Mento's May Mastery Finale/Comic Commish: Papers, Please

Like the great nation of Arstotzka, I've learned how to be economical with my limited resources. For that reason, today is both the final day of Mento's May Mastery and this month's Comic Commish. I originally acquired everyone's favorite border patrol simulator Papers, Please (developed by 3909 LLC in 2013) in one of the site's frequent Steamgifts giveaways, which still technically counts as a gift. A gift that was perhaps less "heartfelt" and more "determined by an automatic lottery monitored by a cold, unfeeling computer program", but just as appreciated all the same.

Before we get any deeper into the game - and yes, it will be in the traditional Comic Commish screenshot LP format followed by a one-of-a-kind MS Paint comic - I want to wind up this feature officially. It's been an interesting May, yet although we've seen a few noteworthy releases it feels more like everyone's gearing up for E3. Let's not forget, however, that we saw possible GOTY Witcher 3 this month, and the hiring of a new Giant Bomb East staff member (though technically he doesn't start until June 1st). I've been a little too engrossed in getting this daily series to notice much else happening. I think my country had a general election? Who knows.

I think I've discussed my June plans in enough detail already, but I won't be starting my Atari ST retrospective until a few days into the month. I need to recover from the daily grind, my beloved peeps, and that means dropping off and doing some resting of the ol' literary muscles. Maybe also play a damn console game, it's been long enough. I am super stoked about showing off some games from my youth, though, to an audience largely incognizant of the Atari ST and its library. That said, many of the games I intend to show might look familiar regardless. I especially want to focus on how weird some of the ST's Arcade conversions are, and how much better games look compared to their NES/C64 equivalent. But all in good time.

April: Papers, Please

Welcome to Papers, Please. This logo slowly marched up the screen, like the indefatigable march of Arstotzka and its hardy citizenry.
Glory to Arstotzka.
I'm Arstotzka's newest border guard, the last line of defense between illegal immigrants and my fair nation, filled as it is with root vegetables and communism. Truly, a most desirable place for these queueing reprobates.
I had to turn away the nice lady from Republia as we do not currently allow non-natives within our borders. Arstotzka is for Arstotzkans, you foreign harridan.
After a busy day of bureaucracy, I return home to spend what little I have earned on heating the tiny government-issued apartment and feeding my family. Soon it will be one or the other. Arstotzka will provide.
Letting people through who have something wrong with their details results in a citation, meaning you lose some money and start looking like an incompetent fool. Arstotzka demands better.
Now that we have to insist on entry permits for foreigners, a new button appears: the idea is to highlight discrepancies and interrogate the visitor. More than likely, he'll have nothing to say for themselves.
Some idiots don't even remember to bring their passports. Pfeh. Is insult to intelligence of border patrol clerk.
Fairly soon we get our first terrorist attack, forcing us to bump up security and add more steps to the ingress process. Of course, that means more work for me ensuring everything's on the level.
Hey, our little corner of the world made the papers.
I've been getting these letters every day, and it adds more and more variables to keep an eye on, while still working quickly to ensure my family doesn't starve or freeze to death. Fortunately, all my Cook, Serve, Delicious! training has paid off.
One of the things you have to scrutinize is the location these people claim to hail from. You have a list of issuing cities per nearby country, and if the passport doesn't come from one of them...
This is Jorji. He's the closest thing this game has to levity. His flattery will get him nowhere!
So now my dumb sick kid is demanding medicine. I spoil that son of mine.
Yeah right. What do I look like, an Republian? Next.
Oh what fresh nonsense have you brought for me today Jorji, That's not a valid passport, you have no entry permit, there's no such country as Cobrastan and... this appears to be printed on some sort of cracker.
Leave the crude MS Paint depictions to me, pal.
Topical. And oddly emphasized here.
Like his real-life equivalent Pistorius, this guy doesn't have a leg to stand on. Bake him away, toys.
I'm tempted to prevent access to anyone who hates on my beloved Arstotzka, but my dumb kid had turned purple this morning. Don't make me regret this, pink coat.
Here's the first true moral dilemma in the game. This guy checks out perfectly.
However, his wife is missing a permit. Do I let her through to join her husband, or stick to my principles?
This one... well, there's less of a moral imperative to let her through. But then, what is passport, truly?
The game offers me an upgrade here, allowing me to choose to make the inspection mode faster (which will net me more cash in the long run by expediting that process slightly) or let my dumb kid die. I shouldn't have let my wife drink so much turnip vodka while she was pregnant.

Anyway, that's the end of the first five days and about as much as I can bear right now. Needless to say the game can be quite harrowing, though the passport-checking is actually kind of addictive too, in an obsessive pedantic way. Every time you let someone through there's that slight moment of trepidation where you wait to see if the Arstotzkan government writes you up a citation for being a dumbass. Every successful applicant means money in the bank, so you literally can't afford to let too many mistakes happen (not to mention that they'll start charging you penalties you can't possibly afford).

The game has a real barebones visual design to it that works perfectly with the gritty Eastern European Soviet Bloc aesthetic the game is going for. Despite the image being a little too wide and colorful to work, it almost feels like you could play this game on the tiny monitor of some ex-Soviet Electronika 60 computer, of the sort Alexey Pajitnov programmed the original Tetris on. This visual design is most strongly apparent in the basic computer fonts - designed to minimize space - that the game employs for its in-game documentation that can also be found in countless MS-DOS games (like my dear favorite Master of Magic, among others).

It's easy to see why this game impressed a lot of people. It takes the Morton's fork storytelling of The Banner Saga, which I've raved on about enough by now, and a very addictive mini-game of sorts where you're hunting for anything wrong on a person's passport: it's easy to feel rushed and push someone through without being fully secure in the knowledge that you didn't mess up. Spending time checking all angles simply leads to having less money on the day's paycheck, so at some point you just have to say "fuck it" and go with your gut.

Anyway, I suspect I'll keep on playing this in spurts, along with Cook, Serve, Delicious!. The two are actually very similar in terms of the skill requirements, where processing items as quickly and as accurately as you can is the key to victory. That just leaves the MS Paint comic I created to commemorate this gift and its kindly donor, and my thanks to the Giant Bomb Giveaway Group for letting me win something:

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part Seven)

Well, this is it. The final part of our journey through Nintendo's 1996 "starting with a showstopper" N64 launch game Super Mario 64. This last update entirely covers the top floor of Peach's Castle, where the last two courses and the final encounter with the King of Koopas await. The game ratchets up the difficulty again here, presenting two courses where almost any mis-timed jump will mean a long trip into the abyss. Additionally, both courses make excellent use of the vertiginous feelings possible with the 3D format: it used to be that you couldn't look down. It's an option now with a free-roaming camera, but perhaps not a recommended one.

What's incredible about the "you need this many gewgaws to continue" system is how it alleviates late-game trauma. As every Mario game will slowly escalate the difficulty until you're passing through the intense vehicle stages of Super Mario Bros. 3 or challenging the confusing halls of Super Mario Bros.'s World 8-4, every subsequent Mario game offered ways to mitigate this difficulty curve as well:

  • Super Mario Bros. introduced warp zones (along with almost everything else Mario-related) to help you preserve your finite lives for the harder stages by skipping most of the still-challenging mid-game. A resourceful enough player that knows where all the 1-Up Mushrooms were could use that mid-game to stock up. (Then again, if you were that resourceful, you'd probably know how to get an infinite number of those little green guys.)
  • Super Mario Bros. 2 provided warps as well, far better hidden this time around, and also provided the Princess as a playable character, whose hover jumps made a lot of the platforming-heavy areas trivial. (You could draw some ugly conclusions from the idea that the one female character would also be the easiest to play as, but this is moot as the original source (Yume Koujou Doki Doki Panic) actually had two female characters, one of which would eventually become Luigi. You could draw some conclusions there as well.)
  • Super Mario Bros. 3 had the warp-enabling whistles, but more so allowed the players to collect items that could be spent before a level to make them easier to cope with. This ranged from burning one of the many different suit power-ups of the game, to using the priceless P-Wing or Jugem's (Lakitu's) Cloud: both of which could allow you to skip over a troublesome stage entirely. Saving a stock of items for the final world came highly recommended.
  • Super Mario World was even bigger on warps and alternate paths, providing multiple options to reach Bowser's Castle if one path grew too taxing. The final location even had a "back door": providing an easier route to the boss if you could reach it.

With Super Mario 64, you have the option of skipping the last few courses entirely. The final milestone target is seventy Stars of a possible 120: scarcely over half of the total amount. The DS version bumped this up to eighty, but you could still gather that many Stars by completing the first twelve courses and grabbing a handful of secret Stars. If you knew about the 100-Coin Challenges and where most of the hidden castle Stars were, you could even be done after the first eight courses (7 Stars x 8 courses + 14 secrets = 70). That would mean never even having to touch any course after the basement - practically half the game.

However, for any serious player, nothing short of the full 120 amount would suffice. Even if you went straight to the game's conclusion after the requisite seventy Stars, you would never feel that Super Mario 64 had been truly "completed" with the other fifty still out there. Those extra Stars could be considered post-game challenges, or a type of high-score to share with your N64-owning friends. That's the accessibility-focused genius of the milestone collectible progression system, and why so many imitators (like most of Rare's N64 oeuvre) would be so fixated on the concept.

We're going to cap off our run here with Stars 104-120, all entirely superfluous depending on your view, and bring Mario's first 3D adventure to a close. Before we start, however, here's a quick recap:

  1. Part One included the introduction, the castle exterior and interiors and the first two courses: Bob-Omb Battlefield and Whomp's Fortress. It also covered the first three secret Stars, including the Flying Cap switch zone. (7 + 7 + 3 = 17 Stars total.)
  2. Part Two completed the ground floor with a three-fer of Jolly Roger Bay, Cool, Cool Mountain and Big Boo's Haunt. We also covered the aquarium secret Star and the first Bowser's Road course. (7 + 7 + 7 + 2 = 23 Stars. 40 Stars total.)
  3. Part Three ventured into the basement for Hazy Maze Cave and Lethal Lava Land, popping by to chat with a helpful Star Toad, the evasive MIPS and his two Stars, and the Vanish Cap and Metal Cap switch zones. (7 + 7 + 5 = 19 Stars. 59 Stars total.)
  4. Part Four concluded the basement with Shifting Sand Land and Dire Dire Docks, as well as the second Bowser Road. (7 + 7 + 1 = 15 Stars. 74 Stars total.)
  5. Part Five climbed Mario to new heights as he took on Snowman's Land and Wet-Dry World on the castle's first floor, taking a moment to gab with the second Star Toad. (7 + 7 + 1 = 15 Stars. 89 Stars total.)
  6. Part Six concluded the interstitial castle floor with the twin horrors of Tall Tall Mountain and Tiny-Huge Island. No secret Stars this time. (7 + 7 = 14 Stars. 103 Stars total.)

