By MajorMitch 0 Comments
In a sense, June was a reboot for me; after a year of being back in school, followed by a needed month off, I’m back to the working world. I’ve settled into my new job nicely though, and am slowly getting back into a solid gaming rhythm. Still, I managed to sink a good chunk of time into a big ass CRPG, a handful of multiplayer games, and a few other oddities to boot. Not a bad month for games!
Pillars of Eternity
By some odd twist of fate, I had not played a true “CRPG” before 2015. The closest I’d gotten were a handful of BioWare games during the 2000s, such as Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins. To varying degrees, those all could potentially be likened to traditional CRPGs; some like Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR even used Dungeons and Dragons rules. However, per my understanding, they still diverged from the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world in various ways. I missed those games back in the day, by some combination of not playing a lot of 90s PC games and simply not being “in the know”, but I’ve always felt I would enjoy them. I like me some regular old D&D after all (in fact, I’m currently participating in a 5E campaign), and see no reason why I wouldn’t like it in video game form. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to revisit those classics someday, but a recent surge of throwback CRPGs got me to wonder if I’d be better off easing into something a bit more modern. After rolling it around in my head for a bit, along with asking some helpful Giant Bombers, I finally settled on jumping into Pillars of Eternity. I spent a good chunk of time on the game this June, and would estimate I’m just past the halfway mark.
So far, it’s been a very positive experience. While it doesn’t use official D&D rules, it’s very comparable, and much of the same logic, structure, and even terminology still apply. Hell, eight of the game’s eleven classes are straight up in D&D 5E, and one of the remaining three is pretty analogous. That actually prompted me to try one of the other two classes, and I ultimately settled on a cipher. It seems like a nice mix of using martial weapons and magic, and I think it’s a neat addition to the class roster that I’ve enjoyed playing. Really though, it’s not one class that makes the combat in such games, but the interaction among a group of characters from different classes. Pillars of Eternity lets you roll with a sizable party of six, and while it was a somewhat slow build to reach that full size (and I felt vulnerable until I had four or five characters), coordinating a group like that can be intense and exciting. Sure, there are some mundane encounters where you just spam basic attacks and “per encounter” moves without fear of dying. But the game regularly throws you into situations that require you to constantly pause and line up a series of carefully planned attacks if you want to make it through. I’ve had to reload to try different strategies on a handful of particularly tough encounters, which can be very satisfying when you finally get it right. Especially as you learn your characters and what they can do, coordinating their many abilities can be a real treat.
While I find combat to be fun overall, there is some amount of “bloat” to it, along with most other aspects of the game (as in most big RPGs). How many unthreatening skeletons do I have to demolish to clear this dungeon floor? How many spell options do I really need, and how many of them are that useful anyway? How much vendor trash do I need to sift through and manage? How many side quests to solve personal problems am I going to get sucked into? Pillars of Eternity is a big game in pretty much every capacity, sometimes unnecessarily so. This was at its worst near the beginning of act two, where I spent hours and hours just running around a giant city talking to people, collecting fairly mundane fetch quests. That section felt pretty bogged down for me, but otherwise I feel I’ve been moving at a decent clip. Pillars of Eternity is certainly a chunky game, and there is some filler here and there, but I’ve also seen much worse. That’s not necessarily an excuse, but it’s to say that this game doesn’t cross that line into being a worthless and tedious slog. I’ve avoided plenty of games the past few years for fear of wasting my time, but this game is not one of them (so far). It manages itself well enough.
The interesting nature of the combat likely saves Pillars of Eternity from feeling too grindy or repetitive, but I think what really helps the game hold up over the long haul, and is also its strongest aspect at large, is the quality of the writing and storytelling on display. If Obsidian is known for anything, it’s for making buggy games with great writing. Thus far I haven’t encountered much in the way of bugs here (I’ve had it crash on a load screen twice, and a character got stuck in a wall once, forcing me to reload), but their patented writing is pervasive. They’ve created a rich world, and you have plenty of chances to learn about it from talking to all sorts of people and reading all sorts of books. I’ll be honest; I don’t read all of it. In fact, I generally don’t read the books, unless they pertain to a quest. I even click past dialogue if it seems long in the tooth. Pillars of Eternity is a long game already, and you could probably double your time if you read every single thing, which I don’t care to do. If that is your style, however, you’ll likely eat it all up, as everything I have read has been excellent. The highlights for me are the souls you peer into (an ability your character acquires near the beginning), and the varied personal histories you get from them. You find citizens from all walks of life, with all sorts of histories, and that little glimpse you get into them can be fascinating. In fact, I think Pillars of Eternity does a great job in general of focusing on the personal, rather than the grand. I’m sure at some point there will be a larger world-threatening crises, but thus far a lot of my goals have been smaller in scope. They’ve focused on how various injustices or otherwise unfortunate situations have put a strain on individual people, and the game is able to impart a gravitas on such situations without being showy. Everything feels important in the moment, regardless of whether or not it is built up to be important in the long run, which has made for a fascinatingly realist adventure thus far.
Pillars of Eternity has some other nice touches as well. I’ve particularly appreciated its more modern concessions, such as easy access to your (presumably infinite) stash, and a really clever balance of regenerating health versus long-term health. They impressively get around making you micromanage health after every fight, while also putting emphasis on not taking more damage than necessary over the long haul. There’s also a potentially interesting system where you build up your own stronghold, and there’s an optional fifteen floor mega dungeon that could end up being a lot of fun. Ultimately though, the strong combat and great writing are the things that really stand out to me about Pillars of Eternity, and are undoubtedly its primary strengths. It can be slow at times, but I also feel like there’s often an exciting encounter or interesting story beat around the next corner. That’s rarely the case for 50+ hour RPGs, but I think Pillars of Eternity is going to have the legs to carry me through. I plan to keep going with it, and hope its second half is as good as its first. I’d like to finish it next month if possible (fingers crossed), and will report back on my progress.
