All-New Saturday Summaries 2017-10-21: Lootbox Edition

Welcome to another edition of Sunday Summaries! I mean, Saturday Summaries! Sorry, this format's still a little too new, I guess.

The big topics of the times right now are lootboxes and microtransactions and the games that include them as part of their business model, either instead of the original $60 R.R.P. buy-in or in addition to same, so I thought I'd weigh in on the matter. Not in any particularly deep detail, since I've neither partaken of the disesteemed things nor am I a mental health expert capable of diagnosing their deleterious psychological effects, but I feel like they're going to continue being a presence in games until they're either everywhere or universally outlawed by some sort of ethical overwatch committee set up to monitor gambling in games that include an audience of children. I feel like we're pretty close to either eventuality.

I shudder to think how much some people have spent on a Matrix coat for their PUBG avatar. You know those things help you stick out at range, right?
I shudder to think how much some people have spent on a Matrix coat for their PUBG avatar. You know those things help you stick out at range, right?

Honestly, I can understand the "live and let live" crowd who believe letting lootboxes stick around for anyone who wants to buy them even if they themselves are highly unlikely to do so. There's also a definite argument to be made in favor of lootbox systems in free-to-play games that have no other means to keep themselves solvent. However, something that's been made abundantly clear in the past few years as an observer and connoisseur of this industry is that we need to make more of an effort to understand one another, not just the minorities and women that are frequently (if inadvertently) sidelined by the thousands of decisions that go into creating games, their stories, their characters, and their relationships to contemporary political mores, but also those who are differently-abled (it's great to see so many games include colorblind modes or boosted text size, for instance) or have brain chemistry that's wired differently than the norm. The game industry continues to grow, and right now it's pushing up painfully against some restraints that are preventing it from reaching its maximum potential until we address more of the above and chase out those looking to push "the others" away for the sake of some outdated notion of video games as a niche fandom. As a proponent with particular video game tastes that I want to see met, I want this industry's crazy exponential growth to continue: to do so would mean being more accommodating to a broader audience, who in turn bring in more revenue and help more studios stay profitable and thus make more games happen.

So when I say different brain chemistry, I'm specifically referring to those who have real issues when it comes to the psychological temptation that gambling, like lootboxes, presents. Addictive personalities, and those who don't have that little voice to tell them to stop when they've spent enough. For them, I can only imagine the presence of lootboxes are a constant gnawing irritation, hovering around the periphery of their mind and disrupting any enjoyment they might otherwise be receiving from the core game experience. But you don't need to have an addictive personality to feel out of sorts with the lootbox and microtransaction economy. In games where they provide genuine advantages, like XP boosts, there's always the paranoid feeling that the game's later chapters will require some additional investment - that seems to be literally true from what I've heard of Middle-earth: Shadow of War and its grindy final chapters, and there's no telling how many more games are going to have their difficulty curves governed by outside monetary help. Trying to shrug off the impulsive allure of spending $10-20 trying to get Zenyatta's Cthulhu Halloween costume in Overwatch is one thing, but when it gets to the point where you don't know whether it's your own skill level or the lack of paid boosts that is preventing you from making progress, games suddenly become this dystopian capitalist nightmare where only the rich succeed.

It'll be games like Blood Dragon and Senua's Sacrifice that will determine what the future of the
It'll be games like Blood Dragon and Senua's Sacrifice that will determine what the future of the "AAA" industry will look like, I suspect. Microtransactions won't work forever.

I've heard people make the case that games have become prohibitively expensive, and by sacrificing these "whales" on the altar of commerce we help keep the higher tiers of video game development alive, like some particularly dour Herman Melville novel. I might argue that the continued prominence of the Indie market and the recent strides being taken towards reusing game engines for smaller standalone games and expansions like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy or Far Cry: Blood Dragon suggests that there's plenty of less unethical ways to tackle this issue, either by scaling back development costs or by smartly taking advantage of the already sunk costs in creating state-of-the-art engines and mechanics by reusing a majority of those assets in smaller campaigns. If we let the big publishers believe they can solve their funding issues - which we cannot be fully convinced are a real problem without seeing some invoices - by preying on the most psychologically vulnerable of us, then we probably don't deserve the nice things that money produces. Just my two cents though. At least, the two cents that haven't been put towards a one-use consumable item that I'm hoping will turn the tide for the next Call of Duty map.