Toad #3

"Hey little guy, you know where the bathrooms are? I had to improvise earlier. Let's just say Wet-Dry World is a little more wet and a little less dry than it once was..."

The last of the three helpful Star Toads, this one is again right out in the open equidistant between the entrance to Tick Tock Clock and the entrance to Rainbow Ride, to ensure that the player as a number of opportunities to see and go talk to him. In addition to the Star, he'll also give you a pretty important hint as to how Tick Tock Clock works. As I surmised with the previous Star Toad, this is either a magnanimous little confidence booster from the designers as Mario heads into more diabolical courses, or a smart aleck way of hiding a Star out in the open by giving it to a tutorial-dispensing character to hold long after the player feels they have a sufficient grasp on the game. It's almost like hiding an infinite lives cheat in the instruction manual.

Wing Mario Over the Rainbow

The entrances to this Star and Rainbow Ride are identical, save for the beam of light projected from this course. I'm not sure why it's so bright down there, but I'd guess it's because it opens up into the sky above the castle.

The last secret Star course in the game, Wing Mario Over the Rainbow is the ultimate challenge when it comes to the oft-awkward flying mechanics of Mario's Flying Cap. A small arena filled with clouds at various heights, the goal is to use the course's cannons and Flying Cap to maneuver around collecting the red coins. Dropping out of the sky, either because a cap ran out at an opportune time or a mis-timed landing, leads to a fate almost worse than death: Mario is deposited outside the castle without harm. While this previously meant being able to revisit the Vanishing Cap or Flying Cap zones as often as the player wished without losing lives, here it means a minutes-long trek back to the top of the castle for another shot at the Star. It's debateably the toughest Star in the game to get (though a few of the 100-Coin Challenges might argue otherwise) and has the harshest penalty for screwing up. At least you won't be seeing a Game Over screen.

Tick Tock Clock

The Course

Making record time on this fog walk!

I love the idea behind Tick Tock Clock. The course itself can be extremely difficult without knowing how it works, but it only takes a few leaps into the clockface portrait to figure out that there's something odd about how the course operates. The course takes place within inner-workings of an immense clockwork structure, not unlike Castlevania's compulsory clock tower stage which almost always occurs late-game and is similarly filled with traps and pitfalls. It's a vertically-oriented course, except unlike most of the spiral courses, you're working your way up an inner-helix. That's probably a fancier way of saying "you're climbing the walls of this internal structure" but whatever. I'm happy for the opportunity to insert the word "helix" anywhere outside of a Twitch Plays Pokemon retrospective.

So, then, the course's big gimmick: the clockface portrait has a pair of hands that quickly cycle through the minutes, at a rate about of about six seconds per full revolution. Depending on which of the four cardinal direction numbers the minute hand is pointing at - 3, 6, 9 or 12 - the course will be subtly different. Specifically, this determines the speed of every moving part within the course besides enemies: turning platforms, spinning cubes, swinging pendulums, steady clock hands, spring-loaded wall bars and others are all moving to the pace subject to the player's moment of ingress.

I mean, considering all my screenshots are static, you can assume I took them all on the twelve o'clock setting.
  • At the twelve o'clock mark, the clock's mechanics completely halt. Absolutely nothing moves, and the course's omnipresent and reverberating ticking is eerily absent. While this seems like the perfect configuration - no more getting thrown off platforms that intermittently turn around - the player is actually trapped in the lower half of the course without moving platforms to take them higher. There are probably ways to get higher without depending on the platforms, but if there is it's not immediately apparent nor easy to do. Instead, this configuration is required for a single Star that would be impossible otherwise (though it greatly helps with a couple of others) and considered a fool's errand for the rest.
  • At the three o'clock mark, the course is at its most stable. The speed is slow and constant and is best suited for exploring the entire course for whatever Stars you're chasing after. It's considered the safe default, and once the player has determined how Tick Tock Clock works (the Star Toad gives you a hint, if you bothered to talk to him), their best bet is to (almost) always ensure that the hour hand is pointing towards the three.
  • At the nine o'clock mark, we have the same situation, only now the fixed speed is incredibly fast. There's very little reason to attempt Star-hunting with this setting unless you're speedrunning (though most speedrunners have found ways to avoid having to wait for moving platform patterns to complete) or are looking for a challenge. From a design perspective, it's to create at least one deliberately undesirable outcome to galvanize players into solving the puzzle you're created. Were all four configurations beneficial or were otherwise non-issues, the player might not ever bother trying to figure out why the course's platforms are acting weird.
  • This undesirability is most keenly felt at the six o'clock mark, which will wildly fluctate the speed between the twelve o'clock, three o'clock and the nine o'clock settings, as well as an additional reverse speed. As well as dealing with the occasional fast-moving platform, it's almost impossible to predict the behavior of any of the moving parts in the course at any given point. This is the hardest of hardcore modes, therefore, and is designed purely to force the player to deduce the clock puzzle or else suffer from "Kobayashi Mario" scenarios like this one-quarter of the time.

There's some small mercies too. The course is almost entirely absent of enemies beyond a few of those fireball-spitting spheres (the guide calls them Kuramames, as they apparently have no English name), some bob-ombs near the start and a thwomp at the very top of the course. There's also a single Heave Ho from Wet-Dry World but he's easy enough to avoid. Like the following Rainbow Ride, the designers evidently considered the course layout itself difficult enough to traverse without garnishing it with more enemies. That, and the small amount of space on the handful of stable platforms wouldn't hold many enemies before they got too crowded.

The Stars

Oh wait, the conveyor goes inward? I guess they did make this first one easy.

Roll Into the Cage is a bit of a misnomer, as this Star requires you run acrossing a turning hexagonal platform and then past a conveyor belt. There's no big rolling log to be found on this course, which is what the Star's hint would suggest. It's possibly a translation error, though you could consider the conveyor belt to be "rolling" items along its path. I wouldn't be sure what the correct verb for travelling on a conveyor belt might be (besides "conveying"), so I'll give the localizers some slack. I mean, it might well be some oblique reference to a popular 1990s song for all I know. The 90s was... well, not a great time for music on the whole. Interesting, but not great. This is also one of the few Stars that can be reached on the twelve o'clock setting, as it's not high enough up the course to be inaccessible. With the hexagonal platform and conveyor turned off, it's considerably easier, though it was plenty easy already.

These pendulums are the pits. Yeah, I know, that goof's a swing and a miss.

As with the previous, Pit and the Pendulums is another misnomer, but at least this time I know it's a deliberate reference. It's an Edgar Allen Poe short story, in fact, which seems a bit heady for a Super Mario game and perhaps better suited tonally for the spookhouse course. There's no pit involved, unless you count the pit that awaits you underneath if one of the pendulums knocks your jumping trajectory off. Again, this is another Star that's accessible (and easier) if the clock's been stopped at the twelve o'clock mark. However, this is about as high up as you can go with the clock stalled, so don't expect any easy options from here on out. (While it has more to do the fact that these two are accessible before the other Stars - besides the next which sits somewhere in between - I feel like they've been grouped together as the first two Stars so the player can be rewarded for solving the entry speed puzzle early with a couple of sitting ducks.)

Only thirty more real-time minutes before I can grab it. Think I'll go get a magazine.

I stated that this Star isn't accessible with the frozen twelve o'clock setting, but it's sort of still possible to drop into the niche that holds the Star from above. The proper way to do it, which is to say the slow way, is to wait for a horizontal clock hand to make its way across the room to where Mario is standing, and then ride it across to the opposite wall where the niche is. The clock hand is one of two in the course, and the longer of the two, so you can piece it together that it's probably the minute hand. Were one to view the whole course vertically, though, I'm not sure it'd even be visible. Obviously, if the clock is stopped, the minute hand becomes inaccessible.

I got this far on twelve o'clock, but then my speedrunner resourcefulness ran out.

Stomp the Thwomp is the requisite "make it to the top" Star, but given the difficulty and the fact that the course is one big vertical climb, it's pushed to the fourth slot. The rather large thwomp at the top of the course can't actually be stomped, but you will need to ride it up to reach the Star at the very peak of Tick Tock Clock. Because the vertically moving platform that takes you here is inaccessible on the twelve o'clock setting, you're better off moving to three o'clock and learning how the course's rhythm works. It reminds me a lot of those stages in Super Mario 3D Land/World where the platforms pop in and out of reality with a little ticking rhythm, and those stages were almost assuredly derived from this course.

The businesslike name of Timed Jumps on Moving Bars probably comes from the fact that it might be hard to figure out where the Star is without it. Past the point of inaccessibility if you were playing the course at twelve o'clock, the path suddenly splits. The second way, across a number of those Double Dragon style wall pusher blocks, eventually leads to this Star. It's on the way to the Thwomp Star and the player could easily find it first, but here's a big ol' hint if they didn't manage to spot it on the way up.

Like the start of WarGames, this Star is all turning keys and madness. No Michael Madsen though.

The "Stop Time for Red Coins" Star is the game at its most devious. The red coins are immediately apparent upon entering the course, but are spread across a number of spinning turnkey-style platforms. You can reach one or two before getting thrown off, but reaching all of them is practically impossible. The game twists the knife further by allowing you to access these platforms higher up in the course, convincing the player that there might be some way to come down from above to reach the remaining red coins. The final tease comes by making this the final Star of the course: if the player doesn't know the solution, they would have to pass them by for literally every other Star in the course (well, except the 100-Coin Challenge, I suppose). The solution is, of course, to freeze time with the twelve o'clock setting and simply grab them all with utter ease. The Star hinges entirely on the player solving the clock hands puzzle ahead of time, and if they don't (and still can't when this hint name comes up) they're boned.

100-Coin Challenge: The course has one last jab at the player with this challenge, which forces the player to collect every coin on the way up to the summit. There's a small margin of error, but without the ten-twelve coins from the inaccessible red coins, the player has to be fairly precise when grabbing every last coin from the various ? blocks and enemies. The red coins are there to trick the player into switching to the twelve o'clock setting to make them accessible, though of course this means many, many more coins are now out of reach. But hey, if you can't mess around with your players on the penultimate course, when can you? Oh, on the ultimate course, you say? Well, they're way ahead of you.

