The Grab Bag: Stonekeep

Hey! So like last week, the point of this post is to share my thoughts about an old game I recently played that I did not have any prior experience with. Did it age well? Can someone who didn't play it around the time of its release enjoy it now in 2014?

Why does an eleven-year-old own a sword?
Why does an eleven-year-old own a sword?

This week's game is Stonekeep, by Interplay. It's a first-person dungeon crawler with real-time combat, some interesting ideas, and a slew of issues. After a painfully bad and apparently ridiculously expensive(look under Development) opening cinematic, a goddess plops your character into Stonekeep without weapons, armor, or even a shirt. Outside of vague directions to get to the end and a brief meetup with the big boss, there isn't much in the way of direction. In terms of a story, the game falls short from the get-go. This didn't really bother me, as the game is entirely linear and it doesn't take more than a few seconds from getting in before one finds themselves in a fight. By about five minutes in the player will have found weapons, armor, miscellaneous items and...the first problem in the game: the combat.

This fella probably would have been more imposing if he had quicker reflexes.
This fella probably would have been more imposing if he had quicker reflexes.

As stated earlier, the game has real-time combat. This was pretty fun at first, as each stab of the blade felt deliberate. I even found some interesting reactions to attacking enemies in different parts of their bodies: sometimes stabbing a goblin in the head would cause it to freak out and clutch at its eyes desperately, giving one ample time to kill it without fear of reprisal. The problem with all this is how easily gamed it is. All one needs to do is to stab the enemy as they close in, then back up. They won't be able to land a blow, and will advance once more to try again, allowing the player to rinse and repeat the same tactic. A version of this ploy even worked on the first boss of the game, this crazy tentacle creature in the screenshot to the left. I swooped in, stabbed it, and then backed away, only to repeat the process. I defeated it, unharmed.

Whoever kept hiding things in the walls wasn't very imaginative...
Whoever kept hiding things in the walls wasn't very imaginative...

So the combat's a wash. That's not necessarily a deal breaker in this type of game. Normally the story, atmosphere, art, character customization, item management and the enjoyment of exploring would make up for deficiencies in an RPG. Well, scratch half of that list. The inventory is clunky and inefficient. One can only see five different item types at once, and it doesn't take long before the player has dozens. Scrolling up and down to see them all is frustratingly slow, and organizing it all isn't feasible. Exploring the depths of Stonekeep becomes stale and repetitive quickly, and I've already talked about the bare-bones story. A good example of the exploration issue is the screenshot to the right. In the first few floors of the game, every single secret will be behind the brick that occupied the hole in the wall. It doesn't matter where you are; each wall will be the same, and if there is a secret, it'll be there.

More RPGs need this. They really do.
More RPGs need this. They really do.

I did find a fair amount of good in this game, even if the entire post up to this point implies otherwise. The game looks fine, even today. The music, and the atmosphere are both great. Even after I had killed everything in the sewer (as seen in the screenshot with tentacle beast) I still felt uneasy walking through it. There are little things about the game that impress you. Discovering an illusory wall, figuring out how an item works by trial and error, getting trapped by a cave-in. The game is full of little things that surprise and delight. Another great addition to the game is the Journal. Whether one is marking a location on a map, replacing the description of an item, or jotting down a random note, it's always a good experience. I would take a journal like this over an automated Quest Log in almost any game.

It's not surprising that Stonekeep is a bit of a wreck, considering it's development cycle(I'll direct you back to that Wikipedia page, if you missed it the first time). While there are bits and pieces of a good game scattered through the first quarter of the game that I played, the meat of gameplay is...poor. I do wonder if switching to a simpler turn-based combat system and implementing a more traditional set of menus would have produced a more enjoyable experience for me, or if Stonekeep would've just become a bland, forgettable game. I may not like the game as it is, but if anything else, it is unique. It'll always have that.

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I think I should preface this by saying that I have very little experience with CCG's, so my grievances may be entirely from a lack of appreciation or understanding of the genre as a whole.

I've been playing since 3 months prior to launch, and I've formed an opinion about the game: Hearthstone is fun slash bullshit.

