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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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.

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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?).

8 Comments

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.

29 Comments

Loyalty and Languor

Perhaps one of the most natural behavioral phenomenon in our gaming habits is that of loyalty: that we'd be happier to play a sequel or iteration in a series we have experience with because we're acquainted with both the standard of quality of its games as well as having a general sense of what's expected of us in terms of mechanics and controls. Launching into a new game in a series we're already familiar with feels both comfortable and simple, and I don't know about you guys but "comfortable and simple" is often the guiding principle behind anything I elect to spend my free time on. It's possibly why I'm such a shiftless layabout.

Our own Patrick Klepek has often talked about his recent attempts to diversify his playing habits, getting out of ruts and the like by embarking into alien and untested territory, but it's oddly difficult to take that sort of path without a conscious effort. Normally, it feels like, we see a game that's either a direct sequel to something we enjoyed or is so similar as to be worth the gamble and plump for that option rather than risk the unknown. I suppose there's also the factor of choosing a safe bet for our coin; opening our wallets for something new that might be potentially unplayable is not always an enticing prospect.

I've noticed, though, that while the last five games I've chosen to play were due to a certain loyalty I held towards something, though the type of loyalty being exhibited was meaningfully different for each. When I choose new games to play, I'm usually doing so with a background of experience and certain ingrained prejudices. Sometimes I can put all that aside to try something new and exciting, but usually I'm using that background to take educated guesses on what I'll end up liking. That's true, to some extent, for all five of these games:

Tales of the Abyss

I swear I'm almost done talking about this game.

My playing Tales of the Abyss is the quintessential example of what I mean by loyalty to a game series. I've played at least seven of the core games from Namco Bandai's colorful action RPG franchise, which is more than enough to anticipate what one might expect from a Tales game. I chose to play Tales of the Abyss because I knew almost precisely what I was in for, and was already entirely sold on its usual blend of anime monkeyshines and frantic real-time combo-oriented combat before I had even booted it up the first time. This is opposed to the many other JRPGs I have sitting in the backlog, which I decided not to play either because I was less certain of the quality of their content or was simply too lazy to want to bother learning any new tricks. It's very possible that this has something to do with how I often select a new game to play when I'm about two hours away from falling asleep, but that's perhaps a concern for another time.

I probably don't need to write any more in-depth analysis about Tales of the Abyss. That eight thousand word monster blog I wrote a few weeks back is more than sufficient coverage on the matter. I bring it up to point to an example of wanting to play a game in a long-running series I'm familiar with for reasons that might well be as frivolous as wanting to complete every game in the set. I know that's often been the reason I start a new Castlevania or Zelda. I play games like this because I know I'm going to enjoy them too, of course, but with some of these more venerable franchises it's often that you're no longer in it for something surprising and unpredictable. My mind's not going to be expanded by witnessing another group of animes fighting to save the world from a well-intentioned extremist with a mix of impractical weapons, particle effects and moxie, but I'm cool with that.

All in all, though, it's probably best I don't let this become the only deciding factor behind the games I choose to play, because I tend to burn out pretty quickly when that happens.

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward

It's fair to say I'm a fan of this series now, though. I do hope that third one happens.

Conversely, I hold very little such loyalty to the Zero Escape series. There's only been two games so far, after all, and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors - as narratively mad and grammatically incorrect as it was - didn't grasp me as being from a series to watch. Rather, my loyalty in this case was to the genre itself; the kind of chiefly Japanese story-driven game that uses a blend of graphic adventure inventory puzzles and visual novel dialogue-focused decision-making. There's a scant few of these in the West, the best known of which is probably the Ace Attorney series and the various games from CING, and I'm eager enough about them to track down any that manage to slip through the culture barrier and see a localization (and, rarer still, a European localization).

I'll admit to some degree of knowing what to expect from Virtue's Last Reward from playing its immediate precursor 999, though the game turned out to be significantly improved compared to the original. Well, at least in a mechanical sense. You could now freely jump between alternate branches in the story without starting over; there was no repetition of the game's "escape the room" puzzles, which cease to be fun once you figure them out once; the game does all the boring math parts of the Nonary Game for you; there's more of an emphasis on following a "bad" ending all the way to its dire conclusion because of the hints (and, in some cases, literal passwords you need to write down) that you'll need elsewhere. While I thoroughly enjoyed VLR, I had no such guarantee that I would have liked it as I had with Tales of the Abyss. It's more that I took a chance based on the type of game it was, rather than knowing precisely what I would be in for. In this particular case, the decision to buy and play VLR was spurred less by loyalty to its series than to a loyalty for a game genre that's sorely under-represented in the West.

Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall

Dragonfall had a lot of fun with its ragtag group of characters though, I could tell.

Shadowrun Returns is a rare case where I played the original game and felt there could be a lot of potential further down the line should it see frequent updates and some clever user mods, and this was reflected in a review of mine that rated the game higher than it probably deserved. This is more like a loyalty to a single game than to a series, and it's becoming more common as we see more and more Early Access games on Steam (and, for that matter, a long history of MMOs with all their incremental improvements). We'll buy one of these games, try to see past its present problems to envision the grand product it might one day become, and then subconsciously declare our loyalty to that imagined ideal by coming back to it every so often as the dream edges ever closer to being the reality.

Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun Returns was never released as an Early Access game, but it was clear from its half-baked and tutorial-heavy built-in quickie campaign that they clearly had future plans for additional campaigns and stories within the same engine. That included campaign, Dead Man's Switch, simply felt like a beginner's guide to both the game and the wider universe/setting it represented. Because Shadowrun - a table-top game that melds fantasy and cyberpunk sci-fi - has a rich and detailed history with around 25 years of constant development, there's a lot of information to introduce to a neophyte shadowrunner and as many RPG systems and glossary terms and quirks to acclimatize them to in equal measure. Dead Man's Switch does an able job of introducing the shamanistic magic system, the Matrix-y cyberspace "decking", the use of drones and summoned elemental spirits and futuristic stim drugs in combat. It teaches you about the setting's history in which our modern world is hit with the sudden and cataclysmic resurgence of magic and learns to adjust, about the corporations that run everything, about the pantheon of new deities and metahuman races that awoke into this new era. But ultimately, the Dead Man's Switch campaign was too short and too perfunctory to be much of a draw back when the game first came out last November.

The Berlin Campaign, which was later renamed Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall, is the long-anticipated second campaign from the original developers that would not only cut away the no longer necessary slow-burn tutorials and introductions, but would also be enhanced by several months' worth of new additions and tweaks from the design team. It promised a lot, whether directly or implied, and my loyalty to the idea of a Shadowrun game, or really any table-top adaptation, that chooses to focus on delivering module-based content was strong enough to convince me to try it out when it was finally released earlier this year.

Ultimately I was a little underwhelmed in just how minor and scattered the improvements ended up being, but Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall will not be the last time I buy into a game's lofty ambitions and stick with it. Heck, I've already spent money on several Kickstarters at this point. Maybe that loyalty will be more easily misplaced compared to the loyalty I hold for games that actually exist in their finished form, but I guess time will tell. (I should disclose for fairness's sake that I was bought this game and its expansion ahead of time as a gift, so me playing it and discussing it here is related to an entirely different kind of loyalty in addition.)

South Park: The Stick of Truth

There once was a maiden from Stoneberry Hollow...

With South Park: The Stick of Truth, there was certainly no loyalty towards other games created under the South Park label. That would be crazy. South Park has had a long and troubled history of video game adaptations, which range from ambitious but flawed attempts to recreate the subversive show to egregious shovelware designed purely to bank on its name and large fanbase for a quick buck.

Still, the new South Park RPG from Obsidian Entertainment promised for a long time to reverse that unfortunate trajectory for South Park video games. The first clear sign that things would be different this time around was the enthusiastic participation of Matt Stone and Trey Parker: the creative leads behind the TV show. The second was their choice of developer in Obsidian - though occasionally criticized for their lack of quality control, Obsidian has been responsible for many of the best RPGs in the past generation of consoles. Fallout: New Vegas and Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer are regarded as some of the better CRPGs to come out in recent memory, and Alpha Protocol has plenty of admirers as well (don't pay any mind to all this effusive Obsidian praise by the way, it's just Rorie's my boss is all).

