff for the trouble.  Even worse, the end never shows the effect of the player’s actions making the idea of “crafting a story” feel hollow.  The player never sees the fruits of their labors, so the repeated playthroughs that the game encourages will allows fall flat at the end.

Moon Hunters is almost a solid little game executed well.  Nothing truly excels, but enough works that the game is largely an enjoyable package.  It’s a shame that developer Kitfox couldn’t stick the landing.  Buy on sale if the idea sounds interesting.

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Review – Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – PC

Writing this for a second time. Thanks Word!

Blizzard is an evolutionary developer. Occasionally they take great leaps forward, but those are rare when compared to their measured steps towards something better. Even with their long history, rarely has Blizzard made a series of games clearly heading to something specific. The Starcraft series is different. The story, gameplay, and infrastructure all lead to one point: Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void. The game is still recognizable from the Wings of Liberty days (or even Starcraft 1), but Blizzard learned so much from its past that this feels like the definitive experience.

Well, most of it does. While much of the game stands above its predecessors, the story is still clearly shackled to an unevolved version of the model set out at the beginning. The player takes control of the Protoss hero Artanis as he attempts to retake his homeworld of Aiur. The attack falters when the evil god Amon takes control of the Protoss army and Artanis is forced to collect the remaining independent forces of the Protoss to beat back Amon. The characters and plot of the Protoss story are compelling enough and even manage to evoke the occasional moment of awe at the epic scale of the conflict, but it’s hard not to feel like the single race model of the expansion packs works poorly here. Legacy of the Void should tie the disparate story lines together, but the Terran and Zerg characters only get a fraction of the screen time. It’s enough to convince the player that there is a broader conflict, but not enough to draw the player in. Amon, the link between all three games, is the flat evil god of evil stereotype and does not sufficiently tie the experience together. Blizzard understandably felt obligated to give Protoss players their due, but dedicating the final game in the series to one race undermined the overarching, multi-race narrative. If Blizzard had incorporated the other plotlines, the story would have been all the better for it.

Beyond the story, the campaign shines. Campaign missions drop the timing heavy levels of Heart of the Swarm in favor of the greater mission variety of Wings of Liberty. The upgrade system also receives an overhaul by injecting substantial flexibility. Rather than select a specific form of a unit, Legacy of the Void allows the player to switch between three forms, each with their own unique power set. The forms combine to create an impressive number of strategies and should complement whatever approach the player wants. On top of the unit forms, Blizzard included universal upgrades and powers that effect the whole level. Old standbys like automated vespane harvesters return with new friends such as teleporting in a pylon. The player can reallocate a new resource, solarite, to change the universal buffs based on their strategy. The new flexibility of the upgrade systems allow for numerous adaptations…and confusion. Legacy of the Void never explains the virtue of any one upgrade and leaves it to the player to fill in the gaps. Fortunately, this only means the player will miss out on the potential of their builds, not be confused.

The game really shines in the multiplayer. The biggest change is the addition of six extra harvester units at the beginning of each match. The additional units increase resource production and prevent the often slow beginning of most competitive Starcraft 2 matches. They also allow for a number of new strategies by getting players to the resources they need quicker. Of course, Blizzard also adds the requisite new units of which the Terran Liberator and the Zerg Ravager stand out. All the new units promote smart play by being incredibly powerful, but only when used correctly. This produces more dynamic games where even the strongest army compositions can fail if mishandled.

Legacy of the Void also adds two new modes. Archon mode lets two players control one race. Designed as a trainer mode for new players, the real fun of Archon mode is letting two friends split up the substantial control burden of the game. There’s substantial professional competitive potential in Archon mode, though there haven’t been any major tournaments yet. The other option is cooperative where players ally to take on 7 missions based on campaign missions across Starcraft 2. Players choose heroes with limited access to their race’s units and buildings, but who have special powers which expand and improve as the hero gains levels. There isn’t a lot of depth to this mode, but it’s hard to deny the fun of playing with a friend.

Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void is the finest expression of the RTS genre in a long time. If you have any interest in this kind of game, you owe it to yourself to buy this game.

