The Expert of Enchantment, the King of Conjuration: Master of Magic 20 Years On

A little while back I covered SimTex's Master of Magic in a trio of Brief Jaunts: a truncated LP intended to familiarize people with old DOS classics, though it inadvertently became a slideshow of tiny, tiny pictures (dang ol' DOSBox image capture). At the time, I lightly expounded on just why Master of Magic continues to be a perennial favorite of mine, while demonstrating some of its basic mechanics and the absurdly broken Warlord + Halfling Slingers strategy. I didn't get too far into it though, just kind of going over the basics in a brief screenshot LP format. I've yet to make a decisive case for why I love this game so much, or at least put it into a sufficient number of words.

The truth is, while I've played and enjoyed a handful of games from the empire-sim genre (such as Sid Meier's Civilization, Bullfrog's Populous and Sensible Software's Mega-Lo-Mania), I don't actively seek out games of that type. I generally don't care for any type of strategy game where there's a clump of opponents plotting my downfall and working ever closer to those goals while I mill around chasing minor projects like an idiot who for all the world believes he has nothing but time on his side. There's also the matter of how old Master of Magic is now -- 20 years! This month! -- and while some mechanically less-complex genres can foster the sort of timelessness that ~20 year old games such as, say, Super Mario World or Doom can enjoy, those like the in-depth strategy-sims are usually far better served through generations of tweaks and feature additions as players are given ever greater control over the empires and armies and worlds under their command. Master of Magic in particular is such a huge mess of complex systems and features, as was unfortunately made abundantly clear by how broken the game was at launch, that you'd think it would be quickly supplanted by the first fantasy city-sim to better realize what it was trying to do.

Despite all of this, Master of Magic endures. I've always suspected that it's because it secretly turned out a nigh-perfect implementation of its concept once the various bugs were ironed out, and the reason subsequent games that follow its footsteps have fallen short, whether they were intending to topple it at the time or honor it with a modern remake, is because the original was a culmination of great ideas that coalesced in just the right way, dooming any attempt to alter that formula to an invariably lesser product. Of course, this is all my opinion, and I'm sure others are of the mind that Age of Wonders or Warlock: Master of the Arcane or Eador: Masters of the Broken World or Disciples are the superior game/series. They certainly all have their strengths, and a lot more polish. For me, though, it just feels like there's something missing with those pretenders to Master of Magic's throne; something that stops those games short from being at its level. These games clearly have an appreciation for what Master of Magic did, but perhaps not the full realization of just how it did it.

Because Master of Magic is enjoying its 20th birthday this month, I've decided to revisit it in a little more detail. I've messed with video recordings and screenshots, but I think I'm going to have to go deep with a big ol' text dump to fully understand what it is about this game that puts it so high in my estimations. Consider this a merging of an LP, an essay and one of those Mento + The Mechanics rundowns as I try to explicate what makes Master of Magic the master. Of magic. (Can you believe I actually edit these things?)

Magic Slider!

Decisions, decisions.

Right off the bat, the player is given a handful of fairly intimidating world construction conditions to mess around with. Most any game of this genre has procedurally-generated worlds with some degree of user customization over the "seed" code that will go on to create them, and Master of Magic is no exception. While the standard options of changing the difficulty, size of the landmasses (that is to say, the percentage of world that is actually land instead of sea, as each generated world has a uniform size) and number of CPU opponents are all fairly explicable and had already existed long before Master of Magic came to be, the player is also treated to a setting for the game's magic. Specifically, they're allowed to toggle between "weak", "normal" and "powerful".

It's actually a very minor decision, at least on the surface level. The only thing this setting affects is the strength of the magical nodes scattered around the world: these nodes are usually protected by random assortments of creatures of a matching element, and once emptied of its treasures the wizard can send a magic spirit (the most simple summoned being) to meld with it and transfer its power to the wizard's mana reserves. This power becomes more of a vital commodity with a "powerful" magic setting, and control over the nodes becomes paramount for the player wizard and their CPU rivals. In a sense, it's like the difference between arguing over a copper mine or a gold mine: you'd be far more eager to retain control over the latter. When magic is "powerful", the various nodes become the first port of call and wizards are likely to send armies to, well, "negotiate" over them.

Conversely, when node strength is low, magic revenue generated by the player's cities (in particular mana generated by certain buildings, and having cities placed near valuable mana-generating resources) become all the more valuable. A wizard's mana is his lifeblood, and the number of spells and how often those spells can be used is linked inextricably to how much magical power a wizard can procure. In this scenario, the wizard is best served by founding a lot of towns, or taking over existing settlements, in order to maintain a mana advantage.

So as a somewhat ambiguous throwaway setting on the world creation screen, it sets an interesting precedent to the sort of game Master of Magic ultimately is. Its effects are far more subtle than a new player might realize, but still makes for an important consideration when strategizing. Many of Master of Magic's seemingly cut-and-dry elements actually come with their own caveats, compromises and conditions. Likewise, some of its smallest stones can still cast large ripples.

Wizard Creation!

Wraith Fiennes ain't nuthin' ta [radio edit] wit.

An unusual decision at the time was to allow players to create their own wizard character, forsaking the many pre-generated and archetypal wizards provided by the game. Unusual in part because each of the wizards has their own distinct personality based on figures from history (well, literary history and world folklore anyway, I'm not sure there were many real wizards) much like the rulers of Civilization, and that veteran players of the game might bump into, say, Horus and realize that their future is going to be filled with annoying floating islands and flying units to contend with. Sssra the Draconian will almost always be the one opponent the game dumps on Myrror, Lo-Pan's not to be trusted and Tauron will as likely set you on fire than reason with you.

However, their personalities are just as much defined by innate dickery algorithms as by their magic tome configurations. Each wizard has an assortment of magic books of certain elements, and these determine which spells they end up learning. However, they can also influence aspects like eagerness to wage war and trustworthiness, depending on the traits of that particular element of magic. Chaos magic breeds violent and unpredictable nutcases, Sorcery creates surreptitious spymasters who are able (and willing) to dispel enchantments on a personal and global level, Nature begets friendly but territorial rivals. Life wizards are fanatical and build deadly armies of empowered crusaders, and also have more freedom to cross the planes. Death wizards are just bad news period. What's more, these elemental compositions define how well you're likely to get on with another wizard, as having a magical commonality with someone opens the door to sharing spells and engendering warmer relations. This can lead to situations where a wizard that you were friendly with in one game can become your bitter enemy in another because of a different set-up.

The second reason that it was unusual is because it opens the door to exploitation, especially as the player is also allowed to select "retorts": innate bonuses that a wizard may choose instead of magical tomes, lowering the number of spells they might learn but conferring advantages of a different sort. Part of what's amazing about Master of Magic is that there's very few ways to exploit the game this way. Its purpose, rather, is to offer veteran players different ways to approach the game. For instance, the Conjurer retort lessens the cost of summoning creatures, which makes it a far more viable option for those who have it. Warlord is perfect for those who intend to train standard armies instead, relying less on ethereal beasts and putting their magical effort into enchanting the troops and heroes they hire. The retorts and magical tome compositions of a player-created wizard offers near-endless replay value, and because of the relatively simplistic way the game determines how two wizards will get along, a created wizard feels as much a part of the world as a pre-made one.

Race Selection!

Welcome to Orcplace. It's a place, with orcs. In it.

The last stage of the world creation process is selecting the race of the player's first city. It's another fairly minor decision, because the world is randomly populated by any number of other races irrespective of the one the player chose. However, the player's capital is almost always going to be the most important city, especially early on when it's the player's only city, and the type of race you choose can be important for the sort of game you're planning to play, much like the retorts and tomes of the prior step.

But man oh man are there a lot of races. Nine for the basic plane of Arcanus and five more for the alternate plane of Myrror. Each of these fourteen races have their own special bonuses, their own unique units and their own dispositions towards other races. As with many aspects in the game, the variation doesn't so much create a tier system of "good, better, best" but creates preferable options for the many ways the player might choose to play the game.

What's not immediately apparent is just how certain races work. Orcs, for instance, are not a martial race of barely tolerated monsters, but one of the most industrious and gregarious of the races, having access to almost the full breadth of the city construction tree. That leaves them with little in the way of unique units (they have but one: Wyvern Riders), but an Orc city is likely to be one brimming with industry. They also have a higher than average growth rate and other races generally like them, reducing the amount of unrest whenever the player adds a new Orc city to their empire. Though traditionally antagonists, in Master of Magic Orcs make for a fairly decent starting race for beginners.

It might seem intimidating, but there's no big penalty for selecting the "wrong" race. Chances are, the first neutral city your units find will be owned by a different race and give you more options to work with. A single playthrough gives the player enough opportunities to play as a whole menagerie of sentient species, giving them plenty of food for thought about choosing a race more beneficial to their style of play for next time. Personally, I just find it fun to switch up every new game. Even the hated insectoid Klackon can make for an interesting game, as their enhanced production bonus can lead to plenty of new hives popping up all over the world. Something to be said for riding giant stag beetles into battle, too.

Myrror!

The world through the looking glass.

I've mentioned it a few times, but one of the more overt differences between Master of Magic and its peers is the alternate plane of Myrror, an entirely separate world that effectively doubles the overall map size. Myrror works similarly to the Underdark of the Forgotten Worlds D&D setting: there's a lot more danger, but also more to gain. The dungeon rewards are greater, the player has access to adamantine and the races are far more interesting if a bit more severe with their strengths and weaknesses. Being able to start on Myrror is an expensive pick for any wizard at the beginning of the game, and given the general difficulty boost it's usually a better idea to start on Arcanus and find the closest Tower of Wizardry: these structures aren't all that more dangerous than your average ruins or node, and serve as instant travel points between the two planes once conquered. Chances are, with the exception of the one CPU player that starts in Myrror, the second world will be ripe for the picking as none of the other CPU opponents really prioritize dungeon-delving and planar travel. A good mid-game strategy has always been to find a way over there and start taking over the many neutral cities, reveling in the lack of competition for resources.

What's more is that Myrror is just a straight up cooler place to hang out. It feels far more alien and bizarre than the sunny and relatively normal Arcanus, and it offers plenty of late-game instances for players who still want to keep bashing dungeons with their killer party of heroes, summoned monsters and army units. Jumping into Myrror's often one of my first goals, because I just like hanging out there, starting towns linked by magical paths that units can travel on indefinitely, seeking out locations surrounded by mana crystals and other rare and wonderful resources to set up new cities. My usual go-to whenever I talk effusively about Master of Magic is that it's often far less fixated on trying to outdo your opponents, and gives you plenty of opportunities to just assemble a band of heroes together to go out exploring and make a name for themselves. Myrror is an embodiment of that wanderlust.

Information Gathering!

Shit, Freya. Get it together.

Master of Magic surfaces a lot of information about its world. It doesn't quite go so far as revealing the building or spell research trees (it would take an awful lot of implementation, given how much data there is) in any sort of "Masterpedia", but it does give you a full cabinet of advisers that you can turn to whenever you need to know something about the current status of the game. You have standard statistics nerd stuff like your Historian and Astrologer, both of whom comparatively rates you alongside the rival wizards you've met. There's the Cartographer, who displays the world map with annotations. The Apprentice tells you what spell you're currently researching, the Chancellor lets you review the turn's events (like population growths), the Tax Collector lets you reap in more cash from populations at the risk of increasing unrest and the Mirror lets you see your own status.

The two most important advisors, at least as far as I'm concerned, are the Surveyor and the Grand Vizier. The Grand Vizier is essentially a setting that lets the game handle building construction in cities. This frees the player to focus on warfare and exploring the world, rather than micromanage every city in their domain. This option becomes more valuable the more cities you own, especially if you're focused on a certain goal and don't want to be distracted at the start of every turn by a bunch of remote villages which need a new granary or shrine. Many players might balk at relinquishing any control to the CPU, however, and it won't necessarily make the wise decisions of a player-controlled wizard. For instance, it's only really necessary to build units in a single town that has a full suite of war colleges and barracks and other advanced unit-enabling structures. Troops from that one city can then be deployed anywhere in the world, provided the player has some patience (or a little bit of teleportation magic up their sleeves). Creating a squad of elite soldiers of a unique class in a handful of turns in a city built primarily for that purpose and sending them marching halfway across the world to where they're needed usually ends up being far more preferable than generating a bunch of local spear-wielding nobodies that get knocked over by a gust of wind (occasionally literally; it all depends on what spells the enemy wizards have). Still, at the end of the game where you already have your Army of Death (TM) cutting a bloody swathe across the world, it helps to have someone tending to the smaller stuff back home. But then you probably don't need to worry about new buildings at that point anyway.

The Surveyor is useful for creating settlements, as the guy measures the lay of the land and determines how suitable an area it would be for a new city. It tells you what terrain bonuses provide, gives you a hypothetical maximum population of any city built in that area and also tells you what sort of food and production bonuses it's likely to enjoy from the surrounding landscape. What's more, the Surveyor records scouting reports, reminding you what the various dungeons and nodes on the map contain if you've already gone in there to take a look around. He can be very handy when it comes to selecting a possible destination for armies and settlers alike, and it's a little nuts that the game deigns to reveal this information to you. Actually, it seems absurdly generous that it would tell you how well your opponents are doing too. Either way, the Info panel makes for some very useful data gathering and I can certainly appreciate some hard info in my strategy games. Most just don't reach that "obsessed stalker" level of fact-finding.

Structure Trees!

Yeah brah, I'm going to Magic U this year. Gonna major in engineering with a minor in divining the future.

I actually love the city-building aspects as much as the combat and magic in this game. Though each town has a certain critical path that it would be wise to follow early on, further development really comes down to the sort of cities you want, or need, to create. The revenue of gold, food and sometimes mana increase the larger the population gets, but beyond that the player has to consider what kind of needs they have and what strengths each particular city has, given its race and surroundings. A city nestled in the mountains will have a much faster construction rate, but will be lacking for arable farmland. Likewise, a city surrounded by grasslands will never be wanting for food, but might struggle to reach a metropolis at anything near the speed of the former example.

It gets even more conditional. A city surrounded by forest would be ideal place to build a sawmill, but such a structure would not be worth the upkeep in a city lacking a lot of surrounding woodlands. If there's nightshade nearby, the player will need to build a shrine to take advantage of it (and take advantage they should, as magical immunity is nothing to sneeze at). Alchemist's Guilds allow troops to be generated with magical weapons, but the player's wizard might already have the Alchemy retort which generates the same effect, making the building slightly less valuable. Mineral deposits like iron, coal, mithril or adamantium reduce the cost of military unit production (and confer magical weapons in the case of mithril and adamantium) and make for ideal places to set up unit-producing cities. Conversely, any structure that increases the level of a military unit, or allows more military units to be made, is fairly useless for a remote city with no roads far from any border to a rival wizard's land. A lot of considerations have to go into building cities for specific purposes, and it's one of the more strictly strategic parts of this game that I enjoy. Lots of thinking ahead.

All the same, there's something engrossing about building every possible structure in one place and seeing the overhead view of the settlement become a bustling metropolis of industry and magical power. Likewise, casting city spells that allow it to be shielded by a wall of fire or float through the air can really bring some personality to the place. You end up becoming as fond of the cities you own as you do about the heroes you're training, and it's just as painful when you lose one to carelessness.

Troops!

Don't underestimate these little guys.

This factors more into the combat side of things, which I'll eventually get to, but the way soldier units work in Master of Magic can be somewhat deceptive. Every unit in the game, be it a hero or a monster or a common soldier, has a bunch of stats that determine physical strength and defense, resistance, movement and health. What's less apparent is that these stats apply to every singular creature within the group. A group of eight beings, therefore, have eight times the stats on display. The more powerful the individual troop type, the more likely that they'll move in a smaller group. This is especially true of cavalry, which usually march in groups of four (unless they're riding enormous fantastical creatures like dragon turtles or stag beetles, which have even smaller groupings).

Units can therefore be deceptively powerful with the right enchantments. We'll take the example of eight spearmen: Each fights separately within each round of combat, but it's usually the case where the low hit percentage chance of each individual soldier results in a lot of misses, creating a small amount of damage output from the troop as a whole. Simply making them more accurate, however, greatly increases the damage output as more of those eight hits actually land. Giving each of them a magical enchantment that lets them breathe fire, which adds a little bit of damage to the start of a melee round, vastly increases the damage output as the same bonus is added eight times, while for a hero the same enchantment would only be applied once.

The temptation for new players is to summon a Final Fantasy game's worth of mystical creatures and group them with heroes and send them all off to beat up jerks. It's easy to overlook the humble squad of troops due to their relative lack of spark and lousy stats. Even so, there's situations where the right mix of hero-enabled bonuses and magical enchantments can create truly devastating armies out of the most harmless looking troops, and there's even cases like the Halfling Slingers where an innocuous little bonus like being lucky, which simply boosts a unit's chance to land a hit, can make them utterly devastating in greater numbers. As each unit can level up through experience, much like heroes, you start getting attached to the scrappy bands of veterans in your charge who have survived numerous encounters with much bigger armies and terrible creatures. At least, far more attached than you would be to some nameless horror you called from the ether to go stomp on things. Unless you named it Stompy, that is. How can you not love a pet named Stompy?

Unit and Hero Powers!

Well, hello there, handsome. See all those bonuses? That's what he STARTS with.

But, of course, this being the game that it is, there's far more complexity on a unit level than simple numbers. Heroes especially are the center of the maelstrom when it comes to dozens of different powers and abilities that can subtly affect their proficiency in combat and compatibility with other units. The most immediately obvious beneficial powers are those that grant movement bonuses on the world map, such as Pathfinder or Mountaineer. Stronger heroes and monsters might even have innate Water- or Wind-Walking skills that affect the whole party, making them ideal for ferrying around troops.

Many magic-user heroes can not only use ranged attacks in battle, but can cast spells from the wizard's spellbook. Certain troops and monsters can do the same. Others can you bonus gold, mana and research points, while others still buff the stats of all the units in their stack. Because heroes can also equip items, which themselves can carry all sorts of enchantments, you'll quickly discover that heroes can be a very dangerous and unpredictable commodity. It's worth hiring a few heroes in every game and seeing how they turn out at higher levels, because certain skillsets can really make a difference to a hero's later development.

Remember what I said earlier, about heroes being a singular unit and often overestimated compared to high level troops? With some heroes, the reverse is true, because it's so very easy to overlook a single dude on a horse at the back of armies filled with griffins and war bears. Heroes have the greatest capacity for growth, and have the highest damage potentials and stat caps. Unlike summoned monsters, which never get any stronger unless you cast enchantment spells on them, heroes start weak and grow steadily more powerful, some eventually overpowering even the strongest monsters. A special hero that only Life players can summon, Torin the Chosen One, is the most powerful unit in the game. I guess it's no surprise that heroes pack so much firepower, as anyone who has played Heroes of Might and Magic or Warcraft (or, hell, any RPG ever) is probably familiar with the idea, but it's always worth seeing just what a hero can do by checking their overview before deciding which unit in an enemy's army is likely to give you the most trouble. If there's a dude at the back glowing with eldritch magical energy, it's probably gonna be that one.

Enchantments!

Here's that same hero again with non-corporeality, immunity to weapons, invisibility, flame weapons, flight and a cloak of fear. I call this configuration "You are already dead".

So yeah. About that glowing eldritch energy. If you're playing a wizard of the Life or Sorcery element or simply don't care for summoned creatures, you've got a few other options for where you'll want to be channelling your magical energy. Of course, you'll want a reserve of mana to throw offensive spells in the midst of combat, but once you have a few nodes (or a lot of worshippers, depending on how you're playing the mana intake route) under your belt you'll release you'll have something of a surfeit of dire magickal energies.

There's a few permanent (well, as long as you can pay the upkeep) spells that you can start using once you're noticing that you're earning more mana than you can spend. The most interesting, by my reckoning, are the number of permanent enchantments you can give units under your control. Some are contingent on particular instances: you might temporariy need someone who can see through illusions in order to survive a fight with invisible/phantom units, say. Others are just useful buffs worth keeping around, even after their effects become negligible (though it's a fair chance that the mana cost to keep them going at this point would also be negligible). It's something a player new to the game can have fun exploring, like so many of the other factors in creating a wizard and setting a race and building the first towns.

It is always worth keeping in mind that going enchantment-heavy makes certain other magical routes less viable. One such example?

Summoning!

These little guys are a lot less cute close-up.