The Stick of Truth ended up not disappointing. It's easily one of my favorite games to be released this year, and not only does an incredible job at recreating the look, feel and sensibility of the show but crafts a very playable turn-based RPG at the core of it all that recalls something like the deceptively strategic (and similarly trigger-enhanced) Paper Mario/Mario & Luigi RPGs. The game was created by evident fans of the series, featuring an endless conga line of references and in-jokes I'm sure even the showrunners had long forgotten about, and there's very little holding back on some of the more fucked up conceits the show's creators have probably toyed with at one point or another. It seems as if Matt and Trey excel rather than falter whenever they're faced with a new medium to play with - just look at how well the big budget South Park movie turned out, despite worries that it would just end up being a longer and more expensive episode of the show (looking at you, Futurama movies) - and South Park: The Stick of Truth might well be the best South Park related product for years, including recent seasons of the TV show.

In this case, the loyalty was to the show, its creators and to the developers, rather than (and really in spite of) earlier games from this franchise. And to think, we might've moved away from this last generation of consoles with that tower defense game and Tenorman's Revenge as the only South Park video game portrayals. Shudder.

Persona 4 Arena

Persona story-writing rule #6: When in doubt, add an enigmatic robot girl.

Finally, we come to the game I'm currently playing. My loyalty in this particular situation is to the original Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 which introduced Yu Narukami Charlie Tunoku, Chie Satonaka, Yosuke Hanamura, Kanji Tatsumi, those three other chicks and that monkey bear thing. Subsequently, my decision to play Persona 4 Arena has very little to do with Arc System Works and their various series of incomprehensible twitch-gameplay fighters. I have no idea what a guilty gear is, or why the blaz is blue, but I am so on board for watching all these sassy teens go on further adventures and continue to bounce off one another. It takes a fantastic story and cast to make me really depressed about finishing a game, and by the end of Persona 4 I was practically bawling because it meant the end of my interaction with all these wonderful characters. Make no mistake: I can be the wussiest wuss that ever wussed when it comes to this sort of thing, especially where my anime highschool buddies are concerned.

While I've yet to become enamored with P4A's combat - I don't think a single imparted rule of the tutorial lessons has stuck with me, besides which of the four attack buttons makes a Persona appear and which do not - I'm enjoying the goofy plot of a resurrected Midnight Channel that is forcing this group of friends to throw down against one another with insulting marquee banners and illusionary passive-aggressiveness, despite them all feeling assured that the TV World Murderer case has long been put to rest. it's also weird hearing Yu's voice (he's played by Adachi's VA Johnny Yong Bosch, which is true of the original game as well even if his dialogue was limited to the occasional grunt and yelp) and weirder still to see how the few featured members of Persona 3's cast have matured in the three years since the events of their game. I'm definitely enjoying all the parts where I'm not fighting, that's for sure.

So, in summary, we have:

  • A game from a series I'm intimately familiar with, which held very few surprises but was still an enjoyable experience all the same, if largely in a comfort food sort of manner. I feel unreasonably happy that there's a big list of Tales games out there that I can tick another entry off of, as odd as that might sound from a fan of the series. Darn obsessive completionist tendencies.
  • A game from a sub-genre that I appreciate, even though (or perhaps especially because) they're thin on the ground. See also: SpaceWhippers, Pikmin-esque team strategy-puzzle games, whatever you'd call Dark Cloud (dungeon crawler slash building sim?). I'd probably buy any game that exhibited any of those genre traits, even if I didn't much care for its other aspects.
  • An expansion for a game I had high hopes for after playing its original content, and was slightly sorry to see that it had yet to realise its full potential. Still, this may well blossom into purchasing a second Shadowrun game should Harebrained Schemes find a way to procure funding for a new and improved engine.
  • A game that - going by previous trends - I should've stayed the hell away from, but gave a chance anyway because of the pedigree of its source material and its development team. A game that ended up being the best one on this list, by the by.
  • A game that is a pseudo-sequel to a game I really enjoyed, despite knowing full well that I wouldn't be too into its gameplay.

Each of these decisions was spurred by a loyalty to someone or something, and a sense that I would get some degree of satisfaction out of it based on their reputations and my experience with their predecessors. It's hard for an original game to ask for a lot of faith from a prospective audience who don't yet know it from Adam, and harder still when so many purchasing decisions are derived from familiarity and loyalty, even if we get there from a multitude of directions.

I'm thinking after P4A is done I might dig into my Steam folder and try a few games where I have no idea what to expect. I don't mind if my gaming gets a mite habitual once in a while, but it takes some introspection like this to recognize the little hole I've dug for myself for what it is.

