Mento's May Madness: #8 - Hammerfight

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

08/05/12 - Game #8

The game: Konstantin Koshutin's Hammerfight

The source: Humble Indie Bundle #3

The pre-amble: Russian momentum-based flying tank duelling combat. Sounds kind of neat, right? Build momentum by spinning your weapon around your ship with careful flying and whack your opponent with it as hard as possible. Do this a sufficient amount of times before the opponent does this to you and you'll win the match - and continue the story, in the single player mode, which apparently involves a bunch of Middle Eastern civilizations warring with each other with these ridiculous machines.

The playthrough: Holy Christballs, is this game a clusterfuck. It's almost a glorious fiasco of a control scheme concept, sort of like Die By The Sword. In fact, I could compare this game to Die By The Sword all day and how they share that massive discrepancy between how the controls are clearly supposed to work and how reality will often have other ideas for overambitious coding. I hesitate it to call it a good game, or even a fun game to play, but it's weirdly entertaining to watch. This insanity is exacerbated with the incomprehensible plot of a young "Gaiar" tribesman attempting to ingratiate himself in the world of floating hammer fighting machine riders and the local giant worm-hunting guild, before everything goes to shit with some swarthy motherfuckers that suddenly appear with flying machines with giant serrated knives and gatling guns.

Frankly, as odd as all this sounds, it's nothing compared to how this actually plays. Because your blunt weapon has some considerable weight to it (since it's supposed to hurt when you spin them around into enemies) there's a lot of compensating for that weight while you try to guide the craft's flight around with the mouse. Everything is controlled by the mouse, including some secondary mode activated by the mouse buttons that I was unable to fathom, so it's not like there was some overly elaborate control scheme I was unable to get to grips with. The flying's very much more Flight Control than A-10C Warthog in terms of flight simulation complexity. It just all felt very wrong. Well, not wrong exactly, because I can believe that a helicopter with a giant hammer attached to it would probably control precisely as badly as the game's interpretation. Awkward's probably the word I'm looking for. Wait, I have a good comparison: Carmageddon 2 after you pick up that ball and chain power-up - anyone who knows what I'm talking about here now has a vivid approximation of how this game controls all the time.

As an added bonus, the mouse sensitivity remained maxed out after quitting the game, which meant I had to head into my Control Panel and tinker with it - after a few tries to line up the cursor without overshooting the right button - so that was fun. It's always a good sign when games mess around with your system settings and don't change them back. Always.

The verdict: I want to say "no", or perhaps "hell no", but I can't imagine I'll stay away forever; it's like some grand cryptic mystery of a game that demands to be solved, even if that way madness lies.

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Mento's May Madness: #7 - Greed: Black Border

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

07/05/12 - Game #7

The game: ClockStone Software's Greed: Black Border

The source: Xmas/New Year Sale 2010/2011

The pre-amble: Joining such paragons of the Action RPG field like Alien Syndrome for Wii and, uh, Space Siege comes this Diablo-clone but in space from small Austrian studio ClockStone Software. Choose between three classes and do the usual Diablo business of exploring dungeons spaceships, killing zombies space zombies and finding treasure treasure.

The playthrough: I don't recall why I bought this game. I mean, I played both those hyperlinked games above and let me tell you, I'm not sure I could've been more underwhelmed. Less underwhelmed? Turns out this game is very much following in their extremely generic, tedious footsteps.

The first warning, in retrospect, was that the three "classes" you were allowed to choose from are only separated by how suited they are to close-, mid- and long-range combat with apparently little else to distinguish them playstyle-wise. Since I always play ranged types in this kind of game, I went with the "long-range" class, which turned out to be some sort of lady scientist with a plasma rifle. Escorting Lady Plasmalade through the first floor of the spaceship, which took almost two hours incidentally, I met approximately three types of enemies, four types of item drop and at least one poorly devised timing-based trap that ended up killing me almost a dozen times. I can't say that I was particularly impressed thus far.