Summoned creatures can require absurd amounts of mana upkeep the stronger they get, so what's generally best is to pick a target destination, move your summoning circle as close to it as possible (which means setting it up in the nearest friendly city) and create something you intend to banish as soon as its task is over. Of course, each summoned creature requires a hefty mana cost in additio to hemorrhaging mana every turn, so it pays to be resourceful if this is the way you to want to spin things.

And why wouldn't you? Summoning creatures, though perhaps not the most cost effective route to victory, is easily the most fun. Especially if you've gone all in on Death, Chaos or Nature, which all have an embarrassment of riches as far as summoned unit types are concerned. Creatures that hit hard and get hit hard in return -- glass cannons, to use the common parlance -- can be sent in and devastated by the veritable safari of unruly creatures, but chip away at their numbers all the same. A particularly tough dungeon can be dismantled piece by piece by these attacks, if the player wants to take such a cowardly route. The alternate would be to bring your best meatshield summoned creatures (the Behemoth or Hydra are wonderful for this) and pack as many archers and mages as you can fit into the stack as support.

As much as you might rue the loss of the mana you spent summoning something, these eidolons or guardian forces -- or whatever your preferred nomenclature -- are prized largely for being expendable. They never level up, they never get any more powerful, and any creature can be summoned again at equal strength with enough time and patience. Of course, there's no harm in dabbling in elementals either, who have the singular benefit of being able to be summoned directly into battle then and there. Fire elementals are weak but hit hard, air elementals are invisible and fast and work as ideal ranged unit eliminators and earth elementals are literally built like brick shithouses and move almost as fast. There's a certain degree of tactical utility to all three, especially if an enemy army just marched into a relatively unprotected town.

Global Enchantments!

What game isn't filled with zombies these days?

Continuing on our applications of magic, we have the third of five paths any wizard can follow if they find themselves earning more mana than they know what to do with. Global enchantments are few and far between, but they have one aspect that perhaps supersedes all others: a global enchantment, when cast, is immediately apparent to all rival wizards. Indeed, it affects everyone, though some feel the effects more strongly than others. In particular, few offensive global enchantments actually target the caster, though they aren't always spared. It's pretty effin' ballsy to call everyone out like that, and even more ballsy to ruin their shit from half the globe away.

Global enchantments are, perhaps obviously enough, some of the most powerful spells in the game and usually require a massive draw from the player's reserves to keep active. We're usually talking double figures per turn, and all the while the rival wizards grow more suspicious of you (or outright hate you) for your brash display of power and/or testicular fortitude. A minor global enchantment, Aura of Majesty, engineers your opponents' temperaments to like you more, but the rest tend to have a minor to severe negative effect on how others perceive you.

But you know what? Screw 'em. Some global enchantments are downright terrifying in their power, and they're right to fear them. Some are even straight up end of the world scenarios, like the Chaos wizard's Armageddon, which will systematically destroy both worlds with two fresh new volcanos every turn, feeding mana directly to the caster at the cost of, well, everything. A Life wizard can use Crusade to boost the experience level of every single unit under the caster's command, including newly produced troops, making a large enough army nigh-unstoppable. Nature has a couple of good ones: Nature's Awareness fully reveals the map (you can turn this one off right afterwards if you don't care to watch a bunch of CPU troops move around between each turn) and Herb Mastery instantly heals all the caster's units at the end of every turn. If a Sorcery mage has 150 mana per turn to burn off, and that would be something of a miracle, they can simply stop time itself for everyone but themselves. As for Death? Well, they can either cast Zombie Mastery which creates a fresh (well, by one definition, if not another) squad of zombies with the death of every normal unit or cast Death Wish to simply kill everyone, everywhere, unless they can somehow make a tough resistance roll. Hey, guess what? All your cities are full of zombies now. Deal with it.

These are spells you use when you want other wizards to know you're serious. They're prohibitively expensive and absurdly overpowered, but there's no better way to intimidate folk. Well, except the CPU can't really be intimidated, but why let that spoil the fun? Let them crap their collective wizard robes as you drop meteors from the sky and cast the world into permanent night.

Artificing!

Sean Connery the dragonman with a full set of gear. (Also, check out that esoteric Doom reference someone sneaked into the game!)

A wizard might come across artifacts and magical items every now and again, either via door-to-door merchants or through looting dungeons, but they can be a rewarding if expensive hobby if you decide to get into creating them yourself. Heroes all have several equipment slots, some dependent on their class (rangers use bows and don't use shields, for example), and if you have a hero that needs an extra bit of firepower or could use some defense, it's a fine idea to craft them a particularly strong piece of equipment to help them out.

The alternative would be to enchant a magical item with the most useful spells in your repertoire and hand it to the hero, then remove the enchantments they already have on them. Item enchantments are free, once the items are created, and it could end up saving mana in the long run. Of course, this isn't an option for regular units and summoned creatures, as they are unable to use items, but then they're generally fine without enchantments anyway.

The issue with this is that a particularly strong Create Artifact or Enchant Item spell will take an immense amount of mana, dipping deep into your reserves and preventing you from casting anything else until it is done. If you're playing a wizard who doesn't particularly care about using magic every turn, or have a particularly large reserve to burn through, creating items for your characters isn't a bad plan. Then again, you can always keep raiding ruins and nodes and towers for whatever spoils they have and hope you strike it lucky with an item your heroes can actually use.

I really dig building artifacts, personally. It's a bit of a resource drain, but there's no better route to an unstoppable badass with a piece of equipment that confers some high-level stat boosts and a few vital enchantments. Being able to micromanage the stats for a piece of equipment allows you to cover the weaknesses of the heroes in your thrall. It's the pro option if you're going all in with an overpowered hero, and I've managed to create guys who can walk into dungeons filled with the worst monsters imaginable and waltz right back out again without a scratch.

Alchemy and Other Resource Management!

Ahhhh that's the stuff.

The final use for mana is to simply transform it into gold. The reverse too, if necessary. You'll take a 50% loss no matter which direction you go in, unless you pick the retort that always makes it an even exchange. This retort, Alchemy, is superbly useful because it can cover your ass when faced with unforeseen circumstances. One such circumstance is discovering that there are no nodes nearby after the starting the game, but plenty of rich ruins to plunder. If you're generating so much magic that it's getting ludicrous, turn it into gold and burn it on some new buildings and units, which can be instantly built if you're prepared to make it rain a little.

The best part of the Alchemy retort is that it effectively adds gold and mana together into a single resource. Even if both reserves say 100, you'll always have 200 mana or 200 gold if you happen to need either. It's another situation where the game creates something that initially appears to only have mild utility, but can actually be invaluable in the hands of a player who knows best how to use it.

Scouting!

Heck no. Those guys are pretty big.

One of the first things you should do, and one of my favorite steps of the usually rough and laborious early stages of the game, is send the little spearman unit you are given to poke around the nearby geography, gingerly checking out nearby dungeons (which is to say, ruins, nodes, towers, the usual stuff). The game is gracious enough to give you some idea of the danger within before making you decide whether or not to pick a fight with the inhabitants, but shrewd enough to not give too much away. Generally speaking, the scouting report will tell you the most powerful unit in a dungeon. it won't tell you how many of that unit are in there, or if it has any weaker but still troublesome buddies. It's very possible to wander into a Nature node, say, knowing there's only war bears in there and then getting hit with a barrage of magical attacks from a few packs of sprites. Those little guys can pack a wallop in numbers, often taking down a low-level hero in a single combat round.

So there's no real reason to trust that the scout report is entirely helpful, but it does mean that you can mentally note a place for later once you have a bit more muscle in your employ to take it out. It takes some experience with the game and its units to understand just when this point will be, but most encounters can be put into a rough "low-level, mid-level, high-level" tier system for simplicity's sake. If you're feeling adventurous, playing on a lower setting or are simply not averse to save-scumming, you can go into one of these places and get the full lowdown before bugging out. It's risky stuff, but nothing makes planning strategies easier than knowing exactly what's in there. You can even walk up to a node with a full army in one stack and a "canary" unit in the other who can hop in, get the full report and get brutally dismembered; possibly a low-level summon like a magic spirit that you can create instantaneously. It's generally a good idea to have a magic spirit ready to go regardless if you have designs on a node, as I've mentioned previously.

The strategies around scouting are endless, and it comes down to knowing just enough that any location is probably dangerous as hell regardless of how harmless it sounds. There's always the possibility that the place is entirely empty too in which case, hey, free stuff.

Combat!

Hey, anyone order a hot dog? How about 28?

Man, it's probably about time to discuss what I like most about the combat, huh? I feel like after talking about the units, the magic, the skillsets and the equipment that I should probably get around to when all of it becomes necessary. Combat in Master of Magic is a far more involved affair than most games of this genre generally allow. Rather than throwing two stacks of creatures against each other and removing those which land face-up, every unit needs to be moved around a grid like a strategy RPG. World map movement bonuses can still apply in battle, as flying units cannot be attacked by grounded melee. Invisible units can't be targeted by any ranged or anyone who can detect invisible creatures. All these fun little rules can make every fight different and interesting, if occasionally an unpleasant surprise.

What doesn't quite come across in these pictures are how tense it can be when you put two units together and make them fight. A little MIDI roar and a little blood splatter later, and one emerges the victor, and it's not always the one you might expect. It's at this point that you realize a certain someone has run afoul of the game's randomized dice rolls, or that one particular unit was packing some heat in the way of a subtle enchantment or a much higher experience level than anticipated. It's also terribly invigorating, by which I mean rad as hell, when some enormous lumbering beast wanders up to a hero you've put a lot of time and effort into and gets its ass kicked trying to land a hit. Units don't so much collapse on the battlefield as simply vanish as soon as their HP runs out, and at that point they are gone for good. Sending a hero into a clump of enemies and blinking to find the hero standing alone is badassery in a bandana.

At the very least, this system can get you attached to individual units as you get used to directing them on the battlefield, and you'll probably find yourself moving a hero in critical condition around the edges to escape a deathblow while the rest of your army tries to finish off what's left. Nothing's more heartbreaking than seeing a unit one's been leveling up for dozens of turns disappear into oblivion.

Combat Priorities!

A breath attack can be pretty darn useful at times.

What's a little more nuts about the combat is how certain types of attack will either precede or supersede the standard melee. In normal circumstances, melee is simply the back-and-forth of attacks; each side rolls to attack and defend, and takes damage accordingly. As far as I can tell, this all happens simultaneously. If you have a lot of special attacks that apply before melee even starts, you'll regularly find yourself killing opponents while receiving nothing in return because you'll have diminished their health reserves before they ever got a chance to return fire.

These "special attacks" aren't always magical in nature. A "thrown" bonus, which is meant to suggest that the fighter throws an axe or javelin or whatever low-distance ranged weapon they were holding before engaging in hand-to-hand, can be found with a lot of regular troops and low-level heroes. Many faster units will have First Strike, which means they apply their melee damage first before the opponent does the same, rather than doing so simultaneously. Then you have things like breath and gaze attacks, which are usually the domain of monsters (and can be very nasty), but can be given to units with the right spells/enchantments. Any special attack that requires getting into melee range before it can stick, like poison or vampirism, has to occur during standard melee and not before.

When fighting something like Phantom Warriors, which have no defense but also ignore defense when attacking, an attack that applies before melee begins is the only sure way for regular units to survive the encounter. The same for heroes. Like a good "to hit" bonus, any means to apply damage to an opponent before they get the chance to reciprocate is absolutely priceless. However, it's one of those things you eventually pick up when playing this game and watching how certain heroes seem to emerge from battles without a scratch, while others seem to get as good as they give. It's another reason why this game rewards the attentive, and especially rewards those who use every battle and every campaign -- whether won or failed -- as a learning exercise. There's just so many (optional) tidbits of information to pick up each time, and that's key to the game's longevity.

Diplomacy!

Dear Diary, today I made a new friend. (Believe it or not, he's putting on airs. I never thought he could feel so free-ee-ee to threaten me.)

It's about time we discuss the rival computer-controlled wizards, or as we Master of Magic veterans colloquially refer to them as, "oh, those assholes". You don't know who your opponents are until you bump into them, either via a wandering unit of theirs or an allied town. They'll introduce themselves to you, and then they become available to talk to or to spy on, via those helpful advisers of yours. As noted earlier, a rival wizard is pre-disposed to treat you a certain way depending on how closely your magical dispositions match. Sharing magical tomes gives you more and common and puts you slightly higher in their estimations.

The game has a subtle system for understanding a rival wizard's temperament towards you. All you'll receive is an adjective: calm, troubled, peaceful, unease, and so on. When talking to them, you'll notice that the gargoyles surrounding the magic mirror that acts as the magical version of FaceTime will have a certain eye color: this is another shorthand for how the wizard feels about you, with eyes tending towards green being harmonious and eyes tending towards red as perhaps a sign you should start bracing for a hissyfit.

It doesn't stop there, of course. Each of the CPU wizards have their own personalities, and discovering and understanding these personality types can help figure out what their future plans are. Expansionists won't stop encroaching on your land, building multiple hamlets around the edges of your territory until you snap and start razing the annoying resource-draining things to the ground. Maniacal wizards cannot be reasoned with and will probably wage war as soon as they find you. There's a bunch of others too, some governing their diplomacy, others governing their playstyle.

I do tend to forget a lot of birthdays, in fairness.

Then you have the super subtle stuff that you'd only know if you studied the manual or have played the game multiple times. Finer details like how Life magic, even if the rival wizard doesn't share Life books, will always put you in slightly higher stead because Life wizards are viewed as intrinsically trustworthy, and the reverse being true for Death magic. Turns out no-one likes a necromancer.

While being more powerful than other wizards can drop their trust in you, though usually not to the extent where they'll risk waging war at a moment's notice, being considerably weaker than other wizards is far more likely to cause them to stomp you out of existence. It's partly why the harder modes are so much more difficult, because the CPU already begins with more resources and is therefore way less into the idea of talking to you and would rather send a giant army over to discuss your eviction from reality tout de suite. Also, as soon as you start casting the Spell of Mastery, absolutely everyone will wage war on you regardless of how warm your prior relations were: at this point you're going for broke, and no-one wants to sit around and watch you cast the spell that instantly banishes them into the Abyss.

There's something about how the use of magic makes every wizard feel more visible than what would normally be allowed for leaders in empire-sims, and how much information the game is prepared to give you either through your standard diplomacy toolset or via spells built for espionage and divination. Your historian and astrologer can tell you right off the bat just how well you're doing in comparison, and setting up Wizard Eyes in enemy territory can give you a fairly decent sense of what's going on regarding troop movements. There's even a spell that will tell you what everyone is casting, if you want to go full NSA on them. It's great that the game feeds your paranoid tendencies.

Node Management!

Ah, that sweet node juice. Gimme gimme!

What makes messing with rival wizards fun, though, is when you both have eyes on a node close to both your territories. The amount of power generated by a node is directly proportional to how well it was guarded, and anyone who is able to emancipate a node from its protectors will have a magic spirit (the most basic summoned creature) ready to meld with it and bring in some much needed magical power. However, once a node is emptied, it becomes fair game for any wizard. If you send a single magic spirit to meld with a node, all a rival has to do is march an army in there and wrestle control away from what is, figuratively speaking, a floating bedsheet.

What tends to follow is a game of tag, where each wizard sends larger forces to stand guard over particularly valuable nodes, trying to dedicate as few resources as possible into holding onto the thing. This becomes a particular problem if you've set the game's magic as "Powerful" when starting up, as nodes become the default means of raising magical power, which is the most useful resource there is.

The levels of dickishness that your rivals are capable of will never be made more evident than when you find yourself playing node Pong with them. Anyone who's fought with the CPU over a goldmine in Heroes of Might and Magic can relate, I'm sure.

Events!

Shit! Oh wait, I'm evil. Yay!

Random events can make a game very interesting indeed. A setting hidden away in the options menu, a random event has a chance of happening every new in-game year. Their effects can be substantial, from losing a lot of magical power each turn to losing a lot of reserve cash to pirates. There are positive ones too, of course, but the game is far more likely to throw bad ones at you if you're doing particularly well. Some events will persist for a long time, being a constant drain on gold/mana/food intake until they randomly decide to go away.

All the same, I kind of love this feature. There's the randomness factor, for one, which helps make every game somewhat exciting. It's also like turning on disasters in SimCity too: If you're finding that the game too quiet it can be fun to have to occasionally deal with some unforeseen occurrence. It's also fun when it's a global event that affects everyone, too, as every wizard postpones their schemes for the time being so they can just weather the storm. It can suck when it's something like a mineral resource running out or a city falling to a rebellion, but at least it means you'll never be bored.

The "OP Point"!

Me and the coneheads have had a talk, Ariel, and we've decided to terminate your association with this plane of reality. No hard feelings, right?

My absolute favorite part of any Master of Magic is the late-game, when you've cultivated unassailable armies of death and have control over most of both worlds. You can either end the game quickly by removing what remains of your rival wizards' forces, getting a time bonus that adds to a higher overall score, or you can eschew the time bonus and try to raise as much population and research as many spells as possible.

What's also feasible during this time is raiding all the difficult dungeons you decided to leave well enough alone after receiving a scouting report that was essentially just a prolonged scream, and reaping some extremely useful rewards. It's even possible to earn new spell books and retorts from dungeons, as well as finding prisoners (who become new heroes), artifacts and all sorts of interesting crap.

While the game perhaps becomes something of a giddy, childish power fantasy at this point, that's always been the best part of any RPG. When you've developed a team of adventurers to the point where you're taking down dragons and demon lords, each painstakingly earned victory throughout the game getting you closer to this godlike state, it's fun to indulge in some high-level encounters. The alternative is to use these Titans Among Men to stomp out a bunch of now mostly powerless wizards, and where's the fun in that? (It's actually very fun. Trust me.)

The Bit At the End

While I've certainly waxed lyrical on a lot of what appeals to me about Master of Magic, it always comes down to the nostalgia factor inherent with these hoary old pieces of interactive entertainment. I think this game is a piece of art, but at the same time I can fully appreciate that a new player could get turned off almost instantly by its age, its obtuse complexity and its relative primitiveness. I remember coming home from long days of school and staying up almost until the wee hours of the morning building an empire and just having a grand old time, enjoying myself with the fruits of my conquests and searching for new dungeons and cities beyond the fog of war. So for as much as the previous twenty bulletpoints have explicated my appreciation for Master of Magic, it's ultimately the two full decades of fond memories with it that keeps it firmly in my pantheon of the best video games ever made. Isn't that always the way with the weird old games we love?

Another game? ...Sure. Why not?

(Secret postscript: I only discovered this yesterday, but there was actually a Japan-only PlayStation port of Master of Magic named "Civizard: Majutsu no Keifu"! Even twenty years later, this game still finds ways to surprise me. I'm definitely going to have to look into that, my lack of Japanese reading skill be damned.)

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Bundle Boggle: Groupees' Be Mine 14: Part 2

So here we are with Part 2. I left you all with the merest aperitif last time, but now it's the main course. The $5 main course of Groupees' Be Mine 14 bundle, to be precise. I need to stop with the meal metaphors; I'm hungry enough right now.

There's four games to look at today, and there's a curious mix of the interesting and the "interesting". (I need to buy a damn thesaurus already.) Bizarrely heavy focus on supernatural antics during the colonization of the Americas too. It's probably worth noting that this bundle will end later today, and might already be over by the time you read this. That's my bad: I could've started these Bundle Boggles earlier but I got sidetracked by those loveable Giant Bomb buffoons and their Deadly Premonition playthroughs. Blame Agent York.

Be Mine 14 More Like Benign 4. (Oooooh and the Burns Keep Coming.)

Betrayer is the headliner of the bunch: an atmospheric horror-themed first-person shooter that has a bit more of an action-adventure edge to it. Though you can run around shooting bestial Spaniards with a crummy bow and arrow to your heart's content, it seems more like a game that rewards patience, prudence and persistence: You earn money from taking down foes and through exploration, but you're also very vulnerable to getting swarmed by enemies if you're gallivanting around and taking things too lightly. The best course appears to be to stealthily remove the nearby dangers while keeping a clear route back to the home base open in order to restock on droughts of healing water and other supplies. As for particular goals, the player can jump in and out of an "other world" filled with spirits both malevolent and benevolent and see what's shakin'. Many of these spirits (the benevolent kind, at least, since the malevolent ones don't seem to be big talkers) ask you to search for remnants of their former lives so they can pass on, and there's also dangling narrative threads to follow in the form of notes and gravestones. So far, it seems to be a game that is content to give you a few ideas and lets you seek out answers on your own.

Yep, you guessed it, this fellow has Ghost Problems. Maybe even Ghost Problems More.