Rainbow Ride

The Course

We haven't seen flying carpets since, what, SMB2?

While Rainbow Ride is less crafty than Tick Tock Clock it is no less difficult, providing a few branching linear paths (I realize that's an oxymoron when read the wrong way) to the course's various Stars. Most of the course is only accessible via magic carpet, which rides along an obvious determined path and will vanish if Mario leaves it for more than a couple of seconds to be reset back to its origin point. The course is very open, which can be both a disadvantage (it is disquietingly easy to fall to your doom here) and an advantage (a particularly foolhardy player can make long jumps to skip over parts of the course).

Both this and the previous course uses the game's recurring bonus stage music, a "frantic-ass bluegrass" (to paraphrase the Game Grumps) rhythm meant to spring you into action, as if to hammer home the earlier point I made about these last two courses being almost entirely optional with the many other sources for Stars the player can resort to when attempting to reach the necessary seventy (or eighty) target for the final Bowser Road. While the developers designed these two to be very challenging, they also made them surplus to requirement, possibly in case the 3D controls were too much for a new audience to get to grips with. It's not completely impossible, but Rainbow Ride is on par with the various Bowser Road courses: a lot of linear obstacle courses with a harsh penalty for failure.

Why does the castle have all these holes to thin air? Dumping political prisoners? Is Princess Peach of House Arryn?

Rainbow Ride is also the most abstract of the courses with its design. It has the compulsory giant's castle - a staple in above the clouds fiction thanks to Jack and the Beanstalk - and an airship - another staple, although in this case for the Super Mario series specifically - the various structures that litter this course makes it feel less like a real place with some rationality behind its construction and more like a... well, a video game course. The rousing music and silly environment seem to lend to the idea that this course, more than any other, is a non-essential "bonus" challenge.

Then again, Super Mario Kart began a recurring theme in Mario games to make a rainbow-themed course its ultimate or post-ultimate destination, and Super Mario World goes deeper into that formula by making the rainbow-connected Star World stages a late-game optional challenge. Perhaps Rainbow Ride plays into all that, as rainbow worlds will for future Mario Kart games and a handful of the core series. You'll notice, too, that most of the recent Mario games have a rainbow-themed bonus world in them that will often appear post-final boss.

The Stars

The wing oars are cute until you consider all the tied up giant birds in there.

The Stars for Rainbow Ride are a little less interesting because of the way they all appear at the termination point of a route. If you're on a route, preferably one you haven't been down yet, you're all but guaranteed to reach a Star at the end of it. For that reason, the Star hints are at their least crucial here, except perhaps for trying to figure out where you've already been. With this Cruiser Crossing the Rainbow Star, the player simply needs to follow the route of flying carpets that leads them to the airship. The Star can be found on its bow.

Likewise, the Big House in the Sky (which sounds like a place where dead prisoners go; doesn't really reflect this cheery rainbow course) involves taking the other carpet ride where the course splits, which flies in a circuitous path around the eponymous castle in an attempt to throw you off before reaching the castle's roof. If you do fall off, there's a well-hidden way to avoid dying or having to quit the course: you have to go outside to the castle's balcony, where a sudden gust of wind drops you off elsewhere in the course. It's a bit of a detour, but it's better than having to start the course over with one fewer life. The castle interior, oddly enough, has more furniture than even Peach's Castle does. You'd think they'd reuse some of those furnishings, huh?

I'll never stop posting pictures of Mario in mid-panic.

The red coin maze is a simple enough series of leaps and hops through a vertical maze. By which I mean, the entire maze is only a few lengths thick but very big when taking in the horizontal and vertical axes. That it has a cutaway side is an interesting attempt to either revisit Mario's 2D glory days or an experiment in forced perspective where you can no longer see where Mario's jumping too from over his shoulder, but have to rely on a traditional side view. The maze also has a couple of well-hidden elements in its upper floors, accessible only by wall-jumping up from the bottom left corner: if you hit the blue switch and wall jump all the way up, there's a huge number of blue coins that will be instrumental in completing the 100-Coin Challenge for this course. The Pink Bob-Omb cannon operator is up here too, and is also vital for a later Star.

Boy howdy does this shortcut save some time.

Swingin' in the Breeze is about as close as the game gets to a scrotum joke, and it also marks the first of the two Stars accessible by taking the south route from the big crossroads in the center of the course. This crossroads is actually four spinning plates that go off in the cardinal directions: you approach from the east, can go north for the two above flying carpet Stars, can go west for the aforementioned coin maze and go south for this and the following Star. It's like the course has its own little four-way hub, though the south path is better hidden because of the way the camera points away from it. There's also a shortcut straight here too, accessible by long-jumping from the very first platform you drop onto when starting the course. Swingin' in the Breeze involves moving across a few pendulous swing platforms, and given that these things are also in the Bowser Road course, don't expect much difficulty. It is worth noting, though, that the first swing has a safety platform underneath while the second does not. It's classic escalation.

Circles. She's spinnin' me around in circles, again. Oh that skinny blonde girl. Something about the ages. I failed college algebra again.

Tricky Triangles takes the other route from Swingin' in the Breeze, eventually culminating in a series of pyramids (not triangles) that flip around when a ! switch is hit. These pyramids revert back to their normal pointing-up status very quickly, to the extent that the player has to leap off before reaching the last one and hope they reach the opposite platform where the Star waits. While the game is kind enough to put a platform underneath the pyramid-filled structure, the way Mario will launch off them at a tangent when they revert might throw him clear of this safety net. Tricky, indeed.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is the final course Star and a somewhat melancholy note to end on. It involves reaching the airship and using the cannon in its stern (I hope you found the Pink Bob-Omb to blast through a rainbow ring and land on a floating platform. This platform has a Chuckya on it, as one last "screw you" to the player if they happen to land right next to it, but the game will have taught the player enough times to aim at something Mario can grab when using the cannon: in this case, the flagpole that helps the player identify which island to shoot Mario towards. This can be a mean Star to find if the player doesn't know where the cannon is or if one exists at all, but then there's no reason to not explore that airship when you first reach it. If you head straight for the visible Star on its bow instead of checking the rest of it out, you only have yourself to blame. Funny how often that seems to be the case with these more elusive Stars.

100-Coin Challenge: The only piece of advice is to end on the airship, as I believe it's the only area you can't return from. Then again, maybe I haven't really looked. The lion's share of the coins can be found via that blue coin switch I discussed earlier, and the target isn't really possible without grabbing most of them by wall-jumping to the top of the maze area. There's actually more coins than you might expect, and as long as you don't fall off while checking every corner (and getting those blues) isn't as difficult as it seems. Well, no more difficult than getting around the course is to begin with.

Bowser in the Sky

Not sure a giant arrow is necessary when the course is entirely linear. Then again, it could just be Bowser insulting Mario's intelligence.

Bowser in the Sky presents one of the toughest challenges in the game, apposite for the final destination. It's another series of obstacles placed in a linear, consecutive order, much like the previous Bowser Roads, but now there's nothing to stop Mario from plummeting to his doom and most of the obstacles are Rainbow Ride-difficult. In addition, the player is once again expected to find another eight red coins hidden throughout. The game pulls off two absolute stinkers in this regard, hiding one red coin behind a big solid platform that makes it impossible to find without moving the camera around, and the second is directly under the stairs to the boss pipe. It's easy to get psyched out into thinking you've missed one when you're that close to the end.

The final encounter with Bowser makes the previous two feel like the trial runs that they were. Not only does Bowser need to get clobbered by bombs three times, but he'll grow increasingly stronger and adopt more attack patterns the more he gets hit. After the second hit, he destroys most of the arena, forcing Mario to be very careful when approaching his tail. The odd rainbow tint that colors this final encounter just serves to make the final boss more unnerving, as does the brand new final boss music.

You... huh... you, put on... put on the damn glasses!

The best part of the Bowser fight is that, after he's beaten, he'll give you two different parting messages depending on how many Stars you've earned. The <120 Stars message is very clearly of a mocking tone, as if to suggest that there are still holdouts in the castle and Mario won't ever truly win. If you do have 120, he'll sound aghast that he missed so many and teleport away with his tail between his legs. Just one of the small bonuses for fully completing the game (the second, of course, I already discussed in Part One when describing the castle exterior: let's just say Jeff's favorite little green dinosaur stops by to congratulate Mario and award him a hundred 1-Ups he no longer needs).

Which brings us to the end of this scenic route through Super Mario 64, still one of the greatest Nintendo games ever made. Heck, one of the best games period. I hope I've impressed on you all that while the game is mechanically trailblazing and a strong foot forward for a fledgling system built to be far more polygon friendly, it was Super Mario 64's adventurous and unpredictable spirit that made it a true winner. If we ever see anything this inventive from a major publisher's tentpole release any time soon I'll be profoundly shocked.

"Thank you so much-a for-to reading my series!"

Be sure to consult the list at the top of the page if you want to revisit some of the earlier courses. All that's left is to watch the bittersweet ending montage and eat some cake. (Does no-one think it's a mite weird that Peach had a little Peach and Mario placed on top of the cake? What could she be hinting at, hmm.)

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Mento's May Mastery: Day 30: The Banner Saga

One more update after today, though it's going to be a special one so really this will be the final Mento's May Mastery. I've faltered a few times on this concept - blame that on these soul-bearing intros that I'm often struggling to fill - but overall I think this one is a keeper. As fond as I am of breezing through thirty items in my backlog in a single month, the amount of times I found myself working feverishly through the many half-finished games I felt were worth my time after the end of May started to grate on me. It was always a habit of mine to keep playing the games I liked mid-series when I had other priorities to focus on, but I'd always feel more and more on-edge as the feature beat on, leaving so many games half-complete in its wake. It's like that song, Come Sail Away by Styx: I just can't do anything else until it's finished.

Instead, I'm looking at June and wondering how I'm going to fit in even more daily content. The fact is, I don't think I'll be able to manage another month-long slog through the annals of the Atari ST, but I've thought up an alternative that will not only save me from burning out but will also greatly increase the number of ST games I'll eventually cover. It basically involves morphing the "day" part of "daily" into "week", but I won't reveal any more than that about my amazing secret plan.