Honestly, there is so little else to say about this game. Besides "it's not good". I don't doubt savvier minds than mine would've seen it for what it was from the screenshots and trailers and walked away. Maybe I thought the sci-fi Diablo clone had some steam (or some sort of futuristic super-fuel equivalent) to it, despite having been disappointed twice before by such a premise. Guess I'm not one for pattern recognition. Going off on a tangent for a moment, I'm not even sure what the point is of emulating a popular game so closely without augmenting the model with any sort of innovation of your own to set your game apart. Like, what was the plan, here? "People seem to like Diablo, maybe they'd enjoy a lesser version of the exact same thing"? If they're borrowing a pre-existing format to base their game on, designers really ought to work extra hard to make sure their product evolves or improves on that format in some way, otherwise everyone will invariably choose the more popular, more established option. But hey, it's not like this was the first Diablo knock-off to try their luck with nothing up their sleeves. I guess I could be a little more lenient. I guess. I'd say it was on par with similar games with higher production values, so that's a plus at least. I always like to end on a plus.

The verdict: No way, Horsey.

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Mento's May Madness: #6 - Frozen Synapse

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

06/05/12 - Game #6

The game: Mode 7 Games' Frozen Synapse

The source: The Frozen Synapse Humble Indie Bundle.

The pre-amble: A cyberpunk turn-based strategy game, in which the player is a sophisticated AI/human hybrid that has been acquired by a conglomerate to provide tactical support to their units in the field: mindless "vatforms" that are bred purely for armed combat that respond to your commands. At least that's what I was able to gather from the single-player Campaign. This is, at heart, a competitive multiplayer game where the goal is not just to maneuver your units into tactically-superior positions, but also predict the opponent's movements and respond accordingly.

The playthrough: Wow. This is one of those games that requires more than a few hours of your time, at least while you're still learning the ropes. You're given a suite of tactical options with your little wireframe cyberpunk dudes, including all sort of really specific commands like "don't shoot here, keep moving, turn around, engage the enemy as they pass by your covered position". Your units don't have any sort of higher brain function, according to the absurdly in-depth Gibson-esque backstory that appears to be entirely optional, so you sort of need to compensate for their basic programming in a few spots. It's fortunately not overly complicated to figure out the basic commands, but it starts getting deviously clever when you're required to accurately prognosticate on your enemy's movements. Allow me to explain:

When setting up your "turn" (that is to say, how the next five second increment will play out), you give all the units under your command a chain of directives: move here, aim in this direction, shoot that guy, etc. You can then hit the "play" button to see a preview of how the turn will play out. However, enemy units will just stand there in the preview and get themselves shot and just be generally passive. It's only when you commit to your plan of action that the enemies get to do all their fancy maneuvering and tactical trickery. More often than not, at least one enemy unit will do something you weren't expecting and you end up suffering a dead unit (or worse). It reminds me of Vandal Hearts II a little, where you'd enter all the commands in this vacuum of not knowing precisely (but eventually being able to guess) how the enemy's simultaneous turn will go; it was only after inputting those commands and watching both your turns play out concurrently that you see just how you managed to surprise (and get surprised in turn by) the opponent. It was a really cool feature of that game and I dig that it's being used in a slightly more cerebral virtual dystopian tale than VH2's rather hilariously poor take on the sort of medieval political perfidy that Final Fantasy Tactics and Game of Thrones are far more deft at handling. But I digress.

Despite my preceding endorsement, I'm not entirely sure this game is for me. I could never get into the Tom Clancy tactical shooters because I'd keep getting impatient and be forced to repeat whole sections of the game, frequently getting jumped by units I had no prior knowledge thereof - which I believe is largely the point, as you're supposed to be balancing cautiousness with direct action. I can definitely see the Hannibal-like appeal in a plan coming together, but getting there can often be too much of a chore spent in trial-and-error frippery. There's also the whole cyberpunk aesthetic as well; I've never particularly been into hackers and corporate espionage and "the grid" and all this ghost in the machine business, though it's certainly birthed some engrossing fiction in the past. Provided it stays the heck away from cyborg dolphins and Cookie Monster viruses, at least.

The verdict: In the "Maybe" pile. Its level of complexity needed more time to assimilate than the scant few hours I gave it.

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Mento's May Madness: #5 - Eufloria

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

05/05/12 - Game #5

The game: Omni Creative Group International's Eufloria.

The source: I'd imagine some sort of bundle. No idea which.

The pre-amble: Eufloria is a.. I don't know what the kids call it these days. Tranced out? Ambient? Something fancy for "relaxing". It's an arty-farty flower simulator that's actually a generic RTS in disguise. Build spawners, send troops against enemy forces and take over all the nodes until you are the sole victor. But with seeds and trees and shit.