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Review – The Beginner’s Guide – PC

There’s a whole lot of feels here.

Short Version:  The Beginner’s Guide is not a game for everyone.  It’s not a game for most people.  In fact, it is a game for a subset of people who both sympathize with its message and can appreciate its form.

Slightly Longer Short Version:  The game starts with a Counterstrike level and the establishment of its narrative form.  The narrator, who is also the developer, explains that he’s cobbled together levels made by the programmer Coda and will describe what he likes about each level in the hopes that the resulting publicity will entice Coda back to developing.  This serves as the foundation of an extraordinarily personal game about the developer and his need for validation.  I’d like to say more, but I really don’t want to ruin it.  Instead, I’ll note that, for people who have looked at the world the way the developer has, The Beginner’s Guide is going to grab you.  As for me, I never really felt the way the developer did (does?), and so I always felt like a bit of an outsider during this game.  This is not a game for me, and it’s may not be a game for you. Fair warning.

As for the rest of the usual bits of game reviewing, they really don’t apply.  The graphics are fine, the controls are WADS standard, and the interaction is nothing the player hasn’t seen in The Stanley Parable or other similar walking simulator games.  The Beginner’s Guide is, more than any game I’ve played, a vehicle for the narrative.  If you’re on board with it, I’m sure it’s a touching experience.  For everyone else, your appreciation of this game diminishes proportionally to how much the message and form means to you.

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Review – Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Conquering planet 32b.

Sorry guys. If you’re going to make a Civilization in space, you’re going to get compared to the classic, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.  It’s just going to happen.  And it sucks.  Alpha Centauri is a true classic.  Not the wimpy kind of classic that “was really good for its time”, but a genuine, still awesome, game that hasn’t been surpassed.  Seriously, go get it here if you haven’t played it.  Yes, it’s unfair to be compared against the greatest, but even without Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (BE) is a bad game.

The basic game plays like any other Civilization entry. The player starts with one city which forms the heart of a global empire.  Players build more cities, research technologies, culturally advance towards bonus giving virtues, and conquer their way to victory.  It’s a tried and true formal that still largely works.  On top of the old engine, BE adds ideologies.  The player chooses technologies and quests that pushes them down three paths representing their engagement with the alien world they’ve landed on.  Harmony embraces the world, Purity shuns it in favor of emulating Earth, and Supremacy seeks domination through technological integration.  Advancing down an ideological path provides key bonuses and upgrades units while adding neat artistic touches to factions.  In addition to ideologies, BE also has quests that direct the player to complete tasks for bonuses.  The quests do triple duty as a tutorial, measurement of victory and a storyteller.  They provide optional and welcome structure in a very open genre.  They also represent all that is wrong with Beyond Earth.

Mouse over the five victory quests and you’ll notice that four of them don’t actually involve interacting with the other players.  They’re all variants on “research technology, build a thing, and wait a number of turns to win.”  The best and obvious route to victory is often to expand quickly, placate the opponents, and watch the numbers go up.  A smarter AI would notice the player’s snooze towards victory, but this cutthroat bunch remains totally clueless as your giant victory phallus reaches towards the sky.  You can practical hear the snoring as your game winning space tower or Earth gateway go up.

“But wait!” you cry. What about the fifth victory condition?  What about Domination where the player conquers their opponent’s capital?  Good question!  Let me introduce you to health, the replacement for Civilization 5’s happiness.  When the player conquers a city, it lowers the faction’s health.  A low health value tacks on crippling empire wide penalties that ensure you’ll regret abandoning your friend, the “End Turn” button.  Ultimately, the player can research technologies to mitigate the health problem, but it effectively means the early game is forced pacifism.  Even better, the AI is brain dead when considering peace offers.  It does a straight calculation based on army values.  If the player has a bigger army, the AI offers cities to end hostilities.  Don’t bother with the barbarity of actual warfare!  Be civilized about it by declaring war, building a large army, enjoying a nationwide tea time, and negotiating for half their empire 15 turns later.  Factions regularly offered me cities to end wars that I hadn’t fire a shot in.  Oh fun.

