Mento's May Madness Melange: #5 - Pointin' Clique

Of all the unplayed stuff I have sitting in my Steam library, the clear majority of them are Indie graphic adventure games that I've gone out of my way to track down. We've had a recent resurgence of these types of narrative- and puzzle-driven games, because it would appear that there are plenty of Indie devs out there who grew up playing Day of the Tentacle or Gabriel Knight or King's Quest and are rather indignant that this genre was left to rot after the FMV generation lobotomized it, with the wider PC gaming industry subsequently then mercifully smothering it, smashing a window with a ceramic console and running for the hills to pursue extremely dry strategy and simulation games instead.

Anyway, I have more than a few of these things, as someone who is as equally attached to the genre as the many devs who are even now creating new ones for a modern audience. I've been meaning to devise some sort of recurring feature where I cover the ones I have in depth on a weekly/monthly basis, but the issue with that is that discussing them in too much detail would mean giving away the puzzles or major elements of the story and that would only serve to diminish their appeal for anyone wanting to try them themselves.

Instead, here's a short and spoiler-free look at a trio of point and click adventure games that I've been curious about for a while, and May Madness seemed as opportune a time as any to give them a gander.

The Book of Unwritten Tales

The game: King Art Games' The Book of Unwritten Tales, a fantasy parody graphic adventure game.

The source: The Humble Weekly Sale: The Adventure Company and Friends

The pre-amble: The Book of Unwritten Tales is a classic graphic adventure game, complete with NPCs with long dialogue chains, icons that tell you how to interact with the hotspots in the environment, inventory items that are used to solve puzzles and a lot of really, really nice looking screens to stroll though while you try using every item on everything in the vicinity. (Just so I won't have to copy/paste this paragraph, this also applies to the other two games today.)

The Book of Unwritten Tales also has a self-aware satirical streak a mile wide, starting with its contradictory name and then moving onto almost every other puzzle, event and character in the game. It's not so heavy to be too cloying or precious, however, and the game manages to be pretty funny when it's not leaning too hard on reference humor. The game also frequently switches protagonists from a naive little gnome with great aspirations of heroic wizardry, and a considerably more worldly elf princess who gets caught up along the way.

The playthrough: So far I'm really enjoying this game. It's sometimes hard to describe how a graphic adventure might be better or worse than any other, because they all use a similar blueprint and the real differences come down to how abstruse the puzzles are and how well the game's script is written by its designers and performed by the voice artists. TBoUT looks incredible, especially given how relatively old it is (five years might not be the eternity in technological game advancement time it once was, but it's still smack dab in the middle of the last generation of consoles). The 3D models for the characters might seem a bit dated (I still love the attention in Wilbur, the gnome character, and his facial animations), but the environments are as striking now as they presumably were back then.

I have no idea how my PC is able to put out images that look this attractive (the whole scene, not just the scantily-clad elf). It's as confused as I am.

But what really makes Book of Unwritten Tales shine, and how it makes itself so accessible to the many fans that have long since abandoned this genre for demanding too much illogical mental gymnastics over the years, is that certain hotspots in the environment will simply cease to exist once it's established that they have no further use. A character might get a few remarks out of an immaterial piece of background art, and then the contextual "examine" symbol will stop showing up for it. Likewise, once an inventory item is surplus to requirement, it's summarily abandoned. This greatly diminishes the amount of wandering around and vainly performing trial and error tests with everything currently within arm's reach. If a hotspot is still active or an item still sitting around, it's more than likely it's because you still need it for something. Many other conveniences such as clicking to skip walking animations to new areas, a single icon that changes depending on the context rather than a list of commands and maps that let you warp around when there's multiple locations to visit are all present and accounted for, and very welcome.

For full disclosure I'm partway through Chapter 3 and quite a few hours into the game, and there's been a lot of instances of being given a list of items to search for in order to achieve a goal and move onto the next part of the game: a menu of ingredients for a potion, for example, or a list of "military equipment" that Wilbur's grandfather asks him to procure before he'll allow him to head off on an adventure. It's fine to an extent, as this is supposed to be a satirical take on this genre as much as it is riffing on fantasy universes and hokey RPG clichés in general, but I'm sure they could go to a little more effort than returning to the same set-up over and over. The writing's also of an overall high quality, but there's still a few unnecessary reference gags of the type where "saying a thing that was a quote from another thing" is the whole joke. It also skews a bit too close to stealing from a few of their inspirations outright - a group of NPCs playing an "exciting" accounting and bureaucracy role-playing game to escape their "dull" fantasy world was lifted right out of Simon the Sorcerer II, for one, even if they switched the format from table-top to MMOs in order to make jokes about "buggy servers" (which is to say, you put literal bugs on the monkey servant running the MMO). Given how big the Simon the Sorcerer games were in Germany, and how a German studio went on to create the last two games in that series after the original developers wisely abandoned it after the abjectly terrible Simon the Sorcerer 3D, the strong influences don't surprise me.

Ohhh buddy. Someone clearly wasn't around during the Sierra period.

So it's a bit lazy in parts, but these are minor gripes and there's certainly enough charm to keep me hooked for the time being. Now that I have both the protagonists in the same place and can switch between them, I expect some more interesting puzzles will be coming my way.

The verdict: Yep, I'm going to stick with this one. I've gotten pretty far already and wouldn't mind seeing how it concludes.

Primordia

The game: Wadjet Eye Games's Primordia, a bleak post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure game. Wadjet Eye also created Resonance and Gemini Rue.

The source: Double-dipped with this one, first with the Indie Royale Hammerhead Bundle and then with Groupees' Be Mine 8. Both bundles happened almost concurrently as well.

The pre-amble: Primordia is an adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic world where only robots remain and mankind has long since passed into mythology as benevolent creators. An android named Horatio and his sarcastic floating companion Crispin are attempting to fix a colossal machine they recovered from the wastelands, but are attacked by a monolithic robot which then steals their priceless power supply crystal. So begins a series of quests to find another power supply for their enormous machine, known only to them as "Unniic".

As for the presentation, Wadjet Eye continues to focus on creating games that look like they were made in the 90s. This isn't a pejorative, but rather a deliberate decision on their part to call back to that era of 2D sprite-based adventure games when the genre was on top. Like Gemini Rue and Resonance, their previous two games, Primordia is a classic point and click adventure game with a few tricks up its sleeve, but mostly relies on its clever puzzles and writing. Real "back to the genre's roots" kind of stuff.

The playthrough: I said bleak earlier, but Primordia can be just as goofy and satirical as The Book of Unwritten Tales. Your little robot buddy is always cracking wise (though he's useful for broad tips on what you ought to be doing next as well), "b'sod" is frequently used as an expletive, and the game's packed with knowing references to sci-fi pop culture. They're a little more incidental here at least, prompted by examining background details of minimal importance to the story.

Case in point. Between this and Tesla Effect, how many more adventure games can fit in a Tom Servo reference? Hopefully a lot more to come.

It's fairly widely regarded that the period between when 2D adventure games were given full voice acting and when they went completely FMV is the "golden era" of the genre, whether it's Sam & Max Hit the Road or Full Throttle or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Wadjet seems determined to carry on as if nothing happened in the intervening years between then and now. It's not a bad strategy, honestly, and helps bring in an audience who loved the adventure games of that period and have drifted away since. I can't fault them for shrinking the resolution to something "Windows 95"ish, because they still focus on filling their games with a lot of really good pixel art. Animation and sprite scaling is a little more rudimentary, but that just adds to its retro appeal.

I'm liking the setting a lot too. While Gemini Rue owed a few of its narrative elements from Blade Runner, Primordia seems to have been inspired strongly by Beneath a Steel Sky, Machinarium and possibly the movies AI: Artificial Intelligence and Metropolis for flavor (the capital city is simply called "Metropol"). Its homages are legion though, and Primordia does a fine job in not aping any one of its sources too closely, creating a familiar but distinct whole. As with the other Wadjet Eye games I've played, it may look like much but it's got it where it counts. Great, now I'm dropping sci-fi references everywhere too.

It's a little messy at high res, but this is a great shot. So much of this image is giving me Narshe flashbacks.

The verdict: I'm sticking with this too. I feel I'm at least halfway through the game, though there's little indication of progress. Man, I'm really leaving a lot of half-finished games in my "to do" pile for next month.

The Whispered World

The game: Daedalic Entertainment's The Whispered World, another fantasy graphic adventure game. Daedalic also created the Deponia series and the Edna & Harvey series.

The source: Groupees' Be Mine 9 bundle.

The pre-amble: The Whispered World is set in the kingdom of Corona and its outskirts: a land that has seen better days, and is slowly falling apart as it reaches the natural end of its life. Sadwick, a lugubrious, diminutive clown whose heart is not really into pratfalls and slapstick, finds himself involved with an artifact known as the Whispering Stone and is pressed into finding some way to prevent the world's destruction, despite his prophetic nightmares divining the opposite. Though there's a few gags -- Daedalic's probably best known for their goofy humor, with games like Deponia -- the game and its characters can be quite moribund.

The playthrough: I figured this and Book of Unwritten Tales looked similar enough for a decent showdown. They really can't be much different tonally, though.

I talked about the modern conveniences offered in The Book of Unwritten Tales, and to a lesser extent Primordia since that's meant to be more of a throwback, but The Whispered World doesn't boast nearly as many of these features. Hotspots still remain even if they're inconsequential, and the player is still required to use a menu icon system similar to The Curse of Monkey Island's little dial of options rather than a simple singular contextual icon (though to be fair, there's only the three limited options of talk/eat, pick up/use and look). However, this game does have in its corner a function key that highlights every hotspot on the screen, which is an aid I've always appreciated. It completely eliminates that common complaint of "pixel hunting" for smaller items. As for the puzzles, they strike a balance between "what the heck am I supposed to be doing?" and "all right, here's a list of things to get, so just go find them", which I think is ideal for a game like this. You don't always want to be hunting down every item on a shopping list, after all, though it's also nice to have a stronger sense of purpose in one's clicking and pointing with transparent goals to chase after.

Even the game's circus is miserable looking.

Graphically, the game uses some attractive static artwork backgrounds and some gloriously animated 2D sprites, with the overall animation style resembling a Rankin and Bass production. It can look a little cheap occasionally, but there's a lot of craft and attention to detail that makes The Whispered World seem more like an animated feature than a video game at times. The writing's spotty and the subtitles/documents are full of typos, but then the game was originally in German and it shows. It hasn't negatively impacted on my enjoyment or understanding of the game's story too much, however. The voice acting... well, I don't mind the other characters, but Sadwick's disconsolate yet squeaky voice (it sounds a bit like the voices Adam Sandler would adopt for his goofier characters) can be a pain to listen to for extended periods. Sadwick's a fine contrast to the legion of optimistic heroes of graphic adventure games old and new (though I'd say far more have at least some kind of cynical, sardonic streak to them), but listening to someone so emphatically miserable all the time can start to become contagious. It's why I got so enervated and depressed while playing The Stanley Parable: that negative, nihilistic tone can just weigh on you after so long like a ton of bricks. But hey, at least I don't have a sarcastic buddy in this one: Spot the caterpillar's just this big goofy ball of dumb whose versatile shape-shifts can be used for a few of the puzzles.

I'm actually starting to get a little angry at how good all these games look. Why did we invent 3D graphics, again?

The verdict: It's my least favorite of the three games I've played for today's May Madness, but I may just stick with this one as well. As much as its tone seems to be disrupting my mood chemistry, I am curious about any game that sees out the end of its world. Some of the best moments of Majora's Mask and Super Paper Mario were when they were tackling the existential dread that is the end of everything.

The Moment of Truth

Hmm, this is a tough call. I'm going to give it to The Book of Unwritten Tales, because I was genuinely having trouble putting it away to play the two others for this feature, but I'll also award Primordia the consolation prize for "most interesting setting". I don't think The Whispering World is all too bad either, if a little lacking in comparison. Definitely no bad apples in the barrel this time around.

It sounds like we'll be getting sequels to The Book of Unwritten Tales and The Whispered World (so I guess the world doesn't end?) early next year too, so that's even more reason to get their precursors out of the way with.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #4 - A Misbegotten Youth Revisited

Today's May Madness is a little closer to my heart than usual. Each of the three games examined today are loving homages to an ubiquitous part of my childhood. We have a game based on an Atari ST/Amiga classic (maybe I should use scare quotes there), we have a game strongly inspired by one of the first computer games I ever played and a game based on a board game I played endlessly with friends (and alone, but not necessarily in a saddo way) in my elementary school years.

Of course, beyond the sappy reasons, there's also some interesting questions to be answered here: how have these throwbacks managed to adapt game blueprints that are close to 25-30 years old to befit the modern gaming era? Is obstinate accuracy to the source material better or worse than modernizing them to be considerably more playable, or can a developer be talented enough to bridge the gap? Can new generations of video game players find something to enjoy in the outdated genres and conventions of old? Can I delay the feature any longer with rhetorical questions? Where did I leave my keys?

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

The game: Black Forest Games' Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, a traditional 2D platformer.

The source: The Humble Bundle XI.

The pre-amble: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams takes its inspiration from a very old Atari ST/Amiga game called The Great Giana Sisters, a shameless Super Mario Bros. clone created for the European computer market. Like that game, the emphasis is on running around collecting gems and avoiding death at all turns. The game does feature a few mechanical additions to keep things interesting: the protagonist, a girl named Giana, can switch between a "cute" version and "punk" version of herself, and each version has a different ability for getting around the world: Cute Giana has a flutter jump, like Yoshi's, while Punk Giana has a dash that works like Sonic the Hedgehog's spin attack. Switching between these two versions of the same character also shifts the world in subtle and less subtle ways, similar to Guacamelee! or Outland.