The playthrough: Remember how I said yesterday that I blessed my lucky stars that Delve Deeper turned out not to be one of those interminable RTS games I don't particularly care for? Well, karma must've remembered that time I butchered all those prostitutes, because Eufloria was next up and is as RTS as they come. Despite how meticulous the designers were in making the interface as soothing and stress-free as possible, it doesn't quite work in practice when you're frantically deploying tiny seed flyer things as they appear to every asteroid on the front line offensive to fight back a horde of enemy flora. I played the tutorial levels and a few of the "main game" levels, and while it's usually smart design to incrementally introduce new elements rather than drop them all on your head from the offset, it sure got old fast.

That isn't to say that this is a bad game. The main goal of this Steam backlog-busting exercise (besides attention) is to ascertain what's going on in all these mystery games that I've ended up with because they were the fourth or fifth game in an Indie bundle or something impulsively chosen from 's many generous giveaways. As such, while this is clearly not my kind of game and was never going to be as made abundantly clear during the reasonably fair shake I gave it, I don't doubt this is a well-crafted Indie RTS game that's worth a look if you're into this kind of format and want something a bit mellower than your usual expeditious xenomorphs, trundling tanks or odiously odorous orcs. But man, if I never play another game where I'm constantly compelled to build things and send them out to fight other, similar things in hour-long battles of attrition, I'd die content.

To end on a positive note, though, it does have a neat scientific concept forming the basis behind it, namely Dyson trees. I prefer Dyson spheres myself though, all jokes about loving balls aside. I wonder when that game's coming?

The verdict: No thank you.

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Mento's May Madness: #4 - Delve Deeper

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

04/05/12 - Game #4

The game: Lunar Giant Studios' Delve Deeper

The source: Thanksgiving Sale 2011

The pre-amble: Bilbo Baggins. Snow White. Willy Wonka. Where would these people be without dwarves around to do all their hard work? Cold in the ground, I'd wager. Or, I dunno, slightly more self-sufficient. Delve Deeper is a turn-based strategy game where you control a quintet of dwarves with the express purpose of spelunking into a mountain, gathering as much treasure as possible - either found lying around or mined out of the walls - and piling it up back at your camp for your glorious King to do a Scrooge McDuck-esque backstroke in. Teams of dwarves compete with each other for the highest score, fighting the forces of evil (and each other) for the biggest haul.

The playthrough: I honestly had no idea what to expect from this game. I was kind of dreading that it would turn out to be some sort of RTS/Tower Defense abomination, but the truth of the matter is that it's far closer to something like Carcassonne or Catan: The name of the game is resource monopolizing, with a strong PvP competitive element you'd find in those games and other board game adaptations. I don't think I even know if Delve Deeper is a board game (I do, and it isn't) but it definitely plays like one.

I decided to play what I thought was the easiest mission (turns out they're listed alphabetically, not by any sort of difficulty or complexity) and got to grips with the basics pretty fast. It didn't help that the adjacent player immediately aggro'd by burrowing into my neck of the.. mountain and started raiding my loot-laden returning dwarves. Oddly, I noticed a lot of the other computer players were dropping their excavation points in my area as well - I guess I should interrupt here to say that each turn begins with you digging out a tunnel in one "hex" of the game grid, using a Carcassonne-esque selection of different pieces at your disposal - yet I couldn't honestly figure out any disadvantage in having my busywork done for me. Maybe they were just psyching me out.

So in the end I actually ended up winning that game, though just barely. I got a smattering of high value relics thanks to my determination to dig straight down and the CPU players more or less left me alone after that initial scuffle. In fact, the middle two (of four) players ended up feuding amongst themselves, which didn't hurt my chances any either. Overall, it was a lot of fun, and something I can definitely see coming back to occasionally if I have an hour free and a hankering for more shiny loot and dwarf-on-dwarf violence. At least it was easier to pick up than Dwarf Fortress.

The verdict: Will revisit. I mean, it has a collectible side-quest and achievements left to get after all. A fool of modern game design, that's me.

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Mento's May Madness: #3 - Capsized

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

03/05/12 - Game #3

The game: Alientrap's Capsized

The source: GB user spilledmilkfactory.