I admit, I could deal with the lackluster gameplay if there were a little more to the flavor of the game. Alpha Centauri did this beautifully by creating factions with unique traits and back stories that both guided gameplay and contributed to the development of an organic story with every playthrough.  Not so in Beyond Earth.  Faction choices only provide minor bonuses and their mythos contributes little to the story of the game.  In fact, choices in BE mean very little.  Implemented intelligently, these decisions could have help craft a unique world with each game.  Instead, BE throws tons of tiny decisions at the player that seem to have little effect and require little thought.  It’s hard to really feel involved when the choices are minor increase to stat A or minor increase to stat B.  Even the victory quests feel limp as they are buried under several menus and provide little in the way of exposition.  No part of this world feels realized.

Beyond Earth is a failed attempt at updating Alpha Centauri. All of the basic elements were pulled from the earlier game without the commitment to a strong identity.  Instead, BE comes off as a halfhearted attempt at recreating a classic without understanding what made it great.  Don’t buy this game.

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Review – Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius – PC – Steam Review #3

Apparently we needed more skevy shots of underage women. Thanks Sunrider!

I’ve never played a visual novel before largely because the genre has never seemed all that interesting. The basic idea of a visual novel is to read a story interspersed with minor gameplay elements, which seems to deny the benefits that the video game format offers.  Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius adequately shows the appeal of the visual novel.  It uses solid writing, a space opera setting, and anime tropes to bring together an engaging story about a captain of defeated planet and his motely crew of underage girls.

I did mention anime tropes, right?

The story centers around Kyato Shields, the newly anointed captain of the experimental ship Sunrider, who fights back against the evil PACT empire after it conquerors his home planet of Cera. Joining Kyato is a group of teen girls who pilot ryders, the game’s mechs, and who serve as the games cast as the story develops.  The girl’s personalities, the mech fighting, and the whole feel of the game is that of a quality Japanese anime.  Strong writing helps elevate the story beyond the usual clichés, but it’s the tough decisions that add weight to what could have been another staid space opera.  Sunrider repeatedly asks the player to make painful choices between lofty principles and practical reality.  One of the long running plot lines involves an ambitious admiral whose willingness to sacrifice lives and freedoms force the player to think about how much those things are worth.  In one situation, the admiral proposes destroying a highly populated space station to prevent the annihilation of his fleet and a potential war losing blow.  The decisions the game poses are tough and the situations surrounding them feels believable and natural.

Sadly, those decisions don’t mean much. Sunrider isn’t Mass Effect and the choices you make don’t seem to matter.  The game has a linear plot that doesn’t permit much player input and regularly justifies even the most naïve choices as the right ones.  The decisions are still emotional affairs, but the knowledge that they don’t effect the world takes out much of their weight.  The story is also undermined by the creepy sexualization of the underage female costars.  The Sunrider is positively teeming with girls dressed in school outfits (military issue, I’m sure), crushing over the dashing Captain Shields.  The game goes further with gratuitous skin shots, an unnecessary shower scene, and dialogue boxes framed across teen crotch.  I get that anime does this kind of thing, but it undermines the rest of the narrative.  It’s hard to get invested in Captain Shields’ struggle to deal with the weight of the war when he discusses his woes with a 15 year old sub wearing an ass high skirt.  It’s uncomfortable and unwelcome.

As one should expect from a visual novel, the gameplay is simplistic. The player controls the Sunrider and its ryders in grid based battles against enemy fleets.  Each ship and ryder has a limited number of action points that it can use to either move or shoot.  The Sunrider also has access to special attacks that use Command Points which are earned at the end of battles.  The whole system feels clunky and explains very little of its weakly implemented nuance.  Fights aren’t well designed and rely solely on regular waves of enemies arriving with no variance in battle conditions.  On the whole, the fights can convey a sense of fleet combat grandeur, but too often become mired in the weaknesses of the system.  In one particularly frustrating example, waves of action point stealing support units showed up and effectively prevented me from doing anything during the several turns before I died.  The same units nullified long range weapons and hung out in the back of the fleet leaving me without an effective response. More time spent balancing the fights would have helped alleviate much of the frustration.