The playthrough: I gotta say, I'm already liking Twisted Dreams. For one thing, my lack of PC oomph isn't quite a detriment this time around, as the game seems to chug along just fine on its default settings despite some impressively dense graphical work for a lot of its backgrounds. It plays all right too, despite a bit of floatiness to the jumping that makes some of the precision stuff a bit of a chore. Fortunately, it's a game that goes quite easy on you, at least at the offset. While you are sent to the last checkpoint whenever you die, you do get to keep all the collectibles you found and there's no real penalty besides getting a crappier score at the end of the stage. There's always a lot of collectibles, a considerable number of which are well-hidden, and a lot of the fun is in exploring each stage thoroughly for breakable walls and hidden passages. WIth no time limit to worry about, at least for the normal story mode, it's a very methodically-paced game.

Punk Giana does not appreciate your Disney heart benches, world.

The girls' abilities make for some interesting platformer scenarios, especially when you're required to switch between the two on the fly: Neither of the two versions of Giana can use each other's ability, but if one were to switch in the middle of Cute Giana's flutter jump, Punk Giana would still keep the flutter going for as long as the player keeps the button pressed. Various parts of the topography fall away or reform after a switch, and obstacles vanish and reappear. Many of the game's more clever instances require figuring out the effects of world switching and which version of Giana is better suited for a particular instance. The game helps out in this regard too by creating collectible variants that only one sister can get (yellow gems for Cute, red gems for Punk), and their presence is usually a contextual clue that a particular Giana is required for the next platforming puzzle. It's hardly incredibly complex stuff, but for a platformer that hearkens back to the figurative Bronze Age of games it's more than sufficient as a device to keep things interesting.

I especially like the look of the two worlds: a sinister one for Cute Giana and a bright and colorful one for Punk Giana, which I'm guessing is the world shifting to a nightmare version for whomever is in control (I figure Punk Giana is not all that into fluffy owl monsters and happy sunshine). It's impressive how the worlds morph into one another between each switch, as you see radiant flowers transform into venomous mushrooms and vice versa via some very convincing tween animations. Likewise, benches become coffins, and skulls and bones become shrubs and tree branches. It's a neat effect that applies to almost every piece of the game's busy background to some degree. The music follows a similar suit: it's gentle and melodic for Cute Giana, but then rocking guitar riffs come out of nowhere for Punk Giana (and is largely the reason I spend most of my time as her when possible).

Oops, I took the same screenshot twice. I think? Something seems off with this one. The aspect ratio, perhaps?

So far, up until the end of World 1, it's been breezy fun. Yet... I don't doubt that it's all primed to pull the rug out from under my feet and start getting serious. Serious about rug-pulling.

The verdict: Yeah, I'm liking it. Certainly a lot more fun than Mutant Mudds at least. I don't have to worry about grabbing all the sparklies again if I die, which is a relief and a major frustration reliever.

Legend of Grimrock

The game: Almost Human's Legend of Grimrock, a throwback first-person dungeoncrawler RPG.

The source: Humble Indie Bundle 7

The pre-amble: Legend of Grimrock is a throwback dungeoncrawler RPG that tasks players with escaping an immense mountain full of traps and monsters to the exit far below. The player can take four stalwart adventurers, either pre-generated or created from scratch, and attempt to take on the dungeon's challenge. As with the many old games it homages, such as Dungeon Master, most of the difficulties the player will face lie in figuring out the game's diabolical traps and puzzles, more so than hacking and slashing their way through the legions of monsters.

The playthrough: Legend of Grimrock takes painstaking steps through the archives of old dungeoncrawlers of lore to create a game that not only brings out the best in those venerable corridor runners but merges it with a whole host of modern ideas and design advancements. The resulting game seems to be a masterful bridge between old and new, alleviating or diminishing many of the more troublesome and archaic features of the hoary genre while keeping the heart and soul of what made those games so appealing intact. It's a pretty impressive example of taking something old and modernizing it in a way that doesn't end up disappointing the old fans of the Dungeon Masters and Eye of the Beholders of the late 80s/early 90s, nor does it alienate a new generation of RPG players willing to take a chance on it.

"Hey, don't we at least get a ladder or someth- WHOAKAY!"

I'm quite enamored with the game so far. It takes everything good about Dungeon Master, one of my old favorites, and de-emphasizes the few aspects of that game that have become horribly aged in the 27 year interim. You still have to eat to survive, but food is plentiful and hunger meters move very gradually. You kill things for experience to level up, rather than the bothersome task of simply practicing your skills over and over until they eventually increase. The adventurers' health regenerates slowly so there's no need to sleep it off in non-hostile areas, but the option's there if you're into the idea. There's a big crystal every now and again that resurrects fallen party members and heals everyone. There's a map feature (Thank Lord Chaos! And take that Etrian Odyssey. You fixated on the wrong damn thing) but you can turn it off if you want a more "traditional" experience. It's a game that keenly knows its audience, but isn't so niche as to potentially exclude anyone not already familiar with this type of sub-genre.

I'm currently on the third floor, getting wrecked by arachnida. The game's started to produce some tough monsters, but I'm glad to see my old system of kiting and circling an enemy is as effective as ever; more so, as enemies now have to take a moment to turn around and focus on you, providing more opportunities to get a few hits in. Heck, running around the dragon in Dungeon Master and stabbing it in the arse repeatedly is how I managed to beat that game in the end, even if I did have to bribe the bards to keep the finer details of that battle out of their ballads. The game's got a pleasing focus on finding secrets as well, giving you a little jingle and some powerful gear if you're attentive enough. Looking at walls for misshapen rock buttons was how I spent a lot of my pre-teen years on the Atari ST, alongside evading space pirates in Elite and tolerating godawful Arcade brawler ports.

Eep. (I love how purposefully these skeleton legionnaires march around.)

The verdict: I figured Toki Tori 2 would be the one game I'd immediately jump right back into once May Madness is over. It won't be. It'll be this. (And on a semi-related note, if anyone's already a big fan of Grimrock, might I suggest checking out my Dungeon Master Brief Jaunt to marvel at the similarities between the two games? It seriously impressed me how well Almost Human nailed the same feel.)

Talisman: Prologue

The game: Nomad Games' Talisman: Prologue is a video game adaptation of the venerable Games Workshop (they of Warhammer 40k fame) board game, which plays like a cross between HeroQuest and Monopoly. It's... a little weird, I'll get into it more in the pre-amble.

The source: The Indie Royale Pancake Bundle.

The pre-amble: Talisman's an adaptation of a board game, but this particular Prologue version is only one-player. The game is built in such a way, like HeroQuest, that a single player can play by themselves but... I dunno, it doesn't really seem like in the spirit of a board game. But a single-player video game RPG based on a board game? That I don't feel quite so pathetic about.

The goal of Talisman is to walk around a cyclical board (well, it's a square, but the spaces are arranged like Monopoly in that you go around the board a lot) activating adventure cards, and completing the quests the game assigns you. These adventure cards can be anything: gold, objects like weapons and armor, followers, events or, most likely, a monster to fight. The player has stats depending on their class: Warriors have more Strength and can roll two dice when attacking and keep the highest, for instance, and there's a whole bunch of others that range from leprechauns, minotaurs (sensing a theme with playable minotaurs of late), amazons, druids and vampire hunters that all begin with different stats and abilities. Defeating monsters allows you to increase your parameters, making future battles easier, and collecting objects and followers greatly increases your chances of survival.

The playthrough: So Talisman's one of the board games I used to play excessively as a child, along with HeroQuest and Kings & Things: they were basic board game variants of the sort of RPGs I enjoy today, and were surprisingly replayable with the amount of permutations you could potentially create in any one game. Because it was originally made in the 80s it's not particularly complex, not like the board games of today, and about on par with one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that required you keep track of your stats. As such, this video game adaptation had no problem getting it as close to the real thing as possible.

The board. You can see what I mean about the circles. Square circles. Whatever.

It also gives a few of the more beginner-friendly classes a few bonus quests to perform, whereas in the real game the only goal is to reach the Crown of Command in the center of the board. Each area of the board, from the green outer circle to the sandy middle circle to the Mordor-esque inner "Plains of Peril" circle, get increasingly harder to breach and harder still to survive once in there. The player has some freedom by selecting which direction around the current level they wish to move (or to move out of the current circle where applicable), so if there's some bad news in one direction it's probably best to go the other way, even if it moves you further away from your goal. Killing monsters, finding items and recruiting friendly NPCs all gradually increase your power, and this is how you eventually grow strong enough to make it towards the center of the board. Ideally, you want to balance roaming around a bit for a few upgrades with getting to the center as quickly as possible: in the real board game, this is because you want to beat your opponents to the center square but in the video game, you get awarded bonus points on how quickly you complete each quest.

Because of how this board game is set up, it's entirely playable on your own, but more fun with others competing against you. Players leave hazardous (and occasionally beneficial) adventure cards behind wherever they go, and resources dry up fast as everyone chases them down. Certain tiles require that you roll and suffer the consequences, from lost health to lost turns. Because everything is decided with dice rolls, it can seem a bit arbitrary and unfair at times, but not in a way that can really be blamed on the game. If a quest is too hard, it's more likely you were just unfortunate with the rolls that time. There's something to be said for how luck-based gameplay isn't the most compelling variant out there, but at least there's never any guarantee that it will always kick your ass. I got turned into a toad on the last game I played, which turned out to be a death sentence given how weak and unprotected (and divorced from one's items) the toad form is, but I don't suspect something that unfortunate will befall me on the following playthrough.

Well, this isn't going to end well, is it?

As for the quality of the adaptation, it'd be hard to mess up a game as straightforward as Talisman, and Nomad Games certainly haven't. For better or worse they have perfectly recreated a 1983 board game, from its pieces and cards to its sense of fair play and adventure. The Prologue variant doesn't allow for multiplayer, sadly, but future versions of the game will. Though the enjoyment is greatly diminished without the multiplayer element, you could still feasibly get a lot of fun out of Talisman if you like your RPGs basic and short, and occasionally brutally unfair due to a number of uncontrollable misfortunes. Given everyone's recent proclivity towards roguelikes, perhaps this was a seredipitous time for this relatively ancient board game to finally see a video game adaptation.

The verdict: I probably won't play much more of Talisman, as it's kind of basic compared to other video games I want to get around to. Then again, these bite-size adventures only take around 15-30 minutes, so I might just keep it around for those time-restricted occasions. For that reason I might recommend trying the iOS/Android version.

The Moment of Truth

The clear winner of today's trio is Legend of Grimrock, but I can say I was pleasantly surprised by all three. You might call confirmation bias considering today's topic is about games based on games I used to love, but there's no telling how well any old game has aged nor how well a modern game has adapted their archaic mores for a contemporary audience. I feel safe in saying that all three of these games are successful in that regard to varying degrees.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #3 - Hide and Sequels

The reason I put myself through this rigmarole every year is partly due to the joy of discovery: having an excuse to go into that inexplicably immense library of mine and pick a few games I've somehow never heard of despite owning them, just to see what their deal is and to share it with everyone. Occasionally, though, playing too many Indie games in a row can be hazardous to one's sanity. There's never any guarantee that what I'm loading up is actually any good, or even runs correctly.

So today, we're looking at three sequels to big name Steam Indies; games that I very much enjoyed back when I played them. The idea being that I can feel moderately assured that I'll enjoy these bigger and improved sequels to a similar if not greater extent than their predecessors. After three years of picking through bundle scraps and gambling on unplayable curios, I kinda feel like I need this.

Bit.Trip Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

The game: The sesquipedalian Bit.Trip Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien from Gaijin Games. It's a musically-empowered endless runner 2D platformer.

The source: The Humble Bundle X.

The pre-amble: Bit.Trip Runner 2 is the sequel to the original Bit.Trip Runner, which in turn is one of several games under Bit.Trip's funky umbrella. Every game in the series emphasizes rhythm-based gameplay in some manner: whether you're platforming, playing Pong or flying through a bullet hell shooter, there's a persistent rhythm to your actions that complements the background music and helps you concentrate. As a result, keeping to the beat isn't always of the utmost importance, but doing so will make the game's challenges far more approachable. Bit Trip Runner 2 is notable within the Bit Trip franchise for breaking free of the series's distinctive pixel aesthetic and adopting a far more whimsical dreamscape art style more reminiscent of a Double Fine game, or perhaps Might & Delight's Pid.

The playthrough: Sigh. Where to start? (You might want to skip to the next game if you're not a fan of griping.)

It's far too pretty. In most game franchises, suddenly getting a budget and sprucing up your sequel to look gorgeous is a huge plus. For a game like Bit.Trip Runner, in which minimal lag and latency is of paramount importance to the gameplay, adding a bunch of fancy frou frou graphics is enough to slow down any computer that isn't a fairly decent gaming PC. For a standard office PC like my own (I'm perpetually broke), it's a death knell. Even with a tiny bit of latency, this game becomes so unbearably frustrating to play that it isn't even worth getting invested enough to play through those breezy early levels where such pinpoint accuracy isn't quite as vital.

The game does look amazing. I'm not disputing that at all. Just wondering why it needs to look this good, you know?