The pre-amble: Alientrap, the Indie team behind arena shooter Nexuiz, later tried their hand at this run-and-gun platformer with grapple physics. Your little spaceman dude wakes up in a lifepod that has landed on an alien planet teeming with aggressive lifeforms. In each stage you need to progress to the exit, collecting ammo and jetpack fuel to help you get past the environmental obstacles and hostile xenobiology.

The playthrough: Man... some hard truths today. First is that my PC is not perhaps the best rig out there, even for running these smaller Indie games which I figured would be peanuts bought with chump change at the convenience store on easy street. Second, this game isn't so great. I wanted to like it, largely because I received as a gift from one magnanimous GB duder's giveaway and I at least owe that guy something better than a half-hearted "feh" spread out two paragraphs, but I could only suffer so much of the jerky, woefully inaccurate shooting controls and equally hard-to-pin-down generic-looking enemies. What little Metroidvania-esque exploration there was wasn't exactly enthralling - and while that isn't to say an elaborate exploration element is either what this game intended or required, it would certainly be a lot preferable to the occasional secret wall with a 1-up behind it. I mean, what is this? James Pond 2: RoboCod?

Talking of retro, this game is clearly an homage to those run-and-guns of the 90s (which, I believe, was the last time I even heard the term applied to a new game, the more platformy Ratchet & Clanks be damned) and I was especially reminded of Turrican in particular - that other game featuring a mostly metallic protagonist shooting the bejeezus out of a great malevolence of alien entities across an uneven 2D landscape. Well, that and Metroid. Or I guess half of the Amiga's library now I've thought about it a little more. I'm not even sure if you can even use "malevolence" as a collective noun, but when you have half of Planet Zebes chasing after you there's not a lot of time to cogitate on semantics. So in conclusion, I don't like this game, but I appreciate that it's trying to bring back a very specific period of gaming history, like so many other heartfelt Indie projects championing their respective bygone eras. Personally, I'm content to leave these games in the 90s where they belong, alongside my pogs and my predilection for calling things "radical".

The verdict: I think I'm done.

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Mento's May Madness: #2 - Blocks That Matter

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

02/05/12 - Game #2

The game: Swing Swing Submarine's Blocks That Matter

The source: The Humble Voxatron Debut Bundle. It came with Binding of Isaac too, so it was already a pretty great deal.

The pre-amble: Blocks That Matter is an Indie puzzle platformer (gasp) where the player controls the stalwart Tetrabot - a cube-shaped robot that is able to drill and repurpose blocks of different material compositions. Every stage is solved by reaching a portal in some out of the way place, usually by collecting blocks from the environment and positioning them in tetranimo shapes (seeing those a lot lately) to facilitate further progress. It's Mr Driller meets Sokoban, if you're into that whole slightly reductive "X meets Y" brevity thing.

The playthrough: After some cutscenes involving some affable self-insertion Swedish game designers and their tiny tiny robot, we're dropped into what seems like familiar Indie puzzle platformer territory: The graphics are suitably primitive yet colorful, the music's just kind of there and the puzzles seem straightforward enough, at least initially. I know how these puzzle games like to escalate their complexity, though, especially when they start introducing feature after feature. Soon, I'm dealing with certain types of block (seemingly randomly designated) that fall when placed in limbo with nothing underneath to support them; blocks that can be eliminated when placed in rows of eight or greater; blocks that can't be drilled yet; sliding ice blocks; switches that respond to certain types of block; and so on. I'm only halfway through the game (according to its level select) and it's a little exhausting, but this is just the usual puzzle game paradigm of them very slowly laying all their cards on the table, lest you enervate your poor player's cognitive functions too quickly with too many new rules.

Besides that, there's not really that much to say about this game. It has a lot to offer puzzle fans, and I don't doubt it'll continue to get more difficult and more perplexing as the levels go on. I have to say, though, that I've already spied an unfortunate pattern where the levels are getting longer with several instances, placed consecutively, that require some acute platforming and very deliberate "A -> B -> C" courses of action - yet the game insists on a "reset everything" function that eschews checkpointing of any kind. I might play a bit further and end up eating my words when such a feature is implemented (as I'm not convinced the game is done showing me new things), but for the time being it's making the current challenge seem somewhat daunting and not in a fun way. While I hesitate to stop now and later find myself needing to rediscover "the zone" one's mind must be in to solve the puzzles at this level, I'm ready to move on.