June will of course also mean the advent of E3 as it hits roughly in the center of the month. That means my "Alternative to E3" blog series, which will almost certainly involve more unusual and possibly gross adventure games, and the mod-endorsed E3 banner contest. The Giant Bomb community is not lacking for fantastic artists, but at the same time there's going to be more conferences than ever this year. Even if you don't feel confident in your art compared to community heavy-hitters like @buzz_clik, @humanity, @aurahack, @b0nd07 and @fobwashed, there's no harm in submitting something anyway. Who knows, you might make us laugh and snatch away a dark horse victory.

My one regret about June, the result of having too much else planned, is missing out on the Final Fantasy Five Four Job Fiesta event. It's a charity event where people marathon Final Fantasy V with a randomly selected group of "jobs": the game's malleable class-changing system. The four randomly chosen jobs would, in this case, stay permanent throughout. I heard about it last year and was eager to partake, if perhaps without organizing the charity element (I wouldn't know how to prove I wasn't cheating, for one). It'd mean scaring up a copy of Final Fantasy V from somewhere (I have the PS1 Anthology IV/V compilation somewhere, I'm certain. Yes, the European one was IV/V instead of V/VI) but it sounds like a lot of fun to pull off something so restrictive (which is a fun sentence to take out of context). You couldn't beat Final Fantasy III with a randomized team, that's for sure. The event begins about three weeks into June, a few days after E3 ends, so I won't rule it out just yet. Who knows? Maybe we can get a ring going on Giant Bomb. It'd be fun to see what job assignments everyone else rolled up.

The Banner Saga

Our final visit to The Banner Saga for this feature. I'm actually going to keep playing this one, despite by bellyaching that the unrelenting bleakness was draining all the fun out of the experience. Honestly, the bleakness would be unbearable if there wasn't a decent game to fit around it, unlike The Walking Dead (ooh, zombie burn), but with The Banner Saga I'm enjoying the combat a lot more now that I've figured it out. It won't mean that every fight will be a breeze, as I'm sure I'll just end up unlucky and biting off more than I can chew at some point, but for the time being the FTL-style decisions and tactical combat is enough to help me weather the grim tidings.

I've actually been spending the longest time trying to think of what this game reminds me of. Not artistically, mind you: I picked up on the Bakshi thing almost immediately (I think I only just watched Fire & Ice again a few months ago). Rather the fiction, divorced from its heavy Nordic inspiration. I think it's from as far as back as my literary days, possibly either Dragonlance or the second Death Gate book. In both cases, there's a humongous force of enemies that suddenly appears and blindsides a world that's enjoyed peace for years. Most of the citizenry are slaughtered in the surprise attacks, but the rest band together, look for survivors and try to conjure up (sometimes literally) a means to repel the invincible horde of monsters. In both cases the outlook is extremely bleak, with people unsure that civilization itself will persevere let alone their immediate band of survivors. It's not quite as dolorous as zombie apocalypse fiction, but there's a definite building sense of dread and the recurring sentiment that the world as they know it is effectively over. Actually, the plot of that second Death Gate book, where colossal titans march out of the endless forests that surround the civilized areas of the world and start crushing every settlement and murdering every person in an insane yet purposeful march, sounds suspiciously similar to a certain recent franchise that's been picking up steam of late.

Hey, it was like this when I got here.

For as much of a downer it is, I like the overall plot and the world The Banner Saga has created. I do want to see where it goes, and that means I intend to keep playing it after this month is over. I have a lot of regrets already about the decisions I've made and it feels like every one of them should be sown into a banner of my own, to ponder their significance and consider the paths not chosen. The game arouses all sorts of deeply reflective notions like that, and it doesn't shy away from really rubbing it in when things don't go your way. I know I've been harping on about its story for the majority of these three updates, but it's the most significant aspect of the game and a testament to a form of storytelling that cannot exist in any other medium. Video games don't have to constantly tackle social issues or have the gameplay be based on walking around and looking at things or force you to consider bad decisions (though I'm still personally happy to look at any game that does any of those three things adroitly enough), but by pushing video game narration in this direction we start to unlock the unique potential this format has for storytelling. It's exciting to explore this space, as so many other revenues start to dry up out of disinterest. How many more changes to Call of Duty's multiplayer can we make before it's too stale? How many more iterations of Assassin's Creed can the gaming public stomach? (I know, I know, I'm praising contemplative Indies while condemning AAA. I'm the worst thinkpiece-writing, clickbait-setting snarky Brit since Jim Fucking Sterling, Son.)

Let's focus on the gameplay then. Actually, I've all but exhausted everything about it: the combat system's a little wonky but fascinating in how it recontexualizes its battles as wearying wars of attrition rather than a bunch of heroes with infinite stamina blasting through horde after horde of disposable monsters. For as much as I love the Vandal Hearts games, they sure feel like goofy Seven Samurai escapism compared to The Banner Saga. Maybe Final Fantasy Tactics still compares, because there's no beating the game's incredibly layered plot, but The Banner Saga sure is giving it a run for its gil. What is it about SRPGs that inspires this level of writing, I wonder? I've talked about the caravan in the past too, as slight as it is. Customizing characters? Sure, let's go with that.

I love little details like these. Those weird silhouettes in the foreground? They ain't bushes. (Wait, is that Midna on the far left?)

Characters spend renown to level up as previously discussed, but as you only gain a couple of stat points per level it seems wasteful to raise characters too high if everyone else has to starve (as renown is also what you trade for supplies). The characters all have strength (doubles as health) and armor, the two core stats, but there's also stats for willpower, exertion and armor break. These pull the Dark Souls trick of looking far more innocuous and inessential than the core stats, but are actually hugely beneficial if you know how they work. Willpower allows you to spend extra points to fudge damage and movement by plus one per point spent, and these points regenerate whenever an enemy dies. Exertion is how many of these points you can spend at once. It's extremely useful to begin a fight by marching up to an enemy and pouring a whole bunch of willpower into rendering it barely functional. Armor break determines how much your character can wear away at an enemy's armor if they choose to target that instead of their strength. Heavily armored characters need a few whacks to that stat before you can do any reasonable damage to them, but I've found that lowering strength is more important four times out of five. These stats can't be boosted much, but they're such vital components that I often find myself bumping them up instead of the obvious strength and armor options. I know it's rote to compare everything to Dark Souls, but understanding how the game's stats work, and why certain ones are better than they appear, is an important consideration when learning how to get better at it.

Anyway, tomorrow will cover a different game, but rest assured that I will see these varl and humans to their destinies "off-screen", as it were. Whether those destinies involve victory or an early grave is probably too soon to call.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 29: The Banner Saga

Oy, what a day it's been. I don't want to go into detail here, but we have a new staff member and the mods have been prepped all day to ensure his integration into the site runs smoothly. The site's been super cool about it, as we knew they would be, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared. Man, but it got a little weird that no-one picked up on the big news for some three hours after the Beastcast went up this morning. Anyway, as a result, I'm more tired than usual today and I could only squeeze in a couple more hours of The Banner Saga. Today's update might be a little bereft of concise critiquery as well. Is critiquery even a word?

I also found time to beat Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow last night after yesterday's May Mastery entry had already gone up. It was a lot of fun to revisit an IGAvania, and I'm more prepared than ever for Bloodstained to finally arrive in 2017 or whatever. I bothered to get 100% map completion, because that's what you do in a SpaceWhipper consarnit, but I think I'll draw the line before 100% soul completion. All you really get out of it is a strong mana regen ring. Well, that and twenty hours of your life down the drain.

Anyway, it's the end of the week, so that means it's time for another seven day round-up. This one's slightly less interesting, as five of the days were monopolized (well, dipolized. Duopolized?) by the last two games, but here goes:

  • Day 23 saw a twofer with the curious but unappealing puzzle-roguelite The Nightmare Cooperative and the slight but delightful adventure Lilly Looking Through.
  • Day 24 had me extol the virtues of a busy kitchen simulator in Cook, Serve, Delicious!, a game I am still playing in increments.
  • Day 25 was the first twenty-four hours of my three-day sojourn through the lands of Stark and Arcadia with Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. That game got weird quick.
  • Day 26 continued the adventures of Zoe Castillo, April Ryan, Kian Alvane and others in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey part two.
  • Day 27 involved... well, more Dreamfall: The Longest Journey as it turned out. I managed to beat it, at least, though any closure is going to have to wait.
  • Day 28 was the first day spent with the bitterly cold and bitterly sad The Banner Saga.
  • As for Day 29 (i.e. today, as of writing), well, spoilers but The Banner Saga isn't getting any cheerier. Tomorrow's probably going to be my last day with it whatever happens.

The Banner Saga

Though I barely made any progress in Chapter 3, which follows a squad of the giant-like varl as they make their way to their capital, I was sad to suddenly lose one of my best fighters in a story event. I've been told that such occurrences are common, in much the same way as they are in something like Telltale's The Walking Dead, but it doesn't hurt any less. Like I said previously, it's not just losing a character I'd grown attached to in the narrative, but losing a character I enjoyed using in combat and had invested some time and resources into building. Even worse, it was a decision I made that did for him, though I of course have no idea if there was a way to save him with a different path - I suspect so, but I've been told not to consider reloads or looking up the results of these decisions beforehand. True to my word, I've simply accepted the loss and tried to move on, not unlike the mourning in-game characters themselves.

I rocked the shit out of this battle! Two waves of enemies and zero injuries! No, you may not ask what difficulty I'm on!

The battle system is curiously built to weather missing fighters because it actually accounts for having fewer heroes with you and will ensure that it isn't too much of a detriment. A small party is pretty screwed regardless, of course, but if you have one or two fewer than the maximum it will allow you to move those units more frequently. The turns always alternate between the heroes and the enemy, with the hero characters going through an order determined by the player before the battle begins. The player also has some control over where the player characters start on the grid-like battlefield, though there's usually some limitations with where they can be placed. If you have fewer units, therefore, they'll get to act more frequently. This is great if the only characters you have are all the badasses you've trained to be invulnerable, because they can just cleave through larger parties of enemies.

In addition, I've picked up the secret to the combat system: maim enemies, but leave them broken and alive until the end. An enemy with low strength (which, as stated last time, also acts as health) will do almost no damage to allied units. There's a certain amount of chip damage you can expect, which will start to add up after a while, but by weakening a unit you weaken the overall side. A weak enemy that can barely do damage will still take as many turns as the big bruisers you've yet to wear down, and you can start working on them as their weak compatriots take all the precious turns away. Conversely, by one-shotting the grunts you allow the bigger nuisances to act more frequently. It's a little malevolent, this keeping folk alive just to toy with them and prevent the healthier enemies from moving as often, but surprisingly effective.