So, how many game purchasing decisions have you guys made so far this year that weren't based on prior experience with either a game's series, its developers, a fondness for the source material it was based on or any other similar determining factors? Has Giant Bomb helped you to discover new games you might have never given a second glance to, or just helped you decide on games you were already certain you'd like for one reason or another?

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Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall review

(Once again, the site is prohibiting me from adding reviews to the game's page, so here it is in blog form until the engineers fix whatever's up. This review's probably one of my more pettier critiques, but then having an indignant tone is what makes reviews fun.)

Though marginally superior to Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall still feels like squandered potential.

Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall is the new campaign from the original developers of Shadowrun Returns, Harebrained Schemes. The long-awaited "Berlin campaign" is a full expansion, providing a new 15+ hour campaign and various additions to the game's editor assets, and was released on Steam, GOG and the Humble Store for $15. It requires the original game to play.

The campaign itself is a little better put-together than Dead Man's Switch, the campaign that originally came with Shadowrun Returns. Though approximately of an equivalent length, it's far less interested in holding your hand through its early stages and has that self-assured confidence of a Hollywood comic book movie sequel: you know the setting, you know the deal, so let's have fun this time around. Moving the action to Berlin makes for an interesting cultural change from the Seattle-based previous games, and helps to fill in more of Shadowrun's distinctive setting that combines fantasy and technology in a near future where magic has suddenly returned to the world. Dragonfall is specifically focused on dragons and their role in the Shadowrun universe as devious and avaricious corporate kingpins and crimelords eager to seize the human world's resources for themselves.

Dragonfall's strengths include: A homey hub area named the Kreuzbasar, full of colorful NPCs that gradually reveal more about themselves as they get used to your presence and recognize your contributions to their small part of the city of Berlin. You perform odd jobs for the various vendors in the area, and the game hits you hard when the inevitable invasion of your sanctuary occurs by the antagonist's forces. Your team of shadowrunners also have distinctive personalities and, like in Neverwinter Nights, also slowly reveal their backstories as their trust in you grows after missions. Eiger, Glory and Dietrich are fun characters to interact with, and the game also provides a cocky decker (Shadowrun's equivalent of computer hackers) NPC early on in case you need one.

Dragonfall's weaknesses include: Still not enough item variety, still not enough mission variety, dependence on many tropes lifted directly from BioWare's book of tricks, such as "big decisions" which go on to effect the world as seen during the text epilogue, and there's still a heck of a lot of bugs. For instance: I noticed that one the Kreuzbasar NPCs simply restarted her dialogue over from your first meeting, though it caught back up when you next encountered her; darkened "fog of war" areas will sometimes take a few moments before they light up after you walk into them; the icons for interactive hotspots seem to flicker in and out of view, causing no amount of paranoia that you might have missed something important; the HUD would sometimes refuse to pop-up in combat, greatly restricting that character's combat options; and many other minor graphical and mechanical glitches. I didn't see anything too serious, like freezes or anything game-breaking, but the sheer number of them still present was a little dispiriting this many months after the original game's release.

Additionally, there's a few odd decisions being made with the game's use of skill-enabled advantages: those extra dialogue options that occur when you have a specific stat high enough to invoke it. For instance, there's an opportunity to sneak into a well-guarded corporate laboratory for decker builds via a busy maintenance worker outside the side-entrance. Having the requisite amount of decker skill to converse with her ("here's the problem") then generates two secondary skill-checks for moderately high strength and charisma stats respectively; either one of which would then allow you to proceed further with this dialogue tree and, eventually, sneak into the building without a fight. Because deckers don't rely on either strength or charisma, and thus would have no reason to build them up, it seemed very unlikely anyone could get into the building this way without cheating or knowing ahead of time and building a gimped character with stat distributions all over the place. Most skill checks are better utilized, but there's a few consecutive ones like the above that seem a bit uncoordinated.