The verdict: Will revisit.

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Mento's May Madness: #1 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Hey gang, since this is a quiet month for releases I've decided it's high time to do some spring cleaning for this interminable Steam backlog I seem to have cultivated in the past few years. Subsequently, I'm playing a hell of a lot of games from my Steam catalogue and giving them a once-over throughout the month of May. Since I'm not made of time like some sort of scarf-donning alien, I'll only be playing each game for a few hours and writing up my initial impressions before moving onto the next. That won't necessarily mean I'll be finished with the game though.

I'll be updating the table below with any new introspectives, ponderings and ratiocinations about the games I'm playing, updating approximately once per day. Goal is for 25 games in 31 days. Let's see how this goes. And because I am not entirely without mercy, this is the only blog I'm uploading to the forums.

01/05/12 - Amnesia: The Dark Descent12/05/12 - Nimbus24/05/12 - Chime
02/05/12 - Blocks That Matter13/05/12 - Puzzle Bots25/05/12 - Diamond Dan
03/05/12 - Capsized14/05/12 - Rhythm Zone27/05/12 - Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time
04/05/12 - Delve Deeper15/05/12 - Starscape28/05/12 - The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom
05/05/12 - Eufloria17/05/12 - Tobe's Vertical Adventure30/05/12 - Gemini Rue
06/05/12 - Frozen Synapse18/05/12 - Uplink: Hacker Elite
07/05/12 - Greed: Black Border19/05/12 - Zen Bound 2
08/05/12 - Hammerfight20/05/12 - Max Payne 2
10/05/12 - Lume21/05/12 - A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
11/05/12 - Machinarium23/05/12 - Avadon: The Black Fortress

01/05/12 - Game #1

The game: Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent

The source: Gift from Giant Bomb user TeflonBilly.

The pre-amble: Amnesia is the (currently) newest survival horror game from Swedish development studio Frictional Games. It uses a lot of the features of their prior Penumbra series, specifically a sanity meter that drops during tense situations and puzzles that are often solved by holding and dragging items and fixtures in the environment to manipulate them. It's also purportedly scary as all heck. I figured I shouldn't leave my pal Teffers hanging any longer, so this and most of the other games in this feature will be stuff I've received in the past from giveaways and whatnot.

The playthrough: What was immediately apparent is how much I overestimated my PC's ability to handle this game, so after a slightly more humbling reconfiguration I started my journey into.. some creepy mansion somewhere. The game is quick to give you hints into what you should be doing next, but only when there's a feature of the gameplay you might not yet be cognizant of, such as turning a wheel or breaking a wall with a heavy object. Otherwise, it's happy to just let you wander around with the merest of visual hints and a "well, I guess I should be doing this before I go crazy" bullet point list of goals. Though light is plentiful initially, your amnesiac dapper fellow protagonist will freak out whenever the visibility gets low and creates the first major obstacle to exploration: Light-emitting resources are limited, so it's best to quickly get in and out of dark places before the surroundings get too "wibbly".

In the self-allotted time I managed to progress to the refinery under the mansion, past a meaty barrier that needed some acid I had to craft with chemicals I last saw in Dungeons of Dredmor. I spotted a few of what the game called "Gatherers", which look like lamprey humanoid things, but I didn't spend too much time focusing my attention on them lest the dude I was controlling fell afoul of a pantaloons accident. They don't seem like particularly fun people to wander into.

Overall it was kind of fun, though I don't doubt that exploration will get less and less fun as I get restricted by fewer tinderboxes to light torches and more jowly monsters to hide from. The slowly emerging story is told well with its peripheral "Dear Diary, this shit be messed up, yo" notes and disorientating flashbacks, and I'd like to get back to it at some point: I owe at least that much to its meticulously-crafted burgeoning atmosphere of dread that I neglectfully interrupted by moving onto game #2 (and to its donor, for that matter).

The verdict: Will revisit.

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Anatomy of a S-Rank: Tales of Vesperia

With apologies to Saul Bass

Just a quick blog this week. I have something planned for May that I may or may not (pun intended?!) have the courage to go through with, so there'll probably be more from me this week either way. Yay? Anyhoo, since I spent what can only be referred to as an unfortunate amount of time getting my Tales of Vesperia S-Rank, I thought I'd rant complain analyze what exactly is required for 1000 points in Namco Bandai's JRPG classic.