You might point out that the game's entirely playable if you aren't trying to grab every single gold bar and speed power-up, but even if I weren't a huge completionist nut whose happiness with a game involves collecting any and all shiny things they might have lying around (which worries me far more than it does you, I can assure you), getting everything on the stage is almost entirely the point of Bit.Trip Runner: You're constantly being reminded of the value of collecting gold by how frequently it's required for opening new levels, and how your friends' highscores are only assailable with perfect runs. On top of that, collecting the gold adds extra notes to the music, and you're only getting the true benefit of the game's fantastic soundtrack by yoinking them all in time with the beat.

In addition, the game manages to not only shit the bed but takes those poor abused sheets with them to their first dinner with their girlfriend's parents by adding more things the player has to remember to press beyond "jump" and "slide". These are unnecessary complications meant presumably to cause even more frustration that the little melody cannot be followed accurately; something that the original Bit.Trip games - paragons of fun rhythm games with simple gameplay mechanics and minimalist graphical styles - managed to convey so much more effectively. If you don't have a controller hooked up, then I'm afraid you'll want to move that cursor over to your Steam library and uninstall the game tout de suite because it is not interested in your scruffy, keyboard-only custom, good sir. The game doesn't quite go so far as to place a bouncer at the door that turns away nervous-looking people clutching keyboards to their bosoms, but the message comes across loud and clear when all these additional mechanics require various function keys spaced randomly across the keyboard: You need to hit Space (or J) to jump, the down arrow to slide, the W key to use high-jump springs and the K key to kick certain obstacles you cannot duck or jump over. Here's a fun little exercise for all of you reading this on a PC or Mac: try finding a comfortable position to put your hands that gives you easy access to all four of those above keys simultaneously. Now keep those hands in place while you hypothetically assume (because there's no reason why the game wouldn't do this) that you'll eventually need to reach the P key - to Parachute slowly down long gaps perhaps - and the Z key - to "Zap" enemies in your way with Commander Video's space blaster that cannot be kicked or avoided - and then measure how quickly your motivation to play this game dissipates into the ether. If you're using a stopwatch, you might want to find one that can count in milliseconds.

These split paths in the stages are fun, until you spot a priceless collectible on the path you didn't take.

Runner 2 looks and sounds amazing. The backgrounds are full of fun, goofy little details, the various characters with their new models are a far cry from the rudimentary pixel-based heroes of the Bit.Trip universe of prior games and Charles Martinet's voiceover, thankfully devoid of any xenophobic stereotypes, is both charming and silly. As previously established, however, none of these graphical advancements are warranted nor, I can't imagine, sorely desired from the fanbase, excepting perhaps a gaggle of idiots who have no idea how video games sometimes require a bit of minimalism for their core mechanics to work at peak efficiency. It puts rhythm game developers in an unenviable position caught between rock and roll and a hard place who have to then cater to said idiots or go bankrupt when the game refuses to sell well enough to pay for all of Martinet's gourmet spaghetti he demanded up front as payment for his voice acting services. Man, that sentence ran on longer than Commander Video through one this game's marathon stages.

I don't hate Bit.Trip Runner 2. Actually I do, but I don't want to hate it. It's super charming. I suspect a large proportion of my gripes will go away once I buy a PC that can handle it without incident (or just pick up a console version somewhere so I don't have to worry about optimization messing me up). For now, though, it's getting uninstalled and left in a dusty sub-folder in my Steam library named "Nuh-uh". Hmm, that's what happened to the first Bit.Trip Runner as well, for as much fun as I thought that one was too. I guess I never learn.

The verdict: I can't see myself playing it for much longer, at least not without upgrading the PC so I can be totally sure that I'm responsible for all my fuck ups. Might help if I get one of those dongles that lets me use a 360 pad on the PC too.

Toki Tori 2+

The game: Two Tribes' Toki Tori 2+, an open-world exploration puzzle-platformer game.

The source: The Humble Weekly Sale: Two Tribes.

The pre-amble: Toki Tori 2+ is the sequel to one of the best puzzle-platformer games to hit Steam in its early days (and was oddly enough originally a Game Boy Color game), and one that required very precise timing and accuracy in order to achieve some of its extremely challenging puzzles. Toki Tori 2, while still maintaining a degree of challenging brainteaser sequences, is an open-world game in the SpaceWhipper vein.

The player is free to go in any direction, and there's no upgrades to worry about. All you have at your disposal is a tweet button (as in melodic bird noises, not one of those things that sends your progress to a social networking site) and a stomp move, and almost everything in the game has a distinct reaction to both of those techniques, as well as their own place in each puzzle. There's also a few songs which you learn early on and can activate by tweeting notes in a certain Morse Code fashion, but they provide non-essential boons like a fast-travel system, a way to detect treasures in the vicinity (a group of little cog collectibles of some importance to the end game) and summoning a camera bird that will log the enemies and important objects it snaps in a "Tokidex" as part of an optional sidequest reminiscent of that long photography sidequest in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.

I know, it sort of looks like a really good looking iOS game. Like some kind of 1080p Candy Saga. This is with some of the settings turned down and everything.

The playthrough: I'm about halfway through, but I'm still marveling at all the little details and how different this game feels compared to the previous now that the whole world is contiguous instead of stage-based. The game's also stunning; the original Toki Tori had a very colorful and simple aesthetic that relied on a lot of particle and lighting effects to make it pop out, and Toki Tori 2 appears to have doubled down on this aesthetic philosophy. There are points where the game zooms out to focus on enormous background details like a distant mountain, and there's plenty of attractive uses of light and shadow with the cave/underground sections. The game has a very approachable sensibility to it as well, even in spite of how tough some of its puzzles have been so far: there's not a whole lot of dialogue or text in-game beyond the menus, just various context clues and a few telltale elements in the background to watch out for. It's a bit like how Fez would relay information to the player in a very non-intrusive manner, to the extent that it was occasionally easy to miss finer details. Because you don't acquire any new abilities at any point (or at least I haven't yet), every obstacle can be overcome with a little bit of ratiocination and experimentation, despite seeming apparently impossible. The songs are helpful, but are never essential to progression with perhaps the one exception of the "rewind song" which drops you off at the last checkpoint should you get stuck.

The game's never lacking for an impressive sense of scale.

I think it's fair to say I adore this game so far. I'm always going to be predisposed towards an Indie SpaceWhipper despite my best intentions of approaching every game with a somewhat objective open mind. I enjoyed the original Toki Tori's very deliberate and slow-paced (well, for the most part) puzzles, and they've managed to transfer that style of gameplay to this open-world environment quite comfortably. If I had to compare it to another game, I'd say it scratches the same itch as Nifflas' Knytt Underground: a largely pacifistic, non-combat oriented exploration game with a lot of diabolical puzzles, even more charm and some stunning looking environments. But yeah, it's worth mentioning that I haven't beaten it yet. Maybe it starts to really sucks after the halfway point. There's that objective open-mindedness for ya.

The verdict: Currently still playing it. It's definitely on my list of games to go back to and finish off once May Madness has concluded.

Zeno Clash II

The game: ACE Team's Zeno Clash II. A first-person brawler adventure game, like the first, but this time with a more open-world angle to it.

The source: The Humble Weekly Sale: ACE Team, Atlus and Tripwire Interactive. (Man, the Humble Bundle representing hard today.)

The pre-amble: Zeno Clash was an extremely odd game in more ways than one. Though its odd world of colorful (if nightmarish) creatures and bizarre geometry were unusual enough, so too was the fact that the game was a first-person brawler. With the exception of a Condemned or two, there weren't many serious fighting games (by which I mean combos, blocking, dodging and the like) that used that perspective and seemed to revel in the chaos that ensued whenever you were fighting multiple opponents at once while being surrounded on all sides.

Despite these barriers of incomprehension, Zeno Clash managed to pull off a fun, layered game with a fairly intriguing plot of a large, possibly hermaphroditic creature that stole and raised a bunch of children as her/his own, and a young man's journey to the end of the world to find answers. Zeno Clash stopped just short of those meaningful answers, but Zeno Clash II appears to continue briefly after where the last left off.

The playthrough: So already, we're seeing what we've seen twice before for this particular chapter of May Madness: an interesting and enjoyable game does well, creates a sequel with a bigger budget and far more going on under the hood, and I'm left with a PC that can barely run it. It feels kind of like that small band you liked to visit in bars suddenly becoming huge and selling tickets for a prohibitively high price; sometimes that old gag of hipsters "liking something before it was cool" has a kernel of legitimacy behind it, especially if it means those hipsters can no longer enjoy that thing as easily as they once did.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you had to half-hobble, half-slither into mine...

But anyway, there's no point in me making any protestations about not being a dirty hipster, seeing as I'm covering Indie games for a whole month. So instead let's focus on the game itself: It certainly looks better, but most of the graphical improvements are entirely of the technical kind. The environments and character models look the same as ever, and I'm extremely glad the game didn't feel the need to get less weird now that's all high and mighty with its fancy shadow effects and bloom and light shafts. It's the same old Zeno Clash we all love to get weirded out by, and many of the game's areas appears to have been lifted wholesale from the original game, with many more brand new ones branching off from areas previously inaccessible. It's kind of neat to expand a world in this way; not making everything different for the sake of needing something new for a sequel, but still adding more content in a way that makes sense.

The fighting's still a lot of fun too, but it feels as if the game's becoming a little more serious by adding so much more to its system of blocking and combo attacks. The game's provided a lot of new defensive options, it feels, and expects you to use them by making it far more necessary to avoid damage. Damage can be healed with pick-ups between battles (or during, if you feel bold enough to turn your back on your opponents and run for the nearest item chest), but it's in the player's best interest to simply avoid getting hurt whenever possible by using the evades, dodges and blocks at their advantage. Fights can have opponent numbers in the double figures, and while the player is able to summon help before a fight starts, this ability is not something they can rely on too often - for one thing, your companions get battered easily and frequently have to sit future battles out. This results in fights that require a bit more finesse and strategy, rather than swinging wildly into a big Andy Capp-esque ball of smoke and fists and hoping you're the last man standing. It's probably for the best that this system is a little more involved, but at the same time there's something to be said for the mad chaos of an all-out brawl you can barely follow from the first-person perspective. At least having companions around makes the fights more interesting to watch on the periphery.

I don't even know where to punch this thing. The teats? That doesn't seem very "Queensbury Rules".

Anyway, Zeno Clash II looks like a lot of the same but with a bit more non-linear freedom and a few new RPG systems adding a bit of depth to the original's admittedly light mechanics. I've not gotten too far yet, having just freed FatherMother and escaped the city of Halstedom to look for my scattered adoptive siblings, but I'm liking that the game's already building up the mystery behind the enigmatic and intelligent Golem entity and setting up a plot that seems like it'll be a little more significant to the world of Zeno Clash. I might have to put it on hiatus until I get a computer that can run it better, but it's certainly not leaving my backlog any time soon.

The verdict: I'm going to keep playing it. Just... not right now. Later. When things aren't spinning around quite so jerkily.

The Moment of Truth

Well, my favorite game of this batch is easily Toki Tori 2+, but I don't feel like I've given any one of these games a fair shake due to how much of a toll they're taking on my poor, crappy system.

I will say that there's a few changes to Bit.Trip Runner 2 that I was not a fan of, and the same's true of Zeno Clash 2 to a lesser extent. Toki Tori 2's changes, however, I'm absolutely in harmony with. It doesn't seem like it's puzzles will necessarily be easier, but it's been a lot more forgiving so far in terms of accuracy and timing. I also like SpaceWhippers a whole lot, so if that tiny yellow bird wants to run around a non-linear world looking for collectibles who am I to stand in its way?

Anyway, I feel I can still easily recommend all three of these, my misgivings of a few aspects notwithstanding. They do all feel like they've kept the spirits of their ancestors alive, at least.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #2 - Spookin' With Smento

Welcome to Part 2 of May Madness Melange, and today we're establishing the format for the rest of this month: I'll look at three games with a common theme or genre, go into detail about my time with each one and then do a big ol' compare and contrast at the end to give everyone an idea of which one they should be spending their hard-earned Steam Trading Card/Dota Hat resale money on.

Today we're looking at three first-person horror games. These are becoming increasingly popular in the Indie market, possibly due to how much Indie developers grew up appreciating games in the survival horror genre back when the big studios were still making them and wanted to take a leaf from all the Silent Hills and Fatal Frames out there by crafting their own beguiling horror narrative that operated on user interactivity. Either that, or because they felt assured that a horror game would generate a lot of sales thanks to the histrionic efforts of some shrill Swede on YouTube. Hard to say.

Anna: Extended Edition

The game: Dreampainters' Anna, a horror-themed adventure game from 2013.

The source: The Kalypso Humble Weekly Sale.

The pre-amble: Anna's set in an abandoned sawmill, to which the protagonist travels after seeing it in numerous nightmares. The protagonist believes that a woman, Anna, resides in the building somewhere and is the key to understanding his missing memories. Beyond that, the plot gets increasingly ambiguous.

The game is in first-person and features physics puzzles as well as jump scares, creepy visual tricks and other well-established horror game tropes. An obvious comparison can be made with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but while that game emphasized exploring a huge mansion, Anna's more about solving puzzles in a smaller enclosed space. There are texts everywhere that provide hints on what sort of rituals need to be performed to progress further into the sawmill, and by finding the right items and using them in the right way the player can unlock new rooms and keep digging deeper into the player character's past, the history of the sawmill and the nature of Anna.