The game introduces sniper rifles and grenade launchers, but nothing new as far as decker equipment goes. Deckers have always had exactly five options for decks: each one more powerful than the last, and require more money to buy and more decker skill to use. There's no variety. Likewise, even with the new weapon types, there's still very few options per level of skill and it usually comes down to a binary choice (e.g. more accuracy or more damage?) when each tier unlocks. I didn't play as a magic-user, but I imagine they have a similar utilitarian assortment of spells rather than the dizzying variety of your average D&D-derived RPG like Icewind Dale or Neverwinter Nights. It's fair to make the assessment that the game's more focused on its storytelling and mission design than it is on loot and equipment, which ought to be more of a means to an end than the focus anyway, but it wouldn't hurt to have more options in battle all the same. (It would be perhaps fairer still to point out the relatively small size of the development team behind the game, who probably needed to make certain aspects a priority out of a deadline-based necessity.) An RPG without loot just feels a bit barren, especially when there's the capacity to make fungible assets out of computer paydata packets, which the game doesn't do often enough, not to mention the many remnants of the pre-Awakening world that could be of value to somebody. There's a humorous chain of minor fetch quests concerning the acquisition of a DVD player and a monitor that can be hooked up to one, both of which are priceless antiques at this point in time. It recalled that episode of Cowboy Bebop where they spent half the running time trying to track down a working Betamax player.

Though the structure of Dragonfall includes an open-ended middle act in which the player can select between several missions in order on to raise the funds necessary to move onto the final act of the campaign, the whole experience still felt a bit too linear. Most missions are designed with a certain character level in mind - though it's worth pointing out that levels work a little differently in Shadowrun, so perhaps "karma total" (where karma is the game's de facto experience/building point system) is more apropos - so we have a series of missions that can only be taken in a certain order. The openness of this part of the game is therefore somewhat specious in nature. The previous campaign had this issue as well, and I suppose there's no easy workaround for this type of instance: the alternative would be to create several options off the bat that are either wildly imbalanced, causing consternation for any player who accidentally opts for the hardest of the missions presented, or they gradually become less challenging as players earn karma and become stronger the more of them they complete.

Overall, I was disappointed in Dragonfall not because of its content but because how little I felt it improved on the original game. When I originally reviewed Shadowrun Returns, I might have boosted its score slightly because I sensed a great deal of potential in its malleable engine and capacity for developer/user mods. I hoped that a new campaign would bring with it a huge number of important updates and fixes that had been generated in the months since the game's release, but given the relative lack of new assets (beyond some new setting-specific tilesets) and its many persistent bugs it seems neither of those things have transpired. It's not entirely fair to ask an expansion to change the user experience to a meaningful degree, as like most DLC it is simply meant to be more content within the same confines, but the price point - almost equal to the original game - and the amount of potential inherent to the format have shifted my expectations somewhat. It's still a solid strategy RPG with some great writing and character development, and feels truer to the Shadowrun setting than any games prior, but it feels like Dragonfall is perfectly content to rest on the original game's laurels than address any of its shortcomings to a significant extent.

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Get Thee to a Nonary: Ambidex Edition

I wrote a blog about Chunsoft's Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors back when I played it last year, and having just beaten its sequel - Virtue's Last Reward - I feel compelled to follow up on my musings with some more waxing lyrical on AI bunnies and unlikely heretofore untapped powers of the human mind in nonet form. So to that effect, here's another nine talking points about VLR and the Zero Escape series as a whole.

1. Visual Novels, Revisited

Over the past year, I can't say I've really played as many graphic adventure games as I'd have liked. My intent was to play a lot more this year, and the List of Shame I devised is packed with ringers from that particular genre. Visual novels are a type of adventure game too, in a manner of speaking, though usually more passive with a comparative lack of player interaction necessitated to further their stories. Whereas an adventure game requires that you solve a few puzzles before progressing onto the next part of the game, many visual novels simply keep on going regardless of the player's input. Conversely, visual novels are also designed with the potential for many diverging paths, with player choices - even if it's as limited as selecting one of a few possible options, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book - branching the story off in different directions.

Visual novels and the graphic adventure games of the west have always been at least aware of each other, and share a similar antecedent. The earliest Famicom adventure games, for instance, told a very linear story and included the occasional puzzle simply as a matter of course, as if they saw what text adventures were doing and simply evolved and refined the elements (the storytelling, the decisions that could potentially generate alternate paths) that appealed to them most - which is, technically speaking, also what the early Sierra graphic adventure games did, only emphasizing a different set of preferences. A recently translated GameCenter CX episode features the Famicom adventure game Oishinbo: The Ultimate Menu 3-Course Showdown, which is a perfect example of what adventure games were like in Japan at the time: though the player is running around trying to solve a puzzle ("what is the best possible meal for the situation and how would one procure its ingredients in time?"), most of this is done by simply talking and examining every hotspot in the game until the game moves forward on its own. Very rarely is the player required to make decisions and solve puzzles in a situation where they aren't simply facilitating the next part of the story. When the player is given real agency, it's a multiple choice decision that either leads to the next part of the story or a premature game over. There's no need to worry about one's inventory quite so often as a result. The NES saw a handful of Western adventure games too, the ports of Shadowgate and Maniac Mansion perhaps best known of that small group, but the divide between the two approaches to this genre was quite concrete even back in those primitive days.