This won't be a frequent feature of mine, by the way, despite what the goofy banner might otherwise indicate. This is really more 's territory - I'm only passing through.

1. Eureka!

2. First Strike

3. Big Game Greenhorn

These three achievements are perfectly reasonable, since they're given for using the synthesis, Fatal Strike and "Giganto Monsters" (an optional series of superbosses) for the first time. I'd say the mark of any good achievement is one that rewards you for going out of your way to explore optional game content. Not that any of those are hard to miss: the first two especially are given to you in tutorials. What is odd, though, is how all three of those achievements are Secret. So if the intent was to get you to explore a feature, how would you know to do so? Unless all information about three very notable features of the game was meant to be concealed for some reason? What?

4. The Hit That Keeps On Hitting

This is for a 100-hit combo. I should probably point out now, sooner than later, that the locked description of almost every achievement (that isn't inexplicably marked as Secret) doesn't actually provide any in-depth data on what you should be doing. Clearly a combo unlocks this one, but there's nothing to indicate that it's 100 hits. Which, by the why, isn't exactly a walk in the park unless you're spamming the mage character's AoE spells. But whatever, this just requires a little effort and experimentation. It's not like high combos aren't a Tales' game's bread and butter.

5. Too Much Free Time

And boy do they mean it. 100 hours, though this is isn't explained anywhere, again. This is one you'll (un)fortunately pass while getting the rest.

6. To Points Unknown

Now this is where the achievements start getting stupid. To achieve what is clearly a distance-travelled goal given the vague description, you have to travel 100,000km. Which is ridiculous. A regularly-sized JRPG world, which Terca Lumireis is no exception, is about 100km across before you wrap around at the edge of the map. 100,000km is, in comparison, about 1/4 of the way to the moon in real life distances. In order to pass that distance, you would have to (and this isn't hypothetical, since I did it like the idiot I am) beat the game twice and then tape the "go forward" button down while riding your flying dragon boat for over 5 frickin' hours. I can only surmise that someone added an extra zero where they shouldn't. Hopefully that extra zero was deducted elsewhere, like on the offending designer's paycheck.

7. Grand Battles

Kill 1000 monsters. As much as that is, I don't believe this is avoidable, unless you're running past everything. Another reason why all these milestone achievements seem a bit off.

8. Jackpot

10,000 chips won in the poker mini-game. Surprisingly easy, since it lets you double down with a high/low game-within-a-game-within-a-game if you have a poker hand better than a pair. Since you can then continue to double down nine more times, you could potentially walk away with millions with a single hand. Kind of like that old wheat and chessboard problem. I actually love when these late-game gambling dens open up and can be easily exploited for cash and useful items, since it feels like the game is giving us a break for once.

9. Smarty-Pants

Winning the quiz at the same late-game location. Dunno if you knew this about Tales, but it is fanservice-crazy. What's perhaps slightly less palatable is that these questions are about immersion-breaking things like "when did Tales of Eternia come out in Europe?" So, yeah, less about paying attention to the game's history and characters and more about having the Giant Bomb wiki open somewhere nearby.

10. Piggybank

10 million Gald. Another milestone achievement that you won't be anywhere close to after beating the game once. This one's not too bad though, if you have items that boost money received from battle or exploit the above poker game. Just pointless busywork most sensible people wouldn't bother with. I envy their rationality.

11. They Call Me...

Acquire all Titles. For those unfamiliar, titles had been, up to and including this point, Tales' in-game version of achievements. You're given a title at various points of the story to indicate growth or a new trajectory for the character they're awarded to, but most of them come from pulling off something difficult such as beating a big arena fight or mastering the cooking mini-game. A lot are very missable. So what you're basically being asked to do, here, is complete an entirely different set of achievements that take approximately as much effort and time as the 50 achievements here. It won't come easily or quickly, let's just say.

12. Character Study

See all Skits. Skits are little goofy moments between the characters, presented as talking head icons instead of with the in-game models. They're another one of Tales' trademarks. Watching them all requires you know exactly when and where they'll pop up, which is crazy. Or you can simply unlock them all in a viewer for New Game +, which seems far less arbitrary but also considerably less meaningful.