Hearthstone is one of the best card games I've ever played while simultaneously being the most frustrating. It isn't that the game is hard; in fact, Hearthstone is pretty simplistic. The best possible play is almost immediately apparent every single turn. It isn't that the game is unbalanced(although I'm sure some might disagree with that). To the layman (me) each class appears pretty balanced. They all have a few class-specific cards that get on my nerves, but none rise above the rest. My issue with the game lies with certain types of decks, and the random nature in which cards are drawn.

Getting an opening hand that is entirely unusable for the first four turns of the game is disheartening to say the least. When your routine card draw each turn also provides you with nothing to play, you can usually assume that the game is lost. Perhaps you'll luck out and your opponent will be in a similar situation, but its unlikely. This leads to a completely one sided game, and I've found that regardless of what side of that fight you're on, its not enjoyable. Losing horribly and winning by a mile are equally boring. This leads me to my deck issue.

Different types of "gimmick" decks are quite annoying. I'll focus on "Rush" decks for the sake of brevity(which I probably won't achieve). A rush deck is a deck that is devoted to doing as much damage to the enemy hero as quickly as possible. In an ideal situation for the rusher, their opponent is incapable of turning the fight around even for a single turn. Here's my issue: if things aren't ideal(or close to it), I've found that these decks are easily countered. In my experience, if I have even a mediocre opening hand, or are capable of taking control of the fight for even a single turn, the fight is won handily. This means that running into one of these decks is almost always a one-sided battle, and they're commonly used. There are also cards/plays that I refer to as "Hail Mary's" that can be exasperating. A couple of legendaries like Ragnaros or Ysera are just disastrous if you aren't capable of dealing with them immediately; and even then sometimes the only way you can remove them in an expedient fashion results in terrible trades(using multiple creatures or spells to kill off/neuter a single card). If I don't have a Polymorph/Hex/etc in hand, in most situations the match is lost; if not the following turn, then after a slow, lingering loss taking the next five minutes. At least some of these Hail Mary's(like a Priest using Divine Spirit and Inner Fire, or the card Edwin Van Cleef) require multiple cards to pull off. If you're capable of removing them, then at least your opponent has sunk a bunch of cards, giving you the preferable trade.

I don't want to sound completely negative about the game; Hearthstone is a lot of fun in at least in half of my matches, win or lose. The free-to-play model is quite friendly to those that don't want to spend much money(if any at all). The portraits and animations are attractive, and the decision to speak with your opponent through emotes was an expert sidestep of the vile obscenities that some like to excrete when under the protective cloak of online anonymity.

I know that the more reliable decks are ultimately far more effective than the gimmick decks, but it's quite frustrating having to deal with them at all. Obviously there is no way to avoid them in matchmaking, but my complaint remains.


Retrospective: Evoland

I got around to playing Evoland a couple of weeks ago, and I had some thoughts on it. Evoland focuses primarily on the cosmetic differences between generations of games in the action or turn based RPG genres. Pixels to textured, 3D models. This is all quite surface level, and Shiro Games missed out on a wonderful opportunity: Exploring game design through the generations. I believe that if they had instead used only one of the two aforementioned genres and centered the game around evolving design philosophies, Evoland would've been a finer product; or at least a more interesting one.

I see this hypothetical Evoland (hereon referred to as Hevoland) starting off as an ancient computer RPG, one that consists only of text. A basic parser allows the player to interact with the world. As the player progresses eventually they are blessed with wireframe graphics, and other small upgrades to the look and feel of the game. In time they are expected to allocate stat points upon an increase in level, and torches are required when entering a dark area. Characters will need to be fed at regular intervals, or risk starvation. NPCs offer little information, or in some cases confusing messages that will only become clear later in the game, and even upon the confusion lifting the player will still question why an elderly man in some town understood the gimmick to a specific boss battle. Hiccups and quirks aside, the player has a great deal of freedom. There are plenty of dungeons and quests available, and the order one completes them is entirely up to them.