You can bring up this little camping screen whenever, allowing you to practice combat or customize characters. I sometimes like to take a break so I can read more of the map's lore.

I've not found much to do with the caravan management side of things, though I imagine that won't last. The varls seem to have a huge number of supplies for this leg of the journey, though the human bunch that take the alternate chapters have to be a little more frugal. In another odd case of the game doubling up stats to make them more precious, the renown you earn for defeating enemies and winning battles that usually go towards upgrading characters can also be spent on procuring supplies for the caravan. If you spend all the renown on leveling up your units, your entire caravan goes hungry. The dire consequences this has won't be offset by a single character hitting slightly harder because you spent twenty renown on advancing them another skill level. It seems to me that you only want to level characters up a few times and then leave them be, unless they're the protagonist of that particular chapter, because the chances of them leaving or randomly dying are high enough that it doesn't seem like a smart idea to make too big an investment with any one of them. That dead varl was level 3, which meant a lot of renown had to be spent, and I'm more than a little steamed that he got himself offed in a cutscene. Shit happens in The Banner Saga though, and we just have to roll with the gutpunches.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 28: The Banner Saga

The weekend's looking to be an interesting one, so hopefully I can still manage to get in an additional few hours with today's game. This one's another I intend to play for the full three days I've allotted myself for this feature, but I'm honestly completely in the dark about just how long this one might take. I'll get into that after the header, as always.

I've also been playing little bits and pieces of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Cook, Serve, Delicious!, if you were wondering about where I left those off. (I generally can't stand to let playthroughs sit half-finished, even for games I've played before. Hence why I changed the May Madness format this year, I suppose.)

  • Dawn of Sorrow's been as excellent as I remember it, and I keep squirreling away an hour or so per day to beat the next boss and then backtrack/explore a bit to hunt for all the now-accessible goods with any new abilities the boss unlocked, before ending in the save room before the next boss to repeat the process on the morrow. Dawn's kind of an odd one, comparative to Aria and SOTN, in that the souls you acquire can be used to upgrade weapons. It doesn't seem as if the best weapons can be obtained by any other means so the soul farming is more important than ever while scouring the castle for hidden items is now a little less so. I did do the necessary grinding for the ludicrously expensive ring that greatly increases the soul appearance rate, so it's clear I'm as deep into this game as one could sanely get. It also means I've procured myself another Claimh Solais (which I recently discovered is actually pronounced "Cleave Sulish". Gaelic, eh?), the best sword in the game, though it wasn't easy or fun to grab the necessary upgrade souls. Sometimes, though, it's the satisfaction that matters.
  • Cook, Serve, Delicious! is, as I predicted back when I covered it, a perfect game for brief visits. I usually manage one or two days per play before moving onto other stuff, and it's balanced in such a fascinating way. Every day seems to have a dozen new email notices, whether it's the standard stuff like alerts about menu rot or weather reports, to hearing that a new convenience or food upgrade is for sale. These conveniences, which have so far allowed me to cut the time it takes to do chores in half (or in some cases, halved the number of times they appear), are stopping me from expanding my menu because I always make a beeline for them first. There's now plenty of food items that have upgrades waiting to happen, yet I've been too fixated on making my life easier and stress-free to actually make strides towards becoming better at my profession. The unsettling parallels to my own life are not lost on me.

The Banner Saga

I was a little apprehensive about The Banner Saga. That's not to say I was concerned about its genre. I love strategy RPGs, especially when I don't have to worry about people dying (in battle at least, but let's just say death is not a stranger in this world), and the game has an interesting system that appears to want to emphasize the verisimilitude of actual combat by making fatigue and wear a huge factor. Every character begins semi-invincible, with high armor and strength (which, curiously, doubles as both damage output and health), which whittles away the longer the character stays in combat. As you keep fighting, you get weaker and less able to fight, and defeat comes quick if your armor or strength has been reduced to low levels. Even a powerful unit, if the target of repeat attacks, will become effectively useless as they barely hold themselves together. It's a little stressful, but it also demands a certain level of strategy that most games of this type don't generally concern themselves with: that of keeping everyone alive and relatively unscathed. Fire Emblem and its ilk will often let characters die if the player's foolish enough to leave them weakened and surrounded by enemies, but a battle can turn on you in a second if your heavy hitter takes a big chunk of strength damage and can no longer hurt a fly. It's all about sticking together and hoping for the best, which plays quite close to the game's overarching themes of survival and unity.

Something I'll probably forget to mention next time: the world map is absolutely full of detail. Every named location, from cities to mountain ranges, has its own paragraph of lore attached to it. Obviously, there's a lot of chapters to come to make the most of all this work.

But yes, that apprehension. From what I heard about The Banner Saga from its QL and its numerous appearances on people's GOTY lists last year is that it's one of a number of Indie games to go fully on the tragedy side of the spectrum with its storytelling. Stories in games have always had dramatic moments, of course, but they tend to be the Hollywood kind where a hero might be brought asunder only to rise again triumphantly in the final act to save the day. More so than even those formulaic Hollywood blockbusters, games have endeavored to present happy endings and positive character arcs because the investment in the characters is so much higher when the player has this level of control over their destinies. If a character falls and dies, it's considered a fail state, a "game over", and so games really don't explore the idea too often that, sometimes, the characters we like and are rooting for and have helped along their journeys will simply die because the story demands it. I mean, just take the example of Final Fantasy VII's Aerith and the fallout from her tragic demise: she was a character that saw a lot of development and screentime, but more than that she was a playable character, and thus the players felt more than responsible for her passing. Many methods were spread across a fledgling internet describing how to bring her back to life, all of which were hacks or spurious rumors. Narrative death is a powerful dramatic force in video games, more keenly felt than it is in any other medium, and that it's taken this long for video game stories to embrace it more confidently is a little shocking.

That said... I kind of like the happy endings and positive story arcs. I'm a big old infant when it comes to that kind of comfort storytelling. I wouldn't go so far to say that I'm a depressed person (though it sure would explain a lot), but I generally shy away from anything that bums me out or sours my mood. That would include The Banner Saga, and similar Indie games that layer on the pathos and drama without necessarily being too melancholy or histrionic, such as Papers, Please or Cart Life or The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead, I feel, comes closest to how The Banner Saga frames a lot of its branching path decisions as "damned if you do, damned if you don't", and there is something really quite sinister in making the player feel every bad decision that could potentially lead to a character death or more misery on the horizon. It's the same principle behind survival horror in a way: the player is entirely responsible for moving the story along, and sometimes that means forcing yourself to head along a path that's almost certainly going to eventually terminate with something very unpleasant. Yet if you just sit there hesitantly, too afraid of what's to come to make those unavoidable steps, then the story (and the game) is never going to conclude.

This game looks so much like the 1978 Lord of the Rings movie it's crazy. This level of animation can't come cheap, even thirty-five years later. (Not that you'd be able to tell with these static screenshots. Oops! Just go watch the QL again.)

This is probably coming off as me deliberately putting side a lot of the game's many other major elements for further elaboration in the next couple of rundowns, such as its fantastic Ralph Bakshi-style Nordic-inspired artwork and animation, the harrowing apocalyptic story told through various perspectives and the logistics of being responsible for an entire caravan and not just the band of warriors who take part in the various skirmishes. I'll get to all of those in due time. I just wanted to get the most significant part of the game out into the open first and move past it, because for as much as this game can be "sadness porn" (though not to the extent that Lost Odyssey was, thank the dead gods) there's some clever rules about the unique benefits of video game storytelling getting established with The Banner Saga and those like it. I'd be remiss not to focus on that first.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

As we head towards the end of May, I'm starting to get philosophical about this particular series and its future. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm personally happier with this particular format of going deeper with the more pressing items on my Steam backlog (though these meandering intros have gotta go next year), but I'm wondering if I truly need to make them a daily thing. I can't help but feel that I'm spamming the forums and, for lack of a better term, permeating the site with my own opinions and inadvertently drowning others in the process. It's a big site, and I'm probably being paranoid, but when you start seeing spambots copying the titling format it feels like a wake-up call.

I originally began doing these daily blogs to challenge myself. To push myself to write something, anything, on a daily basis and ensure that it was substantial enough (and not filled with typos, though I'm not sure if I've managed that part) that I wasn't just wasting everyone's time with the equivalent of stream-of-consciousness LiveJournal chickenscratches. I feel like I've plumbed the depths with the games I've covered; even those that have repeated for three days (like today's game) and have stretched my capacity to create interesting, new observations to its breaking point.

2016's May Madness, or whatever alliterative name I choose next year, might not be a daily series. Or, if it is, it won't be published on the forum day after day. Maybe I'll go back to the observational bulletpoints list format that I use for the Metal Gear Solid games, though I'm concerned that it only really works for games with stories/moments people are intimately familiar with. I'm sure I'll think of something. There's too much I personally like about this format to abandon it, and those Steam games aren't getting played without a big event to galvanize me. I guess we'll see.

Sorry, didn't mean to get all navel-gaze-y. Not a whole lot's happening around here right now, though June ought to be fairly interesting with the way things are moving. I hope I'll find the time to exhibit all those Atari ST games for the system's 30th birthday in the midst of everything else happening that month.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Well, I guess it was fortunate timing that I happened to beat this game just hours ago, given that I was about to put it away for a few days to concentrate on the next two games. I'll obviously have more to say with the way it ended, if not the particulars, when I get to the end of today's rundown. The fact is, though, that this will be the third time I've covered this game while prohibiting myself from discussing the plot, its details, its twists and turns and, now, its conclusion. What I can still state, and have stated from the offset, is that the story of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, and by extension all aspects of its storytelling from the characterization to the dialogue to the cinematography (or video game equivalent) to the way it uses the perspectives of multiple protagonists, is truly excellent. It'll factor heavily into my final opinion on this game at the end, along with my specific feelings about how it concluded.

Instead, what I thought I'd do today is to draw comparisons with three other noteworthy games that I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time fairly recently (for two of them, at least), even though they and this game were all released fairly close to one another almost a decade ago. Not exactly generational comtemporaries, but close enough that I don't feel the gaps are necessarily significant. Many of my older blogs tended to frame my recent experiences with a game using examples of other games and exploring the connections. All games are connected beyond simple inspiration/homage relationships, and trends tend to influence the way developers consider the inner workings of their games. Even for games as patently uncommon as Dreamfall's mix of traditional point and click graphic adventure sleuthing and its mild (and mostly reductive) action elements.