Anyway, talking of having more opinions than buttholes, or however that expression goes, here's the week's content. And you don't even have to pay for any of it! (Though, uh, you know, you could if you wanted to. My Patreon is... oh, it's non-existent right now):

  • The Indie Game of the Week was the disappointing Stories Untold. Disappointing in part because I wasn't really sure if I should be reviewing a game that I had significant technical issues with. Still, I hope people get some use out of that review, especially if they also happen to be rocking an antiquated dual-core laptop with integrated graphics. I found it a really perplexing decision to render these static environments in high-quality graphics when they play such a small part in the proceedings: the core of these miniature games, which collectively make a horror anthology that are connected by a few vague story elements and the involvement of text parsers as their primary means of interaction, basically amount to typing commands into systems that even Strong Bad would find outmoded. I found this also with The Witness, which I also can't run without significant framerate issues: I don't seem a reason to push the envelope with graphical superiority when the appeal of these games aren't necessarily in their surroundings, but in the puzzles they present and the stories they tell. Either way, it's a lesson learned: not all Indie games are going to function on the PC I have, so I'd better either get the PS4 version instead or just eschew them in favor of the hundreds of other unplayed Indie games I have sitting in my Steam library.
  • I also took the time to review Torment: Tides of Numenera, taking into account much of what I wrote about in last week's Saturday Summaries coupled with my lingering feelings once the game was over. The abridged version of that review is that I liked most everything about it, even while acknowledging that the game sometimes does its darn best to alienate you with its inscrutable setting and darker themes. It's the sort of game I could see having major cult appeal, though I'm not sure its fairly threadbare character progression systems and combat would encourage subsequent playthroughs. It's very much in love with what made nominal and spiritual predecessor Planescape: Torment stand out - which is to say, the writing and how character progression is linked more closely with gaining knowledge and exploring the world than through combat - and emphasizing those aspects at the cost of everything else. Still, I think it's a worthy spiritual successor for those who consider Planescape and its subversive charms to be the finest of the Infinity Engine games. Like Yooka-Laylee, it's trying to court a very small niche, and I doubt it'll see much universal praise - but then, I can't help but feel that might have been the idea. (Also? The game has a really cool spin on Lost Odyssey's "A Thousand Years of Dreams" text-heavy interludes, if that was something about Mistwalker's RPG that appealed to you.)

Addenda

I've been really lapsing with my The Top Shelf homework, though I did decide that I wanted nothing more to do with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, even if was one of the earliest projects of the sadly departed Visceral Games (then still EA Redwood Shores). Let's just say it has a few game design issues that have since been rectified by modern games, specifically checkpointing more than once every half hour. At any rate, there's more to check out, including the enormous RPGs SMT: Digital Devil Saga, Champions: Return to Arms and Makai Kingdom, so I'll be making slow progress with those over the next few months as I try to fit in enough 2017 games to fill a GOTY list. I'm up to five now!

Gravity Rush 2

Also? This game is still very thirsty, which... you know, whatever floats your underdressed heroine. I gave my Kat something other than black lingerie to wear, at least.
Also? This game is still very thirsty, which... you know, whatever floats your underdressed heroine. I gave my Kat something other than black lingerie to wear, at least.

The most disappointing thing about SIE Japan's Gravity Rush 2 is that it doesn't address any of the shortcomings of the first. I can't tell if that's laziness or arrogance, but the floaty controls and frustratingly inaccurate combat is still every bit as unpolished I remember it, as is the continued lack of real substance or purpose in the game's immense flying cities. The game has its challenges, usually of the "race through the checkpoints" or "kill as many enemies in this amount of time" variety, as well as a number of side-quests, but it still feels fairly empty. That isn't to say that the game hasn't been adding a huge amount of new content, just that I'm not sure if this particular content adds much.