Lets fast forward to a point where the game has reached a state on par with Final Fantasy. While many aspects of the game have improved dramatically(graphics, music, interface) the game has changed significantly in other ways as well. Manual stat allocation has been replaced with a system that awards certain stats (Strength, Defense, etc) each level based on the Class of the character. Hunger meters have been removed, along with the need to bear a torch when venturing inside a deep cave. The game will also become linear. Town A needs assistance with Dungeon A, and upon completion of Dungeon A the bridge to Town B will be cleared of obstruction. The text parser has now long since been abolished, and NPCs now just repeat a single message to the characters. As Hevoland continues, the quality of the story will improve just as steadily as the graphics and music do, but the game will become far easier. As new systems are introduced,(for example, lets say magic spells are now no longer learned at a specific level for each class, but instead the game has adopted a magic system similar to Materia from Final Fantasy VII) tutorials are dished out in various forms: Text windows addressing the player, starter dungeons, in-game text from player characters/NPCs or a mix of the above. The overall difficulty of monsters and bosses will drop quickly as well, greatly reducing the players need to "grind" their characters to higher levels. Eventually, except for the occasional optional boss, the player will be able to go from one dungeon to another without any grinding at all, so simplistic will the battles become. Voice overs will be introduced (with varying levels of quality) as cut-scenes become more prominent.

Lets jump forward again, this time by quite a ways. Hevoland is rapidly approaching the modern age. Beautifully rendered 3D worlds await the player (lets say it's on par with Final Fantasy XIII) along with professional voice acting and facial motion capture. While characters have fleshed out back-stories, motivations, and evolving relationships with their co-stars and enemies, other aspects of the game have become further simplified in order to focus on the story being told. Dungeons, which for some time have had convenient ladders or portals in the bosses room that provided an immediate exit to the dungeon have gone one step past that. As the game no longer has a world map or overworld to speak of, Hevoland is essentially one long, winding road. Upon defeating the final enemy at the end of one section the characters are brought to the next via some plot device that's revealed in a cutscene. In between our last jump forward in time and now the Materia-esque system has been changed to something closely resembling Final Fantasy XII's License Board, but now the game has once again favored simplicity over the complexity that customization resides alongside. Keeping with the example of Final Fantasy XIII, a system not too unlike the Crystarium is introduced, once again removing another element for the player to consider so they can focus on the dialog. To top it off, while all these changes are made to each and every part of the game in order to keep the player engaged with the tale being told, the story is in a precarious position. Certain plot points straddle the line between intricacy and convolution, and others struggle to remain straightforward but not transparent.

Now, this is all quite obviously something that Shiro Games wasn't capable of creating. The amount of money necessary to make a game of this size and scope was not in their budget, so trust me when I say I'm not disappointed that they didn't deliver something of the same scale as my hypothetical Evoland. But if they had zeroed in on the changing mechanics and design decisions made throughout the decades, it wouldn't have mattered at which point they began and ended in. The actual Evoland begins like an original Game Boy game and ends with something that one would see on a Nintendo DS, and the genre has seen massive changes in that time-frame alone. Ultimately, the final product felt like a mediocre mashup of genres, containing a bare-bones story and little challenge to speak of. The regular upgrade of cosmetic effects felt more like a cheap trick playing on nostalgia then "A short story of adventure video games evolution".

Final Thoughts: What if my hypothetical Evoland was played in reverse? Starting with the modern and ending in the ancient would not only be interesting in its own right, but the difficulty curve would make more sense(easy to hard rather than hard to easy). It would be easier for a larger audience to sit down and play, especially those with little to no experience of anything prior to RPGs on the SNES or Playstation. Actually, I think this way would be superior to my original ideas. To see a complicated story of political intrigue, religious dogma and megalomaniacal despots slowly reduced to the equivalent of defeating the evil wizard Mondain in Ultima would be a fascinating bit of storytelling, to say the least.

Also, as a question to any reading this, how do you see a hypothetical Evoland that is inspired purely by the action RPG (Legend of Zelda being their most obvious example) being created? Where would it start and end? What major changes would take place over the game? What games would you draw inspiration from, and why?

Thanks for reading. Any criticisms or expansions on my thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

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