Fittingly, I'd have to say this game reminds me the most of the Elder Scrolls series. There's nothing overtly RPG going on, as you don't level up or anything, but the tactical approach to enemies and the way you're often investigating new points of interest in the immediate area because they just popped up on the radar (in Betrayer's case, this "radar" is a sound that perks up whenever the player is close to an object of note as well as otherworldly wails that direct you towards your quest targets). I know I spent much of Oblivion and Skyrim keeping low to the ground whenever enemies were nearby in order to get the advantage of surprise in battle (though the off-the-record reason was so I could avoid as much of those games' combat as possible). It's mechanically similar in other ways too, though perhaps a better comparison would be something like Far Cry where you generally pick a direction and FPS your way to riches and glory. Neither really fits into what Betrayer's doing, which has more of a methodical horror edge to it that steers you away from combat simply because these are scary spooky monsters that the game wants you to take seriously despite all those loud comical "DING!"s your arrows make whenever they are deflected by their Conquistador armor. It's not a perfect contrivance, but it doesn't take long for the game to establish a satisfactory explanation for why you're meant to be playing it the way they want you to. Personally, I generally don't mind stealth when it's this unobtrusive to the rest of the game, and there's no big furor if you happen to get spotted (or killed, even, though you can make things more difficult by implementing a corpse run feature that drops your valuables upon death for later retrieval).

As for the story of Betrayer, it seems to regard a haunted outpost in 17th century Virginia, when colonists were establishing the first trade routes and settlements on the newly discovered continent and getting into fracases (fracii?) with the locals. It's clear some manner of massacre happened around these parts, but I'm sure it'll take a little while longer before the bigger picture forms and we discover which side were the aggressors (my money's on both sides being driven to destroy each other by supernatural entities, since this place seems lousy with the things). There's also a mysterious maiden in red (the game has only ever referred to her as such) who is seeking her twin and seems oblivious to the spooky monsters and otherworldly portals that are perturbing the player. I believe she's the only friendly face the player ever meets, and I don't doubt that she has a central role in the game's mysteries.

Nope, no Chris de Burgh shit. I'm not even going to acknowledge that song for the sake of a caption.

Betrayer seems like an intriguing game so far, and one I'd be happy to continue exploring. The combat and stealth are perfunctory, but then they don't seem like the focus. Instead, the spotlight seems to be on progressing the plot by exploring the local area for clues and fulfilling tasks given by woeful spirits unable to cross over. Maybe a little bit of treasure hunting and equipment finding to make the surrounding environs a little less dangerous to wander around in too. I've never been entirely copacetic on what a game from the "action-adventure" genre is meant to entail, but if it's simply any game that surrounds its narrative-driven progression core with an outer shell of acceptable action gameplay, Betrayer is it. I just wish it ran a little better on this machine. All that greyscale can take a lot out of a graphics card, it appears.

Watch the Betrayer QL here.

I've yet to make up my mind about Consortium. Someone mentioned that the game was pushing some social elements in its advertising on the last update, and it lead me to believe that this was some manner of cel-shaded Star Trek take on Velvet Sundown. The game's a bit more like an first-person story-driven Mass Effect from what I've played, but I'm enjoying how it cleverly integrates the notion that the player has been warped through time into a "Consortium" crewmember's body and left to play out a multi-branched storyline involving the disabling and boarding of your military ship by mercenaries apparently after your blood in particular. The game purposefully leaves out a lot of information about the Consortium and its technology on the basis that you should already know everything as a high-ranking crewmember of the ship, and lets you intuit and piece together the finer details on your own. Or you can simply ask everyone what they mean whenever they mention what are, to them, everyday concepts. You'll arouse suspicion by asking too many questions and sounding like an imposter, but there's only so much improvisation you can do without the information necessary to understand what's going on. Because there appears to be an option to replay from the same point (or reload earlier checkpoints), it seems as if it's possible to play the game multiple ways and discover multiple solutions to scenarios. Scenarios like the hijacking I just played, which is presumably the first of many. I know I said it isn't quite as Star Trek as it appeared, but for the life of me I can't help but think of that FMV game where Q forces you to repeat the mission that killed your father until you get it right. In another sense, it's almost the same kind of amateur improv theater that Velvet Sundown is, though of course without the other human players.

Rook 25 is a likeable Irishwoman with a short fuse. Her real name's Alannah. To an indifferent player, though, she might well be simply "Rook 25". The game seems to accept and work around both interpretations.

The game's also a FPS, but like Betrayer it doesn't force you to do anything of the sort if you're looking for an alternate and more pacifistic approach. There's a training room that lets you practice the basics of the combat that the game wisely adds as an optional objective early on, but the game takes pains to convince you that combat is rarely necessary if you're clever and resourceful enough to avoid bloodshed. As for NPCs, there's various crewmembers with their own unique personalities and temperaments that may well have important ties to the story, but they all have these non-descript designations relating to chess pieces, which is one of those many unknown things you have to kind of figure out by asking around (discreetly of course, lest you draw too much attention) and looking up data files on the information kiosks. Here's a freebie: Bishops are apparently the badass Spartan types that do all the dirty work when it comes to armed conflict and are prized highly by crews for their martial prowess. Knights seem to run things, rooks fulfill most of the other senior officer roles and the pawns are interchangeable ensigns and grunts. Of course, they all have real names and personalities and separate nationalities beyond their non-descript titles like "Bishop6" or "Pawn15". It's ultimately up to the player just how invested they want to get in these characters' lives. The game certainly doesn't mind if you intend to be the brusque, all-business type.

What was occasionally amusing is that the game makes it very easy for you to accidentally reveal yourself as a stranger in a strange land. For instance, you know as a traveler from presumably the 2010s (the game suggests that it is the player's own consciousness that has leapt through time) that this is many years into the future, but you'll occasionally have the option to ask about raising shields or scanning for lifeforms and have people react to you like you're a nutcase for thinking those technologies exist. Other times you'll get blindsided by talk about some contemporary technology or current event and either have to ask pointedly about it or simply improvise around it somehow. There's always the option to remain silent throughout, and various hints suggest that it's a common enough personality trait among the taciturn and security-focused Bishops. There's many more fun little details too, like how people will explain that you stand motionless and twiddle your fingers in mid-air whenever you're checking your inventory or mission log, though since everyone else in a senior position employs similar technology folk generally don't think anything of it.

I have no idea what this guy is doing. He just started dancing after we finished talking about my head trauma.

Consortium does have its array of flaws though. For one, the graphics are a little... well, they're more stylized than anything, so I can't fault them too much for that. I suppose that's the benefit of the cel-shaded format. I'm not particularly fond of how wooden everyone's model animations are and how dull and round-edged the world is, let's just say, though there's some cool screen "static" effects that occurs as your connection to the future fluctuates occasionally. The load times can be abysmal, with large pauses between lines of conversation even, and the combat and motion in general feel a little stilted. The game has a curious system for inventory management where you can store items like guns as energy and recreate them later, or you can create a more versatile form of energy (used for healing and repairs) by recycling the junk you find all over the place. They both share the same bar though, and you're frequently having to burn off one type of energy to make room for the other, which can make for some annoying juggling when the chips are down.

Overall, I can see a lot of potential for an adventure game like this with its emphasis on branching storyline paths and being a little smarter about working out things (or rewinding to take the road less vaporized), though it might need a bit more work first. At least the story parts are intriguing.

All right, confession time. I figured that The Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths would be some inoffensively bland game for children, but I didn't care. After Betrayer, it was perhaps the game that piqued my interest the most. For the children not of the sun (or, to be less obtuse, those not of the 80s) The Mysterious Cities of Gold was an animated serial about a trio of children attempting to find the titular locations scattered around the newly discovered Central and South American continent, with each episode featuring a new adventure through a temple full of traps or attempting to stay one step ahead of the villains who were also after the golden cities for various reasons (as well as being filled with priceless treasures, they kept talking about how much "power" these places had. You know the drill if you've ever played a JRPG). It was also one of the earliest animes that was ever broadcast on terrestrial TV (at least here in the UK, Europe and I believe Canada), co-produced by both French and Japanese animation studios. As a result, both it and its contemporaries like Ulysses31 had this weird kind of energy and pacing to them, making them feel almost otherworldly. It's hard to parse into words the kind of effect shows like this had on me as a kid, because kids can't really articulate such nuances and I as an adult have mostly forgotten just how I felt about them back then, but you can imagine how someone who grew up on Disney and Hanna Barbara and Looney Toons would react when faced with anime for the first time. Just a whole other venue entirely. Plus, the two shows I mentioned could get kinda weird at times too.

The reboot has apparently transported the trio to China. Sure. No reason they can't have golden cities too.

So anyway, The Mysterious Cities of Gold is one of those franchises that hits the nostalgia nerve pretty hard for me just because of how prominently it stood out back in the day (and it's almost melancholy theme tune still occasionally pops into my head). It was relaunched last year, apparently continuing where the original 80s cartoon left off, though I've not felt compelled to check it out in case it doesn't live up to my memories of the original. I mean, it was pretty much the same case with that Thundercats reboot, plus I'm fairly sure they're not making those shows for folk in my age range any more. This game, however, seems to follow the show's plot fairly faithfully, grabbing what I can only imagine are clips from the show itself for the cutscenes between each stage. They look a little too well-animated to be made for the game, and they'll occasionally fast-forward through several episodes of exposition just to get to the next event they can build a level around.

Talking of which, I should probably explain what this game's about. It's a fairly standard Lost Vikings teamwork-based puzzle game with a few stealth elements thrown in (the antagonists are all adults, so there's not much else a trio of kids can do about them other than hide). The player has to solve puzzles by correctly utilizing the three kids and their unique abilities: Esteban, the Spanish kid, can activate pillars of light with his sun medallion; Zia, the Inca priestess girl, can squeeze through tight spaces; and Tao, the last scion of the sunken yet highly advanced Mu civilization, is the only one able to read stones that provide necessary hints to solve puzzles. There's also collectibles to find (the game even does the Donkey Kong 64 thing of making some of them color-coded so only a specific kid can grab them) and enemies to stealth around. The stealth is fortunately fairly mild: the game uses a MGS style over-head view that makes it easy to spot enemies, and the game produces footstep icons to show you where they're headed. If they spot you, you have a few seconds to jump into a hiding spot or back away before it "locks" and you get discovered.

These early stages reminded me a bit of the Adventures of Cookie and Cream too. Switches and fences and twisty platforms.

The game's also fairly generous about game overs and such. Essentially, you can get captured as often as you like, but you'll forfeit one of the three "medallion" bonuses at the end of the stage if you get caught more than a certain amount. The other two are, perhaps obviously enough, for getting all the collectibles and finishing the stage in a reasonable amount of time. In the end, it's an inoffensively bland game for children (called it!), but it's definitely not bad. There's a distinct dearth of these sorts of teamwork-based puzzle games, and really the last game that was anything like this was that excellent top-down Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light co-op game for XBLA. But, you know, without the combat or the two player co-op. Still, I'm happy enough to walk away from this knowing they did right by the show. Now let's see about getting a Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors game made...

Whispering Willows I feel is an example of what are being derisively referred to as "walking simulators" these days: games -- which are still quite definitively games, don't get me wrong -- that prioritize story and atmosphere above attempting much in the way of what one might consider traditional gameplay, like shooting stabby things and stabbing shooty things. As Elena, the daughter of a missing groundskeeper who vanished after attending to the creepy old mansion just outside of town, the player is tasked to explore a series of doomed domiciles and eerie estates in Elena's search for both her father and for answers to the deeper mysteries surrounding the property. It's a 2D adventure game -- not unlike the original Clock Tower for the Super Famicom or Lone Survivor for an example that's a bit more recent -- that has you looking for notes and keys and puzzle items and occasionally leaving your earthly form behind as a spirit to check out heretofore inaccessible areas and move objects around via possession. It has some interesting set-pieces, but the game is also largely devoid of combat or anything overtly "actiony" besides a few chase sequences. It's not particularly scary either, but I get the feeling that it's meant for a younger age group obsessed with creepypastas regarding haunted Pokemon carts or emaciated gentlemen or whatever.

The actually-perturbing stuff like this happens far too infrequently for my liking.

I know I seem to toss out game comparisons every time I write about one of these Indies, but I tend to think of them as helpful touchstones to help generalize what the experience is like without giving too much away, which is always something you want to avoid in a narrative-driven game such as this. In this case, Whispering Willows strikes me as similar to something like Finding Teddy or Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. Largely combat-free (I hardly think Superbrothers' dumb back-and-forth mini-games count) adventures that are more about the exploration and the presentation and following a strong narrative thread (that is to say strong as in forceful and linear, not necessarily a sterling example of fiction) that follows the usual survival horror route of giving you the scenic tour of various locations as you hunt for keys and quest items. It's not a challenging game by any stretch, and the lack of any maps or running (while indoors) drags it out a bit more than it needed to be dragged, but it's an entirely okay game. Like much of what I've covered today, it falls easily within the 3 star range.

That's really all I have to say about this one. It has its secrets, it has its charms and it has a neat atmosphere, but it's really more ephemeral than ethereal. Not something you'd buy a whole bundle for, but a fun little diversion all the same. Though it is notable for having an Ouya shout-out in it. That's not something you see every day.

The Bit at the End

Well, there you have it. The $5 tier is interesting, but perhaps it's better to save that cash and just get Betrayer when it's on special offer. At least there's nothing abjectly terrible in that tier, unlike the $1 lot. I can say with some certainty that all four of these games can be enjoyed to some extent by pretty much anyone. Whether they're actually worth one's time or not is a matter best left to the individual, however. Still, I hope to jump back into Betrayer at some point, and The Mysterious Cities of Gold might be my go-to puzzle game for a while if only so I can get the Cliff Notes version of what this new reboot series is about (man... a new Reboot series, though). I'd keep playing Whispering Willows too, but it appears I completed it in the two hours I assigned myself as a sufficient amount of time for a layered critique. Well, that's a freebie.

Anyway, I have no idea if it's helped convince any of you one way or the other to go check out the bundle as the last few hours of its availability tick away. I don't believe I'll cover the freebie games that have been added since the bundle's launch, since I won't be anywhere near done by the time the bundle is over and by then the exercise will have been rendered moot. Instead, here's a brief summary of the three bonus games and my entirely unsubstantiated reviews of same:

  1. BloodRayne 2: I've never played one of these BloodRayne games. I believe they're horror-themed hack-and-slashers (or "character action games" as we've been calling them of late) featuring a pneumatic Nosferatu (Nosferita?) heroine. Unlike the vampires it features, I can't imagine it's aged well in the ten years since it came out, and like Rayne's suit, I have very little material to work with to say much else about it. Perhaps it still has some schlocky appeal for fans of the genre?
  2. Eschalon: Book III: I own the first two of these, so I'm hesitant to jump into the third without all the backstory to supply context. The Eschalon series seems to be part of this wave of isometric grid-based Ultima throwbacks (usually put out by Spiderweb Software) to appeal to the older gaming generations. I mean, even older than I am. If I ever try one of these games, it'll almost certainly be the first in the series.
  3. Heileen 3: New Horizons: I wish I knew what the hell this was. It looks like a piratey visual novel with a bounty of Princess Maker stat-increasing simulation elements thrown in. It'd be hard to LP this game without quoting that line in Anchorman regarding promiscuous female pirates and their odor, but I'd still be up to the challenge. It's not like it's the only weird dating game I appear to have picked up in my Steam library... one day, Akira.

So yeah. Portentous, if not particularly helpful. Thanks for reading, and I'll keep finding stuff to write about as we edge ever closer to Octurbo 2014 and the Grafx horrors that await. Byeeee~

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Bundle Boggle: Groupees' Be Mine 14 (Part 1)

Feels like it's been long enough since I've done one of these. Not an analysis of potentially abysmal yet delightfully cheap Indie games, as May Madness still lingers in the collective memories of... well, pretty much just myself, but a lengthy look at a bundle's worth of goodies to see if my faith in the value of the whole was well-placed. Prior Bundle Boggles have had me take apart a game bundle by its many tiers and, in the case of Groupees, the various games added to the bundle as bonuses for helping it achieve specific milestones in sales.

Of course, what with all this ethics palaver surrounding professional video game critics (not that I'm one of those, but bear with me here, I'm doing a bit) and their susceptibility to conflicts of interest and accepting free shit, I'm happy to say that delving into their newest bundle -- the fourteenth of their flagship Be Mine series, for which they usually roll out the big guns -- will net approximately zero benefits, as the bundle has already unlocked all its reward tiers and Groupees don't give a shit about what I have to say. Also I'll probably be insulting most of it, and by "probably" I mean "almost certainly". How's that for transparency?

Honestly, the best Bundle Boggles are those where the included games at least look interesting, and I'll certainly give that much to them. For now, I'm going to take this slow and simply look at the three original $1 tier games, the cheapest buy-in price. Part 2, which should come either later today or sometime early on Friday (I want to get it done before the PAX Prime streams start in earnest), will look at the four slightly more intriguing games that make up the $5 tier. After PAX Prime ends, we'll see where we are with the bonus freebies. Of course, by the end of PAX, the bundle sale will be over regardless.

Still, it's an excuse to look at some Indie games, and that's always fun. As always, if you have any opinions on the featured games or general feedback please feel free to comment below.

Space Balls, Magic Balls, and Just Plain Balls

Meltdown is a fairly enjoyable though largely no-frills shooter that is sort of a cross between Diablo and Bastion. And maybe throw a little bit of Mass Effect and XCOM in there too. It sounds like an eclectic mix of genres, but really it's a third-person shooter with some RPG elements given an unusual-for-the-format isometric perspective and a few clever mechanics that would be more innovative had they not been poached from elsewhere. But hey, a large part of game design is taking something that works and transplanting it into a new venue. Were the art world like the video game world, it'd be like taking Michaelangelo's David and giving it shades, a beer and an Hawaiian shirt. Still art, just a little different. (Disclaimer: I am not an art critic.)

Meltdown's little space marine guy goes through a series of short action stages filled with robots and power-ups and crates and all the good shooter stuff, and some of these are built around "instances" that are represented on the mission briefing screen as icons. A skull icon means that at some point the player will meet a few "guardian" boss bots that they must eliminate in order to continue. A pair of crossed swords indicates that there will be at least one arena, inside which the player will run around taking down waves of spawning enemies. This variation is usually enough to keep things interesting, though the stages themselves sure don't seem to change much, being an interchangeable series of boxes and old vehicles (?) sitting on some spacey space platform in space. Along the way, you'll be grabbing cash and microchips to buy and upgrade (respectively) weapons and equipment -- turns out you can upgrade everything with chips in the future, even headbands. There are lives, for some reason, and grabbing these will provide a few extra continues if you happen to get your ass kicked mid-asskickery. Finally, you can level up by defeating enemies and earning fat percentage bonuses at the end of each stage based on how well you performed, and the amount of cash and XP you earn via these bonuses often makes it a tempting prospect to revisit earlier stages in your current powered up form to rake in some extra spending money/skill points for the trials to come.

Baseball caps give you more money drops. It's unknown whether turning the cap around enhances or diminishes this bonus.

I mentioned some XCOM and Mass Effect similarities, perhaps a little spuriously, and I suppose people might be wondering where they come in if this is some kind of frantic action RPG with guns. The XCOM comparison derives from how the shorter missions allow for a bit of strategic retooling if things aren't going the way that they're supposed to, and there's a tactical side to the game that, alas, it has yet to fully exploit. Early during its tutorial section, the game sets up several situations where one could use the cover to their advantage, or might skilfully dodge roll over mines and other dangers, and it suggests that a particularly resourceful player might use these mines and walls to perhaps kite enemies to strategically advantageous spots. Of course, the mental wherewithal to pull something like this off when there's several enemies running in from all directions might take a bit of practice to acquire, but given the number of robotic enemies that employ explosives (or are themselves explosives that are trying to kamikaze you) that could be tricked into damaging each other there's definite room to make the game a bit smarter than your average bear shooter. The Mass Effect parallel is a little more clever, and demonstrates what I often consider to be the point of my series that discusses game mechanics: if a game introduces a clever mechanic and no-one else tries using it, it'll vanish from the game designer hivemind and an inferior, less-evolved feature will continue to supplant it, so jump in there and give it some love if you're making a game in the same vein. Meltdown has one chief feature for how its guns work: a heat sink that allows all guns to fire endlessly until they become so overheated that they are literally too hot to handle, at which point the gun is "reloaded" by having this heat sink ejected and replaced. I'm sure this appears in other games too (Meltdown seems to borrow a lot from Borderlands as well, having "ammo regeneration" as a possible bonus stat despite it not making much sense) but it's such an interesting take on the usual reload paradigm that tasks the player to think about how frequently they're firing rather than how many bullets they have left in the clip. The game will also automatically reload whenever the heat sink overheats or if there's a quiet moment, so the player can maintain their concentration elsewhere.