The playthrough: Most of the puzzles in the game involve collecting items lying around the place, finding a book, either reading the book in full (there's a lot of text in the game) or checking the protagonist's notebook for an abridged version of what the book suggests, and then working out how to make what it asks happen with the items in your inventory and the various interactive hotspots in the vicinity. Every so often and occasionally at random, the game will suddenly shift menacingly, throwing one of its many "events" at you to creep you out. As you progress further, the building stops resembling a regular dilapidated sawmill and looks more like Se7en's John Doe and Poltergeist's... the poltergeist got together to make one of those TV shows about interior decorating, as the lighting becomes an ominous red and occult iconography and blood starts appearing all over the walls. The further you progress with the game and the more you probe into its secrets, the less wholesome it all becomes. It's an effective tactic, and one that goes counter to most game progressions with its multiple endings: they get progressively more grim the longer you spend with the game and the more you discover. Last time I saw a feature like that was with Drakengard, and I don't really want to discuss how Drakengard concluded. I'm still working up the courage to buy the third one when it comes out this month.

Anna's protagonist spends a lot of time thinking about his enigmatic eponymous ladyfriend. Actually, I think he's just talking about the house.

The game doesn't have health limits or any manner of combat, but it does have a sanity meter with a clever if not quite mechanically sound player interaction component. The meter drains whenever one of the game's spooky set-pieces happens and refills whenever the player solves a puzzle (again, a bit like Amnesia), but the most frequent instance of incurring a meter penalty is when the player spots one of the many girl wood (no, not the Aisha Tyler kind) mannequins who have a disturbing habit of appearing directly behind you if you stand still for too long. If the player's camera spins around or makes any sudden movements while looking at one of these mannequins, the protagonist takes a sanity hit - the idea is that such rapid motions would indicate that the player themselves has recoiled in horror, and with a touch of verisimilitude the game registers it as the in-game character freaking out in turn. Unfortunately, if you're stuck on a puzzle, you'll end up running around a lot searching for a solution or hints and end up activating this mannequin sanity hit inadvertently quite often, and once that sanity gauge empties the game cuts to a premature game over as the protagonist flees the sawmill in terror. It's a neat idea, but in practice is kind of annoying and ultimately detrimental to the game's investigative adventure game core. It doesn't help that the puzzles get progressively more obtuse as the game goes on, with previously explored rooms actually completely changing their contents due to how unrecognizably warped everything eventually becomes. At a point towards the end, you're chasing down the ingredients to about three or four simultaneous rituals with a huge area that you need to explore carefully for all the necessary items, all the while getting spooked every few minutes by those damn mannequins. It's enough to make one throw their hands up in the air in defeat and slink off to find an online guide.

Bugs - the computer kind, so don't worry entomophobics - actually somehow improve the horror aspect, which was unexpected. It's kinda rare that something as unfortunate and unintentional as a few glitches can build creepy tension more effectively than the game's actually deliberate spooky set-piece moments, some of which require a bit of exploration to find thus making their implementation somewhat questionable. Without getting into too much detail lest I start spoiling parts, there are mannequins (both male and female) that apparently have a configurable model with joints and the like due to how frequently you'll encounter them standing in different poses. They'll actually go so far as to shift their postures while you're standing near them, provided your gaze is temporarily elsewhere - they'll never budge an inch while you're looking directly at them. That is, except for when you enter an area where mannequins are in view, in which case you see them all briefly animate from a neutral position into the ones they're supposed to be stuck in. Seeing that happen for the first time out of the corner of my eye was one of the biggest scares in my playthrough. Another weird glitch is how certain sound effects would accidentally play while the game was loading between area transitions, and these noises were usually both terrifying and inexplicable, like animalistic screams or an ugly foley of a bone snapping. But then they'd suddenly cut off and the area would finish loading as normal. It all added a (probably unintentional) level of eeriness. Maybe the coders spotted these issues during playtesting and just kept them in, after noting how scary they were. Stranger things have happened at C++.

Torsey, the burning torso! Touch it and your wishes come true.

Anna's not too bad, though only in the context of a horror game. As an adventure game, it's far too obtuse and difficult, with too many instances of "how the heck was I supposed to figure that out?" and even more instances of "there was [item] there? I didn't find that. Could've sworn I passed by that bookcase around seven or eight times." The game also has an optional "intuition" aspect where the player can acquire and then merge together various clues they've discovered to deduce elements of the plot - at no point does the game explain how this feature works or why it's there, however, leaving it as one of those many things you're supposed to just "know" if you intend to get the true ending. Though the game's quite manageable initially - there's a few neat puzzles before you can even enter the house, and the entire ground floor is at least limited enough in places to look to easily figure out its puzzles - it's when you get to the attic level with all its weird elements and then subsequently discovering the ground floor has changed and somehow been refilled with unfamiliar oddities that it all starts getting overwhelming. The bizarre imagery and dark ambient lighting is excellent for setting the mood, but not so excellent when it's obfuscating what you're supposed to be searching for.

Don't remember seeing this wallpaper when I came in. Wish the decorators would leave a note whenever they stop by.

The verdict: I've beaten Anna- wait, that didn't sound too good. I've reached the ending of Anna (mildly better phrasing?) so I won't be returning to it. It has some interesting ideas, and is definitely quite spooky if not necessarily always in the way it intends to be, but as an adventure game its issues are legion.

Serena

The game: Senscape's Serena. A brief, one-scene adventure game with dramatic and psychological horror elements.

The source: It's free on Steam.

The pre-amble: Serena is about a man sitting alone in a rustic cabin, pining for a woman named Serena. Who is Serena? What relation does she have to this unnamed protagonist? The picture on the desk is blurred, symbolically suggesting that the man has been waiting so long that he cannot even remember her face. By walking around the cabin, looking at items that hold all sorts of memories of their time together, the man is able to remember Serena and the time they shared. As more flashbacks are recalled, a story slowly forms in the present day and the game ends on a twist.

The playthrough: Serena's a hard game to discuss both because it's so brief and because of how focused it is on its narrative arc and the tricks it plays on the player. There's very little in the way of overt gameplay, as you literally walk around a small cabin clicking on things and listening to voiceovers of a man talking about a woman named Serena. The game's an exercise in creating an interactive narrative that's far more weighted towards the "narrative" part of that equation.

I'm honestly not grabbing all these images with intensely creepy subtitles on purpose. Well, all right, maybe I am a little.

That's not to be too dismissive of Serena, though. It's easy to deride this type of low-key exploratory adventure game as "walking simulator"s and "not-a-game"s, but it's really an evolution of what some first-person adventure games have been doing since Myst: engaging an audience of book readers who write off (as it were) video games as noisy wastes of time just as quickly and as fallaciously as the hardcore gaming crowd write off barely interactive adventure games like these as far too quiet wastes of time. What we have here is a bridge between a short story novella and a video game, and as time goes on Indie developers will discover new ways of tweaking this format to allow for some truly incredible stories that can only be told with a protagonist controlled by the person experiencing the story.

Another feather in Serena's cap is its excellent writing. Though the game is short in length, it's packed with descriptive prose and some moderately good voice acting. While it can be a bit purple at times, it's clear that the lion's share of the developers' efforts went into its script. The cabin, too, is impressively detailed, if a little drab. Its drabness is partly by design, however: for the first few minutes of Serena, it seems like a very muted, humdrum drama filled with unnecessary pathos, but it's when the psychological horror elements start creeping in that it becomes more effective at what it's trying to do. However, its greatest trait, from a purely pragmatic standpoint at least, is that the game is entirely free on Steam. You could all go and download and play it right now if you so choose. It's a masterful little thing that you could beat over a lunch break.

Uniquely, this horror game is set in a cabin in the woods.

The verdict: Suffice it to say I've seen Serena to its conclusion and can put it away. Not bad for a free game.

Master Reboot

The game: Wales Interactive's Master Reboot is, surprise surprise, another first-person horror game with a creepy female antagonist.

The source: Groupees' Clash of the World: UK bundle, from their regional Clash of the World series. Gotta support the local side.

The pre-amble: The game's specifically about a Matrix-like computer world that is able to store the "souls" of dead people by transferring various memories and personality traits into something called a Soul Cloud. Soul Clouds can be visited by living people who wish to spend time with their deceased loved ones, but only for a set duration: after which they die and become part of the Soul Cloud themselves. An unnamed female protagonist finds herself trapped in a Soul Cloud created by the memories of a woman named Madison Jones, the very person who created Soul Cloud technology. Much of the game is spent wandering around reliving various moments of her life, with the player attempting to decipher who the protagonist is, witnessing events in the lives of Madison and her closest friends and discovering the identity of a spooky little girl with glowing eyes who refuses to leave the player alone.

The playthrough: As with the two other games featured today, Master Reboot is all about solving a grand mystery and running around doing puzzles to get closer to that goal, all the while nefarious and eerie forces conspire to stop you, or at least make you jump out of your seat occasionally. Master Reboot is paradoxically a very experimental game and a very generic one: it's experimental because each memory "node" features a different method of completion and a different style of gameplay. While many of them drop you in a small area and ask that you solve that area's inventory puzzles, there's a few sequences where you might be dodging traffic in a fast-paced arcade-y section reminiscent of the Atari 2600 game Night Driver, using stealth to hide from antagonistic security programs, searching for clues in the dark with nothing but a flashlight, leaping across first-person platforming sequences (oh joy...) and other offbeat instances that generally only pertain to the memory node you're in, after which you'll probably be doing something entirely different. Unfortunately, and this is where the "generic" part comes in, very little of the gameplay is particularly compelling, and there's a few sequences that are outright terrible due to some very amateur game design (perhaps my biggest pet peeve related to the realm of video games, after the grammatically unsound "Super NES").

Welcome to the Game Grid, program.

For instance, there's a sequence in an airplane where the player must avoid being seen by a constantly patrolling antagonist: the only way to do this is to hide down one of the aisles which isn't currently lit up by the overhead lamps. However, the actual lighting during this entire section is completely even, with the center lit up and the sides all uniformly dark - the only way you'd be able to tell which overhead lamps are lit is if you actually looked up and saw that the texture was that of a dark lightbulb instead of a lit one. This was almost impossible to intuit, and I got caught and killed so many times while skulking in what felt like pitch darkness squeezed right up next the plane's windows. I tried not moving the camera in case the enemy responded to motion; I tried switching aisle sides depending on which direction the antagonist was walking just in case she patrolled closer to one side; I tried crouching and not crouching and not looking in her direction in case she felt my gaze somehow. She would also spot me from halfway down the plane compartment occasionally as I was walking around, then running directly to my location no matter where I hid. All the while, I had to scour the rows looking for three golden tickets (who's flying this plane, Willy Wonka?) before the door would open and let me continue, and getting caught at any point reset the search. Following this is a tense sequence in an air duct where you're supposed to run for the last leg (you don't realise this until the enemy catches you a few times, nor was it clear (or even physically possible, if we're being technical) that you can sprint while crouching) and then a long run down a narrow walkway to the end point with tumbling pillars taking out parts of the walkway which required some very precise jumps at just the right moments, despite the fact that said walkway was consistently too poorly lit to see clearly which parts of it had collapsed.

The developers had the temerity to award an achievement to anyone who did all of the above without getting caught or dying once. Almost as if to highlight their own incompetence, though maybe now I'm just being needlessly petty.

I dunno, I think this looks kind of incredible. Just imagine this scene with indistinct figures in the mist, flicking past your field of vision and giggling malevolently.

The in-game art is striking; an effective adaptation of that cuboid sort of "we're in a computer, howdy howdy howdy" aesthetic. Everything's suitably blocky and the lighting effects are some of the best I've seen in an Indie game, especially in a the game's few forested areas as is the case with the above screenshot. However, the art created for the cutscenes and various paintings in the game is kind of terrible, excepting the striking "virus" artwork that make up one of the two collectible sidequests in the game. The other collectible series - a bunch of neon blue rubber ducks - provide a lot of documents and hints that are fairly instrumental for understanding the context behind the game's frequent cutscenes and piecing together the larger plot. The story's not too bad overall, and kept me guessing throughout (I incorrectly deduced the protagonist's identity, and only had it figured out fairly close to when the game just flat out reveals it for the sake of all the slower children in the class).

But man oh man, do I feel I need to vent some more about how bad this game could get at times. Not all the time, mind, just sometimes. In a way, that's even more aggravating because Master Reboot has a lot of great ideas and a pretty neat aesthetic, but it just poops the bed one too many times for anyone's liking. If you were a team of Indie developers, would you make the final boss of your tense cyberpunk adventure horror game a series of tough first-person jumping puzzles that needed to be performed within a very strict time limit? Does that sound like a good idea to anyone who's ever touched a game development program? Or has played a video game? I don't mean to sound so harsh, but it's like garnishing a fine if unremarkable cut of steak with a sprig of "oh why the fuck even". I've... I've never been good at food analogies.

Perhaps the most terrifying notion of all: having to learn Welsh. Heck, I imagine just living in Wales is torture enough. (Hey, it took a tremendous amount of willpower to get this far into the review without disparaging the Welsh. I'm only human, dagnabbit.)

The verdict: I've beaten Master Reboot (though it certainly didn't make a compelling case for wanting to do so towards the end), so I won't be returning to the Soul Cloud anytime soon.

The Moment of Truth

So which of these three games did I prefer? Well, let's at first stretch this out a bit longer and employ the well-worn cop-out method with some individual awards:

  • Scariest Game: Anna, probably. It managed to get me a few times, and at points I was kind of despairing that I couldn't solve a puzzle because it meant something was going to jump out at me sooner or later. Master Reboot piled on the unease early and often, but you kind of get used to that cute little AI after too long. One can only become so terrified of a little child, glowing eyes or no.
  • Most Competent Game: That would be Serena, for as short as it was. Looked great, sounded fine, nice little self-contained story and ended on a fun headscratcher of a note.
  • Most Interesting Game: Master Reboot. Anna certainly goes to some dark and intriguing places, but for a game so packed with lore and so filled with weird moments it gets a little too abstruse for its own good. Serena's simply too straightforward a game, though it does have an interesting approach to storytelling. Master Reboot is never a dull ride though, and even if you hate, hate, hate a certain section, the chances are the next one will be utterly different and more tolerable. Perhaps even enjoyable.

