Sunday, February 18, 2018

Trine - 5/20 hours (12.5/20 hours total)

I've now gotten exactly as far in single-player as I did in multiplayer. It took me almost the exact same amount of time and I wound up with slightly more experience points. I guess it's fair to say that Trine works just fine as a single player game.

Some obstacles, particularly the large boss monsters, take a bit more effort to get past, but any savings there is offset by the ease at which I can simply switch to the optimal character to get past simple obstacles. The later games in the series definitely felt more optimized towards the multiplayer experience, so it will be interesting to compare once I get around to playing them. The game would probably be best with three players, each forced to stick with one of the three characters. It would actually be harder than single player, because certain characters are ill-suited to certain obstacles, and thus it would take more teamwork to get past them.

Although, I think it's fair to say that the aspect of multiplayer I miss most is the companionship of my good friend, and the unique challenges posed by the imprecision of communication.

I guess this is the part where I should actually try and explain what Trine is all about. It's a platformer/puzzle game where you can switch between three characters - a wizard who can conjure boxes and planks, but is useless for much else, a thief who is agile and has a ranged attack and grappling hook, and a knight who has a powerful melee attack and a shield that can deflect projectiles. The levels are scattered with various traps and obstacles that can be overcome with one or more of the various characters. The better traps are open-ended enough that you can take multiple different approaches. The best traps are the ones that require a combination of the characters' abilities.

I bought this game primarily for the plot. I thought it would act as an origin story for the heroes and the Trine, a mystical artifact that binds their souls together and appears, in later games, to force them to go on adventures. On that count, I am somewhat disappointed. Basically, there was an undead invasion, but it had not quite arrived at the Astral Academy, employer of the wizard and a place protected by the knight. For whatever reason, during this invasion, the thief decided to rob the Astral Academy while this was all going on, and the three characters just happened to be in the treasure room at roughly the same time. They then activated the Trine and the rest is history.

As of my most recent save, roughly half way through the game, the three are on a quest to undo the binding effect of the Trine. This involves finding its complementary artifacts - one relating to the mind and another to the body - and probably incidentally solving the undead problem along the way.

The characterization of the three is rougher than it is in the sequels, though I can see the shapes of the familiar characters starting to emerge. Their banter and overall group dynamics are the best part of the story, and it makes sense that future games will emphasize it more.

I expect I'll get through the rest of Trine with no real trouble and no real surprises. It will probably slow down in the second half, but I'd be surprised if it takes more than 4 more hours. Let's call it a prediction. My next post will be after beating the game (or becoming so hopeless stuck that I need to vent). We'll see how right I am.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Trine - 2.5 hours (10/20 hours total)

My biggest fear going into Trine was that I would have to solo a game optimized for co-op play. The last time I did that was, I believe, Forced, which drove me to the edge of madness. Luckily, my timing happened to be such that I could play it with my friend, so I could put off facing that particular trial for at least a little while.

Trine itself is a decent platformer. The main challenge comes from collecting these glowing green experience point vials, many of which are placed in deviously hard-to-reach places. I suspect that if you played the game purely to get through the levels, with no regard for xp, it would turn out to be much simpler than it initially appears.

It's fine, though. I like convoluted platforming challenges in the pursuit of collecting doodads. That's like my third or fourth favorite video game activity. I would say it goes: voxel building, optimizing build orders, brawling through hordes of chump enemies, and then convoluted platforming. After that, it's probably dying of thirst, but the list gets real weird from that point on, so who's to say.

Since I don't want to wait another two weeks to finish the game, I'll have to play it on my own from here on out. The big worry here is that there were times in the game where the actions of the other player helped me advance, and while I don't think the game would allow me to play solo if it were impossible to finish, that doesn't mean it will be easy (or even fun).

The thing that gives me hope is that the version of Trine I have is actually the "Enchanted Edition," which upgrades the original Trine to the Trine 2 engine. Out of curiosity, I went back and selected the option that allowed me to play the original, unmodified Trine, and that version of the game doesn't even give you the option of playing multiplayer. This leads me to suspect that Trine was originally a single-player game and that the sequels seized upon its 3 character gimmick to make it a multiplayer experience, and then after that approach proved popular, went back and added multiplayer to the original. If so, then finishing the game on my own shouldn't be too difficult.

(Famous last words, I know.)

Morphopolis - 2.5/20 hours (7.5/20 total)

I figured out the connection between Morphopolis and Hack 'n' Slash - they are both puzzle games centered around bugs. . .