#teens.

The first of these is Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines from 2004, which I played for the first time in 2013. The two games share a lot of similarities that don't involve vampires, but specifically it's the combination of it being in "adventure" mode and being in "action" mode. In Bloodlines, the player is a newly sired vampire looking for answers about what they are and this new underworld they inhabit and, eventually, looking for a purpose that gels with the type of entity they are. It offered a lot of freedom, and in that regard it's disparate from the linear story Dreamfall is telling. But alternating those two modes: the exploratory, dialogue-heavy sequences where you're simply gathering information and looking for where to go next, and the more active sequences where you're stealthing around hostile territory and occasionally getting into fights, is very much how the two games operate. There's no denying that the former is easily the highlight of the two games, while the latter usually served to distract from what made the game good: the intrigue, the revelations and using your wits to stay one step ahead of your enemies. The two games also share a certain cinematic style, with panning shots and other cinematography tricks while smooth Indie music about "finding oneself" sets the mood. It's rare I play a game with this much confidence about the story it wants to tell but so lacking in gameplay depth/quality that it sometimes feels superfluous to the experience: it's almost always the opposite scenario.

The second is Quantic Dream's Fahrenheit, known elsewhere as Indigo Prophecy, which was released the year before Dreamfall. While, again, we're looking at a combination of a graphic adventure game with movie leanings (complete with another soundtrack filled with Indie moping) propped up by less than sufficient gameplay elements, there's a specific similarity I wanted to discuss. The game plays around with perspective; not so much in terms of where the camera's pointing, but how it'll switch the playable character and force you to sympathize with characters that you already know are working against the ostensible hero of the game. These characters have their own generally altruistic reasons for wanting to hunt another of the protagonists down. In Fahrenheit's case it's the pair of detectives who are investigating the murder Lucas Kane unwittingly performed. In Dreamfall, it's a zealous and skilled assassin of the antagonistic Azadi Empire who nonetheless has the capacity for compassion and rationality. In addition, the game will zip around as the story sees fit, creating a layered narrative that shows as much of a character's story arc as we need to become invested before it drags us away to check in on another. It's the sort of "first-person hot potato" storytelling that's worked so well for the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and something that the Game of Thrones TV adaptation has had to find creative ways to maneuver around. I won't claim that Fahrenheit has the best or most coherent of video game stories, but the early chapters where this protagonist hopping was at its most pronounced were also easily the best parts of the entire game.

Crow's working some Rough Chuckles these days.

The third and final game I want to draw a comparison to is Konami's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty from 2001. This actually has nothing to do with Dreamfall's scattered and undercooked stealth elements, but almost entirely to do with how the two games tease the player's expectations, especially where they pertain to sequels. Metal Gear Solid 2 pulls a big prank on its fanbase by removing Solid Snake from the story a few hours in, replacing him with a new, younger character who has his own backstory and destiny to discover. Solid Snake then adopts something of a secondary advisory role throughout the rest of the game, and MGS2 is eager to slyly reference his diminished role and make meta observations about the structural similarities between the two games. Dreamfall has a similar case with The Longest Journey's protagonist April Ryan, who is frequently told that she is no longer expected to save the world and can live her life freely. The fact is, that suddenly being bereft of purpose has made April bitter and resentful, and she chooses to direct that ire towards the occupying forces of the Azadi for no other reason than to give herself something to do. Likewise, during the few chapters in which you play as April, you're often being reminded of people and events from the first game and how they nor the locations of Arcadia are quite as integral to the plot this time around. April actually visits several major characters from the previous game only to be told that she should just chill and let the new girl handle it, in so many words. Even Crow abandons April to be with Zoe, seeing as the former heroine no longer has any desire to be part of this struggle against the newest threat to the Balance between Stark and Arcadia. It's a little distracting for fans of the first game to see all their favorite characters get sidelined like this, but it's interesting too how they appease those same proponents with fan service cameos that are really just passing through and want no part of this new adventure. There's something to be said about how Dreamfall could easily be the MGS2 of its particular franchise simply because of how weird and divisive it is compared to its predecessor.

Anyway, here's my finishing thoughts on Dreamfall: The Longest Journey: It's one of those games that you should absolutely play if you have any deep appreciation for this artform, or are the sort of person who considers that word to be applicable to video games in the first place. It doesn't adhere to familiar video game structure, it has some really cool storytelling aspects, and the irksome and half-baked gameplay conceits can be suffered through without it detracting too much from the experience. I prefer The Longest Journey on the whole, as a solid adventure game with an equally solid story, but Dreamfall almost feels like it's the more significant of the two through the way it breaks the mold and presents something almost entirely unique.

Still a great looking game. Referring to its art direction, of course. It's the only visual element that's timeless, unlike screen resolutions and poly counts.

One of the big sticking points is that conclusion though. The game simply ends, almost immediately as soon as the third act would've traditionally begun. The many characters are... well, in a less than great place. I'd consider it the dark middle chapter, like Empire Strikes Back, except that movie at least offered a little closure. It built up to the Vader fight and ended on an optimistic note with the party at their most vulnerable. Conversely, the various plot threads of Dreamfall are just abandoned one by one, and it almost feels like the developers ran of out of time and/or money. That the many fans of the series have had to sit on those final few cliffhanger cutscenes for over eight years until a conclusion finally arrived is some real Waiting for Godot bullshit. I hope they find that closure with these new Dreamfall Chapters, which I am now happily prepared to jump into. (Y'know, as soon as they've released them all.)

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
2 Comments

Mento's May Mastery: Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Today I have been mostly complaining about: The new Humble "Nindie" Bundle. Insofar as I immediately registered my displeasure on Twitter (kvetching and dumb humor is the only thing I use it for) at least. Now that I've taken some time to reflect, I'm slightly more ruminative about what this bundle might mean for the future of Nintendo.

Nintendo, as we all know, is somewhat apprehensive about present trends in the industry. They treat this prospective future of digital distribution and free-to-play business as the greatest and scariest of all question mark blocks, and are presently far too cautious to hit it full on and deal with whatever pops out. This Humble Bundle is a big step for them; something I'm sure they had to be cajoled into by the slightly more adaptable younger executives in their employ. It's a huge bummer that this particular bundle is only available to the Americas, but at the same time I'm happy to see Nintendo getting their feet wet in this potential new enterprise for them. I'm hoping this region-locking blowback isn't so harsh as to scare them away from this type of distribution delivery system forever, sending them right back to their comfort zone of charging ten bucks a pop for twenty-year-old SNES games and thirty-year-old NES games.

Talking of old embracing the new in a less-than-ideal way, it's time to head back to Stark and Arcadia.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is, alas, beginning to lose me. Whereas the story of the original game was excellent and found a lot of mileage with a dual-world plot that was able to combine near-future sci-fi with atypical magical fantasy hokum, the actual adventure parts were fun too. You'd be solving the standard adventure game puzzles and getting into a lot of fun dialogue with NPCs like your buddy Crow (the only big NPC from the prior game I haven't bumped into yet, actually, unless you count the antagonist). I appreciate that Dreamfall had to get with the times, edging towards the nebulously defined "action-adventure" that took over the PS2 era and beyond, but the action-y additions haven't enhanced the game one iota. If anything, it's allowed the puzzle parts to atrophy as more focus is put towards the entirely unnecessary stealth and combat.

I'll give you an example of this, since I'm still reluctant to discuss the plot in any fine detail. (For the record, the plot is still very much the highlight, and pretty much the only thing keeping me going right now. They're definitely doing some interesting things with the "disturbing the capital-b Balance of the two worlds" story this time around.) Zoe did indeed wake up in Arcadia moments after I quit the game last night, and we're introduced to the first game's city of Marcuria, the Journeyman Inn and its pragmatic host Benrime and the various sentient species that inhabit the capital. It's currently under occupation by the Azadi, who appear to be religious zealots with little love for magic or the non-human races, but still protect the city and improve the quality of life for the humans in their care. They're a layered bunch, not entirely evil, but clearly not the sort you'd want to throw your lot in with.

For as weirdly static as the facial animations can be, this game is surprisingly gorgeous for a game made in 2006.

Anyway, this sterling example of poor puzzle design happens soon after Zoe lands in Arcadia. She's tasked with finding someone who can help her get back to Stark, and possibly hook her up with this April Ryan character she's been hearing about. To do so, Zoe needs to ask a beggar named Blind Bob for the whereabouts of the deposed Minstrum Magda, one of the wise elders and former rulers of Marcuria. He won't tell you anything, however, without the Journeyman Inn's famous mulled wine. To get the wine, the innkeeper Benrime tells you to slog across town (two whole areas, no skipping) to the spice merchant. The spice merchant is waiting for his supply, and the trade caravan owner is currently stuck a few feet away from the Inn. So that's back two whole areas again. You're then given the package of spices, but you can't give them to the innkeeper directly, so it's back across two whole areas again. Then you get the spices, hand them over to the innkeeper (two areas back, naturally), give Blind Bob (who is not even blind) his mulled wine to be told that he has no idea where Magda is, but he knows another beggar who does. This beggar is presently three whole areas from the Inn, and wants you to rescue her pet before she'll tell you where Magda is. As for Magda? She's the soup kitchen attendee a couple feet away from the spice merchant, who I talked to about three times during this whole process. Nothing in the game intimated that this sequence was meant to be deliberately annoying, so I'll chalk it up to the game designers treating their players with barely-contained animosity for some perceived slight of which I am entirely incognizant.

There's another puzzle a little bit later when you're sneaking around the top-secret basement of a major corporation. Long story there, clearly (and an even longer journey), but suffice it to say that the game went for a style of puzzle design I tend to call "using every part of the buffalo". What this essentially means is that so much was spent on individual resources that every single one is factored into the puzzle in some way, which is great if you want a puzzle with a dozen different steps but not particularly realistic. If there's six different accessible rooms in a circular hallway and the puzzle requires that you visit every single one, then there's a definite sense of contrivance to the proceedings. Most adventure games would like you to think that they are filled with incidental detail; little hotspots in the environment that offer nothing but flavor text and enhance the mise en scène. This attention to detail seems to vanish the moment after leaving the first room of the game in many cases: with Dreamfall this would be Zoe's room, which is filled with little details about her life. You can then use abductive reasoning to intuit what her situation is from these contextual clues moments before the game explicitly tells you. With this particular corporation basement puzzle, most of the nuance has long since dissipated, and the game just has you going from points A through Q with explicit instructions while trying to stealth your way past security spider robots throughout. It's really quite disappointing.