13. No More Grinding

Hit level 200. This takes a colossal amount of time, even with the "experience x10" bonus you can purchase for New Game +. You can actually pretty much overpower anything in that game at level 100, making this achievement doubly fruitless. I've probably made my point and then some that the achievements in this game bring out the worst in JRPG completism, but I ain't done yet.

14. Back Up Plan

Activate every save point. Why do JRPGs still have save points? And why bring attention to that foible with this achievement? I mean, for fairness' sake, this game was made in 2008, but that's still a bit late to be having save points. Xenoblade's clearly spoiled me. Heck, so has every CRPG since the 90s.

15. Big Game Hunter

More optional bosses. You have to kill all eight of them. Not too difficult, and it's actually a fun challenge to track them down. Of course, the game doesn't tell you how many there are or where they can be found, but I am trying to stay positive here.

16. Map Nerd

17. Monster Nerd

18. Item Nerd

These are for 100% completing the Map, Monster Book and Collector Book respectively. Sounds annoying (and is) but at least they can all be done in one playthrough if you're liberal with the Magic Lens (the item that reveals monster data), synthesize everything (harvesting ahoy) and are meticulous enough to scour the entire world map for little grey "unexplored" spots.

19. Little Mad Scientist

It's a certain number of synthesis creations. Kind of pointless, since you'll be doing way more than this achievement demands for the "all items" one above. But then I guess if you're not some insane Vinny-esque completionist, this is a nice consolation prize.

20. Low Level Challenger

So here's a fun thing: You cannot get this achievement on your first run. If you avoid every fight besides the compulsory ones, you'll still pass the level requirement for the boss this pertains to, which is around the 1/3 mark in terms of game progress. If you're looking for the most achievements per runthrough, you'll want to activate the "experience x10" NG+ feature for the second run so you can hit level 200 faster, pass the difficult 200-man melee arena fights and beat the game as quickly as possible (see Speedster, below). This means that the low level challenge is ideally suited for a third playthrough with the "experience halved" addition. I still have no idea why I did this to myself.

21. Speedster

Having to beat a JRPG in under 15 hours is surely the best way to experience it. You get all the fun of skipping every bit of story and skipping almost all the encounters and are still stressing right up until the final moment that you won't make it in the time limit provided. An absolute blast.

22. Ahhh, Memories

This is the bonus dungeon. I made a comic about it. It's a boss rush with a confusing path that reuses locations from all over the game. It's a waste of time. It's also a compulsory waste of time if you want half the achievements, so get to boss rushin'.

23. Bunny Guild Member

This one's weird. There's a guy in one of the cities that awards how many titles you've acquired with "attachments": purely superficial items your characters can wear. If you acquire and wear the four pairs of bunny ears (sigh) he gives you, you'll unlock this achievement exactly five hours later. It's kind of inexplicable why this game would force you to promote Playboy for such a considerable length of time. I guess it's testing how much you're willing to debase yourself for an achievement, which is apparently quite a lot in my case.

24-26.

These three are just straight up story progress achievements, automatically given to you for reaching a certain point (they're also spoilerish, which is why I've not named them). What's more is that they're worth 100, 150 and 200 points respectively. If you refuse point blank to put up with any of Vesperia's achievement hoop-jumping nonsense, you'll at least walk away with a considerable amount of gamerscore just from playing the game.

27-49.

These are all "secret missions", awarded for achieving certain targets in every major boss fight of the game. Of course, you aren't told what these goals are. Most are utterly unguessable, requiring the use of a specific character's specific attack at a specific moment. These achievements are sponsored by Prima Strategy Guides Inc.: "If you're stuck and have a sawbuck, then you're in luck!".

50. Vesperia Master

This is a cute zero point achievement you can only earn once you have every other achievement. What's kind of interesting is that this game pre-dates the PS3, so this isn't just a dummy Platinum trophy they forgot to take out of the 360 version. It might actually have been the inspiration for Platinum trophies, given how popular this series is in Japan. So maybe that's the one silver lining in this miasma cloud of utter timewastery. Maybe.

I'm not doing a bonus comic. I'm too mad. Thanks for reading.

1 Comments

Perplexing Puzzle Design

Man, I love puzzle games. I suspect everyone does, to varying degrees. If there's ever been a more accessible video game genre, I don't think I'm aware of it (which would make it fairly inaccessible, if you ask me). While I could elaborate endlessly on the extremely broad appeal of Tetris or Angry Birds, dedicating an entire blog to those games would probably be pointless. Or at least more pointless than usual.