The Zero Escape games feel like a combination of the two philosophies, in a similar fashion as the Ace Attorney games: there's a quite obvious distinction between when the game wants you to read/listen to a lot of text and make the occasional decision, and when it wants you to run around searching for items and using them to solve puzzles. For Zero Escape, these sequences come when you emerge into a new puzzle room and must solve its riddles before you are allowed out, at which point the game switches back to text box after text box and all the juicy plot revelations that follow. It's an interesting attempt to combine the two types of adventure game in a way that might not necessarily be to everyone's liking (I could see how someone would dislike either one of the two modes, and be dissatisfied with the whole as a result), but I tend to view it as a "best of both worlds" compromise.

Anyway, considering the only other visual novel I've played recently was that scarcely interactive Go! Go! Nippon! virtual vacation game, it's safe to say Virtue's Last Reward was phenomenal in comparison. I do intend to play more graphic adventure games and visual novels this year, however. A lot more.

2. The Puzzles

The Puzzles were definitely the weakest element of 999, and it's gratifying to see that not only have they been improved quite a bit but there's no longer any repetition; due to the way the game's branches work, there isn't a single scenario where you have to complete a previously beaten room again, unless you specifically choose to do so. The game branches in such a way that you have one in three choices for the first real puzzle room (after the tutorial puzzle, at least) and for each of those routes, another three possible rooms. All of which are unique.

In addition, the puzzles themselves seem significantly more involved, but also far less abstruse. The only truly "how the hell was I supposed to figure that out?" moments are reserved for each room's second password; an optional objective necessary to uncover some secret information about the game, its characters, its references and the science (or pseudo science, in some cases) it drops on you. I found trying to discover the "blue password" (as opposed to the green password, which is needed to escape the room and continue the game) made for some of the more fun lateral thinking exercises the game had in store.

The best part is that the game actually justifies this new system to an extent, in much the same way 999 somewhat justified all its repetitive elements. Sometimes I wonder if they introduce all this weird parapsychology stuff simply so they could have an out to deflect complaints about this slightly more problematic aspect of the game.

3. The Characters

I'd heard complaints about Clover's characterization, and they weren't kidding. She's been given the inexplicable half-nude fashion sense of any non-leading female Zero Escape character, and become considerably ditzier as a result. I sort of get what they were going at, though: her name of Clover, or Yotsuba (short for "four-leaf clover") in Japanese, has a certain connotation of having an oddball, carefree attitude. If you've ever seen that Yotsuba manga (and if you spend any amount of time on Tumblr, it feels as inevitable as DanganRonpa spoilers and Dr Who gif collages), the eponymous main character is also something of a sweet nutcase.

Of course, the biggest concern is how this Clover diverges from the shy but fiercely intelligent child of 999, who would surprise Junpei and the others with her occasional bursts of maturity and cunning. As for other characters, Alice feels as superfluous as Lotus did; a hyper-intelligent woman incongruously dressed like a Middle Eastern stripper who is only around - the game admits as much in both cases - because they're necessary to solve a single piece of the grander puzzle (or, more cynically, for some T&A).

The rest are fine though: we have two love interests in the standoffish and enigmatic Phi and the warm and maternal Luna, an elderly man Tenmyouji and his adopted grandson Quark who are involved in one of the game's more insane twists, a dubious character in a top hat named Dio who the game really wants you to buy as the villain and my favorite character, K, an amnesiac in a robotic suit who could well be anyone at any time. There's also Zero himself, who generally makes himself known to the group through his intermediary: a particularly sarcastic AI program that resembles a geisha rabbit and makes no end of bunny puns. Apparently, the punning was the localization team's solution for how Zero frequently added a rabbit-like "-usagi" suffix to its speech.

4. The Rest

The most striking part of VLR is that there's clearly some more budget behind it. Rather than static portraits, characters now animate with some fairly decent stylized 3D models. I played the 3DS version, but I imagine the Vita version is even more impressive-looking. It does make me wonder if this extra expense didn't cause some of the worry about not being able to fund a potential sequel (see below for more thoughts on that).