Gravity Rush 2 continues a few months after the first game, which apparently had an interstitial anime or comic that I missed because now Kat is powerless and working for a destitute village that ekes out a living mining hazardous regions of its crystals. Kat is grateful to the village for giving her room and board, albeit the type she has to work for, but is anxious to get back to Hekseville and find out what happened to her friend Raven: a fellow gravity-shifter who spent most of the first game as a secondary antagonist and rival. It's not long until Kat rediscovers her feline familiar, Dusty, and is once again flying through the air and walking on the undersides of buildings with her gravity-shifting powers. The first half of the story involves helping the proud but poverty-stricken Lhao people of the Banga Settlement, where Kat was found, before moving to the immense city of Jirga Para Lhao with its multiple districts stacked on top of each other in a column separated by several layers of cloud cover. Its verticality makes it an interesting place to explore, but besides a handful of NPCs to talk to and (side) missions, all of which are indicated on the mini-map, as well as a huge amount of upgrade currency to find (the aforementioned crystals), there's little else to find. The game has added a photography mode, but it's nigh impossible trying to find the places and people they want you to capture without a guide: these locations are simply too massive and spread out to narrow these locations down. The treasure map quests, which are part of the game's soon-to-be-discontinued online mode, are a little more fair as other players take photos of treasure chests with hopefully a few landmarks in frame to help others locate them. Yet, it still feels like these places are a lot bigger than they need to be; the type of overelaborate open-world design with only a handful of points of interest that makes it enormity feel unnecessary, like planets and stars and the unfathomable distances of nothingness between them. The game's definitely built up its scale since its Vita-bound debut, but I'm not sure it's really grown into its new clothes sufficiency, so to speak.

Still, there's some visceral appeal to the game's aerial acrobatics, similar to that plateau you reach in inFamous or Saints Row 4 where your traversal abilities have grown to the point where you're rapidly gliding over level geometry on the way to your next objective. It takes a long time for that feeling of freedom to lose its spark, and I still enjoy Gravity Rush's occasional narrative twists into the oblique as it explores Kat's background - she's an orphan that doesn't remember anything before falling out of the sky, and this game adds several more mysterious androgynous major characters with similar backgrounds that'll no doubt factor into the story in surprising ways - and the odd nature of this mostly vertical world as it endlessly spans upwards and down. The appeal is still there, but it sure is a bummer when you play a fine but flawed game with nowhere to go but up (as it were), only to find that its sequel has made no further progress in realizing that potential. I'll stick with it because I want to see where it goes, and perhaps I'll hold out hope that the third time will be the charm.

Torment: Tides of Numenera

No Caption Provided

I've thoroughly described my feelings on InXile Entertainment's Torment: Tides of Numenera, the spiritual sequel to Black Isle Studios's Planescape: Torment, above in the linked review and the previous week's Saturday Summaries.

So instead, I want to finish off my coverage of the game with a few personal highlights that I hope both point to the game's overall quality and its own highly-specific appeal.