Your enjoyment of Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius largely depends on your love of anime space operas. Sunrider does a good job replicating the feel of Japanese anime and its free price makes it an auto include in fan’s libraries.  If you’re not as invested on the anime world, the game is of more limited value.  The dialogue is generally good and it’s probably worth checking out if you’ve ever had any interest in visual novels.  Just cover the screen during the crotch shots.

As for my evaluation of Steam, Sunrider represents the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Undoubtedly, I would never have run across this game without the assistance of Steam’s new system.  Sunrider, and its predecessors Grim Dawn and Xenonauts, are outside my usual information streams.  That being said, I didn’t truly enjoy any of these games and all of them felt like second or third tier copies of better ideas.  This all goes to support my previous conclusion which was that Steam’s update definitely increases the discoverability of the genres I like, but can’t make up for bad games.  Hopefully, Steam’s update will allow customers to access previously unknown developers and therefore accord those developers greater resources to improve their games.  We’ll see.

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Review – Grim Dawn – PC – Steam Review #2

Now with a fresh coat of grim.

In 2006, Iron Lore Entertainment released a fun little Diablo clone called Titan Quest.  Hitting at the right time, Titan Quest, and its expansion Immortal Throne, filled the gap left by Diablo 2 and the many developers unable to competently build in the action RPG space.  The game was entertaining and had a few interesting mechanics, but didn’t do anything earthshaking.  I mention Titan Quest, because now the reconstituted spirit of Iron Lore has put out a new effort in the form of Grim Dawn.  Unfortunately for them, this time, there’s competition.

If you’ve played Diablo or any of its clones, you know the basics of Grim Dawn.  Players control a single, powerful hero who destroys legions of monsters through clicking and loot. Titan Quest’s wrinkles return as well.  Monsters drop components that the player can combine to create more powerful versions which can then buff an item or serve as material for the game’s crafting mechanic.  In addition to components, the Grim Dawn carries over a dual class system that allows the player to invest in two class skill trees thereby allowing for potent combinations.  Sadly, poor loot drops also return with all but the rarest of loot feeling rather underwhelming.  All told, the solid, but unspectacular base game, returns with a feeling of been there, done that.

Of course, this is still early access so there are a number of systems still in development. The most interesting is the faction system which should allow for branching paths and quests.  Each faction in the game, including enemies, have a favorability meter that tells the player what their disposition is.  In theory, the player will get to choose which faction to align with including the horrors that are overwhelming the world.  At present, only the good faction of helpful villagers works so the others are really just measurements of how badly the Cthulu hate your guts (hint: lots).  Still, the villager quest does show some of the potential.  Unfortunately, much of that potential feels misused.  Rather than grant the player access to special new things, the faction system grants them access to the merchants they should have had from the start.  Hopefully the system won’t just act as a gateway to the crafting guy.  Even so, the finding of villagers out in the wilderness and the small touches that show general improvement on the town are compelling.  A quest to get cloth results in tarp roofing for some of the areas.  It’s nothing game changing, but it helps show how the player is having an effect on the world.

Another new addition is unwelcome. The game communicates the story by telling the player all the amazing things that happened while the player was selling nondescript loot.  Towns destroyed, empires fallen, and horrific experiments performed are just some of the interesting plot points that the player has absolutely no involvement in.  The player will pick up logs from time to time, but that only goes to show how much is happening outside of the player’s sight.  If Grim Dawn is to draw its players in with its story, it can’t just talk about the fun stuff.  It needs to show it.

I mentioned this game to my father, who enjoyed Titan Quest.  He responded that he wasn’t really interested because, with Diablo 3 and Path of Exile in the world, he didn’t really need another action RPG.  That is the argument Grim Dawn needs to overcome.  It needs to present something unique that its competitors don’t already have covered.  If it doesn’t, I can’t see Grim Dawn doing well.

Steam Review: Again, Steam recommended a game that was only okay.  What I’m coming to realize is that Steam’s recommendations are only as strong as the depth of the genre that the player is interested in.  If there aren’t a lot of good games in the genre, Steam will recommend what it has.  Good to know.

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