Never go anywhere without a tactical scarf. It's no tactical turtleneck ("the tactleneck") but it's still vital.

Meltdown is one of those cases where it's "mostly" finished, as in you can get a fully-featured experience as it currently sits, but is constantly in development with new elements and tweaks being added all the time. It's the positive variant of Early Access, where the developers thought enough of their audience to give them an entirely workable and all-but-complete prototype to enjoy while they continue to work on the finer details in the background. For as straightforward as the game is it's quite a bit of fun, though there's still some obvious rough patches (like the sheer pointlessness of the cover system beyond the first few stages, how the buggy scrollbars will make it very difficult to access the first and last items on a list and a smattering of typos) that have yet to be ironed out and a few more innovations (like the aforementioned strategic potential and some more varied level design) to be added before it can become something truly worth seeking out. Still, I found what's already here to be a lot more fun than Bastion at least, if somewhat lacking comparatively in the presentation stakes. Take that as you will. (It has some really dumb dubstep too if that's your thing! Like Broforce, it's certainly not a game that minds being stupid.)

With every action comes a reaction, and with every positive variant of Early Access we must occasionally come across a negative one. Which is to say, a barely functional piece of garbage. Legacy, as this ignominious and far too overwrought preface might suggest, is one of those Early Access games that is either so far away from its prospective end goal to be unrecognizable and unplayable in its current state, or is simply on a hiding to nothing. Given how this particular Alpha (or Pre-Alpha, even) is referred to as v0.98, I suspect it's probably the latter.

Legacy is an action RPG with a sort of Ocarina of Time/Tomb Raider action-adventure puzzle bent, from what little I played before quitting. The player, as well as fighting skeletons and finding treasure, must jump across gaps, push blocks and find keys to proceed in a creepy dungeon filled with... I dunno. Poop gas. That's usually something you find in dungeons, right? Or is that just sewer dungeons? The issue with Legacy, or the first issue in a catalog of the things, is that these jumping puzzles aren't fun. They certainly aren't fun when the game's in an early Alpha state and the keys frequently refuse to co-operate, but they also aren't fun when you're required to hit three separate buttons (the run and forward keys) before the jumping occurs. And then making the jumps require some very precise last-second timing. And making this the tutorial. Works better than an "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here" sign for repelling trespassers, I suppose.

These friggin' jumps, man, I swear. At least the game's kind enough to tell you which three keys you ought to be pressing.

Perhaps worse than the platforming is the fighting. Apparently a graduate of the Die By the Sword school of "swing your weapon around and hope for the best, because the nuanced counter- and parry-heavy combat system the developers were aspiring towards have not quite manifested into being" of combat design, Legacy's swashbuckling duels leave a lot to be desired. I could start talking about how the game looks like a Unity tutorial that someone placed in the "Don't" folder, or how the eight second loop of creepy dungeon music lost its terrifying effect around -- let's just estimate a round figure, here -- the first loop, but at this point it's like kicking a puppy. This game is not good, in so many words.

It's also not complete. These systems may well receive a lot more careful consideration and development time as the game gradually approaches its finished state. Or it's possible that the last 0.02 before reaching that vaunted v1.0 has been marked down as a few minors tweaks to give your bowlcut-sporting, sword-waving, Quest 64-refugee hero a better flowing cape or something. I'm not enthusiastic about the end product here, guys, and this is yet another reminder as if we still needed one to caveat emptor when it comes to these bundles.

Of course, the biggest crime here is that Little Big Adventure 2 (and its forebear) are still languishing in Steam purgatory (and not the usual one), despite being bona fide PC classics. Well, perhaps that's pushing it, but Twinsen's adventures are novel open-world real-time action-adventure games and very worthy titles for their innovations and idiosyncrasies, if perhaps a little too much "of its time" to be appreciated fully today. The tank controls and primitive polygonal graphics certainly take some getting used to almost two decades after the fact.

As with the first game, in Little Big Adventure 2 the player is essentially chasing leads across the world (and eventually a second world) and moving from one area to the next, talking to NPCs and solving puzzles to enable further exploration and occasionally fighting monsters with a floating telekinetic ball which can also be used to hit switches and other out of the way items. Between Adeline and Delphine, the French put together a lot of distinctive adventure games back in the 90s. Of course, Adeline also made that insane Time Commando thing the GB crew played on UPF once, so perhaps there is such a thing as being too distinctive.

Yeah, yeah, I know. 17 years ago, though! We're talking the same year as Final Fantasy VII and Tomb Raider II.

To keep things moving, there's a few interesting things to learn about how LBA 2 operates. The first is that the player has to decide Twinsen's "behavior" for each situation. He has a normal setting, which allows him to search for items and talk to people, a sporty setting that allows him to run and jump for sections that require it (or if you just need to get somewhere fast), an aggressive mode for fighting and a discreet mode for sneaking around for situations where combat isn't an option, or at least not the preferable option. Rather than holding a button down to go into a sneak or fighting mode, the player simply brings up a menu (or hits the correct function key) to assign one of these behaviors to Twinsen. It's odd, in the same way that assigning Peach her mood swings in Super Princess Peach was odd (though nowhere near as laughably sexist), but it's an elegant way of not having to memorize a bunch of different keys for the various actions Twinsen can perform at any given moment: each behavior has an inherent action built-in, like jumping for sporty or punching for aggressive, and these are all activated by the "action" key, which is the space bar by default. You probably don't need to run and jump all the time, and holding buttons down to do so would be annoying, so simply switching to sporty when athleticism is necessary (rarely when investigating or solving puzzles or even fighting, where you'll need a slower pace to line stuff up easier) is a far better solution. The behavior also affects the ball's trajectory when thrown, so the player has four different angles to work with when it's time to use it to solve puzzles or hit distant enemies. The second thing to know is that there are the multiple different species, each with their own quirks. The four main ones that make up the majority of Twinsun's population are the human-like Quetch, the elephantine Grobo, the kangaroo-esque Rabibunnies and the suitably-spherical Spheros. The third and most important thing about the game is that Twinsen always swings his arms around like an idiot whenever he finds a quest item and it always makes me smile.

Did I mention how badass this game is? At least it will be once I'm in my dress and throwing this tennis ball at fools.

I love these games, but then I also had the benefit of playing them relatively close to release. Even so, for as badly as certain aspects of this game have aged, you still don't see too many adventure games with this much weirdness and clever design out there. It's the rare sort of adventure game with action sequences that are actually fun and fit into the game's world congruously, like Secret of Monkey Island's swordfighting, rather than being some one-off arcade-style sequence which badly jars with the thoughtful dialogue and inventory puzzles that make up the rest of the experience. It's all one in the same in LBA 2 (and LBA for that matter), whether you're flinging balls around a dungeon or running around town to find medicine for your sick dragon (who also happens to be a pretty sick dragon, bro).

Oh yeah, this game's also called Twinsen's Odyssey, in case you've been wondering what the hell "Little Big Adventure" is for the past four paragraphs and figured it had something to do with Sackboy.

Anyway, that's enough Indie investigations for a little while. Stick around for Part 2 where I'll look at Betrayer (this one's the big one), The Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths, Whispering Willows and Consortium. See ya then!

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Deadly Observations: Part 2

Greetings, fellow citizens of Greenvale, to the second half of this series of "Deadly Observations": A group of 65 (sup Swery) observations, reactions, criticisms and general incredulity which I jotted down during my inaugural playthrough of Access Game's 2010 open-world horror banger Deadly Premonition. Of course, this game has a long and storied association with this site, with two huge Endurance Runs I'm eager to check out now that I've beaten the game and discovered all of its secrets. I would recommend reading Part One first.

As with part one, I'd encourage those who are still holding off on reading or watching anything that might spoil the game to continue doing so by avoiding the following list. It reveals many of the game's many twists and oddities that are definitely best experienced first-hand, or at least through the Giant Bomb ERs.

Stick around afterwards for my final thoughts on the game! (It's spoiler-free too, if you wanted something out of these blogs as a member of the uninitiated.)

W... T... F... In the Coffee! It Never Fails

  1. NPCs are even worse drivers than I am. Lilly the store owner just span her minibus around on its axis 90 degrees and clipped through another car on the way out. (I say "worse" but that probably took a lot of skill to pull off.)
  2. Driving to a certain character's house, and the chapter title's called "The Second Sacrifice". I guess I suspect foul play?
  3. Actually, just looking at the trading cards, they all pretty much explain the whole plot and who dies. Better continue to ignore the things.
  4. While I'm on this long, unskippable drive, just remembered I spotted Forrest at the art gallery. He must've been Kaysen the joint. Thank you, thank you, I'll be here for all 60+ more of these.
  5. Forgot to mention: The game's "Black Lodge" music is fantastic. That saxophone is just dying in a room and no-one's helping it.
  6. The Ames house interior looks worse than I remember. Someone throw a party in here?
  7. A cherry pie, huh? Wanna get a little more overt, game? I still haven't picked up on what we're riffing on here.
  8. Can we not? With the infinitely respawning enemies?
  9. Damn, that's how you do a bathroom murder. Eat your heart out, Psycho. No, no, not literally, get away from Janet Leigh. She's suffered enough.
  10. "What a Hell. Even Becky has been killed." I can't tell if this is Engrish or not. It certainly is a Hell of some sort.
  11. Oh cool, I can open the toilet that Thomas puked in. Better leave no stone unturned, right Zach? You wanna field this one, buddy?
  12. These Sigourney missions are not good, I'm losing more and more of my warmth for them. Driving Miss Crazy is not what I signed up for.
  13. Though I am getting free cars and suits out of it, so I suppose there are worse paying jobs. I do like that Sigourney's missing a shoe every time you talk to her, and that said shoe is on her driveway.
  14. The talking twin is rocking back and forth, while the non-talker rocks side-to-side. Notable? Probably not. Creepy? Probably redundant to say that with these two.
  15. For that matter, why is everyone using a pair of six year olds as their courier service? I gotta commend Swery for somehow combining Children of the Corn with the twins from the Shining, by the way.
  16. Y'know, I'm not entirely certain that they aren't the Raincoat Killer, with one sitting on the shoulders of the other under the coat...
  17. Tailing mission. Will the game let me vote this "one star"? At least it had a twist ending.
  18. If you set the shadows on fire, sometimes they freak the fuck out and teleport right at you. I guess I don't want to do that then.
  19. Holy moley, do I not care for these crawling shadow/Sadako/Sudoku ladies.
  20. Oh man, I know art can be risqué, but check out the fellow in this portrait. Like a baby holding an apple. Yowzer. (Here's the portrait.)
  21. I like how these rest areas in the Other World zones all have shaving stations. Like I'm going to trust a razor near my face here. Or a mirror for that matter, given what happens in Silent Hill 3.
  22. Favorite thing to do with the flamethrower? Besides burning those wall-crawlers? Melting padlocks off locked doors.
  23. "George! Catch us!" Yeah, okay, I'm cool with where this is going.
  24. All right, I didn't expect this impromptu insane museum tour. Well played Swery.
  25. And now I'm following Kaysen's dog around for more clues, despite it having the worst pathfinding. While the upbeat driving music plays.
  26. Maybe a Scooby Doo ending isn't out of the question...
  27. Ah, that's why I'm following Kaysen's dog. Because Kaysen was locked in the victim's sex dungeon. TMI.
  28. Hey, drinking with George, sounds like fu- oh, branch whipping domestic abuse story.
  29. Carol's singing voice is... interesting. An interesting approach to saying words. The Cobain school of vocals has a lot to answer for.
  30. York's hotrod is even faster and harder to handle. Looks like my CITPM just got another boost.
  31. Origins of Zach! He's an invisible friend who lives inside York's head. Mystery... still open.
  32. Oh, and we're fighting over the same girl. Hope she's into threesomes.
  33. These ghost stories from Keith each time you buy a "psychic spot" map are really good. York flinches to the lighting change every time.
  34. "How's my cooking?" "...I went into a sewer once-" "All right, stop."
  35. We're going fishing! Because that's where the stolen police documents about the original Raincoat Killer case went! I guess! Did York figure it out because the spot next to the archives was wet? You know it's raining in this town almost constantly, right?
  36. Growing less fond of Mr. Stewart and his dumb Resident Evil puzzles. Who am I kidding? I love Mr. Stewart.
  37. Whoa. this flashback is intense. Some Umbrella shit was going down in this town back in the 50s. And Kaysen was there, somehow. Gee, I wonder if he's behind everything?
  38. Going through Thomas's apartment. I hate it when I'm right. I'm lying, I actually like it a lot.
  39. I swear this dead blonde in the red dress is leading me around in circles. In the rain. It's like a Chris Isaaks music video.
  40. I didn't realise bars had so many storage rooms. This Other World dungeon is 80% storage rooms.
  41. QTE Killer just teleported in front of me. I hit the correct prompt in time and instantly died. I don't like these parts much, gotta say.
  42. I can see in his little picture-in-picture often he gets stuck in the geometry. These chases are the dumbest.
  43. Just found a stuffed deer head with a prompt that says "stick into". I dunno if I'm into that kind of thing, game.
  44. Well hello there Thomasina. Glad the game handled their only LGBTQ character with some class.
  45. Tiny York needs to hustle already. This dream sequence is interminable. It's close to Max Payne bad.
  46. Aww, "Deputy Willie". This little pup's going to help us find Yor- IT'S SOME KIND OF DEMON DOG IF IT'S WITH KAYSEN, DON'T TRUST IT.
  47. Great, they gave Emily a gun. I'll take some potshots at Kaysen while I have the opportunity. None of your comic relief buffoonery will work on me, Kaysen. I ain't buyin' a lick of it.
  48. DAMN! Bye Thomas! What a way to end a boss fight. I definitely can't stop now, I'm hooked.
  49. Are you really going to call that chapter "Cat Fight", game? Is that what we're going with?
  50. This "running into a door" animation is too good. I might just keep doing this. Not like I have any idea what else I ought to be doing. (Oh, I had to hold A. Not press A. Like with every other door. Ever. I hate this game. No, all right, I hate certain aspects of this game.)
  51. Oh great, leave a half-dead Emily with Kaysen. Great idea, York. Your best yet.
  52. What is George dressed like? Is this what all that punk rocker car talk was leading up to? I can't wait to pay him back for all those QTEs.
  53. All right, he just turned into Oni I guess. Let's hope Capcom doesn't see this. He still has a few QTEs still in him too, it appears.
  54. Yessss! Get fucked, boi. What's the matter? Didn't hit the right button to dodge that axe in time? HAHAHAHA.
  55. Oh man, the real culprit reveals himself. I cannot believe who it is. I am dumbfounded. I am rendered literally speechless by this revelation. I ca-
  56. Giant dog in the road! Giant dog in the road! I knew it! That fucker was a demon dog! You all heard me call it!
  57. "It wasn't an upside-down peace mark... it was a tree!" Our prodigious FBI Agent everyone. "It was... Kaysen?" Another stroke of genius. Keep the insights coming, I'll go get some popcorn.
  58. And in this chapter our guest protagonist is... the Raincoat Killer? While Amazing Grace plays? I'd say that the game has gone off the rails, but what rails?
  59. The town's gone insane again. Sweet. Man, could I have killed all the townspeople if I wanted to? I might've wanted to rid the world of these twins before Greenvale ends up like The Village of the Damned.
  60. Oh so that's who Zach is. Clever stuff. Especially the bit with the scar. Wait, so who am I then? I'm so confused. Mento? Who the fuck is that?
  61. Man, they really put Emily in the fridge, huh? Goodnight, sweet ladycop. You had the best and most realistic character model in the game. Until they stuck a tree in your hoo-ha, anyway.
  62. Wow, Kaysen's pretty gross in full-on monster mash mode.
  63. What the hell is this thing? And how does Kaysen's dungarees still fit it?
  64. Cool guys don't look at abominations exploding.
  65. Aww, we get a little more light comedy with Emily's corpse. This is going to be a happy ending, isn't it?

Should've Stayed in the Red Room

Deadly Premonition is definitely... well, let's not say interesting. Not because it isn't true, but because it's such a loaded and ambiguous and lazy way to describe something so utterly strange.

Taking a tree analogy, because it seems apropos, Deadly Premonition is a case where you can look at all its roots and kind of understand what they might be leading to, and then get thrown for a loop as you look up and see the gnarled, twisted approximation of a tree that sprouted from them. Those roots include Silent Hill (the general look and feel of the game's overt horror beats), Resident Evil 4 (the very distinctive over-the-shoulder gunplay, though one could make the case that Dead Rising is perhaps the better source due to how frickin' unwieldy it can be to control that reticle), Twin Peaks (I could make an entirely separate blog about the Twin Peaks references, but I'm sure I've already been beaten to it) and American horror movie/fiction in general, which the game makes clear is of personal interest to the game's writer(s) through the conversations Agent York has with himself (kinda) in car rides. However: knowing all those inspirational sources won't help make sense of the game, or how it came to be the way that it is.

Instead, we'd be better served following the auteur root for answers. (Sorry, "route". Damn trees on the brain still.) Much of modern Japanese games, now that the technology behind game development has advanced to the point where it can allow more of a creator's vision to manifest on-screen, are directed by the various auteurs prominent in the industry. Shigeru Miyamoto, Shinji Mikami, Hideo Kojima, Hideki Kamiya, Suda51, Yasumi Matsuno and, indeed, Mr. Hidetaka Suehiro are the sort of folk who, once you've played something that they directed, it becomes instantly apparent just who is behind a game even if you know nothing else about it going in. I actually suspect that these games do well primarily because they have such a strong creative talent calling all the shots, with the actual quality of the game itself coming secondary. We've come to the point now where game design all over the world has been strongly influenced by the generations that have come before, and Indies like Shovel Knight have proven that many of the formulae established in Japan for so many genres and themes can be replicated accurately enough by pretty much anyone with access to game development tools and a modicum of talent and understanding for how and why the design of those games allowed them to be successful. What has become a priceless commodity in light of all this, is having a very distinctive vision directing a game to set it apart in an increasingly bigger market. Japan does "distinctive" like no other -- which might sound vaguely euphemistic I grant you -- and so I feel the "auteur game designer" conceit subsequently has a lot of steam behind it in that territory, as well as in the overseas territories those games manage to reach.

Deadly Premonition is wonderful because it has such a distinctive voice. It's perhaps not a great game on a purely mechanical basis. In fact, there's no "perhaps" about it. The third-person shooting gameplay is sluggish; the driving is doubly so; it can be awkward to get to places due to how often the time of day and the weather can screw you over; it can be very obtuse on a handful of matters; and it has an interesting tendency to broadcast all of its twists long before they happen. It has its rare moments of mechanical brilliance too, of course, such as how all the shadows seem identical until you played a few of the game's "Other World" areas for a bit and notice that the occasional shadow is actually a lot stronger than normal, or faster, or takes more damage before going down. Their behavior's often different too, either becoming hostile immediately or milling around passively until they eventually spot you. There was one interesting sequence where a bunch of cop shadows were endlessly shooting away at an Other World facsimile gun range, never targeting you until you got into their range of vision. There's definitely a lot of great design ideas well-hidden in the aggressive mediocrity of the game's production values.

Said lousy production values don't extend to the music and the narrative elements like the characters and story though. I frequently found the bizarre music choices to be a delight, with an eclectic mix of orchestra, metal, reggae (kinda?), punk rock, rockabilly, lounge music, Green Day covers and what is perhaps the earwormiest whistlin' ditty that has ever existed. I didn't even need to link to it; it probably started playing in y'all's heads as soon as I mentioned it. The characters are a mix of small town folk either inspired by their Twin Peaks equivalents or people Swery might've perhaps met once, with the occasional incongruously bizarre addition like the gas-mask wearing industrialist Mr. Stewart and his rhyming manservant, or the Milk Barn's head-bobbing rockabilly enthusiast and his Sokoban-endorsing Maude Flanders-ish wife, or the trashy duo who run the gas station, or the tubby but jovial seed salesman who is clearly involved with the game's tree-related murders in some way while the game tries desperately to pretend that he isn't. The story sets up early on why every other building in the town is a huge labyrinth ("the lumber trade died down and the population dwindled to a tenth", more or less) and why many stores close when it rains ("the Raincoat Killer will getcha!"). Contrivances, sure, but it all fits with this weird small town and its folklore and history. The story's also hospitable enough to spin its wheels for the first half to get you acclimatized to all the oddness, before revving up gears for the murder-a-thon that constitutes the second half of the game. Revelation comes after revelation and it's unusual to see a game pick up steam in this way and become more and more bizarre, than the standard other way around as everything kind of winds down towards a conclusion.