I also wasn't aware that it had an English dub, since I seemed to have played through the whole game with the Japanese dub and English subtitles without realising there was an alternative. Turns out it's because the European version didn't even bother including the English dub, which seemed a little unusual. I'm sure the dub was entirely competent, but I suppose it's a matter of having different publishers and localization teams with different priorities. Weird decision, but I suppose most Europeans will be using their native language's subs to follow the story anyway, regardless of whether the audio is English or Japanese. Might as well have it so the characters' lips are syncing to the words they're saying.

5. Science and Not Science

999 introduced a few paranormal theories to its narrative, some of which were relevant to the plot and others simply red herrings presumably meant to disorient you. Whenever one of these theories or thought experiments showed up, one or more of the characters would explain the basics to the protagonist, because these were real ideas (well, hypothetical science fiction concepts that had been made by real people previous to the game's inception, at least) with some degree of thought and elaboration behind them. They were never really tied in to the game's individual puzzles either, despite randomly appearing during the exploration of a new puzzle room, they just had some relevance to the game's overarching storyline.

Virtue's Last Reward does the same thing, and while it's still as weirdly jarring as ever VLR at least focuses on particular strains of crazy germane to its own outlandish story. VLR's plot is considerably stranger and more far-fetched than 999's on the whole, but at the same time keeps its internal logic more consistent. For an example of what I mean, 999 introduces the theory of Ice-9 (actually a concept devised by sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut based on some real-life theoretical chemistry) but doesn't do anything with it. It just kind of notes how much of a neat idea it is and lets it hang around there all detached from anything else like an awkward partygoer who doesn't know anyone else at the hootenanny. VLR makes use of everything it introduces, whether it's Schrodinger's Cat or E = MC2 or the prisoner's dilemma or a virus based on a mathematical principle that makes people want to murder themselves like in The Happening.

Point is, even though VLR is quantifiably crazier overall, it doesn't feel as wasteful with the science (real or imagined) it features. It uses everything in its kooky parapsychology toolbox to tell its story, rather than just inserting whatever its director Uchikoshi was looking up on Wikipedia that day.

6. The Bottom Line. Well, the Two-Thirds Down Line.

Overall, I liked VLR a lot. I don't know if I'm completely on board with where the series is going, which would be straight to Crazyville on a rocket, but the storytelling itself is as sound as ever. The series is known for creating multiple "dead end" plot threads that exist only to provide a bit more backstory for certain characters and help the player realise the wrong choices that led them to that point, and this one made for some really clever and/or emotional scenes, taking full advantage of a narrative mechanic that allows you to have two characters facing their own imminent demise to draw a lot of pathos from it. They do die, of course, but that doesn't have to be the end of the story; just rewind and try something else.

As previously stated, I'm a fan of VLR's puzzles and how they allowed for one obvious solution that let the less invested players to continue the story while also including a far trickier variant for the die-hards and puzzle savants to work out for some potentially revealing factoids. The visuals are also significantly better and the game felt really substantial for whatever reason. I'm sure I passed the 30 hour mark, which wasn't something I anticipated from a visual novel, albeit a visual novel with over a dozen "escape the room" puzzles.

I might liken the nature of the first two Zero Escape games to the first two core Assassin's Creed games: The first felt like a purer expression of what the creative lead intended, a more grounded plot and the benefit of being an entirely original IP and thus having that novelty value, but the second improved on almost every single mechanical aspect of the game's composition and felt more like the series was finally finding its legs in that sweet spot between the idealism of its creative lead and the practicality of molding that idea into a game that would be fun to play.

7. Sequel Strife

The Zero Escape series is currently facing the worrying prospect of being postponed indefinitely, which would be a general bummer enough already except for the fact that the second game has sort of re-engineered the mythology of the series to befit a trilogy in order to tie up all the loose ends and explain everything. There's a lot of unanswered questions that a hypothetical third game would presumably address, given what little we've been told about it, as well as being an effective bridge between the events of two previous games. The fact that the third game doesn't appear likely, even with this eleventh hour quest from the internet to save it, is something of a downer, but at the same time, it's equally unfortunate that the second game's story decided to rely so heavily on needing a subsequent entry to fully explicate on everything, because that just seems like a very flippant way of convincing the people behind the funding that a third game would be a necessity; a bluff that was unfortunately called by the publishers and producers of the series.