Overall Best Game: Odd to say this about a game you can beat in less than thirty minutes, but I'd have to give it to Serena. At no point in its short run did it make me want to detach the monitor and hurl it across the room after being presented with some manner of obnoxious bullshit. To all you horror game devs out there: Fear. Fear is the emotion you want to instill in your players, not anger or revulsion. Protipz.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: Intro

Welcome everyone once again to another month-long feature covering the various Steam games I've allowed to accrue in my library like so much plaque build-up wonderful gaming happiness I've yet to discover. I'm mixing things up a little this year, though, taking a cue from last year's Desura December format: Instead of the "one game, one blog" per day approach, I'm going to play three thematically similar games across three days and write a larger summation blog that weighs each of the three games against one another, as well as discussing their own individual positives and negatives. I figure a Battle Royale type showdown might help the poor, desperate souls who come to these things for purchasing advice to make a decision, and also give me a better idea about which of them I might want to pursue further once this feature has concluded.

As stated, each trilogy of games will be linked -- occasionally tenuously -- by a recurring theme or genre. I'll add each new May Madness Melange blog to the list below throughout the month, to spare you all from searching them out. Might as well make it easy on ya, right?

May 1st

The Master (of Magic) Blasters

A trio of games that purport to be influenced by Master of Magic. How do they compare to the original? Or each other?

Part 1A, Part 1B, Part 1C.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Disciples II: Rise of the Elves

Eador: Masters of the Broken World

May 4th

Spookin' With Smento

Hec-aitomix may have been stopped by a combination of uncanny coat physics and terrible pathfinding, but the war on terror never ends. Here's three horror games for the sinisterest of chopping blocks.

Anna

Serena

Master Reboot

May 7th

Hide and Sequels

Eager for some respite, I look at three games that are direct sequels to highly-acclaimed Indie titles. Do I catch a break for once?

Bit.Trip Runner 2

Toki Tori 2+

Zeno Clash II

May 10th

A Misbegotten Youth Revisited

Time to get sentimental with a batch of games based upon classics from my salad days. Do these games hold up? Are the homages accurate? And just how old am I making myself sound right now?

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Legend of Grimrock

Talisman Prologue

May 13th

Pointin' Clique

I have too many adventure games in my Steam backlog. This is an excuse to play three of them.

The Book of Unwritten Tales

Primordia

The Whispered World

May 16th

Platformurder

As is the case with the point and clicks, I simply have too many platformers to get through. Here are three of the harder ones I've been putting off.

Ethan: Meteor Hunter

La-Mulana

Mark of the Ninja

May 19th

JRPG Jibes

A few games that remember old 16-bit JRPGs as fondly as I do. Well, and make fun of them to some extent as well. But in a loving way.

Hero Siege

One Way Heroics

Two Brothers

May 22nd

Quick Look Champions

I love Giant Bomb. It's been my internet home for many years, and with good reason. Here's three games I chose to play after being inspired by three particularly fun Quick Looks.

Angelica Weaver: Catch Me When You Can

Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes

McPixel

May 25th

Obligatory Puzzle Platformers

Fuck Indie games.

Gateways

Nihilumbra

Q.U.B.E.

May 28th

Miscellaneous Marvels

A quintet of random, smallish games to see off May Madness Melange. Bye everyone.

Darkout

Dear Esther

Eleusis

Little Inferno

Samorost 2

Thanks for all your views and comments this year! Don't forget, you can check out 2012's original May Madness and 2013's May Madness More for even more Steam musings.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #1C - Master (of Magic) Blasters

(This is Part Three of a three-part opening salvo for 2014's May Madness Melange. If you're looking for Part One, try here. If you found this page looking for cute videos of kittens or your email, I don't know what to tell you. Blame Google?)

Finally, we now move onto our third game, bringing this special feature to a close. Once again, let's bring up the big ol' list of Master of Magic facets that we'll be using to judge this new game worthiness. A more elaborate breakdown can be found in Part One of this three-part mini-series. Of a much larger series. That is itself a sequel to a bunch of other blog features. I'm sure you're all glad I make these things easy for everyone to follow.

  1. Spells, and lots of 'em.
  2. A set-piece tactical combat system with strategy n' shit.
  3. Ruins and dungeons to explore.
  4. Hero and army customization.
  5. An extensive city building system, that allows for various different types of city layout depending on its location and resources.
  6. An array of races and magic disciplines to invest in.
  7. That wonderful feeling of late-game invincibility, usually the result of breaking the game in some way by gaining too much power.
  8. I didn't find it boring.

What's beyond door number three...?

Eador: Masters of the Broken World

The Russia-based Snowbird Game Studios's Eador: Masters of the Broken World is an unusual idea for a fantasy strategy game, and its conceit is a little closer to the obscure-ish 16-bit god sim Mega-lo-Mania than to Master of Magic. Instead of a single world to conquer, there are several floating around as independent entities in a large cosmos-like ether that you take over independently from whichever Lords are currently inhabiting them. It's a little more RPG focused, but still retains a lot of city-building elements. It also very much drinks deeply from the Master of Magic well, with many allusions and systems borrowed from my favorite PC game. I didn't play its immediate precursor, Eador: Genesis, but it looks as if Masters of the Broken World is a better realized version of that original.

It's a really stunning looking game in spots. I had to turn down the settings a bit, so hopefully these screenshots turned out all right.

In Eador: Masters of the Broken World the player is some manner of sentient ethereal being that is able to inhabit and take command of mortals. His task is to bring together the shattered world of Eador, currently a plethora of disjointed rocks floating in an astral cosmos, by jumping into each "shard" and removing all opposition to your rule. In doing so, the player discovers new technologies and concepts that can be carried over to the next playthrough (though nothing else seems to transfer, like heroes or existing inventories), such as new troop types, new building blueprints and new spells.

Master of Master of Magic?

  1. Eador's got quite the multitude of spells, but access to them is limited. The player must construct buildings in their stronghold (the only truly customizable city in each scenario and the hub of their empire) that provide the use of magic, and then their heroes are able to cast them in the field similarly to those of Heroes of Might and Magic. The player also has global "rituals", which provide a boon to any hero on the map for a few resources but also require cooldown periods before they can be used again. There's also one-off spells that can be used from scrolls that a hero might come across while looting. There's no big emphasis on magic, unless the character has a mage hero, but it's there.
  2. Eador's combat is pretty involved. There's topography to consider, with benefits gained from high ground and dense cover, and the two sides can have more than a dozen units each. They don't stack, fortunately, but there's still the potential for pretty big skirmishes. While it's definitely glitchy in parts, it's quite substantial and enjoyably dense. (Just like me? Oof. I oughta curb this self-effacement a little.)
  3. Where Eador perhaps shines the most, even in comparison to Master of Magic, is how every province in the game has a huge amount of unexplored content that you can set a hero on checking out in lieu of doing anything more important. Each turn while exploring, the player might find a new dungeon with its own assortment of defenders and treasures, or activate a random event that might help or hinder the player's side. It feels like you could spend hours just exploring each square, hoping to come across something lucrative and intriguing. It's worth noting that due to the game's severe difficulty, even on the easiest setting, most dungeons aren't worth the trouble unless you get a good scout report and an even better army of units on your side.
  4. Eador's hero customization is extensive, almost to the extent of an actual RPG. There's a lot of equipment slots from armor and multiple weapons to those for individual belts, cloaks and rings. Each hero has a basic focus, whether they're a scout or a commander or a wizard, but (as with Disciples II) each level up brings a new decision for how to advance the character. A scout, for instance, can focus on combat aspects like the power and capacity of their bow and arrows or their ability to dodge blows, or they can focus on non-combat skills such as increasing their loot intake, the speed at which they explore a province or their diplomacy with NPCs. Likewise, each unit levels up and has a few options to level up their various stats, and occasionally acquire special class skills or even earn medals that boost their stats at the cost of a slightly higher per-turn upkeep.
  5. Though the game only lets you develop one city per shard, the sheer number of different buildings and upgrades you can construct is enough to make one's head swim. And this isn't even considering the number of extra structure blueprints one might earn as rewards for completing other scenarios. It can be prohibitively expensive early on, but ensuring there's many unit training buildings and various population and unrest controlling fixtures is vital for the success of the scenario.
  6. I didn't see too many playable races, but it seems like there's various dwarven, elven and goblinkin settlements with their own types of troops and abilities. It's possible future scenarios will allow you to play as one of them instead, but I cannot say for certain. There's no limitations on magic disciplines: all types of spell seem to be available eventually, though as I said earlier they require a bit of work before they can be accessed.
  7. As for the invulnerability feeling, well... I'll go into more detail in the Additional Info section below. Suffice it to say, this is the part where the game kind of falls apart a little. You'll see what I mean.
  8. Honestly, it's not a boring game. It has everything I want from a Master of Magic-inspired fantasy strategy sim. At this point, though, I'm strongly considering adding a few cheats to make it at least a little less brutal. It's also highly possible that by taking one's time and simply taking the critical path through most of these nodes, rather than trying to explore dungeons and fight optional areas that are simply way too difficult, I might earn a few crucial upgrades and make the rest of the game easier. Somehow I doubt it though. For the time being, I'll just mourn getting so close but not quite finding what I was looking for, like a dimension where everything's normal except for the fact that everyone eats food with long lizard tongues.
Man, look how much is going on with these hero stats! All sorts of fun armies, equipment and numbers galore. But there is trouble in paradise, my friends...

Additional Info

Now, so far, Eador is everything I ever wanted out of a modern Master of Magic. It doubles down on the fun RPG stuff, while still allowing for a considerable amount of warmongering and city building. Running around, searching for new dungeons to plunder, with gold, equipment and powerful artifacts lying around to acquire for my war coffers is pretty much my favorite part of Master of Magic. However, much like those Earth-like planets in Mass Effect that produce too much toxic pollen for human habitation, there's something that's just not quite perfect about this game. Specifically, its obscenely high level of difficulty. Even on its easiest difficulty setting, you'd be lucky to walk away from any battle where the game didn't assure you beforehand that victory was certain (and even with that assurance, I've gotten wiped out a few times). Troops are expensive, don't ever seem to heal between fights without hiring a healer at cost to do it manually in combat, and units grow increasingly more ineffective the more they're injured. Then there are the random events with multiple choice outcomes, which are so indescribably unfair that I'm having to break from this format briefly to present a hypothetical example of the shit I'm having to put up with:

You encounter a small puppy on the side of the road during your travels. It looks up at you with a friendly and guileless smile, its tail wagging.

> 1. Murder it in cold blood as various children from the local village look on in horror.

> 2. Ignore it. Ignore everything. If we ignore it maybe it won't hurt us this time.

> 3. Pet the cute puppy.

So let's explore our options here:

  1. The village children tell their elders of the horrible puppy-murdering tyrant that even now bears down on their tiny hamlet. Their disposition towards you plummets, making it extremely difficult to negotiate with the village mayor for their allegiance. Eventually, you're forced to murder a whole horde of torch-wielding villagers, taking several casualties of your own. Though you capture the province, the villagers continue to despise you and revolt the first opportunity they get. A nearby orc battalion marches in while the village people are distracted burning familiar-looking effigies, giving the nearby Orc Empire close access to your capital city.
  2. You ignore the puppy. The puppy then transforms into Gamblor, the God of Fortune, and sadly ascends back to his astral home rather than granting the party an obscenely powerful artifact for what it assumed would be their good natured happy-go-lucky approach to life. Instead, it believes the player's empire is too dour and decides to make life more fun for them by transforming all the gold in the treasury into chocolate coins.
  3. The puppy bites the player's hero hard on his hand as he reaches down to pet it, infecting him with a particularly virulent strain of rabies that soon spreads to the rest of his army, the province, the stronghold, the shard and, inevitably, the rest of the universe. There are no survivors. No survivors, that is, but for the puppy who is currently busy trying to chase a butterfly around a meadow filled with bodies. It trips over a bone cropping out of the ground, tumbling head over heels in such an adorable fashion that, had there been anyone left alive to witness it, they'd be all like "aww, shit's cute".

Grousing about a game's difficulty is one thing, but a lot of the time it feels as if the game is deliberately stacking the odds against me for no appreciable reason. I don't mind a challenge (I'd prefer an easier time of it initially though at least, if only to get my bearings) but there's a point where a game crosses over from challenging to obnoxiously, aggressively punishing. Punishing isn't fun. In fact, it's the antonym for fun. But as this is the only point against it in my eyes, I'm not even sure how I'm feeling about this game as a result. It's like the core is busted but everything around it is just peaches and gravy. Or... wait, what?

I like the combat in this game! A lot! That archer at the bottom can do way more damage and shoot further while standing on those little hills. That's the sort of deeper tactical stuff I love! It's a crying shame this difficulty issue puts a dampener on the whole experience.