  • The world-building. The world of Numenera is so multi-layered and elaborate that you only really see the tip of the iceberg of what life is like in the other cities across the Ninth World (Earth, essentially) and the many other planets and realities that exist beyond. You meet visitors from these other worlds, who either provide a little bit of backstory into where they come from or present a self-contained side-quest vignette completely divorced from the main story. These might include a race of futuristic sailors who have been waiting for their homeworld to contact them, or a terrifying psychic force from beyond the stars that only live to consume that the player and a group of ESPer war veterans must make a last stand to thwart, or a pair of metallic beings who resemble the Silver Surfer who are looking for instances of machine intelligence on your world. There's a robotic individual called the Decanted who is seeking "beautiful slaves" for reasons that become more sinister and Logan's Run-esque once you delve a little deeper, and a group of ghoulish creatures called abykos who prey on multidimensional energies and the type of entities that give those energies off. It's this amazing cross-section of ideas and concepts, reminiscent of several generations of science fiction media, that simultaneously deprive the world of Numenera of a coherent voice while also making it a world of endless possibilities. It's worth talking to every NPC you meet just for the wild and wonderful stories that they have to tell.
  • The character of Erritis. Most of the game's recruitable characters have fascinating backstories and brilliantly written interactions, but I think the top of that heap has to be the comic relief character that is Erritis. A brash adventurer looking for his next adrenaline rush, Erritis has a guileless demeanor and an oddly golden glow that he never acknowledges. If the player happens to have the mind-reading skill, Erritis's mind consists of one loud voice who insists on the most dangerous adventures he can find, and a quiet one which is a little more nihilistic in where they want Erritis to end up. He's a character with definitely a lot more going on beneath the surface, and his questline ends up being one of saddest and most guilt-inducing of them all once you learn more about his situation. He's the only recruitable glaive you meet, so he fills an important niche in your group dynamic especially if you choose the enigmatic scholar Callistege over the down-to-earth sadsack Aligern as your first party member, and it's worth seeing his story through to the end and to a satisfying conclusion of the player's own choosing.
  • The character of Rhin. A close second to Erritis for my favorite character, Rhin's a fascinating construct both due to her story and due to her role in the game and particularly in combat. As a young girl of some ten to twelve years of age, she is exceptionally fragile as a combatant, and can do little more than hide from danger when you first recruit her. As she gains in levels, she eventually finds her own distinct role as a support unit who can keep people healed and protected. She's particularly adept at using cyphers, single-use items that provide all sorts of powerful effects, which she eventually learns to use without consuming them. This actually makes her somewhat overpowered, in a huge contrast to how she started. Depending on how the player chooses to help her find a family, her role at the end of the game can take on some major changes, and I really enjoyed having her around for her innocent perspective on an increasingly screwed-up world and narrative, and the way the game constantly makes you question the decision of dragging along a child to conflicts with cannibal cultists and world-ending terrors.
  • The inventive uses of the combat engine. It takes a while to adjust to Tides of Numenera's turn-based combat system, given how different this implementation is to Pillars of Eternity (from which Tides of Numenera takes its framework: a modernized take on the Infinity Engine), and how the game's "nano", "jack" and "glaive" roles operate. However, it's not too different from other RPGs with "movement" and "action" components to each character's turn, like Shadowrun Returns or the XCOM games. In fact, traditional combat can be kind of threadbare given how it's usually not at the forefront; its appeal kept in check by its relative novelty, since several pf the game's possible solutions for its travails involves sidestepping a fight. Yet, there are times when this combat engine is used in a creative way, either by taking advantage of the environment or figuring out how to talk to the agitators of the conflict to either defect to your side or give up. It's a testament to the game's desire to talk things through that, even when the "crisis" prompt has gone up and everyone's rolled initiative, there's still often a way to avoid bloodshed. Of course, if The Sorrow's found you, it might just be a better idea to turn tail and run. That thing is scary as hell.
  • Finally, the way the game makes you feel smart. On top of providing a lot of text with big words, the game frequently posits role-playing scenarios that a seasoned player should ideally be able to solve through cunning and guile. In older RPGs, cases like these generally involve reading the right passage or finding the right item and invoking them at the apposite time. Or, in some cases, developing your conversational skills when levelling characters so that you might eventually, for example, be able to talk the antagonist of the game into killing himself rather than face you in a difficult battle. However, these cases tend to be few and far between, with most RPGs following the traditional solution to problems by way of hitting them with swords or fireballs. In Tides of Numenera, almost every quest involves this kind of lateral thinking puzzle, and it's integral to build up your "edge" - that is, a focus in a specific stat like intellect or speed - and use that to solve predicaments whenever applicable. It's for this reason I advise creating a character with a heightened intellect, as this unlocks the best conversation options. This is when the game starts to feel like classic Fallout or Planescape: Torment, allowing a powerful mind to pick the right things to say and make the most educated guesses. The illusion, of course, is that it's not the player making these Sherlockian deductions, but the player character: it's clear as soon as the dialogue choices pop up which ones are preferable, because they're prefaced by the skills needed to select them ("[Persuasion]", for example, or "[Lore: Mystical]"). Even so, you're vicariously living through your protagonist's ability to McGuyver a situation, in much the same way as you might be second-hand experiencing the power fantasy of gunning down thousands of demons or saving the world as the chosen one of prophecy, and there's definitely an intrinsic appeal to an intellectual hero who can solve any problem. Not everyone wishes they were brawnier, but I think everyone wishes they were smarter.

On that note, it's time to bring this edition of Saturday Summaries to an end. Kind of a preachy episode this week, huh? Ah well, next week will involve more griping about Gravity Rush 2 (I swear I'm enjoying it, despite everything said above), another new Indie Game of the Week, some incremental progress with The Top Shelf before its imminent return, and maybe some more musings about the state of the games industry. Maybe it won't even be a 3,000 word doorstop of an update; I've definitely been letting these things get away from me for a while now...

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