Heroes of the Storm
The only MOBA I’ve tried before is Dota 2, and I was immediately pushed away by its archaic, exclusionary design. Dota 2 very deliberately enforces nonsensical rules that seem to exist to serve its long-standing, weirdly devoted community, all of which signaled that it was not a game for me. This month I decided to dip my toes back in the MOBA waters, spending a decent amount of time on Heroes of the Storm. Right up front, it was apparent that HotS (using that acronym for something other than Heart of the Swarm still feels wrong) could not be more philosophically different from Dota 2 while still being essentially the same type of game. HotS is incredibly welcoming, and gets rid of a lot of the tedium that plagues games like Dota 2. There’s no “last hits” rule for doling out experience, and as far as I can tell you can’t attack your own minions to “deny” kills. All of that stuff in Dota just felt weird to me, almost like it was an overlooked design quirk that was somehow embraced by the community because it added a higher “skill ceiling”. I just found it to be another thing to micromanage that was tedious and annoying. Furthermore, everyone on the team shares the same experience and level in HotS, which feels like a more straight-forward and logical way to support teamwork. There’s also no item shop to manage during battle, or items period. Instead, as your character levels up you get to periodically choose among a variety of talents that augment your existing abilities or provide new passive bonuses. These talents add a lot of flavor and customization to how you play your character, and they may even provide just as much variety as the items in other MOBAs. By being character specific, talents may provide even more variety, and they’ve allowed Blizzard to get really creative.
In fact, the characters in HotS seem more varied and creative on the whole than I would expect from a MOBA. Take Abathur for example: he’s basically worthless when fighting on his own, but he can provide any ally with some powerful new abilities that he actively controls from a safe distance. Or take Murky, who can put an egg anywhere on the map, which provides a new instantaneous spawn point after death. There’s some fun stuff in here, and yet it all feels a lot more streamlined than I would have expected. I suppose that’s Blizzard’s MO -- making streamlined games that nevertheless have a ton of depth -- and that’s certainly the case with HotS. Any given game can be pretty intense, and definitely requires focus and teamwork to come out on top, but the basics can be learned quickly. Blizzard continues to bring a high level of polish to games that are both accessible and rewarding, and they have also been treating the free-to-play model with care (HotS is handled similarly to Hearthstone in that regard). Anyway, I’ve quite enjoyed what I’ve played of HotS thus far, and while I don’t expect to dive too deep down the rabbit hole, I’m sure I’ll continue to dip my toes in here and there.
The Other Stuff
- I’ve continued to play Evolve with some friends, which I’ve enjoyed more as I’ve opened up some different characters for some classes. The game’s strength (to me) continues to be the delicate interdependence between the four hunter roles. I've come to appreciate what each one brings to the table, and you really feel it when someone doesn’t pull their weight. Like Left 4 Dead before it, Evolve is a game that makes you work together, which can be cool. I haven’t particularly enjoyed the few times I’ve played as the monster, there’s some frustrating knockback in the game that I’ve seen people abuse, and I do have some questions about balance. But otherwise, Evolve remains a pretty neat game.
- My brother and I have been playing through Ibb & Obb, a co-op puzzle game that came through PlayStation Plus a while ago. I’ve been really enjoying it, and think it does what most good puzzle games do: it takes very simple mechanics and pushes them to their limit, continually creating new and different scenarios that are fun to solve. Ibb & Obb manages to do all of that in a way that works in co-op too; you feel like you need both players to advance. It’s also got a cool look to it. It's a good time.
- I’m not much of a fighting game guy, but I had always wanted to try out the 2011 Mortal Kombat for whatever reason. I finally got around to it this month, and spent a few hours dabbling in its various modes, as well as playing some matches against my brother. All in all I enjoyed it, and found it to be pretty accessible for a genre that’s always felt over my head. I was quickly able to pull off the moves I wanted to, and while I’m never going to execute never-ending juggles, I felt solid with the basics. That goes a long way for me in a fighting game.
- Continuing my fighting game exploration, I also tried Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition this month, which I’ve never found to be as accessible as MK. I played some Street Fighter II back in the day, yet even after spending a few more hours with SFIV I still can’t reliably perform a shoryuken or a sonic boom. While I know I’m no fighting game maverick, I’m a pretty competent game player in general, so not being able to pull off the game’s more basic moves after a few hours of practice seems pretty ridiculous. In some ways I feel like this should be the fighting game for me, but experience suggests it most definitely is not. Oh well.
Looking Ahead to July
Ah, July. The slowest month for new game releases every year, almost without fail (every now and then December bests it). 2015 is looking no different, as I don’t see a single game scheduled to come out this July that catches my interest. That’s perfectly fine with me, however, as I never have any shortage of games to play; no new games could come out for well over a year and I’d be fine. On top of that, by some bizarre coincidence I’m attending three weddings this July. So my weekends, where most of my gaming tends to happen, aren’t going to be very fruitful on that front. When I do have gaming time this July, however, I will be venturing forth with Pillars of Eternity, along with some ongoing multiplayer games. I will try to pluck a few other games off my backlog as well; one game I’ve had for a while and not started yet is Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. That’s at the top of my list at the moment, along with some recent Steam sale acquisitions. We’ll see where all that takes me!