Anyway, I played through the relatively brief tutorial, and then about 25 turns into a new scenario on a "tiny" sized shard. I've got plenty left to do here, should I want to keep pressing my luck with some of these dungeons, or I can try and make for the opposing warlord's stronghold and hope I can overpower them. I suppose I could also hire a new hero, but my cash supply is always on the cusp of running out entirely and raiding dungeons is all I can really do to keep me in the black. The game is at least generous with the auto-saves, letting you roll back to up to five turns ago. You also can't lose any heroes, though it costs a lot to resurrect them. Though I speak of harshness, it's worth keeping in perspective the number of outs it affords you in case you screw up, and most of the harder challenges I've faced were entirely of my own volition (though honestly, I didn't expect to get wiped out by a fairy glade after my hero proudly boasted he could put the whole enchanted forest to the torch with few casualties. Funny how a pegasus that can fly right across the map and kill all my archers and healers had a different opinion on the outcome).

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #1B - Master (of Magic) Blasters

(This is Part Two of a three-part opening salvo for 2014's May Madness Melange. If you're looking for Part One, try here. If you found this page looking for online groceries or naked people, I don't know what to tell you. Blame Google?)

Like before, we'll be following this list of criteria to compare Master of Magic to a more recent game that, in some capacity, purports to be inspired by it. For a more in-depth explanation of each entry and how it pertains to Master of Magic, check Part One.

  1. Spells, and lots of 'em.
  2. A set-piece tactical combat system with strategy n' shit.
  3. Ruins and dungeons to explore.
  4. Hero and army customization.
  5. An extensive city building system, that allows for various different types of city layout depending on its location and resources.
  6. An array of races and magic disciplines to invest in.
  7. That wonderful feeling of late-game invincibility, usually the result of breaking the game in some way by gaining too much power.
  8. I didn't find it boring.

Onto the second game!

Disciples II: Dark Prophecy/Rise of the Elves

Despite a somewhat convoluted release history, Disciples II: Rise of the Elves is simply the original Disciples II: Dark Prophecy with the enhancements of an added faction and their own chain of campaign missions. There's also one called Disciples II: Gallean's Return that has features the core game and has a completely different set of extra missions that I also happen to own. I'll stick with Rise of the Elves for the time being, otherwise I'm going to confuse myself.

Disciples II is very much a cross between Master of Magic and its closest conceptual rival Heroes of Might and Magic, and elements of both series can be seen in Disciples. The look of the overworld map, the way city development occurs, the way resources are gathered and the way heroes are hired and leveled are very reminiscent of HoMM, while the strategic combat and use of global spells recalls more of Master of Magic. Disciples II is the oldest game in this trilogy, by over a decade, and its age is quite apparent in terms of graphical capabilities. However, the core gameplay hasn't aged too badly at all. There's a more recent third game that might've made for a fairer comparison, but I don't own that one.

Oh yeah, this is all starting to look familiar. Getting Heroes of Might and Magic III flashbacks already.

I unfortunately didn't get much further in this game than the tutorial mission, which doesn't last particularly long but gave me a pretty good impression of the game regardless. What can I say? I get easily distracted, especially when it's Vinny trying to kill Dracula over and over for almost three hours. I won't claim that it wasn't time well spent distracted from what I was meant to be doing. Still, treat this one as an "early impressions" blog. Or at least more so than usual.

The Master of Master of Magic?

  1. There's a smattering of spells, based on alignment. Spells must be researched by constructing the right building back at the home stronghold and then expending mana resources on first learning the spell and then for every casting thereafter. As such, spells are a limited resource (unless you've captured a lot of mana-producing nodes) and therefore of an infrequent sight on the battlefield. The selection's very limited too, though given the slightly more low-scale nature of the game - we're talking parties of six not groups of hundreds - a wide range of magical support not quite as necessary for Disciples as it is for Master of Magic.
  2. Disciples II does indeed have a quite tactical combat system, though it's limited early on. Battles play out like in a traditional turn-based JRPG: each character has a turn, and can perform a single action. There are rows to consider, with the back row ideal for archers and magic-users, and it's up to the player to configure the right team for each of their parties. Each party is also led by a leader character, who is stronger but also more expensive to hire and more crucial to keep alive. Units will level up after a while, but can't actually become stronger until certain training facilities are built in the capital, such as a church to train stronger healers. Many of the classes have branches, and buying a training structure often locks you to that specific development path. To take the cleric example again, there's a variant that performs stronger one-target heals and a variant that performs weaker heals that target everyone. Other than that, the turn-based combat is actually fairly basic, though not to the extent that HoMM or Civilization (or even Warlock, from the previous blog) are.
  3. All ruins and dungeons lead to a single fight with a reward based on the fight's difficulty, just like Master of Magic. There's a fair number scattered around, and it's always a given that the fight (for which you get no scouting report/unit preview) will be tougher than normal. I got no issues with how Disciples handles its fights and dungeon-exploring, though I obviously prefer the larger scale battles of Master of Magic. So biased.
  4. The heroes in this game progress like the units do, earning stronger abilities upon leveling up. They also hit harder and have various world map aspects that are important as well, like the relatively weak archangels who are excellent scouts who are able to fly around and plant "rods" that automatically acquire any production nodes they are placed next to but not really geared for fighting large groups of enemies. For those unfamiliar with Master of Magic, there was a certain summoned creature that moved quickly through the air and could be melded to sites of magical power for additional mana income that operated in a similar fashion. The ranger hero has excellent movement, though is a weak archer unit that must be placed at the back. The pegasus knight hero is damaging, can fly, but has a limited speed due to their armor (one would assume). There's a bunch of hero types and other factions have their own hero variants as well.
  5. City building is limited to simply spending money on new structures that allow for unit promotions and other benefits, such as spell research and improved healing for units stationed at allied cities. This side of things leans far closer to Heroes of Might and Magic's incremental troop production structures than MoM's denser city building elements.
  6. Rise of the Elves has five "factions" that comprise of: a group of crusading humans with angelic beings on their side; undead led (or controlled, I guess) by a devious demigoddess; hard-boiled dwarves; the demon-led forces of darkness which includes evil humans; and the new addition of the elves. As with HoMM, each faction has their own units, their own heroes, their own spells and their own aesthetic sensibility. There's certainly variance to spare.
  7. The late-game invincibility doesn't really apply here, as each stage is built around a specific mission target rather than a Civilization style slow victory by either conquering your opponents through force or maxing out research and securing a technology win (which in Master of Magic's case is the instant-win Spell of Mastery). If you're strong enough to accomplish the mission, you'll probably want to do that than to waste any more time gathering power and resources and seeking out artifacts. Time is of the essence, usually.
  8. Disciples II is all right. I don't see myself growing as tired of it as quickly as I would with any given HoMM, because the combat's a little more involved than "mad stackz"™ and the various promotion paths do create some interesting dilemmas that might either pay off dividends or spell the scenario's doom. It's nowhere near as dense or as interesting as Master of Magic, but it's a decent game in its own right and perfect for fans of Heroes of Might and Magic who are perhaps seeking something a little deeper. Of course, I say this as someone who prioritizes fun stuff like plundering dungeons over out-strategizing fellow warlords.

Additional Info

Really, then, I think I might be stretching it a little comparing Disciples II to Master of Magic. While the developers probably had Simtex's nonpareil in its periphery, it's focused more on presenting a game to challenge the throne of Heroes of Might and Magic, ensuring it has a little more depth with its combat and a slightly more interesting fantasy universe to play around in. Were I to compare Disciples II to the Heroes of Might and Magic games I've played previously (the last was III, I believe), I might rule in favor of Disciples II and its tactical, if rudimentary, turn-based JRPG-style combat. Comparing it to Master of Magic is a tad closer to the apples and oranges idiom.

Suikoden it ain't, but man... anything other than stacks. Please.

Overall, Disciples II is a fine game for strategy-types and especially those who prefer the Heroes of Might and Magic series and the more overtly competitive resource-gathering strategy games to city-sims like Master of Magic (those monsters!). However, though I intend to play a bit more of the story and check out the other factions, I can't see Disciples II keeping my attention for too long. I should state here before I move onto the third game in this trio of strategy sims that I am absolutely thankful to @arbitrarywater for generously gifting me a copy of this game. Sorry it took like two years before I decided to do anything with it, but... hey, better late than never, right?

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Onward to Part 1C (Eador: Masters of a Broken World) >

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #1A - Master (of Magic) Blasters

May Madness begins this year with a special feature; the rest of this month will be a little more compact than this. But first, some backstory: One of the few PC games I'm known to obsess over, perhaps to the point of worrying some people, is Simtex's Master of Magic. Master of Magic was a Civilization clone that appeared halfway through the 90s (you could buy a floppy disc version!) with the idea of inserting fantasy elements into what was already a well-established civilization-building strategy-simulation matrix that would go on to produce Sid Meier's Colonization in the same year. Master of Magic included spells to cast, monsters to summon, different fantasy races to rule over, dungeons to raid, treasures to acquire, heroes to level-up and an entirely different alternate universe that you could hop into whenever things got too dull. It was a goshdarned masterpiece, and expanded the Civilization paradigm far more than merely adding hexagons or cultural victories or a handful more historical figures could ever hope to accomplish. On top of everything else, it included a very in-depth combat engine that allowed armies of several disparate units to face one another in an isometric battlefield, controlled tactically like a strategy RPG with spells flying every which way and untold riches to be uncovered for those daring enough to attack a horde of monsters in their own lair. But hey, don't take my word for it. (Or rather, do take my slightly older word for it.)

Since then, possibly due to a new influx of fans from Master of Magic's availability on GOG.com, there's been a fairly recent spate of fantasy strategy games that claim to be in some way directly inspired by Master of Magic and even its successor, or at the very least took a few of its lessons on how to build a kickass fantasy Civilization variant to heart. Today's May Madness Melange looks at three games in particular that seemed to have been developed with my beloved Master of Magic in mind, and in a special one-off format for this feature, we'll also consider how they stack up to the grand-daddy itself.

Here's the eight-fold criteria that I feel best represent Master of Magic and its appeal:

  1. Spells, and lots of 'em. Why play a fantasy version of Civilization if you aren't able to take full advantage of its unique, invaluable resource: Magic, or in the words of Vaarsuvius the Elf: "Telling the Laws of Physics to shut up and sit down." When I'm talking spells, I want conjurations that range from basic-ass fireballs and heals all the way up to global enchantments and summoning damn dragons out of the ether. I want to take a regular catapult unit, cast Invisibility, Flight and Haste on it and scare the bejeezus out of some hapless village militiamen. I want to cast spells that summon volcanoes all across the world that directly grant me power, create a horde of zombies in place of every unit I kill, lift my capital city into the clouds where it cannot be touched and maybe stop time itself. Small thing to ask, right?
  2. A set-piece tactical combat system with strategy n' shit. I don't mind Civ's format of building a big stack of units and throwing them at another big stack of units to see what happens. Really. But it's very easy to grow tired of what is essentially a pog battle. I want to be able to direct all my units individually in battle. I want all those units to have their own specific roles to adhere to. I want to worry about terrain, ranged attack distance, attack and defense modifiers, special unit abilities and all manner of unforeseen wrinkles to cope with. It's what makes each battle in Master of Magic fun and different, at least until you get to the point where you're railroading everything. But that's fun in its own way too.
  3. Ruins and dungeons to explore. Sometimes I want to take a detour, or feel that I'm not quite prepared enough to take on a rival wizard warlord. How to tip the scales in my favor? Well, maybe with a spot of dungeoncrawling. Any given randomly generated Master of Magic map will often be filled with various ruins, lairs, elemental nodes, arcane towers and pits of unspeakable evil that the enterprising (and brave) hero and his army can ransack for Gandalf knows what. Half of the fun is discovering what sort of enemies are lurking inside, and the other half is finding out what treasures are ripe for the riflin' through once the battle's over. (Well, and the battle itself is pretty fun. I guess I suck at fractions.)
  4. Hero and army customization. Hero units in strategy games are usually slightly stronger variants of regular units that the game politely asks you to keep alive at all costs. In Master of Magic, they're customizable heroes with their own level-up progression trees and slots for stat-enhancing artifacts you either come across in dungeons or buy from merchants (or pick off the bodies of other hero units). Likewise, Master of Magic offered a similar progression system for regular troops, albeit to a much lesser extent. Troops get stronger as they fight in more battles, and provide hidden depths of talent when they reach higher levels of seniority.
  5. An extensive city-building feature, that allows for various different types of city layout depending on its location and resources. Do you focus on producing bad-ass martial units by building things like barracks, war colleges and stables? Do you focus on gold, mana or food production with their respective generators (usually marketplaces, shrines and granaries, respectively)? Do you build a city to take advantage of some nearby special resource nodes? Bonus points for allowing the establishment of trade routes and city enchantments, because at that point you're getting into some serious shit.
  6. An array of fantastical races and magic disciplines to invest in. Another benefit of setting one's Civilization game in a fantasy universe is having all those elves, goblins, dwarves, halflings, orcs, beastmen and other monsters wandering about. Most have their own versions of civilization, and their own special traits inherent to their species. Building a bunch of human cities is all fine and good, but maybe I want a Elvish forest as part of my empire so I can supplement my armies with a few skilled rangers, or by entreating with some dwarven lords I might end up with a few war machines. Equally, being able to focus my spellbook towards nature, sorcery, chaos, death or life magics not only extends the game's replayability, but allows me to stick with the preferred type of magical assistance I intend to employ in this run, whether I want to heal my own units or devastate my opponents'. Or slay them dead and raise them as zombies and skeletons to add to my own unstoppable army of the damned. It's all good.
  7. That wonderful feeling of late-game invincibility, usually the result of breaking the game in some way by gaining too much power. I'm not sure how to put it any more succinctly than that, but part of the joy of Master of Magic, and this is entirely from me playing on easier modes like a big wuss, is how omnipotent this game makes you feel. In Civilization, it's easy to feel smug that your technological advancement is allowing you to unlock the secrets of gunpowder before everyone else and laying waste to their non-gun-owning derrieres like it was the Satsuma Rebellion. But in Master of Magic, you can dominate your opponents utterly with not only a superior show of forces but a considerable amount of magical power under your pointy hat. It's fine and dandy to sit outside an enemy capital with a massive army of soldiers to make them sweat a little, but something else when you turn the sky over said capital blood red and start raining meteors down from it. But that's not to say your godlike intimidation is limited to your fellow wizards, oh no. There's a point in every Master of Magic run, early on, where you find a dungeon that's simply far too dangerous for you to cope with: either some wiseguy filled it with dragons, or you get quickly annihilated by a huge army of ranged units that just pick you apart in seconds. Marching right back in several dozen turns later with an unstoppable force of badass monsters, heroes and veteran units hits a level of catharsis generally only reserved for getting home and relieving oneself after a five hour train journey.
  8. I didn't find it boring. This one's pretty self-explanatory: I find a lot of strategy games boring. They never seem to hold my interest in the long run, for whatever reason, and it's the biggest problem I tend to have whenever I play one of these games. My ADD isn't so bad that I can't concentrate on reaching the end of a particularly fortuitous run, but I'm often feeling a sense of unenthusiastic obligation to see it through before that happens. The difficulty balance is sometimes responsible for this too: If I want to play at a level where the computer doesn't cheat, it tends to make them far too easy to predict and overcome in turn. Truly, this is the hardest criteria to meet, and obviously the most subjective.