Instead, I'm going to concentrate on the puzzle games that ask the player to use logic and guile to find a solution, rather than clearly present the tools at the player's disposal and ask them to figure out how to save all the lemmings, help the little bird save his pals or get those darn vikings back home. Specifically I want to get into Fez, as I suspect many have recently, and the influences and decisions behind some of its more interesting Anti-Cube puzzles. I will not be spoiling anything specific, but I do want to mention the presentation behind some of them so, just in case, here is a requisite SPOILER WARNING FOR FEZ PUZZLE SOLUTIONS. There. If I still get too many complaints, I'll replace the offending statements with QR codes.

Point & Click Logic

The most basic form of video game puzzle are the deductive "use X on Y" logic puzzles presented by most adventure games, whether they be text or graphic or FMV, which I guess are simply different evolutionary stages in the technology governing the same genre. You're presented with an environment of "hotspots", which are items in the vicinity that can be interacted with. As well, you are able to collect items strewn about and can interact with them, occasionally combining them with each other or the environment-specific hotspots. Correctly deducing the right combination allows you to proceed with the story. Fairly basic stuff, but it's an entirely germane format for storytellers to create interactive fiction (and there's a reason that's a blanket term for text adventures).

It probably goes without saying here, but the best source for this sort of gameplay are the early Infocom games, the text/graphic bridging MacVenture series, the pitiless Sierra "Quests", the goofy LucasArts spoofs and the present-day homages and FMV games that I've discussed at length elsewhere.

The Layton Method

The Layton Method is a sales pitch technique pioneered by one Herbert Layton, where the idea is to besiege a potential customer with matchstick puzzles until they finally acquiesce and buy a damn boat with an affordable monthly payment plan. Actually, it's just what I've coined the design philosophy behind the type of game that presents its puzzles in-game with very little context, other than "this is a puzzle game with puzzles in it so here you go work this shit out go go go".

Puzzles in the Layton Method mould are presented as individual brainteasers with their own respective governing rulesets that can be found littered throughout their game's world. Sometimes they're necessary to continue the plot, but at other times they're incidental and there to provide backstory or simply a diversion. Due to the success of the Professor Layton franchise, a lot of graphic adventure games are now using this format to present individual puzzles as solutions to problems instead of the once-common "use inventory item on hotspot" format of old, as seen above.

The earliest example of this type of game might actually be The Fool's Errand, a game presented in a random chronological order with a group of puzzles tangentially inspired by the cards in a Tarot deck. The individual puzzles are actually pieces of a greater riddle, which needs to be solved to see the ending.

The Myst Method

The Myst method, which is where all of this was leading to, is a combination of the two adventure game models detailed above. You have environments and things to interact with, but very little context behind them save what you're able to piece together yourself. There are fictional languages, detailed backstories with hidden hints, purposeful symbols and iconography and an overall subtly-demanded requirement for a serious level of dedication (and a pen and paper) to discover the secrets the game holds. It is this model that most closely resembles Fez, as incongruous as the console-friendly pixel graphics might seem juxtaposed with such a heady format. That Fez also thrives on a similar focus on isolation, mellow soundtracks, cryptography and discovery would suggest a clear influence from the Miller bros' CD-ROM breakout hit. Of course, this all applies only the game's "second half", which goes undetected for the majority of the "find shiny" Indie platformer first playthrough. Like a similar head-screw experiment encased in a cutesy platformer shell, Eversion, the true goals and purpose of the game mutate the longer you play it, like a figurative swimming pool with a "safe" shallow end and a slightly more intimidating deep end for those who want to keep going.

But hey, anyone who's gotten deep into Fez the past few weeks probably knows this better than anyone. Besides taking the time to decrypt the square-based number and letter alphabet of that game, there's not much else I can (or would want to) suggest to those still wrestling with its headscratchers. Um, good luck?

And talking of deliberately simplistic art concealing a diabolical intelligence, except the second part, it's time for...

BONUS COMICS!

Fez

Swooping is apparently no longer bad. Take that, Alistair.

Tales of Vesperia

Sure I revisit this concept a lot, but so do RPGs. I'll stop when they do.
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