Still, it's not like campaigns like this haven't worked in the past. Operation Rainfall was a rousing success, and Kickstarter and Indie Gogo have helped a lot of games get off the ground, so there's precedents aplenty. I'll remain optimistic that something will come along last minute and save Zero Escape 3 and whatever goofy subtitle they decide to go with this time. Hopefully it won't have to involve teleporting one's consciousness back in time and finding a way to make the previous games more lucrative.

8. Spoiler Space!

Here we discuss the game's plot in detail, its ending and its various twists. Just scroll right past unless you've already beaten the game, and likewise try not to fill the comments with spoilerish stuff either.

So... the moon, huh? And they explained the lack of gravity with the effects of the Radical-6 virus. Doesn't really explain why people occasionally went into slow-motion mode regardless, like Quark or Sigma on one of the "everybody dies" threads, or how Luna and the various recordings weren't all sped up (unless they were all configured specifically to run slowly so people could follow them) or why everyone killed themselves in one of the grislier endings (including Luna!) if they're all already infected. It also raises some questions about how Dio managed to sneak into a moon base, or why Akane and Zero expected Tennmyouji to keep his trap shut about their extraterrestrial location.

Talking of whom, I thought it was a little nuts the guy was actually Junpei, and had been living under an assumed name in the post-apocalpytic Earth salvaging from the decaying remains of civilization like one of those surly Russians from the Metro series. At least root beer floats apparently survived? I'm guessing he sort of gave up on chasing Akane around the world when it became difficult just to survive.

Then there's K, who is apparently Sigma's clone and "spare", presumably created with the same technology that allowed Dio and the other Myrmidons to exist. K's face-concealing armor is explained to be a heavy exosuit that allows him to develop bones and muscles normally on the Moon, though this would suggest that he would be even more sluggish if he was under the additional effect of Radical-6 (and he'd have to be for the ploy to work, or he'd be fast-talkin' like some 1930s journalist).

There's also the matter of Phi, who remains a mystery going into the third game; a deliberate decision by the series's director. Some wild theories abound, but my favorite is the idea that she's an alternate universe Santa who just so happened to be female in that particular branch. As the person who seemingly has the most knowledge of quantum mechanics, and is usually the one explaining it all to Sigma, she did emphasize at one point that the events that split reality into alternate timelines don't have to be human decisions but could just be events that happen at the atomic level. That suggests to me that she's aware that she might be the result of an errant chromosome deciding to be an X instead of a Y during her conception, and is either the Santa from another universe who found a way to cross over to help Akane or is and always has been the Santa from VLR's reality; in which case, VLR is set in an alternate universe to 999. I suppose the reason why this theory all ties together so soundly in my mind, and perhaps an unfortunate coincidence for the director of the series hoping to make it a big shocking reveal, is because Bioshock Infinite already explored the idea with the Luteces. Huh, maybe I should've marked this for Bioshock Infinite spoilers too. How do you do a spoiler tag within a spoiler tag?

I'd talk about the super secret ending, in which Kyle/K is apparently taken over by an additional unknown character which seems to exist simply to set up the next game, but it seems kind of pointless without having the necessary context to understand it. I'm guessing this character is perhaps another version of Sigma who is involved with that Mars base Nonary Game that the game alludes to several times, or perhaps that super meta suggestion people have made about it being the player themselves, but there's no way to know for sure. Secrets! Who needs 'em? I mean, besides this series?

9. The Future

So what else do I want to cover in the future? I still have Last Window and Another Code: R, the few remaining CING games I've yet to discover (well, there's also Again, but that seemed a bit too overwrought for its good from that QL Vinny and Ryan did). I've been meaning to catch up with the new Phoenix Wright game, especially with that Layton crossover already out over here. Speaking of whom, it might be getting close to my annual Layton adventure. I believe the Last Specter might be next.

There's also all the adventure games I keep picking up from Steam: Edna and Harvey, The Whispered World, The Book of Unwritten Tales, Wadjet Eye's Gemini Rue and Primordia, Pendulo's The Next Big Thing and too many Telltale episodic games than I can recall. I gotta find time for some of these, this pile's getting ridiculous. Anyway, whenever that time arrives, I'll let you all know with some more loquacious ramblings. Until then, keep on pointing and clicking.

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