Lesson here, Bey: You seek the Spell of Mastery, you best not stutter.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Warlock: Master of the Arcane (boy, that really puts the "subtle" in "subtitle", don't it?) is a turn-based strategy game from Ino-Co that is based on their Majesty universe of RTS games. More importantly, at least for this feature, it's a game that very deliberately uses Master of Magic as a basis for many of its gameplay systems, which becomes quite evident the more of it you play. The game uses a hexagonal grid, with each city's territory encompassing the six outer grids (and eventually the twelve surrounding them once the population increases sufficiently, and then onto the eighteen surrounding those...). In each hex you can build a new structure, which increases the city's food, mana or gold production rates or allows the recruitment of stronger units. Certain structures also provide "perks": upgrades that can be applied to any applicable unit in your charge for a price. Certain special resource nodes, such as a pumpkin patch or a magical field, can receive special variants of common structures that provide a larger production boost (so for pumpkins, you can make a pumpkin farm that produces a lot more food per turn than a normal farm).

Whoa, hey there fellas! We can be diplomatic about this, right?

For the sake of transparency, I'm playing a regular campaign against three opponents on the "casual" setting, which is second lowest between Normal and Beginner. Two reasons: This is the difficulty level I enjoy most in Master of Magic, where I don't have to be concerned for unfair AI practices and can run rampant, and the second reason is because this is a new game and I'm not going to get taken out halfway through before I get a sense of what it's about. I'll be following a similar strategy with the other two games featured.

The Master of Master of Magic?

Introduction over. How does it compare?

  1. There are indeed spells. A limited assortment, but they slowly grow in number. This element has been somewhat truncated from MoM, but that seems to be for the sake of streamlining, as is the case with many other aspects we'll cover on this list. Having less moving parts makes Warlock considerably less buggy than its spiritual antecedent, so there's something to be said about slimming down the number of spells and other elements to make sure everything doesn't blow up every five minutes. Warlock does retain the idea of an "active pool" and "reserve pool" of magic: the former is how much you're allowed to cast in one turn, while the latter is simply how much mana you've stockpiled thus far. Certain buildings, enchantments and summoned monsters drain the mana supply every turn, while having a lot of territory, certain other buildings and special events increase it. It's standard Master of Magic stuff for the most part, then.
  2. Unfortunately, there is no big strategic set-piece combat. Rather, it takes the Civilization route of having all battles take place entirely on-map, between two units at a time, with damage decided via dice rolls. It's fine (I mean, Civ still uses it, right? Can't be all bad), if not my preference.
  3. There are dungeons, but most are simple monster generators that need to be removed. Others are simply non-combat one-off cash/rewards, occasionally providing new spells or special items. Nothing too exciting.
  4. There are heroes, and they each have their own individual level-up paths. They can also equip items you find, so it feels pretty MoM-y so far. Armies go up levels too. The level-up process has been customized so that the player can select one of three abilities to impart on their promoted unit, allowing for identical units to take on separate personalities and specializations. For instance, two initially identical warrior units might eventually be made distinct from one another by how one has focused on defense increases while the other takes mostly offensive increases - in terms of strategy, the former can lead the way and take the enemy's hits during the opponent's turn, while the latter can charge in afterwards and do all the significant damage. It's simple but elegant, and though there's less overall abilities available it manages to feel more customizable.
  5. The city-building has been modified so that all new buildings are placed within a city's overworld territory, rather than all being inside the one city square. There's a hard limit on the number of buildings based on the city's overall population score and the number of available spaces, some of which won't take buildings of a certain type or have penalties of some kind; desert tiles provide less food but more mana, for instance, so it's best to put mana-production structures there and farms elsewhere. Special mineral spaces are now configured so that special buildings can be built on them (usually stronger variants of pre-existing buildings, such as a more powerful Smithy on top of an iron deposit) before the player can gain any benefit. Of the many differences between MoM and Warlock, this is one where I'm absolutely in favor of Warlock's approach.
  6. Races appear to be limited to three broad categories: humans, undead and beastmen. Humans are simply humans. Undead can mean liches, zombies, skeletons, spirits and all sorts, and have their own rules for healing and support magic. Beastmen seem to be mostly rat-based as far as civilizations go, but also include a lot of other bestial hominids. There are also wandering monsters, from simple wolves and bears to elementals, giant spiders and ogres. Overall kind of lacking (though, once again, seemingly to keep things mechanically simple and streamlined).
  7. As for the invincible feeling, it's already there. I believe I'm considerably more powerful than either of my rivals, neither of whom seem particularly keen on attacking right now. I want to keep progressing up technology/magic trees and taking down more powerful wandering monsters, but it's starting to feel like overkill. Sweet, wonderful overkill. I may just continue progressing in this fashion until I cast the Spell of Unity, which appears to be this game's version of the Spell of Mastery.
  8. I'm definitely not bored yet. It's actually quite fun, partly due to how accessible it is. Because of all the streamlining aspects, and the two easier difficulty modes (as stated, I'm on "casual", which isn't even the easiest setting), it's not hard to get to grips with its few mechanics. I don't feel completely lost at sea because I skipped out on hours of tutorials, which is how most strategy games seem to go. That's an important consideration in its favor.

Additional Info

Warlock's very clearly based on Master of Magic, though has a intrinsic sense of sticking to the core essentials in lieu of many extra customization options and a dense inventory of monsters, spells and the many other appendices that lent Master of Magic its considerable replayability factor. Many elements are de-emphasized in Warlock including the combat, the RPG aspects and the city-building but the elements that it retains are what definitely made Master of Magic stand out in my mind, if perhaps in an obvious "bulletpoint list on the back of the box" sense in some cases. It feels like a modern day budget/portable version of the game: better looking, a lot more stable but far less substantial. However, even with its comparative lack of features, it does at least get the most important part right: The game is fun to play, and provides that same giddy sense of unstoppable powermongering. I mourn the lack of complexity, but I'm sure the game's not lacking for challenge if that's what a player might be looking for with a game like this.

Psyche! Millpool will be ours! Soon, I'll be Queen of Summertime! ...oh, King. King!

I've also noticed that the AI is built the same way: opponents will constantly found new cities a scant few blocks away from the capital (and yours), forcing both cities to rake in less resources and be limited in growth as a result. It's a slightly more effective plan in Warlock though, due to how territories work and how the borders of influence expand ever outwards as the cities' populations grow: creating a town close to your opponent means they're effectively stymied from progressing in that direction, and allows you to picket more land for yourself. It also appears as if allied cities can swallow one another as their borders touch, so it's not like you're able to scupper your own capital's potential. Plus, with how resources work, it's important to ensure that a useful node is within the sphere of your influence by hook or by crook. Warlock does have a few tricks up its sleeve, and is actually at its most compelling when it's introducing aspects that were never even featured in Master of Magic: though it feels as if it's sometimes content to simply try to be a much smaller modern version of the original Master of Magic, the few steps it takes towards being something entirely different are what makes it interesting.

I might go so far as to suggest that Warlock is the Civilization Revolution of MoM, given how that game made certain aspects of that series more accessible and let it move at a faster pace without actually taking too much away despite the relative lack of complexity. Of course, Civ Rev was a version of Civilization built specifically for consoles and Warlock is PC exclusive, so it's not a perfect analogy.

Final Thoughts

What you got for me, Librarian? Nothing. That's what you got.

As I (temporarily) end my run after fifty turns of this campaign, the Mighty Santa Empire continues to grow unabated and has now devoured most of the central continent of the main world. From all accounts, our two rivals (that is to say, the ones that remain) have eked out small empires of their own, but it's clear our librarian friend has but a single city to his name. We've surrounded it utterly, sneaking in under the facade of peaceful intent, and all it'll take is a declaration of war for us to converge on the capital and take it down instanter. Meanwhile, we've discovered bountiful lands in the west, but are still in the process of clearing out its considerable monster population. We'll have to find out if there's any monster generators nearby, and then move some settlers in to create a city and take advantage of the special nodes around here. The only X factor remains the Rat King, holed up in the North somewhere. The meager troops he's so far shipped over to our continent did not survive long. Technologically speaking, I have access to catapults, mages and halberdiers, but my money flow is still a net loss, so I'll be focusing more on buildings which promote gold production and perhaps disbanding a few of my inferior units and replacing them with a smaller number of superior ones. I'm loath to remove any veteran units, but it's not like their forward advance can compete with a trebuchet boulder for sheer destructive power.

Don't worry: Santa gets his.

And then there are the other two worlds to consider. What dangers and mysteries do they hold? And will I even need to plumb their riches and artifacts to utterly destroy what's left of my opponents? Maybe I'll just pop over there for funsies.

< Back to May Madness Melange

Onward to Part 1B (Disciples II: Rise of the Elves) >

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The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jan-Jun 2010)

Welcome to another edition of the Comic Commish, bringing you the greatest hits from the previous generation of consoles. As always, my eternal thanks to Gold sponsor @omghisam and the Giant Bomb crew. The year 2010 meant a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me 2010 was when I finally took the plunge and became the prolific content creator for Giant Bomb that I am today. Well, I say I create content for Giant Bomb, but what I mean is that I upload words and scribbles onto their website and they just sort of tolerate it for the time being.

Anyway, when I'm not aggrandizing my meager role on this site, I'm creating equally underwhelming artwork to represent some of my favorite games of a specific release period. For the month of April, this is the first half of 2010 from January to June. (I always bold these things, like it's never apparent from the title.)

The Comic Commish, Possibly Sponsored by NewEgg (We'll Talk)

Mass Effect 2 (BioWare, 360/PC/PS3, Jan)

The original Mass Effect was a big deal when it came out. It effortlessly created an entire setting with aplomb, dropping players in the middle of an interstellar mystery plot that took the time to flesh out its rogue's gallery of oddball team members, allowing the player to tackle each of its scenarios in any order they wished and punctuating a few memorable scenes with Hollywood-esque explosions and tense decisions. It was one of those games, I'd imagine, that required a long hard look at the drawing board once it became time to create a sequel that could not only live up to its predecessor but potentially even eclipse it.

Beyond fixing the comically long elevator loading times and amending the affront to Isaac Newton's life's work that was the Mako Tank, I wouldn't have thought it possible to improve too much on Mass Effect. What Mass Effect 2 did to succeed in its mission, in spite of the huge odds against it, was to wisely double down on what it felt were the more important aspects and allow everything else to fade into the background like so much space radiation. Inventory management was heavily reduced, the focus on character development was heavily increased. The tactical combat was heavily increased, and the planetary exploration was heavily reduced. The whole game felt like it was directed by endless meetings on what was a priority and what was inessential.

Whether you personally felt Mass Effect 2 was actually more fun than the original is entirely dependent on your attachment to the various aspects that were either emphasized or de-emphasized, but there's no denying that Mass Effect 2 is a significantly more focused product with considerably more confidence than its forebear; in essence, it was the franchise maturing from an insouciant schoolkid with the whole galaxy as their oyster to that young adult planning for college, deciding on what stringent path makes the most sense going forward. I might argue that the characters are a lot better in ME2 - there's certainly a more impressive selection to choose from - or that the tactical squad-based combat is tighter or really that firing probes into Uranus isn't necessary better or worse than doing mad low-gravity flips in a stupid moon jeep, but there's something to be said for a sequel taking such a confident step forward. Especially one with so many expectations to live up to.

Final Fantasy XIII (Square-Enix, 360/PS3, Mar)

Final Fantasy XIII definitely has an unfortunate reputation. This is largely due to how it spends much of its running time spent in what is pejoratively dubbed "The Tube": an endless linear corridor with the occasional twist and turn and amazing looking wallpaper that the player sprints through for the first two thirds of the game. During their time in the Tube, the player (slowly) acclimatizes to the various new features that are introduced in FFXIII: its world of a suspended spherical modern utopia, its mythology of ancient machine-like deities and the unfortunate human thralls they gang press into serving them, its cast of characters, the fast-paced and largely automated combat, the Paradigm system, the Crystarium, hair-dwelling chocobos and Hope's endless whining about his dead mother.