Um... it was you?

Still, I'm here for the story and for the sequel hooks for this Dreamfall Chapters serial adventure I'm curious about. In that regard, at least, it's a worthy sequel to The Longest Journey. The game's getting fancy with its narrative at this point, jumping between Zoe, April Ryan and an Azadi Apostle (which I'm meant to believe is some kind of paladin or agent of the Azadi Empire) named Kian Alvane. Now, I remember a couple of things about the prior game that leads me to believe that Kian might not end up an enemy of April Ryan's. Quite the opposite, in fact, but I suppose I'll find out as I get further into the game's story. Despite her brief sojourn into Arcadia, Zoe is firmly up to mischief in Stark and will probably end up being the chief protagonist for that side of the balance. April and Kian will no doubt be more focused on the Arcadia half. But then, this is the sort of game that continues to surprise me with plot twists and character turns, so I'm anxious to see what happens next... if, perhaps, a little less excited about even more stealth/fight sequences to come.

Hey, at least I got to meet that loveable Starkian-trapped-in-Arcadia drunk Brian Westhouse again (he was also the tutorial protagonist! So that's four playable characters so far!). Make sure to check in tomorrow as I continue to vacillate between liking and hating this game.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

It's the final week of May, everyone. Next Monday will be the start of June and the end of this specific daily series of Steam game appraisals. I've already hinted at this several times already, but we're starting what I've dubbed "Ringer Week": a week where I'm starting major backlog items that I intend to keep on playing into June. The three day rule still applies, of course, but suffice it to say that the three games I've chosen for this week aren't simply random Steam curiosities that I'll be uninstalling almost as soon as I've written about them.

Meanwhile, I'm still plugging away at Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow after taking a day or two off to focus on this series. It's still as excellent an IGAvania as I remember, and despite the passage of time and recalling that they supplanted the gothic-romantic character portraits of Ayami Kojima for some generic anime business, its sprite work still looks incredible. This was a time when Konami saw the new console Nintendo was putting together and put their best foot forward, creating a Castlevania that looked as good as Symphony of the Night (now possible with the DS's graphical power) and a few silly touchscreen gimmicks to show they were happy to play ball with whatever new tech Nintendo wanted to push. I miss that Konami. Maybe a new Castlevania wasn't the most innovative step (they released a DS Ganbare Goemon game slightly before then, which wasn't a whole lot more creative) but at least they were trying, and produced an exceptional game during the DS's halcyon days when its library desperately needed a few of them.

Maybe we'll cover that more in intros to come, though given that the game turns ten years old in a few months, it's likely we all know the score by now. Dawn's not as expansive as Portrait of Ruin nor as old-school challenging as Order of Ecclesia, but that soul gathering/equipping gimmick never gets old. Well, unless you've spent an hour trying to farm that Peeping Eye soul while listening to the Beastcast. I've only myself to blame for that, though.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

I beat the superb The Longest Journey back in 2013, as it was considered one of those games any self-confessed adventure game fan like myself really ought to play at some point. Shortly after that a new serial adventure game based on the property was announced: Dreamfall Chapters (I notice the series is pulling a Rambo: moving the original's name to subtitle status, and then losing it completely). We've already seen the release of the first two episodes, the second only months ago as of writing. I figured it was therefore high time to move onto the game's first sequel (based between The Longest Journey and Dreamfall Chapters) which switches protagonists and moves the story ahead ten years after the near-cataclysm caused by the events of the first game. I've been slowly catching up with what's occurred in that space of time, as well as familiarizing myself with the new heroine Zoe Castillo.

Zoe's the typical rudderless college dropout character, reminiscent of April Ryan from the first game (who was also in a rut), though life starts to get interesting for her pretty quickly and the game speeds through its early chapters a lot quicker than the first did. Soon, Zoe's seeing odd visions of a creepy little girl asking her to "save April Ryan", a person about whom she would have zero knowledge. Next, her ex-beau and still close friend Reza (who the game pronounces as "RZA", leading to all sorts of jokes (from me) at his expense) is an investigative reporter who vanishes after giving Zoe a simple errand that ends with her foiling a murder and getting arrested. The story quickly picks up from there, wasting little time setting the stage and moving Zoe from her Casablanca home to the prior game's Venice, Newport setting. The place has fallen from grace in the ten years since the first game, and I found myself sneaking into the seedy tweeker den that used to be the student-friendly Border House accommodations in order to track down this errant pal of hers. I don't want to get too much more into the story beyond that to avoid spoilers, which will probably make the next update(s) something of a challenge to write. I mean, what else is there to talk about pertaining to an adventure game beyond its story?

Zoe (left) and Olivia (right). Liv's such a huge help for the early game, giving you all the tech support you need. There's actually a point where you're exploring Reza's apartment and have to visit her three separate times for new phone gizmos.

Actually, there's a lot we can talk about here regarding game mechanics and features. The point and click genre was effectively dead by 2006, and wouldn't be resurrected until the Indie boom a few years later (except in places like Germany, where it continued unabated). In order to survive, the genre took on action and puzzle elements, usually drawing on other genres to bulk up the gameplay side of things. However, these additions often served to distract from the stories they wanted to tell rather than enhance them. Dreamfall looks to be another case like this, where the game deigned to introduce a rudimentary combat system and hacking mini-games for some of its puzzles. Zoe's an accomplished martial artist, because of course she is, and so there's a few instances in the game where you can fight your way through an altercation if you weren't smart or stealthy enough to avoid it. And yes, that's also something they introduced to this game: sneaking around to avoid getting caught by hostile NPCs, if there isn't a way to adventure-puzzle your way out of a fight entirely. It feels a little like that LucasFilm Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade game (and probably Fate of Atlantis, I don't recall) where you can avoid or outwit the various patrolling Nazi guards in the Castle Brunwald area of the game, while failing to do so meant being forced into a tough fistfight. I guess the Nazis weren't carrying guns in case they inadvertently damaged any of the priceless tapestries?

My original intent for this first day was to reach Arcadia: the alternate world that The Longest Journey spent most of its runtime exploring. It sits in parallel to Stark, our world, being as magic-heavy and technologically sparse as ours is the converse. The Longest Journey really picked up upon reaching this world of magic, even in spite of how interesting the near-future world of Stark was to explore. Stark features a lot of technology like automated taxis and friendly purple AI organizer gorillas (NOT BonziBuddy) and subterranean "Vactrax" trains that span across the world in hours and other innovations that don't yet exist but feel very much like they could one day soon, sort of like visiting the timeline of Star Trek a few decades before they started building starships and meeting aliens (but, uh, without that big war that almost killed everyone). I did manage to reach a point where the character breaks through to Arcadia, sort of, but it might also be a dream sequence. Hard to say, but it sure seemed like an appropriately trippy note to end today's adventuring on.

I'm not quite sure this "Chinaman merchant" (their words, not mine) character was necessary. Then again, every sci-fi universe seems to have one. Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden...

Anyway, I'll be providing more updates on this game for probably the next two days at least. One remarkable aspect of The Longest Journey was that it was, true to its name, an incredibly lengthy example of its genre. I don't expect Dreamfall will be any shorter, and it feels like I've only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. I'm just hoping I don't have to do much more sneaking around and punching stuff if I can help it.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
4 Comments

Mento's May Mastery: Day 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!

What's this? A May Mastery that's (somewhat) on time? Honestly, I didn't have to play today's game too much to know what to make of it, which isn't necessarily a negative. It's more that it's very much a game to play in intermittent spurts, like Luftrausers or Spelunky or most mobile/tablet games.

Unfortunately, this being Memorial Day weekend and all, there's not a whole lot of newsworthy material to discuss in today's intro. I did finally take the time to watch the recently translated GameCenter CX special where Kacho Arino and his crew honor Super Mario Bros.'s 30th birthday with an hour-long NicoNico live event (Japan's equivalent to YouTube and the occasional annual shows they put on filled with YouTubers you've never heard of). Arino is challenged to play World 1-1 with only his feet and a power pad variant, and then gets to challenge others with three stages he personally created in the upcoming Mario Maker.

Which also reminds me: the Nintendo Entertainment System also turns thirty a little later this year in October. Though I've already honored its Famicom equivalent's 30th, which occurred back in 2013, I'm not sure what I intend to do for this particular milestone, if anything at all. I'm actually celebrating another video game-related 30th anniversary next month, so maybe I shouldn't overdo it. Then again, the Super Famicom (but not the SNES) celebrates its 25th in November and the PlayStation 2 turns 15 in October. I guess there's such a thing as too many anniversary celebrations, but then I am very fond of talking about older games because I am old and this is what old people do.

For the time being, though, we're going to be talking about contemporary Steam games. Like the following:

Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Verb, Verb, Adjective is a cooking/restaurateur sim from Vertigo Games that got a lot of buzz on this site, courtesy of the approbations of one Ryan Davis. Though it resembles your run of the grill frantic and addictive restaurant game of the type that were early mobile/Indie hits, Cook, Serve, Delicious somehow manages to combine semi-realistic cuisine preparation with the aforementioned panic-inducing real-time speedgaming hooks. Chefs set up their menus ahead of time, taking into account the popularity of certain dishes and how well they compliment each other, and then spend a whole day preparing food, performing chores (such as taking out garbage and setting rat traps) and raking in the dough and tips. Every food item on the menu has a slightly different QTE attached to it, and it becomes a game of juggling the food items and chores that take time (such as steaks or washing dishes, respectively) with those you can do nearly instantaneously, getting the latter out of the way so you can focus on the former. Getting food orders mostly right earns you an "average" result, while getting them spot on nets you a perfect. A day filled entirely with perfects nets you a huge bonus, especially early on, so it pays to get wise to how the game works and work towards flawless days as often as possible.

You know, I've never eaten a corndog. It's just not a UK thing. If I'm ever in the States again, I'll hunt one down.

What threw me off is just how layered this game actually is for what could be waved off as a simple mobile-tier experience. There's a lot of consideration that goes into menus (each food item has its own pros and cons), what recipes you choose to invest in, what cooking equipment you buy to prepare more elaborate types of food or other purchases that make life easier in myriad other ways. Each variation of every meal has its own name. You have to account for your restaurant's popularity (called "buzz" in-game) which fluctuates depending on how well you've been doing, how food trends are going and how bored people are becoming of your culinary choices. Different food items are popular at different times of the day, and stacking too many breakfast meals on the menu (for instance) will make the day top-heavy as a result. You can buy upgrades to meals you cook frequently, adding more ingredients and other preparation steps in exchange for earning more per sale. I'm not even at the one-star rating yet (there's a checklist of requirements, one of which includes playing for twenty in-game days which is close to a couple of hours at least) and I'm aware that's even more features to come, such as foiling robberies and taking part in a certain metallic-named syndicated TV show for competitive chefs.