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Actually, Morphopolis is a member of a genre I'd heard about, but never really had any interest in - the hidden object game. Each level is a gorgeously colorful still painting (with some incidental, but not mechanically relevant animation) and the object of the game is to click on various items when prompted by the interface. It's slow-paced, casual, and relaxing. And if you get too frustrated by an especially well-disguised item, there's a hint button . . . which I would not say I abused, but which I probably should have ignored, for no reason other than to squeeze another few minutes out of the game.

Because there's nothing to do in this game but find objects and solve the occasional puzzle. I already have all 13 of the Achievements, because there are no side paths or concealed secrets. In Morphopolis, everything not forbidden is compulsory (okay, okay, that's the last one).

Anyway, I'm a little curious as to how this would stack up against Sakura Spirit in terms of sub-3 hour games I'd convinced myself to play for 20 hours in a row, but I'm nonetheless relieved that I don't have to try (honestly, I think only Portal and possibly Brothers could stand up to 10 playthroughs in a row, and even then it would be a close thing). It's a slight game, but I'd say it's definitely worth the 24 cents I paid for it. Hell, it would be a bargain at twice the price (which is a handy thing, because it's on sale for 51 cents right now).

Hack 'n' Slash - 5 hours (5/20 hours total)

Confession - I cheated just a little bit. I know, cheating at a game about hacking, how could I? But it was only a little, and only towards the end. The hacking puzzles were getting more and more complicated until they reached a point where I had to go into a library where all of the books represented files associated with various objects in the game. I had to find the right book and then read it to alter different aspects of the final dungeon's puzzles. Most of the time, I was able to figure out what I needed on my own, but on about three separate occasions, I was so confused that I needed to look at a walkthrough to see if I was on the right track. It was usually pretty obvious in retrospect, but I hate being thwarted, so I regret nothing.

The perhaps overly technical ending aside, I had a lot of fun with this game. A lot of puzzle games, even if they're of different genres, have similar types of puzzles. Move a block to a pressure sensitive platform. Raise or lower water levels to access new areas. Unscramble a mixed-up password. Hack 'n' Slash had some of these, but it also had challenges that were genuinely unique. At one point, I had to move a platform that was programmed to undo any attempt to move it, so I had to go into the platform's logic and change a loop command from +1 to +0.

And that's not even getting into the late-game weirdness where my wrong solutions were as likely to break the game as leave me stranded. For example, there's this one chamber where you've got a countdown timer and if it reaches 0, the game crashes. I thought I was being really clever by disabling the timer, but it turned out that I just eliminated the timer's display. It still counted down at the same speed, but I could no longer see it. Ha!

The plot of the game is that a guy claiming to be a wizard is using his knowledge of hacking to hold the kingdom in thrall, and you have to solve various hacking puzzles to stop him. The game makes a special point of reminding you that he's not really a wizard, but the funny thing is that I've never played a game where your character's special abilities have felt more like magic. Most of the tweaks you can make are pretty simple and likely anticipated by the game's designers, but even at the beginning, when your options are limited, they feel open-ended in ways that other magic systems do not. Towards the end, when you start to get the most powerful tools, it's almost scary how much power you have.

The main flaw with Hack 'n' Slash is that it's not quite educational enough for how educational it is. This is largely a critique of the last hour or so, where you're given a dizzying amount of information that a layman like myself is ill-equipped to make use of. I think if the game held your hand more with these complex sections, it would be a fun way to learn about programming. As it is, I didn't learn much by following a guide and would likely have not learned much more through trial and error (at least not before I gave up in frustration). Still, I can imagine that this game might be a useful tool for an experienced person to introduce a novice to some basic programming concepts.

Overall, I'm happy with my purchase here. I think, hypothetically, I could have spent 20 hours trying to find new things to break, but it would not have been a productive use of my time. It was a very interesting twist on the puzzle/adventure genre and I'd definitely be interested in a sequel, but for now I'm content that a single playthrough has shown me the bulk of what Hack 'n' Slash has to offer.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Hack 'n' Slash, Morphopolis, and Trine - Initial Thoughts

I know, I know - this is my most spurious bundle to date. These games have almost nothing in common, not even if you squint (and believe me, I've been squinting). However, looking at the Steam reviews, Hack 'n' Slash is sub-5 hours, Morphopolis is sub-5 hours, and Trine, well, Trine I could probably do 20 hours with for no reason other than the futility of trying to get 100% on single-player in a game explicitly designed for co-op, but, realistically, it's a sub-10 hour game because who am I kidding?