It's hard to know what to make of this game when it comes to recommending it to other people. It plays into that dichotomy between advocating a game as a purely mechanical product for its technical aspects and functionality, like a DVD player or a toaster, or reviewing a game as a piece of art. I'm not sure Deadly Premonition is either. It's a B-Movie game (a B-Game?); the very definition of a cult classic. It's also effortlessly charming and absolutely worth seeing for yourself and is just about functional enough to keep you engaged with the gameplay and not have something break or crash every other hour (unless we're talking picket fences that you can't help but careen into with your car). But then, it's been four years with so much coverage from so many people discovering the game and wanting to talk about it, that it's probably safe to say that everyone's made up their minds about Deadly Premonition already. Let me add to that wailing cacophony of similar opinions: This is a game you should play. Not because it's good, but because it's unique.

4 Comments

Deadly Observations: Part 1

This is a totally normal game.

Hey Zachs and Yorks, I've been playing SWERY's and Access Games's seminal classic Deadly Premonition of late, finally plunging the figurative harpoon into a white whale of mine after so many years. What's also noteworthy is that I knew next to nothing about the game going in, managing to avoid the many LPs (and the site's two Endurance Runs) and other articles written about the game so I could savor the weirdness first-hand. SWERY's D4 should be out soon (probably) and I still want to play Access's problematic Drakengard 3 before the year's out, so I wanted to ensure that I had this one out of the way before Summer ended and game releases would start showing up again.

Honestly, I just needed to get this one done so I could understand what everyone was saying about this game. I feel like I'm missing out on a big chunk of this site's history by not watching those ERs too. If anything, that's the TL;DR to take away from all this.

Totally normal.

Talking of too long didn't read, I've been recording a list of observations -- reactions, really -- as I've been playing for the sake of doing something with them further down the road. I've decided to publish the first sixty five (like Swery65!) of these observations completely divorced from context as I sit around what I can only assume is close to halfway through the game. Maybe just think of them as a series of live tweets? Some are incredulous responses, some are questions, some focus on gameplay and GUI issues and, indeed, some are premonitions, possibly of the deadly kind. I look forward to seeing how many of those get explained or further elaborated upon as I continue to play, though I suspect it won't be nearly enough.

Probably goes without saying, but please don't post any spoilers past Chapter 10. I'll do a Part 2 post-game that will be freely open for spoilers and discussions about the ending, if people still feel like talking about this game four years after the fact. For now, keep things as ambiguous and vague as the game itself does, both for my sake and for those who have yet to play (and to those people, I'll hypocritically warn them about spoilers for the first ten chapters of the game too) and just enjoy watching someone discover this bizarre game in real-time, sorta. As for my feelings on the game as a whole, I'll expound on those in Part 2 after I'm done.

What Do You Make of All This, Zach?

  1. Creepy twins. Creepier dead naked woman in a tree. Nope, this whole thing is creepy.
  2. York's already an interesting guy. Is Zach real? Or is he real in the same way Agent Cooper's "Diane" was real?
  3. Oh no, I get it, we're Zach. So this isn't like Baten Kaitos, I take it.
  4. So do the other characters not hear him whenever he talks to Zach, or...?
  5. Also did I miss half a Tarantino conversation about Tom and Jerry's dysfunctional co-dependent relationship?
  6. These shadowy locals seem friendly. They're bending over backwards to help welcome me to the town.
  7. Guy in a raincoat just QTE-killed me with an axe. I already don't like the guy.
  8. Hey, it's Ms Watts- uh, Wyatt. And Sheriff Handlebars. Local law enforcement at its finest.
  9. Chapter Prologue complete. Apparently I earned a grand for doing nothing. Puts all those $30 bonus medals I went out of my way for in perspective.
  10. Does this game have to scare the shit out of me every time a cupboard has an item I can use?
  11. Do people just move a few dozen yards away whenever they're talking and not on-screen? I can barely hear them. Maybe everyone has tinnitus. Explains why they can't hear York talking to Zach.
  12. Met Polly Oxford, the hotel owner. Apparently it's normal to sit 20' away while eating meals, and walk around at a 75 degree angle from the floor. Old people, am I right?
  13. Also, turns out I'm a coffee diviner. I can read the future in the star(buck)s.
  14. $19.56 for crackers? Why that high? Why that specific?!
  15. $119.34 for an earthworm. So much for the expression "dirt cheap".
  16. Why does every map start super zoomed-in and then have the option to zoom in further?
  17. Been checking around town, since they gave me a free police car to crash into things/people. Buncha weirdos around here so far.
  18. York really likes 70s/80s movies, huh. I appreciate the attention to detail at least, though also perturbed by it somewhat.
  19. Why is Christmas music playing while I race? No wait, that's just Green Day.
  20. The jingle for successfully completing a sidequest sounds a lot like failure music to me. Kind of odd that I can tell the difference.
  21. Gas station attendant randomly switches from stripper Tina Armstrong to grouchy Paul Phoenix.
  22. The convenience store owner is a 50s greaser who only shows up in the afternoons and sounds like Dweezil Zappa.
  23. He's also the daddy(-o) of the creepy twins.
  24. Also his store is called the Milk Barn. I am unable to purchase milk here.
  25. Lady, you better not be making me play Sokoban. The last time someone made me play Sokoban they ended up pushed into a corner. With a forklift.
  26. There's greasers in the darts cafe too. The older one has a dartboard tucked into his headband.
  27. Oh yeah, the darts cafe is named after SWERY65. I see hick bars named after Japanese game developers all the time. Like calling a British pub The Kings Arms.
  28. I scored some "red dust" for the murdered girl's best friend. Where is Becky and what has she had?
  29. Mother of victim has gone looney tunes. I guess that's to be expected, in a town where sanity is already in such short supply. Leland Palmer much?
  30. Sympathetic, sensitive gay character as the Sheriff's deputy. I'm sure he won't end up dead or an offensive transvestite parody or both at some point.
  31. Squirrel keys?!
  32. The Sheriff has dumbbells named after Schwarzenegger and Stallone. No comment.
  33. That chess puzzle at the hospital wasn't even a chess puzzle. I just had to know that a horsey isn't actually called a horsey. That was actually the extent of it.
  34. The hospital's the first big spookhouse level of the game. Starting with the big guns, hey DP? Or is it that you wanted to get it out of the way?
  35. Now the hospital receptionist is quizzing me about cytoplasm and nuclei. Hey, I've played Persona 4, I know the drill. Gimme your worst, I have Google open.
  36. Sure am finding a lot of human bones lying around. It's probably fine to walk around town with half a human skeleton in my pocket. Is this you, Zach?
  37. Every single mailbox seems to have SMG ammo in it. Has everyone subscribed to "Ammo of the Month"?
  38. Why does the game always make me feel terrible for going off on my own? Emily does a really good "wounded" face. Sorry lady, I got sidequests to do.
  39. Met Harry and Michael. I can only assume Gordon Freeman broke this guy's legs with a crowbar. Dude's a big fan of beat poetry though, even if all his whispering sounds like "pick up that can" to me.
  40. So whenever you go down the hill too fast, you lose complete control of the car? That doesn't seem like a very good safety feature for cars to have.
  41. Oh ho ho, the love interest is a terrible cook. Even in small town America I can't escape you, anime.
  42. That damn sawmill went on forever. It was like a Silent Hill stage. But with more QTEs.
  43. The QTE Killer sucks ass, by the way. Can't wait until I hit the right combination of buttons to unmask him, Scooby Doo style.
  44. Why am I trying to push all the boxes in this tense on-rails chase scene? Just walk around them, dummy! It's for your health.
  45. Was that just a sexy back reveal scene?
  46. York just showed his badge to the whole town meeting.
  47. Crazy rich old Combine guy just warned us all about "purple fog" in his beat poetry. This game has more in common with Persona 4 than anticipated.
  48. Just met Carol, Wesley and the General. Game saved all its badasses for last, I see. Also Nick from the diner, but he seems more like an asshole.
  49. Crazy old lady with the alias "The Pot Lady". Subtle. Y'see, it's a like a log and she talks to it and-
  50. "This one guy used womens' skulls as urine cups. And then drank rum and cokes out of them." Thanks York.
  51. Holy shit, I just found a guitar with infinite endurance. It kills everything in one hit. Why is... anything?
  52. "Engine Boost is the basis of everything." Cue story about getting dysentery in the 'Nam. The General's awesome.
  53. Plus he made the car faster, boosting my Crashing Into Things Per Minute rate. My CITPM is now through the roof, and also a lamppost or two.
  54. "I'd like to eat a sushi with fries and ketchup on it."
  55. "I've eaten fried Cicadas." No, no, keep this up George. I'll have to remember to watch these lunchtime scenes in every chapter.
  56. So the gunsmith guy is the one who gives me stuff for all these trading cards I keep finding. That explains... actually, nothing. But hey, freebies.
  57. Forrest Kaysen. Not only does the game remind me of the "FK" message in the coffee, but the guy walks around with a goddamn red tree. He'd be the obvious culprit if he wasn't so obvious.
  58. Forrest's dalmatian ran off with all my human bones. Got them back and found a magnum with infinite ammo stashed with it. What has this dog been doing?
  59. Met Diane Ames. Probably a reason why she looks like Julianne Moore. Same reason why Emily looks like Naomi Watts. Which is "fuck likeness rights".
  60. "I'd describe Emily's cooking as Amazon-like." (What?)
  61. "I am here for Mr Stewart's lunch. Thank you a bunch." Hey Mr Stewart.
  62. Turkey, strawberry jam and cereal. "Sinner's sandwich?" Only if your sin is that you're a hungover college student who can't face going to the grocery store.
  63. Oh no, everyone's faces after York changes his lunch order. This is too much.
  64. The A&G in the A&G Diner's name stands for "apple and gravy". Not names, just those particular foodstuffs. Behind every mystery there's more mystery.
  65. "So he left you to hold up the fort." Hold up the fort? Is he an army of Mexican soldiers?

Conclusion

I don't get this game. I want to keep playing though. So much.

Just One More Thing...

Almost forgot the most important part. This was copied verbatim from a poster in the hospital:

Yes!Your Doctor Told Us

...That you aer to be our patie-

t.Accept our enthusiastic

congratulations and well wish

on your coming cvent... and be

assured that we have a very

personal interest in your case

and have already taken steps to

see to ti that your stay in the

Palo Alto Hospital

will be pay us a

social visit before

you enter?We want

to mennt and gree

you.For yours!

3 Comments

Anatomy of A S-Rank: Ni no Kuni

The last time I did one of these, for Namco Bandai's Tales of Vesperia some couple years back, it was a passive-aggressive revolt of what it put me through. I figured I owed it to the developers of Level-5's Ni no Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch to present a rare scenario where the achievements for a JRPG were done correctly. Though I have a few issues with the game itself, its trophies are a satisfactory mix of rewarding completionism, experimentation and progress, which is all you can really ask for from a console JRPG. Importantly, none of the trophies for Ni no Kuni were abject bullshit that forced me to play the game the wrong way for hours just to acquire that magical Platinum.

As always, I've left the story achievement names blank and avoided any spoilers throughout. Though many of these trophies were secret, very few actually needed to be. In fact, I'd say it was the one case where this game's trophy list tripped up.

Ni no Trophi

1.-7.

Story Achievements: Six Bronzes, and one Silver (for defeating the final boss). That's fair enough right? I like to have a few progress achievements sprinkled around a playthrough to keep me going (though the game itself is decent enough to do the job) but having too many means having little left over for rewarding the player for exploring the rest of the game. It's a tricky balance, but these ones are all perfectly selected for key moments in the game that are approximately the same distance apart, providing a steady influx of positive reinforcement.

8.

(Gold.) This is a little different to the previous seven, as it's an optional superboss that provides a little more background into the game and its characters. It's sort of an epilogue for those who have beaten the game and want a little bit more exposition to see them off. The superboss itself isn't so bad, honestly, though it does require you beat an enhanced version of every previous boss (including the final boss) beforehand. Then again, I was so ridiculously overpowered by killing XP-sponge Totoro monsters by this point that I don't really have anything to gauge it against.

9. Guildering the Lily Silver

As was the case with my previous Ni no Kuni blog from last week, my ulterior motive for writing this is to show off even more of the game's terrible pun humor. I'm not the only person who thinks this shit is funny, you guys. This trophy is for earning 500k in the game's currency, named the Guilder. Guilders are actually the former currency of the Netherlands, which makes me wonder if the in-game "real-world" locale of Motorville isn't set there. (According to Wikipedia, the Final Fantasy "Gil" is also based on the same currency.)

10. Man of Steal Bronze

What I tend to call the "hey, don't forget you can do this" trophy, Man of Steal asks that you steal 50 items using the resident thief of the party Swaine. It's not a bad plan if you're looking for rare ingredients for alchemizing, as almost every monster's steal/drop inventory is the same, and it's way easier to find items by stealing than simply hoping something drops. If you're already pursuing the much more involved alchemy trophy, below, then this trophy is pretty much a freebie.

11. Glim Reaper Bronze

Glims are little balls of energy that sometimes fly off enemies whenever they get hit (especially if it's a critical hit, which happens if you attack using elements they're weak to) that restore health or mana or occasionally let you perform extremely powerful abilities. The 2000 that this trophy demands is kind of a lot, but you'll quickly earn a passive ability from doing sidequests that draws all glims to you after a battle's over. It's one of those weird milestone trophies that either unlocks before you're done getting all the rest, or ends up being the last thing you have to grind out.

12. Little Battler Experience Silver

Likewise, this is for successfully winning 1000 battles. For some reason, a thousand always seems to be the standard for these battle trophies. You might not hit this total if you're playing this game like a normal person, but you almost certainly will if you're trying to get everything else.

13. Overfamiliar Bronze

So after the Ghibli connection, Ni no Kuni's perhaps best known as a monster raising RPG similar to Dragon Quest Monsters or Megami Tensei or Pokemon. If you keep feeding a familiar (what the game calls its collectible monsters) treats, it'll grow in stats. If you feed it its favorite treats, it'll like you more and you'll unlock various new benefits, as well as raising the cap for adding more stats. It takes a while to get to a full five stars, which is what this trophy requires, but you won't have to go too far out of your way.

14. Pedigree Breeder Bronze

This requires you to increase the stats of a familiar 50 times through treats. It needs to have five star familiarity with you before you can raise its stats that many times, so this kind of goes hand in hand with the previous trophy. It also teaches you the importance of raising stats this way, though the benefits get sort of minimal towards the late game.

15. Viva the Evolution! Bronze

The third of three trophies focusing on micromanaging your familiars, this one is for allowing ten "metamorphoses", the non-copyright term for evolving creatures once they get to a certain level. Ten's nothing. Even if all you used were the handful of familiars that the game gives you rather than catching any new ones, you'd probably reach ten just evolv metamorphosing those. Still, it's a vital aspect of the game and worth implanting its importance early.

16. Familiarizer Bronze

Simply tame 20 different creatures. This includes evolutions, and also includes any familiars who are working for you already including those you were simply given to you by NPCs. Hard to miss once you pick up the second party member and can start recruiting the little guys.

17. Familiarologist Gold

Familiarizer is simply an aperitif to Familiarologist, perhaps the one trophy that requires the most work. Instead of 20 tamed familiars, we're looking at 250. Now, without including the super rare golden versions that only appear post-game and have insanely low capture rates, there are 300 monsters in the game that you can tame or evolve. Each monster's second evolution contains two paths as well, so there's a lot of dupes. A lot of these second/third forms can't be found in the wild, and need to be evolved from an earlier form. In addition, the capture rates for certain monsters are so low that you're better off grinding and evolving those earlier forms. So yeah, I think you're starting to see just how much grinding is required for this one. It's tiresome, but at least there are options beyond trying to farm the same rare beastie for hours. Most of the first forms have high capture rates in the wild, so you can always catch those and be raising them as you hunt for their more elusive evolved forms. Or you could just not bother with this one, like a rational human being.

18. Boy Scout Bronze

Simply perform 15 errands. Errands are the sidequests that are on the bulletin boards in every town. The game really didn't beat around the bush by calling these things errands, because the majority of them are very simple tasks that have you running around helping people and bashing monsters.

19. Humanitarian of the Year Silver

The more advanced version of the Boy Scout trophy, this one requires that you do 60 errands. Errands don't expire after story events and there's way more than 60 in the game, so what you have here is the game giving you a break, asking that you only do around 75% of the sidequests for the Silver.

20. New Sheriff in Town Bronze

Bounty hunts are simply errands where you're tasked with taking on a stronger than usual monster. These things are never too difficult if you're doing them as soon as they appear, and even less so if you decide to wait until the end of the game to clean them all up. For this Bronze you only need to do 10 of them.

21. Bounty Hunter Silver

Like the previous, only you need to hunt down 40 ne'er-do-wells. This will mean taking down a few of the enhanced bosses required for the superboss path as there aren't enough normal hunts to reach that total. It's still not particularly difficult though, and you still don't have to do every single one. It's weird how many of these trophies stop short of asking you to do 100% of a certain task. I mean, if you're going 100% trophy acquisition, wouldn't you also be the type to go for 100% completion in-game as well?

22. Super Hero Gold

Then again, in order to get this trophy -- in which you have to earn all the passive skill bonuses earned by doing errands and bounty hunts -- you actually need to beat every single errand and bounty hunt in the game to earn enough "merit badge" currency to acquire every passive skill. Well, a lot of the superboss stuff doesn't actually reward merits, but it still means doing every task in the game. Those passives are absolutely worth it though, as they can range from more XP and more rare drops to moving faster on the world map.

23. Pop Pop Fizz Fizz Bronze

Earned for alchemizing 10 different items. Level-5 lifted this system directly out of Dragon Quest VIII, giving you the option to create new items anywhere by dropping random objects into a cauldron and seeing what comes out. Since most formulas are impossible to guess, it's best to investigate every town and talk to every NPC to see if they have any recipes. Recipes are given out as errand rewards as well. 10 different items won't take long, though you do need to be about halfway through the game before you're allowed to make anything.

24: Mad Scientist Gold

Of the game's five gold trophies, three require an insane amount of work. Mad Scientist requires that you create 120 different items. There's 134 total so there's a little leeway, but unfortunately 16 of those requires that you farm incredibly rare ingredients from incredibly rare golden enemies. And they're rare drops. It's more farming, then, though it's not going to take hours upon hours like some JRPG trophies end up being. As most materials can be stolen from enemies easily enough by Swaine, the only annoyance comes from waiting for forage spots on the world map to respawn.

25. Treasure Hunter Silver

Some ways through the game you'll earn a spell that highlights chests on the mini-map, making it way easier to sweep through a town or dungeon and find all the semi-hidden treasures. There's also a second spell that works the same way, but for invisible chests on the world map. Oddly enough, at this point you'll have your airship equivalent and can quickly sweep up all 100 chests for a heck of a lot of resources. There's still a few landmasses that you won't be able to visit yet, so you'll be a few chests shy until you eventually reach that part of the game, but this is a little bit of busywork that pays a lot of dividends early on (and an easy Silver).

26. Globetrotter Silver

I'm not ashamed to say I used a guide for this one. Globetrotter requires you visit each of the game's "secluded regions", which are innocuous spots on the map that require that you walk over them, taking you to a new area. Most are in the middle of clumps of forest, Zelda II style. It's worth seeking these places out as they're often instrumental to errands and have chests lying around, but they're not always easy to find.

27. Raising the Stakes Bronze

There's a graveyard casino that opens up around the mid-point of the game that lets you play a bunch of casino games like Blackjack and Slots while surrounded by affluent skeletons. I don't know why every JRPG has a casino, but I suspect it has something to do with how gambling is all but illegal in Japan and having an outlet for that stuff can go a long way. It also helps your chances to have that extra revenue. It doesn't take much gambling to earn any of the low-level prizes, and you can always just exchange a few handfuls of your own money for the chips needed to buy one.

28. High Roller Silver

Post-game, the casino allows you to buy tickets to watch all of the game's cutscenes, which I swear they stole directly from Tales of Vesperia (and I'm glad that's all they stole. I definitely don't need another "Travel 100,000km" achievement. Yeeshers.) This requires a few more chips than you're likely to get by buying them, but fortunately the card game they invented for Ni no Kuni -- Platoon -- can be easily exploited. It's also kind of fun too, so I didn't even mind playing it a few dozen times. Much.