Like Mr. Davis, who is honored with a hamburger variant in his name (and who the creators personally thanked for spreading the gospel and being a stand up guy when he passed in 2013), I was seriously impressed with the level of content this game has. Maybe my expectations were a little more tempered by that memorable Quick Look and the fact it's been almost three years since that video happened. That said, the game is still extremely stressful ("hardcore", as Ryan put it). The various rush periods (lunch and dinner, essentially) really tax how quickly you're able to complete orders on time, and you're frequently juggling multiple tasks at once while making split-second decisions as to whether you have time to complete a longer chore before a client walks off unhappy, or to tend to that person's order first and potentially lose some buzz from having a stinky, vermin-ridden kitchen. Certain foodstuffs sell better and are easier to prepare, but due to the way "menu rot" works for meals that eventually fall out of favor, you're often pulling items for a couple of days to let them be "fresh" again and replacing them with meals you're less confident about cooking to a sufficiently efficient degree. I'm fond of the recipes where you simply throw a bunch of different ingredients together, like the pizzas and salads, rather than the odd cases like cooked chicken breasts which require six (exactly six!) hits with the tenderizer hammer before going on the grill.

As is also the case with the recent Invisible Inc., it's hard to dislike a game that does something this classy.

Because of this stress factor and the fact that the game can get kinda samey after three or four "day"s in a row, it's perfect as a "drop-in, drop-out" style portable game that you can keep popping back into. I've actually booted it up and played a little of it three separate times today, each with a few hours of breaks in-between, and I imagine I'll keep making incremental progress towards earning stars for my restaurant as May Mastery continues (and for the months beyond, for that matter). It's as moreish as the mouthwatering meals it depicts.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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Mento's May Mastery: Day 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through

I have a confession to make. I spent most of today playing Magrunner after I said I wouldn't. Actually, I said I wouldn't be talking about it any more, which I'm guess is what I'm doing right this moment. So now I have a new confession: I'm talking about Magrunner again after I said I wouldn't.

Like how things suddenly took a turn for the eerie immediately after I booted it up yesterday, it got even more surreal today. It's also super long, to my surprise: I'd say it's far closer to Portal 2's length than Portal 1's. Of course, given that one of the common criticisms of Portal 2 was its drawn out runtime, it's entirely debatable whether or not this is a plus. I'm not saying more content is a bad thing, but there's a balancing trick in producing a number of puzzle rooms that feel fresh and different that don't involve going through the same motions over and over. There's also the deleterious effect such padding does to the story which, due to the nature of this kind of game, must be doled out in small chunks between puzzle rooms. The continuous, interconnected plot snippets can't hope to maintain a sense of dread or suspense with the potentially huge gaps of time that the player may spend solving the puzzles in the interim, and thus generally stick to checking in with the various NPCs and other status updates.

But I've already talked too much about this darn game already. I really don't want to spoil anything about the final act, because it gets as insane as one might expect from fiction inspired by Lovecraft. I'll say it pulls something similar to Half-Life's Xen and leave it at that. (And yes, you do get to meet you-know-who. Sort of.)

The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through

I'm still powering through a few of the small weird games I have lying around before we hit the last week of May Mastery guns akimbo with three particular games I've been anticipating playing for some time. I don't suspect I'll be completing them, so sticking them at the end of this month affords me the opportunity to keep playing them without skipping a beat once we hit June (though I'll have plenty else to do and see that month, as I suspect we all will with E3 looming). Today we look at two games that, individually, might be a bit too sparse to make for a full update. That's not to denigrate them as uninteresting, of course, but simply that they're built on simple mechanics that don't need a lot of delineation.

The Nightmare Cooperative is the most interesting of the many vaguely "roguelite" dungeon crawlers I've got stashed away in the bowels of my Steam library, mostly in part because it's one of the few that went for a vector graphics (that's Adobe Flash/Illustrator vector graphics, not Vectrex/Lunar Lander/Star Wars Arcade vector graphics, though I guess they're technically more or less the same thing) art style rather than the Indie industry-standard pixels. It's also more of a strategic puzzle game than most roguelikes/roguelites, treating its heroes more as chess pieces than characters you develop and grow attached to. Hey, a bit like Fire Emblem then. People rave about the characterization in those games but those units sure do stay permanently dead a lot, don't they? Gimme Vandal Hear- you know what? I'm getting off-track.

The Nightmare Cooperative, then, is not so much a convenience store that is filled with noisy people and never has any fresh baguettes left for some reason (okay, no-one outside the UK is going to get that one) and more of a dungeon crawl where the player has to make every move count. Enemies move when you do, as is the roguelike fashion, but most enemies simply repeat a pattern on loop rather than seek the heroes out. The trick is to find a way to gracefully pass through these patterns without incurring damage; such as not being there when a fireball-machine turns to look your way, or sneaking past enemies that walk back and forth in patrols. Enemies can be killed by heroes, but each melee scuffle does a point of damage to both parties: as heroes never have more than four or five hit points total, and it's not easy to heal lost HP, it's integral to minimize enemy encounters. There are also blue potions, which allow for special attacks/abilities (different for each character class) that can make removing enemies easier but are also best saved for emergencies.

Sure, it looks straightforward enough now, but wait until there's four of them. It's like trying to manage a birthday party full of five year olds, but with acid pits.

Trouble is, if you wanted to pick up loot or explore the stage a little, almost everything you touch will summon more enemies. Chests summon them, items summon them - even waiting too long summons them. "Enemy" in this case isn't just reserved for hostile creatures either; they can include traps such as lava floor tiles (which can sometimes helpfully block the exit) and the aforementioned fireball shooters. I've not discovered a reason to collect money yet, which is what you're raiding all these monster-spawning chests to find, but I'm sure there's not much to be gained by ignoring it. This is a dungeon crawler, after all. The other challenging aspect occurs when the player acquires a party of three or four adventurers: you'd think it'd make the game easier to have so many extra heroes to fall back on, but having to simultaneously move all four can become a perplexing juggling act very quickly. I sometimes made it a habit to get the speedy ninja to the exit immediately, and work on collecting loot with the other characters. That way if I majorly screw up, well, at least I still have that ninja.

Truth is, I played The Nightmare Cooperative a few times and kinda got my fill of it quickly enough. The game and its mechanics are easy enough to pick up, so what you're left with is something akin to Spelunky in that there's tricks you can learn to make the game easier on yourself, but a lot of what makes each individual run either a success or an abject failure is down to the luck of the draw (and user error). That there's even fewer moving parts in a single run of The Nightmare Cooperative than there is in Spelunky means it's not really compelling enough to play over and over until you finally make it through to the end of the dungeon. More likely you'll make a dumb mistake halfway through the ice caves and have to start over. I'll give the game this much: each game goes by fairly quickly, so there's no big sense of loss when your whole party gets wiped out because you dared to swipe too much gold without ensuring the exit route was clear.

However, there's still that unsatisfying sense of capriciousness that permeates all games of this sub-genre, where you can do everything right and still fail because the stars weren't aligned correctly. It's why I tend to stick to games like Rogue Legacy or Super House of Dead Ninjas, where even a failed run can lead to some progress.

Lilly Looking Through, conversely, is one of those delightful ephemeral Indie adventure games of the type I tend to bash out in a couple of hours without realizing and then feel immediately melancholy about finishing it too quickly. I've already played one game of its type so far this month from Amanita Design (who are the experts at these types of games) but I'm always happy to squeeze a few more into any May feature. Lilly Looking Through plays similarly to something like Amanita's Machinarium in that a lot of the puzzles require your hero to be standing in the right place, and getting them there can be half the struggle. Oddly, there's also times where the protagonist doesn't need to be anywhere near the item, and the player can simply move it to wherever it is needed with their cursor. Most of the game's puzzles involve clicking on hotspots to interact with them, with the more overtly puzzle-y set-pieces requiring some observation and trial and error before a solution starts to coalesce.

Lilly Looking Through has two major points in its favor: the first is its wonderful art design and animation, putting the expressive eponymous Lilly through her paces as she climbs, drops, trips and runs to the various destinations you send her. These animations clearly had a lot of work put into them, and it's one of those aspects of enhanced verisimilitude in video game design that tends to go unlauded and underutilized outside of an Eric Chahi or Jordan Mechner joint far too frequently. It's expensive and time-consuming to put so much focus on realistic animations, of course, and in Lilly Looking Through's case it has the added malus of making certain actions take longer than they need to as the little heroine struggles to climb the few feet to the next hotspot, but they really can make the game's world feel like a living breathing place, more so than any amount of high definition and chunky framerates are capable.

It's a great looking game, I'll give it that. And, for whatever reason, it reminded me a lot of Zack & Wiki. Maybe because of how most of the puzzles simply involved moving from one place to the next.

The second point is how Lilly can wear a pair of goggles to be instantly transported to a different, yet similar world. It doesn't take long for the player to realize that the happier world Lilly is seeing through the goggles is that of the distant past, and the majority of the game's puzzles involve switching from one to the other and back to make incremental progress. Were I the type to write thinkpieces, I'd suggest that this whole feature was a metaphor for relying too heavily on rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, which tends to be what most Indie games trade in (just check out the recent Kickstarter success stories for corroboration). Whether Lilly Looking Through makes the case for or against such figurative trips back in time isn't quite so clear, nor is the reason why I decided to get all philosophical about symbolism for the past paragraph instead of getting on with it.

Lilly Looking Through is, as tends to be the case with these little Indie adventure games, regrettably on the short side. Its handful of screens aren't enough to sustain much more than an afternoon of your time, though that's possibly for the best. It also ends on a cliffhanger, suggesting that the developers have more adventures planned for Lilly and her reckless sibling in the future, though I've no idea if the game did well enough to make a sequel happen. I'd hope so. There's something indescribably cute about the game, and it does Amanita's schtick almost as well as they do. I had an issue with a color-based puzzle towards the end, but most of the set-pieces were smart and satisfying enough to solve as long as you're able to identify the various moving parts in play. "Be on the lookout for levers" is the only advice I can proffer.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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