Even if it is a little hard to see past its problems (and make no mistake: they are legion) the core game isn't actually all that bad. Battles are brisk yet strategic; they tend to conclude fairly quickly, though whether it's the enemies that got wiped out or your own team is often dependent on your reflexes and situational awareness. The Crystarium simplifies the Sphere Grid of FFX and the License Grid of FFXII in such a way that you're still able to customize your characters in a myriad number of directions, but the manner in which you can do so is far less abstruse. The game reserves all its open-world exploration and side-questing for the end-game, and there is a heck of a lot of it to get through even if you don't see neither hide nor hair of much of it for most of the playing time. The characters... well, I have more trouble defending the characters. They aren't a particularly memorable bunch overall, though Lightning's a far more preferable protagonist than the equally reticent Squall (I also like Oerba Yun Fang a lot; Final Fantasy has an appealing tendency for aloof spear-wielders).

It's next to impossible to sell Final Fantasy XIII with a tagline like "it starts to get good at the 30 hour mark, I swear" and is deservedly considered the weakest of the post-SNES, non-MMO Final Fantasy games. Even so, there's a considerable level of pedigree behind any given Final Fantasy game - visuals, music, atmosphere, unique combat/development systems and what have you - and XIII doesn't entirely squander it all with its numerous foibles.

Nier (Cavia, PS3, Apr)

Nier's a similar case as Final Fantasy XIII in that it's a divisive game of highs and lows, but with Nier those zeniths and nadirs are all the more pronounced. Nier's combat is mostly uninspired character action hack and slash, with the occasional incongruous bullet hell sequence during boss fights, and a few special magical attacks courtesy of a friendly sentient book that follows the protagonist at all times. Its side-quests are largely insipid time-wasters, especially where any fishing or gardening is concerned. It can be visually lacking in a lot of areas, though its stark minimalism can often work in its favor too. Nier also takes to perplexing flights of fancy, switching up its basic combat-focused gameplay to a Resident Evil-styled fixed-camera jaunt through a spooky mansion, or randomly shifting to a text adventure format, or bouncing to a side-scrolling platformer. Its plot becomes increasingly labyrinthine and convoluted, going far beyond the original goal of rescuing the hero's kidnapped daughter from an evil enigmatic being known only as the Shadowlord.

Despite all of its madness, Nier has some considerable power in its corner: It's endlessly inventive, it makes the most effective use of new game plus playthroughs I've seen in a video game, it has an incredible emotional soundtrack (from Keiichi Okabe, his studio Monaca and cavia's in-house composer Takafumi Nishimura) and the story is never afraid to hit you hard where it hurts whenever it feels like it. You can fault Nier's gameplay and you can fault Nier's insanity, but you cannot fault Nier's heart. It's the least "designed by committee" game you'll probably ever play, for better and for worse.

Revisited

(Fair warning, this month's "Revisited" is as quiet as this part of the Comic Commish's going to be for a long time. Because I started creating comics for every weekly blog around the start of 2011, and how I'm almost always around six months behind the curve, we're going to start seeing a lot more "previously seen" items here. I might have to be judicious with what I use.)

3D Dot Game Heroes (From Software, PS3, May)

Before (well, alongside concurrently) From Software was trying to kill you over and over with their merciless Souls games, they revisited a few of the cultural touchstones they drew from when creating the worlds of Boletaria, Lordran and Drangleic in 3D Dot Game Heroes's loving blocky homage to ancient JRPGs. The chief influence is, of course, the Legend of Zelda: from its multi-chambered puzzle dungeons to its emphasis on exploration and item acquisition. In addition, however, there are innumerable other nods and in-jokes that refer to timeless RPG and adventure games. The game's a classic example of modern, on-point From Software: a core adherence to many old-school game design philosophies with many modern trappings and fresh ideas bolted on top. It also has a bananas sense of humor as well, an element of From's games generally not seen too often in the dour Souls trilogy: For instance, in order to log a monster in your journal's bestiary, you have to actually hit them several times with the book in question. This becomes comically ridiculous when you're having to log bosses by whacking them over and over with a hardback. (Editor Note, which is actually just me: Oh hey, this was the first "regular" comic I ever made for this site. It's also first alphabetically in my GB comic folder.)

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (Namco/Tri-Crescendo, Wii, Mar)

Fragile Dreams is about as melancholy as it gets, and by "it" I specifically mean atmospheric post-apocalyptic horror survival anime RPGs. So what I'm saying is that of all the many atmospheric post-apocalyptic horror survival anime RPGs out there, this is possibly the most downbeat and lugubrious, just so we can all be perfectly clear on that going forward. Honestly, Fragile Dreams is one of those problematic games that succeeds through its sheer oddness and creativity, not unlike the above Nier. You'll recognize elements from Silent Hill, Dark Souls and Tri-Crescendo's earlier Eternal Sonata, and if the juxtaposition of bright and cheerful anime funtime adventures and starkly grim and lonely treks into the darkness that constantly prey on your nerves sounds like the sort of thing you want to be a part of, then by all means try Fragile Dreams out for yourself. Just beware of Chickenhead.

The Other Ones!

As always, here's a selection of games I didn't cover this time, but are absolutely worth a look-see. You could even consider these games too awesome to be belittled with a gently mocking comic strip, if that helps you sleep at night.

  • Bayonetta (Platinum, 360/PS3, Jan): Kamiya's usual mix of skill-based, balls-hard character action and hyperstylized badassery isn't generally my cup of tea, but Bayonetta was an enjoyable enough entry level gateway for the Devil May Crys and Viewtiful Joes the outspoken Japanese designer is known for. The enemy designs are truly bizarre and Bayonetta's array of foot-pistol-assisted combos and over-the-top summons add flair to a game certainly not lacking in it. If your patience for character action games hasn't dissipated after a hundred lackluster God of War clones, Bayonetta's probably the best the genre has to offer you. And, unlike Devil May Cry, no-one seems to mind that the newest sequel's given her a new shorter hairstyle.
  • Darksiders (Vigil, 360/PS3, Jan): Though its third game remains sadly lost in the ether as of writing, the Darksiders series started strong with a McFarlane (that would be Todd, not Seth) take on the apocalypse and its four pale riders that melds with an oddly familiar set-up of passing through dungeons looking for maps and compasses and a special piece of equipment that would allow you to reach additional parts of said dungeon currently inaccessible. Darksiders wore its various influences on its sleeve, but made for a compelling whole all the same.
  • Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth (Capcom, NDS, Feb): The Ace Attorney series' first spin-off featured the permanently standoffish Miles Edgeworth in cases that were significantly more interested in the investigation parts of the original games, rather than the chaotic courtroom scenes that punctuated every case. The game introduced its own deduction mechanic in the Logic system, allowing Miles to figure out aspects of the case by linking two matching clues together. It's an odd departure for an already odd series, but still managed to retain much of what makes the Ace Attorney series such compelling fun. It's a shame the sequel was never officially localized.
  • Deadly Premonition (Access, 360, Feb): I should probably just post the whistling theme and call it a day. Here you go. Let's move on. (For serious, there's two whole Endurance Runs to sell you on this game if you need them.)
  • Just Cause 2 (Avalanche, 360/PS3/PC, Mar): Just Cause 2 is an exercise in function over form. Its function is to be fun (to put the fun in function, you might even say. If you're an asshole). The finer details about Agent Rico Rodriguez's sojourn into the fictional unstable Southeast Asian island nation of Panau and his cooperation with various rebel forces to bring down the residing despotic leader is largely incidental to blowing shit up and having a riot with the grappling hook mechanic.
  • Alan Wake (Remedy, 360/PC, Apr): Alan Wake's feckless eponymous protagonist is thrust into a nightmarish landscape shortly after entering a small town in this extended video game homage to Stephen King novels and the Twilight Zone, which also borrows a few elements from Japanese horror games in setting up a disquieting environment where nothing's quite as it seems. Though running through endless amounts of forests illuminating possessed hicks got old after a while, the obvious affection this game has for its inspiration sources becomes contagious after a while.
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Nintendo, Wii, May): Super Mario Galaxy's sequel had one hell of a hill to climb to match its original, and unlike Mass Effect 2 took the simpler if less impressive route of simply providing more of the same, excepting the occasional addition of a dinosaur or faceship. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an easy recommend, but it definitely wasn't interested in trying to replicate the giant leap forward its antecedent made. "Resting on their laurels" is perhaps a more apt description of what went on here.
  • Picross 3D (HAL, NDS, May): Picross 3D, or Picross Rittai, attempts to do something which traditionally never works as well as intended; that is to say, taking an incredibly popular puzzle game format and disturbing its carefully considered balance of elements by introducing a major new feature, in this case an entire third dimension. Just think how every variant of Tetris pales in comparison to the original. Fortunately, adding a third dimension doesn't diminish Picross's core appeal whatsoever. You do need some pinpoint stylus accuracy though, I'll tell you that much.
  • Singularity (Raven, 360/PS3/PC, Jun): Singularity begins as a tense survival horror with guns, but it quickly becomes apparent that the game has designs on BioShock's throne with its alternate reality sci-fi storyline, its mix of first-person supernatural and technological gunplay and a deep attention to detail in building its world of a Soviet experimental facility that switches between a timeline where it remains a dangerous dilapidated relic of a war long since lost, and one where it (and its charismatic leader) became the savior of a victorious Soviet Empire. It's a little rough but, overall, I think I probably prefer it over where BioShock would eventually end up.
  • Transformers: War for Cybertron (High Moon Studios, 360/PS3/PC, Jun): Transformers nostalgia is a hard sell these days. Most of the kids who watched the original 1984 series (and the 1986 motion picture) were well into their 30s by 2010, and subsequent generations of the Transformers franchise saw fewer and fewer audience figures. On top of that, the Michael Bay movies made a proper mess of the original series' chronology and characters, and War for Cybertron - which stayed true to the Takara franchise's roots - would seem almost incomprehensible to those familiar with the movies. It's definitely commendable that High Moon Studios took great measures to stay faithful to the source material, and managed to create a moderately enjoyable third-person shooter around it. The cultural impact of what is essentially an extended toy commercial might not seem like much to many, but for the generation of kids who watched Optimus Prime pass away in front of their eyes it meant a whole lot.

Farewell until next time, good duders, and thanks for stopping by. More of 2010 to come in May, should I manage to take a breather between all the Steam games (uh oh, did I just give something away?).

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What I Learned at PAX East This Year

...from someone who watched almost the entire thing while moderating the chat. Man, they don't warn you about this when you become a mod. So stoked for E3...

Anyway, if you haven't yet seen the Giant Bomb panel, the Royal Rumble event earlier today or the 404ing It panel slightly less earlier today, go check them out first. This list might not make a lot of sense otherwise, and all of those things are more entertaining than this is. Have fun!

  1. Smite.
  2. The Black Dragon eats Ultimo Dragon for breakfast.
  3. We will never truly know the reason why Cornelius is sticky. Theories abound, however.
  4. If you gift John Drake a refreshing Diet Coke, for Smite's sake serve it in a can and not a glass bottle.
  5. Nothing makes Max Temkin laugh harder than horrific workplace injuries.
  6. Giant Bomb was the only panel I saw, throughout the entire three days of streams, where people discussed Indie games in-depth. At PAX. Titanfall, conversely, got approximately 7 hours of coverage, despite already being out.
  7. (Gearbox's very own) Dave Lang's real-life bat-tech is somewhat lacking. His ability to cut the angriest of promos, however, is beyond reproach.
  8. If you need a new SSD, computer case or one third of whatever stream you're watching completely obfuscated, Newegg's gotcha covered.
  9. We need more Vinny pins in the Giant Bomb gift shop. Repeat, we are all out of Vinny pins.
  10. SMITE.
  11. Eric Pope is a sick and deplorable human being.
  12. For that matter, babies should not be picked up that way.
  13. Never turn your back on Dr. Tracksuit.
  14. PAX Q&As are never not awkward and uncomfortable.
  15. Don't worry, the Benq lady does not think you're an "old person" and is very interested in your fighter game accuracy quality assurance responsibilities.
  16. Poor Maggie.
  17. Mac and cheese might be "a black thing".
  18. #NavarroWolfOrder
  19. Planetside 2 does not discriminate against women who are terrible drivers, though they certainly don't mind the stereotype either.
  20. SMITE!!
  21. Persona 4 Arena, which I played whenever I wasn't keeping an eye on the stream, is a lot better than I was expecting. These Arc System Works fighters utilize an effective "tier" system for players - it's very obvious when going through its tutorials that there's plenty of features and systems that may take a lifetime to master. At the same time, it moves pleasingly fast and will very happily accommodate any player who mashes buttons or is overly dependent on the hadouken maneuver, at least to an extent sufficient for its story mode. Speaking of which, the story mode is excellently written, smartly and subtly configured for each viewpoint character and adds some great, congruous (that it is to say, it's the sort of Engrishy rap that suits the series well) music to the franchise. It also meshes the P3 and P4 characters together well and sets up some interesting hooks for P4A2 that doesn't go so far to devalue the whole game with obnoxious cliffhangers. Questions are raised, a shadowy behind-the-scenes guy is briefly introduced, possible answers are forthcoming. I dig the attention to detail to Persona's universe; it isn't just some fighting game that borrowed the characters because they looked cool.

See you next expo! When the next one rolls around, come hang out in the chat, though try to be civil. I think MB came close to his personal record for chat bans this year, and he's always trying to break that thing.

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