29. Solosseum Slugger Bronze

You earn the ability to recruit familiars fairly early in the game from a grumpy little squirt in a temple somewhere in the desert. If you ever decide to go back there, you'll notice that the pipsqueak has turned the place into an arena. The Slugger trophy is for simply beating the first cup, which you can do almost as soon as the place opens. Then again, you might as well come back way later and take on every tier with a superpowered team.

30. Solosseum Supremo Gold

This one's for beating the hardest tier in the Arena, which is a challenge akin to beating the superboss. The toughest part is that it means fighting four battles in a row without regenerating your health and mana, and you aren't allowed to use restorative items at any point. The individual battles themselves aren't super challenging, but they can grind you down some.

31. Magic Master Silver

There's one of these for each of the three playable characters, but only the one for the protagonist Oliver requires that you go out of your way any. Oliver's spellbook gradually increases as the game progresses, as the major NPCs he meets will usually provide him with a bunch of new spells. Oddly enough, a lot of spells seem like they have a puzzle-solving application (there's one that shrinks you down, one that creates a clone and another that lets you transform into a cat) that never actually end up being used in-game. There's also a persistent side-quest that is independent from the errands that requires you talk to a ghost of a powerful wizard in each new town you reach, and by solving his riddles you earn new spells. They're pretty much the only ones you don't find automatically.

32. Prima Donna Bronze

Fairly straightforward, you just need to learn Esther's (your second character) songs, which work like Oliver's spells and mostly provide buffs and healing. She automatically earns them all as she levels up, with the last one showing up when she hits around level 62.

33. Gunslinger Bronze

Likewise, Swaine (the third character) has a bunch of sneaky skillshots he can perform with his pistol. It takes a little longer for him to learn his last skill though, somewhere around level 68. If you're regularly bashing those Totoro things I mentioned, you'll probably just whiz right past it.

That's all of them. It's the mark of a good trophy list that you can really get a sense of a game and all its mechanics by seeing what is necessary for the Platinum. If done right, trophies give you the full breadth of what the game has to offer. If done poorly, you either get a few half-assed, overvalued story trophies or are presented with the most intimidating, grindy nonsense this side of the "10,000 Online Kills" Gears of War achievement. I've said it before and several times since, but a well-conceived trophy list is as good an indication as any that the developers actually care -- not just about trophies but about every aspect of their game. A crappy achievement/trophy is as much of a sore thumb of lazy design as a typo or a frame rate drop.

6 Comments

The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jan-Jun 2012)

Once again we find ourselves looking into another six months of noteworthy releases. I don't know why this didn't ring true for any of the earlier Comic Commishes, but 2012 feels really recent to me. Like "last year but one" recent. Weird, huh? We saw a lot of great games in 2012, but this is absolutely the last year where the previous generation ruled the roost. At least, I'm sure that's what the big three wished were the case. The reality is the new stuff didn't really do much in 2013 and PC still continues to kick everyone's asses. Hey, we still have the rest of this year for them to turn it around, right?

This Comic Commish features games released in the US between the months of January and June in the year 2012. We're coming down to the home stretch here. Next one will be it, and I'll be moving onto pastures new. I mean, for a new monthly comic blog sense, not leaving the site sense. Where the hell would I even go at this point, anyway? Polygon? (Sorry Polygon.)

Remember That Movie, "2012"? Man That Sucked.

Journey (Thatgamecompany, PS3, March '12)

Thatgamecompany had been trundling along with its artsy PS3 games for a while before the release of Journey, producing Flow and Flower: largely directionless games that were designed to appeal to the player's innate sense of exploration and discovery. There were goals, but it was more important to the experience to simply live in the moment. Running antithetical to a lot of game design, Thatgamecompany's philosophy would suggest that one should not be fixated on the destination but on the journey.

Journey's a more overt manifestation of that thought process, from its name to its eventful trek across a desert, through ruins and up a mountain. The destination -- a glowing beacon on a distant peak -- is almost always visible in the player's periphery, but it's incidental to the game's various set-pieces. Each stage is built around its own goals and, occasionally, its own self-contained mechanics. There's a hidden language to the world. There's traces of a past civilization everywhere you look. There's usually at least one other soul on their own peregrination nearby. The game doesn't ask you to investigate any of these things -- you can just dash straight for that mountain, if you were so inclined -- but they're waiting there for you should you ever come to the realization that the journey itself is more important.

In slightly less pretentious talk, Journey's a subtle adventure game that doesn't demand a whole lot of precision or skill, just the mental wherewithal for a few of its puzzles and a dash of resourcefulness. It's sort of like a series of linear Zelda dungeons in that respect, framing each stage of the journey as a different obstacle to overcome. It also looks and sounds amazing. It might be a bit short for some and a bit pointless for others, but it's a good example of an "art game" with some interesting gameplay to back it up.

Legend of Grimrock (Almost Human, PC, April '12)

I feel like I'll probably repeat myself a few times, having only recently played and discussed this game for this year's May Madness, but Legend of Grimrock is a spiritual successor that works because it takes the pioneering but archaic game design of 25 years ago and the game design of today and finds a way to get the best out of both worlds. It's certainly not perfect -- I didn't care for its perfunctory level-up system or terrible ending -- but it's a fine case, like the recent XCOM, of how to recreate a comparatively ancient game in such a way that it can find a new audience without alienating the old. It's about accentuating the various mechanics that made the original so memorable, while ensuring that the cement that holds them together is packed with the welcoming conveniences and accessibility of modern titles. An old game doesn't lose anything by being more fair and less obtuse, after all.

I'm getting ahead of myself here, though. Legend of Grimrock is a real-time dungeon-crawler RPG based on the genre's progenitor Dungeon Master. Though created with a 3D graphics engine that would normally let you view an environment with the full panoramic range, the game deliberately limits the player to the four cardinal directions for the sake of old-school design. Though ostensibly an RPG of the smashy-looty kind, the true core of Grimrock and Dungeon Master both is in their diabolical puzzles: situations that range from something as simple as locating a key from a corpse to figuring out an elaborate pressure plate or teleporter room. Each area of the game is partitioned off by locked doors until the current region has been properly explored, its items emancipated and its mysteries fathomed. You'll get new spells, new equipment for your heroes' paper dolls, potions to cure ailments, food to stave off starvation and trinkets and journals of no practical value beyond a bit of flavor, but it's all ultimately secondary to solving the game's riddles and reaching the bottom of its dungeon through wit and cunning.

Risen 2: Dark Waters (Piranha Bytes, PC/360/PS3, April '12)

I was saddened to hear that the recent third game in the Risen series is a bit too bloated for its own good, because the second game -- though rough around the edges, like so many European CRPGs tend to be -- was an enjoyable and unique take on a genre that was, until fairly recently, on the wane. Risen 2: Dark Waters continues where the first leaves off, presenting its anti-hero as an opportunistic scoundrel who narrowly survived an encounter with a Titan -- one of the world's mythical harbingers of the end of the world. We join Risen 2 mid-apocalypse as the world's nations have all but been annihilated by the global reawakening of these colossal monsters, and sets the stage for a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed journey to the currently untouched "new world". The game's setting is not unlike the Age of Discovery of the 15th century, pitting conquistadors against island aboriginals for what little unspoiled land remains and placing the player, once again, somewhere in the middle of the conflict with the option to join either side. The game also brings out the latent Jack Sparrow-ness of the swashbuckling hero, who was a bit of a bland doormat in the first game, and pairs him with the wisecracking daughter of a legendary pirate and a few other memorably quippy companions.

Risen 2 suffers from being a little too obtuse and directionless for its own good at times (faults that the sequel apparently turn up to 11) but with its versatile skill progression system, goofy writing, novel setting and bottomless inventory it was an easy game to like, if sometimes only ironically. But then, how many good pirate RPGs can you name? Oh... right, Skies of Arcadia. Fine, I'll give you that one.

Revisited

Another huge Revisited section this time. I think 2012 is when I kinda stopped doing these regularly, though. Watch out for that ubiquitous JC Denton. Just in case it wasn't clear the first ten times I did this: These comics were all made months and months ago. They're just reruns! Because I'm that lazy!

Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Square-Enix, 360/PS3, January '12)

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is even more of a hot mess than its predecessor, but at the same time it demonstrates that the developers behind Square-Enix's powerhouse series aren't all living in some ivory tower festooned with extraneous belts and half-jackets, deaf to the cries of their fanbase. Steps were made to address the faults people had with Final Fantasy XIII, specifically with how needlessly over-elaborate the game's "Crystarium" level-up system was, its perpetually dour tone and how stiflingly linear the game's various dungeons were. XIII-2 is a bit more lighthearted and a hell of a lot more open as a result, though it became equally alienating with its extremely convoluted story of Lightning's sister and the world's version of the Omega Man flitting through time and discovering numerous alternate futures and working out their paradoxical issues.

The problem with creating a sequel to a problematic game, especially one that is so dependent on knowing the prior game's story, is that it can only ever appeal to those who enjoyed that first game sufficiently to want a sequel. In a sense, the detachment of the Final Fantasy series has always been its greatest strength, because even if you disliked one game there's no reason why you won't enjoy the next, given how there's little to link any two given Final Fantasies and how there's many different decisions that have gone into their respective game designs. Despite some similarities, Final Fantasy IV isn't Final Fantasy VIII despite a handful of moon monsters, nor is Final Fantasy X in any way identical to Final Fantasy XII barring a hyperactive blond idiot or two. By following up a coolly-received game with another so contingent on the first's lore and characters, it's already limiting the audience it can appeal to. FFXIII-2 could've fixed everything wrong with the original and created an absolute classic -- it didn't, for the record, though I think I still preferred it to XIII on the whole -- it does itself no favors by being a direct sequel so thoroughly invested in the Final Fantasy XIII continuity. I've yet to play Lightning Returns, but I'm thinking the same could be said for that too.

Asura's Wrath (CyberConnect2/Capcom, 360/PS3, February '12)

Asura's Wrath is either a cynical parody of over-the-top character action games, or an earnest effort to introduce the genre to the uninitiated. Though it does have the combos and juggles of its peers, notably Hideki Kamiya's prolific output for Capcom and Platinum Games, Asura's Wrath is far more barebones in that regard and is much more focused on spectacle. Often, a boss fight or an encounter with a crowd of mobs (a mob of crowds?) or some kind of fracas with a carpet-bombing spaceship will feature a superficial bit of back-and-forth combat before a big prompt to "Burst" comes up and a cutscene more or less takes over, presenting some absolutely absurd overpowered DBZ nonsense that ties each game's immense set-piece to the next. The rest of the game are QTE sequences, requiring the player hammer a button or tap several in a sequence to move onto the next part of the fight.

Asura's Wrath is a Kamiya game with its craziness amplified but much of its core torn out, in summary. It's up to the player whether they appreciate those games for their showy nonsense or for their tight gameplay, and are likely to receive Asura's Wrath in wildly differing ways as a result. I'm firmly in the "like" camp, appreciating Asura's Wrath for its simple pleasures without worrying about perfect timing and memorizing a bunch of complex combos. The less said about Capcom's decision to lock the true ending behind paid DLC the better, however.

Syndicate (Starbreeze Studios, PC/360/PS3, February '12)

I feel like "modern reimagining" is going to be a theme today. This version of Syndicate was reimagined as a FPS, a far cry from the isometric real-time strategy gameplay of the original, but it works as a way to distance the two games and present this one as more a continuation of an age-old series rather than an attempt to remake a classic. Once again, the developers know that the best route to recreate something old is to take the few notable things everyone remembers about it, as well as a big helping of its atmosphere and lore, and layer it over some modern trappings. The player can employ a variant of the Persuadatron, convincing enemies to work for them for a while (or simply shoot themselves in the head, if the player's not feeling sociable). There's tactical overlays and neural microchips filled with cyber upgrades and sinister competing conglomerates and everything else you'd expect from the series too.

I actually found it a little too tough to juggle everything to a satisfactory degree, especially with the heavies that you needed to stun, then hack, then shoot, possibly in that order. It does well enough by its source material though, and Jeff seemed to dig it.

Binary Domain (Yakuza Team, PC/360/PS3, February '12)

Still, if I had to go with a sci-fi shooter released in the month of February 2012, my choice would be Binary Domain, from the guys behind the occasionally insane Yakuza series. A slick and shiny TPS hot on the rocket heels of Platinum's Vanquish from 2010, Binary Domain puts the player behind a team of Bladerunner-esque "Rust Team" operatives who are shipped into a Japanese city shored up against a global warming-affected world in order to stop the production of human-like robots, which are strictly prohibited by the governments of the future. The city has all but been taken over by the antagonistic robotics zaibatsu the Amada Corporation, who has weaponized the vast amount of utility and construction robots that kept the city running in order to fight the incursion of these foreign agents. They make for an interesting group of aggressors, ranging from the legion of humanoid android footsoldiers to the truly immense builders and maintainers and military machines, and there's a lot of enjoyable tactile feedback from hearing those bullets bouncing off metallic frames and watching sparks and shards of hi-tech plastic alloys fly out. The game even finds a way to bring the Yakuza Team's earlier zombie-themed shooter experience to the fore, introducing feral, incomplete and utterly terrifying versions of the human-like robots you're there to shut down.

It's a bit rough in spots, especially with the voice recognition features (though it's not the worst game with voice recognition that's set in a future filled with uncooperative robots) and a half-baked camaraderie-building feature, but it has an utterly bizarre plot and some ironically enjoyable moments of levity and the core game itself is a fine if unremarkable third-person shooter. I might not recommend it for its gameplay, but I would recommend it for everything else it does.

Analogue: A Hate Story (Christine Love, PC, February '12)

Analogue's a thoughtful treatise on the role of women in medieval Korean society, which doesn't sound like the most likely subject matter for a sci-fi adventure game. Analogue: A Hate Story is a very text-focused experience, and one that lures you into a (false) sense of security as you languidly check through pages of well-written passages including diaries, announcements and other ephemera that help to flesh out what life was like in the regressive civilization that populated a self-sufficient seed ship drifting through space after being knocked off course. The heart of the game is with the two AI characters that are there to assist the player: the demure and serious *Hyun-ae and the mercurial and outspoken *Mute. They lend their own commentary to the various texts you're accessing, and eventually play a larger role in the mystery behind the crew's deaths.

It's an odd game to try to sum up, really. I do like any game that somehow manages to turn information into a precious resource. Beyond audio logs and codex entries, there's never a whole of impetus to learn anything about the strange worlds you're thrust into beyond finding out what you're allowed to shoot at. I'm always trying to peruse and absorb every piece of information I come across in games like Mass Effect or BioShock, and Analogue (as, I'm sure, is the case with Love's other games, as with many great VNs in general) is almost entirely interesting reading material.

Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, Multiplatform, March '12)

Talking of Mass Effect, we have the third and final chapter of the Shepard Saga (which I doubt is what BioWare is retroactively calling it, but it couldn't hurt) in Mass Effect 3. While a little too eager to tie up every loose thread, some of which had been dangling for centuries before the games began and didn't really require or deserve a quick and easy conclusion, the game does a fine job continuing where ME2 leaves off and presenting an even grander stage for Earth's greatest space hero to run around and save the galaxy from evil giant robot crayfish. Like many second sequels backed up against a wall when having to follow a superlative second game that ticked all the right boxes, it tries a few new things that don't always work out. The Galaxy Readiness thing, for instance, is a little too flagrant and annoying a way to try to merge the multiplayer with the single-player, attempting to bridge a chasm that was probably better left... unbridged. (That's a word, right?) I didn't appreciate that I had a glass ceiling for my progress because I chose never to dip into that online Gears of War-ish horde mode business. My own dumb fault for thinking the single-player's story and characters were more important.

For the most part ME3's a big fanservice-y happy ending (well, kinda. Seems strange to refer to it with that particular adjective given how very unhappy it made a lot of people) in the vein of a Return of the Jedi. Destinies are met, truths are revealed and everyone's left in a position where they can enjoy the rest of their lives. As if BioWare didn't think they were ever going to make another one of these, right? (Or were going to get pressured into doing so, which is pretty much saying the same thing.)

Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, Wii, April '12)

I have trouble speaking objectively about Xenoblade Chronicles. My view is that it is the best Wii game ever made and the best JRPG of the previous generation by a fair margin. Any attempts to move onto a fuller description of the game and its strengths just kind of trail off into indistinct drooling noises. Let's have at it anyway: Xenoblade's set on a world created entirely out of the millennia-old corpses of two titans who managed to kill each other in an epic struggle at the start of time. So far, so metal as fuck. The biological races of one titan have been trying to stop the frequent incursions of the mechanical races of the other, and the war has only just turned in the biologicals' favor with the discovery of a superweapon: the Monado, the only known weapon capable of damaging the mechanical Mechon.

What follows is your fairly standard JRPG hokum, though one that's generally more eventful and better written and acted than most. The strengths of the game, as is usually the case with most JRPGs, are the lush and unusual environments, the incredible soundtrack, the strategic and tense but also somehow laid-back battle system, the many little systems and conveniences implemented at the base level to minimize frustration and make the game an utter joy to... dammit, I'm getting drool all over the keyboard again. Sorry folks, I'll need to cut this short and grab a paper towel or two.

Fez (Polytron, PC/360/PS3, April '12)

Fez, as the many folk now playing it on PS4 can attest to, is a delightful, weird little thing that hides its true core behind a fluffy exterior. That's not entirely true, of course, because the world's weirdness is on full display from the get-go. There is a moment though, where all players who haven't already spoiled things by reading up on the game beforehand (and if you have a copy and have yet to play it, go do that business now before reading on. Go on, scoot. You've already read all the good comics I'm putting up today, believe me) will notice the veneer starting to crack, and they start figuring out why so many locations purport to still contain collectibles and why there's so many weird runes and strings of what look like tetrominos down the sides of signposts and markers. It's then, when you first discover what any of this means and find your first anti-cube, that the game finally hits its stride as one of the cleverest puzzle-platformers in the Indie catalog. Yes, even more so than Mr. Smarty-Pants Jon Blow's Braid.

Don't even let it get to you that a mercurial French-Canadian once said something unfortunate about modern Japanese games. While there's a lot in Fez to appreciate for anyone, it's very much a game for those who already play far too many. It's some next level shit, and not for the faint-hearted or the feebleminded. Also look at that little guy in his cute hat! Watch him chase birds around! Adorable.

Resonance (Wadjet Eye Games, PC, June '12)

Wadjet Eye has been quietly putting out banger after banger, flying under the radar with their deliberately old-school style. Each successive game displays both signs of growth as they grow more confident with their storytelling medium, and signs of just how weird they're willing to go for story concepts. We've seen space noir with a dash of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, post-apocalyptic robots questioning the wisdom of their benevolent and long-dead creators, a series about a crime-solving spiritual medium and her gumshoe ghost assistant and Wadjet's very first game put the player in the shoes of a rabbi pursuing a murder case that focuses on faith and alienation.

Resonance is a relatively more straightforward tale about an experiment that goes wrong and how it affects the lives of four strangers, though it complicates matters by examining how the fallout brings these four characters together in indirect ways. Each is dealing with their own demons, their own misgivings and their own motivations, but it's not until they work together to fulfill a deceased scientist's final wishes about the project he was working on that it all comes to a head (and goes pear-shaped in the process). It's an engrossing tale, made more so by the eclectic cast and their unique perspectives, and fits snugly into this interesting ludology that Wadjet Eye has been cultivating for years. It also made for a funny Ryan and Vinny Quick Look, so there's that too.

The Other Ones!

We had so damn many Revisited games that I'm really just picking through the scraps for The Other Ones this week. As always, these are the games from this six month period that I couldn't be bothered making comics for, but would still happily recommend.