I'm not even going to attempt a rationalization here. I could play these games multiple times each to get 20 hours in all three of them, but I don't want to. This isn't a Consortium situation, where the game is only 3-4 hours long, but there's something new to discover with multiple playthroughs. These are games that are designed to be short. I wouldn't gain anything by spreading them out, and the games wouldn't gain anything by my spreading them out (look at what's happened to the poor, inoffensive Stronghold series from my forcing myself to play it for 120 hours).

Anyway, no excuses. This is purely a time- and sanity-preserving measure. So let's break it down.

Hack 'n' Slash I bought because its central pitch of hacking the game while you're playing it sounded fun and innovative. It's a little worrying that I could potentially introduce game-breaking bugs this way, but I admire the audacity in even presenting that as an option.

Morphopolis I bought because it looks pretty. That's literally all I know about it.

Trine has the goofiest story of the three. My friend Daniel and I like to play co-op games on Saturday mornings. One weekend, he bought me Trine 3. We played it almost all the way to the very end, but got stymied by the final boss. Some time later, he bought me Trine 2, and we played that one all the way through. And it was in the midst of playing Trine 2 that I started to feel a familiar itch - I had every entry in a trilogy except the first one. The Trine series didn't have much of a story, but I'd missed out on the beginning nonetheless.  Since it was less than 2 dollars, I just said "fuck it" and decided to add it to the list.

Despite the shamelessness of treating these three very different games as one, I'm actually feeling pretty good about this. I imagine I'll blow through Hack 'n' Slash and Trine is pretty much a known quality. The only one that makes me even slightly nervous is Morphopolis, but what's the worst case scenario here? Even if it sucks, at least it will be short.

Stronghold Legends - 20/20 hours

I discovered the hard way that the forum post that told me I could bypass the population cap by making a custom map was, in fact, referring to Stronghold 2. I first found out about this problem by playing free-build for a couple of hours on a special "archipelago" map I made especially for the purpose. That dispirited me, so I went and played the campaign mode for another couple of hours. Then I had a brainstorm - maybe they meant you could bypass the hovel cap by making a custom map with a bunch of hovels already in place.

So I fired up the map editor once more, and discovered that even on a custom map that was not currently part of a game, I could only place 15 hovels. Except . . . if I used the estate marking tool to divide my map into two different estates, I could place 15 hovels in each estate. Then, if I used the tool a second time to merge the two estates back into one, I could have a total of 30 hovels in a single estate. And if I repeated the process, I could increase my hovels arbitrarily.

My next move was to go into map editor mode and just create my perfect castle. It was huge and symmetrical and had living space for hundreds of residents, as well as a massive industrial output. Its only flaw was that it was empty, devoid of life and activity. But I could solve that by importing it into free-build mode, which I did. Only to discover that my dozens of hovels did not change the total population cap. 128 was my maximum number of citizens, and that's just the way it was always going to be.

After that, I just dithered about with my "dark forest" map for the remaining three hours. I can't say I won a decisive victory over the trees, though. I think I just put too many of them in there. Even after hours of clearing, my town was still too confined to build all of the advanced structures.

Overall, I'd say that if you were going to get just one Stronghold game, Stronghold Legends is a decent contender, but I was unable to manhandle it into a city-builder, so I'm going to have to pretend to hate it for awhile.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Stronghold Legends - 10/20 hours

At around hour six I made the decision to abandon war and exclusively play the free build mode. I should have known this moment was coming, considering my experience with the other games, but there's a part of me that just has to entertain the idea of playing these games "correctly."

Things in free build appeared to be going well for a couple of hours. My settlement was expanding. I was producing tons of surplus food and enough liquor and religion to keep my people happy at a high tax rate. Then, suddenly and without warning, I hit a cap on the number of hovels I could build. Since hovels determine your maximum civilian population, that also served as a cap on the number of agricultural and industrial buildings I could support. 128 peasants was my absolute maximum.

I searched online to find a solution (or at least an explanation) for this problem, and while nobody could tell me why it exists, I did learn that the cap does not apply on custom maps. So I spent a couple of hours playing around with the map editor, trying to create something I think will be enjoyable.

The next phase of my time with Stronghold Legends will be free build in "the Dark Forest," a map filled with far too many trees. My theory here is that the barrier they pose to expansion and settlement will be almost like a compelling infrastructure challenge.

I guess that's just who I am. Given a game where I can take control of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and face off against giants, dragons, and evil sorcerers, I'd rather fight against some trees. I choose not to think of this as cowardice, but as a down to earth practicality and concern with material prosperity.

Yep, no fear at all . . .