  • Diablo III (Blizzard, PC, May '12): I swear I only played a few of the items on this month's Comic Commish like less than a year ago, which is probably a fairly undeniable sign that we're getting to the end of this feature's purview. Diablo III, the third entry in the grand-daddy of all loot-focused action RPGs and yet somehow only Blizzard's third most successful property, continues where the prior two games left off, presenting a world that now has far fewer Demon Lords strolling around. In fact, but for a couple of errant mid-carders, we're almost entirely done with terrifying manifestations of mankind's darkest impulses. It doesn't stop the game and its world from feeling as bleak and malevolent and incongruously treasure-filled as ever. It enjoys the same kind of fundamental design evolution that the prior game did in the many years between each successive iteration, but at the same time there is that persistent core issue concerning the sudden onset apathy with any loot-focused action RPG format that I'm not sure the Diablo series can fix. Fortunately for Blizzard, the format has so many proponents already that I'm not sure they'll ever need to try.
  • McPixel (Sos, PC/IOS, June '12): McPixel's really just a series of very dumb jokes, told in such a frenetic WarioWare-esque fashion that it hardly even matters if a few of them hit wide of the mark. It follows the Airplane! philosophy of humor: deluge them with so many gags that they won't even have time to register the duds, because they'll have only just stopped laughing at one great joke before they're presented with another. McPixel also owes a lot to McGruber, beyond the namesake, and by extension that SNL's character's inspiration MacGuyver. It's a very funny notion, presenting a scenario where an intellectual action hero who succeeds by his resourcefulness then has that resourcefulness stripped away, and they're left hitting a ticking time-bomb with one of their shoes because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Between the non-sequiturs, the bizarre set-ups and the abject antisocial behavior of the game's eponymous and supposed hero, it's likely McPixel will make you laugh once or twice -- given how much humor developer Sos managed to pack into the game, it'll be due to the law of averages more than anything else.

All right, that'll do it for August. I'll see you all next time for the final part of The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation. (It's a Star Trek reference. I think I mentioned that earlier, didn't I?)

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Ni no Kuni: A Massive Ghibli Pundertaking

Ni no Kuni's been an interesting experience so far, though I suppose I owe it more than such a dismissive euphemism. It's not a game I was sure I was going to like, and some 50 hours later heading into the game's final act I still have yet to make up my mind.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Space

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a 2011 PS3 RPG from Level-5, a studio that's been making JRPGs for a very long time now. What's interesting is that they knew how to make an amazing RPG right off the bat, due in part to the studio being put together by industry veterans. Dark Cloud, Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy -- their four PS2 contributions to the genre -- are four of the best games in that system's library and sit comfortably with the likes of Final Fantasy X and XII, the third and fifth Suikodens, Personae 3 and 4, Shadow Hearts: Covenant and the many, many other sterling examples of the JRPG format available for the PS2.

Oddly, though, I've found that their recent JRPGs have actually dropped off in quality rather than the expected reverse, as they often seem to be focusing their efforts elsewhere. (Efforts like telling a very British man in a top hat how to solve puzzles, or their very interesting collaborative Guild series for the 3DS eShop, or their multiple non-game related projects.) Though still custodians of Square-Enix's juggernaut Dragon Quest series, DQIX failed to retain my interest (which is odd, because it's probably better than VIII in all respects besides graphically, but man does that game give you a lot to do) and the less said about the interminable White Knight Chronicles pseudo-MMO franchise the better. Because Ni no Kuni has heavy involvement with Studio Ghibli, who were probably a little hesitant about adapting its animation and storytelling into a video game, Level-5 decided to play it safe and build Ni no Kuni on top of their familiar DQ template, factoring in the DQ Monsters Joker spin-off's collectible monster-raising aspects. Even the game's cel-shaded characters, based on veteran Ghibli artist/animator Yoshiyuki Momose's artwork and cutscene animations, are adapted from their traditional hand-drawn concept art in a similar way to Akira Toriyama's contributions to Dragon Quests VIII and IX.

Spare me from all this force-feeding. Also, is this really okay? I don't think diabetes is something a restorative item can cure (though Barkley: Shut and Jam Gaiden might beg to differ).

Now, I don't know if this is something I delve into often, but I'm not a fan of monster raising games in general. I don't particularly care for any instance where you're expected to frequently switch out party members for better ones. I like having party members I can grow used to, to grow fond of, to grow old together with... all right, I'm getting a little too affectionate with virtual computer people now, but I like a static party that develops in fascinating ways as the characters themselves develop in their respective narrative arcs. I also don't mind revolving door scenarios if the temporary characters get at least some time in the limelight, so that their absence becomes all the more poignant (or relief-inducing, in some cases). I don't much care for a bunch of interchangeable goblins and cute critters that, for all I know, are perfectly useless fighters that the developers just threw in for color. Of course, I won't know that until I've spent a few hours raising their levels and then evolving them and then raising their evolved form's levels because they started back at level 1 because of amazing reasons I'm not privy to. This isn't what I want to do for fun. This is agony.

Ni no Kuni has so much going on at the peripherary that I don't even care too much though. I enjoy:

  • The semi-real-time combat system. It's fairly MMOish, perhaps a lot closer to Final Fantasy XII than I anticipated going in, with some interesting strategic counterattack elements.
  • The storytelling. Though it's a little basic and intended for kids, it's still a very layered traditional Ghibli fairytale that gets a bit darker towards the part I'm at. Hell, it started kind of dark. Between it and Guardians of the Galaxy I'm starting to wonder what the deal is with starting your fun adventure times with a harrowing death scene.
  • All the dumb side-stuff. Stuff like stealing emotions from people who have too much to give to those with too little, like some sort of Shang Tsung/Robin Hood hybrid, or working on my alchemy, or chasing down some bounties, or backtracking for treasure chests I couldn't open until recently.
  • How much detail has been put into its world. It's reflected in the fully digitized real-world feelie that is the Wizard Compendium book with all its little secrets and advice.
  • The card game they invented for the game's customary optional casino area that is actually quite a lot of fun, unlike Fallout: New Vegas's Caravan (plus, it's easy to exploit for mucho dinero).

The presentation is top-notch, there's no denying it. I just don't like the core. I still want to see it through to the end and... hell, who am I kidding, I'll probably even 100% the thing. Is that weird?

I just can't help but feel exasperated whenever I'm feeding a familiar (what the game calls recruitable creatures, like wizard familiars) treats so it'll like me more and evolving it only to find out its last form is a lemon, occasionally literally. Still... while I like this cat pirate I'm rolling with now fine enough, I just know that among the hundreds of little guys, there's another creature out there even better suited for my playstyle... dammit. I guess I'll just keep fighting them in the wild until they arbitrarily decide to join me, then I'll probably give them all to that creepy manhole monster to look after. Pretty similar to how I played Pokemon, now I think about it.

Outmanned and Outpunned

Anyway, this is all just an over-elaborate set-up meant to segue into my other topic of discussion today: Games with copious amounts of punnery.

These Welsh-touting fairies are the usual culprits when it comes to the game's goofy sense of humor. There's whimsical, en't it?

Ni no Kuni in particular has a lot of puns. The game's apundent with them. My cup punneth over, in fact. Not only do all the familiars in the game have vaguely punnish names, another aspect the game shares with its Dragon Quest spiritual forebears, but every single monster type in the game -- which includes evolution stages, putting the number in the 300s, though there's many evolutions that can't be caught in the wild and therefore won't appear on a naming screen -- has four "suggestions" for names which are themselves puns. Some are pundamental, simply taking the name of the thing and working it into a regular first name, while others are a little more sophisticated and clearly written by someone with a propunsity for wordplay. Since I always give my monsters dumb pun names in games like these, it's been something of a quixotic quest of mine to try to outdo all the game's suggested names. Often, I'll give something a clever moniker only to find out that its also the name of an evolved form. There's nothing like being on a pun master's wavelength, but a lot of the inadvertent joy (and challenge) I've derived from this game has been from trying to out-pun it. That's probably a little weird too.

Besides the aforementioned Dragon Quest VIII and IX, one of the Legend adventure games I've meaning to get back to -- that would be Callahan's Crosstime Saloon -- was full of the punfortunate things too. The game has such excellent comedic writing in general that it seems a little punfair to focus on that one type of humor, but there's a few instances where it really stands out. Often, two or more characters will just start spouting puns at each other until one of them cries uncle. It's a weirdly endearing trait of the game, and it'll happen no matter how dangerous the situation, which gives the game a pleasingly irreverent tone that seemed to be de rigueur in 90s media (The Last Boy Scout and Hudson Hawk being particular favorites of mine. Bruce Willis has always been great at deadpanning. Nowadays he's just dead on the inside). I'd really like to resume LPing that one, actually. Maybe I can just do an all-jokes (whenever context isn't strictly necessary, anyway) version. In addition, there's plenty of Japanese games with big lists of collectibles that the localization team will tend to have some punning fun with, such as the Boos of Luigi's Mansion or the monkeys of Ape Escape.

Anyway, moving back to Ni no Kuni, I decided to create a fun little quiz for you all. What follows are some familiars from the game with a general description of what they look like and five names: four of these are built-in suggestions proffered by the game's name input screen, and in the midst of those four names is a fifth which I came up with. See which ones you prefer; it can be harder than it first seems to out-do this game's punspicacity.

Quiz Time, Fools. Blaow!

A: Rhinosaur: What appears to be a reptilian-rhinoceros hybrid. Slow and powerful and one of the earliest tanks you can find.

  1. See-Saur
  2. Saur-Spot
  3. JudgeRhino
  4. Squisher
  5. Rhino

B: Firebyrde: A late-evolution bird enemy, found near the start of the game but in a region only the game's airship equivalent can reach. An obvious boon for the game's snowier regions.

  1. Torchy
  2. Firebert
  3. Flamey
  4. Scorchio
  5. Pyreo

C: Naja: A basic cobra-like creature, found in the game's first dungeon. Successive evolutions also play on the word "Naja". (In retrospect I think I may have made this one too easy.)

  1. Carnaj
  2. Minaj
  3. Teenaja
  4. Badinaj
  5. Najartime

D: Pom Pom: A floating toxic ball with a goofy expression, not too dissimilar to Koffing. Future evolutions include Pompeii (which has flame-based skills) and Pomagranite (which has Medusa-esque petrification powers).

  1. Pommie
  2. Pom
  3. Whinger
  4. Pom Pilot
  5. Sook

E: Turbandit: A little guy in a purple turban who wanders around the desert. He's speedy and evasive but not much of a powerhouse, though his future evolutions have a lot of magical oomph. Evolutions named "Turban Myth" and "Turban Legend", for the record.

  1. TurbaGrafx
  2. Bendit
  3. Banjamin
  4. Turbangela
  5. Turbarry

F: Whambat: A giant bat. Reminds me a lot of Golbat actually, with its huge mouth and tiny wings.

  1. Whambo
  2. Whamber
  3. Ridgeley
  4. William
  5. Winfred

G: Purrloiner: A bipedal pirate cat. It stands around grooming itself as an idle animation, and has a little cutlass and everything. Adorable.

  1. Purrcy
  2. Purrcival
  3. Purrince
  4. Purrice
  5. Garrrfield

H: Bougie: A serpentine ghost with a little lantern. Instead of "boogey" it's "bougie", as in bogey.

  1. Bouregarde
  2. Bougart
  3. Boubridges
  4. Bouberry
  5. Boogie

I: Impaler: A tiny imp holding a spear. They spent all night coming up with the name for this one. Oddly, it's one of a handful of creatures that will always chase after you on the overworld, whereas most will flee EarthBound-style once you reach a certain level threshold.

  1. Stabby
  2. Poko
  3. Jibjab
  4. Chevy
  5. Proderick

J: Bone Ranger: The first evolution of the game's skeleton enemy. They get progressively cooler looking as they evolve. The final forms of Bone Brigadier and Bone Baron have an interesting divergent evolutionary path, where the Baron is the considerably weaker of the two until around level 90 when it suddenly becomes one of the strongest familiars in the game.

  1. Skulomania
  2. Skullator
  3. Skelextric
  4. Skellywag
  5. Skelamanga

Answers on a postcard to... I dunno, just write them in the comments. Save yourself a postcard. They're not cheap. Thanks for stopping by, and sorry for all the puns. (I'm not sorry.) (At least, not very.) (Ni no Kuni started it.)

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Going Berserk

Hey mangas and, uh, womangas, it's time for another slightly more in-depth article about video game influences. I had a series some years back about video games that were clearly influenced by certain iconic movie franchises, and how the evocative and terrifying H.R. Giger xenomorph of Alien or Escape From New York's grizzled hero Snake Plisskin and the ruined metropolis that was once NYC might have shown up in more than a handful of games over the years.

What I discovered with Kentaro Miura's Berserk -- a manga series I was fortunate enough to blitz through the past few weeks, since I'm struggling to find ways to fill this interminable summer of 80 degree weather and zero releases -- is that it's a lot more fun to come at something highly influential from an after-the-fact perspective. Which is to say, discovering a piece of influential media long after experiencing the media it inspired.

Berserk is a long-form serial manga that's been chugging along now for decades about a warrior named Guts -- so named because he was recovered as a baby from a pile of corpses on the battlefield -- attempting to rid the world of Apostles: humans that have essentially sold their souls to a demonic quintet known as the God Hand in exchange for power. The most striking aspects of Guts' quasi-European medieval world is how commonplace horrific violence and extremely grim misfortune have become, and Guts is regularly beaten to within an inch of his life by the powerful foes he engages. One of the earliest story arcs explains how he came to be this way, and its a truly heartbreaking tale involving his love interest Casca, an idealistic mercenary group known as the Band of the Hawk, and its leader Griffith, a charismatic man Guts once admired for his single-minded determination (this is also the arc that the anime adaptation was based on, which I've yet to see).

While reading through Berserk -- which began in 1990 in earnest, so it's been a presence in Japanese pop culture since the Mega Drive at least -- I started to notice many little story and world details that would later make their way into games, and how the characters themselves were familiar in an opaque way that occasionally threw me for a loop, like small jolts of deja vu. That isn't to say that the following games necessarily took a few particular cues from Berserk or that there aren't intermediary products that added extra degrees of separation, but given the manga's lasting appeal it seems very possible that it would be responsible for a similar aspect or two.

(That being said: Though my tone might sometimes come off as accusatory, there's nothing inherently plagiaristic about any of the following instances. Nothing wrong with drawing from other media for inspiration, as long as you don't overdo it.)

(A final aside: There's spoilers aplenty for the early arcs of Berserk. The nature of a serial manga is that every chapter builds from the last, and there's no real way to discuss later chapters without elaborating on earlier ones to some extent. It's also kind of impossible to talk about how a game was influenced by a certain plot point if I can't discuss the plot point in question. If you feel that strongly about spoilers, I'm cautioning you now.)

Final Fantasy VII

Now you might think the first port of call would be something like Demon's/Dark Souls, given how project lead Hidetaka Miyazaki has often cited Miura's work as an inspiration, but I shall get to that a little later. I'm starting with this one because it concerns the chief characters of Berserk, specifically the triumvirate of Guts, Casca and Griffith.

Casca, Guts and Griffith.

When we are first introduced to the protagonist, Guts, we get a strong sense of his taciturn and cold nature right off the bat as he's terse with some of those he meets and outright mocking of others. He's also carrying an enormous sword that no normal human being could ever hope to lift, let alone swing around, and a thousand yard stare with some obvious history behind it. The early chapters of Berserk sets up the hero and his quixotic quest to take down the demonic Apostles, many of which are powerful human nobles who become even more deadly when they transform into colossal grotesqueries, but ensures that his general mystique remains intact until we get to the Golden Age arc, which is a very long flashback that goes into the backstory of Guts.

Cutting to the chase somewhat, Guts has an eventful childhood as a soldier for hire before falling in with the Band of the Hawk, a fledgling mercenary squad already legendary for never losing a battle. Much of this is due to its charismatic leader, Griffith. Griffith is a preternaturally gifted warrior and tactician who is remarkable for two things: his long, fair hair and androgynous good looks, and his ability to command adoration or fear from everyone he meets. Guts initially joins the Hawks after being bested by Griffith in a duel, but as he continues to fight for him he truly begins to admire his talents and works hard to help him realise his dream of one day owning his own kingdom. Griffith's lieutenant Casca, the only female warrior in the Band of the Hawk, is equally devoted to Griffith and mistrustful of Guts due to his high status in Griffith's eyes. Eventually, Casca realises that Griffith only cares for his dream and that she truly loves Guts for his selflessness and caring nature. Though Griffith is on the surface an attentive and thoughtful leader, it becomes evident that he's actually a very ruthless man who regularly finds ways to exploit or dispatch his political enemies.

Though various events unfold during this long period, it ends with Griffith accepting his fate since birth to become part of the God Hand: a group of extremely powerful demonic entities, practically gods in their own right, who ask that he sacrifice the entire Band of the Hawk to the many Apostles that have gathered to witness his ascension. A handful of the Band of the Hawk are established characters at this point, and watching them all get slaughtered one after the other in a senseless and maddening ritual beyond his comprehension puts Guts somewhat at a loss. He loses his right eye and left arm trying to fight the Apostles off while Casca is brutally abused by the demons and by Griffith himself, now reborn as the demon lord Femto. Both Guts and Casca narrowly survive, though are cursed by the ritual's "brand" and are psychologically damaged beyond repair.

In case you ever wondered why he carried that thing around. Though I suppose "how" is the more pertinent question.

There's parallels aplenty to made between Berserk's and Final Fantasy VII's protagonist-deuteragonist-antagonist triangle: Cloud, right down to his absurd Buster Sword and his initial standoffish demeanor, might as well be a blond Guts (it's even lampshaded somewhat, as the man Cloud's imitating -- the dark-haired Zack Fair -- is a spitting image of Berserk's main character). Then you have Sephiroth, the white-haired, androgynous, unstoppable warrior Cloud once greatly admired before the former goes insane and kills everyone Cloud ever cared about. Tifa emerged relatively unscathed from the Nibelheim incident, unlike poor Casca who regressed to a childlike state in her PTSD, though Cloud had the displeasure of witnessing her get impaled and left for dead regardless. The tragedy of this scenario is all the more potent after reading its much rougher inspirational source, and the way the Jenova entity keeps psychologically torturing Cloud over it through his implanted Jenova cells is not entirely unlike the suffering Guts goes through due to his brand: a glyph on his neck that signifies him as part of the sacrificial ritual and draws evil spirits to him constantly. Both men are haunted by the traumatic events of their pasts, both figuratively and literally.

Final Fantasy Tactics

Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that shines largely due to its many layers. This quality applies both to the game's deeply strategic RPG gameplay as well as its frequently labyrinthine plot about a group of nobles who scheme and assassinate one another for the sake of political maneuvering and the hardworking serfs caught in the crossfire. Whenever I've seen criticisms of its plot, they usually point to the seemingly superfluous supernatural undercurrents that are secretly governing many of the game's events, to the extent that the game goes so far off the rails in its final act that you end up fighting a fake messiah deity in another dimension apropos of nothing. For some, this felt like some sort of compromise that any given Final Fantasy must have demons and monsters and supernatural crystal nonsense for it to actually count as a "Final Fantasy", and that someone higher up told the game's director Yasumi Matsuno -- one of the Japanese game development scene's finest minds as far as constructing game narratives go -- to maybe wedge in the fantasy stuff somewhere between his bickering aristocrats and heraldic warfare.

Now that I've read Berserk, it's become a little more evident to me just where all this Lucavi business actually comes from.

The setting of Berserk is, as previously stated, a quasi-European medieval setting. Prominent running themes include: the powerful and vindictive church, ruled by a host of close-minded cardinals and religious leaders ruthlessly stamping out heresy wherever they see it in an effort to maintain control of the nobles and the peasants that serve them; wars that have been raging for centuries that the comic never actually goes into too much detail about, as if to signify that they've been going on for so long and have become such an indelible part of people's lives that the reasons why and how they started are largely irrelevant, especially for the commoners conscripted or paid to fight them; the honor and nobility of knights, and how easily such virtues can become prideful and fascistic vices; and the Faustian tragedy of sacrificing one's humanity for the sake of power or wealth. These are all prominent traits of Final Fantasy Tactics as well, though I'd say all but the last one are common enough themes for any drama set in the medieval period.

The game's final boss, the androgynous angelic messiah Altima shares a lot in common with Femto, including his/her followers' attempts to resurrect him/her.

Berserk introduces the idea of the behelit: an artifact that resembles a jumbled up human face on an egg-shaped jewel that is able to create a gateway between dimensions when activated by a particularly motivated individual. Like the Lament Configuration of the Hellraiser movies, it's primarily used for summoning demons (in this case, the God Hand) and signing a pact with them in exchange for power. Due to the omnipotent nature of fate and causality, a behelit is always eventually found by someone who wishes to sacrifice everything of value to them to attain power, and this power always transforms them into an Apostle who can switch between a human form and a far uglier and stronger demonic form at will. The Zodiac Stones and the Lucavi operate almost exactly the same way, with each Zodiac Stone holder eventually acquiescing to the powerful Lucavi hidden within. Though it's the Lucavi demon in control, with each case it becomes apparent that the type of person who summoned them was also the type of person willing to do anything for the power the Lucavi wield. Invariably, every mortal that would become a Lucavi doomed themselves through their desperation and greed. Given the inclusion of Zodiac Stones and the Lucavi demons with the somewhat more historically accurate medieval trappings, it strikes me that it's more likely the case that the entire world of Ivalice was inspired by Berserk rather than the demons being some shoehorned-in afterthought compromise by a director pressured to add more "Final Fantasy type stuff" to their game's narrative. As if I needed an excuse to appreciate FFT any more than I already did.

Dark Souls

So now we move onto Souls itself. While the setting is once again a familiar case of medieval demons roaming around ruined castles and dark forests vying for what little resources are left in a world clearly on the way out, the Berserk influence is found most strongly in the art design. This is deliberate, and one of the few examples I have on this list where the creator of the series has actually gone on record to state Berserk as one of the primary influences for the game. Though there's bits and pieces in the earlier Demon's Souls, most notably the foreboding Tower of Latria as an ersatz Tower of Rebirth (an eerie and dark prison full of torture devices that held Griffith for a year), most of the Berserk references appear in the second game: Dark Souls.

It's mostly little things, those which fans of the manga are more likely to pick up on. Like how Anor Londo greatly resembles the manga's fallen royal city of Wyndham, or how some of the uglier enemies and bosses are all but Apostles lifted directly from the manga's pages, or how even those thrice-accursed bonewheels got their start in an arc of Berserk -- these are all such commonplace occurrences that it's a little redundant and time-consuming to try to list them all out. There's a number of fan videos like this one that helpfully point out the art similarities, for the curious (though some of the connections those videos come up with seem a tad tenuous).

Guts in his Berserker armor.

The most flagrant and most deliberate homage is Artorias the Abysswalker, who is a spitting image of Guts in his Berserker armor. The Berserker armor is an artifact given to Guts quite late into the manga's timeline, and can transform anyone who wears it into an unstoppable bestial attacker. Wearers aren't slowed down by pain or fear, and any damage they accrue is "fixed" by the armor with some brutal temporary measures. For instance, the armor will react to a broken bone by inserting spikes all around the fracture to keep the bone in place. Whenever Guts is desperate enough to rely on the armor, it's always a dramatic moment because he risks losing his humanity each time, as well as his own life. Most notable is that his fighting style completely changes -- instead of tactically planting himself and swinging his sword in wide arcs, he'll leap into the air while spinning the sword, ending with a devastating downward slash. Artorias is based on this version of Guts, from the intimidating wolf-like armor to his loss of humanity to his unorthodox fighting style. Clearly, Dark Souls's director Hidetaka Miyazaki figured it would make for an interesting fight if the player had to go up against Guts in full berserker mode, and he was right to the extent that it's often considered one of the most interesting and challenging boss fights in the game.

Borderline Examples

Before we move to the final section of this scrutiny, here's a few more games that might've taken a few leafs from Berserk's trade paperback. I'm less confident about these ones, so I'm relegating them to a quickie list. I'm sure there are others, if any fans of the manga want to help me out in the comments below.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - One of the central relationships in Berserk is Guts's begrudging friendship with the fairy Puck. Puck is absolutely one of those 80s/90s comic relief sidekick buddies who flits around for little jokey asides and visual comedy, but also has an important job of keeping Guts's humanity intact. He's often his conscience in trying times, and without him the manga might well be too dark to tolerate. Since Ocarina of Time, the Zelda games have given Link his own fairy companion to guide him and speak for the silent hero whenever necessary. Navi, Tatl, Fi and others tend to be the only companions Link ever has through most of his adventuring, and while they can often be annoyingly persistent with their advice, they also make the journey far less lonely.
  • God Hand - It's perhaps a coincidence, but Shinji Mikami's comedic brawler shares its name with a prominent force of evil in the Berserk comics. The hero Gene also has an artificial arm, like Guts, and much of the game's playtime is spent beating up weird looking demons (or getting beaten up by demons, in my case). The tone couldn't be more dissimilar though, I'll say that much.
  • Dragon's Dogma - Borrowing from the same dark fantasy well as Dark Souls to some degree, Dragon's Dogma has a similar "cursed" protagonist in the Arisen and features a lot of similar art design for its monsters and geography. Notably, the game also includes Berserk's and Griffith's armor sets for player characters to use. Whether this is a simple tie-in on Capcom's part or a means for the game to acknowledge its influence is unclear.
  • The Last Story - I mention Mistwalker's Wii RPG The Last Story because it shares a lot of narrative similarities with the aforementioned Golden Age arc of Berserk. To elaborate further would lead to too many spoilers, if simply making the comparison isn't one already, but the grim state of the world and the machinations of a small but tightly-knit mercenary group and the ungrateful nobles they serve skews decidedly close to Berserk's longest and best known arc.

The Berserk Games

Before I wind this down, I figured it was probably worth checking out two games that absolutely were inspired by Berserk. Sword of the Berserk: Guts' Rage and Berserk: Millennium Falcon Hen Seima Senki no Shou (possibly translates to Berserk: Millennium Falcon Arc: Holy Demon War Chapter, thanks to Pepsiman for helping me make sense of it) are two action games based on the Berserk license, the first for the Dreamcast and the second for the PS2.

As always, the Japanese box art is better than the EU/US versions.

Guts' Rage actually came out in the west, surprisingly for a manga adaptation. It even has a full English voice cast and everything. It's set during the Millennium Falcon arc (nope, nothing to do with Star Wars) in which Guts is travelling around with Casca in tow, travelling to the fabled realm of the elves in order to help her restore her sanity. The game creates its own little self-contained story about a town sieged by mutated humans afflicted by the mandragora plant, which feels more like an excuse to have a lot of weird monsters roaming around for Guts to fight. Though it's largely independent from the manga, including a relatively normal audience surrogate outsider character who inquires about Guts's journey to help acclimatize those unfamiliar with the source material, there's a few fan favorite appearances: Nosferatu Zodd, a particularly strong Apostle that Guts has fought a few times who briefly shows up for the game's toughest boss fight, and the enigmatic Skull Knight, an extremely powerful entity attempting to oppose the God Hand who occasionally helps Guts out who makes a small cameo in the epilogue.

As for the type of game it is, it's one of those proto-Devil May Cry brawlers that tried to take the burgeoning character action format in its own direction before the DMC games (and God of War) all but codified the genre. While Guts has some powerful attacks, he's limited by the large size and slow speed of his main weapon: the enormous Dragonslayer blade. Often, he'll need to find a good spot to plant himself and then start swinging, and keep moving when his position is no longer tactically viable. In addition, the player can make use of a "berserk mode" which temporarily makes Guts invincible and a lot stronger, as well as Guts's various gadgets including the cannon concealed in his artificial arm, a few healing tinctures courtesy of Puck's medicinal fairy dust and the handful of throwing knives and bombs he keeps on his person. All of these additional items are in limited supply but will frequently restock after each stage, so the game all but insists that the player rely on their resourcefulness and strategic wits to determine the best time to use them. Generally speaking, the cannon's best reserved for bosses, the knives for ranged units who try to stay out of reach of Guts's melee attacks and the bombs for when Guts gets swarmed by weaker enemies. Because berserk mode fully heals Guts each time it activates, the player can often try to keep fighting to fill its gauge before they run out of health, or opt to use up one of their limited full heal items and not risk dying. Like Chaos Legion, another DMC peer/also-ran that failed to attract much attention, it's not the sort of character action game where you can wade into every enemy encounter with your sword swinging: doing so is likely to get you killed fast. It's a little more thoughtful than it would first appear, and its difficulty appears to have put a lot of people off.

This one's a little more of an enigma, to be sure.

I know very little about the second game, as it was never released outside of Japan, but it appears to be a similar sort of character action game. It's set during the same arc in the manga and while it updates a lot of the mechanics, not to mention the graphics, it seems to be a similar sort of deal. Both games were created by Yuke's, perhaps best known for their wrestling games (they currently develop 2K's annualized WWE series, previously owned by THQ), so there's a characteristic amount of jankiness that brings the two games down a little, but their faithfulness to the tone of the manga is generally considered acceptable by the fanbase from what I've gathered.

Anyway, that's probably more than enough discussion on this site about "some manga thing". I don't usually spend much time discussing non-video game related material here (perhaps I should? GB's slowly becoming that kind of all-purpose site, really) but the number of times I would stop reading and think "Huh, where have I seen this before?" approached a figure that convinced me that I should try to jot all this down for an in-depth blog further down the road. Which is what this is, for the record.

As a final, final note, I would absolutely recommend Berserk to anyone, whether they're interested in the influences behind some of their favorite JRPGs or simply curious about comics with a lot of darker tones and extreme violence. It can be a tough read at times due to how oppressively grim it can get, but it has some amazing art and some really cool and weird ideas and concepts, especially with its villainous Apostles. Guts has something of a whole posse at this point in the manga, and the added number of characters with their own ongoing arcs is adding a lot to the narrative.

(All right, one more final note: Shout-outs to Matt, Pat, Woolie and Liam of the "Best Friends Play" Zaibatsu. I have no idea if those guys still visit Giant Bomb, but I wanted to thank them and their Sword of the Berserk LP for introducing me to the manga.)

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Mento + The Mechanics: Part 2

Well, I promised a second part within the week and here it is. I've had some interesting replies already, so I wanted to start by thanking those who took the time to post and also for giving me some food for thought. Especially EVO, for allowing me to consider what does and does not qualify as a game mechanic, and CorruptedEvil, for informing me that many of the most mechanic-heavy games are those from the fighter and character action genres with optimized real-time combat systems that have been endlessly tweaked and updated by talented folk like Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamiya. I'll be sticking to RPGs for the most part, since that's my wheelhouse, but every now and again I'll try to extend a little further afield into the sorts of games I don't play quite as often. There's certainly a lot of noteworthy but underappreciated mechanics in every genre.

Speaking of which, that's what we're looking at with this feature: Mechanics introduced in games that, for one reason or another, have yet to be fully embraced by the mainstream at large in spite of their merit. I'm highlighting these in the hope that it brings them some small amount of additional exposure, even if it's just to the dozen or so people who read these things. Though this will be the last part for now, I'll be sure to intermittently bring this series back whenever I have a new quintet of game features to, well, feature.

Case #006: Collectible Mapping Conveniences

Having a group of hidden collectibles in a game is far too divisive a topic and too ubiquitous a concept to ever be considered for this blog series, but because they're such a common sight these days (well, until you're searching for the very last one to complete the set anyway) there's a few other mechanics that have sprung up around them. An important one is how an open-world game filled with collectibles may provide the player with some means to track them down.

I didn't even go into SpaceWhippers, all of which seem to have their own ideas of how much they want their maps to reveal.

The most interesting aspect of this whole idea is not that the game feels it ought to deign to tell you where all its carefully hidden objects are, somewhat undermining the point of having a hidden collectible side-mission in the first place, but how every open-world game seems to approach the problem differently. With Bully, Saints Row 4 and Sleeping Dogs, the game only provides you with a map of the game's collectibles upon achieving a certain task - specifically with Bully it's completing all the Geography classes, with Saints Row 4 it's completing a task for Matt and with Sleeping Dogs it's finding and dating each of the NPC love interests. With The Amazing Spider-Man, the player must find a certain percentage of the collectibles on their own before the rest are revealed to them. Others give you an idea of where an item is but only on the player's mini-map, which means the player has to be somewhat close by before they can see them. Sometimes a game uses a distinctive sound to indicate if you're close, like the hidden orbs of Crackdown or the Golden Skulltulas of Ocarina of Time. SNES JRPG the Illusion of Gaia made its collectibles very hard to find, but also provided a location guide for all of them in its manual for the truly desperate.

In creating what many might consider a game mechanic that's simply a way to pad out the run-time of open-world games, designers inadvertently began creatively dealing with a problem that they themselves were responsible for. Instead of being quick to judge a game for having pointless collectibles, judge them instead for how they approach the dilemma of wanting to give players a break without giving too much away of what is meant to be an extended game of hide and seek. Make it too easy and hunting collectibles becomes more pointless than ever; make it too hard and players will abandon it as a snipe hunt. In a sense, it becomes like achievements: pointless busywork for some designers, yet another means to stretch the creative muscles for others. I approach both achievements and collectibles the same way as a result: I'll generally only persue them when the game designers have taken the time to work on them and made it worth my while.

Case #007: Treasure Recovery Runs

The temptation is to lean heavily on mechanics best known from the Demon's/Dark Souls series, because I don't think we'll be seeing the last of its brand of cautious, deliberate RPG gameplay after the laurels they've received. Though this feature is famous for many Souls players due to how indelibly linked it is with the game's progression, Treasure Recovery Runs -- or corpse runs as they're more commonly known -- pre-dates the Souls series and finds its roots in the earliest MMOs (and possibly even older games).

"Finally! Now, is this pit the bottomless kind, or...?"

The idea that a game gives you some chance to recover what you lost is a fascinating compromise, as well as a great excuse for making the game harder than it needs to be. I brought up Post-Combat Rejuvenation last time as another example of how a game would introduce a feature that would appear to be a case of sparing the rod and spoiling the child, when really there's more rods than ever. Importantly, "afterlife" mechanics like these become paramount in lieu of a lives or continues system, which have thankfully all but been relegated to the hazy mists of time. I believe the Mario series persists with lives for much the same reason as my country persists with a monarchy: it's part of the history, but has so little importance that it might as well be an ornament. Shovel Knight, speaking of heraldry and rank, is a game that couldn't really keep using lives even if it is meant to be a deliberate throwback to the NES era. That instead players are penalized with the potential permanent loss of some of their cash reserves is a functional workaround.

But really, the genius of the corpse run is how it makes the journey back to the spot you died all that more momentous and tense. Considering that a second premature death will irrevocably destroy all those resources waiting around to be recovered, there's a lot more to lose even if you're retreading territory you've already conquered at least once. How sure can you be of that once-so-simple jump, or of that seemingly effortless skeleton warrior encounter? If you're going to be forced to repeat parts of the game over and over, it might as well have that added level of tension to shake things up.

Case #008: Challenge Level Indicators

Continuing with the MMO theme somewhat, a lot of open-world RPG areas tend to mix together overpowered monsters with those of a level more suitable for the player's party at that stage of the game. I feel the reasons for this are twofold: the first is to teach players the virtue of prudence, allowing them to size up an opponent and realizing they would be biting off far more than they could chew by approaching them. The second reason is to create a feeling of a verisimilitudinous ecology: a land where there's an apparent food chain and the strong prey on the weak absent the player's interference. If there's a fifteen foot T-Rex prowling around the same area as wolves and human-sized enemies, it's easy to imagine that it is there to predate on weaker creatures, while the weaker creatures do their best to avoid it. It is not necessarily there to be a boss monster for the player's party to fight; rather, it simply exists, ultimately irrelevant to the player's journey and should therefore be left alone.

Woe betide anyone who wakes one of these things up.

However, in creating landscapes with their own ecologies like this, the player's party might find themselves encountering extremely tough enemies far too commonly, and because it's logical to expect that every adversary one encounters in an RPG can be defeated with the right tactics, it's a little too punishing if a group decides to take on a mighty-looking monster and gets instantly wiped out due to the vast difference in strength. What games like Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles have done is create a sort of color-coded system that indicates when a creature is simply too powerful to mess with. Rather than depend on numbers and levels, which don't always mean a whole lot to those trying to gauge an opponent's strength intuitively, a red warning bar over an enemy makes a very clear case that they are not to be trifled with. Since those two games have built much of their infrastructure around MMO mechanics absent the multiplayer aspect, it would be logical to assume such a system also exists in MMOs as well, creating areas filled with monsters of disparate power levels from which low-level newcomers and high-level veterans alike can find worthy foes.

I just love the notion that all these areas I'm visiting can operate on their own with their own rules even when I'm not around, and aren't just dioramas built to engage the player (though that is precisely what they are, by design). It indicates a level of thoughtfulness from the designers, a sense that their world is more than just a series of attractive (and, occasionally, hideous) vistas placed there for a player to look at. It's sometimes hard to justify spending more resources than is strictly necessary when working on level design, but when a designer chooses to create a region like Dark Souls' Ash Lake -- a region less than half of the game's players might ever see -- it demonstrates just how invested they are in building a world rather than propping up scenery around the player.

Case #009: Peripheral Town Crafting

I'm drawing directly from my all time favorite RPG Dark Cloud 2 (aka Dark Chronicle) with this one, but it's a common enough feature. The player is given custodianship of a fledgling village or town and can occasionally come back to provide funding and direction for the town's growth, sort of like a mini-SimCity smack dab in the middle of one's adventure. Some games let you have more control over this municipal growth than others, though there's often a benefit to increasing these player-sponsored towns to their maximum as it tends to unlock a lot of unique opportunities for the core game, such as powerful weapons and the like.

I could do this shit all day. And did, repeatedly.

Besides Dark Chronicle's Georama system, which makes an entire secondary game out of its town-building, the most prominent example is probably the Suikoden series. In each Suikoden the player finds a base of operations and builds it back up from a ruin (or in the case of IV, an empty ship) to a mighty fortress. In part this is because every Suikoden has the player engaging in warfare, and it's not feasible to expect an entire army to be walking around just behind the player character every time they make camp or delves into a dungeon. The player also has a huge number of recruits to find, and not all of them are going to be warriors, so a base of operations affords vendors, decorators, spies, tacticians and other miscellaneous roles that can contribute to a war effort a place to hang out. Watching one's base grow in any Suikoden game (or Skies of Arcadia, for that matter) can be pretty special.

In other cases, like with Tales of Vesperia's Aurnion or Xenoblade Chronicles's Colony 6, the player is usually expected to stump up increasingly larger payments to increase the town's size, and with each new investment comes more utilities and services. You might also see cases like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter's Fairy Village, which requires the player to choose how the town expands, and then extreme cases like Terraria where the player is solely responsible for the construction of a town of NPCs. When this element is done right, the player can enjoy an entirely separate, usually optional and far more calming type of gameplay to take a break from the monster bashing and dungeon diving for a while.

Case #010: Significant Enhancement Collectibles

I'm going to bookend this entry with two sets of mechanics governing collectibles, because I'm often in a bind to explain exactly why I occasionally bother to hunt the things down, and why I only seem to do so in certain games. Significant Enhancement Collectibles are those which give you a stronger reason for wanting to seek them out, beyond it simply being a thing you can do.

For as goofy as these little guys are, they're also priceless for the permanent stat boosts.

As far as I'm concerned, concept art isn't sufficient. What is perhaps more sufficient is songs from the game's soundtrack you can listen to (e.g. Saints Row 2, Shovel Knight), permanent stat boosts (e.g. Fallout 3, Crackdown, Sleeping Dogs, inFamous), a special bonus should all of a certain collectible be found (e.g. Bully) or additional backstory and worldbuilding details to peruse (e.g. Mass Effect's codex, anything with audio logs, the trophies of Super Smash Bros.). Though your mileage may vary on the value of any given reward for finding collectibles, cases like those above are at least more than simple TACOs: Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects (you can thank Anachronox for that contribution to the gaming lexicon by buying the new Humble Bundle, which contains it along with Thief Gold and, uh... Daikatana).

It's the job of every game designer, I figure, to invest purpose into each collectible Easter egg hunt (which may or may not involve actual Easter eggs). To give a better reason for players to want to seek them out than simply "because they're there". Some players may well enjoy seeking them out for that purpose alone, but others will appreciate a slightly bigger carrot at the end of that stick. This is all, of course, assuming that collectibles are necessary in the first place. Since every open-world game seems to have them regardless, it's probably within one's professional pride to make them a worthy addition. If nothing else, you can always make a little puzzle or game out of recovering them, like the Riddler trophies of the Batman: Arkham series. In cases like those, figuring out how to reach the collectible can be its own reward.

The Bit At The End

All right, that's another five mechanics (or, if I'm being a little more honest, features that can encompass all sorts of mechanics) down. As before, feel free to post in the comments with your own answers to this question: What are some of your favorite less-utilized game mechanics, perhaps unique to a single game?

I'm going to try to get less general in the future, looking at some mechanics that maybe never left the singular game or franchise they originated in. I'll also endeavor to peek outside my comfort zone of RPGs and open-world games to seek some worthy candidates along the roads less traveled. Wouldn't hurt me to play more games of other genres anyway, especially if I intend to write about games as a whole. Wouldn't do to present only a small sample of the many flavors out there. As always, thanks for your views and comments and I'll be back with something different next week. I won't be shelving "Mento + The Mechanics" indefinitely though, trust me on that.

(Apologies to the guy who said he appreciated that I don't get too pretentious with these. Might've gotten a little too close to the line a few times. Good thing I dropped the whole "dichotomy between the player's desire to create and to destroy" business from the city-building stuff.)

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